The Historical Text Archive: Electronic History Resources, online since 1990 Bringing you digitized history, primary and secondary sources
HTA Home Page | E-books | Europe | Early History of Poland

23: Early History of Poland

<< 22: Extra-Parliamentary Government || 24: The Reformation Period >>

POLAND (Polish Polska, Ger. Polen) till the end of the 18th century was a kingdom extending (with Lithuania) over the basins of the Warta, Vistula, Dwina, Dnieper and upper Dniester, and had under its dominions, besides the Poles proper and the Baltic Slavs, the Lithuanians, the White Russians and the Little Russians or Ruthenians.

We possess no certain historical data relating to Poland till the end of the 10th century. It would seem, from a somewhat obscure passage in the chronicle compiled from older sources by Nestor, a monk of Kiev (d. c. 1115), that the progenitors of the Poles, originally established on the Danube, were driven from thence by the Romans to the still wilder wilderness of central Europe, settling finally among the virgin forests and impenetrable morasses of the basin of the upper waters of the Oder and the Vistula. Here the Lechici, as they called themselves (a name derived from the mythical patriarch, Lech), seemed to have lived for centuries, in loosely connected communities, the simple lives of huntsmen, herdsmen and tillers of the soil, till the pressure of rapacious neighbours compelled them to combine for mutual defence. Of this infant state the so-called kingdom of the Piasts (from Piast, its supposed founder), we know next to nothing. Its origin, its territory, its institutions are so many insoluble riddles. The earliest Polish chroniclers, from Gallus in the early 12th century to Janko of Czarnkow¹ in the 14th, are of little help to us. The only facts of importance to be gleaned from them are that Prince Ziemovit, the great-grandfather of Mieszko (Mieczyslaw) I. (962-992), wrested from the vast but tottering Moravian Empire the province of Chrobacyja (extending from the Carpathians to the Bug), and that Christianity was first preached on the Vistula by Greek Orthodox missionary monks. Mieszko himself was converted by Jordan, the chaplain of his Bohemian consort, Dobrawa or Bona, and when Jordan became the first bishop of Posen, the people seem to have followed the example of their prince. But the whole movement was apparently the outcome not of religious conviction, but of political necessity. The Slavonic peoples, whose territories then extended to the Elbe, and embraced the whole southern shore of the Baltic, were beginning to recoil before the vigorous impetus of the Germans in the West, who regarded their pagan neighbours in much the same way as the Spanish Conquistadores regarded the Aztecs and the Incas. To accept Christianity, at least formally, was therefore a prudential safeguard on the part of the Slavonians. This was thoroughly understood by Mieszko's son Boleslaus I. (992- 1025) who went a considerable step farther than his father. Mieszko had been content to be received on almost any terms into the Christian community, Boleslaus aimed at securing the independence of the Polish Church as an additional guarantee of the independence of the Polish nation. It was Boleslaus who made the church at Gnesen in Great Poland a national shrine by translating thither the relics of the martyred missionary, St Adalbert of Prague. Subsequently he elevated Gnesen into the metropolitan see of Poland, with jurisdiction over the bishoprics of Cracow, Breslau and Kolberg, all three of these new sees, it is important to notice, being in territory conquered by Boleslaus; for hitherto both Cracow and Breslau had been Bohemian cities, while Kolberg was founded to curb the lately subjugated Pomeranians. Boleslaus was also the first Polish prince to bear the royal title, which seems to have been conferred upon him by Otto III. in 1000, though as Boleslaus crowned himself king a second time in 1025, it is evident that he regarded the validity of his first coronation as

¹ Archdeacon of Gnesen, 1367; vice-chancellor of Poland; d. c. 1387.

somewhat doubtful. He was primarily a warrior, whose reign, an almost uninterrupted warfare, resulted in the formation of a vast kingdom extending from the Baltic to the Carpathians, and from the Elbe to the Bug. But this imposing superstructure rested on the flimsiest of foundations. In less than twenty years after the death of its founder, it collapsed before a combined attack of all Poland's enemies, and simultaneously a terrible pagan reaction swept away the poor remnants of Christianity and civilization. For a time Poland proper became a smoking wilderness, and wild beasts made their lairs in the ruined and desecrated churches. Under Boleslaus II. (1058-1079) and Boleslaus III. (1102-1139) some of the lost provinces, notably Silesia and Pomerania, were recovered and Poland was at least able to maintain her independence against the Germans. Boleslaus III., moreover, with the aid of St Otto, bishop of Bamberg, succeeded in converting the heathen Pomeranians (1124-1128), and making head against paganism generally.

The last act of Boleslaus III. was to divide his territories among his sons, whereby Poland was partitioned into no fewer than four, and ultimately into as many as eight, principalities, many of which (Silesia and Great Poland for instance) in process of time split up into still smaller fractions all of them more or less bitterly hostile to each other. This partitional period, as Polish historians generally call it, lasted from 1138 to 1305, during which Poland lost all political significance, and became an easy prey to her neighbours. The duke of Little Poland, who generally styled himself duke of Poland, or dux totius Poloniae, claimed a sort of supremacy among these little states, a claim materially strengthened by the wealth and growing importance of his capital, Cracow, especially after Little Poland had annexed the central principality of Sieradia (Sieradz). But Masovia to the north, and Great Poland to the north-west, refused to recognize the supremacy of Little Poland, while Silesia soon became completely germanized. It was at the beginning of this period too, between 1216 and 1224, that Pomerania, under an energetic native dynasty, freed herself from the Polish suzerainty. Nearly a generation later (1241) the Tatar hordes, under Batu, appeared for the first time on the confines of Poland. The Polish princes opposed a valiant but ineffectual resistance; the towns of Sandomir and Cracow were reduced to ashes, and all who were able fled to the mountains of Hungary or the forests of Moravia. Pursuing his way to Silesia, Batu overthrew the confederated Silesian princes at Liegnitz (April 9), and, after burning all the Silesian towns, invaded Hungary, where he routed King Béla IV. on the banks of the Sajó. But this marked the limit of his triumph. Exhausted and diminished by the stout and successful opposition of the Moravians at Olmütz, the Tatars vanished as suddenly as they had appeared, leaving a smoking wilderness behind them.

