By his last will, King Alexander had bequeathed his patrimony to his younger brother Sigismund, who put himself in possession thereof without a moment’s delay. Ten days after the obsequies of Alexander, Sigismund, who on receiving tidings of his brother’s dangerous illness had posted from Glogau to Wilna, was unanimously elected Grand Duke of Lithuania. In the beginning of 1506 a Polish deputation offered him the Kingdom also ; and on January 24, 1507, he was crowned at Cracow.
The new Monarch was in his 40th year, and his herculean figure and majestic bearing profoundly impressed all who approached him. He came to Poland with an excellent reputation. While only Duke of Glogau, he had been entrusted by his brother Wladislaus, King of Bohemia and Hungary, with the government of Silesia, which for centuries had been the battlefield of the ceaseless antagonisms of the Slav and the German. His just but iron rule had quickly converted a political Alsatia into a model State, and not only did he clear it of Raubritter, but he also made it pay, for the first time, its proper quota into the Bohemian treasury. Sigismund was, indeed, above all things a provident and economical statesman ; and one of his first acts after his accession, was to attempt to restore the credit of Poland, which had been all but ruined by the recklessness of John Albert and the prodigality of Alexander. His chosen colleagues in this great work were a few honest and capable citizens of Cracow, merchants and bankers, most of them of German origin, and exiles for conscience sake, men like Kasper Beer, Justus Decyusz, who became his secretary and chronicler, Johann Thurzo, Johann Boner and the Bettmans. They began with the reform of the currency 1. Under their skilful management, the mint, which hitherto had been more costly than profitable, rendered to the King an annual net income of 21,000 gulden, which enabled Sigismund to pay his predecessor’s debts, redeem the royal plate, recover some of the alienated crown lands, and even hire mercenaries to serve as the nucleus of a standing army.
If ever a Prince had constant need of a well-filled treasury and powerful armaments it was Sigismund I during the whole of his long and troubled reign of forty-two years. At the very outset he was confronted by a conspiracy which struck at the very foundation of Poland’s political existence, a conspiracy the more dangerous as it was inspired and directed by one whose genius and resolution were scarce inferior to Sigismund’s own. The chief personage in Lithuania, at this time, was Prince Michael Glinsky, the Court Marshal and prime favourite of the late King Alexander. The Glinscy came of a Tatar stock which had migrated to the Grand Duchy in the reign of Witowt, and risen rapidly to eminence. Michael, the most illustrious of his family, had travelled and studied in Italy and Spain, spent some time at the court of Maximilian who prized him highly, and returned home learned in all the arts of peace and war. No wonder then, if he easily outshone the simple Lithuanian lords, and so fascinated the impressionable Alexander that, contrary to his coronation oath, he confiscated the estates of Glinsky’s rivals in order to enrich him and his brothers, one of whom, Prince Ivan, was made Palatine of Kiev. On the death of Alexander, Glinsky possessed one half of Lithuania and was generally suspected of the design of erecting Red Russia into an independent principality for himself. It must be admitted, however, that Glinsky had been consistently loyal to Alexander, to whom he rendered considerable services. There is also no reason to suppose that he had, at first, any evil designs against Sigismund. But, in the circumstances, he was too powerful a vassal to be tolerated by any self-respecting King ; and Sigismund had evidently determined to get rid of him on the first opportunity. He began by depriving Ivan Glinsky of the Woiwodschaft of Kiev, affected to listen to the insinuations of Michael Glinsky’s numerous enemies, refused him redress when he claimed it, and thus drove the angry and humiliated magnate, who disdained to hold the second place in Lithuania after having so long held the first, into the arms of Tsar Vasily III of Moscovy, with whom he proposed to conquer and divide western Russia.
