The family vault of the Dukes of Courland in Jelgava Palace is the largest burial of this kind in Latvia and it is one of the few burials of governors‘ dynasties in the world which is open to the public. The burial consists of 21 metal sarcophagi and 9 wooden coffins with 24 members of the Kettler dynasty and 6 members of the Biron dynasty buried between 1569 and 1791. Through centuries the vault was brutally demolished and plundered; now it has recovered its original significance and appearance of the monument of history and art.
In 1990 a permanent exhibition of the Rundāle Palace Museum was established in the vault. It is open to the public from May 1 to October 31.
The history of the vault is as tragic as that of Jelgava Palace. In 1582 the first Duke of Kurzeme Gotthard ordered construction of a church with basement for sarcophagi. The place of the vault was changed several times. More…
Since 1987 the family vault of the Dukes of Courland is under the authority of Rundāle Palace Museum. Realizing the historical and artistic significance of the vault, it is now turned into a museum to preserve and maintain the vault in all possible ways, taking into account its natural decay. Maintaining the ultimate meaning of this peaceful place, the preservation and restoration of the coffins, sarcophagi and textiles and conservation of the mortal remains are carried out.
Burials in the Vault of the Dukes of Courland
Duke Gotthard Kettler (February 2, 1517 – May 17, 1587, old style) was the last Master of the Order of Livonia and the first Duke of Courland-Semigallia. In March 1566 in Königsberg he was married Anna, the daughter of Duke Albrecht VII of Mecklenburg. He delegated the power of duke to his sons Friedrich (Semigallia) and Wilhelm (Courland) on the condition that the unity of the Duchy must be preserved. More…
Duchess Anna (1533 – July 4, 1602, old style) was the wife of Duke Gotthard. Anna’s father was the Duke of Mecklenburg, Albrecht VII, whereas her mother was the daughter of the Elector of Brandenburg Joachim. More…
Duke Gotthard and Anna had five sons and two daughters. Three sons died as children. Sigismund Albert (January 24, 1567 – April 1, 1569, old style), Gotthard (March 20, 1568 – August 31, 1570, old style) and Georg (July 1, 1572 – August 10, 1572, old style) were buried in Kuldīga in sarcophagi made by pewterer Cyriak Klint and only later were they taken to Jelgava. The sarcophagus of Prince Sigismund Albert is the oldest in the vault.
Duke Friedrich (November 25, 1569 – August 16, 1642, old style) was the third son of Duke Gotthard and Duchess Anna. Friedrich became duke after the death of his father. In 1600 he married the Princess of Pomerania, Elisabeth Magdalena. As there were no children in their marriage, they took Jacob, the son of his brother Wilhelm, as foster-child. More…
Duchess Elisabeth Magdalena (April 17, 1580 – February 23, 1649, old style), Duke Friedrich’s wife, was born in Wolgast; her father was Duke Ernst Ludwig of Pomerania; her mother was born Princess Sophie Hedwig of Brunswick-Lüneburg. More…
Duke Wilhelm (July 20, 1574 – April 7, 1640, old style) was the youngest son of Duke Gotthard and Duchess Anna. In 1594 he became the ruler of Courland part of the split Duchy. In 1609 he married Princess Sophie of Prussia-Brandenburg. After loss of entitlement to dukedom, he spent the rest of his life abroad. Wilhelm died in Pomerania; in 1642 his body was taken to Courland by a mourning ship. More…
Duchess Sophie (March 31, 1582 – November 24, 1610, old style) was the wife of Duke Wilhelm. Her father was the Margrave of Brandenburg and Duke of Prussia Albert Friedrich, mother – Maria Eleonore, Princess of Jülich-Cleves. Among her ancestors there were rulers of Prussia, Poland-Lithuania and Austria. Sophie and Wilhelm were married in January 1609 in Königsberg. Sophie died one month after childbirth and was buried in Kuldīga. Her body was taken to Jelgava in 1643. More…
Duke Jacob (October 28, 1610 – December 31, 1681, old style) was the only son of Duke Wilhelm and Duchess Sophie, born in Kuldīga. From 1639 he was the Duke of Courland-Semigallia. In 1645 he married Princess of Brandenburg-Prussia Luise Charlotte. Jacob was buried in the vault on September 21, 1682. More…
Duchess Luise Charlotte (September 3, 1617 – August 8, 1676, old style) was the wife of Duke Jacob. Her father was Elector Georg Wilhelm of Brandenburg from the Hohenzollern dynasty; her mother was Princess Elisabeth Charlotte of Pfalz. Louise Charlotte was buried in the vault of Jelgava Castle on August 8, 1677. More…
Prince Wladislaw Ludwig Friedrich (December 4, 1647 – March 31, 1648, old style) was the first son of Duke Jacob and Duchess Luise Charlotte.