Batu's invasion had an important influence upon the social and political development of Poland. The only way of filling up the gaps in the population of the ravaged land was to invite foreign immigrants of a superior class, chapmen and handicraftsmen, not only given to peaceful pursuits and accustomed to law and order, but capable of building and defending strong cities. Such immigrants could naturally be obtained only from the civilized west, and on their own terms. Thus it came about that the middle-class element was introduced into Polish society for the first time. Immediately dependent upon the prince, from whom they obtained their privileges, the most important of which were self- government and freedom from taxation, these traders soon became an important factor in the state, counterpoising, to some extent, the influence of the gentry, enriching the land by developing its resources, and promoting civilization by raising the standard of comfort.

Most of these German citizens in process of time were absorbed by the Polish population, and became devoted, heart and soul, to their adopted country, but these were not the only Germans with whom the young Polish state had now to deal. In the first year of the 13th century, the Knights of the Sword, one of the numerous orders of crusading military monks, had been founded in Livonia to "convert" the pagan Letts, and, in 1208, the still more powerful Teutonic Order was invited by Duke Conrad of Masovia to settle in the district of Kulm (roughly corresponding to modern East Prussia) to protect his territories against the incursions of the savage Prussians, a race closely akin to the Lithuanians. Conrad has been loudly blamed by Polish historians for introducing this foreign, and as it ultimately proved, dangerous element into Poland. But the unfortunate prince had to choose between dependence and extermination, for his unaided resources were powerless against the persistent attacks of the unconquerable Prussians. The Teutonic Order, which had just been expelled from Hungary by Andrew II., joyfully accepted this new domicile, and its position in the north was definitely established by the compact of Kruschwitz in 1230, whereby it obtained absolute possession of the maritime district between Pomerania and Courland, and southwards as far as Thorn. So far were the Poles from anticipating any danger from the Teutonic Order, that, from 1243 to 1255, they actually assisted it to Overthrow the independent Pomeranian princes, the most formidable opponents of the Knights in the earlier years of their existence. A second Tatar raid in 1259, less dangerous perhaps, but certainly more ruinous, than the first invasion - for the principalities of Little Poland and Sandomir were systematically ravaged for three months - still further depressed the land, and, at this very time, another enemy appeared in the east - the Lithuanians.

This interesting people, whose origin is to this day the most baffling of ethnographical puzzles, originally dwelt amidst the forests and marshes of the Upper Niemen. Thanks to the impenetrability of their fastnesses, they preserved their original savagery longer than any of their neighbours, and this savagery was coupled with a valour so tenacious and enterprising as to make them formidable to all who dwelt near them The Russians fled at the sight of them, "like hares before hunters." The Livs and Letts were as much the prey of the Lithuanians "as sheep are the prey of wolves." The German chroniclers describe them as the most terrible of all the barbarians. The Lithuanians first emerge into the light of history at the time of the settlement of the Teutonic Order in the North. Rumours of the war of extermination conducted against their kinsmen, the wild Prussians, by the Knights, first woke the Lithuanians to a sense of their own danger and induced them to abandon their loose communal system in favour of a monarchical form of government which concentrated the whole power of the state in a single hand. Fortunately, too, at this crisis of their history, the Lithuanians were blessed with an altogether exceptional series of great rulers, who showed themselves fully capable of taking care of themselves. There was, for instance, Mendovg (1240-1263), who submitted to baptism for purely political reasons, checkmated the Teutonic Knights by adroitly seeking the protection of the Holy See, and annexed the principality of Plock to his ever-widening grand duchy, which already included Black Russia, and formed a huge wedge extending southwards from Courland thus separating Poland from Russia. A still greater prince was Gedymin (1315-1342) who did his utmost to civilize Lithuania by building towns, introducing foreigners and tolerating all religions, though he himself remained a pagan for political reasons. Gedymin still further extended the limits of Lithuania by annexing Kiev, Chernigov and other old Russian principalities.

At the very time when Lithuania was thus becoming a compact, united, powerful state, Poland seemed literally to be dropping to pieces. Not even the exhortations of the popes could make her score of princes unite for mutual defence against the barbarians who environed them. For a time it seemed highly probable that Poland would be completely germanized, like Silesia, or become a part of the new Bohemian Empire which Wenceslaus I. (crowned king of Poland in 1300) had inherited from his father, Ottakar II. From this fate she was saved by the valour of Wladislaus Lokietek, duke of Great Poland (1306-1333) who reunited Great and Little Poland, revived the royal dignity in 1320, and saved the kingdom from annihilation by his great victory over the Teutonic Knights at Plowce in 1332. The whole reign of Wladislaus 1. was indeed an unceasing struggle against all the forces of anarchy and disintegration; but the fruits of his labours were richly reaped by his son Casimir III. the Great (1333-1370), Poland's first great statesman in the modern sense of the word, who, by a most skilful system of matrimonial alliances, reintroduced isolated Poland into the European system, and gave the exhausted country an inestimably beneficial breathing space of thirty-seven years. A born ruler, Casimir introduced a whole series of administrative and economical reforms. He was the especial protector of the cities and the peasants, and, though averse from violent measures, punished aristocratic tyranny with an iron hand. Casimir's few wars were waged entirely for profit, not glory. It is to him that Poland owed the important acquisition of the greater part of Red Russia or Galicia, which enabled her to secure her fair share of the northern and eastern trade. In default of male issue, Casimir left the Polish throne to his nephew, Louis of Hungary, who ruled the country (1370-1382) through his mother, Queen Elizabeth, Wladislaus Lokietek's daughter. Louis well deserved the epithet of "great" bestowed upon him by his contemporaries; but Poland formed but a small portion of his vast domains, and Poland's interests were subordinated to the larger demands of an imperial policy which embraced half Europe within its orbit.

