26.9 C
Los Angeles
June 15, 2024
Poland's History

Poland: Her People and Deeds. Part 2

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz


The Jagiellonian Realm

The marriage of Poland’s King Hedwig d’Anjou with Lithuania’s Grand Duke Yogaila (Jagiełło) in 1386 was one of convenience. It was a political and military alliance par excellance against a common foe: the Teutonic Knights. Whereas the crusaders only menaced the Kingdom, they constituted an existential threat to the Grand Duchy, the last pagan state of Europe. Yet, the Polish-Lithuanian geopolitical alliance had to overcome several serious impediments. The Lithuanians were a permanent irritant for the Poles because of their cyclical looting and slave raids into the Kingdom. Having had claimed the patrimony of Kiyv, they also competed with the Poles in the south-east as far out as Halich and Podolia. On the other hand, the pagan Grand Dukes defended the Orthodox Ruthenians from both the waning Mongols (Tatars) and the waxing Muscovites. The latter were virtually of no concern for the Poles at this stage; the former elicited some serious attention. But no one was as threatening as the Teutonic Knights. To thwart them was a priority.

Accordingly, the power of the Order was greatly reduced on the field of Grunwald in 1410. Subsequent wars caused its further degradation until the Knights underwent secularization and their leader became a Lutheran vassal of the Jagiellons and his Prussian realm turned into a fiefdom of the Crown in 1525. Alas, over a hundred years later, the Prussian dukes would rear their ugly heads against their liege lord, the Polish king. By that time, however, the Yogaila’s progeny no longer occupied the Polish throne. There had also been no indication that Prussia would be a threat anymore.

After taming the Teutonic Knights, externally, the Jagiellonian monarchs had cast their eyes further afield. Their interests were chiefly in the east and south. Most of the Kyievian patrimony of Ruthenia came under their control and their influence stretched virtually from the suburbs of Moscow to the Black Sea. They dominated the Baltic coast in its north-eastern stretch. In central and south-eastern Europe the Jagiellonians competed with the Habsburgs and others.

Initially, as Grand Dukes of Lithuania, they successfully beat back the Muscovite attempts to expand west. They acquired most of the Kyivian lands through intermarriage, acculturation, and re-conquest from the Mongols. The territories of western and southern Ruthenia had been largely depopulated and devastated because of the Mongol depredations. Now, under the Grand Duchy of Lithuania they began to recover. Moscow objected. Chronic warfare ensued.

Usually, the Grand Dukes of Lithuania paired military action with diplomatic conciliation as during the wars of 1492-1494, 1534-1537, and 1563-1570. But sometimes they famously trounced the upstart Muscovite pretenders in periodic engagements, most notably at Orsza in 1514. At this early stage, most of the campaigning took place in the north-east of the Jagiellon state. The dukes of Moscow, who meanwhile anointed themselves as “Ceasars” (Tsars) and their realm the “Third Rome,” refused to relent. They pushed toward the Baltic. Poland’s assistance for Lithuania turned increasingly crucial. The protracted duel for the Intermarium lasted for the next several centuries. It was decided long after the demise of the Jagiellonians, when the Dual Monarchy of Poland-Lithuania stood at its zenith.

By the early 16th century, whereas in the east they just aimed to hold their own, the rulers of Cracow aspired to expansion and domination along their southern frontiers. They put their offspring on the thrones of Hungary as well as Bohemia and Moravia. They crusaded periodically in the Balkans against the Ottoman Turks. Most of the time the Polish and Lithuanian forces jousted rather successfully against the Ottoman vassals, in particular in the Danubian Principalities, for example against the Moldavians at Obertyn in 1531. Sometimes, however, the armies of the Polish kings clashed directly with the military of the sultans. Initially, the Turks had the momentum. The Poles suffered stinging defeats in the Crusade of Varna in 1444 and in the Battle of Mohac in 1526. In both instances the Jagiellonian royals perished on the battlefield. The first, King Ladislas, was abandoned by his Hungarian and Venetian allies; the second, King Louis, was left to his own devices as the ruler of Hungary by his own family in Cracow, which at that time pursued a policy of rapprochement with the Sublime Porte.

For the most part, shielded as it was by the Carpathian Divide, the Polish-Lithuanian state remained on a relative periphery of the struggle against the Ottoman Sultanate. It suffered cyclically, alas, from the slave and despoliation raids of the Crimean Tatars, who were the vassals of Istanbul. Poland’s Ukrainian Cossacks responded in kind, usually as freelancers, rather than agents of Cracow, visiting their depredations on the Turks and their dependents. This violent, irregular tug of war persisted well beyond the rule of the Jagiellonian dynasts, as did the duels with Muscovy. Nonetheless, by the middle of the 16th century, the Dual Monarchy of Polish-Lithuania stretched beyond Livonia on the Baltic in the north, past Smolensk in the east, approached the Black Sea in the south, and stopped at Silesia and Pomerania in the west.

