Poland: Biographical History

By Mieczyslaw Kasprzyk


Section I





Click on the crown for the portraits by Polish classic artist Jan Matejko




The first Polish Dynasty is named after its legendary founder of the 9th. century, a peasant named Piast. It was Naruszewicz who, in his “History of the Polish Nation” (1780 - 86), first gave the name “Piast” to the Polanian dynasty which claimed descent from Piast but had never used the name themselves. According to legend the evil prince Popiel was eaten by mice as punishment for the murder of his family. After his death it was decided to elect the wheelwright, Piast, as ruler because of his virtuous nature. The names of the early dynasty have been passed down as Ziemowit, Leszko and Ziemomysl, the father of Mieszko.


    Mieszko I, or Mieczyslaw I (b. ?922; d. 992), chief of the Polanie (962 - 992), is the founder of Poland. He imposed a fiscal system by introducing the denarii (silver pennies) in the 980s, and set up a network of defences (the royal grod). Becoming concerned by the establishment of the German Empire of Otto I (962), Mieszko entered into an alliance with the Czechs, marrying Dobrava, the daughter of Boleslav I of Bohemia, and accepted Christianity for himself and his people; the Polish Baptism of 966. He placed his lands in the hands of the Holy See thus putting it under the protection of Rome; whilst submitting to the Empire he had, in this act, assured security and independence for his emerging nation. Mieszko established a bishopric in Poznan (968) and its first bishop, Jordan, probably come from Rome. Mieszko’s move was an astute political one since it opened access (particularly through the German clergy that now came to Poland) to the military knowledge and political systems of the West (which he made full use of by entering into marriage alliances with the great families of the Empire).

Contemporary accounts credited Mieszko with significant military forces with which he invaded Pomerania and, after defeating Hodo, the Margrave of the Ostmark at Cedynia (972), reached the Oder in 976. He defeated Otto II, who had come to assist Hodo, in 979, becoming undisputed lord of Pomerania. He marked his success by founding the city of Gdansk (Danzig, 980) through which he could control the mouth of the Wisla. In 983 Mieszko aided Otto III, to whom he had paid allegiance, in the war against the Lutitians and then helped recover Misnia (Meissen) from the Czechs (986). Mieszko entered into a number of dynastic alliances including ones with Hungary, Kiev and Scandinavia, aiding his son-in-law, Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark, to reconquer his kingdom of England; his grandson was Canute the Great.


   Mieszko’s son, Boleslaw I Chrobry (the Brave), (b. 967; d. 1025), the first King of Poland, 992 - 1025, established Poland’s right as an independent kingdom. He seized Krakow from Bohemia (996). In 997 he organised a mission, under the leadership of the Bohemian bishop St. Adalbert of Prague (Sw. Wojciech; b. Libice, c.956; d. 997), to christianize the Prussians. St. Adalbert was killed by the pagans. According to legend, Boleslaw ransomed back the body of St. Adalbert and had him buried in Gniezno Cathedral where he had been ordained. Boleslaw was able to get Gniezno elevated to the rank of metropolitan see (1000), thus emancipating the Polish Church from German control. Relations with the Empire underwent a rapid change with the death of Otto III (1002) and soon led to a series of wars. Boleslaw seized the Lusatian Marches and held them against Otto’s successor, Henry II. The wars continued until peace was settled at Budziszyn (Bautzen, 1018), much to Poland’s advantage though Henry had managed to alienate the western Slavs against Christian Poland, thus preparing the ground for conquest and germanisation of this region in the future.

Boleslaw also campaigned in the east when Kievian forces (in alliance with the Germans) launched an invasion (1013). He undertook an expedition against Grand Prince Yaroslav I the Wise in order to restore his own son-in-law, Swiatopelk, to the throne of Kiev (1018). Legend has it that on entering Kiev, Boleslaw struck the gate with his sword and dented the blade; this sword, Szczerbiec, was later used at the coronation of all Polish Kings. Boleslaw himself was not crowned until 1024. Ranked among Poland’s greatest rulers, Boleslaw reorganised the administration and taxation of his state, and created a large standing army. He is said to have driven iron stakes into both the Saal and the Dnieper to mark his conquests.


Boleslaw’s son, Mieszko II ( b. 990; d. 1034), King 1025 - 1034, rashly attacked the Emperor Conrad II and thereafter exposed his realm to the rivalry of his brothers and the aggression of Kiev and the Empire. He was overthrown by his elder brother, Bezprym (who had been repudiated by his father) and had to flee (1031) but regained his throne on the murder of Bezprym (1032) only to lose his own life at the hands of a disgruntled court official. In only a few years the Polish State and Christianity within the nation were both threatened severely as many who had never renounced their paganism revolted, and the Czechs invaded (1038). Christianity had been forced on the populace by the ruling elite for their own political ends and it is important to note that the real Christianisation of Poland did not occur until the establishment of the monasteries in the 12th Century. Mieszko II’s son, Kazimierz I Odnowiciel (the Restorer) (b. 1015; d. 1058), King 1038 - 1058, was hardly more successful and also had to flee to Hungary when civil war broke out. After regaining the throne in 1040 he made Krakow the capital of Poland (reflecting not only the economic growth of that city but also the level of destruction and disruption elsewhere). Kazimierz’s son, Boleslaw II Smialy (the Bold) (b. ?1039; d. ?1083), king 1058 - 1079, moved against the Emperor, Henry IV, who was engaged, initially, in a struggle against the German princes, then a Saxon uprising before entering into a battle for supremacy with Pope Gregory VII (the Investiture Struggle, 1075 - 1122). The Pope allied himself with the vassal princes hostile to Henry - one of whom was Boleslaw who declared Polish independence from the Empire and was sent a crown (his coronation was at Christmas 1076). Boleslaw seized Kiev twice and entered into a long power struggle against Bohemia. In 1079 Boleslaw had Bishop Stanislaw of Krakow executed (the Polish Becket, canonised in 1257); it is possible that Stanislaw had been party to a Bohemian-German attempt to remove Boleslaw and thus bring Poland into the sphere of the Empire and the anti-Pope, Clement. Boleslaw was expelled in a later revolt and replaced by his weak brother, Wladyslaw Herman (b. 1043; d. 1102), ruled 1079 - 1102. Wladyslaw distanced himself from any involvement in the east and it is during this period that the Ruthenians colonised the lands of the Dniester and the San and we see the growth of Halicz. Wladyslaw’s son, Boleslaw III Krzywousty (the Wry-Mouthed) (b. 1086; d. 1138), Prince 1102 - 1138, was an extremely capable ruler who earned the respect of his people. He exiled his half-brother and co-ruler, Zbigniew (1107) who, in 1109, with the aid of the Emperor Henry V, attempted to cross the Odra but was thwarted by the rugged resistance of Glogow, when the Germans used hostages obtained during a truce as human shields for their siege towers - to no avail. Boleslaw defeated the Emperor and the Duke of Bohemia at the battle of Psie Pole, near Wroclaw, 1109, forcing them to renounce all claims to Polish territory. In a series of stubbornly resisted campaigns he also recaptured Eastern Pomerania (1122) but had to swear fealty to the Emperor Lothar II (1135) in order to regain Dymin and the Island of Rugen. Unfortunately Boleslaw failed to stem the decentralising tendencies undermining the state, nor did he regain the title of king.


One of the enduring weaknesses of the Piast dynasty lay in the fact that the Poles failed to accept primogeniture. In 1138 the nobles forced Boleslaw to divide his realm among his sons in order to prevent a power struggle; the Testament of Boleslaw III. Each of the territorial subdivisions (Silesia, Great Poland, Mazovia, and Sandomir) was to be held as the hereditary domain of one of Boleslaw's sons. The senior member of the family also held Krakow and Pomerania, ruling as grand prince over the loosely federated state. Rather than strengthen the state by providing a means of secure succession this act, which merely served to create a number of independent principalities vying with each other for supremacy, was the start of 150 years of dynastic struggle which shattered the precarious unity of Poland and saw a period of internal strife with a series of rulers: Wladyslaw II Wygnaniec (the Exile), of Silesia (b. 1105; d.1159), ruled 1138 - 1146; Boleslaw IV Kedzierzawy (the Curly), of Mazovia (b.1127; d. 1173), ruled 1146 - 1173; Mieszko III Stary (the Old), of Wielkopolska, ruled 1173 - 1177 and 1194 - 1202; Kazimierz II Sprawiedliwy (the Just) (b. 1138; d. 1194), of Sandomierz, ruled 1177 - 1194, organising the Polish senate and introducing laws protecting Polish peasants. He united Sandomierz and Mazovia and was made Duke of Krakow (1177). Although he secured hereditary rights to the crown for his descendants (1180) the dynastic struggles continued until Wladyslaw I Lokietek restored royal authority in 1320.


Click on the crown for the portraits by Polish classic artist Jan Matejko


Mieszko III’s son, Wladyslaw III Laskonogi (Longshanks) of Wielkopolska, ruled 1202; Leszek Bialy (the White) of Sandomierz, ruled 1202 - 1227, whose intervention in the politics of Ruthenia (in 1205), alongside his brother, Konrad of Mazovia (b. c.1191; d. 1247), led to its division into the twin principalities of Halicz and Vladimir. In a move of disastrous consequences to the future history of Poland, Duke Konrad (more concerned with the dynastic struggles to the south) invited the Teutonic Order (who had recently been expelled from Hungary by Andrew II) to combat pagan Prussian tribes in the north-east from a base set up at Chelmno (1226), thereby introducing a much more formidable enemy on the crucial Baltic coast. Henryk I Brodaty (the Bearded) of Silesia, ruled 1234 - 1238; Henryk II Pobozny (the Pious) of Silesia, ruled 1238 - 1241, in 1241 devastating Tartar (or Mongol) invasions (in which Kiev was conquered and Muscovy fell under the yoke of the Golden Horde for over two centuries, and, in Hungary, created an opportunity for the Vlachs to settle on the plains of the western banks of the Lower Danube) led to a military defeat of the armies of Silesia and Wielkopolska at Legnica (Liegnitz) where Henryk, their commander, was killed. Whilst Poland fell further into a state of fragmentation and unrule, Europe was saved when the Tartars withdrew on receiving news of the death of their Great Khan, Ogedei. Settling in the Crimea the Tartars became a long-standing threat to Poland. It is from this invasion that Krakow commemorates the Hejnal, the truncated bugle call from the tower of the Kosciol Mariacki. The brother of Leszek Bialy, Konrad of Mazovia (b. c.1191; d. 1247), who had invited the Teutonic Order into Poland, ruled 1241 - 43. His physician, Nicolaus Polonus, became noted for his medical works written at Montpellier towards the end of the thirteenth century.