For the next ten years, Glinsky was the ubiquitous, irreconcilable enemy of Sigismund. It was through fear of his influence spreading throughout the Grand Duchy that the Polish King, after a two years’ war, came to terms with Vasily by ceding to him, in perpetuity, all the conquests his father Ivan III had made from Alexander. But this peace availed Poland little, for Glinsky, now firmly established at Moscow as the chief Councillor of Vasily III, who had married his niece Helena in 1526, moved heaven and earth to rekindle the war, kept a watchful eye upon all Sigismund’s movements, and took advantage of his ever increasing embarrassments to raise up enemies against him in every quarter . Moreover, Glinsky’s agents traversed Germany, Bohemia and Silesia to collect mercenaries and modern artillery, which were conveyed to Moscovy by way of Livonia. Towards the end of 1511, Sigismund’s difficulties with the Teutonic Order induced Vasily to renew hostilities; and, on December 19, he set forth to besiege the fortress of Smolensk, the key of the Dnieperian district. Notwithstanding his 140 big guns, Vasily had, however, to abandon the siege with the loss of 11,000 men. In 1513, stimulated by Glinsky, Vasily again attacked the fortress and was again repulsed. In 1514 he appeared before Smolensk for the third time. This time his pertinacity was rewarded, chiefly owing to the ability of the master-gunner Stephen; and the place surrendered on June 31. Vasily had promised Smolensk to Glinsky if Glinsky’s gunners could take it. Yet, when the place fell, it was at once occupied by a Russian garrison: From Vasily’s point of view this seemed, no doubt, a necessary act of precaution ; but it was also a flagrant breach of honour and gratitude which the disillusioned Glinsky was quick to resent. He communicated with Sigismund, offering to transfer his services ; but the correspondence was discovered before Glinsky could undo his own work, and he was sent in chains to Moscow where, however, his eclipse was but transient. Two months later the Poles, under Prince Constantine Ostrogsky, routed the Moscovites at Orsza (Sept. 8, 1514), slaying 30,000 of them and capturing four generals, 27 foreign colonels and 1500 boyars. This victory came too late to save Smolensk, but it damped the martial ardour of the Moscovite generals, who, henceforth, avoided pitched battles, and induced the Moscovite government to open negotiations with the Poles under the mediation of the imperial ambassador, Sigismund Herbertstein, who arrived at Moscow in April 1517. The negotiations began on November 1. The Russian plenipotentiaries demanded Kiev, Polock, Witebsk and, generally speaking, all the other towns and territories constituting the original patrimony of the old Russian Grand Dukes who claimed descent from St Vladimir.
This claim was, henceforth, advanced by Moscovy in all similar negotiations with Lithuania and is of great historical interest. It reveals the true character of the struggle between the two Slavonic sovereigns, one calling himself Grand Duke of Lithuania and Russia, while the other claimed the title of Grand Duke of all Russia. Hopeless, fantastic even, as Moscovy’s claim to all the old Russian lands must have seemed in the sixteenth century, it was never omitted from the preliminary conferences lest silence should be construed to mean renunciation. Herbertstein’s mission was a failure; and his successors, Francesco da Kollo and Antonio de Conti, were equally unsuccessful. The negotiations were broken off, and Vasily tried to obtain assistance from the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, to whom (Sept. 1519) he sent sufficient money to equip 10,000 mercenaries. But the Teutonic Order proved but a broken reed to lean upon ; and, after a fresh series of savage raids and futile sieges, both parties wearied of the interminable struggle and terminated it (1522) by a five years’ truce, renewed repeatedly but never converted into a permanent peace, because Sigismund refused to cede and Vasily to part with Smolensk, which remained provisionally in the hands of the Russians.
Sigismund I may, perhaps, have underestimated the significance of the war of Smolensk, but, after all, the whole Moscovite question was still of secondary importance to Poland. The really vital question of the day, upon which everything then depended, was how to deal with the troublesome and rebellious Teutonic Order.
