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Courland or Kurland formerly named a Baltic province of the Teutonic Order state in Livonia (ca.1200-1560), Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1560-1795) and imperial Russia (1795-1918), lying between 55° 45’ and 57° 45’ N. and 21° and 27° E., now (2003) parts of Latvia. In the imperial Russia it was bounded on the north-east 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 Kingdom of Prussian province of East Prussia and the Russian district of Kovno. The area comprised 10,535 square miles., of which 101 square miles comprised lakes. The surface was generally low and undulating, and the coast-lands 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 rose more than 700 feet 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 land was mostly owned by nobles of German descent. In 1863 laws were issued to enable the Letts, 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 grows well. Excellent breeds of cattle, sheep and pigs were kept. Lihau and Mitau were the principal industrial centres, with iron-works, 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 is found on the coast. The only seaports were Libau, Windau and Polangen, there being none on the Courland coast of the Gulf of Riga.

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% Germanss, 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.

Table of contents
1 History of Courland
2 Duchy of Courland, 1561-1795
3 The dukes of Courland and their coinage.

History of Courland

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. Under the increasing pressure of Russia (Muscovy) the Teutonic Knights in 1561 found it expedient to put themselves under the suzerainty of Poland, the grandmaster Gotthard Kettler (d. 1587) becoming the first duke of Courland. (See Livonia.

The duchy suffered severely in the Russo-Swedish campaigns of 1700 - 1709. But by the marriage in 1710 of Kettler’s descendant, Duke Frederick William (d. 1711), to the princess Anne, niece of Peter the Great and afterwards empress of Russia, Courland came into close relations with the latter state, Anne ruling as duchess of Courland from 1711 to 1730.

The celebrated Marshal Saxe was elected duke in 1726, but only managed to maintain himself by force of arms till the next year. The last Kettler, William, titular duke of Courland, died in 1737, and the empress Anne then bestowed the dignity on her favourite Biren, who held it from 1737 to 1740 and again from 1763 till his death in 1772.

During nearly the whole of the 18th century Courland, devastated by continual wars, served as a shuttlecock between Russia and Poland; In the course of the third Partition of Poland, Courland was annexed by Russia. The Baltic provinces - Esthonia, Livonia and Courland - ceased to form collectively one general government in 1876.

After World War I former Courland became part of Latvia.

See H. Hollmann, Kurlands Agrarverhältnisse (Riga, 1893), and E. Seraphim, Geschichte Liv-, Esth-, und Kurlands (2 vols., Reval, 1895 - 1896).

Initial text from a 1911 encyclopedia. Please update as needed.

Large parts of this article should be merged with Courland.

Duchy of Courland, 1561-1795

During the Livonia Wars (1558-1582) 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 up 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 Courland 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 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 Courland 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 up with his removal from 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 of this war, 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 the powder mills, producing the gunpowder, were established. Trading relations were established not only with nearby countries, but also with Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, Portugal, etc. Jacob established the merchant fleet of the Duchy of Courland, with its main harbours in Ventspils, Liepaja. In 1651 the Duchy even gained its first colony in Africa, St. Andrews 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.

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 (1655 - 1660) begun. Duke Jacob was captured by Swedish army in 1658-1660. During this period both colonies were taken by Dutch colonists, the merchant fleet and factories were destroyed. This war ended with the Treaty of Peace at Oliv (near Danzig). 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 the production continued to decrease. Duke himself was more worried to enjoy glamorous celebrations and for these reasons spent more money, than it was possible. Thus, he also had to sell Tobago to British colonists. He died at 1698. During this period Poland increased its influence in political and economical life of Duchy. Also Russia expressed its interests in this area. The next Duke was only 6 years old in 1698, and he was under regency of his uncle Ferdinand - Polish general. During this time the Northern War (1700-1721) 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 concerning Duchy of Courland. Tsar of Russia, Peter the Great, received a promise from Friedrich Wilhelm, that he will 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 to Anna Ivanovna (later Empress of Russia), but on his way back from St.Petersburg, he got sick and died.

After his death the next candidate for the seat of duke was Ferdinand Kettler, but his residence was in Danzig. The Council of Duke did not recognize him, because according to the rules, duke had to reside in territory of Duchy. So, in fact, actually there was not duke in Courland. Because Ferdinand was the last representative of Kettler's family, a remarkable amount of candidates tried to gain the seat of duke during this period. A good chance had Moritz, the count of Saxony, son of Frederick Augustus I the Strong, king of Poland. Russia disliked this and sent an army to western Courland to destroy Moritz's base. As the result Moriz had to leave Courland and Russia increased its influence even more in Courland. When Anna Ivanovna, the wife of Ferdinand, became the Empress of Russia, her candidate, Ernst Biron became the duke of Courland.

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 sent to exile. Also from there, through the Council of Duke, he continued to control the Duchy, having accept from the king of Poland. However, landowners of Courland disliked that and even refused to follow the regulations of the Council of 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, Duchy of Courland had 2 dukes simultaneously since then. Situation was extremely tense - part of landowners accepted Ernst Biron, part - Carl of Saxony. The Empress of Russia, Catherine II solved this situation by recalling Ernst Biron back from exile in 1763. By doing this, she avoided the possible increase of Poland's influence in Courland. However, Ernst Biron felt tired from 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. Part of landowners supported Poland, part - Russia. In fact, the further faith of Courland was decided, when Russia with its allies began the 3rd 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 did not exist anymore.

The dukes of Courland and their coinage.