Meanwhile, internally, the Jagiellonian monarchs presided over an unprecedented expansion of freedom in their realm as far as early modern Europe is concerned. Much of it stemmed from the fact that the Grand Dukes remained as virtual foreign interlopers in Poland. They lacked a firm native base of support. To perpetuate the rule of their House, they had to ingratiate themselves with the Polish lords and nobility. The best way to succeed was to grant extensive privileges to the nobles and to agree to their systemic innovations.

At first, the Jagiellonian state was an awkward hybrid of autocratic and limited monarchy. The latter prevailed in the crown lands of the Kingdom of Poland. The former dominated in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Following a personal union of 1386 between the two entities, their ruler wore two hats. As the king of Poland, he was restrained in his power by traditional rights and privileges of his Polish subjects. As the Grand Duke of Lithuania, he was the absolute lord and master in an Oriental mode vis-à-vis the hapless Lithuanians, Ruthenians, and others.

There was a serious compatibility problem. Latin Poland stood awkwardly out next to the pagan and Orthodox Christian Lithuania. Latin prevailed in government and church. Polish remained the main vernacular, although German continued to function in cities and certain settlements. The peasants and the burghers retained some of their legal gains from the Piast times, but slowly they began losing their grounds vis-à-vis the nobility. Overall, however, under the Jagiellonians the legal and administrative system of the Crown lands continued gradually to advance toward ever greater freedom, in particular as far as the lords and gentry. Unlike in most other places in Europe, Poland’s nobility was extremely numerous, accounting perhaps for over 10% of the population. (By comparison, the French nobles hovered around 1% and the Germans stood at about 2% of all inhabitants). Thus, granting laws to the Polish nobility signified empowering a large chunk of the royal subjects. This was unprecedented at the time.

Among several watershed laws we should mention the following. The Act of Czerwińsk in 1422 guaranteed the inviolability of private property. It also limited the king’s fiscal power by making the minting of new money contingent upon the agreement of the royal council. Further, the act provided for a division between the executive and judiciary branches at the lowest level (a royal starosta could not be a judge). It finally mandated that the judges base themselves upon written law, and not oral tradition.

Next, the Polish nobility extracted the right to the security of their persons. In 1425 in Brześć Kujawski, in 1431 in Jedlnia, and in 1433 in Cracow the king agreed to Neminem captivabimus nisi iure victum: “no one shall be imprisoned without a valid court verdict.” This pre-dated England’s habeus corpus by about 150 years. In 1454 in Cerekwica and Nieszawa the king agreed that no taxes, laws, or military draft should be implemented without the consent of the regional dietines (sejmiki).

In 1493 the king consented to a bi-cameral parliament at the national level (Sejm and Senat). The Church lost its right to interfere in secular courts. In 1501 at Mielnik the monarch’s prerogative was subordinated to the will of the Senate. Henceforth, if the king refused to obey by the senatorial vote, the subjects had no duty to recognize him as their sovereign. In 1504 at Piotrków the ruler allowed both chambers of the parliament to control the grants of royal lands, to vet highest royal officials, and to ban them from accumulating more than one royal office at once.

In 1505 a new constitution was enacted at Radom which abrogated the Act of Mielnik. The new basic law stated unequivocally that Nihil Novi sine communi consensu: “nothing new about us without us” (nic nowego bez nas). This was an equivalent of the American “no taxation without representation.” It shifted the power in the land from the lords in the Senate to the gentry in the Sejm. Along with the statues of Nieszawa, the new constitution ushered in “the golden freedom” of the “noble democracy.”

In time, similar systemic arrangements slowly spread east from the Kingdom of Poland to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The culture and the people there were different, not Western. Initially, they were only united with the Poles through the person of the ruler. In the Grand Duchy the Orthodox element dominated not only among the people but also among the boyars and at the court, which was heavily Ruthenized. The language of government and liturgy was Old Church Slavonic. Most people spoke Ruthenian, only a rather small minority used Lithuanian. Eventually, however, the Westernization asserted itself. To preserve their identity pagan Samogitian warriors converted to Latin Christianity. However, that eventually paved the way to their Polonization. The process took a rather long time, naturally. To encourage their conversion, the Grand Duke granted them the privileges of Wilno and Piotrków in 1386 and 1387, respectively, which guaranteed that their children could inherit their estates, a crucial victory for property rights in the Grand Duchy. The Samogitian nobles were also admitted into the Polish heraldric clans at the Union of Horodło in 1413. This was a significant step to Westernize the Lithuanian elite and legally synchronize it with the Polish nobility.