Princess Christine Sophie (May 5, 1649 – December 28, 1650, old style) was the second daughter of Duke Jacob and Duchess Luise Charlotte. The pewter sarcophagus was presumably made by Franz Warnradt.
Prince Karl Jacob (October 20, 1654 – December 29, 1676, old style) was the third son of Duke Jacob and Duchess Luise Charlotte. Karl Jacob studied in Geneva. In 1676 he was an infantry commander in the army of the prince of Orange in Holland. Having received the news about his mother’s death, he hurried to Courland, but in Berlin he fell ill with typhus and died. His sarcophagus is decorated with gilded reliefs of war trophies and floral motifs.
Prince Alexander (October 18, 1658 – August 16, 1686, new style), the youngest son of Duke Jacob and Duchess Luise Charlotte, was born in Swedish captivity. Alexander chose a military career in spite of the fact that he was born without the right forearm. In 1678 in the army of the elector of Brandenburg he participated in the battle against the Swedes. After his father’s death he summoned an infantry regiment and fought against the Turks. He was injured in July 1686 and died near Vienna. Alexander was buried in a simple gown; that is why there was a legend that some peasant is buried in the vault; however the well-embalmed mummy with the shot wound and an artificial right arm prove that it is Prince Alexander.
Duke Ferdinand (November 2, 1655 – May 4, 1737) was the fourth son of Duke Jacob and Duchess Luise Charlotte and the last Duke of Courland from the Kettler dynasty. In his youth Ferdinand was at war in Holland, later under the command of the Polish king and the elector of Brandenburg he fought against the Turks, and afterwards moved to Polish-Lithuanian service. During the Great Northern War he participated in the defence of Riga, but after the defeat he fled abroad. After the death of his nephew Friedrich Wilhelm, Ferdinand became the Duke of Courland, but he lived abroad. 1730 he married the 22 years old Princess of Saxe-Weissenfels, Johanna Magdalena. They did not have any children. Duke Ferdinand died in Danzig and was buried in the vault in the new Jelgava Palace in 1743. The pewter sarcophagus was made in Danzig. Its restoration was completed in 2009 and the burial was consecrated.
Duke Friedrich Casimir (July 6, 1650 – January 22, 1698) was the second son of Duke Jacob and Duchess Luise Charlotte. In his youth, Friedrich Casimir chose a military career. After 1670 he commanded Courland Grenadier Regiment in the Dutch Army. In 1675 he married Princess Sophie Amelie of Nassau-Siegen; in this marriage a son and four daughters were born. In 1681 he became the Duke of Courland. After the death of his first wife Friedrich Casimir married Elisabeth Sophie, the daughter of the Elector of Brandenburg Friedrich Wilhelm, with whom two sons were born. The reign of Friedrich Casimir was characterised by luxurious and wasteful court life. His funeral was equally extravagant – the ritual lasted several months. In 1705 the burial was destroyed by Swedish soldiers. His gown is restored and included in the vault exhibition.
Duchess Sophie Amelie (February 20, 1650 – November 25, 1688) was the first wife of Duke Friedrich Casimir and a mother of five children. Her father was Elector Heinrich of Nassau-Siegen, but her mother was born as Countess of Limburg-Styrum. Sophie Amelie died ten days after the birth of her daughter Christine Sophie. She was buried in a pewter sarcophagus decorated with the coat of arms of Nassau-Siegen. The silk brocade coat has come down to our times, but the white satin dress embroidered with gold is lost. Preserved are only some tiny fragments which show the fineness of embroidery and the luxury of the gown. The restoration of the sarcophagus was completed in 2008 and the burial was consecrated.
Prince Johann Friedrich (April 3, 1682 – April 11, 1683) was the son of Duke Friedrich Casimir and Duchess Sophie Amelie. He was buried in a pewter sarcophagus with the coat of arms of Courland-Semigallia.