This Teutonic question, besides weakening Poland internally, seriously hampered her foreign policy. In the first two decades of the sixteenth century the Popes were intent on combining Christendom in a crusade against the Turks ; and Hungary and Poland, as being the nearest neighbours of the common foe, were expected to take leading parts in the great enterprise. But Sigismund could not expose his country, during his absence, to the rapacity of his impatient vassal, the Grand Master of Prussia, who was bent upon throwing off the Polish yoke altogether with the support of Poland’s enemies.
Chief among these was the Emperor Maximilian, who, at the Peace Congress of Posen (151o), warmly supported the claims of the Knights to absolute independence. A second Congress, held at Thorn (Jan. 1511), proved equally abortive ; and the matter was then transferred to the Lateran Council, at which the cause of Poland was eloquently pleaded by her greatest diplomatist, the Primate, Jan Laski, who would have prevailed but for the determined opposition of the imperial ambassadors.
Four years later the subject was reopened at the Congress of Pressburg (1515), which was attended by the Emperor, Sigismund, and Wladislaus of Bohemia and Hungary. By this time Sigismund had recognised the necessity of coming to an understanding with Maximilian. The chief cause of the Emperor’s persistent hostility at this time was his fear lest Sigismund might traverse his plans in Hungary. In February 1512, Sigismund yielding to the earnest representations of the Senate that it was his first duty to perpetuate the dynasty, now again in danger of extinction, had married Barbara, daughter of Stephen Zapolya, the most powerful of the Hungarian magnates, compared with whom the reigning King Wladislaus was a mere cipher. Maximilian, who had already conceived the design of acquiring Hungary, more austriaco, by a family alliance with the Hungarian Jagiellos, at once took alarm ; but Sigismund, at Pressburg, smoothed over the difficulty by consenting to a double marriage between Maximilian and Anne, Wladislaus’ daughter and Sigismund’s niece, on the one hand1, and between the Crown Prince Louis of Hungary, then a lad of nine, and the Archduchess Mary, Maximilian’s grand-daughter, on the other. This arrangement was subsequently confirmed by the compact of Vienna (July, same year). In return for Sigismund’s complacency, Maximilian now absolved the Knights from all their obligations to the Empire and left them to get the best terms they could from the Polish King.
On the death of Maximilian (Jan. 12, 1519), however, the new Emperor, Charles V, seemed inclined to protect the Order; which inclination encouraged the Grand Master, Albert of Brandenburg, to renew all his old pretensions. Sigismund thereupon summoned him to Thorn to render due homage. Albert’s reply was a declaration of war, at the beginning of which he captured Braunsburg and other fortresses (1520). But the Polish Diet on this occasion liberally supported the King with men and money ; and Sigismund and his generals, after some hard fighting, drove the Grand Master across the Vistula and pressed him so hardly that he sued for peace. For the moment it seemed as if the sway of the Knights had at last come to an end. Unfortunately, at this critical moment, complications with the Porte compelled Sigismund to conclude a four years’ truce with the Grand Master (March 22, 1521 ), who, in the following year, was won over to Protestantism by Osiander at Nurnberg. Acting on the advice of his new friends, Albert now resolved to convert the territories of the Order into a secular hereditary principality vested in his own family. Sigismund, weary of the interminable struggle, made no objection to the secularisation, offensive as it was to the Catholic Powers; and on April 8, r 525, he solemnly received the homage of Albert in the market-place of Cracow. Thus it was that the last Grand Master of the Teutonic Order became the first Duke of Prussia.
The pressure of the Teuton had forced Sigismund I to relinquish Smolensk to the despised Moscovite ; the pressure of the Turk had forced him to grant the vanquished Teutons terms usually accorded to victors. But, at any rate, both the Moscovite and the Teutonic questions had been settled somehow; and Sigismund was able to turn his attention to the South, On August 29, 1526, Sigismund’s nephew, Louis II of Hungary, perished on the field of Mohacs with his whole army. The importance of the actual battle has been exaggerated. It was a far less serious disaster than the capture of Belgrade, six years previously; and the monarchy survived it for fourteen years. But the attending circumstances demonstrated, what very few1 had hitherto suspected, viz. that feudal Hungary in the sixteenth century was in such a rotten, crazy condition as to be fit for nothing but to be cast into the oven of political dissolution.
