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Estland Knighthood


Estonian Historical Archives
Tartu, Estonia

Record group

Estland Knighthood
Eestimaa Rüütelkond
Reference code : 854
Period : 1240–1923
Extent : 12035 items


The administrative autonomy granted to the Baltic German nobility meant that many public and communal functions were carried out by knighthoods. Therefore, the rich collection of the Knighthood of Estland reflects the developments in the manifold spheres of life in Estonia over more than six centuries. Besides, the collection includes a large number of collected materials and manuscripts.

Relevant contents

Period : 1571 - 1800
Countries involved : Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Poland, Russia, Sweden, The Netherlands, Various countries
Languages : High German, Russian

The collection is mostly organised according to the inner structure of the Knighthood. The materials are described in nine inventories, of which two are relevant.

Inventory 1

Here are materials of the Diet, Landrat, office, treasury and various sub-commissions. The contents of almost all sixteenth- to eighteenth-century records listed in this inventory relate to the privileges and rights of the Knighthood. Seaborne trade and shipping are seldomly mentioned. There are only two relevant items:

Inventory 2


Nine inventories, partly in German, partly in Estonian, with introductions; also available online at:  http://ais.ra.ee/ais. In addition, there are indexes on topics and on personal and geographic names.

An updated comprehensive guide providing descriptions of the archives of state administrative and judicial organs, and of institutions for local self-government and justice: Arhiivijuht [Archival Guide], I. Riigi-, kohtu- ja omavalitsusasutused, ed. L. Leppik (Tartu, 2003); also available online at: www.eha.ee.

A general directory to major holdings: Центальный Государственый Исторический Архив Эстонской ССР. Путеводитель [Central State Historical Archives of the Estonian SSR. Guide]. (Мoscow, Tartu, 1969).

Two royal ordinances concerning the collection of sea tolls, commercial trade and navigation are available at the online database of seventeenth-century prints at: www.eha.ee/plakatid.

Record creator / provenance

After the German-led conquest in 1219, Estland (modern-day north Estonia) largely (the counties of Harju and Viru) fell into the hands of the Danish King. Governing the overseas provinces, however, appeared to be troublesome and in 1346 Denmark sold its possessions to the Teutonic Order, which in turn traded them at a small profit to the Livonian Order. During the Livonian War (1558-1583), Estonia was contested by Poland, Russia and Sweden. The town of Tallinn and the Harju-Viru knighthood (local nobles) retreated to the Swedish Crown in 1561, which sub-ordinance lasted for the following century and a half. In 1584, when the Swedish King had granted the vassals in the counties of Järva and Lääne the same feudal privileges their powerful counterparts in Harju-Viru had already enjoyed before, the Knighthood of Estland (Estländische Ritterschaft) came into existence. In 1721, Swedish Estonia was ceded to Russia by the Treaty of Nystad. Initially, the Tsar could not bring about any changes in the newly-conquered country. The Baltic special order (status provincialis) based on the recognition of the Baltic-German nobility's rights was established in Estland and Livland.

The origins of the Knighthood of Estland can be traced back to the thirteenth century when the vassals in the counties of Harju and Viru formed a privileged body of nobles, an institution for local self-government and justice. Over the centuries, its position became stronger. Subsequent rulers of the country validated the historic privileges of the Baltic German nobility, which first and foremost meant that the knighthoods maintained their local government and continued to excercise their rights. The Knighthood was in charge of issues such as justice, religious affairs, local taxes, agrarian order, police, schools, health, postal services, etc.

The highest body inside the Ritterschaft was the Diet, meeting regularly to discuss local issues and to elect various officials as well as members to its permanent executive body known as Landrat (council). Besides its administrative functions, the Landrat performed judicial ones. The Council was presided by the highest representative of the King and later of the Tsar (a governor or governor-general). In the province, it was the highest (local) institution of the landed nobility for justice in Estland. Through these institutions, the Baltic Germans were able to defend their status. Only in the nineteenth century the Russian emperor gradually limited the mandate of the Diet. The Knighthood of Estland was dissolved in 1920.