Princess Christine Sophie (November 15, 1688 – August 21, 1694) was the youngest daughter of Duke Friedrich Casimir and Duchess Sophie Amelie. She is buried in a luxurious wooden coffin.
Prince Leopold Karl (December 14, 1693 – July 21, 1697) was the second son of Duke Friedrich Casimir and Duchess Elisabeth Sophie. He was buried in the vault on February 7, 1698; later he was reburied together with his father. The sarcophagus was made by pewterer H. Eppner from Jelgava, but the gilded copper decorations were made by goldsmith J. Kassell.
Princess (February 23, 1695) as the stillborn daughter of Duke Friedrich Casimir and Duchess Elisabeth Sophie. The pewter sarcophagus with gilded copper plaques has disappeared after World War II, only one side plaque is preserved.
Duke Friedrich Wilhelm (July 19, 1692 – January 21, 1711) was the first son of Duke Friedrich Casimir and Duchess Elisabeth Sophie. During the Great Northern War, he was living at the court of his maternal uncle Friedrich I, King of Prussia, and received good education and upbringing. When Friedrich Wilhelm became duke, he returned by ship to the destroyed Courland. On the day of his arrival, May 13, 1710, in Liepāja he founded the Order of Recognition (Ordre de la Reconnaissance), which was restored in the Republic of Latvia in 1938 under the name of the Cross of Recognition. Since 2004 it has been again one of the highest awards of the State of Latvia. Subject to the will of Emperor Peter I of Russia, Friedrich Wilhelm married Emperor’s niece Anna Ioannovna, but on his way home he died not far from St. Petersburg. He was buried in the vault in March 1711.
Duke Ernst Johann Biron (November 23, 1690 – December 28, 1772) was the first Duke of Courland from the Biron dynasty. His father was the owner of Kalnciems estate, Karl von Bühren, his mother – Catharina Hedwig, nee von der Raab-Thühlen. In 1723 Ernst Johann married Benigna Gottlieb von Trotta-Treyden, a lady-in-waiting to the Duchess of Courland, Anna Ioannovna. Two sons and a daughter were born in their marriage. In 1737 Ernst Johann was elected Duke of Courland. In 1769 he gave up the throne in favour of his oldest son. More…
Duchess Benigna Gottlieb (October 15, 1703–November 5, 1782) was the wife of Duke Ernst Johann and a mother of three children. Her father was a mortgage owner of Jogeļi estate, L. von Trotta-Treyden; her mother Anna Elisabeth was the daughter of H. von Wildemann, the owner of Ķeveļi estate. During her lifetime Benigna Gottlieb was a well-known author of sacred songs – in 1777 a cycle of songs in German was published in Jelgava. She was buried in the vault in a copper sarcophagus. Its restoration was completed in 1990 and the burial was consecrated.
Peter, the oldest son of Ernst Johann and Benigna Gottlieb, became Duke of Courland in 1769. In his marriage with Princess Caroline Luise they had one stillborn son. No children were born in Peter’s marriage with Princess Yevdokia Yusupova, whereas his marriage with Anna Charlotte Dorothea von Medem resulted in the birth of five daughters and one son. After incorporation of the Duchy of Courland into Russia in 1795, the Birons moved to Silesia. Peter died on January 13, 1800 and was buried in Gellenau. In 1847 he was reburied in Sagan (now Zagan in Poland) Lutheran Church. His wife Dorothea, their two daughters and nephew were buried in the same place. The burial was completely destroyed after World War II.
Prince (stillborn on November 9, 1766), son of Duke Peter and Caroline Luise, was buried in a wooden coffin, which was later put into a copper sarcophagus.
Prince Peter (February 23, 1787 – March 25, 1790) was the son of Duke Peter and Anna Charlotte Dorothea, born von Medem. He was buried in the vault on March 29, 1790 in a wooden coffin.
Princess Charlotte Friederike (January 26, 1789 – March 10, 1791), daughter of Duke Peter and Duchess Anna Charlotte Dorothea, was buried in the vault on March 14, 1791.
Restoration and preservation
Until now (spring 2017) the restorers of the Museum have renovated ten sarcophagi, two other sarcophagi are partly restored and work is going on to restore the rest of them.
In the room next the vault an exhibition of the history of the vault is arranged, where the restored burial gowns, fragments of textiles and other ancient objects are exhibited.