Polish and Russian Political History – The First Elective Kings, 1572-1588

THE death of Sigismund II, though long foreseen, came upon Poland unexpectedly, and at an inconvenient and even dangerous moment. Of foreign complications there was happily no fear. The Grand Turk had not yet recovered from the shock of Lepanto (Oct. 7, 1571); and Ivan IV, with a view to obtaining the Polish Crown cheaply, by fair means, had, but recently, concluded a truce with the Polish Government. The Austrian and Swedish Courts had no motive for offending the Poles on the eve of an election in which they were both equally interested. Externally, then, the political horizon was absolutely cloudless. All the more disquieting was the internal situation. The Union of Lublin, barely three years old, was still extremely unpopular in Lithuania. In Poland proper, the Szlachta was fiercely opposed to the magnates ; and the Protestants seemed bent upon still further castigating the Catholic clergy. At the first moment of surprise and dismay, nobody seemed to know exactly what to do. Even the dead body of the last Jagiello was shamefully neglected. Gizanka, Sigismund’s much-beloved mistress, pillaged the royal treasury so effectually that there was not enough left wherewith to clothe the corpse becomingly, as it lay in state ; and Fogelweder, Sigismund’s German physician, for the sake of decency, took the gold chain off his own neck and placed it round the King’s. Yet the Papal Nuncio, shortly before, had estimated the value of the royal treasures at 1o,000,000 ducats, and declared that the jewels of Rome and Venice were as nothing in comparison with those of Cracow.

Worst of all, there existed no recognised authority in the land to curb ‘and control its jarring, centrifugal, political elements. Nothing had been fixed as to the succession ; it was nearly 200 years since Poland had last been saddled with an interregnum ; and the precedents of 1382 were obsolete. The Primate Uchanski, on hearing of the demise of the Crown, at once invited all the Senators of Great Poland to a conference at Lowicz, but passed over the Szlachta altogether. In an instant, the whole Republic was seething like a cauldron. Jan Firlej, the Grand Marshal of the Crown, and the head of the Protestant party, instantly summoned to Cracow an independent confederation of the gentry, which received the . support of the Senators of Little Poland who resented the exclusiveness of the Primate’s assembly. Fortunately, civil war was averted at the last moment ; and a Konwokacya, or National Assembly, composed of Senators and deputies from all parts of the Kingdom, assembled at Warsaw in April 15 73, for the purpose of electing a new King.

Meanwhile five candidates for the throne were already in the field. Lithuania was in favour of her near neighbour Tsar Ivan IV, whose election would have guaranteed her territories against Moscovite invasion. In Poland, the bishops and most of the Catholic ‘magnates were in favour of an Austrian Archduke. But the House of Hapsburg was so obnoxious to the nation at large, that the Szlachta was disposed to accept almost any other candidate except a Moscovite. It was there-fore no very difficult task for the adroit and energetic French ambassador, Montluc who had been sent to Poland (Oct. 1572) by Catherine dei Medici to promote the candidature of her favourite son Henry, Duke of Anjou–to win over the majority of the Szlachta, especially as it was notorious that the Ottoman Porte, while inclined to tolerate a French Prince on the Polish throne, would regard the election of an Austrian Archduke as a casus belli. Montluc, well provided with funds, purchased many of the magnates, but he placed his chief reliance in the ignorant and credulous masses of the Szlachta in whose hands the issues of the election really lay. He there-fore devoted his energies to captivating all the lesser gentry, irrespective of religion. Montluc’s popularity reached its height when he strenuously advocated the revival of the semi-barbarous

powszechne prawo glosowania, or open, popular, mode of election by the gentry en masse, as opposed to the usual and more orderly ” secret election ” by a congress of senators and deputies sitting with closed doors. It was due to his efforts, seconded by the eloquence of the young Jan Zamoyski, now on the threshold of his brilliant career, that the Sejm decided in favour of the more popular method. The religious difficulty, meanwhile, had been satisfactorily adjusted by the Compact of Warsaw (Jan. 28, 1573), which granted absolute religious liberty to all non-Catholic denominations (” Dissidentes de Religione ” as they now began to be called) without exception, thus exhibiting a far more liberal intention than the Germans had manifested in the religious Peace of Augsburg, eighteen years before. Nevertheless, the Warsaw Compact was eventually vitiated by the clauses which reserved to every master, spiritual or temporal, the right ” to punish, according to his judgment,” every rebellious servant, even if his rebellion were entirely due to his religious convictions: This unlimited power of arbitrary correction speedily resulted in the absolute serfdom of the rural population ; and eventually, when the Protestant proprietors were won back to the church by the Jesuits, their dependents were of course forced to follow their example.

