Livonian War

The Livonian War brought an end to the Livonian Confederation, left Russia in defeat and confusion, and established Sweden and Poland as the major powers in the Baltic Sea region.

Summary of Event

In the mid-1550’, the lands along the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea were governed by the Livonian Confederation, which represented German-speaking nobles, bishops, abbots, and burghers who had established themselves as rulers during the Crusades of the thirteenth century. The most important member of the Confederation was the Livonian Order Livonian Order , a military order that was finding it difficult to recruit Roman Catholic knights now that northern Germany was Protestant. The order lacked the funds to modernize its army and was unable to interest distant popes in its problems; nevertheless, it was able to defend Livonia effectively until Ivan the Terrible consolidated power in Moscow. Ivan’s expansion south at the expense of the Tatars, Russia’s traditional enemy, increased both his military strength and his imperial ambition. Livonian War (1557-1582)
Ivan the Terrible
Fürstenberg, Wilhelm von
Kettler, Gotthard
Sigismund II Augustus
Báthory, Stephen
John III (1537-1592)
Ivan the Terrible
Sigismund II Augustus
Fürstenberg, Wilhelm von
Kettler, Gotthard
Magnus of Holstein
Erik XIV
Kurbski, Andrey Mikhaylovich
John III (king of Sweden)
Taube, Johann
Kruse, Eilert
Stephen Báthory

Even so, Ivan probably did not want war with Livonia at this time. Without question, he wanted money, and he also sought to lay the foundation for later claims on the Baltic coastlands, as his demands that the Livonian Confederation pay tribute and three hundred years of back taxes confirm. The Confederation could have paid such an amount, though not easily, but its members were reluctant to contribute to arming a tyrant who would undoubtedly discover new claims on their modest wealth in the future and then might well declare war. The Confederation’s diplomats delayed, obfuscated, and prayed for divine deliverance. They also sought more earthly support from King Sigismund II Augustus of Poland-Lithuania, agreeing to accept Polish suzerainty in the 1557 Treaty of Poswol. The treaty, however, did nothing except perhaps frighten Ivan into thinking that he had to strike quickly before his enemies could perfect their alliance. He soon attacked.

The Livonian Confederation was not ready for war. Its members were so fearful of one another they had even fought one another briefly, and there was strong disagreement about what policies should be followed. Master of the Livionian Order Wilhelm von Fürstenberg attempted to defend the Confederation, but to no avail. The other members of the Confederation refused to accept Fürstenberg’s leadership, and it seems that his tactics in any case were ineffective. As a result, Ivan’s forces captured the strategic castle at Narva in May, 1558. Suddenly all of Livonia lay open to Russian armies.

Ivan sent new armies into the country, capturing Dorpat easily in July, then occupying one fortress after another. Master Fürstenberg, and his successor, Gotthard Kettler, managed to replace aging and ineffective officers with younger and more daring warriors and to hire mercenaries. However, Fürstenberg was captured at Fellin with much of the order’s military supplies in the late winter of 1560, and Kettler’s field army was destroyed in battle at Ermes in the summer of 1560.

Livonian appeals for help to the Holy Roman Empire, Denmark, Sweden, and Poland-Lithuania had gone largely in vain until this time, but the monarchs of those countries now asked their national assemblies to endorse intervention. Little help came from Germany, except in the form of permission to recruit mercenary soldiers and strongly worded declarations of solidarity. Most Livonians submitted to Sigismund II Augustus in 1561 with the Treaty of Vilnius, Vilnius, Treaty of (1561) and soon afterward, Lithuanian troops occupied the lands south of the Western Dvina River. Sigismund eventually granted some of these territories to Kettler and his officials, thus creating a duchy on the model of Prussia (where the Teutonic Knights had ruled until 1525, when the military order was secularized and the last grand master became duke of Prussia).

Meanwhile, the king of Denmark, rather than defending Livonia, attempted to use the situation in Livonia to strengthen Danish security. The king purchased the diocese of Oesel-Wiek for his troublesome younger brother, Magnus of Holstein, thus eliminating him as a danger to the Danish crown. He hoped that a marriage alliance between Magnus and Ivan the Terrible’s niece would result in central Livonia’s becoming a coastal buffer state that would protect Denmark from future Russian encroachments. The Swedish king, Erik XIV, likewise sent garrisons to help defend the fortresses along the Gulf of Finland, lest that region become a base for Russian attacks on Finnish possessions, but he did no more to aid the Livonian Confederation.

Ivan’s actions in the ensuing years cannot be explained to universal satisfaction. His armies could probably have conquered all of Livonia, but only at the cost of a general war he did not want. Therefore, he tried more subtle approaches. From 1561 to 1570, he was largely inactive against the Swedes. One reason was that he needed to deal with the Crimean Tatars, who were encouraged by the Poles to attack Russia’s southern frontiers while the Poles pinned down Ivan’s forces around Smolensk. Another reason was his willingness to allow the Swedes and the Danes to destroy one another in their war of 1563-1570, in which the Poles assisted the Danes. Yet another was the defection of his most capable commander, Prince Andrey Mikhaylovich Kurbski, to Lithuania in 1564, after which Ivan ordered his secret police, the Oprichnina, to root out all other potential traitors.

