By the 1st century AD tribes speaking Finno-Ugric languages are farming the coastal regions on the east of the Baltic. Some of them move north at this period into the region later known as Finland. These include the Finns themselves and two closely related groups, the Tavastians and the Karelians.
Livonia converted: AD 1186-1237
From the mid-12th century German merchants and missionaries visit the coasts of Latvia and Estonia, a region to which they give the name Livonia (the Livs are one of the main tribes in Estonia). A German bishop is appointed to the district in 1186. His successor in the see is murdered by his pagan parishioners in 1198. The third incumbent, Albert of Buxhoevden, makes a forceful response.
Albert builds a fortress at Riga and makes this town the centre of his diocese. He also acquires papal permission to found a military order to convert the pagans.
The Order of the Knights of the Sword is established in 1202. With the help of the knights, bishop Albert extends his control along both banks of the Daugava river. Campaigns south into Latvia are carried out by the Germans alone. To the north, in Estonia, Albert enlists military support from the king of Denmark. By 1237, when the Knights of the Sword are merged with the Teutonic Knights, the whole of Livonia is subdued and Christian.
For three centuries the region is harshly governed by the Teutonic Knights (the Danish crown sells them its rights in northern Estonia in 1346). But finally, in the 16th century, the Teutonic order is itself in a feeble and tottering state.
Sweden’s gains: 16th – 17th century AD
The weakness of the Teutonic Order leads to intervention by all the neighbours of Livonia. In 1558 Sweden annexes the northern part of Estonia. In the same year the Russian tsar Ivan the Terrible invades from the east. Three years later Poland claims regions in the south.
During the next seventy years, in a series of wars and treaties, Sweden prevails over both its rivals. After the truce of Altmark, ending a war between Poland and Sweden in 1629, the whole of Estonia is in the Swedish empire. So is Latvia north of the Daugava.
Russian encroachment: AD 1721-1795
The Russian desire to break through to the Baltic is frustrated throughout the 17th century, but Peter the Great finally achieves his purpose in the Northern War of 1700-21. By the treaty of Nystad, which ends the war, Sweden cedes to Russia her remaining possessions on the east Baltic coast. These include the whole of Estonia and the northern part of Latvia.
Southern Latvia has been in Polish hands since 1561. But this territory too comes to Russia in successive partitions of Poland (in 1772 and 1795). So by the end of the 18th century both Estonia and Latvia are in the Russian empire. They remain so until the immediate aftermath of the Russian revolution, in 1917.