Kurland, Courland, Couronia, or Curonia, a former Baltic province of the Teutonic Order state in Livonia (ca. 12001560), Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (15601795) and Imperial Russia (17951918), lying between 55 45′ and 57 45′ North and 21 and 27 East, now part of Latvia.



In Imperial Russia Courland was bounded on the northeast by the river Daugava, separating it from the districts of Vitebsk and Livonia; on the north by the Gulf of Riga, on the west by the Baltic Sea, and on the south by the Prussian province of East Prussia and the Russian district of Kovno. The area comprised 10,535 square miles (27,286 km²), of which 101 square miles (262 km²) comprised lakes. The surface is generally low and undulating, and the coastlands flat and marshy. The interior was characterised by wooded dunes, covered with pine, fir, birch and oak, with swamps and lakes, and fertile patches between. The surface nowhere rises more than 700 feet (213 m) above sea level.

The Mitau plain divided Courland into two parts, of which the western was fertile and thickly inhabited, except in the north, while the eastern was less fertile and thinly inhabited.

Courland is drained by nearly one hundred rivers, of which only three, the Daugava, the Lielupe (Aa) and the Venta (Windau), are navigable. They all flow north-westwards and discharge into the Baltic Sea. Owing to the numerous lakes and marshes, the climate is damp and often foggy, as well as changeable, and the winter is severe. Agriculture was the chief occupation, the principal crops being rye, barley, oats, wheat, flax and potatoes.


The population was 619,154 in 1870; 674,437 in 1897, of whom 345,756 were women; 714,200 (estimate) in 1906. Of the whole, 79% were Latvians, 8.75% Germans, 1.7% Russians, and 1% each Poles and Lithuanians. In addition there were about 8% Jews and some Livonians.

The chief towns of the ten districts were Jelgava (Mitau), capital of the government (pop. 35,011 in 1897), Bauska (6543), Jaunjelgava (Friedrichstadt) (5223), Kuldiga (Goldingen) (9733), Grobina (1489), Aizpute (Hasenpoth) (3338), Ilukste (Illuxt) (2340), Talsi (Talsen) (6215), Tukums (Tuckum) (7542) and Ventspils (Windau) (7132). The prevailing religion was Lutheranism, to which 76% of the population belonged; the rest belong to the Orthodox Eastern and the Roman Catholic churches.


Early history

Anciently Courland was inhabited by the Curonians, a Baltic tribe, who were subdued and converted to Christianity by the Brethren of the Sword, a German military order, in the first quarter of the 13th century. In 1237, it passed under the rule of the Teutonic Knights owing to the amalgamation of this order with that of the Brethren of the Sword. At that time Courland comprised the two duchies of Courland and of Semgallen.

Duchy of Courland, 15611795

During the Livonian Wars (15581582), under the increasing pressure of Russia, the Livonia Confederation was dissolved. The south-western part of Estonia and the north-eastern part of Latvia were ceded to Poland and formed into the Duchy of Livonia (Pardaugavas hercogiste). The part of Latvia between the west bank of the Daugava River and the Baltic Sea formed another new region, the Duchy of Courland and Semigalia (Kurzemes un Zemgales hercogiste). It was dependent on the Grand Duke of Lithuania, later on the king of Poland and Lithuania. Gotthard Kettler, the last Master of the Order of Livonia, became the first duke of Courland.

Several parts of the Kurland area did not belong to the Duchy. The Grobina district (on the coast of Baltic Sea) had already been loaned to the Duke of Prussia by the Order of Livonia. Another district, the Bishopric of Piltene, also called the "Bishopric of Courland" (on the Venta River in western Courland), belonged to Magnus, the king of Denmark. He promised to transfer it to the Duchy of Courland after his death, but this plan failed and only later did Wilhelm Kettler regain this district.

When Gotthard Kettler died, his sons, Friedrich and Wilhelm, became the dukes of Courland. They divided the Duchy into two parts in 1596. Friedrich owned the eastern part, Semigalia (Zemgale), with his residence in Jelgava (Mittau). Wilhelm owned the western part, Courland (Kurzeme), with his residence in Kuldiga (Goldingen). Wilhelm regained the Grobina district when he married the daughter of the Duke of Prussia. He also paid out and regained control over Piltene district, but eventually it fell to Poland. Here he developed metalworking, shipyards, and the new ships delivered goods of Kurland to another countries.