Boleslaw V Wstydliwy (the Modest), ruled 1243 - 1279, and married the Blessed Kinga (Hungarian: Cunegunda; 1224 - 1292), daughter of Bela IV of Hungary, credited with founding the salt mines of Wieliczka and named Patroness of Poland and Lithuania by Pope Clement XI (1715). It is during this period that the first Jewish settlers came to Poland where they were treated with more tolerance than in the rest of Europe, so-much-so that the Polish Synod was berated by the Papal Legate, in 1266, for allowing Jews to dress like anyone else and being able to live without restrictions in Poland, and for a royal charter, the Kalisz Statute, having been granted them by Boleslaw in 1264. This statute placed the Jews, as servi camerae (“bondsmen of the prince’s treasury”), under Boleslaw’s direct jurisdiction, granting them economic and religious freedom, protection of life and property, and the right to follow their customs within their communities.


There was a further Tartar invasion in 1259. The depopulation that the Tartar invasions brought about led to the settlement of Polish territory by German colonists, some of whom had been invited in by the local prince (as in Silesia). The reign of Leszek Czarny (the Black), 1279 - 1288, saw the last of the Tartar invasions (1287), followed by Henryk IV Probus, prince of Silesia and Krakow, who ruled 1289 - 1290. By this time the Church’s position in Poland had been strengthened through the work of Archbishops Kietlicz (1199 - 1219) and Pelka who had imposed strict discipline upon the clergy and obtained immunity from taxation. Their successor, Jakub Swinka, Archbishop of Gniezno, worked avidly for a strong central power in Poland in order to preserve the interests of the Church. Encouraged by Swinka, Henryk sought papal consent to crown himself King of Poland but his sudden death (he was treacherously poisoned) prevented the realisation of that plan. It is his personal insignia, the crowned white eagle against a red field that his successor, Przemyslaw (King 1295 - 1296), adopted as a symbol for the Kingdom of Poland. Swinka had been able to engineer an agreement between Przemyslaw and his close rival, Wladyslaw Lokietek, son of Kazimierz I of Kujawy, to set up an anti-Bohemian coalition and technically brought an end to the territorial division of Poland.


In the vacuum created by the assassination of Przemyslaw by the Margraves of Brandenburg ( who feared the rise of a Polish kingdom with access to the Baltic Sea), Wladyslaw Lokietek and Henryk of Glogow contested the succession, but it was Waclaw (Wenceslas) II of Bohemia (1271 - 1305), expanding his state via Silesia and already in possession of the duchies of Krakow and Sandomierz, who occupied Wielkopolska (Greater Poland) and was crowned (1300). During the struggle for the Polish throne, Waclaw gained the support of the magnates of Krakow and Sandomierz by guaranteeing them civil rights in the Act of Lutomysl (1291). Waclaw became entangled in a dispute over succession to the vacant Hungarian crown (1301) during which he provoked the hostility of Pope Boniface VIII, the Hungarian nobility and the rulers of Southern Germany. Lokietek, who had been forced into exile, used this situation to obtain the support of both the Pope and the nobles of Upper Hungary in his claim to the crown and a Hungarian-German coalition was formed (1304). Waclaw attempted to gain the support of Brandenburg by offering to hand over Eastern Pomerania and Gdansk but only managed to alienate his Polish allies who revolted (1305). After the death of Waclaw (1305) Lokietek, supported by Hungarian forces, managed to take Malopolska (Little Poland), Krakow (1306), and (by 1314) Wielkopolska.



Premyslid (Przemyslid)


The only native ruling house in Bohemia, the Premyslid dynasty (a contemporary of the Piast dynasty), provided a King of Poland towards the end of the troubled 13th Century in what was a complex, but interesting, climax to their struggle for power in East Central Europe. The Premyslids claimed descent from a legendary plowman, Premysl, and had their ancestral home in the city of Prague. They succeeded in laying the foundations of a Czech state towards the end of the ninth century by eliminating their opponents, the Vrsovic and Slavnik clans (the only Vrsovic to escape the massacre of his family was St. Vojtech/Wojciech/Adalbert who, in relief at his salvation, became a Christian missionary and was martyred by the Prussians). During the reign of St. Vaclav ( the Good King Wenceslas of the Christmas carol) the Czech lands entered into an alliance with Saxony, thus laying the foundations for closer relations with the restored Holy Roman Empire. After the murder of Vaclav (929) by his brother and successor, Boleslav I, the Premyslids went through a period of infighting which left the realm vulnerable to outside intervention: Bohemia was incorporated into the Holy Roman Empire (962) at just about the same time that Mieszko was looking for ways of preserving the independence of the Polane.


Bohemia ranked among the most advanced of the European feudal states, being at the forefront of economic power and cultural achievement. In keeping with this growing importance, the Premyslid dynasty was granted a royal crown; in 1086, Vratislaw was made King of Bohemia by Henry IV and, after struggles over the succession the Czechs accepted primogeniture (1158). Vaclav (Wenceslaus), son of Premysl Otakar I, married Kunigunde, a Hohenstaufen princess (1224) thus linking Premyslid destiny even more closely with that of the Empire. With the exception of a brief passage of the Tartars through Moravia, the Bohemian Kingdom escaped the destruction visited on Poland and Hungary, as a result, when the Babenburg line died out, the Austrians elected Vaclav’s son, Premysl Otakar (b. ?1230; d. 1278), as Duke (1251).


Premysl Otakar II the Great (reigned 1253-1278) became the most powerful sovereign in Central Europe. His acquisition of Austria met with opposition from Hungary and most of the Polish dukes and in the following struggle the Babenberg heritage became split up, with only Austria proper left to Bohemia. It was not before 1269 that Premysl extended his domination over Styria, Carinthia, and Carniola. Premysl coveted Poland. Poland was vulnerable; it was divided between several members of the Piast dynasty, and had been hard hit by the aggressive Mongol invasion in 1241. It was also under constant attack from the Lithuanians and Prussians. Premysl promised the dukes of Poland aid in holding off their enemies and over the next twenty years launched two Crusades in the east; against the Prussians in 1255 (the Teutonic Order named their new settlement on the Pregel river after him; Konigsberg) and the Lithuanians in 1267. At the height of his power, Premysl Otakar II lost support from the Papacy who objected to his choice of Bishop for the newly-conquered/converted lands, angered the Teutonic Order who objected to his growing influence in Lithuania, alienated the Polish nobility who feared being absorbed in a Czech empire, and (upon the extinction of the Hohenstaufen lineage,1273) failed in his bid for Imperial election to Rudolf of Habsburg, . Rudolf I demanded Otakar’s Austrian acquisitions which he was forced to surrender (1276), having been abandoned by his allies and his own nobility, receiving back Bohemia and Moravia as fiefs. He was killed at the battle of Marchfeld (1278) in an attempt to reclaim his lost provinces.


Bohemia came under German regency until 1283, when Otakar’s son, Premyslid Vaclav (b. 1271; d. 1305) assumed the title of King of Bohemia (Vaclav II). This period witnessed yet further growth of German and Imperial influence in Bohemia, now penetrating into Polish Silesia. From 1283 the real power in Bohemia lay in the hands of Vaclav’s stepfather, Zavis, and Vaclav only assumed total authority in 1290. Vaclav reduced the power of the nobles by introducing Roman law (which gave the king the sole right to legislate). During his reign the mining of Czech silver at Kutna Hora flourished and after carrying out fiscal reforms he introduced the Czech silver groschen (grossus Pragensis) - one of the strongest European currencies of the time. Vaclav was encouraged, by Rudolph I, to become involved in Polish politics where he had some claim, through his father, to parts of Silesia. After the death of Henryk IV Probus, Vlaclav took Krakow with the assistance of the nobles of Malopolska who were looking for security in these troubled times. Waclaw gained the support of the magnates of Krakow and Sandomierz by guaranteeing them civil rights in the Act of Lutomysl (1291).


Prior to this moment only the native Piasts had been involved in the dynastic struggles and, despite all the divisions of Polish territory, none had previously come under foreign rule. Vaclav’s intervention raised a very serious threat because through him Poland could become incorporated into the Empire, something which had been carefully avoided for so many centuries. Archbishop Swinka, the prime mover for reunification and a strong central monarchy in Poland had been able to engineer an agreement between Przemyslaw and his close rival, Wladyslaw Lokietek, to set up an anti-Bohemian coalition and technically brought an end to the territorial division of Poland. Because of lack of unity among the Piasts, Przemyslaw had to recognise Vaclav’s control of Krakow and be satisfied with Wielkopolska only. In order to counter the growing threat presented by Vaclaw, Archbishop Swinka persuaded the Pope to consent to Przemyslaw’s coronation (1295). In the vacuum created by Przemyslaw’s assassination (1296), during which Lokietek was involved in a power struggle with Henry of Glogow, Vaclav occupied Wielkopolska, Pomorze and Kujawy (1300). He also married Przemyslaw’s daughter, Ryska Elzbieta. Vaclav was now seen (even by Swinka) as the only alternative and was crowned King (Waclaw II) in 1300, uniting at the same time Cracow and Gniezno. Vaclav/Waclaw ruled in absentia and set up the office of starosta to administer his lands (an office that was later modified by the Poles to suit themselves). The Czech groschen made its way into Poland and influenced Kazimierz III Wielki’s own introduction of the “grossi Cracovienses”.