On the death of Louis there ensued an interregnum of two years marked by fierce civil wars. instigated by Duke Ziemovit of Masovia, the northernmost province of Poland, which continued to exist as an independent principality alongside of the kingdom of Poland. Ziemovit aimed at the Polish crown, proposing to marry the infant princess Jadwiga of Hungary, who, as the daughter of Louis the Great and the grand-daughter of Wladislaus Lokietek, had an equal right, by inheritance, to the thrones of Hungary and Poland. By an agreement with the queen-mother of Hungary at Kassa in 1383, the Poles finally accepted Jadwiga as their queen, and, on the 18th of February 1386, greatly against her will, the young princess, already betrothed to William of Austria, was wedded to Jagiello, grand duke of Lihtuatania, who had been crowned king of Poland at Cracow three days previously, under the title of Wladislaus II.

The union of Poland and Lithuania as separate states under one king had been brought about by their common fear of the Teutonic Order. Five years after the death of Gedymin Olgierd, the most capable of his seven sons, had been placed upon the throne of Lithuania by his devoted brother Kiejstut, and for the next two-and-thirty years (1345-1377) the two princes still further extended the sway of Lithuania, principally at the expense of Muscovy and the Tatars. Kiejstut ruled the western portion of the land where the Teutonic nigh s were a constant menace, while Olgierd drove the Tatar hordes out of the southeastern steppes, and compelled them to seek a refuge in the Crimea. During Olgierd's reign the southern boundaries of Lithuania touched the Black Sea, including the whole tract of land between the mouth of the Bug and the mouth of the Dnieper. Olgierd was succeeded by his son Jagiello as grand duke in 1377, while Kiejstut was left in possession of Samogitia, Troki and Grodno; but the Teutonic Order, alarmed at the growth of Lithuania, succeeded in estranging uncle and nephew, and Kiejstut was treacherously assassinated by Jagiello's orders, at Krewo, on the 15th of August 1382. Three weeks later Jagiello was compelled to cede Samogitia, as far as the Dubissa, to the Knights, and in the following year they set up against him Kiejstut's son Witowt. The eyes of Jagiello were now opened to the fact that the machiavellian policy of the Knights aimed at subjugating Lithuania by dividing it. He at once made peace with his cousin; restored him his patrimony; and, to secure Lithuania against the future vengeance of the Knights, Jagiello made overtures to Poland for the hand of Jadwiga, and received the Polish crown along with it, as already mentioned.

Before proceeding to describe the Jagiellonic period of Polish history, it is necessary to cast a rapid glance at the social and political condition of the country in the preceding Piast period.

The paucity and taciturnity of our sources make it impossible to give anything like an adequate picture of Old Poland during the first four centuries of its existence. A glimpse here and there of the political development of the country is the utmost that the most diligent scrutiny can glean from the scanty record of the early chronicles. External pressure, here as elsewhere, created a patriotic military caste, and the subsequent partitional period, when every little prince had his own separate court, still further established the growing influence of the szlachta, or gentry, who were not backward in claiming and obtaining special privileges in return for their services. The first authentic pacta conventa made between the Polish nobility and the Crown dates from the compact of Kassa (September 17, 1374), when Louis of Hungary agreed to exempt the szlachta from all taxation, except two Polish groschen per hide of land, and to compensate them for the expenses of all military service rendered beyond the confines of the realm. The clergy received their chief privileges much earlier. It was at the synod of Leczyca, nearly a century before the compact of Kassa, that the property of the Church was first safeguarded against the encroachments of the state. The beneficial influence of the Church of Poland in these early times was incalculable. To say nothing of the labours of the Cistercians as colonists, pioneers and church-builders, or of the missions of the Dominicans and Franciscans (the former of whom were introduced into Poland by Ivo, bishop of Cracow,¹ the personal friend of Dominic), the Church was the one stable and unifying clement in an age of centrifugal particularism. The frequent synods represented the whole of Poland, and kept alive, as nothing else could, the idea of national solidarity. The Holy See had also a considerable share in promoting the political development of the land. In the 13th century alone no fewer than forty-nine papal legates visited Poland, and thirty provincial synods were held by them to regulate church affairs and promote good government. Moreover the clergy, to their eternal honour, consistently protected the lower from the tyranny of the upper classes.

The growth of the towns was slower. During the heroic Boleslawic period there had been a premature outcrop of civil life. As early as the 11th century Kruschwitz, the old Polish capital, and Gnesen, the metropolitan see, were of considerable importance, and played a leading part in public life. But in the ensuing anarchic period both cities were utterly ruined, and the centre of political gravity was transferred from Great Poland to Little Poland, where Cracow, singularly favoured by her position, soon became the capital of the monarchy, and one of the wealthiest cities in Europe. At the end of the 14th century we find all the great trade gilds established there, and the cloth manufactured at Cracow was eagerly sought after, from Prague to Great Novgorod. So wealthy did Cracow become at last that Casimir the Great felt it necessary to restrain the luxury of her citizens by sumptuary ordinances. Towards the end of the 14th century the Polish towns even attained some degree of political influence, and their delegates sat with the nobles and clergy in the king's councils, a right formally conceded to them at Radom in March 1384. Even the peasants, who had suffered severely from the wholesale establishment of prisoners of war as serfs on the estates of the nobles, still preserved the rights of personal liberty and free transit from place to place, whence their name of lazigi. The only portion of the community which had no privileges were the Jews, first introduced into Poland by Boleslaus the Pious, duke of Great Poland, in 1264, when bitter persecutions had driven them northwards from the shores of the Adriatic. Casimir the Great extended their liberty of domicile over the whole kingdom (1334). From the first they were better treated in Poland than elsewhere, though frequently exposed to outbreaks of popular fanaticism.