Early in April 1573, the Election Diet began to assemble at Warsaw; and across the newly-built bridge, the first that ever united the banks of the Vistula, flowed a stream of 40,000 electors, hastening to pitch their tents on the plain of Kamicnie, near Warsaw, where the fate of the Kingdom was to be decided. The next fortnight was passed in fierce debates, and in listening to the orations of the various foreign ambassadors on behalf of their respective candidates. The orators of Austria and Sweden were received but coldly because, though they had a great deal to say, they had very little to offer. Montluc, on the other hand, entranced the electors with a speech ” worthy of eternal remembrance,” which he took care to reinforce by private golden arguments. After this there could be no doubt of the success of the French candidate ; and on May 1 r, 1573, Henry of Valois was elected King of Poland.

Nevertheless, as the prospects of the Duke of Anjou had approached certainty, the more cool-headed of the electors had begun to feel some natural anxiety as to how far this foreign Prince, the offspring of a despotic House, would be likely to respect the liberties of the Republic. They had therefore, by way of precaution, drawn up the so-called ” Henrician Articles ” which deprived the future King of the privilege of electing his successor, forbade his marrying with-out the previous consent of the Senate, required him to protect all the religious sects equally, considerably restricted his authority as commander-in-chief, and bound him to accept a permanent council of 14 Senators, elected every two years by the Diet, four of whom, in rotation, were to’ be in constant attendance upon him. The articles were supplemented, a few days later, by pacta conventa, corresponding to our coronation oath, which Montluc signed on behalf of Henry. The new King bound himself thereby to maintain a fleet in the Baltic at his own expense, place 450,000 ducats at the disposal of the Republic, educate 100 young Polish nobles abroad, espouse the late King’s sister, the Korolewna Anna, eighteen years his senior1, and confirm the Compact of Warsaw. Henry was persuaded to accept the Pacta at Notre Dame on September 10,1573; and on February 21, 1574 he was solemnly crowned King at the Cathedral of Cracow. His reign, dating from his arrival in Poland, lasted exactly four months. To a man of his tastes and inclinations, his new position was intolerable ; and, when the death of his brother Charles IX left him the heir to the French throne, he resolved to escape from his troublesome and terrifying Polish subjects forthwith. On June 19, 1574, half-an-hour after midnight, he fled from the Castle of Cracow accompanied by a few French lords. A week later he was dancing at a ball at Chambéry, to which place he was pursued by a company of Polish cavaliers who besought him to return. This he absolutely refused to do ; and he was formally deposed by the Diet which met at Stenczyc in May 1575. When, however, the question arose how to fill the vacancy, the assembly split up into half a dozen fiercely antagonistic sections. Anything like agreement was hopeless. Finally, it was resolved that the whole question should be referred to another Diet which the Primate, acting as Interrex, summoned to meet at Warsaw on November 7.

A few weeks later, the Poles were taught the evils of anarchy by a terrible lesson. In the beginning of October the eastern provinces were ravaged by a Tatar horde, 120,000 strong. The gentry shut themselves up in their castles ; the common people fled to the nearest stronghold, while “the scourge of God ” swept over the rich plains of the Ukraine, leaving a smoking wilderness behind them and vanishing into their native steppes with 55,000 captives, 150,000 horses and countless herds of cattle. This lesson was not thrown away. At the Diet of Warsaw a King was really elected though not the King that all the world had been led to expect.

Anxious to avoid violence and disorder, the Senate had issued a proclamation restricting the retinue of each magnate to 50 persons, and forbidding the Szlachta to carry any other arms than the usual sword and halbert. This proclamation was absolutely disregarded. Every one of the magnates who attended the Diet was surrounded by a body-guard of at least 1000 horsemen. The gentry also came armed cap-à-pied. The prohibited arquebuses and spiked battle-axes were in every-body’s possession, and there were whole forests of lances. All the materials for a bloody civil war were present on the field of election.

