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St. George's Night Uprising
Date 1343–1345
Location Estonia
Result Estonian defeat
Duchy of Estonia sold to Teutonic Order
Belligerents
Estonians Baltic coat of arms.svg Livonian Order
Denmark
Commanders
Vesse Burchard von Dreileben

St. George’s Night Uprising (Estonian: Jüriöö ülestõus, Estonian pronunciation: [jyriøø ylestɤus]) was a massive anti-colonial and anti-Christian rebellion in 1343-1345 by the indigenous Estonian speaking population of Northern and Western Estonia against rulers of foreign (mainly German) origin. It was arguably the single most notable uprising of Estonians against the non-indigenous German-speaking upper class that dominated Estonia from the 13th century to the early 20th. It was also one of the last organized attempts to cast off the yoke of Christianity that had been imposed on the Estonians during the Northern Crusades.

Estonia was conquered by crusaders from Denmark and Germany during the 13th century. The new rulers imposed taxes and duties, and gradually reduced parts of the indigenous population to serfs. Oppression hardened as the new masters built manor-houses all over the country. The area was also politically unstable. The Northern Estonian provinces of Harria (Harju) and Vironia (Viru) were given to Denmark, but Danish power remained weak. The Danish vassals were mostly German-speaking settlers, while some were also indigenous Estonian-speakers.

On St. George's Night (April 23) 1343, Estonians in Harria started a large uprising. They renounced Christianity, and mercilessly killed everybody with German ancestry (chronicles give 1,800 as the total number of victims). It was mainly a peasant uprising, but ethnic Estonian vassals probably took part in it. Insurgents conquered the Cistercian monastery-fortress in Padise and tried to besiege Reval (Tallinn), the provincial capital, which they promised to hand over to their ally, the king of Sweden. The provinces of Wiek (Läänemaa) and Ösel (Saaremaa) joined the insurgency.

The insurgents elected their own leaders who were called "kings" in German chronicles. The four insurgent "kings" arrived as truce envoys to negotiate with the Livonian Order. The Estonian "kings" offered to obey the master of Livonia provided they would have no overlords over them; but the master demanded to know why they had killed so many people, including 28 monks of Padise. The answer he received was that any German deserved to be killed even if he were only two feet tall. The master of the order Burchard von Dreileben did not like the answer and all four Estonian "kings" were hanged in the castle of Weissenstein (Paide) in the province of Jerwia (Järva). The chronicle blames the incident on the envoys themselves, saying they had sworn to kill all Germans and tried to kill the Master of Order (they did not). Many historians dismiss this explanation and say the negotiations were just a ruse to kill the leaders of the insurgency.

On May 14, the leaderless insurgents of Harju(Harria) lost the battle of Kanavere against the forces of the Order. The Estonian leaders were killed. Four days later the Estonians' allies – Swedish-Finnish troops led by Dan Nilsson, the bailiff of Åbo – arrived; but it was too late. They were received by the commander of the Livonian Order who persuaded them to keep the truce.

The chronicler Bartholomäus Hoeneke also tells a story about Estonians plotting to get inside the castle of Fellin (Viljandi) by hiding armed warriors in bags of grain. The plot failed when one mother tipped the Order commander about the plot in exchange of the life of her son. This obviously unhistorical legend has inspired several writers.

The rebellion on the island of Ösel Saaremaa lasted two years. The Öeselian "king" Vesse was put to death in 1344. The insurgencies in Ösel were put down in 1345. After the rebellion Denmark sold its domains in Estonia to the Teutonic Order in 1346.

The St. George’s Night Uprising has inspired several historical novels by Estonian writers, such as Eduard Bornhöhe's "The Avenger" Tasuja. The Soviet Union tried to use the anniversary of the uprising in 1943 to pit the Estonians against the Germans.

The uprising is also a popular subject for debate among Estonian historians and literati. Some, like Edgar V. Saks and the writer Uku Masing have argued on the basis of contemporary documents that, contrary to claims in the chronicles, the uprising was not a fight against Christianity but only against the Livonian Order and that the crimes attributed to the insurgents were actually committed by the Order. Some see it as a continuation of the struggle between the Order and the Holy See. Others dismiss such claims as biased and unhistorical.

References

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