The transformation of the pagan Lithuanian chieftain Jagiello into the catholic king of Poland, Wladislaus II., was an event of capital importance in the history of eastern Europe. Its immediate and inevitable consequence was the formal reception of the Lithuanian nations into the fold of the Church. What the Teutonic Order had vainly endeavoured to bring about by fire and sword, for two centuries, was peacefully accomplished by Jagiello within a single generation, the Lithuanians, for the most part, willingly yielding

¹ Archbishop of Gnesen 1219-1220; died at Modena 1229.

to the arguments of a prince of their own blood, who promptly rewarded his converts with peculiar and exclusive privileges. The conversion of Lithuania menaced the very existence of the Teutonic Knights. Originally planted on the Baltic shore for the express purpose of christianizing their savage neighbours, these crusading monks had freely exploited the wealth and the valour of the West, ostensibly in the cause of religion, really for the purpose of founding a dominion of their own which, as time went on, lost more and more of its religious character, and was now little more than a German military forepost, extending from Pomerania to the Niemen, which deliberately excluded the Slavs from the sea and thrived at their expense. The mere instinct of self-preservation had, at last, drawn the Poles and Lithuanians together against these ruthless and masterful intruders, and the coronation of Jagiello at Cracow on the 15th of February 1386 was both a warning and a challenge to the Knights. But if the Order had now become a superfluous anachronism it had still to be disposed of, and this was no easy task. For if it had failed utterly as a mission in partibus, it had succeeded in establishing on the Baltic one of the strongest military organizations in Europe. In the art of war the Knights were immeasurably superior to all their neighbours. The pick of the feudal chivalry composed their ranks, with all Europe to draw upon, their resources seemed inexhaustible, and centuries of political experience made them as formidable in diplomacy as they were valiant in warfare. And indeed, for the next twenty years, the Teutonic Order more than held its own. Skilfully taking advantage of the jealousies of Poland and Lithuania, as they were accentuated by the personal antagonism of Jagiello and Witowt, with the latter of whom the Knights more than once contracted profitable alliances, they even contrived (Treaty of Salin, 1378) to extend their territory by getting possession of the province of Samogitia, the original seat of the Lithuanians, where paganism still persisted, and where their inhuman cruelties finally excited the horror and indignation of Christian Europe. By this time, however the prudent Jagiello had become convinced that Lithuania was too strong to be ruled by or from Poland, and yet not strong enough to stand alone, and by the compact of Vilna (January 18, 1401, confirmed by the compact of Radowo, March 10) he surrendered the whole grand duchy to Witowt, on the understanding that the two states should have a common policy, and that neither of them should elect a new prince without the consent of the other. The wisdom of this arrangement was made manifest in 1410, when Jagiello and Witowt combined their forces for the purpose of delivering Samogitia from the intolerable tyranny of the Knights, The issue was fought out on the field of Tannenberg, or Grünewald (July 15, 1410), when the Knights sustained a crushing defeat, which shook their political organization to its very foundations. A few weeks after the victory the towns of Thorn, Elbing, Braunsberg and Danzig submitted to the Polish king, and all the Prussian bishops voluntarily offered to render him homage. But the excessive caution of Jagiello gave the Knights time to recover from the blow, the Polish levies proved unruly and incompetent, Witowt was suddenly recalled to Lithuania by a Tatar invasion, and thus it came about that, when peace was concluded at Thorn, on the 1st of February 1411, Samogitia (which was to revert to the Order on the death of Jagiello and Witowt), Dobrzyn, and a war indemnity of 100,000 marks payable in four instalments, were the best terms Poland could obtain from the Knights, whose territory practically remained intact. Jagiello's signal for the attack at the battle of Grünewald, "Cracow and Vilna" (the respective capitals of Poland and Lithuania) had eloquently demonstrated the solidarity of the two states. This solidarity was still further strengthened by the Union of Horodlo (October 2, 1413), which enacted that henceforth Lithuania was to have the same order of dignitaries¹ as Poland, as well as a council of state, or senate, similar to the Polish senate. The power of the grand duke was also greatly increased. He was now declared to be the equal of the Polish king, and his successor could be elected only by the senates of Poland and Lithuania in conjunction. The Union of Horodlo also established absolute parity between the nobility of Poland and Lithuania, but the privileges of the latter were made conditional upon their profession of the Roman Catholic faith, experience having shown that difference of religion in Lithuania meant difference of politics, and a tendency Moscow-wards, the majority of the Lithuanian boyars being of the Greek Orthodox Confession.

During the remainder of the reign of Wladislaus II. the Teutonic Order gave Poland much trouble, but no serious anxiety. The trouble was due mainly to the repeated efforts of the Knights to evade the fulfilment of the obligations of the Treaty of Thorn. In these endeavours they were materially assisted by the emperor Sigismund, who was also king of Hungary. Sigismund, in 1422, even went so far as to propose a partition of Poland between Hungary, the empire and the Silesian princes, a scheme which foundered upon Sigismund's impecuniosity and the reluctance of the Magyars to injure the Poles. More than once Wladislaus II. was even obliged to renew the war against the Knights, and, in 1422, he compelled them to renounce all claims upon Samogitia, but the long struggle, still undecided at his death, was fought mainly with diplomatic weapons at Rome, where the popes, generally

¹ All the chief offices of state were consequently duplicated, e.g., the hetman wielki koronny, i.e., "grand hetman of the crown," as the Polish commander-in-chief was called, had his counterpart in Lithuania who bore the title of wielki hetman litewski, i.e., "grand hetman of Lithuania," and so on.

speaking, listened rather to the victorious monarch who had added an ecclesiastical province to the church than to the discomfited and turbulent Knights.