However, the relations between the duke and the landowners were quite hostile. Also, Poland, the overlord of the Duchy of Courland, supported the landowners. Wilhelm expressed his disappointment with the landowners, but this ended with his removal from the duke's seat in 1616. Finally Wilhelm left Courland and spent the rest of his life abroad. Thus Friedrich became the only duke of Courland after 1616.

From 1600 to 1629, Poland and Sweden conducted a war with its main battlefields around Riga. As the result, Sweden gained control of central and northern Latvia, which became Swedish Livonia. Poland retained the eastern part of the Duchy of Livonia, thereafter called Inflantia. Courland was also involved into this war, but had no severe damage.

Under the next duke, Jacob Kettler, the Duchy reached the peak of its prosperity. During his travels to Western Europe, Jacob became the eager proponent of mercantile ideas. Metalworking and ship building became much more developed. Also powder mills, producing gunpowder, were established. Trading relations were established not only with nearby countries, but also with Britain, France, the Netherlands, Portugal etc. Jacob established the merchant fleet of the Duchy of Courland, with its main harbours in Ventspils and Liepaja. In 1651 the Duchy even gained its first colony in Africa, St. Andrew's Island at the Gambia River and established Jacob Fort there. The main export goods were ivory, gold, furs, spices. Soon afterwards, in 1652, another colony was established in Tobago in the West Indies. There the main export goods were sugar, tobacco, coffee and spices. (For the Tobago colony, see Courland colonization of the Americas)

However, all this time the Duchy of Courland was a focus of interest for both Sweden and Poland. In 1655 the Swedish army entered the territory of the Duchy and the Swedish–Polish war (16551660) begun. Duke Jacob was captured by the Swedish army in 1658–1660. During this period both colonies were taken by Dutch colonists, and the merchant fleet and factories were destroyed. This war ended with the Treaty of Peace at Oliv (near Danzig) (now Gdańsk, Poland). Tobago was regained again just for a short period at the end of rule of Jacob. He began to restore the fleet and factories, but Duchy never again reached its prosperous level as it was until 1655.

When Jacob died in 1682, his son, Friedrich Casimir, was the next duke. During his reign production continued to decrease. The duke himself was more interested in glamorous celebrations and for these reasons spent more money than was possible. Thus he also had to sell Tobago to British colonists. He died at 1698. During this period Poland increased its influence in the political and economic life of the Duchy. Also Russia expressed its interests in this area. The next Duke was only six years old in 1698, and was under the regency of his uncle Ferdinand — a Polish general. During this time the Northern Wars (17001721) began between Sweden and Russia with its allies — Poland, Saxony and Denmark. In fact, the central part of Latvia was controlled by Russia since 1710. It had a strong influence also on the Duchy of Courland. Tsar of Russia, Peter the Great, received a promise from Friedrich Wilhelm that he would marry one of the daughters of Peter's brother. By having this promise, Peter the Great wished to increase the influence of Russia in Courland. So, in 1710, Friedrich Wilhelm married Anna Ivanovna (later Empress of Russia), but on his way back from St Petersburg, he got sick and died. Anne ruled as duchess of Courland from 1711 to 1730.

After his death the next candidate for the seat of duke was Ferdinand Kettler, but his residence was in Danzig. The Council of the Duke did not recognize him, because the rules required the duke to reside in the territory of the Duchy. So there was not any duke in Courland. Because Ferdinand was the last representative of Kettler's family, a remarkable number of candidates tried to gain the seat of duke during this period. One favorite was Moritz, the count of Saxony, son of Frederick Augustus I the Strong, king of Poland. He was elected duke in 1726, but only managed to maintain himself by force of arms till the next year. Russia disliked him and sent an army to western Courland to destroy Moritz's base. As the result Moritz had to leave Courland and Russia increased its influence even more. The last Kettler, William, titular duke of Courland, died in 1737. When Anna Ivanovna, the wife of Ferdinand, became the Empress of Russia, her candidate, Ernst Biron became the duke of Courland in 1737.