Ivan had hoped to divide his enemies. This seemed likely when Swedish king Erik XIV’s younger brother, John, married Sigismund II Augustus’s daughter Katrina. John appeared ready to establish an independent state in Finland. Ivan demanded that the princess be sent to him, her fate unclear, in order further to destabilize the situation. John found himself in prison from 1563 until a rebellion among the Swedish nobles removed the unstable Erik in 1568 and made him King John III. Quickly, Ivan sent two “traitors,” Johann Taube and Eilert Kruse, to persuade the city of Revel (Tallinn) to surrender, and then he besieged the city. When the siege failed, the two nobles chose not to return to Moscow and an inevitable beheading but instead became proponents of war to the death against Russia.

Next, Ivan employed a version of the compromise that had worked so well for Poland in Prussia: He sought to rule through a puppet and chose Magnus of Holstein. However, the czar’s paranoia made it impossible for him to allow Magnus sufficient authority to build a substantial party among the Livonians, and Ivan’s fervent Orthodox beliefs made Roman Catholics and Protestants fearful. More important, the stories of Ivan’s misrule at home made potential subjects reluctant to trust him. Although western propaganda has to be discounted, there is no doubt that the czar was by now periodically mentally ill and that he did not hesitate to destroy entire families of prominent nobles and communities in retaliation for real or imagined crimes. Meanwhile, atrocities committed by Ivan’s Tatars cost him the early welcome that he had received from the native Livonians. Moreover, as the villagers fled westward to safer districts, they found that the Germans viewed them less as allies or subjects than as potential traitors. For the coalescing Estonian and Latvian peoples, this was a truly terrible war.

Ivan’s forces managed to occupy almost all of Estonia, but the situation quickly unraveled once the Polish state recovered stability under Stephen Báthory and John III dispatched Swedish armies across the sea. In 1578, a Polish-Swedish army crushed the czar’s army at Wenden in central Livonia. Stephen Báthory consolidated his position there and in Riga; meanwhile, Swedish mercenaries under Pontus de la Gardie cleared Russian forces from most of Estonia and in 1581 captured Narva. In the summer of 1582, as Stephen Báthory’s army was camped outside Pskov, the czar offered to surrender the remaining forts in Livonia in return for a ten-year truce. The Swedes, unable to continue the war alone, made peace in 1583.


The Livonian War ended with Ivan the Terrible ill and confused. The czar had lost all his gains, his state was bankrupt, and a period of Russian decline was in the offing. At the same time, Sweden and Poland eyed one another warily over their newly acquired territories, while their national assemblies protested the war taxes. Many German-speaking nobles of Livonia had survived but had relocated from ancestral estates to safer lands; many others had died, and their lands had been given to mercenary commanders in place of their salaries, which were long in arrears. The various peoples native to the region, many of whom had spent years fleeing one army after another, had lost many of their regional identities; they were becoming more homogeneous linguistically and culturally. The losses in population were staggering. Furthermore, economic costs and the imposition of a crushing Serfdom serfdom—mainly to prevent the surviving peasants from leaving the estates—resulted in an intellectual and cultural stagnation that had profound effects upon the future.

Further Reading

  • Kirby, David. Northern Europe in the Early Modern Period: The Baltic World, 1492-1772. New York: Longman, 1990. Solid overview of the war.
  • Kirchner, Walther. The Rise of the Baltic Question. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1954. A seminal study of the reasons for the war.
  • Kruse, Elert, Heinrich Tisenhausen, et al.“The Chronicle of Balthasar Russow,” “A Forthright Rebuttal,” and “Errors and Mistakes of Balthasar Russow.” Translated by Jerry C. Smith, Juergen Eichhoff, and William L. Urban. Madison, Wis.: Baltic Studies Center, 1988. A contemporary chronicle that is often cited for its lively anecdotes and insights.
  • O’Connor, Kevin. The History of the Baltic States. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2003. Survey history concentrating on the modern era.
  • Urban, William L. The Livonian Crusade. 2d ed. Chicago: Lithuanian Research and Studies Center, 2003. Shows the conflict as the culmination of long-developing trends.

1480-1502: Destruction of the Golden Horde

After 1480: Ivan the Great Organizes the “Third Rome”

1499-c. 1600: Russo-Polish Wars

Jan. 16, 1547: Coronation of Ivan the Terrible

Summer, 1556: Ivan the Terrible Annexes Astrakhan

Nov., 1575: Stephen Báthory Becomes King of Poland

1581-1597: Cossacks Seize Sibir

1584-1613: Russia’s Time of Troubles

Beginning 1497: Danish-Swedish Wars