Two candidates at once presented themselves for the vacant throneJohn Zapolya, Voivode of Transylvania, at the head of an army twice as large as that which had perished at Mohacs ; and Ferdinand of Austria, grandson of the Emperor Maximilian. Both candidates were crowned by their respective partisans, John in 1526, Ferdinand in 1527 ; and the country was instantly flooded by German, Italian, Polish and Turkish mercenaries, who reduced half of it to a desert, till the Peace of Grosswardein (1538) established John on the Hungarian throne which, after his death, was to revert to Ferdinand. The whole question profoundly interested but deeply divided Polish politicians. The unusually well-informed King favoured the Austrian candidate, in the belief, amply justified by later events, that Hungary could only remain a permanent barrier against the Turks if closely united with the House of Hapsburg. But a large and powerful party in Poland, headed by the Primate, Jan Laski, and his three nephews, Hieronymus, Jan and Stanislaus, all of them men of extraordinary but somewhat erratic genius, warmly supported Zapolya, principally because he hated the Germans as much as they did. Hieronymus Laski not only supplied Zapolya with army after army, but went the round of all the European Courts on his behalf, finally undertaking the famous embassy to Stambul which resulted in the alliance between Zapolya and the Sultan, against which Ferdinand proved powerless. At the instigation of the Emperor Charles V, Pope Clement VII thereupon excommunicated Zapolya, and addressed such a severe monitorium to the Polish Primate that the old man, already depressed by the heterodoxy of his eldest nephew Jan and the disgrace of Hieronymus, whose gratuitous and compromising policy had been severely punished by Sigismund, died, it is said, of a broken heart (May 19, 1531 ). The alliance between the Jagiellos and the Hapsburgs had already been strengthened by Sigismund’s marriage with Bona Sforza’ (April 1518), who brought with her a dot of 200,000 ducats, and the prospect of an inheritance of another half million after the death of her mother Isabella of Aragon. Sigismund’s Austrian policy never varied. Even on the death of John Zapolya (1540), when the Queen-Mother, Isabella, Sigismund’s own daughter, attempted to secure the Magyar throne for her infant son John Sigismund, her father dissuaded her from so grossly violating the Peace of Grosswardein, and made her hand over the Hungarian regalia to Ferdinand. Finally, in 1543, the Austrian alliance was still further cemented by the marriage of Sigismund’s only son, Sigismund Augustus, with the Austrian Archduchess Elizabeth.
With the Porte, Sigismund carefully avoided a collision. It is a common error to suppose that Poland was the buckler of Christendom against Islam. That glorious distinction belonged from the end of the fourteenth to the end of the fifteenth century to Hungary, and to Hungary alone, Till the middle of the sixteenth century Poland had but little to do with Turkey. The alfold, or great Hungarian plain, lay between the two States ; and Moldavia, beneath the sceptre of Stephen the Great (1458-1504), served as an additional barrier. Just before and during the reign of Sigismund I, however, this geographical remoteness was brought to an end by two events. In 1475 the Turks subjugated the Crimean Tatars ; in 1513 the Moldavian Princes submitted to the suzerainty of the Sultan. – Henceforth the south-eastern frontier of Poland was conterminous with Turkish territory; and the whole situation became permanently insecure.
As regards Moldavia, Sigismund avoided complications, so far as possible, by scrupulously respecting the Sultan’s claims. He gave the most memorable instance of his forbearance in 1530 when the Moldavian Hospodar, Petrylo, seized Pokucie. Sigismund sent against him the Grand Hetman1 of the Crown, Stanislaus Tarnowski, the first of Poland’s great captains, who defeated and slew the Hospodar after a fierce two days’ battle at Obertyn (Aug. 21, 22), for which he was awarded a triumph and one-sixth of the year’s subsidies. So signal was this victory that all Moldavia lay at the feet of the Grand Hetman. Nevertheless, Sigismund strictly forbade Tarnowski to cross the Moldavian frontier, and even sent a letter of explanation to the Sultan.