Gradually, also the Orthodox Ruthenian boyars were granted the Polish coats of arms and accorded analogous honors and rights as the Poles and Samogitians. The process commenced with Act of Jedlno of 1430 and progressed with the privilege of Grodno of 1432. It culminated in the Act of Troki of 1434. In essence, the conclusion of the process signified equal rights for the members of the noble political nation of the Crown of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, their confession notwithstanding.

Other rights followed. Already in 1443 the king promised to apply Polish laws and privileges in the Grand Duchy. Accordingly, in 1447 the nobility of the Duchy received the right of Neminem captivabimus. Slowly, the Lithuanians and Ruthenians began developing their local self-government and other institutions indispensable for the rule of law and democracy. The Lithuanian Statues were updated to foster freedom. But after the middle of the 16th century the Jagiellonian dynasty found itself in a state of terminal crisis. The last king, Sigismund Augustus, was issueless. The monarch desired to leave a permanent legacy of his family. Nothing short of a federal union between the two realms would make the system permanent.

Accordingly, in 1569 at Lublin, the Crown of Poland and the Grand Duchy entered into a federation. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (Respublica) was born. Both parts became fully compatible, while maintaining separate institutions, including parliaments, armies, and treasuries. Naturally, the King of Poland served automatically also as the Grand Duke of Lithuania. The person of the monarch remained the symbolic fulcrum of the system.

Throughout, the Lithuanian and Ruthenian underlings of the Grand Dukes clamored for rights accorded to the subjects of the Kings of Poland. And they became the beneficiaries of the Polish struggle for liberty and noble democracy. This was because the Crown lands, as mentioned, developed their unique system of freedom at a steady pace. In fact, Poland set a paradigm that would emerge in the West only centuries afterwards. One can argue that, indeed, in early modern Europe Poland was the West. Admittedly, as far as scholarship, science, art, literature, music, economy, and other pursuits the Crown lands were naturally heavily indebted to the West. But the development of laws and government far outstripped anything obtainable in Western Europe at the time.

Freedom continued to accrue impressively under the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania. One only needs to enumerate some of an impressive lineup of giants to appreciate the contributions of their realm to the world’s treasury of justice, liberty, and self-government. On the domestic reform front:

  • Wawrzyniec Grzymała Goślicki (1530?-1607) was the first to write about the tridivision of power (legislative, executive, judiciary) in his De Optimo Senatore (1568). (Incidentally, Denmark’s prime minister Polonius in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet voiced Goślicki’s views.)
  • Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski (1503-1572) proposed abolishing serfdom and granting equal rights to all citizens from all classes.

As far as Poland’s pioneering thinkers in domestic reform and international relations,

  • Stanisław ze Skarbimierza (1365?-1431) wrote on just war (a century before Grotius); he stressed that cooperation with pagans was possible
  • Paweł Włodkowic (Paulus Vladimiri) (1370?-1435) lectured on religious tolerance internationally and argued that there should be no conversion with fire and sword (Council of Constance, 1414-1418); he was arguably one of the first to advance the idea of national selfdetermination.
  • Jan Ostroróg (1436-1501) elaborated on the idea of state sovereignty (100 years before Jean Bodin)
  • Jakub Przyłuski (1512-1554) taught about diplomatic immunity and validity of treaties, i.e., keeping one’s word even with enemies (1548)
  • Jan Tarnowski (1448-1561) who was a great military leader, focused on humanitarian aspects of war and spoke out against aggression (1558)
  • Krzysztof Warszewicki (1543-1603) expounded on the system of diplomatic relations (1595) (a score of years ahead of Hugo Grotius).

The spirit of those ideas infused and guided the Commonwealth for the next two hundred years.


In the Commonwealth, in general, as far as stereotypes, the nobles prospered, the burghers struggled, and the peasants endured. The minorities enjoyed autonomous arrangements, and so did all the estates to a various degree. All simply shared in the vicissitudes of their country. And although liberty pertained mostly to the nobility, other estates and minorities partook of that right.

The freedom of conscience was the most far reaching and universal right and phenomenon in the Commonwealth. The Noble Republic was in fact multi-religious and multiethnic. Freedom of autonomous estates and confessional groups was possible because of the Commonwealth’s famed tolerance. Religious liberty grew incrementally apace and it was finally enshrined in law. Upon hearing that the Catholic fanatics massacred the allegedly seditious Protestants of Paris, the Sejm enacted the Confederation of Warsaw in 1573. This absolutely unprecedented piece of legislation guaranteed freedom of religion not just to the Orthodox, Uniates, Lutherans, Calvinists, and other mainline Protestants, but also to various Protestant sects, including the anti-Trinitarians, as well as to Jews and Muslims. All inhabitants benefited from this act of parliament. The noble nation found cuius region, eius religio (he who rules a region gets to impose his religion) repulsive. There was no official campaign of conversion. The last of the Jagiellon rulers famously remarked, “I am not a king of your conscience.” The nobility took the hint. Calvinist lords did not compel their Catholic peasants to switch their faith. Catholic aristocrats left their Orthodox serfs in peace. And no one cared what confession the burghers adhered to.

