Carlsberg Foundation 19: A fresh look at the St. George’s Night’s Uprising

Mihkel Mäesalu and Stefan Pajung

Our research project has been going on for quite a while and has begun bearing its fruits. In this month’s blog-post we will look at Mihkel’s recently published paper on the St. George’s Night’s Uprising. The uprising began 22-23 April 1343 in Danish Estonia, but quickly spread to western Estonia, to areas ruled by the bishop of Osilia and the Teutonic Order. The order managed to supress the uprising in Danish Estonia only by the very end of the year 1343. The island of Saaremaa (Osilia) resisted much longer and was subdued by the Teutonic Knights as late as February 1345.

Historians have always looked for internal causes for the uprising: in the antagonism between the ruling German-speaking elite and the supressed elite of native Estonians. Our research results show a different picture. Though the antagonism between the German-speaking and the native elite was surely there, we believe that the main cause behind the uprising came from Denmark. Namely extraordinary royal taxation.

When Valdemar IV became king of Denmark in 1340 nearly all of his kingdom had been pawned to the counts of Holstein. With the agreement of the Danish lay and clerical nobility Valdemar IV began to collect extraordinary taxes to buy out his kingdom. A few sources attest that these extraordinary taxes were also collected in Danish Estonia. Namely in April 1341 the pope wrote to Konrad Preen – the viceroy of Danish Estonia – and demanded him to stop taxing the lands of the Cistercians monasteries of Padise, Valkena (Kärkna) and Gudvalla. As church-lands were exempt from regular royal taxation, these taxes collected by the viceroy could only be extraordinary royal taxes. These extraordinary taxes must have been paid by everyone in Danish Estonia.

The native Estonians sent an embassy to the king to complain about harsh taxes and burdens. But because the embassy did not succeed in convincing the king, the native Estonians decided to rebel. Therefore, the extraordinary royal taxation of Valdemar IV seems to have been the main cause for the native Estonian uprising in Danish Estonia in April 1343.

Map of the St. George’s Nights Uprising
Author: Minnekon
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The spring of 1343 was a favourable time for an uprising. King Valdemar IV was at war with King Magnus Eriksson of Sweden and Norway, who also ruled over Finland. The rebels made a secret agreement with the viceroy of Finland to conquer Tallinn (Reval) – the centre of Danish administration in Northern Estonia. At the same time Danish Estonia, as well as the Teutonic Order were at war with the neighbouring princedom of Pskov. Because of this war, the viceroy of Danish Estonia – Konrad Preen – was on the eastern border in spring 1343. He was overseeing the enlargement of the fortifications of the royal castle of Narva.

Historians have usually considered Danish Estonia as unable to supress the uprising itself, wherefore they asked the Teutonic Knights for help. Our research results show a somewhat different picture. In fact, the Teutonic Order took the Danish viceroy prisoner at the early stages of the uprising, though the exact time of his imprisonment is unknown. Most probably he was captured around the 4th of May 1343, when the Master of the Teutonic Order organized negotiations between the leaders of the uprising in Danish Estonia and the Bishop of Tallinn. These negotiations took place in the Teutonic Order’s castle of Paide (Weissenstein) and ended with the slaughter of the leaders of the uprising by the Teutonic Knights. It surely cannot be a coincidence, that Konrad Preen was held prisoner in the same castle. Presumably Konrad Preen had also travelled to Paide to negotiate with the rebels. May-be he was also thinking of asking the Teutonic Knights for help in supressing the uprising, but could not come to terms with Burchard von Dreileben, the Master of the Teutonic Order in Livonia. Whatever the case, Burchard von Dreileben decided to imprison Konrad Preen.

From the end of April 1343 onwards, the rebels had been besieging Tallinn and waiting for the arrival of the allies from Finland. After imprisoning Konrad Preen, the Master of the Teutonic Order marched to Tallinn and defeated the besiegers on the 14th of May 1343. He was then able to dictate terms to the Danish royal councillors and liegemen who had taken refuge in the castle of Tallinn. Upon his demands the councillors and the liegemen chose Burhard von Dreileben as the guardian and provisional viceroy of Danish Estonia and gave the castles of Tallinn and Rakvere over to the Teutonic Order.

The Teutonic Knights had a hard time in supressing the uprising in Danish Estonia. The rebels were not defeated in May 1343. Instead the rebels of Danish Estonia managed to convince the natives of Saaremaa to rise up in the summer of 1343 and planned a joint against the Teutonic Order. It was only with the help of additional knights from Prussia that the Teutonic Order managed to conquer the hillforts of the rebels in Danish Estonia in the winter of 1343. Konrad Preen was released from captivity in the summer of 1344, just a while before the arrival of the new royal viceroy Stig Anderssen.

But why did the Teutonic Knights imprison viceroy Konrad Preen? And why did Burchard von Dreileben take Konrad’s place as viceroy? And why did he need to take over the two royal castles? Surely none of these acts were necessary to help the Danish administration in supressing the uprising. Rather it seems that the Teutonic Knights were specifically aiming at taking over Danish Estonia and the uprising gave them an opportune moment for this. Their reasons for this must have been connected with the negotiations on the sale of Danish Estonia to the Teutonic Order, which had begun already in 1340.

The negotiations were started by Margrave Ludwig of Brandenburg, who sought to get the dowry of his wife Margaret – older sister of Valdemar IV – from the sale of Danish Estonia to the Teutonic Order. The king himself was hesitant at selling Northern-Estonia and the negotiations seemed to have ended in 1341 without any results. It was only after the uprising and in the situation, when the two main royal castles were at the hands of the Teutonic Order, that the king finally decided to sell Danish Estonia in 1346.

Therefore, it seems that the Teutonic Knights used the uprising for their benefit. They took over the two main royal castles and declared that they would give them back to the king only if the king would pay them the costs of supressing the uprising in Danish Estonia. Valdemar IV was left with two bad choices and decided it was better to sell Northern Estonia, rather than to redeem it from the order.

In conclusion the St. Georges’ Night’s Uprising was not simply an event in Estonia history. Instead its causes as well as its events were deeply connected with the history of Denmark.

Anyone interested in more details can read Mihkel’s paper in Tuna. Ajalookultuuri ajakiri, issue 2 of 2021.