With the Tatars it was much more difficult to cope. Since the collapse of the Golden Horde they had become mere freebooters, ravaging indiscriminately Moscovy and Lithuania, in spite of the tribute regularly paid to them by way of insurance money. The Sultan let them loose the more readily upon any State whose hostility he might suspect, because, as the nominal subjects of the Crimean Khan, they could always be officially repudiated at Stambul; and Poland suffered terribly from their endless depredations. The whole of her vast, ill-protected, south-eastern frontier, extending from Kiev to the Dnieper2, and known as the dzikie poli, or ” wilderness,” lay wide open to their sudden and incalculable attacks ; and, generally, they had disappeared like a whirlwind in the trackless steppe before the border castellans could marshal their widely-scattered levies. In 1510 Prince Constantine Ostrogski defeated them in a great battle fought at Wisniowiec, on St Vitalis’ Day, April 28, which was kept as a national festival in Lithuania for generations afterwards. Yet only six years later (1516), another great Tatar raid ravaged the Woiwodschafts of Russia, Belsk, and Ljubelsk, carrying off no fewer than 50,000 captives to be sold as slaves at Kertch. In 1519 the Tatars wiped out a whole Polish army-corps 5000 strong. In 1527 they penetrated almost to the walls of Cracow, but this time were overtaken and routed at Kaniow, when 80,000 captives were recovered. As Poland became a great power, the humiliation of these raids was felt even more than their mischief; but it was not till 1533 that the valiant and experienced Lord Marcher, Ostafi Daszkiewicz, was consulted by the Diet as to the best way of securing the Ukrain 1 against these savage attacks. Daszkiewicz advised that the Ukrain should be gradually colonised, and that, in the meantime, the pick of the semi-nomadic orthodox population of the Steppe, the so-called Cossacks, consisting mostly of runaway serfs, or poor vagabond gentlemen in search of plunder and adventure, should be enrolled in companies and established permanently on the islands of the Lower Dnieper, which could easily be made impregnable points d’appui. This excellent plan, which met all the difficulties of the situation, received no support from the Polish Diet. It was simply shelved. Yet Queen Bona, who, with all her faults, was a model administrator, had already demonstrated the practicability and immense advantage, even on a small scale, of such a plan as Daszkiewicz’s. To secure her estates in the Ukrain, she built the little castle of Bar, the defence of which she entrusted to her Silesian steward Bernard Pretficz. Seventy times did he repulse the Tatar roaming bands, so that, to cite a contemporary chronicler, ” in the days of Pan Pretficz the Hagarenes fell back from the frontier.” The natural result was that thousands of colonists flocked to the Starosty of Bar, where land reclamation was conducted on a gigantic scale, Bona assisting the good work by making roads, draining marshes, and building bridges. By these means the value of her Ukrainian estates rose a hundredfold in a very short time. But the country benefited also, for Bar became the bastion of Podolia, and the centre of a wealthy agricultural district. The contemporary fortress of Krzemieniec owed its origin to similar causes.
