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Latvian Royalty?

Now, the title is a bit of a misnomer. There isn’t a Latvian royal family. Nobles in Latvia were typically German, sometimes Polish, sometimes Russian. But this post is about a group in Latvia that can be considered the closest thing to nobility that ethnic Latvians have – the “kuršu ķoniņi”, or “Curonian Kings”.

This group is said to originate from the leaders of the Curonian people (one of the groups that eventually melded into what would become Latvians) in central Kurland, in the communities of Ķoniņciems, Kalējciems, Ziemeļciems, Pliķuciems, Dragūnciems, Viesalgciems and Sausgaļciems, all located around the town of Kuldīga. Their main church was the Lipaiķi Lutheran Church, which was the home parish for the communities of Ķoniņciems, Kalējciems, Ziemeļciems and Pliķuciems, southwest of Kuldīga.

When the Livonian Order came knocking and took over Latvian territory, they were able to negotiate special privileges that most Latvian peasants were not able to have. They were not nobility or landowners on the scale of the German barons, nor were they allowed to own serfs of their own, but they maintained their land rights, hunting and fishing rights and had personal freedoms that serfs did not have (right to marry freely, inheritance, etc.).

The extent of these rights came and went depending on the ruling power, but some measure of special rights and privileges were granted to the kuršu ķoniņi from the fourteenth century up until Latvian independence in the early 20th century, when special privileges were abolished.

The kuršu ķoniņi, unlike most Latvians, have a coat of arms, which is displayed prominently in the Lipaiķi church. They also maintained a number of pagan customs well into the 15th century, and superstitions regarding local holy tree groves persist into the modern era. It is not permitted to hunt, break branches or light fires in the sacred forests, lest something bad happen to the community.

What does this information mean for genealogy? I’m not sure of all of the documents that exist regarding this group, but many certainly do – I’ve read about several documents that granted this special status that still appear to be extant, and of course the people appear in the church records. It is also important to know the names of the people who were a part of this extended group. The rule was such that the son who was to inherit needed to marry within the group, but daughters could marry other peasants, “as long as they were wealthy enough”.

Kuršu Ķoniņi surnames: Peniķis, Tontegode (Tonteguts), Sirkants (Saukants), Šmēdiņš, Bergholcs (Bartolds), Kalējs (Šmits), Dragūns (Vidiņš), Grīnbergs. The oldest of these families – at least as it comes to having privileges – are the Tontegode and Peniķis families. I should note though that some of these names – particularly Kalējs, Šmits, Vidiņš and Grīnbergs – are quite common all over Latvia, so having one of these surnames in your tree does not mean you have kuršu ķoniņi ancestors. Though if they are from the Lipaiķi congregation, the chances can be quite good. You will have to dig into the church records and see.

Looking through the Latvian newspapers on Periodika, I have found mentions of some members of the Peniķis and Tontegode families having emigrated after the Second World War. Are you one of them, or descended from them? Do you have more information to share regarding the kuršu ķoniņi? Share in comments!

3 comments to Latvian Royalty?

  • Alda

    I would like to contribute to the Latvian Surname Project.

  • Victoria Tontegode

    My father left Latvia during World War 2, then escaped to Germany (there for 4 years) After the war they immigrated to Canada.
    Juris Tontegode was his father’s name and his mother’s name is Lize Tomscvics.
    They lived in the village of Konini. They owned and operated approximately farms totalling around 500 acres.
    If you have any information I would be very grateful. My dad is the youngest and only survivor of his family. There were 3 son’s and 1 daughter. The eldest brother had only 1 child (girl) and my dad has 4 of us. Our mother is Canadian.
    Warmest regards and Merry Christmas,
    Victoria Tontegode

  • Lorne Tontegode

    My dad has told me about this since I was young. He came to Canada through Germany during WW2. He mentioned that they were quite well off when they had to leave and buried all of the valuables in the back behind the barn. They had a large farm there. He has never gone back.

    He was offered a chance to take back some property a few years back but didn’t respond to it. He didn’t have much money to make the trip and doubted that it would have been worthwhile. Who knows, the valuables might still be where they were buried.

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