Poland: The Rise to Power
By Mieczyslaw Kasprzyk
Maps: Andersen, A.,
Putzgers, F.W., Historischer Schul-Atlas, Bielefeld,
Most Scholars agree that the original
Slav homeland lay within the boundaries of modern Poland
in the Odra (Oder) and Wisla (Vistula)
basins. The Slavs subsequently expanded into territories to the east, south and
west and became increasingly differentiated until, by AD 800, three main
geographical and linguistic divisions had arisen; the East Slavs inhabiting a
large part of European Russia, the South Slavs who settled in the Balkan
Peninsula, and the West Slavs who settled in what is now Poland, Czechoslovakia
and East Germany.
The West Slavs suffered different fates; the Lusatians
and Veleti were absorbed by German expansion, the Czechs
and Moravians merged to form the nucleus of the Czech
Kingdom, whilst the Slovaks became
part of the kingdom
of Hungary. The remaining
tribes, including the Polanie, Wislanie,
Pomorzanie and the Mazovians,
joined together (in time) to form the Polish State.
The Polish Baptism of 966 came about as a
result of the concerns of Mieszko, or Mieczyslaw I, chief of the Polanie,
raised by the establishment of the German Empire of Otto I
(962). He decided to marry Dobrava, the daughter of Boleslav I of Bohemia,
and accepted Christianity for himself and his people, thus preserving their
independence. In 1000, at the Congress of Gniezno an independent Polish Church
organisation was set up with the agreement of Otto
III, but formed according to the Czech, rather than German, system. Thus the Polish Church
could turn directly to Rome,
and the Pope, for protection and would not fall under the influence of the
The Coronation of Boleslaw Chrobry (the
Brave) As the first king of Poland,
in 1024, established Poland's
right as an independent kingdom.
Disintegration and Reunification: 1138 -
In 1138 the Testament of Boleslaw III
shattered the precarious unity of Poland by dividing the realm among
Boleslaw's sons. This was the start of 150 years of dynastic struggle, in which
the Church played a vital role in maintaining some semblance of national unity.
In 1226, Duke Konrad of Mazovia invited the Teutonic
Order to combat pagan Prussian tribes from the base a Chelmno,
thereby introducing a much more formidable enemy on the crucial Baltic coast.
In time the Order turned on the Poles and began to grab large chunks of Polish
territory, finally invading Gdansk
in 1308 and massacring its Polish inhabitants. At the same time, a steady
influx of German colonists helped to consolidate the Order's wealth and power.
1241, 1259 and 1287 saw devastating Tartar invasions. During the
consequent reconstruction many new urban centres
developed whilst older ones expanded. As part of the process of repopulation
large numbers of foreign settlers arrived and rural colonisation
took place. Many of these new settlers were Germans and, whilst some were
gradually "Polonised" others merely helped
strengthen German political influence (especially in Silesia).
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 having been granted them by
Boleslaw the Pious in 1264.
A brief period of Czech rule from 1300 - 1305, under Vaclav II,
reunited a main part of Poland,
stimulating a national reconstruction led by Wladyslaw
Lokietek. Then, in 1320, Wladyslaw
I (Lokietek) was coronated;
the first ruler of the reunited kingdom.
In 1333-1370 Casimir the Great (Kazimierz Wielki) built Poland
into a major Central-European power, increasing her territory 2.5 times,
bringing it's size up to 270,000 sq.kms. There is a
saying that "he found Poland
built of wood, and left her in stone," so great was his activity as
founder and planner of towns.
Under Casimir, 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
1386-1572. Rise to Greatness.
Casimir was the last King of a purely Polish
state. Hence forward, dynastic problems provoked a series of unions with neighbouring states: Hungary
(1370-84; 1434-44; 1576-86); Lithuania
(1587-1600); and Saxony (1697-1764). Only the
Lithuanian union succeeded, creating a state which dominated east-central Europe until the seventeenth century (the Polish
In 1386 the marriage of Jadwiga, King (sic) of Poland, to Jogaila,
pagan Grand-Duke of Lithuania,
baptised as Wladyslaw Jagiello, initiated the Lithuanian union, inspired by the
common purpose of resisting the Teutonic Order. Then, in 1410 at the Battle of Grunwald (Tannenburg), Wladyslaw Jagiello crushed the
Teutonic Order. 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.
In 1440 the Magyars offered Wladyslaw
III (Wladyslaw Jagiello's
son) the crown of Hungary; Poland's attention shifted to the plains of Hungary
and the growing Turkish threat. In 1444, the combined Polish Hungarian forces
were defeated by the Turks at Varna on the Black Sea and Wladyslaw was
killed. For a brief period the Hungarian throne passed out of Polish hands. Wladyslaw III's brother, Casimir IV, started a prolonged war against the Teutonic
Order in order to recover Pomerania and Gdansk.
The subsequent victory in 1466, led to the Peace of Torun by which the Order
was humiliated and Prussia
was partitioned: Royal (West) Prussia
came under direct Polish rule, the Grand-Master of the Order keeping Ducal
as a vassal to the Polish Crown. During the Reformation The
Grand Master split with Rome, and by becoming a
vassal of the Polish King was able to turn East Prussia into a Duchy.
In 1471 Casimir was elected King of the
Czechs. His son, Wladyslaw became King of Bohemia and
1490-1526 saw the Jagiellonian rule in Hungary, and the peak of Central European
dominance. The dual realm now stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and
from the borders of Silesia to within 300
miles of Moscow.