The system naturally favored the nobles: an unbelievable 1 million of them participated as full fledged citizens in the political process, a level of involvement not exceeded until the early 19th century in the US and the UK. For the nobility, the Commonwealth was a paradise. They continued as the political nation. They enjoyed unprecedented liberties, the “Golden Freedom,” in particular in comparison to the tyrannical realities of the absolutist West, the autocratic East (Muscovy), and the despotic South (the Ottoman Empire).

In distinction to those unfree systems, the Commonwealth evolved a constitutio mixta: a republic and a monarchy in one. The king was elected for life. He automatically acquired the title of the Grand Duke of Lithuania. Sometimes the ruler attempted to secure an electio vivendi (while still alive) for his son. Generally, the nobility preferred to wait for the monarch’s demise to vote for his successor who, frequently, was, indeed, a relative of the departed one.

Arguably, more important than the royal elections to the salubrious development of the republic was the local self-government. County democracy was vibrant, vivacious, and, sometimes, violent. The nobility would assemble in churches or, if the weather was clement, at cemeteries and debate endlessly on local and national issues. Occasionally it could even come to blows. They cast ballots or voted by acclamation. Deputies would be then elected to provincial dietines (sejmik wojewódzki) and the national parliament (Sejm). They would proceed with instructions how to vote. Should they have disregarded the instructions, they would have had an infuriated crowd on their necks upon the return home.

If the abuse of power was serious, either by the king or the parliament, the citizen-nobles had a right to a lawful revolt called confederacy (konfederacja). In distinction, an illegal rebellion was considered sedition (rokosz). Jarring injustices could thus be remedied by the recourse of arms. In most instances, that entailed only an armed demonstration, shouting, and negotiations. Very infrequently, such displays of civic disobedience turned bloody, including degenerating into civil wars.

Paradoxically, aside from the principle of democratic accountability, the system rested upon a philosophical conviction that the majority must not tyrannize a minority, even a minority of one. A peculiar parliamentary and constitutional device emerged: the liberum veto – “I freely disallow.” It evolved from a medieval arrangement which, in pursuit of absolute concord, dictated that a single dissenting vote sufficed to nullify any legislation. For a few hundreds of years, in the hands of responsible citizens, the liberum veto served as a mechanism to slow down the legislative process and, in case of an objection, to adjourn, hammer out a compromise, and return to the floor of the Sejm to pass the law in congruence with the principle of anonymity.

In the long run, alas, the principle of unanimity proved to be a lethal factor that mightily contributed to the demise of the Commonwealth. After the middle of the 17th century, after a few hundred years of a successful run, foreign and domestic lobbyists took advantage of the liberum veto to manipulate the Noble Republic. They corrupted parliamentary deputies with bribes and prompted them to vote against legislation considered inimical to the interests of foreign potentates and domestic special interest groups, mostly aristocratic. For example, the Prussians and the Muscovites used their gold to engender a state of a permanent constitutional paralysis regarding Poland’s defense legislation. Anytime the majority wanted to reform the nation’s military and levy taxes towards this end, the foreign lobbyists bought a “nay” vote from a single venal deputy.

Nation and Society, 15-18th Centuries

Although the nobles were politically dominant, they were just the political nation. Other groups, estates, and classes counted as the rest of the society, outnumbering the nobility perhaps 1 to 10. They lived apart in their corporate worlds, but their lives intersected and, sometimes, even overlapped. There was much more co-existence than conflict within the Commonwealth.

Peasants, of course, constituted the bulk of the population. They usually adhered either to Latin Christianity or Eastern Orthodoxy. In general, the village lived its own life regulated by seasons: idling in winter and bustling in summer. Agricultural cycles dictated the rhythm of the rural existence. For a time, until late 16th century, the countryside continued to enjoy its traditional arrangements. Village commune was the basis for the local, limited self-government. Rustic elders ran their community affairs, turning occasionally to either the priest or the lord to adjudicate more complicated issues.

Serfdom, however, waxed increasingly harsh as Poland became the breadbasket of Europe. The demand for grain spurred the need for labor discipline. That, in turn, translated into a preference for serfdom over rent farming by the peasants. Each noble aspired to sell as much grain abroad as possible but also to run his estate as an autarchy. This was to avoid buying industrial (and luxury) goods from abroad and to secure serf labor. Peasants were forbidden to leave their localities. Nonetheless, despite restrictions on movement of the peasants, many, in particular young men, flaunted them. They traveled seasonally from one estate to the next as well as into towns, offering their services as factotum. Entire families fled to the eastern borderlands where they were gladly accepted by the Ruthenian, Lithuanian, and Polish aristocrats who often freed them from any taxes for a generation or more to attract settlers.