When the last of the Hungarian Arpad dynasty, Andrew III, died (1301), Vaclav/Waclaw’s son, Vaclav, was elected king of Hungary. The Pope objected strenuously to this coronation as Hungary was in fief to the Papacy. Wladyslaw Lokietek, now in exile, joined forces with the Magnates of Upper Hungary (opposed to Vaclav) and the Pope in plotting the demise of Czech power in Hungary and Croatia. In 1301, Albrecht I (King of Germany; 1298 - 1308) confiscated the Bohemian kingdom as a fief of the Empire, forcing Vaclav/Waclaw to go to war with him. Vaclav/Waclaw attempted to gain the support of Brandenburg by offering to hand over Eastern Pomerania and Gdansk but only managed to alienate his Polish allies who revolted (1305). Lokietek, supported by Hungarian forces, managed to take much of Malopolska. When Vaclav/Waclaw died in 1305 his son and successor Vaclav III (b.1289; d. 1306), King of Hungary (1301-5) and Bohemia (1305-6), found himself opposed in both Hungary and Poland. Vaclav signed a treaty with the Holy Roman Emperor and continued his father’s aggressive policy in Poland. Unable to assert his authority in Hungary, he relinquished his claim to Duke Otto of Bavaria (1305) but tried, however, to assert his hereditary claim to the Polish crown. He was assassinated at Olomouc whilst on his way from Prague to Poland (1306). Vaclav III was the last male member of the Premyslid line.


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The Piast Restoration


In Poland, the sudden disappearance of the last two Premyslids provided the best opportunity to finally reunite the nation under Wladyslaw Lokietek. John of Luxemburg (who was to die on the field at Crecy, 1346), son of Henry VII (elected King of Germany in 1308), inherited Bohemia through his marriage to Vaclav's sister and was elected king of Bohemia (1310). This German King of Bohemia would be one of Poland’s most dangerous opponents as he was strongly convinced that he had also inherited Premyslid claims to the crown of Poland, and decided to continue their Silesian policy which had already brought some of the local dukes in that border province under the suzerainty of the Bohemian crown. In intimate co-operation with the Teutonic Order, he represented the trend of German expansion toward the East. In Hungary one of the French Anjous of Naples, Charles Robert, emerged as the successful candidate (1308). With the support of the Papacy he established a dynasty there which continued Hungary’s independent tradition and checked the possible progress of German influence.


In 1320, Wladyslaw I Lokietek (the elbow-high)(b. ?1260; d. 1333) was crowned; the first ruler of the reunited kingdom 1306 - 1333. All his successors were kings. His major concern was the further encroachment of the Teutonic Knights into Polish territory. In 1308 Gdansk was besieged by the Brandenburg Margraves, Otto and Waldemar. Wladyslaw secured the help of the Teutonic Order in order to lift the siege but, having entered Gdansk, they then treacherously slaughtered Wladyslaw’s men and took over the city themselves (14 November 1308); by 1311 they occupied most of Polish Pomerania and, in alliance with John of Luxemburg (elected king of Bohemia, 1310), invaded Wielkopolska itself (1331). Although defeating the Order at Plowce (1331) Wladyslaw was unable to deliver a decisive defeat. Wladyslaw, faced by intractable enemies and lacking the resources to overcome them, strengthened his kingdom through alliances with Hungary and Lithuania created by the marriages of his children.


There is a saying that Wladyslaw’s son, Kazimierz III Wielki (Kazimierz the Great) (b. 1309; d. 1370), King 1333-1370, “found Poland built of wood, and left her in stone,” so great was his activity as founder and planner of towns but it also signifies the great task that faced him in creating a strong and stable state out of a very weak inheritance. He established a truce (1333) and then peace (the Treaty of Kalisz, 1343) with The Teutonic Order and peace with the Czechs (1334). He worked with Hungary to establish order and officially recognised John of Luxemburg, King of Bohemia, as suzerain over the Piast domains in Silesia (1339). In the vacuum that opened up with the collapse of Kievan Rus, he seized the principality of Halicz (Galicia, 1340) and defeated the Lithuanians (1353). Kazimierz built Poland into a major Central-European power, increasing her territory 2.5 times, bringing it’s size up to 270,000 sq.kms. Under Kazimierz, in 1346, the first Polish Legal Code was made, and in 1364 the foundations of Krakow University (the second oldest in Central Europe) were formed. Trade also became important due to Poland’s position on the commercial routes leading from East to West and from South to North. The establishment of regular grain exports to Constantinople led to the colonization of Ruthenia. Kazimierz befriended the peasants (hence becoming known as “Krol Chlopi”; the “Peasant’s King”) and widened Jewish rights under the Kalisz Statute to the whole country. He was the last of the Piast dynasty. He was succeeded by his sister’s son, King Louis of Anjou, “the Great” of Hungary, (from 1370 - 82) whose daughter, Jadwiga, was crowned “King” of Poland in 1384. Branches of the Piast family continued to rule in Mazovia (until 1526) and Silesia (up to 1675). The Silesian Piasts, as vassals of Bohemia and mediate princes of the Holy Roman Empire, retained the ducal title and held the Duchy of Oppeln (until 1532) and the Principalities of Brieg, Liegnitz, and Wohlau until the line died out in 1675.



Descended from that branch of the family that were the Kings of Naples, Louis (b. 1326; d. 1382) the Great, King of Hungary (1342 - 82), was appointed heir to the Polish throne by the nobility and leading clergy of Poland upon the death of Kazimierz II Wielky (1370). Kazimierz had divided his kingdom in his will, bequeathing Leczyca, Sieradz and Kujawy to his grandson, Kazko (heir to Slupsk), and Galicia, Wielkopolska, Krakow and Sandomierz to Louis. Fearing such a division of a kingdom just recently united, the will was ruled invalid and the crown offered to Louis (King, 1370 - 82). In order to protect the succession Louis granted a number of privileges to the nobility through the Statute of Kosice (1374) which would establish a tradition that would restrict the freedom of action of future monarchs and would prevent modernisation in years to come. The union of the two countries did not prove successful, in fact Louis rarely visited Poland after his coronation at Krakow preferring to rule through regents. He was more concerned in strengthening his own dynasty centred on Hungary and as a result had become involved in a long struggle with Venice for the control of the Adriatic (in three wars; 1342 - 46, 1357 - 58, and 1378 - 81), succeeding in 1381. He also went to war with Lithuania over Red Ruthenia which he acquired in 1377. After a number of unpopular decisions including the transfer of some disputed territory to Brandenburg there were riots in Krakow culminating in the deaths of a number of his officials (1376). Louis relinquished his powers over to a council of Malopolska nobles (1380). Despite the failure of the union a bond was created between Hungarians and Poles that would last even to this day.


After Louis’ sudden death, his elder daughter, Maria, was elected queen of Hungary whilst his younger daughter, the grandniece of Kazimierz Wielky, Jadwiga (original Hungarian, Hedvig, b. Buda, 1370; d. 1399), was elected King of Poland (1384 - 99) on condition that the union with Hungary was abandoned. Jadwiga had been betrothed in childhood to Wilhelm of Habsburg who arrived in Krakow, in 1384, to claim his bride only to be forcefully ejected. At the insistence of the nobles (who were looking for a protection of their newly acquired privileges and an alliance against the threat of an expanding Teutonic Order in the North), she married Jogaila (Jagiello), Grand-Duke of Lithuania, in 1386, thus paving the way for the great Jagiellonian Dynasty and the eventual union between the two nations. A most unhappy Jadwiga turned to a life of charity and care for the poor, dying young - of complications during childbirth - and leaving no heirs. Her greatest achievement was the provision of funds for the restoration of the University of Krakow. She was buried at the Great Altar in Wawel Cathedral; her remains were transferred to the white marble sarcophagus designed by Madeyski.




Jagiellon; The Rise to Greatness

Click on the crown for the portraits by Polish classic artist Jan Matejko


   The Jagiellonian Dynasty (1386 - 1572) which succeeded the Piast Dynasty is a period when we see Poland at her greatest. In 1386 the marriage of Jadwiga, King of Poland, to Jogaila (b. 1350; d. Grodek, near Lwow, 1434), pagan Grand-Duke of Lithuania (1377 - 1401), son of Algirdas (Olgierd), baptised as Wladyslaw II Jagiello, initiated the Lithuanian union, inspired by the common purpose of resisting the Teutonic Order; Jagiello had already been engaged in a war against the Teutonic Order in 1377 - 82. Then, on July 15 1410 at the Battle of Grunwald (Tannenburg), Wladyslaw Jagiello crushed the Teutonic Order, one of the strongest military organisations in Europe. The Catholic Polish knights were a minority in an army made up of Lithuanian pagans, Orthodox Christians, Lithuanian Muslim Tartars and “heretical” Bohemian Hussites. This victory helped strengthen the bond between the Poles and the Lithuanians and, in 1413, led to the Treaty of Union at Horodlo. The Act of Union also established the territorial office of wojewoda (voivode or provincial governor) and initiated a new administrative and defensive structure.