From November 13 to 18 audience was given to the orators of the various competitors, who included the Emperor Maximilian, the Archdukes Ernest and Ferdinand of Austria, John III of Sweden, the Duke of Ferrara, and Stephen Bathory, Prince of Transylvania. From November 18 to 25 the whole matter was debated in the Senate, which, profoundly influenced by the papal legate Vincenzo Laureo (who has left us a vivid account of the proceedings), declared in favour of the Emperor Maximilian by a large majority. But the Isba, or Lower House, where the debates lasted from November 22 to November 30, would not have a German at any price. This turbulent assembly was dominated by Jan Zamoyski, the most determined foe of the Hapsburgs, who fulminated so eloquently against “the craft and cruelty of the House of Austria ” that the Szlachta determined, on November 30, by an enormous majority, to elect a Piast, or native Pole. As, however, both the noblemen nominated by the Szlachta at once declined the dangerous honour, the Senate, on December 10, proclaimed Maximilian King.

At sunrise, next morning, 7000 Polish noblemen assembled outside the city to protest, sword in hand, against the election of the Emperor. Yet the embarrassment of the assembly was at least equal to its indignation. The question was, whom were they to elect, for no native candidate dared to come forward against the Hapsburgs. At last, when the confusion was worse confounded, the Palatine of Cracow suddenly arose and proposed Stephen Bathory, Prince of Transylvania. In an instant the name of Bathory was on every lip ; and, on December 14, he was unanimously elected King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, on condition that he signed the usual pacta conventa and espoused the Princess Anna. Thus Poland had now two Kings elect, one supported by the Senate, the other by the Diet.

A race for the Crown immediately ensued. The last act of the Diet was to send a deputation to Transylvania to congratulate Bathory on his election and invite him to come instantly to Poland. Meanwhile his partisans had not been idle. Another Diet, summoned by the advice of Zamoyski, assembled at Jendrzejow (Jan. 18, 1576), confirmed the election of Stephen, sent an embassy to Vienna forbidding the Emperor to enter Poland, and then, marching to Cracow, put to flight all the Emperor’s partisans.

But a splendid embassy had already been sent by the Senate to Vienna to announce to the Emperor Maximilian his election. On March 23 Maximilian accepted the Polish Crown; but, on the following day, deputies from the Diet of Jendrzejow arrived at Vienna to inform the Emperor, officially, that Stephen Bathory was now the lawful King of Poland. They were speedily followed by a chiaus from the Sultan, who declared that any attempt on the part of Maximilian to disturb either the Polish or the Transylvanian possessions of the new Prince would be regarded at Stambul as a casus bclli. But the sudden death of Maximilian at the very moment when, in league with the Moscovite, he was about to invade Poland, completely changed the face of things.

King Stephen was now firmly established on his throne. On Easter Monday (March 23, 1576) he made his state entry into Cracow with great magnificence. On May i he and his wife-elect the Princess Anna were solemnly crowned King and Queen of Poland. The coronation was followed by the nuptials of the Sovereigns, banquets and tourneys, the distribution of offices and dignities (Zamoyski’s appointment to the Vice-Chancellorship was one of the first) and the issue of universals summoning a general Diet to Warsaw in the beginning of June. All who failed to appear there at the appointed time were to be regarded as traitors and rebels. Then Bathory, who was determined, he said, to shew that he was ” neither a painted nor a ballad King,” set off for Warsaw to meet the Diet.

The leading events of Stephen’s glorious reign can here only be very briefly indicated. All armed opposition to him collapsed with the surrender of the great city of Dantzic, since 1454 a self-centred, autonomous, free State. The ” Pearl of Poland,” encouraged by her immense wealth and almost impregnable fortifications, as well as by the secret support of Denmark and the Emperor, had shut her gates against the new monarch, and was only reduced, December 16, 1577, after a six months’ siege, beginning with a pitched battle beneath her walls, in which she lost 5000 of her mercenaries, and the famous banner with the inscription ” Aurea Libertas.” Dantzic was compelled to pay a fine of 200,000 gulden into the royal treasury, but her civil and religious liberties were wisely con-firmed. Stephen was now able to devote himself exclusively to foreign affairs, which demanded equally decided and delicate handling. The difficulties with the Sultan were temporarily adjusted by a truce signed November 5, 1577 ; and the Diet was at length persuaded, though not without the utmost difficulty, to grant Stephen subsidies for the inevitable war with Moscovysubsidies which, as usual, proved totally inadequate.