Overall, whenever an estate had a resident landowner, the lot of the serfs tended to be better because the relationship was personalized. Absentee landlords hired estate managers and tax farmers, Christians and Jews, who were profit-driven and thus less inclined to particularize their intercourse with the serfs. Thus, small and medium estates were preferable from the point of view of the people. Because of all this, the bite of serfdom was less than its bark. Nonetheless, subject to the agricultural cycles and weather change, the peasants also were afflicted by political and military woes, war in particular. But both civil strife and foreign invasions impacted everyone in the Commonwealth, in particular after the second half of the 17th century.

Meanwhile, the Vistula and Baltic grain boom strengthened the cities greatly, which reached their pinnacle of power in the 16th century. Autonomous guilds and other corporations dominated the city life. The patricians sat perched on top of the economic, social, cultural, and political urban pyramids. They controlled the city councils. Their power was curtailed, however, by the town royal supervisor. By the first half of the 17th century the nobility in the Parliament introduced further measures to thwart the advance of the burgher estate. Most importantly they were forbidden to own land. The burghers aspired to emulate the nobility, at least to lead a noble lifestyle, rather than assert themselves in their own social stations. The towns increased in size, not only because of prosperity and peace, but also because of steady migration from France, Italy, and, especially, Germany. The Dutch, on the other hand, generally preferred to settle in the countryside.

The Christian burghers of all denominations competed with various minorities over the urban space. Jews, Scots, and Armenians found the town environment quite congenial. They also enjoyed full autonomy in the Commonwealth as separate confessional, and ethno-cultural, groups. There were very few nobility among them. Scottish soldiers occasionally were ennobled, or, even less frequently, had their foreign gentry status recognized legally in Poland. The Scottish autonomy was based on their Presbyterian congregations. The bulk of Scotts resided in towns and plied trade and industry. Same applied to the Armenians, whose monophysite Christian confession was recognized as a basis for their self-government. Armenian nobility were rather few but they did achieve prominence in some instances. The Tatar minority had their nobles and soldiers who were renowned for their bellicosity. Muslim religion formed the basis of their community self-government. But the Tatars preferred the countryside over the cities.

Poland’s Jews were usually town dwellers. In the east, where many preferred to settle in aristocratic private towns, they dominated small and medium size cities, while constituting a large chunk of the population in large urban centers such as Wilno/Vilna/Vilnius. Noble Jews were perfect exceptions. Generally, the only road to ennoblement was conversion: in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania if a Jew embraced Catholicism, he was automatically ennobled. He would then no longer be considered Jewish by either his own people or by his fellow Polish nobles. The vast majority of Jews nonetheless preferred to stay within their own community. They concentrated on trade, crafts, usury, and inn-keeping. They often held vodka monopolies from the nobility and worked as tax farmers and estate managers.

Periodically, the Jewish community leaders were selected by their fellows to attend the Council of Four Lands which was a proto-Jewish parliament in the Commonwealth. The Council dealt with all affairs pertinent to the Jewish life and assessed taxes from the adherents of Judaism to the king. The Jewish autonomy was arguably most advanced for it had an all-Polish dimension.

Except for the peasants and the Jews, unless converted and noble, and, thus, considered Polish, virtually all estate and autonomous groups had their representatives in throughout the electoral system. The Armenian, Tatar, and Scottish minorities sent their nobles to the local and provincial dietines and, afterwards, to the national parliament, where they were treated as “Poles,” that is the political nation of the Polish nobility. The burghers attended the deliberations strictly as observers but they naturally enough lobbied for laws favorable to themselves. And so did everyone else, including primarily the magnates. More nefariously, Poland was the only country in Europe to allow foreign lobbies in its capital. As long as the Commonwealth was powerful, they were rather easily manageable. With the nation’s decline from the middle of the 17th century, the foreign lobbies – Muscovites and Prussians in particular — spelled doom for the nation’s sovereignty.

Wars of the 17th Century

Wars never stopped. The Crown of Poland and the Grand Duchy experienced a fair share of them. They resulted in the utter ruin of the realm. The enemies and rivals remained the same for the most part: they were the neighbors. Most wars were fought either with a small respite or simultaneously along most frontiers and, increasingly, within the Commonwealth.

The western frontier remained rather peaceful until the 18th century. Thankfully, Germany was divided and, additionally, rent asunder by the wars of religion. Protestant Prussia was Poland’s vassal and emerged as a renewed challenge only in the second half of the 17th century when it allied itself with Sweden against its liege lord in Warsaw. When the Poles regained the upper hand, Prussia-Branderburg switched sides and fought against the Swedes.