Had the Polish Diet done, from motives of duty and patriotism, what Queen Bona did by way of private investment, the Tatar difficulty would never have swollen into a peril. Unfortunately, the Szlachta, which now began to dominate the Diet, was so blinded by considerations of caste and privilege as to be almost incapable of thinking imperially. Throughout the reign of Sigismund I, the Polish State suffered grievously from the pretensions, the jealousies, and above all, from the fatal parsimony of the Sejm. In 1510 the Primate Laski proposed that all the great dignitaries of State, in view of the King’s necessities (it was the interval between the first and second Moscovite war), should contribute half of their annual income at once, and one-twentieth part thereof every subsequent year, and that, in future, all legal fines and charges should be paid into the royal treasury. The project was indignantly rejected by the Diet which would only grant subsidies for two years, amounting, nominally, to 40,000 but which diminished during collection to 7000 gulden. At the Diet of 1512 the King proposed to commute military service into a fixed charge of six gulden per head, payable by every nobleman at the beginning of a campaign, the money to be employed in hiring mercenaries. This plan was also rejected. Then the King proposed that the whole kingdom should be divided into five military circles, bound to defend the realm alternately from Easter to St Martin’s Day. This proposal was so far approved of by the local diets of Little and Great Poland that St Michael’s Day in each year was fixed upon for the registration and assessment of the gentry of each province. Every armiger was free to commute his service at a fixed quota ; but his property was to be liable to confiscation if he had failed to pay his quota within a given time. At the eleventh hour, the whole project foundered on the incurable jealousies of the Senate and the Szlachta, neither being willing to trust the other with the custody of the registers, whereupon the Diet of 1515 rejected the reform altogether, and the King had to make the best of the old subsidies, voted for three years. In 1518 1519 the Poles granted Sigismund only 39,000 gulden, whereas the Lithuanians gave him 134,000, the superior liberality of the latter being due to the fact that they were more directly threatened by the Moscovites and Tatars. The Poles, moreover, had an irritating habit of accompanying the slightest pecuniary concession with demands for fresh privileges, mainly at the expense of the rich burgesses of Cracow and of the lower classes generally. In 1513 the local diet of Korezyn went so far as to extrude from its session the burgomaster and consuls of Cracow. But Sigismund promptly reinstated them and publicly confirmed their privilege of representing the city in the local diets.
In 1533, and again in 1537, fresh efforts were made in vain by the Szlachta to exclude the deputies of Cracow from the Diets, and, finally, the King was obliged (1539) to issue an edict threatening to prosecute for Rse-majestic any gentleman who attempted in future to infringe the rights of the citizens. Both this Sejmik and the Sejmik of Bromberg in 1520 were also very severe upon the peasantry who were now compelled to work one day a week gratis on their master’s land. Hitherto, this had been a matter of private arrangement ; now it was made a statutory and universal obligation. The Diets of 1522 and 1523 would grant the King nothing for the national defence ; and he was compelled, with the consent of the Senate, to levy taxes by royal edict. This unpatriotic parsimony was largely due to the Szlachta’s suspicion of the magnates and senators who surrounded the King and monopolized all the chief offices in the State. The oligarchs, on the other hand, as being experienced and practical statesmen, took a juster view of things ; and one of them, the Primate Andrzej Krzycki (1483-1537), summed up the situation, pretty accurately, in a letter to Sigismund. ” All of us know right well,” he said, the great danger that threatens us, so that if your Majesty did not rule this body-politic, like as the soul of a man ruleth his members, we should all fall to pieces.”
In 1526 the ranks of the Szlachta were reinforced by hundreds of Masovian squires, the Duchy of Masovia, on the extinction of the male ducal line (August 26, 1526), being incorporated with the kingdom. This event was not without considerable political influence. The poor’, ignorant, but fiery Masovian squires, whose rough grey coats and ragged accoutrements excited the ridicule of contemporary satirists, introduced a strong democratic element into the Polish Diet, which helped to stiffen the opposition. The King, too, was now growing weary of strife. He had out-lived most of his friends and counsellors, and repeated disappointments had saddened and disillusioned him. His chief care now was to pass the Crown on to, and make the future easy for, his beloved and only son Sigismund Augustus. He could still, as we shall see, be very firm in religious matters ; but, politically, his powers of resistance were weakening. In the last years of his reign the Szlachta (now nominated to the Sejm, or great Diet, by their own local diets, instead of, as heretofore, by the officers of the Crown at the royal courts) became the leading power in the
The whole income of the duchy only amounted to 14,000 gulden per annum. It consisted mainly of sand and fir trees, but was densely populated by small landowners. From henceforth its capital Warsaw. thanks to its central position, begins to rise in importance.