Had Wladislaus II. been as great a warrior as Witowt he might, perhaps, have subdued the Knights altogether. But by nature he was pre-eminently a diplomatist, and it must in fairness be admitted that his diplomacy in every direction was distinctly beneficial to Poland. He successfully thwarted all the schemes of the emperor Sigismund, by adroitly supporting the revolutionary party in Bohemia. In return Hussite mercenaries fought on the Polish side at Tannenburg, and Czech patriots repeatedly offered the crown of Bohemia to Wladislaus. The Polish king was always ready enough to support the Czechs against Sigismund but the necessity of justifying his own orthodoxy (which the Knights were for ever impugning) at Rome and in the face of Europe prevented him from accepting the crown of St Wenceslaus from the hands of heretics.

Wladislaus II. died at Lemberg in 1434, at the age of eighty-three. During his long reign of forty-nine years Poland had gradually risen to the rank of a great power, a result due in no small measure to the insight and sagacity of the first Jagiello, who sacrificed every other consideration to the vital necessity of welding the central Slavs into a compact and homogeneous state. The next ten years severely tested the stability of his great work, but it stood the test triumphantly. Neither a turbulent minority, nor the neglect of an absentee king; neither the revival of separatist tendencies in Lithuania, nor the outbreaks of aristocratic lawlessness in Poland, could do more than shake the superstructure of the imposing edifice. After the death at Varna, in 1444, of Jagiello's eldest son and successor, Wladislaus III. (whose history belongs rather to Hungary than to Poland), another great statesman, in no wise inferior to Wladislaus II., completed and consolidated his work. This was Wladislaus's second son, already grand-duke of Lithuania, who ascended the Polish throne as Casimir IV. in 1447, thus reuniting Poland and Lithuania under one monarch.

Enormous were the difficulties of Casimir IV. He instinctively recognized not only the vital necessity of the maintenance of the union between the two states, but also the fact that the chief source of danger to the union lay in Lithuania, in those days a maelstrom of conflicting political currents. To begin with, Lithuania was a far less composite state than Poland. Two-thirds of the grand-duchy consisted of old Russian lands inhabited by men who spoke the Ruthenian language and professed the Orthodox Greek religion, while in the north were the Lithuanians proper, semi-savage and semi-catholic, justly proud of their heroic forefathers of the house of Gedymin, and very sensitive of the pretensions of Poland to the provinces of Volhynia and Podolia, the fruits of Lithuanian valour. A Lithuanian himself, Casimir strenuously resisted the attempts of Poland to wrest these provinces from the grand-duchy. Moreover, during the earlier years of his reign, he was obliged to reside for the most part in Lithuania, where his tranquillizing influence was needed. His supposed preference for Lithuania was the real cause of his unpopularity in Poland, where, to the very end of his reign, he was regarded with suspicion, and where every effort was made to thwart his far-seeing and patriotic political combinations, which were beyond the comprehension of his self-seeking and narrow-minded contemporaries. This was notably the case as regards his dealings with the old enemy of his race, the Teutonic Order, whose destruction was the chief aim of his ambition.

The Teutonic Order had long since failed a religious institution; it was now to show its inadequacy as a political organization. In the domain of the Knights the gentry parochial clergy and townsmen, who, beneath its protection, had attained to a high degree of wealth and civilization, for long remained withollt the slightest political influence, though they bore nearly the whole burden of taxation. In 1414, however, intimidated by the growing discontent, which frequently took the form of armed rebellion, the Knights consented to the establishment of a diet, which was re-formed on a more aristocratic basis in 1430. But the old abuses continuing to multiply, the Prussian towns and gentry at last took their affairs into their own hands, and formed a so-called Prussian League, which demanded an equal share in the government of the country. This league was excommunicated by the pope, and placed under the ban of the empire almost simultaneously in 1453, whereupon it placed itself beneath the protection of its nearest powerful neighbour, the king of Poland, who (March 6, 1454) issued a manifesto incorporating all the Prussian provinces with Poland, but, at the same time, granting them local autonomy and free trade.