The defeat of the Order at Grunwald also eased restraints on trade in the Baltic. The Teutonic Order received a further rebuff at the Council of Constance (1414 - 18) when the Rector of Krakow University, Wlodkowic, condemned crusading and listed detailed charges against the excesses of the Teutonic Order; the Order’s attempt to portray Jagiello as a pagan tyrant was condemned by the Council and the status of Poland as a Christian state grew to such an extent that even Henry V of England asked for Jagiello’s intervention in his war with France. Their hatred of the Germans encouraged the Hussites to offer Jagiello the Bohemian crown when they refused to recognize the Holy Roman Emperor, Sigismund (who had backed the Teutonic Order), as their king upon the death of Wenceslas IV (1420). Jagiello declined the offer because he needed the support of the Church in his struggle against the Teutonic Order but also at the insistence of the magnates who were concerned about the possible social consequences of the pro-Hussite sympathies amongst the szlachta. After the death of Jadwiga Jagiello remarried three more times; his fourth wife was the Muscovite princess, Sophia Holszanska, who bore him three sons (two of whom survived; Wladyslaw and Kazimierz). In 1430, through the Act of Krakow, Wladyslaw Jagiello introduced the law “Neminem Captivabimus” (“We shall detain no-one unless he is convicted by law”; the Polish “Habeas Corpus”), the first such law in Europe, and granted the szlachta the right to elect the king, thus laying the foundations for the Republic of Nobles. During his reign Poland became a great power; Jagiello’s attempts to bring the Ruthenian Orthodox Church back into a union with Rome, his defeat of the Teutonic Order and Christianisation of Samogitia, his subtle game of supporting the Hussites in order to frustrate the anti-Polish strategies of the Holy Roman Emperor and his mastery over the Tartars, led to the consecration of Poland’s role in the East.


Jagiello’s ascendancy to the title of Grand-Duke of Lithuania had been opposed by his relatives and had only been secured by the ruthless putting down of all opposition (including the imprisonment and murder of his uncle Kejstut, Prince of Troki, at Krewo, 1382). He entered into a delicate alliance with his cousin, the son of Kiejstut, Vytautas (Witold, b. 1350; d. 1430), who, with the backing of the Teutonic Order, was a rival candidate for the title of Grand-Duke. Jagiello recognised Vytautas as Grand-Duke of Lithuania by the Treaty of Vilnius/Wilno (1401) on the condition that Poland and Lithuania be permanently united by a common foreign policy. Vytautas, with the backing of Jagiello, accepted the Bohemian crown and appointed his nephew, Zygmunt Korybut (d. 1435), as governor (1422); this move actually led to civil war between the Ultraquists (the Bohemian Hussite nobility allied to the city of Prague) who supported Korybut, and the Taborites (zealous militant Hussites) under Ziska. Jagiello’s acquiescence (in allowing Vytautas to accept the crown) led the Pope, Martin V, to proclaim a crusade against Poland, and a coalition was formed - as a result of which, Vytautas was compelled to resign, Zygmunt was recalled by Jagiello and an edict issued against the Hussites and their allies (Wielun, 1424). Zygmunt went on (in the following year) to take on the role of “King elect” and even joined the Hussite uprising.


When Vytautas died (1430), Jagiello's brother Svidrigaila (Swidrygiello: d. 1452) was named to replace him as Grand-Duke (1430) - without consultation with the Polish nobility (as laid down by the Treaty of Horodlo). In a power struggle that reflected the problems of the new union and could have divided the dynasty into separate houses, Svidrigaila refused to recognise Poland’s supremacy as laid down in 1401 and 1413, and the Poles now laid claims to Wolin (Volhynia). Svidrigaila entered into an alliance with the Teutonic Order and a brief campaign ensued in which the Poles proved successful (1432). When Svidrigaila refused to negotiate a peace and renewed his alliance with the Order it was decided to replace him. Vytautas' brother Zygmunt became Grand-Duke (1434 - 40). In the Act of Troki (1434) Zygmunt drew the szlachta of Halicz and Podolia into the protective arms of Polish civil rights. In 1435 an alliance of Svidrigaila, Zygmunt Korybut and the Livonian branch of the Order was defeated at Wilkomierz (a victory that was to the Lithuanians what Grunwald had been to the Poles). Svidrigaila escaped to Moldavia but returned to Volhynia to be a constant problem until he died. Zygmunt, eventually, also begun to intrigue against the crown, and his cruel administration led to his assassination. In a coup (managed by the Lithuanian nobles) which almost severed Polish - Lithuanian links, he was replaced by Jagiello’s youngest son, Kazimierz Jagiellonczyk.


Wladyslaw III Warnenczyk (b. Krakow, 1424; d. Varna, 1444), son of Jagiello and Sophia, was king of Poland 1434 - 44. Having inherited the crown at the age of 10, most decisions were made by the Regent, the powerful Bishop of Krakow, Zbigniew Olesnicki who worked hard to suppress the Hussites in Poland; it was largely because of him that the union with Bohemia, eagerly sought by the Hussites, did not come to pass. In 1440, through the manoeuvrings of Olesnicki, the Magyars offered Wladyslaw the crown of Hungary as Ladislas I (1440 - 44); Poland’s attention shifted to the plains of Hungary and the growing Turkish threat. It is Hungary that had been the real bastion of Christendom, fighting a constant war against the Ottoman Turks. In 1443 Wladyslaw and his chief Hungarian supporter, the Vajda of Transylvania, Janos Hunyadi, led a combined Polish-Hungarian army of 40,000 into the Balkans and forced the Sultan, Murad II, to evacuate Serbia and Albania by the Peace of Szeged (August 1444). Very shortly after the peace was signed Wladyslaw broke it, under pressure from the Papal Legate (Cardinal Julian de Cesarinis), and continued his crusade. In November 1444, the combined Polish-Hungarian forces were defeated by the Turks at Varna on the Black Sea and Wladyslaw was killed. Whilst the disaster proved fortuitous for the Poles (since the resources laid aside for war against the Turks were to prove invaluable in the war against the Teutonic Order), the consequences of the destruction at Varna were dramatic for the Balkans which rapidly returned under Turkish control; Constantinople fell not long after (1453) and her mantle (as leader of the Orthodox Church) fell to the Tzars and Moscow (the 3rd Rome). The loss of access to India via the Black Sea and land routes led the Europeans to search for an alternative route by sea and hence to the discovery of the New World.


Wladyslaw III’s brother, Kazimierz IV Jagiellonczyk (b. 1427; d. 1492), Grand-Duke of Lithuania , became king (1447 - 92). He worked hard to maintain the political union between Poland and Lithuania without prejudicing the independence of Lithuania which he saw as his personal estate. He managed to preserve the hereditary rule of the Jagiellonians as Grand-Dukes, keeping that separate from any role as monarch of the union. Kazimierz exploited the schism in the Western Church (during which time there were two Popes) by curbing the power of the clergy and subordinating the Church to the state. When the Prussians revolted against their overlord, the Teutonic Order, Kazimierz saw this as an opportunity to end, once and for all, their power. Requiring the support of the szlachta (nobility) to conduct a war against the Teutonic Order Kazimierz conceded, through the Act of Nieszawa (1454), that no new taxes or military levies could be raised without the consent of the szlachta and established the Sejmik, a regional consultative legislature which began to swing power away from the magnates to the szlachta and, in time, would evolve into the Sejm, the national legislature (Parliament); yet another step towards the Republic of Nobles.


Kazimierz started a prolonged war against the Order, the Thirteen Years' War, in order to recover Pomerania and Gdansk (1454 - 66). The Peace of Torun/Thorn (1466) humiliated the Order and Prussia was partitioned: West Prussia (including the city of Gdansk/Danzig) coming under direct Polish rule (thus recovering her access to the sea), whilst East Prussia became a vassal to the Polish Crown. At the beginning of the war Kazimierz had found himself opposed by both the Holy Roman Empire and the Pope but he neutralised their hostility by allying himself with George of Podebrad (1462), who had been elected King of Bohemia (1458) by the Hussite Utraquists (who had defeated the Taborites in the recent civil war). Matias Hunyadi (also known as Korwin or Matthias Corvinus, 1458 - 90), the son of Janos Hunyadi and King of Hungary, supported by the Catholic-German faction in Bohemia, became Kazimierz's most dangerous rival. Korwin occupied Moravia, Silesia and Lusatia (1468) resulting in an eight-year war. When Podebrad died Kazimierz's eldest son, Wladyslaw, was elected king of Bohemia (1471) and came to a diplomatic agreement with Corvinus in the Peace of Olomouc (Olmutz, 1478); Korwin would keep the territories he had conquered whilst Wladyslaw would rule Bohemia proper. When, in turn, Corvinus died (1490) Wladyslaw was elected king of Hungary (after a brief contest for the crown with his brother Jan Olbracht which soured Polish-Hungarian relationships).


In 1475 the Ottoman Turks captured the stronghold of Kilia, commanding the mouth of the Danube, and Bialgorod (Akkerman) on the Dneister (1484). This seriously threatened Polish sovereignty in Moldavia and Polish trade routes, forcing Kazimierz to take action - the first time Poland would be engaged in warfare with the Turks independently of any links with Hungary. In 1485 he drove the Turks out of Moldavia but failed to regain the captured fortresses. In turn, the Turks encouraged the Transvolga Tartars to cease raiding the Crimean Tartars and raid Polish lands instead. Kazimierz managed to arrange a truce with the Turks and for the remainder of his reign there was no further trouble, but the threat remained.


Kazimierz’s real failure was to build up any sort of defence against the expansion of Muscovy which had begun to threaten Lithuania’s role as the leading power in the east. He signed a treaty with Vasili II of Moscow which fixed the spheres of their respective influences (1449) but Vasili was succeeded by Ivan the Terrible who was determined to create the “Third Rome”. Ivan ended the independence of Novgorod (1478) which had looked in vain for help from Lithuania, and by 1486 his threat was such that a number of Russian princes, vassals of Lithuania, went over to the Muscovite grand duke because of the lack of protection from Kazimierz.