Sweden had a bone to pick with the Commonwealth because of Stockholm’s expansion in the north-east Baltic lands to control trade and because of a dynastic quarrel. The Swedes deposed a Catholic Vasa and replaced him with his Protestant uncle. The Catholic, Sigismund III Vasa (1566-1632), had a Jagiellonian mother and, before inheriting the Swedish crown, he was elected as the King of Poland and the Grand Duke of Lithuania. The usurpation led to the dissolution of the personal union between Sweden and the Commonwealth and prompted the resumption of a prolonged conflict in the north, which had broken out already in the middle of the 16th century.

Six wars were fought between 1563 and 1660. Initially, the Poles more than held their own, e.g., overcoming a Swedish-Muscovite alliance in 1570; then trouncing the Swedes at Kirkholm in 1605; and recapturing a string of fortresses in Kurland in 1618. Later, the tide turned. The Poles were defeated at Walmojza (Walhoff) and Kiesia in 1626. The wars expanded south to Prussia and Pomerania. The Swedes swiftly occupied a number of fortresses but failed to take Gdańsk. The Poles fought back with success scoring victories at Czarne and Oliwa in 1627 only to be beaten at Górzno and avenging themselves at Trzciana in 1629. Ultimately, the Pomeranian campaign was a draw.

The year 1655, however, saw the ignominious calamity of Sweden occupying northern, western, and central Crown lands, as well as the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Initially, there was almost no resistance. Instead, most prominent Poles collaborated in the Swedish occupation of their nation. The result was a total devastation and despoliation of the realm: up to 40% of the population perished, and about 50% of national wealth was lost. Resistance waxed slowly and it took on religious overtones of Catholicism vs. Protestantism. After five years, including a popular uprising and a tactical alliance with the Danes, Tatars, and the Habsburgs, to expel the Swedes completely.

One of the main reasons for the relative easy of the initial Swedish success, aside from liberty turning into license and the noble democratic system degenerating from within, was a multicornered invasion. The Commonwealth was forced to deal simultaneously with a Muscovite, Prussian, and Hungarian offensives as well as a Cossack rebellion.

The Ukrainian Cossacks revolted several times, most severely in 1648 until 1657. These freebooter auxiliaries wanted to be ennobled and enrolled in the Polish royal armies at full strength, and not just in increments. They desired a general war against the Ottoman Empire. When denied their demands, and threats of enserfment terrified and stung them, the Cossacks made a common cause with dissatisfied Orthodox peasants and embarked upon an anarchical orgy of killing the Polish nobles, Catholic priests, and Jewish denizens of the south-eastern Commonwealth. The rebels won a number of battles (Żółte Wody, Korsuń, and Piławce in 1648; Winnica in 1651; Batoh in 1652), Yet, ultimately, they failed to exterminate the Crown forces and suffered several serious reversals (Łojów in 1649 and 1651; and Krasne, Kopyczyńce, and Beresteczko in 1651). Thus, the Cossacks appealed, in turn, to the Ottoman Sultan and, then, the Muscovite Tsar for an alliance. Accordingly, the Kremlin launched a war against the Commonwealth (1654-1657), and the Great Porte joined soon after. In consequence, the Cossack rebels lost their independence and, eventually, the Ukraine was absorbed into the Russian Empire and the Ukrainian Cossacks were utterly crushed at the end of the 17th century with the mop up operations concluded by the second half of the 18th century.

The Muscovites saw the Cossack rebellion as a stepping stone to overcome the Commonwealth in the competition for what Moscow saw as “Russian lands,” which were, in fact, Ruthenian territories of the Grand Duchy rescued from the Mongols. As mentioned, the wars with the Kremlin commenced in the 15th century. Until early 17th century the Commonwealth tended to best the “Third Rome”. During the successive campaigns of 1577-1582 the Poles thwarted the Muscovites in their drive toward the Baltic and liberated all cities and fortresses seized by them, including Polotsk (Połock). Some elements of the Commonwealth’s military penetrated as far as the upper Volga.

The next stage of the conflict with Muscovy came during the Time of Troubles. As the throne of the Kremlin was vacant, the Ruthenian, Lithuanian, and Polish magnates involved themselves in the succession struggles in Moscow. A private expedition promoted pretenders, first of whom was enthusiastically greeted by the people and boyars in 1605. The romance soon went sour, fighting erupted, and “the Poles” slaughtered or expelled. At this point the private aristocratic parties turned to the King and parliament for succor. The government of the Commonwealth became officially involved and a war broke out (1609-1619). The Poles emerged victorious (Kłuszyn in 1610 and Smolensk in 1611). Eventually, they captured Moscow. The boyars elected the heir apparent of the ruler of the Commonwealth to be the new tsar, provided he converted to Orthodoxy. The prince’s father, king Sigismund III Vasa, refused to sign the peace treaty as he coveted the Kremlin and dreamt about imposing Catholicism on Moscow. The war continued officially until 1619. It broke out anew in 1632 over Smolensk, which fell to the Muscovites but the Poles recaptured it again two years later.