It contained a rich mixture of nationalities and beliefs; Poles in the west and
centre, Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians in the north, Lutheran Germans in
Prussian and the western frontier, Orthodox Ukrainians and Byelorussians in the
east, Moslem Tartars in the east also (these are the oldest Moslem communities
in the Christian world) alongside the Karaites (a
mixture of Khazar and Kiptchatska-Polovetska
peoples, and practising a unique mixture of Judaism
and Islam), and Jews scattered throughout.
This period saw some important developments in the government of Poland;
in 1430 the law "Nieminem Captivabimus"
(the Polish "Habeas Corpus"), in 1493 the establishment of a
Parliament with two houses, the Senate (dignitaries, archbishops, and officers
of the realm) and the Sejm (elected representatives).
In 1505 the Statute of "Nihil Novi" enacted
that nothing new could be decided without Parliament's consent.
This "Golden Age" saw many foreign scholars, writers,
artists and architects attracted to Poland, especially from Renaissance
Italy. It was also the age of Copernicus and of the first great figures in
Polish literature; Mikolaj Rey
(the first to write exclusively in Polish) and Jan Kochanowski
(the "father" of Polish poetry).
This was also, in Europe, a time
of religious diversion and persecution. When pressed to take sides in the
dispute between Catholics and Protestants, the king, 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 throughout the history of Poland
before the partitions; Jews in the 13th century, Hussites
in the 15th, and Catholics from England
in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The Union of Lublin was a formal union of Poland and Lithuania;
the "Rzeczpospolita Polska"
(the Polish Commonwealth). This was formed in 1569.
The Elected Monarchy.
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.
The first elected monarch was Henri d'Anjou,
but he resigned half-way through the year in the hope of succeeding to the
French throne instead. The second election winner was the Transylvanian Voivod (Prince), Stefan Batory,
who became one of Poland's
most celebrated rulers, great in both war and peace.
Batory carried out important reforms,
encouraged further overseas trade and created the first regular Polish infantry
by conscripting peasants from the Royal estates. In 1579 he created the
University at Wilno (the eastern most outpost of
Western European culture).
Between 1579 and 1582 Batory came to the aid of Inflanty (Livonia:
modern day Estonia and Latvia)
which has been attacked by the Muscovite Tsar, Ivan the Terrible. After a
successful campaign and a brilliant victory at Pskov Batory
accepted the Muscovite plea for peace; 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.
After the unexpected death of Batory in
1586, the third election brought the Swedish crown prince, Zygmunt
Vasa, to the throne. 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 his reign the Polish magnates (great lords) rose to a
position of power and would eventually destroy Poland through their greed.
In 1595 and 1596 the Synods of Brzesc (Brest) Litewski saw the Ruthenian (now
Byelorussian and Ukrainian) Orthodox clergy recognise
the supremacy of the Pope whilst retaining their distinctive religious rites
King Zygmunt III Vasa
decided to move the capital from Krakow to Warsaw, the junction of all major routes
crisscrossing the Commonwealth. This was done in 1596.
From 1609 Poland
became involved in a series of wars and was invaded by Swedes, Turks and
Muscovites in such numbers that the country was almost submerged by enemy
forces; this period became known as the "Deluge".
The devastation and loss of life were tremendous and Poland was only saved by a number
of outstanding military commanders (Jan Zamoyski,
Stanislaw Zolkiewski, Jan Karol Chodkiewicz
and Stanislaw Koniecpolski) who archived some great
victories (Kluszyn, 1610; Kircholm,
1605; Chocim, 1612).
One historic episode during the "Deluge" was the defence of Czestochowa,
sacred shrine containing the picture of the Virgin Mary (the "Black
Madonna"), by a small force led by the Prior and his monks against a
besieging army of 9,000 Swedes. This defence actually
changed the course of the war.
A particular danger came from within as the Cossacks (a Turkish
word meaning "freebooter"), a people of mixed origin but mainly Ruthenian and Pole, constantly changed sides, breaking
their oath of allegiance to the Polish King. In 1648 the Cossack Hetman, Chmielnicki, led a great uprising which was put down. Chmielnicki now used the Ukraine
as a pawn between the powers of Poland,
Muscovy and Turkey
which resulted in further wars. 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, in 1659, instigated by Muscovy
(herself attempting to annex the Ukraine) and Polish involvement in war with
Sweden, 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
Following a stormy election, Michal Korybut Wisniowiecki, called "Piast"
(referring to Poland's
earliest dynasty) was elected in 1669. He proved to be largely ineffective and
became a tool of the magnates.
Later, in 1672. the Turks
invaded the Commonwealth and imposed the treaty of Buczacz
on the Poles by which Turkey
occupied Podolia and the southern part of the Kiev region. In 1673,
Hetman Jan Sobieski scored a splendid victory over
the Turks at Chocim which, though not changing the
provisions of the treaty, enabled Sobieski's election
to the throne.
1674-1696 heralded the reign of Jan III Sobieski,
a great military leader who had virtually annihilated the Turkish forces at Chocim and had been given by them the nickname of the
"Fearful Lion of the North." Unable to break into Europe through Poland, the Turks 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, sent the "Hussaria" into their last great charge and took the
Turks unawares. It was a turning point in history.
Originally published at http://www.kasprzyk.demon.co.uk/www/HistoryPolska.html
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