He received remarkable financial support from Russia and invested it into the construction. An example here is the castle of Rundale projected by the distinguished Italian architect Rastrelli. Anna Ivanovna died in 1740 and then occurred the change of persons, having their influence in political life in Russia. Duke Ernst Biron was exiled. Also from there, through the Council of the Duke, he continued to control the Duchy, having accept from the king of Poland. However, the landowners of Courland disliked that and even refused to follow the regulations of the Council of the Duke. The king of Poland gave up against the landowners of Courland and announced his son, Carl, the count of Saxony, as the next duke. Thus, the Duchy of Courland had two dukes simultaneously since then. The situation was extremely tense — one part of the landowners accepted Ernst Biron, the other, Carl of Saxony. The Empress of Russia, Catherine II solved this situation by recalling Ernst Biron from exile in 1763. By doing this, she avoided the possible increase of Poland's influence in Courland. However, Ernst Biron was exhausted all these political fights and turned the seat of duke to his son, Peter Biron, in 1769.

Still the political activities were quite strong in Courland. Some landowners supported Poland, some Russia. In fact, the further fate of Courland was decided, when Russia with its allies began the third division of Poland. Having a "nice recommendation" of Russia, duke Peter Biron gave up his rights to Russia in 1795. By signing the final document in March 28, 1795, the Duchy of Courland ceased to exist.

Courland as a part of Russia

The land was mostly owned by nobles of German descent. In 1863, laws were issued to enable Latvians, who formed the bulk of the population, to acquire the farms which they held, and special banks were founded to help them. By this means some farms were bought by their occupants; but the great mass of the population remained landless, and lived as hired labourers, occupying a low position in the social scale.

On the large estates agriculture was conducted with skill and scientific knowledge. Fruit grew well. Excellent breeds of cattle, sheep and pigs were kept. Lihau and Mitau (Jelgava) were the principal industrial centres, with ironworks, agricultural machinery works, tanneries, glass and soap works. Flax spinning was mostly a domestic industry. Iron and limestone were the chief minerals; a little amber was found on the coast. The only seaports were Libau, Windau (Ventspils) and Polangen, there being none on the Courland coast of the Gulf of Riga.

After World War I, Courland became a part of the newly formed nation of Latvia only to be conquered by the USSR, then Germany, and then the USSR again during World War II.

Courland during World War II

At the start of Operation Barbarossa in 1941, Courland, along with the rest of the Baltic area belonging to the Soviet Union, was overrun by Army Group North headed by Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb. In 1944, the Red Army lifted the siege of Leningrad and re-conquered the Baltic area along with much of Ukraine and Belarus. However, some 200,000 German troops held out in Courland. They were besieged with their backs to the Baltic Sea. They were senselessly stuck there; the Red Army naturally did not pay attention to them because the Soviets were putting forth all their men and weapons into the attacks on East Prussia, Silesia, Pomerania, and ultimately Berlin. Colonel-General Heinz Guderian, the Chief of the German General Staff, insisted to Adolf Hitler that the troops in Courland should be evacuated by sea and used for the defense of the Reich. However, Hitler refused and ordered the German forces in Courland to hold out. On January 15, 1945, Army Group Courland (Heeresgruppe Kurland) was formed under Colonel-General Dr. Lothar Rendulic. Until the end of the war, Army Group Courland was uselessly stuck on the Latvian peninsula, when they could have been better used elsewhere. It held out until May 8, 1945, when it surrendered under Colonel-General Carl Hilpert, the army group's last commander.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Courland became part of Latvia once more and it remains to to this day.

The dukes of Courland and their coinage


  • H Hollmann, Kurlands Agrarverhältnisse (Riga, 1893)
  • E Seraphim, Geschichte Liv-, Esth-, und Kurlands (2 volumes, Reval, 18951896).

de:Kurland et:Kurzeme fr:Courlande ja:クールラント lt:Kuršas nl:Koerland pl:Kurlandia sv:Kurland


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