There was a relative respite until the Cossack rebellion, when their Muscovite ally invaded the Commonwealth again in 1654 and within two years conquered much of the eastern marches of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. A cease fire was brokered only to be broken by a new Muscovite attack to punish the Poles for achieving an agreement of reconciliation with the Cossacks. The Kremlin’s thrust pushed their dominion up to the Crown lands far in the west in 1658. The invaders were ultimately expelled after the victories at Płonka and Cudnów in 1660. Although the Kremlin promised to return Smolensk and eastern Ukraine with Kyiv, the eastern frontier lands with their fortresses never reverted to the Commonwealth. The Ukraine was effectively partitioned with the eastern half accruing to Moscow. This was finally recognized by a treaty of 1686 after much diplomatic bargaining and dangling before the Poles the false prospect of the Muscovite participation in a joint war against the Ottoman Empire. Meanwhile, the Commonwealth bore the brunt of the Turkish anger.

The main irritant between the Commonwealth and the Sublime Porte was the mutual raids by the Cossacks, on the one hand, and the Tatars, on the other. The former ravaged and looted the Ottoman lands. The latter raided the Commonwealth, where they burned, pillaged, and carried off people to sell them into slavery. The fighting consisted largely of slave rescue operations. The Tatar units were hunted down, the slavers slaughters, and the slaves freed. This routine repeated itself with varied success yearly, sometimes even more often, between the late 15th and the early 18th centuries. For example, in 1572, in a most glorious engagement future king John III Sobieski and his 3,000 winged knights mowed down about 30,000 Tatars and freed about 45,000 slaves.

From time to time, however, the Turks themselves would embark on an expedition against the Poles. The main bone of contention between them was geopolitics. Usually, the casus belli concerned the Polish meddling in the Turkish vassal states on the Danube, in particular Moldavia and Transylvania. Cracow and, later, Warsaw preferred to have a friendly Moldavian ruler (Hospodar) or Transylvanian prince in power. That entailed a constant involvement in their dynastic intrigues and, on periodically, a military incursion into the Ottoman dependencies. Sometimes Istambul agreed about the need to chastise its vassal by the Poles. Oftentimes it objected, however, for instance when the Poles rescued Vienna from the onslaught of the Transylvanian vassals of the Sultan in 1613.

In the 16th century the Poles were busy mostly swatting the Tatars and containing the Turkish Danubian underlings. In the 17th century they found themselves facing off with the Ottomans. The Polish Crown army was utterly destroyed at Cecora in 1620; but the Lithuanian Duchy army defeated the Turks at Chocim in 1621. Afterwards the Sublime Porte meddled in the Polish affairs indirectly during the Cossack rebellion, the Muscovite wars, and the Swedish invasion, allowing the Tatar vassals to switch sides. Then, in 1672, the Turks attacked again. They captured Podolia with its fortress of Kamieniec Podolski as well as much of central Ukraine. After destroying the Turkish army at Chocim in 1673, the Poles won much of it back but had to wait to reclaim Kamieniec Podolski until 1699. By that time the Poles, under Sobieski, scored their greatest victory in a crusade against the Ottomans. They largely annihilated a Turkish army besieging Vienna in 1683. That was also arguably the last major and lasting triumph of the Polish arms until 1920.

Decrepitude and Expiration in the 18th Century

Staggering from its war wounds, the Commonwealth had fallen into decrepitude by the 18th century. The economy, society, and military were a shambles. County democracy was still robust but political paralysis at the central level was permanent and terminal. Belated reforms, in the second half of the 18th century, failed to reverse the death spiral of the nation.

At the beginning of the entury, Poland became a military exercise ground for her neighbors. Foreign armies marched through it at will and with complete impunity. The lands of the Commonwealth were both witness and victim of the Great Northern War (1700-1721), but not participants on their own will. Where forces of Russia, Sweden, Prussia, Austria, and France clashed in the Polish-Lithuanian realm, the Poles failed to act unless commandeered to do so on the behalf of the warring sides from 1704. The Polish role was limited to supplying troops, treasure, and provisions to benefit others. The combatants openly meddled in parliamentary proceedings and royal elections, advancing their favorite candidates for the highest office of the nation.