Kazimierz’s reign became famed as a “Golden Age” which saw many foreign scholars, writers, artists and architects attracted to Poland, especially from Renaissance Italy. One of the most important late Gothic sculptors, Wit Stwosz (Viet Stoss, 1438 - 1533) of Nuremberg, established a workshop in Krakow (1477 - 1496) where he produced the wonderful altar of the Mariacki (St. Mary’s) with its “The Dormition of the Virgin” (1477 - 89) and the tomb of Kazimierz IV in the Wawel Cathedral (1492). It was also a time when home-grown talent would reach new levels as epitomised in the neo-Latin works of Sarbiewski and the “History” of Jan Dlugosz. Trade benefited from a number of initiatives including the declaration (1447) that all rivers were the property of the Crown and free for general use. The acquisition of Prussia and its seaports (1466), and the whole of the Wisla coming under Polish control, saw a rise in river traffic, an enormous increase in exports (particularly through Gdansk) and a marked improvement in the economic life of the nation.


In 1454 Kazimierz entered into a marriage that would further his dynastic aims and his wife, Elizabeth of Habsburg, became known as the “Mother of Kings” as five of her sons wore crowns. His son, Wladyslaw (b. 1456; d. 1516) became King of Bohemia (1471 - 1516) and Hungary (1490 - 1516) but was a weak and vacillating ruler who became dominated by his nobles and lost territory to the Habsburgs. Kazimierz and Elizabeth’s second son, St. Kazimierz (b. Krakow, 1458; d. Grodno, 1484) was educated by the historian, Dlugosz, and Filippo Buonaccorsi (Callimachus). When the king’s business involved a prolonged stay in Lithuania (1479), Kazimierz, always intended to inherit the throne, was placed in charge and administered the State commendably (1481 - 1483). Shortly afterwards he fell victim to a severe lung infection, which, as a result of his fasting and mortifications, he succumbed to whilst on a journey to Lithuania. Kazimierz was buried in the Cathedral at Wilno. After his death he was venerated as a saint and, after an inquiry which was completed in 1520, Kazimierz was canonised by Adrian VI (1522). The patron of Poland Lithuania, St. Kazimierz’s feastday is 4 March.


Kazimierz IV was succeeded by his sons Jan Olbracht, Aleksander and Zygmunt.


Jan Olbracht,1492 - 1501, became involved in fighting the Crimean Tartars on the Black Sea coast. His reign is important for witnessing, at Piotrkow (1493 and 1496), the final evolution from regional parliaments (Sejmiks) to a bicameral national parliament; the Sejm. The Sejm of 1496 granted many privileges to the nobility but, in so doing, restricted the rights of the peasants and created a system of legal serfdom in Poland. The manor would become an important economic centre exporting its goods down river and, in the laws exempting nobles from paying export duties when shipping their products abroad or importing foreign wares for personal use, the landlord would have economic advantages over the merchants that would work against the healthy growth of trade within the cities (which, in any case, had no say in the running of the country). Jan Olbracht expelled the Jews from Krakow proper (1495), moving them to Kazimierz (at that time across the Wisla but still under the royal protection offered by the enclave on Wawel Hill), and gave their land to the University, which had coveted the land and is still located there.


Aleksander, (b. 1461; d. 1506), reigned 1501 - 06. On accession to the throne Aleksander was obliged to issue a new act of union, the Act of Melnik (1501), which stipulated that the king of Poland would also be the Grand-Duke of Lithuania (thus the Jagiellonians lost their hereditary rights in Lithuania). It also reduced the powers of the king to that of President of the Senate which could refuse obedience to the king in instances of "tyrannical behaviour" on his part. The Statute of “Nihil Novi” (1505) enacted that nothing new could be decided without Parliament’s consent. Aleksander worked hard to westernise Lithuania and it is in his reign that Polish was spoken at the court in Wilno. The growing inability of Lithuania to protect herself became very apparent as the Muscovites and Tartars ravaged the whole country at will and were only prevented from conquering it altogether by their inability to capture the chief fortresses.


Zygmunt I Stary (b.1467; d.1548),1506 - 48, struggled in vain with the nobles to raise money in order to adequately defend the nation. He waged war against Muscovy (during which Smolensk, in an important strategic position, was lost, 1514), Walachia and Moldavia (1508 - 28). The constant raids of the Moldavians and Tartars were to eventually result in the ravishing of Ruthenia and the Ukraine, the annihilation of flourishing settlements and a virtual end to the Polonisation of the area which was to become known as the “Wild Plains”. Zygmunt aided his nephew, Louis II (b. 1506; d. 1526), king of Bohemia and Hungary (1516 - 26), against the Turks at the battle of Mohacs (where Louis was killed, thus bringing the Jagiellonian Dynasty in Hungary to an end, 1526) and the siege of Vienna (1529). Assisted by his Italian wife, Bona Sforza of Milan, the niece of the Holy Roman emperor Maximilian, he promoted the Renaissance in Poland and proved to be a wise administrator, encouraging currency reforms. This was also the period of the Reformation; many of the sons of the szlachta who attended foreign universities were inspired by Calvinism which encouraged freedom of speech, and it was quite successful in Lithuania where as many as 2000 noble families adopted it, but whilst it stimulated intellectual activity, the Reformation failed to gain much ground in the long term because of differences between the various sects and also because the vast majority of the population remained Catholic. Lutheranism was taken up by the Prussian nobility; Albrecht Hohenzollern, the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, split with both the Holy Roman Empire and Rome and, by becoming a vassal of the Polish King (“the Prussian Homage” 1525) - at Martin Luther’s suggestion, was able to turn East Prussia into a Duchy. It was this Hohenzollern dynasty that was to play a key role in the destruction of the Rzeczpospolita (Republic of Nobles) in 1795. After the death of the last of its Piast rulers (1526) Zygmunt also absorbed the Duchy of Mazovia, which had previously been a vassal principality with an autonomous government, into the Polish state (1529). His daughter Katarzyna (b. 1525; d. 1583) married John III Vasa, their son being Zygmunt III Vasa.


Zygmunt I Stary’s son, Zygmunt II August (b. 1520; d. 1572), reigned from 1548 - 72 and was the last of the Jagiellonians. During his reign the influence of the Reformation was extended; whilst remaining a steadfast adherent to Rome he nether-the-less read Protestant books and took part in theological discussions. Calvin dedicated his “Commentary on the Mass” to him. When pressed to take sides in the dispute between Catholics and Protestants, Zygmunt August said: “I am the King of the people - not the judge of their consciences.” This spirit of tolerance attracted many refugees from religious persecution to Poland especially during the 1540s and 1550s. The Sejm, dominated by reformist nobles, passed legislation constraining ecclesiastical jurisdiction (1552, 1556, 1562).


Zygmunt’s tolerance did not extend to the szlachta who had begun demanding a greater say in the running of the nation and a great distrust had grown between the two parties. The Polish szlachta had been enthusiastic for a strengthening of the union between Poland and Lithuania for some time but the immensely rich and powerful Lithuanian magnates, serving only their own interests, were opposed to such a union. After the death of his first wife, Elizabeth, (1545), Zygmunt August secretly married Barbara Radziwill (1547) from the powerful Lithuanian magnate family. Once this marriage became known, the szlachta, fearing that the Radziwills, with their new influence, could further delay a union with Lithuania, tried to get the marriage annulled - without success, thus widening the gulf between themselves and the king. When Livonia, threatened by Muscovite expansion towards the Baltic, sought protection from Zygmunt August she was incorporated into Lithuania by the Act of Wilno (1561). Then, when Ivan the Terrible invaded Livonia, Zygmunt August entered into a war against Muscovy, the Livonian War (1558 - 83), in order to secure his control over Livonia and the Baltic seacoast - creating Poland’s first fleet in the process (1563). The Muscovite danger, which had increased with the internal political consolidation under Ivan the Terrible, the obvious inability of the Lithuanians to defend themselves and the financial burden of the war on the Lithuanian magnates’ coffers, made it very evident that some strengthening of relations between the two states was now desirable. Furthermore, the incorporation of Podlasie, Volhynia and the province of Kiev into the Polish Crown gave Poland a frontier with Muscovy (March 1569). In July 1569 the inevitable happened: the Union of Lublin was a formal union of Poland and Lithuania; the “Rzeczpospolita” (the Republic of Nobles) with one elected head (the King) and a national parliament (the Sejm).




Click on the crown for the portraits by Polish classic artist Jan Matejko


With the death of Zygmunt, the last of the Jagiellonians in 1574, there was nobody who could legally convene the Sejm. An “interrex” (Regent), the Archbishop of Gniezno, was appointed by the Senate and a special “Convocational Sejm” was called which decided to let the “szlachta” (nobility) the elect a king in a free election. Prior to his coronation the king-elect had to swear to uphold the Constitution and all “szlachta” privileges. In 1573, Henri de Valois, younger brother to Charles IX of France, was elected king by an overwhelming majority. In May 1574 Charles died suddenly and Henri had become King of France. It was generally agreed that he should hold both crowns and go back to France in the autumn but, in his impatience Henri slipped away early. Affronted, the Poles presented him with the ultimatum of returning by May 1575 or the throne would be declared vacant.


     In December, under the influence of Jan Zamoyski, Stefan Batory (b. Szilagysomlyo, Transylvania 1533; d. nr Grodno 1586), Prince of Transylvania (1571 - 76) was elected king of Poland (1575 - 86) by the szlachta (the nobility). Batory was the son of Istvan Bathory, governor of Transylvania for the Habsburg king of Hungary. He won renown as a soldier with John Sigismund Zapolya, prince of the newly independent Transylvania and was elected as Zapolya’s successor (1571). As king of Poland, Batory carried out important reforms, encouraged further overseas trade and creating the first regular Polish infantry by conscripting peasants from the Royal estates. He was also the first to employ Cossacks on a regular basis. He overcame the revolt of Danzig (1577), which was given autonomy in its internal affairs (at a price) and in a war with Muscovy (1579 - 82), after a successful campaign and a brilliant victory at Pskov, Batory defeated Ivan the Terrible in the Livonian War (1558 - 83). By the Treaty of Yam Zapolsky, Ivan returned all Lithuanian territory it had captured and renounced his claims on Livonia.

