From Riga with Love: A Voyage to Europe’s Forgotten Frontier

The past bears a heavy legacy in Latvia, one of three Baltic states, including Lithuania and Estonia, that were only granted independence from Russian rule in the closing decade of the 20th century.

Little known in much detail to Western Europeans, Latvia, for a large part of the 20th century, languished behind the Iron Curtain as the southern-most outpost of the USSR. Then, in 1991, the Latvian Republic resurfaced, breaking out from the collapsing Soviet Union, and breathing independence for the first time since 1940.

The Mouth of the Daugava

As our ship sailed from the Gulf of Riga, a large inlet of the Baltic Sea around which Latvia sprawls, into the mouth of the River Daugava, the accretions of Soviet rule became evident in the industrial landscape that crumbled on the river’s banks. The cold November air froze our extremities as we watched from deck as our ship navigated the silent Daugava into the port of Riga.

The banks of the River Daugava are burdened with a crumbling industrial landscape.

The skyline of Riga is a testament to the constant struggle over Latvia between Europe and the East. Large concrete buildings and Stalinist towers are spread out across the city, speaking of Russian attempts to permanently incorporate the nation and people of Latvia into a large Soviet Empire.

Yet, following independence, Latvia has turned West and was admitted to the European Union in 2004. Since then, many modern buildings of glass and steel have sprung from the reinvoragated soil of the country. However, the story of Latvia, and its relationships with West and East, begins in the centre of Riga, the nation’s capital.

The old town of Riga is an eclectic mix of cobbled streets, hidden churches and gabled facades typical of the Baltic region (similar examples are found on Gotland).

Old Town Riga

Riga’s old town, marooned by the urban accumulations of later centuries, stands at the centre of the capital and, amongst other things, houses Rīgas Pils (Riga Castle), the Latvian President’s official residence. However, we need to dig a little deeper, away from the edges of these eclectic cobbled streets where the roaring of 21st century traffic can be still be heard, to the heart of the old town’s past.

Riga Castle, the offical residence of the Latvian President.

Towering dramatically over the surrounding twisting and winding streets is Rīgas Doms (Cathedral), a building began in 1211 when the foundation stone was laid in solemn ceremony. History is casual here and walking around the cathedral and particularly its cloisters, the visitor stumbles across the debris of the past including blocks of medieval masonry and cannons, veterans of past conflict, that have long fallen silent.

View of the tower of Riga Cathedral, cast against the dark November sky


The presence of Riga Cathedral, now a calm refuge found in quiet streets, is the direct result of centuries of bloody conflict and conquest known as the Northern Crusades. This was part of a wider phenonmen that has a debatable end and finish but broadly started in April 1147 when Pope Eugenius III issued a papal letter that initiated the first crusade in Northern Europe. At the same time, the Second Crusade (1147-1149) to the Holy Land and a crusade to Moorish Spain began. Traditionally, the Northern Crusades ended in 1525.

In Northern Europe, even before Pope Eugenius’ proclamation, the mantle of the cross was taken up by the Germans at the Diet of Frankfurt in March 1147 when the German elite had vowed to either seek ‘the complete destruction or secure conversion of’ those beyond their northern frontiers.

Actions resulting from such aggressive rherotic did not reach Latvia, previously known as Livonia, until much later in the Livonian Crusade (1198- 1212). The process of Christian conquest of Livonia began in much the same way as we first encountered modern-day Latvia, at the mouth of the Daugava, when a monk, named Meinhard reached these lands in 1180.

Meinhard the German

Meinhard, later sainted, established a church between 1185-6 at Ikšķile, south-east of Riga, and dedicated it to the Virgin Mary. He died in 1196 having little success in converting the local pagans.

More details of his mission and his attempts to convert the Livonian peoples can be read in The Chronicle of Henry of Livonia. This Latin chronicle was produced during the early 13th century and is the oldest written history of modern-day Estonia and Latvia.

Meinhard was first replaced by Bishop Berthold of Hanover who led a failed crusade in 1198 before, in 1199, Albert of Riga was appointed to lead the Christianisation of the Baltic region. He founded the market of Riga in 1201, laying the foundations of what would later become Latvia’s beating economic heart. Albert also established the Livonian Brothers of the Sword in 1202, who carried out the heavy-handed work of evangelicalisation through conquest.

The great variety of vernacular buildings of later centuries in Riga directly result from Riga’s later prosperity as the economic hub of Lativa.


By 1212, the Livonians were defeated at a siege of Satezele hillfort and the process of conquest, although perhaps not complete Christianisation, was achieved. At Albert of Riga’s request, the land of Livonia became known as Terra Mariana or the ‘Land of Mary’.

This was the idea, used to justify the process of crusade that had forced Livonia into Latin Christendom, that as the Holy Land was the land of Christ, the Baltic states were under the patrimony of the Virgin Mary. Thus, the crusading forces were serving the Mother of Christ through conflict.

100 Years of Lativa

Appearances are often deceptive. During our brief November visit to Lativa, the country was celebrating its 100th anniversary and buildings, cars and even people were all proudly sporting the striped red and white Latvian flag.

The Freedom Monument of Latvia located in the centre of Riga.

Discounting the process of conquest through crusade in the 12th and 13th centuries and later occupations by larger European powers in later centuries, including Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, Latvians see their country beginning in 1918.

This was when the earlier short-lived free Latvian Republic had been founded before the country came under Soviet rule. In the centre of Riga, stands the Freedom Monument, a potent symbol of the sovereignty and freedom of Latvia.

This stone memorial depicts episodes from Latvian history and tells the story of the people once known as Livonians. Interestingly, standing between carved reliefs of a writer and modern scientis, is the figure of a pagan priest with crooked staff. Even after years of Christian crusade and conquest, a memory of Latvia’s pagan past still looks out over Riga.

As we left the shores of Latvia, troops and tanks were flowing into the city once more, but this time thankfully it was with peaceful intentions, to celebrate the independence of the Latvian state with a military parade.

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Riga Cathedral website (

Bombi, Baraba, ‘The Debate on the Baltic Crusades and the Making of Europe’, History Compass 11 (2013), pp. 751-764.

Tamm, Mark, ‘How to justify a crusade? The conquest of Livonia and new crusade rhetoric in the early thirteenth century’, Journal of Medieval History 39, pp. 431-455.

All the pictures are my own.

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