Livonian or First Northern War, 1558-1583

The Livonian War was a twenty five year long struggle for control of Livonia (modern Estonia and Latvia). The war is also sometimes called the First Northern War, reflecting the involvement of all of the main Baltic powers of the period.

In 1558 Livonia represented the last remnants of the crusading movement, and was ruled by the Livonian Order of the Knights of the Sword, originally an offshoot of the Teutonic Knights. The Order had been greatly weakened in 1526 by the collapse of the Teutonic Order. The last Grand Mater of the Teutonic Knights, Albrecht von Hohenzollern, had secularised the remaining possessions of the Order in 1526, founding the Protestant Duchy of Prussia, with himself as Duke, as part of the Kingdom of Poland. With their parent order gone, the Livonian Knights found it increasingly difficult to recruit new members. Their authority in Livonia was also weakened by arguments with the Livonian Confederation and by the growth of Protestantism in the Livonian cities.

The relationship between Livonian and the Russia of Ivan IV had been tense for some years. The final break came in 1558. In the previous year Albrecht von Hohenzollern had attempted to appoint a political ally to a key position in the Archbishopric of Riga. The Livonians believed that Albrecht was attempting to impose Protestantism, and arrested him and his appointee. Sigismund Augustus, king of Poland-Lithuania, was forced to respond to protect his vassal. In September 1557 in the Treaty of Pozwol Sigismund forced the Livonians to release their prisoners and accept his protection.

Ivan IV saw this move as provocation. He negotiated an end to the Swedish-Muscovite War (1554-7), and early in 1558 sent a small Tartar army into Livonia, followed in the summer of 1558 by a full scale invasion. A series of important towns fell to the Russians, including Narva and Dorpat. With the Livonian Order putting up little or no effective resistance, parts of Livonia sought protection elsewhere, starting with Reval which accepted Danish protection during the second half of 1558. In 1560 the bishop of Ösel-Wieck sold his bishopric in the north west of Livonia to the Danes where Frederick II installed his younger brother Magnus, Duke of Holstein.

The Livonian Order made its last stand in 1560. A small Livonian force under the Grand Master, Philipp Schall von Bell, attacked a much larger Russian force (Battle of Ermes, 2 August 1560), and was crushed. The Grand Master was captured, taken to Moscow and executed. In November 1561 his successor, Gotthard Kettler, secularised the Order, surrendered most of Livonia to Sigismund Augustus of Poland-Lithuanian with himself as Duke of Courland (South West Livonia). In the north Reval sought the protection of Sweden (June 1561). The war would continue for twenty years, before ending in essentially the same division of Livonia as in 1561.

The period between 1562 and 1583 saw near constant fighting between Poland-Lithuania and Russia. A truce between the two kingdoms expired in 1562 and was followed by the outbreak of border warfare. In 1563 the Russians invaded Lithuania and captured Polock after a two week siege (February 1563). A period of alliances followed, with Poland- Lithuania, Denmark and Lübeck aligned against Sweden and Russia (despite the efforts of John, duke of Finland, the brother of Erik of Sweden to arrange an alliance between Sweden and Poland-Lithuania, which ended with his arrest and imprisonment in 1563). However, for most of the decade Denmark and Sweden were engaged in the Nordic Seven Years War (1563-70), leaving Russia and Poland-Lithuania to fight on in Livonia.

In 1564 Poland-Lithuania inflicted two significant defeats on Russia, at Czasniki and the Ula River, restoring the position on their eastern border. Ivan IV (the Terrible) responded with a nervous breakdown in 1565, splitting Russia almost in two. Seven years of chaos followed in Russia, only ending after the 1571 sack of Moscow by the Crimean Tatars. Ivan was not entirely absent from the international scene during this period – by 1570 he had recruited Magnus, the half brother of Frederick II of Denmark with an offer of the crown of Livonia under Russian protection. In August 1570 Magnus began an eight month siege of Reval, the first of a series of unsuccessful Russian attacks on the city.

The balance of power began to change again in 1568, when Erik of Sweden was deposed in favour of his brother John III. He was now free to pursue his policy of friendship with Poland-Lithuania. In December 1570 he arranged a peace treaty with both Poland-Lithuania and Denmark, leaving Russia potentially isolated. Russia responded with a new invasion of Livonia in 1572, capturing Weissenstein in January 1573, but this was followed by three years of intermittent activity.

This came at a fortunate time for Poland-Lithuania. Sigismund Augustus died in 1572 and was succeeded by Henry Valois in 1573. He soon returned to France to claim the throne, and in 1574 was officially deposed. Finally, in 1576 Stefan Batory was elected king. In 1577 he then embarked on a short war with Danzig.

1577 also saw the most impressive Russian campaign of the war. It began with another failed siege of Reval (January-March 1577), followed during the summer by an invasion led by Ivan in person. He captured Dünaburg, Kokenhausen and Wenden (the formal capital city of the Livonian Order), and soon only Riga, Reval and Ösel were holding out against the Russians (Reval with the help of John III of Sweden). At first Stefan Batory was unable to intervene because of the war with Danzig.

By the end of 1577 Batory was free to turn his attention back to Livonia. In November 1577 he regained Dünaburg, in the south east corner of Livonia and Wenden. In December he made peace with Danzig and was free to concentrate on Russia. In 1778 he defeated a Russian attempt to recapture Dünaburg, while a counterattack reached Dorpat, defeated a Russian army near Pernau and even reached Novgorod. In September 1578 a major Russian army attempted to recaptured Wenden, and was defeated by a joint Polish-German-Swedish force.

The battle of Wenden marked a turning point in the war. Over the next three years it was Poland-Lithuania that went on the offensive, recapturing Polock in 1579, Velikie Luki and Kholm in 1580 and crossing into Russia to besiege Pskov in 1581-2. The same period also saw a Swedish army under Pontus de la Gardie recapture Narva and then cross into Russia to sieze Ivangorod.

Ivan was forced to make peace. In January 1582 he made peace with Batory at Iam Zapolskii, returning all of his Livonian conquests in return for the safety of Pskow. The following year he agreed a three year truce with Sweden, soon extended to run until 1590, in which Sweden retained Narva and Ivangorod (Ivangorod would be recaptured in the Swedish-Muscovite War of 1590-95). At the end of the war Livonia had been partitioned, with Poland-Lithuania gaining control of most of the area and Sweden keeping Reval and northern Estonia.

The Northern Wars, 1558-1721 (Modern Wars In Perspective), Robert I. Frost. One of the very few works in English to look at the long period of warfare that shaped north eastern Europe, Frost provides an excellent overview of nearly two centuries of conflict that shaped Scandinavia, Russia and Poland, ending with the Great Northern War.
cover cover cover
How to cite this article: Rickard, J (24 July 2007), Livonian or First Northern War, 1558-1583,

Help - F.A.Q. - Contact Us - Search - Recent - About Us - Privacy