Livonia joined the Commonwealth, and Poland was now recognised as the greatest power in Central Europe and only the Turkish Sultan ruled over more extensive territories. In 1579 he created the University at Wilno. By the 1550s eighty per cent of the world’s Jews lived in Poland. Batory gave the Jews their own national assembly drawn from the local self-governing communities (Kahal). In 1583 Batory granted the postal monopoly to Sebastian Montelupi who organised a regular postal system both internally and abroad. After his sudden death, Batory was succeeded, in the 1587 election, by Sigismund (Zygmunt) Vasa, son of John III Vasa of Sweden.





The Vasa were a dynasty of Swedish Kings whose name is derived from the family estate around Uppsala. The founder of the dynasty was Gustav Eriksson Vasa who became, firstly, Regent of Sweden (1521) and then King Gustavus I Vasa (1523 - 60). After the unexpected death of Batory in 1586, there was a major crisis when the pro-Hapsburg Zborowski faction forced through the election of Archduke Maximilian and almost brought the nation to a state of civil war. The great Renaissance politician (and staunch anti-Austrian), Jan Zamoyski confronted Maximilian and held Krakow for the Swedish crown prince, grandson of Gustavus I and son of John III of Sweden,


    Zygmunt III Vasa (b. Gripsholm, 1566; d. Warsaw,1632), who came to the throne 1587 - 1632. There would eventually be three Vasa Kings and the period would see long rivalry and wars between Poland and Sweden for the control of the Baltic. Under Zygmunt’s reign the Polish magnates (great lords) rose to a position of power and would eventually destroy Poland through their greed; he was also in constant struggle with Jan Zamoyski, the Chancellor (1587 - 1605) whose diplomatic and military successes he regarded with suspicion. Zygmunt was forced to work with Zamoyski when he overreached himself in arranging a secret marriage with the Austrian Archduchess Anna (1592) and was subsequently humiliated by the Inquisition Diet of 1592. In the same year he received the Sejm’s permission to become King of Sweden but was only crowned (1594) after promising to uphold Swedish Lutheranism. Returning to Poland, Zygmunt left his uncle, Charles Suderman, as Regent of Sweden. He then decided to move the capital from Krakow to Warsaw (1596), which was closer to Sweden and the junction of all major routes criss-crossing the Commonwealth.

When his uncle rose in rebellion Zygmunt invaded Sweden (thus losing any support there was for him amongst the Swedish nobility) only to be defeated at Stangebro (1598). In 1599 the Riksdag (Swedish Parliament) dethroned Zygmunt offering the crown to his four-year-old son, Wladyslaw, on condition that he would come to Sweden and accept Lutheranism. Zygmunt refused to accept these conditions and lost the crown of Sweden to his uncle (who was crowned Charles IX, 1604 - 11). Zygmunt never relinquished the throne and his foreign policy was, from that point onwards, directed at regaining the Swedish crown.

From 1605, after the death of Zamoyski, Poland became involved in internal problems as a result of Zygmunt’s absolutionist tendencies (the Zebrzydowski rebellion, 1606 - 8) and wars with Sweden (1617 - 29) and the Turks (1620 - 21). During the Swedish War, Gustavus II Adolphus (the son of Charles IX) seized Riga (1621) and almost all of Livonia. The Poles also, inevitably, became involved in the internal “troubles” of Muscovy (“Smuta”, 1605 onwards), usually at the request of the boyars, but the events surrounding the short-lived careers of the two “False Dimitris” did not benefit the Republic. In 1610, after a successful military campaign, Zygmunt proposed his own son, Wladyslaw, as candidate to the Muscovite throne but Wladyslaw’s refusal to convert to the Orthodox faith led to the driving out of the Poles and the enthroning of the first Romanov (1613). The devastation and loss of life were tremendous and Poland was only saved by a number of outstanding military commanders; Stanislaw Zolkiewski, Jan Karol Chodkiewicz, Stefan Czarniecki (b. 1599; d. 1665) and Stanislaw Koniecpolski who achieved some great victories (Kluszyn, 1610; Kircholm, 1605; Chocim, 1612).


This was also the period that saw the Republic at its greatest territorial extent and economically the nation was prosperous (but there were also new extremes of wealth and poverty). Religious tolerance was maintained despite Zygmunt’s own Catholic fanaticism (his greatest success was the establishment of the Uniates; the union of the greater part of the Ruthenian Orthodox Church with Rome in 1596 ratified at the Synod of Brzesc). The followers of Fausto Sozzini (Socinius, b. 1539; d. 1604), the Polish Brethren, founded a centre of protestant culture at Rakow (which became known as the Sarmatian Athens), between Kielce and Sandomierz, where they published the Rakowian Catechism (1604), the most well-known statement of Unitarian theology at the time and an important expression of radical thought. When the Hussites suffered the crushing defeat at the battle of White Mountain (1620) many were forced into exile, some making their way to Poland and influencing the Arian movement there. The Jewish community thrived and spread out from the cities into the provinces; but by linking their fortunes with greedy lords through the “arenda” system (whereby an estate would be leased out by an absentee lord to a manager who could exploit it and those who worked it) they exposed themselves to the hatred of the peasantry.


Zygmunt’s son, Wladyslaw IV (b. 1595; d. 1648), King 1632 - 1648, served as a youth in the Muscovite campaigns (1610 - 12 and 1617 - 18). On his accession to the throne he fought a war with Muscovy and won a victorious peace (1634). He made a favourable settlement with the Turks (1634) and with Sweden (1635). He was involved in serious disputes with the Sejm and unsuccessfully attempted to establish order in the last years of his reign. For some time the Arian movement had thrived in the climate of religious tolerance that Poland had offered but their own success led to their downfall. In 1641 all Arians were forced to convert or leave the country, resulting in mass exodus. A particular danger came from within when, in 1648, the Cossacks, mainly of Ruthenian and Polish origin, for a variety of reasons but chiefly due to the arrogance of the magnates who were treating the free Cossacks as serfs, broke their oath of allegiance to the Polish King under the instigation of their Hetman, Chmielnicki. Wladyslaw died whilst this revolt was still in force. Wladyslaw travelled widely visiting Florence where he was honoured by the Italian composer, Francesco Caccini who wrote a composition “La Liberazione di Ruggero dell Isola di Alcina” dedicated to him. He corresponded with Galileo, ordering telescopes from him, and modelled for Peter Paul Rubens in his studio in Antwerp.


Wladyslaw’s son, Jan II Kazimierz (b. 1609; d. 1672), was a Jesuit and Cardinal (1640) and had to be absolved of his religious vows by the Pope in order to be able to take on his duties as King 1648 - 1668. In the continued revolt of the Cossacks, Chmielnicki used the Ukraine as a pawn between the powers of Poland, Muscovy and Turkey which resulted in further wars, with the Tartars (1649), and a disastrous 13 - year war with Muscovy (1654 - 67). Janusz Radziwill, Grand Hetman of Lithuania, defeated by Tsar Alexei of Muscovy during Chmielnicki’s revolt (1654), appealed for help from Charles X Gustavus of Sweden, himself fearful of Muscovite expansion. He invaded Poland in 1655. This period in which the Republic was inundated by enemy forces, and the chaos that accompanied it, became known as the “Deluge” (“Potop”). The collapse of Polish resistance led to the desertion of many Polish officers and szlachta (the nobility) from Jan Kazimierz to Charles. In October Radziwill signed an agreement at Kiejdany which detached Lithuania from Poland, placing it under the protection of Sweden. In the following guerrilla war, where Polish forces were supported by Tartars fearful of the further expansion of Muscovy into the vacuum caused by the war with Sweden, and Danish and Dutch fleets came to the defence of Gdansk, it is the defence of Czestochowa, at the monastery of Jasna Gora, (1655), Poland’s most sacred shrine containing the picture of the Virgin Mary (the “Black Madonna”), by a small force led by Prior Kordecki and his monks against a besieging army of 9,000 Swedes, that actually changed the course of the war and became a signal for a general uprising that resulted in the eventual expulsion of the Swedes from the Republic. In 1658, at Hadziacz, an agreement between the King and the new Cossack Hetman, Wyhowski, was to enable Ruthenia to join the Commonwealth on equal terms with Poland and Lithuania but a further Cossack rebellion (1659) instigated by Muscovy (herself attempting to annex the Ukraine) and Polish involvement in war with Sweden (1655 - 60), meant that the agreement bore no fruit and in 1667, by the treaty of Andruszowo, the Ukraine was divided evenly along the Dnieper between the Commonwealth and Muscovy. For the Polish Commonwealth this was a disaster since it weakened an important frontier area and left a discontented people open to manipulation by Poland’s enemies.


The general decline was especially noticed in the Sejm; the parliamentary system grew awkward and ineffective as deputies used the notorious “Liberum Veto”, which allowed any deputy to prevent legislation since all resolutions had to be carried unanimously. The idea of consensus rule was, in principle, a good one but the “Liberum Veto” was first used in a manner that destroyed the working of the Sejm, in 1652, by a Jan Sicinski on the orders of Janusz Radziwill. It soon became obvious to Poland’s neighbours that the veto could be used to their own political ends and they soon clubbed together to “defend Polish freedoms”. The szlachta, themselves, becoming less influential as they lost their military valour and, in many cases, impoverished, saw the veto as the last symbol of their ability to play a role in the running of the Commonwealth.


This was also a period of great rivalry and suspicion between the pro-Bourbon factions (led by the Queen, Louise-Marie) and the pro-Habsburg szlachta (many of whom were in the pockets of Vienna. The need for reform had become obvious and the Jesuit preacher, Piotr Skarga, had blamed social injustice as the main cause of evil. The final indignity came when, as a direct result of attempting to introduce reforms that would modernise the state, Jerzy Lubomirski, the Grand Marshal, rebelled against the King. The royal faction was defeated at the battle of Matwy (1666) but not long afterwards Lubomirski came and begged for a pardon which was granted; the whole farce had merely served to damage the prestige of the crown. Shortly after his chief support, Queen Louise-Marie, died (1667) Jan Kazimierz took refuge in Silesia, resigned as King (1668) and retired to France as Abbe de Saint-Germain. The farcical elections that followed led to the appointment of a Polish nonentity despised by both Bourbon and Habsburg factions, Michal Korybut Wisniowiecki.






