Origins of country

A small movie about Latvian history

Latvia until the 13th Century

The first human settlements appeared on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea after the Ice Age. At the end of the 3rd millennium BC a group of tribes began to arrive in this territory. According to historians, these were the ancient Balts.

As centuries passed, the ancient Baltic tribes formed into the ancient peoples of Kurs, Latgalians, Selonians, and Semigallians who inhabited areas that coincide with the territory of today’s Latvia.


At the beginning of the 13th century the territory of today’s Latvia did not have one common name and depending on the ancient people who inhabited the territory it was known under different names, for example, Letgale (the land of Latgalians — Lettigallia, Lettia, Letthia, Leththia).




Around the 9th century towns started to form, arable and livestock farming dominated in agriculture. In the middle of the 12th century German merchants together with merchants from Gotland learned the trade route from the Varangians to the Greeks via the Daugava River, which connected the area of Riga and the Kievan Rus.

In 1201 the future Bishop Albert founded the town of Riga amid several villages inhabited by Livs and Kurs.

In 1220s with the help of crusaders the territory of today’s Latvia (except for Semigallia and Courland) was annexed to Livonia although violent battles continued between the Baltic peoples and the knights for several decades after that. The Kurs also gave up in 1267. Around 1272 the tribes of Semigallians surrendered as well. Thus in the course of the 13th century all tribes that inhabited the territory of the present-day Latvia were placed under the command of invaders. During the following centuries Germans acquired more and more privileges, but the indigenous people lost almost all political rights.

The Legend about Riga


Many tales are told about our dear old Riga, and here is one of them: Riga can never be complete, otherwise it would go under the waters of the Daugava River. Every hundred years a spirit rises from the Daugava and asks the first person it meets whether Riga is complete. If the person addressed replied that Riga was complete, he or she would have to die on the next night, but on the third night the entire Riga would go under water. However, since all inhabitants of Riga know the legend, they always tell the spirit that Riga is not complete, therefore it still stands.

Medieval Castles in Latvia



The construction of Riga Castle began in 1330. From the moment of laying the foundation stone until 1562 the castle belonged to the Livonian Order and was the seat of Livonia’s rulers. In the following centuries as the feudal states in Livonia ceased to exist the castle was inhabited by Polish, Swedish, and Russian rulers.

Ventspils Castle is a castle built by the Livonian Order near the Venta River, and it served as the residence of Commanders of Ventspils Commandry (around 1290-1562). It is the only castle of the Livonian Order in Kurzeme that has been preserved until the present day.

Dundaga Castle is a medieval castle in Dundaga built by Riga Cathedral Chapter at the end of the 13th century. Later the castle came into possession of the Bishopric of Courland and the Polish kings. In the 17th century it was reconstructed into Dundaga Manor and used as a residence for noblemen.

Ēdole Castle is a medieval castle in Ēdole and the only castle of the Bishopric of Courland which is still in working order. The construction of the castle began in 1264.


Koknese Castle was a stone castle built in the Middle Ages on Koknese hillfort in Koknese on the bank of the Daugava River. It was built shortly after 1209 on an important trade route, on the right bank of the Daugava, and was at the time one of the largest and best fortified castles.

Latvia in the 13th-16th Century

Medieval Livonia encompassed the territory of Latvia and Estonia. It was basically a confederation of five feudal principalities (the Livonian Order, the Archbishopric of Riga and the Bishopric of Courland in the territory of the present-day Latvia, as well as the Bishopric of Dorpat and the Bishopric of Ösel-Wiek in the territory of the present-day Estonia) and existed from 1228 to 1560.


According to the feudal system of the medieval Europe, Medieval Livonia was a vassal state of the Holy Roman Empire , but also directly subordinated to the Pope. At the time of Medieval Livonia a deep economic, political and cultural division existed between the privileged German knights, craftsmen, and Latvian peasants, and it never grew smaller. Latvian peasants were forbidden to carry weapons, and even bagpipes were prohibited.


The first book in Latvian was published in 1525. The first Latvian schools appeared around the middle of the 16th century. Before that Latvian children could acquire education in German or Latin only. Regardless of the aforementioned class differences, Livonia experienced economic growth — trade expanded and towns developed. Livonian towns largely resembled the towns in the Northern Germany.

In the 15th century the number of German manors increased rapidly. German noblemen started using Latvian peasants as a free workforce in their manors in the 15th and 16th century.

The success of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the Livonian War (15581583) lead to acquisition of the greatest part of the territory of Medieval Livonia by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and gave rise to its vassal states — the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia and the Duchy of Livonia.


Latvia during the 17th-19th Century

After the Polish-Swedish War (1600-1629) the majority of the Duchy of Livonia, including Riga, came under the rule of Sweden. At the same time, from 1642 to 1682 the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia was ruled by the Duke Jacob Kettler, under whose rule the Duchy’s economy prospered. During this period the duchy also acquired two colonies — St. Andrews Island on the Gambia River and Tobago.

As a result of the Great Northern War (1700-1721) Swedish Livonia came under the rule of the Russian Empire. The Eastern part of Latvia (Latgale) became a part of the Russian Empire as a consequence of the Second Partition of Poland in 1772. In 1795 the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia with the Piltene District was incorporated into the Russian Empire.


From 1804 onwards several decrees weakened the authority the German nobility had over Latvian peasants. In the 19th century serfdom was abolished. In 1849 a law was passed allowing peasants to become owners of their farms. Until World War I the administrative authorities of the Russian Empire and the local authorities — Livonian Landtag and Landtag for Courland (parliaments) that represented only the German nobility — held all the decision-making power in Latvia.

Significant changes gradually took place in the Latvian society, paving the way for the creation of a national state. The number of educated Latvians increased. A number of educated Latvians (Juris Alunāns, Krišjānis Barons, Atis Kronvalds, Krišjānis Valdemārs) founded the movement of New Latvians to promote literacy among Latvians. One of the first centres of the movement was the University of Dorpat (now Tartu, Estonia) where many Latvians studied at the time.



In the 19th century Riga was developing into an important industrial centre. At the end of the 19th century Riga was the largest industrial city based on the number of workers after Moscow and Saint Petersburg. In the 1870s and 1880s the number of people migrating from rural areas to towns increased. Therefore the proportion and role of intellectuals and workers in the society increased. At the end of the 1880s and during the 1890s the movement of New Latvians was replaced by a new movement — the New Current. Unlike the New Latvians, participants of the New Current started to express national ideas about Latvia.

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