But provinces are not conquered by manifestos, and Casimir's acceptance of the homage of the Prussian League at once involved him in a war with the desperate Teutonic Knights, which lasted twelve years, but might easily have been concluded in a twelvemonth had he only been loyally supported by his own subjects, for whose benefit he had embarked upon this great enterprise. But instead of support, Casimir encountered obstinate obstruction at every point. No patriotic Pole, we imagine, can read the history of this miserable war without feeling heartily ashamed of his countrymen. The acquisition of the Prussian lands was vital to the existence of Poland. It meant the excision of an alien element which fed like a cancer on the body politic; it meant the recovery, at comparatively little cost, of the command of the principal rivers of Poland, the Vistula and the Niemen; it meant the obtaining of a seaboard with the corollaries of sea-power and world-wide commerce. Yet, except in the border province of Great Poland, which was interested commercially, the whole enterprise was regarded with such indifference, that the king, in the very crisis of the struggle, could only with the utmost difficulty obtain contributions for war expenses from the half-dozen local diets of Poland, which extorted from the helplessness of their distracted and impecunious sovereign fresh privileges for every subsidy they grudgingly granted. Moreover Casimir's difficulties were materially increased by the necessity of paying for Czech mercenaries, the pospolite ruszenie, or Polish militia, proving utterly useless at the very beginning of the war. Indeed, from first to last, the Polish gentry as a body took good care to pay and fight as little as possible, and Casimir depended for the most part upon the liberality of the Church and the Prussian towns, and the valour of the Hussite infantry, 170,000 of whom, fighting on both sides, are said to have perished. Not till the victory of Puck (September 17, 1462), one of the very few pitched battles in a war of raids skirmishes and sieges, did fortune incline decisively to the side of the Poles, who maintained an improved their advantage till absolute exhaustion compelled the Knights to accept the mediation of a papal legate, and the second peace of Thorn (October 14, 1466) concluded a struggle which had reduced the Prussian provinces to a wilderness.¹ By the second peace of Thorn, Poland recovered the provinces of Pomerelia, Kulm and Michalów, with the blshopric of Ermeland, numerous cities and fortresses, including Marienburg, Elbing Danzig and Thorn. The territory of the Knights was now reduced to Prussia proper embracing, roughly speaking, the district between the Baltic, the lower Vistula and the lower Niemen, with Königsberg as its capital. For this territory the grand-masters, within nine months of their election, were in future to render homage to the Polish king, but, on the other hand, the king undertook not to make war or engage in any important enterprise without the consent of the Prussian province, and vice versa. Thus Prussia was now confederated with Poland, but she occupied a subordinate position as compared with Lithuania, inasmuch as the grand-master, though filling the first place in the royal council was still a subject of the Polish crown. Thus the high hopes entertained by Casimir at the beginning of the war had not been realized. The final settlement with the Poles was of the nature of a compromise. Still the Knights had been driven beyond the Vistula, and Poland had secured a seaboard; and it was due entirely to the infinite patience and tenacity of the king that even as much as this was won at last.

The whole foreign policy of Casimir IV. was more or less conditioned by the Prussian question, and here also his superior diplomacy triumphantly asserted itself. At the beginning of the war both the empire and the pope were against him, but he neutralized their hostility by allying himself with George of Podvebrad, whom the Hussites had placed on the throne of Bohemia. On the death of George, Casimir's eldest son, Wladislaus, was elected king of Bohemia by the Utraquist party, despite the determined opposition of Matthias Corvinus, king of Hungary, whose ability and audacity henceforth made him Casimir's most dangerous rival. Sure of the support of the pope, Matthias deliberately set about traversing all the plans of Casimir. He encouraged the Teutonic Order to rebel against Poland; he entertained at his court anti-Polish embassies from Moscow, he encouraged the Tatars to ravage Lithuania; he thwarted Casimir's policy in Moldavia. The death of the brilliant adventurer at Vienna in 1490 came therefore as a distinct relief to Poland, and all danger from the side of Hungary was removed in 1490 when Casimir's son Wladislaus, already king of Bohemia, was elected king of Hungary also.

It was in the reign of Casimir IV. that Poland first came into direct collision with the Turks. The Republic was never, indeed, the "Buckler of Christendom." That glorious epithet belonged of right to Hungary, which had already borne the brunt of the struggle with the Ottoman power for more than a century. It is true that Wladislaus II. of Poland had fallen on the field of Varna, but it was as a Magyar king at the head of a Magyar army that the young monarch met his fate. Poland, indeed, was far less able to cope with the Turks than compact, wealthy Hungary, which throughout the 15th century was one of the most efficient military monarchies in Europe. The Jagiellos, as a rule, prudently avoided committing themselves to any political system which might irritate the still distant but much-dreaded Turk, but when their dominions extended so far southwards as to embrace Moldavia, the observance of a strict neutrality became exceedingly difficult. Poland had established a sort of suzerainty over Moldavia as early as the end of the 14th century, but at best it was a loose and vague overlordship which the Hospodars repudiated whenever they were strong enough to do so. The Turks themselves were too much occupied elsewhere to pay much attention to the Danubian principalities till the middle of the 15th century. In 1478 Mahomet II. had indeed attempted their subjugation, with but indifferent success but it was not till 1484 that the Ottomans became inconvenient neighbours to Poland. In that year a Turkish fleet captured the strongholds of Kilia and Akkerman, commanding respectively the mouths of the Danube and Dneister. This aggression seriously threatened the trade of Poland, and induced Casimir IV. to accede to a general league against the Porte. In 1485, after driving the Turks out of Moldavia, the Polish king, at the head of

¹ 18,000 of their 21,000 villages were destroyed 1000 churches were razed to the ground and the population was diminished by more than a quarter of a million.

20,000 men, proceeded to Kolomea on the Pruth, where Bayezid II., then embarrassed by the Egyptian war, offered peace, but as no agreement concerning the captured fortresses could be arrived at, hostilities were suspended by a truce. During the remainder of his reign the Turks gave no trouble.