Noble democracy at the top became a farce manipulated by the French, Swedish, Russian, Prussian, and Austrian potentates. The parliament frequently was either not assembled at all or “deliberated” under the threat of foreign guns. Literarily, alien troops would file in to force the deputies to either abstain from a vote or cast a ballot favorable to an outside potentate. Sometimes the foreign “lobbyists” swaggered with cannon before the Sejm. Obstinate Polish politicians were kidnapped and shipped off to Siberia.

The Commonwealth froze. Its leaders were either in the pay of the occupying forces or bent on waiting the invasion out, or both. Some believed that Poland was such an important element in the European balance of power that its very weakness was a guarantee of its perpetual survival for it threatened no one. The conservatives foolishly deluded themselves that only if they stick rigidly to the letter of the law and the past constitutions of the Golden Freedom would they be able to preserve the Commonwealth. On the other hand, always happy to throw the baby out with the bath water, the progressives were eager for a new beginning. They giddily embraced exciting theories of the Enlightenment flowing in from the West and agitated to dump tradition as an allegedly dead weight preventing any reform of the Commonwealth. The sorrowful tragedy was that neither the traditionalists nor the modernizers found a way to effect a synthesis that would result in creating a viable model of reform of Poland both firmly anchored in the past and forward looking toward the future. Instead, they operated at cross purposes, paralyzing each other’s efforts.

Nonetheless the resistance commenced. The first outburst came from the traditionalist side, which called for a general rebellion of the nobility – the Confederacy of Bar (1769-1772). It was led by the future hero of the American War for Independence, Kazimierz Pułaski (1745-1779). The Confederates were fiercely suppressed by the Russians acting ostensibly on the behest of their puppet, King Stanisław August Poniatowski (1732-1798). The Confederacy provided an excuse to partition the Commonwealth for the first time. Russia devoured a huge chunk of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania; Austria swallowed much of western Ukraine; and Prussia sliced off Pomerania, thus cutting Poland off of the sea. Now the Russian Empire proclaimed itself an official protector of the Commonwealth and empathically promised to safeguard the integrity of the Polish state. The puppet king and the collaborationist deputies were handsomely paid to legalize the partition.

The Polish patriots responded with a flurry of reforms. Most of them were in a very progressive vain. An assault against tradition commenced. Among other things, Europe’s first education ministry was created to secularize teaching and undermine the Church. The reformers preferred centralization. They wanted to disenfranchise the petty nobility and introduce a property requirement to extend the franchise to the burghers. But they also undertook bold moves to strengthen and modernize the armed forces. Finally, the reformers staged a constitutional coup d’etat to enact the Constitution of May 3rd, 1791. Europe’s first written basic law, it was based upon the American Constitution.

That was too much for the absolutist monarchs of Russia and Prussia. Their armies invaded the Commonwealth the following year. The Poles promptly lost the war, although not for the lack of valor which belatedly reappeared. Another partition followed but Austria sat it out this time around. The Commonwealth was now reduced to a tiny rump state between Warsaw, Cracow, and Wilno.

The Poles should have frozen or at least limited themselves to seemingly non-threatening reforms of economy and education, while remaining within the traditionalist framework. Instead, their progressive leaders undertook revolutionary measures. However, they failed to grasp that the revolution in France was setting Europe aflame and, thus, the geopolitical situation turned quite fluid after 1789. Troubles for Austria, Prussia, and Russia spelled strategic opportunities for the Commonwealth. It was enough for the Poles to persevere quietly to preserve their state. Instead, the progressives moved without prudence and enacted their constitution thus triggering an invasion and the second partition in 1793.

Soon the desperate patriots made another bid for freedom. The hero of the United States General Tadeusz Kościuszko (1746-1817) returned home and launched an insurrection in 1794. This was in essence the last confederacy of the old Commonwealth and the first nationalist uprising with some participation of the common people, a momentous event, not seen since the Swedish invasion of 1655 and the Tatar incursions of 1672. It was all in vain. Russia and Prussia attacked again and defeated the insurgents rather swiftly. The third partition followed, with Austria helping itself to Cracow, and Russia and Prussia sharing the rest. Finis Poloniae it was not. The struggle for freedom continued at home and abroad.

part 1
part 3
part 4

Note: Original content of poloniainstitute.net. Permission to republish with a valid reference to Polonia Institute publication is hereby granted.

Related posts

Henryk Prajs: If anybody says to me today that the Polish villages were anti-Semitic, I tell them that they are lying.


Poland appeals to US Congress for help in obtaining WWII reparations from Germany

Admin TH

HOUSE OF COMMONS ON POLAND, London, Thursday, March 15, 1945


Wykaz żołnierzy AK


Glory to Polish Heroes of 1944 Warsaw Uprising against Germans

Admin TH

Poland, March 1968: the students, the workers, the nation


This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More

Privacy & Cookies Policy