Riga (mod. Rīga, Latvia) was the principal town and bishopric (later archbishopric) of medieval Livonia. It was founded in 1201 by the third bishop of Livonia, Albert of Buxhovden (Bekeshovede), as his new ecclesiastical center for the continuing Christianization and colonization of the region.
In the second half of the twelfth century German merchants had begun visiting the coasts of Livonia on an annual basis to trade with the local tribes. A frequently used anchoring place and market seems to have been a small Livonian settlement some 16 kilometers (c. 10 mi.) up the river Düna. The settlement was located near a small stream called Rigebach and inhabited mainly by fishermen and foresters. It was easily reached by the larger German vessels, and only a short way upstream the river became unnavigable for this type of ship. It was at this location that Riga was founded.
In 1186 a German cleric by the name of Meinhard became the first bishop of Livonia. Two years earlier he had settled in the village that became known as Üxküll (mod. Ikšķile, Latvia), some 30 kilometers (c. 19 mi.) further upstream. A church and a castle were built there, but Üxküll soon proved to be too isolated a place for a bishopric. On several occasions Meinhard found himself beleaguered in his church by hostile Livs, and in 1198 his successor, Bishop Bertold, died in battle when he and his crusaders tried to subdue the Livs after having been chased out of Üxküll the previous year. This may be one reason why Albert of Buxhovden, shortly after his appointment as bishop in 1199, decided to move the episcopal see to a more accessible location. The marketplace near the Rigebach seemed to be the ideal place.
Through papal privileges and a skillfully exploited trading monopoly, Albert was able to attract the first merchants to his new town. At first there were no more than a few hundred individuals, but ten years later the number of townspeople had grown considerably, predominantly through German merchants’ settling in the town and profiting from trade in the region. With the rising number of townspeople the physical size of the city also grew until the early 1230s, when it seems to have reached the extent it retained for the rest of the medieval period. By this time it had strong, defensible stone walls.
Initially much of the work in Riga seems to have been carried out by crusaders from the West. From the beginning Albert was dependent on these armed pilgrims, both for the ongoing crusades against the pagans and also for the foundation of his town. Albert himself spent month after month in northern Germany gathering crusaders for new campaigns. Most of these crusaders would sail from Lübeck to Gotland and then continue to Riga. Here they arrived in the early spring or late autumn, prepared to spend a season in Livonia fighting for the church.
Not surprisingly, ecclesiastical institutions dominated Riga and its surroundings in the early years, making the chronicler Henry of Livonia exclaim that Riga was truly a city of God. A cathedral, several churches, and a hospital were soon built, and both Premonstratensians and Cistercians came to the region within the first ten years to take part in the mission: in 1205 a Cistercian monastery was founded at nearby Dünamünde (mod. Daugavgriva, Latvia), and from 1210 the former Augustinian canons at the cathedral kept the Rule of the Premonstratensians. Also important was the founding of the Sword Brethren in 1202. Initially they were a small military order, numbering only a handful of knights until 1210. Soon, however, they came to have a central role in the continuous conquests in Livonia, with their master taking charge of most military campaigns in the region. This dominant position soon created tensions with the bishop and the civic authorities, which lasted until the order was almost wiped out in battle in 1236.
Skyline of the medieval town of Riga, in modern Latvia. (Steve Raymer/Corbis)
As a frontier settlement and the center of the crusading movement in Livonia, Riga had to be prepared to withstand attacks from hostile neighbors. Initially the crusaders constituted the only major fighting force available to the bishop in times of hostility, but by 1206 the numbers of townspeople living in Riga already seem to have risen to such a level that they could muster a fighting force of their own. The chronicler Henry of Livonia mentions that in that year a combined force of Sword Brethren, townspeople, and pilgrims (that is, crusaders) joined the armed servants of the bishop in an attack on Livs and Lithuanians who were plundering around Riga. From then on the townspeople took part in several campaigns in Livonia. This continual military engagement may explain why in 1226 the town was given one-third of the conquered territory in Livonia when the papal legate William of Modena divided the land between the various secular and ecclesiastical powers in the region. The other two-thirds were divided between the bishop and the Sword Brethren.
From Riga’s beginnings, its growth had been dependent on the predominantly German merchants who settled in the town. They soon became the dominant group among the burgesses and also made up the majority of the town council. Even though the bishop (later archbishop) continued to be lord of the town, more and more rights were granted to the burgesses. The merchants in Riga continued to expand their commerce with the local population as well as with Russian trading centers to the east. This traffic secured a steady flow of goods (for example, wax and furs) that brought great wealth to the town and soon helped integrate Riga into the Hanseatic League.
In 1246 Albert Suerbeer became the first archbishop of Prussia, Livonia, and Estonia, and some years later he turned Riga into an archiepiscopal see. His time as archbishop was characterized by an evolving conflict with the Teutonic Order on the matter of regional supremacy. In 1237 the Teutonic Knights had absorbed the few remaining Sword Brethren and thereby established themselves firmly in Livonia. This conflict also affected the townspeople in Riga, inasmuch as they found themselves competing with the Teutonic Knights for the control of land and trade in the region. Thus, the townspeople supported the archbishop and in 1297 expelled the Teutonic Knights from Riga with the aid of the Lithuanian grand prince Vytenis. After years of juridical quarrels, however, the Teutonic Knights reconquered Riga by force in 1330.
In the later part of the fourteenth century the Teutonic Knights extended their dominance in Riga even further. In the 1390s a member of the order was elected archbishop, and the cathedral chapter was then periodically incorporated into the order until the incorporation became permanent in 1452. However, this did not prevent renewed hostilities between the Teutonic Order and the town of Riga, and another war was fought between 1482 and 1491. Due to its importance as a major port and as an administrative and religious center, Riga continued to be of great strategic importance in the crusades against the Lithuanians and later against the united kingdom of Poland-Lithuania, as well as in the later conflicts between Livonia and the Russians.