Two campaigns of wearing marches, and still more exhausting sieges, ensued, in which Bathory, although repeatedly hampered by the parsimony of the short-sighted Szlachta, which could not be made to see that the whole future fate of Poland depended on the issue of the war, was uniformly successful, his skilful diplomacy, at the same time, allaying the growing jealousy of the Porte and the Emperor. The details of the war will be found in the following chapter ; here it is only necessary to say that the fruits of his triumph were considerably diminished by the intervention of the papal nuncio Possevino, whom the Curia, deceived by the delusive mirage of a union of the churches, had sent expressly from Rome to mediate between the Tsar and the King of Poland. Nevertheless, by the Treaty of Zapolsk (Jan. 15, 1582), Moscovy ceded to Poland Wielicz, Polock, and the whole of Livonia, but was allowed to retain Smolensk.

It is a melancholy and significant fact that Stephen Bathory’s brilliant services to his adopted country, far from being re warded with the dutiful gratitude of his new subjects, made him absolutely unpopular with both the magnates and the Szlachta. Not one word of thanks did the King receive from the Diet for repulsing Moscovy, till Zamoyski put the whole assembly to shame by rising in their midst and delivering an eloquent panegyric in which he publicly thanked his Sovereign, “in the presence of this ungrateful people,” for his inestimable services. The opposition was marshalled round the wealthy and powerful Zborowski family, which had monopolised the principal dignities in the kingdom during the short reign of Henry. From the first, they had treated the new King insolently. At a levée, held soon after his coronation, the head of the family, the Grand Marshal, Zborowski (the nuncio tells us), ” fell to reasoning of good swords, drew forth his own blade from its scabbard, and lauded it as one of the best in the presence of Bathory, who, justly taking offence thereat, suddenly loosed his scimitar from his girdle, and beating down with it the other’s sword, flashed the scimitar in his face, remarking that it was a still better blade than his (Zborowski’s sword), whereupon, the Marshal, perceiving his error in unsheathing his sword in the royal presence, straightway fell upon his knees and begged pardon.” The Zborowscy especially resented the influence of the upstart Zamoyski ; and their conduct became so seditious and defamatory that the King was obliged, at last, to take action. His opportunity came when the outlawed homicide, Samuel Zborowski, presumed to return to Poland. Zamoyski at once arrested him, and he was arraigned for high treason before a tribunal presided over by the King. After a scrupulously fair trial, he was condemned to death and duly beheaded at the castle of Cracow, May 26, 1584. The Diet which assembled on January 15, 1585, took up the cause of the Zborowscy ; and the whole session was little more than a determined struggle between law and order on one side, as represented by the King and his Chancellor, and anarchy and rebellion as represented by the Zborowski faction, on the other. Ultimately, however, Stephen prevailed ; the sentence of Samuel Zborowski was confirmed ; and his kinsman, Christopher, was declared infamous and banished (Feb. 229 1586).

Stephen’s policy in religious matters aimed at consolidation and pacification. Devoted Catholic as he was, he nevertheless respected the liberties of the Protestants, severely punished the students of Cracow for attacking their conventicles, and even protected the Jews. A man of culture himself, he justly appreciated the immense value of education and relied especially on the Jesuits, who happened to be the best educational instruments at his command. He established the Order in Posen, Cracow, Riga, and other places, and from their seminaries, whose superiority was speedily and universally recognised (the Protestants themselves sending their children to be educated there), issued those “lions of the spirit,” to use Skarga’s expression, who were to complete the reconversion of Poland to Catholicism.

High political reasons also bound Stephen Bathory to the Jesuits. They, almost alone, had the intelligence to understand and promote his Imperial designs, which aimed at nothing less than incorporating Moscovy with Poland, and uniting the Kingdoms of Poland and Hungary, with the object of ultimately expelling the Turks from Europe. These grandiose, but, in view of the peculiar circumstances and of Stephen’s commanding genius, not altogether impracticable designs, were first suggested by the death of Ivan the Terrible (1584). Stephen’s views found an ardent supporter in the new Pope Sixtus V, to whom the King sent a special mission to expound his plans. He offered, in return for 3,648,000 ducats, to put on foot 84,000 men-at-arms for the Turkish campaign, and 24,000 for the conquest of Moscovy. The Pope thereupon despatched Possevino on a second special mission to Poland and Russia, to pave the way for this vast undertaking ; and a Diet was summoned by Stephen to meet at Grodno in February, 1587, to consider the whole scheme. The project was for ever dissipated by the sudden death of Bathory, who was carried off by a fit of apoplexy on December 12, 1586, at the age of 53. In his all too brief reign of ten years he had already approved himself one of the foremost statesmen and soldiers of his age.