The Wisnioweckis were a noble Ukrainian family. During the early 1500s the idea of hiring the Cossacks to guard the Dnieper crossings by building fortresses on its islands was proposed but never developed, it was Dmitri (d.1563), a magnate from Southern Volhynia who independently founded the first Cossack fortress, Niz, at Chortyca, out of which grew the Sicz of Zaporoze. After a failed attempt to involve Poland-Lithuania in a war against the Tartars, he became heavily involved in Moldavian affairs only to be betrayed to the Turks and executed for piracy. Dmitri is credited with being the first to create a stable organisation for the Cossacks and for putting the Cossack-Ukrainian cause on the map. His son signed the Union of Lublin and his grandson led a notorious expedition to Moldavia (1616). His great-grandson was Prince Jarema (b. 1612; d. 1651), Voivode of Ruthenia and chief enemy of Chmielnicki.


The farcical elections that followed the resignation of Jan II Kazimierz, the last of the Vasas (1668), led to the appointment of a Polish nonentity, the favourite of the szlachta (the nobility) suspicious of foreigners and seeking a “new Piast”, despised by both Bourbon and Habsburg factions, Jarema’s son, Michal Korybut (b. 1640; d. 1673), king (1669 - 1673); he proved to be a weak monarch unable to control the magnates who nicknamed him “le Singe”. In 1672 the Turkish invasion of Podolia led to the fall of the fortress of Kamieniec Podolsk and, with the country in a state of chaos, the Poles sued for peace; at the Treaty of Buczacz the Poles lost what was left of Podolia and the Ukraine and had to pay a humiliating annual tribute. Michal Korybut died suddenly whilst a new invasion was in force, on the eve of Chocim; he was succeeded by the victor of that battle, Jan Sobieski.




Sobieski, Jan III (b. Olesko, nr. Lwow, 1674; d. 1696) the son of Jakub Sobieski, the Castellan of Krakow and Voivode of Ruthenia, Jan Sobieski was educated in Krakow. A great military leader, Sobieski entered military service in 1648, seeing action against both the Tartars and Cossacks (1651 - 52) and Swedes under Lubomirski and Czarniecki, although, along with many other officers who had deserted the royal cause in the dark days of the Deluge, he had briefly accepted a commission under Swedish King, Charles X (1655 - 56). He was first entered the Sejm in 1659. Sobieski was appointed Commander - in - Chief of the Polish Army (1665) and Grand Hetman in 1668. Besieged by an army of Cossacks and Tartars at Podhajce he raised 8000 men at his own expense and forced the enemy to retire. Later, when the Turks seized the fortress of Kamieniec (1672), Sobieski beat the Turkish forces back and virtually annihilated them at Chocim (1673), earning from them the nickname of the “Fearful Lion of the North”. He was elected King a few months later (1674 - 96). The climax of his career came in 1683 when, with 20,000 Polish troops he relieved the Turkish siege of Vienna. Unable to break into Europe through Poland, the Turks had invaded Hungary and Austria in 1683 and swept all before them.

130,000 Turks besieged Vienna and threatened to overpower Europe. Sobieski, at the request of the Pope, marched on Vienna through rugged mountain passes and sent the Husaria into their last great charge, taking the Turks unawares.

It was a turning point in history. Combined with the Imperial Army, he drove the Turks back to the Raab. He was acclaimed as the hero of Christendom - Jan Matejko’s painting of “Sobieski at Vienna hangs in the Vatican. His later years were a failure, unable to overturn the political decline of Poland; he was unable to solve Poland’s problems on the Baltic or on the eastern frontier because the long years of campaigning and wars had drained her resources and, in 1686, in an unbelievably naive move, the Grzymultowski Peace literally gave away the entire Ukraine and transformed “Muscovy” into “Russia” - enabling her to emerge as the major power in Eastern Europe. He was a patron of science and literature and his marvellous palace at Wilanow, on the outskirts of Warsaw reflect his domestic grandeur. The elections after the death of Sobieski were contentious; his son, Jakub (b. 1667; d. 1737), was forced to withdraw for lack of funds, and the French candidate was cheated of victory by bribery and corruption so that the Elector of Saxony, Frederick Augustus was elected king, Augustus II. It would be the beginning of the end. Sobieski’s granddaughter, Clementina (b. 1702; d.1735), married James Edward Stuart, the “Old Pretender”; their son was Charles Edward Louis Philip Kazimierz, the “young Pretender” - “Bonny Prince Charlie”.   





The Wettins were a German dynasty that was active, in the Tenth century, in pushing Germany’s eastern frontier into Slav lands. By c.1100 they had acquired the Margrave of Meissen and extended their rule over Thuringia and Saxony. In 1485 the dynasty divided into the Ernestine and Albertine branches. The Albertines became the Electors of Saxony (1547) and provided two kings of Poland, Augustus II and Augustus III. The sixty-six years of Saxon rule, from 1697 - 1763, were a national disaster and drove the country to the brink of anarchy. The causes are twofold: firstly, from the outset the Saxon kings fell into a partnership with Russia in which they became more and more dependent on the support of the stronger partner; secondly, The Republic, which had been severely weakened by the period of warfare and internal strife of the seventeenth century, was reduced to the state of a helpless bystander in the wars of the eighteenth. The nation was further undermined as the powerful land-owning magnates began to look to the preservation their own self-interests in whatever manner they could, whilst the less powerful szlachta attempted to hang on to the only power they held - their traditional rights - even at the expense of important reforms. The Republic had no standing army, it was a citizen army with only a small core of professionals. Whilst Sobieski had carried out important reforms which had significantly improved the army’s tactical and technological stature there was a heavy reliance on foreign infantry and there was no centralised funding. There was, also, internal resistance to the idea of a regular army which could be used by an autocratic ruler to restrict personal liberties (as in Prussia, for example). Poland also became sandwiched between two rising powers; Russia, ruled by Peter the Great, and Prussia which the Elector of Brandenburg, Frederick III, was to declare a kingdom in 1701.


The Elector of Saxony, Frederick Augustus (b. Dresden, 1670; d. 1733), who had unsuccessfully commanded the imperial Army against the Turks (1695 - 96), converted to Catholicism (the Republic was “worth a mass”) and was elected king Augustus II of Poland in 1697 after a contentious election which, in many ways, reflected the disintegration of the nation. His reign started auspiciously with the treaty of Karlowicz by which the former provinces of Podolia and the Ukraine, including the important fortress of Kamieniec, were restored to Poland by the Turks (1699). In the mistaken belief that Sweden was in decline and with the intention of acquiring Livonia for Saxony, Augustus entered into a disastrous three-way alliance with Frederick IV of Denmark and Peter I the Great of Russia (1672 - 1725) that would eventually embroil Poland in the Great Northern War (1700-21). Although the Sejm refused to support him, Augustus invaded Livonia and laid siege to Riga. The Swedish king, Charles XII (the “Lion of the North”, 1682 - 1718) defeated the Danes who had invaded Schleswig (1700), destroyed the Russian Army at Narva (November 1700) and raised the siege of Riga (1701)..

Charles then invaded Poland with the intention of deposing Augustus from the Polish throne as a punishment for his central role in the anti-Swedish alliance. He seized Warsaw and defeated Augustus at Kliszow (where the Polish Army, having failed in two charges against the Swedish infantry, refused to fight on, 1702) and Pultusk (1703). Charles XII then imposed his candidate, Stanislaw Leszczynski (1704 - 09), on the Polish throne


The Leszczynskis were a noble Polish family which played a prominent part during the 16th. to 18th. centuries. The general, Rafael Leszczynski, was the father of Stanislaw I Leszczynski (b. Lwow, 1677; d. 1766), king of Poland (1704 - 09, and 1733 - 35). When Augustus II of Saxony and Poland allied himself with Russia (1700 - 1721) against Sweden in the Great Northern War, Leszczynski, the Voivode of Poznan, proved to be a staunch opponent and gained the support of Charles XII of Sweden. In 1704 Sweden won, Augustus was removed and Leszczynski was elected in his place. In 1709 the Russians defeated the Swedes at Poltava and Augustus was returned to the throne. Leszczynski settled in Alsace (1709) and, later, became governor of Zweibruken in the Palatinate (1718 - 25). In 1725, his daughter, Maria (b. Wroclaw, 1703; d. 1768), married Louis XV of France who ensured that, on Augustus’ death, in 1733, Leszczynski was again elected King. The War of Polish Succession (1733 - 35) followed, Stanislaw was supported by France and Spain, while Austria and Russia supported Frederick Augustus II, elector of Saxony, Augustus II’s son. Leszczynski was besieged at Danzig, receiving only moral support from France, while his rival received full military aid from Russia. Inevitably, he was obliged to flee from Danzig (1734) and accept the terms of the Treaty of Vienna (1735) by which he kept the royal title but renounced his actual rights in favour of Frederick Augustus. Leszczynski was awarded the Duchy of Lorraine and Bar (1737) by Francis I, the Holy Roman Emperor, in exchange for Tuscany and also received a pension from France. He maintained court at Luneville and Nancy which was a model of the Enlightenment. Leszczynski corresponded with the finest thinkers of his time, most notably with Rousseau who, on his request, drafted a new constitution for Poland. He wrote the influential reforming tract, “A Free Voice Insuring Freedom” (1749), and “Oeuvres du Philosophe Bienfaisant” (published 1767).