State ; and the King acquiesced in the transfer of authority from the magnates to the gentry, especially as he himself largely profited thereby. In the districts where the magnates owned all the land, the Szlachta, naturally, had no direct influence ; but they were gradually becoming the masters of the Diet, and there they circumscribed the authority of the Executive, as represented by the Senate, in every direction. Thus, statutes were passed forbidding the Grand Hetman, or Captain-General, of the Kingdom, to levy troops, the Lord Treasurer to collect taxes, the Grand Chancellor to direct the tribunals ; the King and Diet together were henceforth to attend to all such matters. Military service, moreover, was now declared a universal obligation. In this respect, the mightiest Pan, or Lord, was placed on the same level, according to his means, as the poorest grey-coat (1527). This beneficial reform resulted in a large increase of all the local militias. Thus in 1529 Podolia alone raised 3200 horse and 300 foot, the control of which was placed in the hands of the King.
In the remote and still semi-barbarous Lithuania, on the other hand, the Senate was everything, the gentry nothing. Even so late as 1569 the only persons who attended at the Lithuanian Sejms were the Voivode, or Governor, the Starosta, or Judiciary, and the Chorazy, or Standard-bearer, with their officials. These dignitaries would then proceed to pass whatever statutes they pleased, commit them to writing, and circulate them among the provincial nobility, who were compelled to sign them under the threat of a flogging. The great obstacle to the spread of civilisation in the Grand Duchy was the war of the two hostile confessions, the Roman Catholic and the Greek Orthodox. From the beginning of the Union, conversion to Catholicism in Lithuania had been rewarded by donations of vast domains and seats in the Senate. The sons of these renegade fathers jealously guarded their predominance, and unmercifully oppressed their despised orthodox brethren, who represented four-fifths of the entire population. When the Lithuanian Chancellor, Gasztold, could describe the illustrious and enlightened Prince Constantine Ostrogski as ” a new man of low condition whose ancestors stood at the footstool of my ancestors,” we may form some idea of how ordinary orthodox gentlemen were treated in Lithuania. At the beginning of the century things were, naturally, very much worse. In the eyes of the ruling oligarchs, everyone who won promotion by personal services, or royal favour, was an impertinent intruder. Thus, when Sigismund rewarded Ostrogski for his great victory at Orsza, by conferring on him the Voivody of Troki, such a storm arose at the subsequent Diet of 1522, that the King had to give a written undertaking that, henceforth, none but a Catholic should have a seat in the Lithuanian Senate. Nevertheless, Sigismund was ever the consistent upholder of tolerance and equity. Devout Catholic though he was, he sternly re-pressed every attempt at religious persecution on the part of the dominant Catholic minority. The chartered rights of the orthodox population were rigorously maintained, and every injury inflicted on them was promptly punished. In all confessional conflicts, the Orthodox were treated as the equals of the Catholics before the Law. Hence the universal popularity enjoyed by Sigismund in his Grand Duchy, which was very useful to him politically. He was able, with little difficulty, to procure the election of his infant son as Grand Duke (1522) ; to codify the unwritten and chaotic laws of Lithuania, which code, in the Ruthenian language, was promulgated by the Diet of Wilna in 1529; to abolish socage in Samogitia ; and to introduce many far-reaching economic reforms.
The last years of Sigismund I were years of resigned despondency. Externally, thanks to his splendid physique and majestic presence, the old King seemed as hale and vigorous as ever. In reality, he was a weary and broken man. New and disquieting problems came crowding upon him towards the end of his reign, and he knew that his failing powers were unequal to their solution. The most pressing of these problems was how to prevent the spread of the new religious ideas, which were beginning to exercise such a peculiar influence upon Polish politics.
