Baltic nobility

The coat of arms of the Baltic noble family von Ungern-Sternberg
The coat of arms of the Baltic noble family von Ungern-Sternberg

The Baltic nobility was the privileged social class in the territories of today's Estonia and Latvia. It existed continuously since the Northern Crusades and the medieval foundation of Terra Mariana. Most of the gentry were Baltic Germans, but with the changing political landscape over the centuries, Polish, Swedish and Russian families also became part of the nobility, just as Baltic German families re-settled in e.g. the Swedish and Russian Empires.[1] The nobility of Lithuania is for historical, social and ethnic reasons often separated from the German-dominated nobility of Estonia and Latvia.


This nobility was a source of officers and other servants to Swedish and Polish kings in 16th and particularly 17th centuries, when Couronian, Estonian, Livonian and Oeselian lands belonged to them. Russian emperors used Baltic nobles in government.

Most of the nobility was "recalled" by Hitler to Germany in late 1939, a few months prior to the annexation of Estonia and Latvia by the Soviet Union in June 1940. Nowadays it is possible to find the successors of the Baltic nobility all around the world.

Manorial system

Järlepa manor house in Estonia.
Järlepa (German: Jerlep) manor house, Estonia, a typical Baltic manor house.

Rural Estonia and Latvia was to a large extent dominated by a manorial estate system, established and sustained by the Baltic nobility, up until the declaration of independence of Latvia and Estonia following the upheavals after World War I. Broadly speaking, the system was built on a sharp division between the landowning, German-speaking nobility and the Estonian- or Latvian-speaking peasantry. Serfdom was for a long time a defining characteristic of the Baltic countryside and underscored a long-lasting feudal system, until its abolishment in the Governorate of Estonia in 1816, in the Courland Governorate in 1817 and in the Governorate of Livonia in 1819 (and in the rest of the Russian Empire in 1861). Still, the nobility continued to dominate the rural parts of Estonia and Latvia via manorial estates throughout the 19th century. However, almost immediately following the declaration of independence of Estonia and Latvia, both countries enacted far-reaching land reforms which in one stroke ended the former dominance of the Baltic nobility on the countryside.

The manorial system gave rise to a rich establishment of manorial estates all over present-day Estonia and Latvia, and numerous manor houses were built by the nobility. The manorial estates were agricultural centres and often incorporated, apart from the often architecturally and artistically accomplished main buildings, whole ranges of outbuildings, homes for peasants and other workers at the estates and early industrial complexes such as breweries. Parks, chapels and even burial grounds for the noble families were also frequently found on the grounds. Today these complexes form an important cultural and architectural heritage of Estonia and Latvia.[2][3]

For an overview of manorial estates in Estonia and Latvia, see List of palaces and manor houses in Estonia and List of palaces and manor houses in Latvia.


They were organized in the Estonian Knighthood in Reval, Couronian Knighthood in Mitau, and Livonian Knighthood in Riga. Viborg also had an institution to register rolls of nobles in accordance with Baltic models in the 18th century.

Noble titles in Estonia, Livonia and Couronia

Portrait gallery of Baltic German Nobility from Curonia, Estonia and Livonia

See also


  1. von Klingspor, Carl Arvid (1882). "Baltisches Wappenbuch. Wappen sämmtlicher, den Ritterschaften von Livland, Estland, Kurland und Oesel zugehöriger Adelsgeschlechter" (in German).
  2. Hein, Ants (2009). Eesti Mõisad - Herrenhäuser in Estland - Estonian Manor Houses. Tallinn: Tänapäev. ISBN 978-9985-62-765-5.
  3. Sakk, Ivar (2004). Estonian Manors - A Travelogue. Tallinn: Sakk & Sakk OÜ. ISBN 9949-10-117-4.

External links

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