The unconstitutional manner of Leszczynski’s election (where a hastily thrown together Sejm had been surrounded by armed Swedish troops ready to enforce Charles’ will) divided the country into pro-Leszczynski and pro-Augustus camps; the Northern War had now, for the Poles, become a civil war. An attempt by Augustus to regain Poland was stopped at Fraustadt (February 1706). Charles XII invaded Saxony in August 1706 and seized Leipzig; Augustus sued for peace and abdicated the throne of Poland (Treaty of Altranstadt, 1706). Augustus was restored after the Swedish invasion of Russia failed at the battle of Poltava (1709) - in which an important role was played by Polish peasants harassing the Swedish columns, and the pro-Saxon Confederates of Sandomierz who prevented reinforcements from reaching the Swedes. By the end of this war Russia was able to interfere freely in the internal affairs of the nation. Augustus maintained a Saxon Army in Poland which reinforced the Polish view that he was intending to turn the Polish throne into that of an absolute monarch. Conflict between Augustus and the Sejm almost ended in civil war with the setting up of the Confederation of Tarnogrod (1715), only prevented by a Russian offer of mediation; 18,000 Russian troops surrounded the chamber where the deputies met, they were denied the right to speak whilst the Russian “mediator” dictated the Russian “ solution”. This Sejm became known as the “Dumb Sejm” and the Republic became little more than a Russian client state; a “Protectorate”.


The emasculation of both Augustus and the Sejm lead to the dissipation of power into the hands of a small group of magnates who ruled their own lands as princes making independent political alliances depending on the state of their finances or interests; “a state within the state”. The army had virtually disappeared as a fighting force; morale had collapsed, technical proficiency declined, corruption was rife, nobles absented themselves from duty or preferred to serve the magnates: all this at a time when the Republic’s neighbours were undergoing massive militarisation. In the Northern War Russia seized Livonia and began to dominate the Baltic; Augustus, awake to the Russian threat, entered into an alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles VI, and England (who both had their own reasons to be wary of the sudden rise of Russia) to cast off Russian interference in Poland (Vienna, 1719) but the Sejm rejected the treaty (1720), at which point Augustus condemned their shameful weakness. Now Augustus attempted to establish another treaty with Prussia aimed directly at the partition of Poland - but nothing came of this for Russia made a secret pact with Prussia at Potsdam (1720) to maintain the paralysis of law and order within Poland by protecting Polish “rights” such as the Liberum Veto.


It was in this period that intolerance towards religious dissidents was intensified and perhaps the lowest point in the history of the Republic came in 1724 when the mayor of Torun and nine other Protestants were executed because they had failed to prevent anti-Jesuit excesses. The English protested at this outrage and, when Poland was partitioned (1772), the image of a bigoted and intolerant nation put aside any feelings of sympathy that there might have been. The Russo-Prussian alliance of 1730 went so far as to pledge to protect religious minorities and to secure their former privileges (despite the fact that these two states refused to offer similar rights to their own religious minorities). The Convocation Sejm of 1733 was to bring Poland into line with the rest of Europe with its ending of religious freedoms and debarring of non-Catholics from holding office or acting as representatives in the Sejm; a move that was to have its repercussions in 1766 when Russia and Prussia would use their pledges to protect the rights of dissidents as an excuse to prevent reform and a revival of the Polish state.


Augustus was a patron of the arts, greatly embellishing his capital, Dresden, and created the Meissen china industry. He is also known as Augustus the Strong but this is more in reference to his numerous affairs and his prodigious number of, largely illegitimate, offspring.


On Augustus’ death, in 1733, the French candidate, Leszczynski, was again elected King; this sparked off the War of Polish Succession (1733 - 35) during which Polish resistance, the Confederation of Dzikow under the leadership of Adam Tarlo, was crushed by combined Prussian and Russian armies. The Russians sent in an army and reran the election; their candidate, Augustus’ son, Frederik Augustus II (b. Dresden, 1696; d. 1763) was elected king, Augustus III, in 1734. Augustus spent his reign almost exclusively in Dresden, only fleeing to Poland when the Prussians occupied Saxony during the Seven Years War; Poland was ruled by his adviser Bruhl and son-in-law, Mniszech. He supported Prussia in the first Silesian War (1740 - 42) but sided with Austria in the second Silesian War (1744 - 45), was defeated and forced to pay indemnity. The Electorate of Saxony was occupied by Prussia during the Seven Years War - the third Silesian War (1756 - 63); during this war, by which Prussia gained Silesia, Poland’s neutrality was ignored and she became a staging area for the deployment of the combatants. Frederick II (the Great) of Prussia recouped his war costs by flooding Poland with counterfeit money and imposing illegal tolls on the Wisla. Prussia and Russia continued to renew their alliances by which Poland would be kept weakened. At Augustus’ death, the Russians forced the election of Stanislaw Poniatowski, destined to become the last King of Poland.







The Poniatowskis were a noble family of Italian origin including; Stanislaw (b. 1676; d. 1762), a general and diplomat who joined Charles XII of Sweden in support of Stanislaw Leszczynski, and fought at Poltava (1709). He represented Charles at the Porte. Stanislaw was the brother-in-law of Michal and August Czartoryski and formed part of that powerful group aiming at reform, “the Family”. His son, Stanislaw II Augustus (b. Wolczyn, 1732; d. St. Petersburg, 1798), was a refined man who, after his education, spent a great deal of time in the West, mainly Paris and London. He was sent to St. Petersburg (1757) to gain support for the proposed overthrow of Augustus III but succeeded instead in becoming a lover of the future Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia. On the death of Augustus III, Catherine used her influence to ensure that Stanislaw Augustus became King (1764 - 1795); Poniatowski was to become the last King of Poland.


On acceding to the throne Stanislaw Augustus attempted to show that he was no puppet by setting up a range of commissions and ministries aimed at improving the process of government, carrying out financial and educational reforms and establishing a military school (the Szkola Rycerska); it was obvious that a Polish revival was under way. At this point Prussia and Russia raised the whole issue of the rights of Lutheran and Orthodox dissidents knowing that this would stir up trouble (1766). The issue was discussed in the Sejm in chaotic conditions, the Papal Nuncio protested and the proposed changes were rejected. As a result two Confederations were formed, that of the Protestants at Thorn and the Orthodox dissidents at Slupsk strongly supported by Russian troops. More significantly the Confederation of Radom (1767) was formed by a number of Catholic szlachta who had been skilfully manipulated by Russian diplomats. Now a treaty was imposed on Poland and forced through the Sejm (1768), which hypocritically protected the rights of the szlachta to elect the king and maintain the “Liberum Veto” - thus using these ancient privileges as a means to make the state impotent. A number of representatives of the Sejm who opposed Russian demands were arrested and deported to Kaluga in Russia. A large number of the szlachta, disgusted at this turn of events, revolted by setting up the Confederation of Bar (1768 - 72). Russian attempts to put the rising down were hindered by having to repress a peasant uprising in the Polish Ukraine, and by the Ottoman Turks who declared war on Russia (1768). After four years struggle, during which Stanislaw Augustus was actually kidnapped by some of the Bar Confederates (though he managed to escape in the bungled affair), the rising was eventually crushed and over 5000 captured szlachta were sent to Siberia; among the few who escaped was Kazimierz Pulaski who was to play an important role in the United States’ struggle for independence.


The campaigns of 1768 - 72 so devastated Poland and weakened the government that the nation was unable to put up any meaningful resistance when Prussia, Russia and Austria agreed to annex parts of Poland in 1772. The Commonwealth lost 224,173.5 sq.km (29.5%) of her former territory and 4,020,000 of her population (a reduction by 35.2%): Prussia took the smallest, but economically best, area (5%) - cutting Poland off from the Baltic - and severed its feudal dependence on the Polish Crown; Austria took the most heavily populated areas (11.8%), whilst Russia took the largest, but least important (12.7%). To give the crime some legality the Sejm was forced to ratify the partition in 1773, despite the resistance of some Deputies, led by Tadeusz Rejtan. Amazingly some of the szlachta saw partition as a plot between Poniatowski and the Russians in order to introduce an absolute monarchy into Poland.


Despite the disaster of this first partition, Poland underwent a national revival in 1773, thanks to the efforts of Stanislaw Augustus. The first step was the creation of the “Komisija Edukacji Narodowej” (“Committee of National Education”), the first Ministry of Education in Europe; hundreds of schools were founded and the standard of education was raised. Writers, poets, artists and scholars were encouraged by the King and the ideas of the Enlightenment were taking hold. This was the period of Naruszewicz, Krasicki, Boguslawski, and Karpinski. Taking advantage of Russia’s involvement in a war against Turkey, the King launched a reform programme (1788-1792) and the task was carried out by the “Four-Year” or “Great Sejm” which established a new Constitution; the Constitution of the Third of May, 1791, in which the “Liberum Veto” was abolished, majority rule introduced, and personal freedoms guaranteed to all the people. The Constitution was hailed in the United States, England and France, but was seen as a threat to the absolute rulers of Prussia, Austria and, especially, Russia. In 1792, at Russia’s instigation, a handful of magnates led by Ksawery Branicki, Szczesny Potocki and Seweryn Rzewuski betrayed the Commonwealth and formed the Confederation of Targowica against the new Constitution and then “asked” for help. Russian troops crossed the borders and war broke out. The King’s nephew, Joseph Poniatowski and Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a veteran of the American War of Independence, put up heroic resistance but all hope faded away when Stanislaw Augustus, under pressure from his ministers who could see the writing on the wall, declared his adherence to the Confederation of Targowica (August 1792). Meanwhile the Prussians attacked the Polish armies in the rear. The dismayed Army dispersed; many patriots were forced to flee. In 1793 Russia and Prussia signed the Second Partition Treaty, seizing more than half the country and about four million more of the population. The last Sejm of the Commonwealth, which met at Grodno, was forced to legalise the partition and abolish most of the reforms of the “Great Sejm”. Popular discontent led to Insurrection, proclaimed by Kosciuszko on 24 March 1794, followed by victory at Raclawice and Warsaw.



Originally published at            http://www.kasprzyk.demon.co.uk/www/HistoryPolska.html