It was a fortunate thing for Poland that, during the first century of her ascension to the rank of a great power, political exigencies compelled her to appropriate almost more territory than her primitive and centrifugal government could properly assimilate; it was fortunate that throughout this period of expansion her destinies should, with one brief interval, have been controlled by a couple of superior statesmen, each of whom ruled for nearly fifty years. During the fourteen years (1492-1506) which separate the reigns of Casimir IV. and Sigismund I. she was not so lucky. The controlling hand of Casimir IV. was no sooner withdrawn than the unruly elements, ever present in the Republic, and ultimately the cause of its ruin, at once burst forth. The first symptom of this lawlessness was the separation of Poland and Lithuania, the Lithuanians proceeding to elect Alexander Casimir's fourth son, as their grand duke, without even consulting the Polish senate, in flagrant violation of the union of Horodlo. The breach, happily, was of no very long duration. A disastrous war with Ivan III., the first Muscovite tsar, speedily convinced the Lithuanians that they were not strong enough to stand alone, and in 1499 they voluntarily renewed the union. Much more dangerous was the political revolution proceeding simultaneously in Poland, where John Albert, the third son of Casimir, had been elected king on the death of his father. The nature of this revolution will be considered in detail when we come to speak of the growth of the Polish constitution. Suffice it here to say that it was both anti-monarchical and anti-democratic, tending, as it did, to place all political authority in the hands of the szlachta, or gentry. The impecunious monarch submitted to the dictation of the diet in the hope of obtaining sufficient money to prosecute his ambitious designs. With his elder brother Wladislaus reigning over Bohemia and Hungary the credit of the Jagiellos in Europe had never been so great as it was now, and John Albert, bent upon military glory, eagerly placed himself at the head of what was to have been a great anti- Turkish league, but ultimately dwindled down to a raid upon Moldavia which ended in disaster. The sole advantage which John Albert reaped from his championship of the Christian cause was the favour of the Curia, and the ascendancy which that favour gave him over the Teutonic Knights, whose new grand-master, Albert of Saxony, was reluctantly compelled to render due homage to the Polish king. Under Alexander, who succeeded his brother in 1501, matters went from bad to worse. Alexander's election cemented, indeed once for all, the union between Poland and Lithuania, inasmuch as, on the eve of it (Oct. 3 1501), the senates of both countries agreed that, in future, the king of Poland should always be grand duke of Lithuania; but this was the sole benefit which the Republic derived from the reign of Alexander, under whom the Polish government has been well described as a rudderless ship in a stormy sea, with nothing but the grace of God between it and destruction. In Lithuania the increasing pressure of the Muscovite was the chief danger. Till the accession of Ivan III. in 1462 Muscovy had been a negligible factor in Polish politics. During the earlier part of the 15th century the Lithuanian princess had successfully contested Muscovite influence even in Pskov and Great Novgorod. Many Russian historians even maintain that, but for the fact that Witowt had simultaneously to cope with the Teutonic Order and the Tatars, that energetic prince would certainly have extinguished struggling Muscovy altogether. But since the death of Witowt (1430) the military efficiency of Lithuania had sensibly declined, single-handed she was no longer a match for her ancient rival. This was owing partly to the evils of an oligarchic government; partly to the weakness resulting from the natural attraction of the Orthodox-Greek element in Lithuania towards Muscovy, especially after the fall of Constantinople, but chiefly to the administrative superiority of the highly centralized Muscovite government. During the reign of Alexander, who was too poor to maintain any adequate standing army in Lithuania, the Muscovites and Tatars ravaged the whole country at will, and were prevented from conquering it altogether only by their inability to capture the chief fortresses. In Poland meanwhile, something very like anarchy prevailed. Alexander had practically surrendered his authority to an incapable aristocracy, whose sole idea of ruling was systematically to oppress and humiliate the lower classes. In foreign affairs a policy of drift prevailed which encouraged all the enemies of the Republic to raise their heads, while the dependent states of Prussia in the north and Moldavia in the south made strenuous efforts to break away from Poland. Fortunately for the integrity of the Polish state the premature death of Alexander in 1506 brought upon the throne his capable brother Sigismund, the fifth son of Casimir IV., whose long reign of forty-two years was salutary, and would have been altogether recuperative had his statesmanship only been loyally supported by his subjects. Eminently practical, Sigismund recognized that the first need of Poland was a standing army, The miserable collapse of the Polish chivalry during the Bukovinian campaign of 1497 had convinced every one that the ruszenie pospolite was useless for serious military purposes, and that Poland, in order to hold her own, must in future follow the example of the West, and wage her warfare with trained mercenaries. But professional soldiers could not be hired without money, and the difficulty was to persuade the diet to loose its purse-strings. All that the gentry contributed at present was two pence (groschen) per hide of land, and this only for defensive service at home. If the king led the ruszenie pospolite abroad, he was obliged to pay so much per pike out of his own pocket, notwithstanding the fact that the heavily mortgaged crown lands were practically valueless. At the diet of 1510 the chancellor and primate, Adam Laski, proposed an income-tax of 50 % at once, and 5 % for subsequent years, payable by both the lay and clerical estates. In view of the fact that Poland was the most defenceless country in Europe, with no natural boundaries, and constantly exposed to attacks from every quarter, it was not unreasonable to expect even this patriotic sacrifice from the privileged classes, who held at least two-thirds of the land by military tenure. Nevertheless, the diet refused to consider the scheme. In the following year a more modest proposal was made by the Crown in the shape of a capitation of six gulden, to be levied on every nobleman at the beginning of a campaign, for the hiring of mercenaries. This also was rejected. In 1512 the king came forward with a third scheme. He proposed to divide the country into five circles, corresponding to the five provinces each of which was to undertake to defend the realm in turn should occasion arise. Moreover, every one who so desired it might pay a commutation in lieu of personal service, and the amount so realized was to be re-used to levy troops. To this the dietines, or local diets, of Great Poland, and Little Poland, agreed, but at the last moment the whole project foundered on the question who was the proper custodian of the new assessment rolls, and the king had to be content with the renewal of former subsidies, varying from twelve to fifteen groats per hide of land for three years. Well might the disappointed monarch exclaim: "It is vain to labour for the welfare of those who do not care a jot about it themselves." Matters improved somewhat in 1527, when the szlachta, by a special act, placed the mightiest magnates on the same level as the humblest squire as regards military service, and proposed at the same time a more general assessment for the purpose, the control of the money so realized to be placed in the hands of the king. In consequence of this law the great lords were compelled to put forces in the field proportioned to their enormous fortunes and Sigismund was able in 1529 to raise 300 foot and 3200 horse from the province of Podolia alone. But though the treasury was thus temporarily replenished and the army increased the gentry who had been so generous at the expense of their richer neighbours would hear of no additional burdens being laid on themselves, and the king only obtained what he wanted by sacrificing his principles to his necessities, and helping the szlachta to pull down the magnates. This fatal parsimony had the most serious political consequences, for it crippled the king at every step. Strive and scheme as he might, his needs were so urgent his enemies so numerous, that, though generally successful in the end, he had always to be content with compromises, adjustments and semi-victories. Thus he was obliged, in 1525, to grant local autonomy to the province of Prussia instead of annexing it, he was unable to succour his unfortunate nephew, Louis of Hungary, against the Turkish peril; he was compelled to submit to the occupation of one Lithuanian province after the other by the Muscovites and look on helplessly while myriads of Tatars penetrated to the very heart of his domains, wasting with fire and sword everything they could not carry away with them.