Despite her fidelity to the Holy See, Poland, so early as 1326, had required the assistance of an Inquisitor to protect her orthodoxy against the onslaughts of the Hussites. Yet she gave but little trouble to the Curia till the age of Luther ; and, but for the pretensions and the exactions of her own clergy, it is very doubtful whether Lutheranism would have gained any sure footing in the kingdom at all. As a German product, Lutheranism was naturally distasteful to the Poles ; and the repressive measures adopted against the new heresy by Sigismund I were approved by the nation at large, mainly from political reasons. The first outbreaks of militant Protestantism occurred at Dantzic in 1518 and 1520. Still more alarming was the rebellion of 1525, when the innovators purged the town council of Catholics, closed the monasteries, appropriated the churches, abolished nearly all the taxes, and introduced free-trade. At Cracow, these disturbances were at first attributed to the machinations of the ever restive Teutonic Order. Sigismund lost no time in bringing the rebels to reason. He carne in person to Dantzic at the head of a large body of troops, hung fifteen of the ring-leaders, including the aldermen, re-established Catholicism, expelled the perverts, forbade the dissemination of Lutheran literature and, contrary to his usual practice, released the gentry from all civic jurisdiction, not only in Dantzic, but throughout the Prussian provinces. In Poland proper, anti-Lutheran edicts were also issued. In 1520 the Edict of Thorn forbade the importation of German books. The Edict of Grodno confirmed and extended that of Thorn. The Edict of Cracow (1523) condemned to confiscation and the stake anyone preaching Lutheranism. But these edicts, for the most part, remained inoperative, partly because heretics were few on Polish soil, but, principally, because the Bishops became more and more afraid of exercising their coercive functions in view of the increasing hostility of the Szlachta freely expressed in the Sejms. Religion had but little to do with the anti-ecclesiastical sentiments of the Polish gentry. No doubt, the very unapostolic lives of the Polish Bishops of the period armed the Szlachta with the best of all weapons against their spiritual fathers. But it was the pretensions and the privileges, not the opinions of the Prelates, which gave the most offence. In brief, the spiritual peers had now to submit to the same levelling process as the temporal peers had already undergone ; and, as the clergy had always claimed more, they necessarily suffered more than the privileged laity. It was now that the gentry began to refuse to pay tithes, to question the jurisdiction of the spiritual courts, to object to the payment of Annates and other papal charges, and, generally, to exalt liberty, as they understood it, above everything else. But, so long as Sigismund I reigned, the Church, supported by the whole weight of the Crown, had little to fear. The Szlachta might storm and rage and even threaten Sigismund to his face with rebellion ; but the old King remained imperturbable and in-different, and their threats invariably came to nothing.
It was in the reign of Sigismund that the influence of the Italian Renaissance extended to Poland. Sigismund, always a lover of music and interested in architecture, his one expensive luxury’, was naturally attracted by the artistic side of the Renaissance ; and under the direction of his accomplished second consort, Bona of Ferrara, the Court of Cracow became the focus of Italian culture. There Bona reigned resplendent, winning every heart by her grace and beauty, and every head by her brilliant wit and perfect command of Latin. The satirist Krzycki indited to her his choicest epigrams ; the chancellor Tomicki humoured her lightest caprice ; the future fathers of the Polish church assiduously sought her patronage. But, beyond the narrow limits of art and literature, Bona’s extraordinary ascendency’ was everywhere mischievous. The Polish nation rightly detested a Princess who did nothing but enrich herself at its expense, and was as much a foreigner when she decamped with her accumulated millions as when she first entered the land as a bride, thirty-seven years before. Her greed of gold was only equalled by her greed of power. She hated her only son as a political rival, and contributed, by her inhuman treatment, to the death of his first consort, the amiable Archduchess Elizabeth of Austria (1543). Bona’s political intrigues frequently embarrassed Sigismund in his later years ; but her sway over him prevailed to the end, and when he expired, on April 1, 1548, in his 81st year, it was she who closed his eyes.