The death of Stephen, like the breaking of a dike, let loose a raging flood of long repressed bitterness and violence. The Convocation Diet (Feb. 3–March 13), summoned by the Primate, was dominated by the Zborowscy, who denounced ” the Pasha “—so they called Zamoyski–as a traitor against the national liberties. Only the sudden collapse of a stove, beneath the weight of the spectators crowding upon it, pre-vented a free fight in full Senate. For a time the Zborowscy continued to be in the ascendant. Their first act was to banish all the Bathorys from Poland, thus frustrating the Chancellor’s original intention of raising Stephen’s brother, Cardinal Andrew Bathory, to the throne.

June 29 had been fixed for the assembling of the Election-Diet at Warsaw; and thither all the chief magnates hastened with numerous retinues, in full panoply. The Primate was escorted by 500 horsemen ; Gorka, Palatine of Posen, brought with him 1086 hussars, reiters and cossacks ; but Zamoyski, who had hitherto kept in the background, shewed plainly that he meant, if necessary, to meet force by force, by marching into Warsaw at the head of a host of 6000 veteran mercenaries of all arms, with the best procurable artillery ready for action. The field of election was now’ a curious and alarming spectacle. In the midst of it towered the okop or entrenched pavilion where the Senate was to hold its sessions. A quarter of a mile off lay the Czarne Kole1, as the fortified camp of the Chancellor was called. On the opposite side the partisans of the Zborowscy, also armed to the teeth, occupied another camp, the Generalne Generalne. The Lithuanians formed a third camp apart. From the first there seemed no prospect of an agreement.’ The Zborowscy refused to proceed with the election business till Samuel and Christopher Zborowsky had been rehabilitated, which would have been equivalent to the condemnation of Zamoyski. Zamoyski demanded to be heard in his defence. He brilliantly vindicated himself before the Senate ; but ” the general circle” refused to listen to him. Three weeks were wasted in futile wranglings, the Primate and Senate acting as mediators. On July 22 the Zborowscy refused to listen to any further representations, and proclaimed a rokosz. The “Black Circle” protested against this dangerous political novelty ; and a pitched battle round the okop of the Senate was only averted with the utmost difficulty. Fortunately, the mass of the Szlachta was growing weary of its enforced and expensive detention at Warsaw. A month had elapsed since the assembling of the Diet, and not a step had been taken towards electing a new King. Ugly rumours, too, of the massing of foreign troops on the frontier and of a secret understanding between the Tsar and the Emperor, now accelerated the action of the Electors. The Lithuanians elected Tsar Theodore I, the successor of Ivan the Terrible ; but Zamoyski, despite the tempting offers of the Austrian wire-pullers4, and now greatly strengthened by the accession of the Primate and all the Bishops but one, proposed the election of Sigismund, Prince Royal of Sweden, the nephew of Sigismund II, as the best candidate available. Moreover, being a Catholic, he was not unacceptable to Rome. On August 19, 1587, Sigismund Vasa was elected King of Poland in the ” Black Circle” ; on October 7 he landed at Dantzic; on December 27 he was solemnly crowned at Cracow. The Hapsburgs and their supporters, the Zborowscy, were furious. The Archduke Maximilian had been elected King in the ” General Circle ” on the same day that Sigismund had been elected in the ” Black Circle,” and he was not dis-posed to forfeit his newly-won crown without a struggle. But Zamoyski was too quick for him. With the aid of 100,000 gulden, borrowed from Queen Anna, a warm supporter of her nephew’s cause, the Chancellor had already raised an army. He hastened southwards and defeated Maximilian beneath the walls of Cracow (Nov. 23). Early in the following year, Maximilian, assisted by a large Polish contingent under Andrew Zborowski, again invaded Poland and laid siege to Cracow ; but the Chancellor routed him at the bloody battle’ of Byczyna (Jan. 24, 1588). Zamoyski was now completely master of the situation ; and the throne of Sigismund III was secure.