Again, it should have been the first duty of the Republic adequately to fortify the dzikie pola, or "savage steppe," as the vast plain was called which extended from Kiev to the Black Sea, and some feeble attempts to do so were at last made. Thus in the reign of Alexander, the fugitive serfs whom tyranny or idleness had driven into this wilderness (they were subsequently known as Kazaki, or Cossacks, a Tatar word meaning freebooters) were formed into companies (c. 1504) and placed at the disposal of the frontier starostas, or lord marchers, of Kaniev, Kamenets, Czerkask on the Don and other places. But these measures proved inadequate, and in 1533 the lord marcher, Ostafi Daszkiewicz, the hero of Kaniev, which he had successfully defended against a countless host of Turks and Tatars was consulted by the diet as to the best way of defending the Ukraine permanently against such inroads. The veteran expert advised the populating and fortifying of the islands of the Dnieper. Two thousand men would suffice, he said, and the Cossacks supplied excellent military material ready to hand. The diet unanimously approved of this simple and inexpensive plan; a special commission examined and approved of its details, and it was submitted to the next diet, which rejected it. So nothing at all was done officially, and the defence of the eastern Ukraine was left to providence. Oddly enough the selfish prudence of Sigismund's rapacious consort, Queen Bona, did more for the national defence than the Polish state could do. Thus, to defend her immense possessions in Volhynia and Podolia, she converted the castles of Bar and Krzemieniec into first-class fortresses, and placed the former in the hands of her Silesian steward, who acquitted himself so manfully of his charge¹ that "the Tatars fell away from the frontier all the days of Pan Pretficz," and a large population settled securely beneath the walls of Bar, henceforth known as "the bastion of Podolia." Nothing, perhaps, illustrates so forcibly the casual character of the Polish government in the most vital matters as this single incident.

The most important political event during the reign of Sigismund was the collapse of the ancient Hungarian monarchy at Mohács in 1526. Poland, as the next neighbour of

¹ Pretficz won no fewer than 70 engagements over the Tatars.

Hungary, was more seriously affected than any other European power by this catastrophe, but her politicians differed as to the best way of facing it. Immediately after the death of King Louis, who fell on the field of battle, the emperor Ferdinand and John Zápolya, voivode of Transylvania, competed for the vacant crown, and both were elected almost simultaneously. In Poland Zápolya's was the popular cause, and he also found powerful support in the influential and highly gifted Laski family, as represented by the Polish chancellor and his nephews John and Hieronymus. Sigismund, on the other hand, favoured Ferdinand of Austria. Though bound by family ties with both competitors, he regarded the situation from a purely political point of view. He argued that the best way to keep the Turk from Poland was for Austria to incorporate Hungary, in which case the Austrian dominion would be a strong and permanent barrier against a Mussulman invasion of Europe. History has more than justified him, and the long duel which ensued between Ferdinand and Zápolya enabled the Polish monarch to maintain to the end a cautious but observant neutrality. More than once, indeed, Sigismund was seriously compromised by the diplomatic vagaries of Hieronymus Laski, who entered the service of Zápolya (since 1529 the protégé of the sultan) and greatly alarmed both the emperor and the pope by his disturbing philo-Turk proclivities. It was owing to Laski's intrigues that the new hospodar of Moldavia, Petrylo, after doing homage to the Porte, intervened in the struggle as the foe of both Ferdinand and Sigismund, and besieged the Grand Hetman of the Crown, Jan Tarnówski, in Obertyn, where, however, the Moldavians (August 22, 1531) sustained a crushing defeat, and Petrylo was slain. Nevertheless, so anxious was Sigismund to avoid a collision with the Turks, that he forbade the victorious Tarnówski to cross the Moldavian frontier, and sent a letter of explanation to Constantinople. On the death of John Zápolya the Austro-Polish alliance was still further cemented by the marriage of Sigismund's son and heir, Sigismund Augustus, with the archduchess Elizabeth. In the reign of Sigismund was effected the incorporation of the duchy of Masovia with the Polish crown, after an independent existence of five hundred years. In 1526 the male line of the ancient dynasty became extinct, and on the 26th of August Sigismund received the homage of the Masovians at Warsaw, the capital of the duchy and ere long of the whole kingdom. Almost every acre of densely populated Masovia was in the hands of her sturdy, ultra-conservative squires in point of culture far below their brethren in Great and Little Poland. The additional revenue gained by the Crown from Masovia was at first but 14,000 gulden per annum.

The four-and-twenty years of Sigismund II.'s reign was a critical period of Polish history. Complications with the Turk were avoided by the adroit diplomacy of the king while the superior discipline and efficiency of the Polish armies under the great Tarnówski and his pupils overawed the Tatars and extruded the Muscovites, neither of whom were so troublesome as they had been during the last reign. All the more disquieting was the internal condition of the country, due mainly to the invasion of Poland by the Reformation and the coincidence of this invasion with an internal revolution of a quasi-democratic character, which aimed at substituting the rule of the szlachta for the rule of the senate.

<< 22: Extra-Parliamentary Government || 24: The Reformation Period >>