The position of the Polish kings was traditionally weak because it
was an 3 elective monarchy.
3 Polish general assembly for the election of a king
in a field
near Warsaw, copper engraving, 17th century
The nobility held the peasants in servitude
and expanded its privileges at every election in the Sejm or Diet.
1 Sigismund I of the Jagiellon dynasty, king from 1506, was a promoter of
the Renaissance and humanism.
He ended the disputes with the Habsburgs
in 1515 and with the Teutonic Order over East Prussia in 1525.
His son 2 Sigismund II Augustus unified the Lithuanian provinces with Poland in
the 5 Union of Lublin in 1569.
5 Unification of Poland and Lithuania in the Lublin
After the end of the Jagiellon line, the aristocracy forced through
religious freedom and the right of resistance with the election of
Llenry of Valois in 1572, later Henry III king of France.
In 1587 3 Sigismund III brought the Catholic line of the House of Vasa to power.
His son Wladyslaw IV pushed far into Russian territory, but Wladyslaw's
brother 4 John II Casimir later had to contend with the revolts of the
Cossack leader Bogdan Chmelnizkij, who was supported by Russia and the
Polish peasants, founded his own state in the Ukraine, and placed
himself under the czar in 1654.
1 Sigismund I
2 Sigismund II Augustus
3 Sigismund III
4 John II Casimir
king of Poland
byname Sigismund the Old, Polish Zygmunt Stary
born Jan. 1, 1467
died April 1, 1548, Kraków, Pol.
king who established Polish suzerainty over Ducal Prussia
(East Prussia) and incorporated the duchy of Mazovia into
the Polish state.
Sigismund I, the fifth son of Casimir IV and Elizabeth of
Habsburg, had ruled Głogów, Silesia, since 1499 and became
margrave of Lusatia and governor of all Silesia in 1504. In
a short time his judicial and administrative reforms
transformed those territories into model states. He
succeeded his brother Alexander I as grand prince of
Lithuania and king of Poland in 1506. Although he
established fiscal and monetary reforms, he often clashed
with the Polish Diet over extensions of royal power. At the
Diet’s demand he married Barbara, daughter of Prince Stephen
Zápolya of Hungary, in 1512, to secure a defense treaty and
produce an heir. She died, however, three years later,
leaving only daughters. In 1518 Sigismund married the niece
of the Holy Roman emperor Maximilian, Bona Sforza of Milan,
by whom he had one son, Sigismund II Augustus, and four
daughters. One of them later married John III of Sweden,
from whom the Vasa kings of Sweden were descended.
In 1521 Sigismund’s army, led by one of the principal
advisers and commanders, Jan Tarnowski, subdued the Order of
the Teutonic Knights, a paramilitary religious order that
ruled East Prussia. In 1525 the Teutonic grand master Albert
became a Lutheran and agreed to do public homage to
Sigismund in return for being granted the title of secular
duke of Prussia; Albert then dissolved the order, and Ducal
Prussia came under Polish suzerainty. Sigismund added the
duchy of Mazovia (now the province of Warsaw) to the Polish
state after the death, in 1529, of the last of its Piast
dynasty rulers. Again under the command of Tarnowski,
Sigismund’s army defeated the invading forces of Moldavia at
Obertyn in 1531 and Muscovy in 1535, thereby safeguarding
Poland’s eastern borders.
Sigismund, influenced by his wife, brought Italian
artists to Kraków and promoted the development of the Polish
variety of the Italian Renaissance. Although a devout
Catholic, he accorded religious toleration to Greek Orthodox
Christians and royal protection to Jews. At first he
vigorously opposed Lutheranism but later resigned himself to
its growing power in Poland.
Sigismund II Augustus
king of Poland
born Aug. 1, 1520, Kraków, Pol.
died July 7, 1572, Knyszyn
Polish Zygmunt August last Jagiellon king of Poland, who
united Livonia and the duchy of Lithuania with Poland,
creating a greatly expanded and legally unified kingdom.
The only son of Sigismund I the Old and Bona Sforza,
Sigismund II was elected and crowned coruler with his father
in 1530. He ruled the duchy of Lithuania from 1544 and
became king of Poland after his father’s death in April
1548. After his first wife died childless (1545), he
secretly married Barbara Radziwiłł, of a Lithuanian magnate
family (1547). When he announced his marriage in 1548, the
szlachta (Polish gentry) tried to force an annulment because
it feared the influence of the Radziwiłłs. He overcame the
opposition, but Barbara died childless in 1551, allegedly
poisoned by Sigismund’s mother. A third marriage (1553), to
his first wife’s sister Catherine, also proved childless,
and at his death the direct Jagiellon line ended.
In 1559, when the Livonian Order (a branch of the
Teutonic Knights) became too weak to protect itself from
Muscovite attacks, it sought and obtained Sigismund’s
previously offered protection. The Polish king intervened,
but, as Livonia continued to be menaced by Muscovy as well
as Sweden and Denmark, the Livonian Order and Sigismund II
Augustus concluded the Union of Wilno (Vilnius) in 1561:
thereby the Livonian lands, north of the Dvina (Daugava)
River, were incorporated directly into Lithuania, while
Courland, south of the Dvina, became a secular duchy and
The subsequent war (Livonian War) with Tsar Ivan IV the
Terrible over Livonia compelled Sigismund to strengthen his
position by constitutionally uniting all the lands attached
to the Polish crown. Supported by the Polish and Lithuanian
gentry, Sigismund ceded his hereditary rights in Lithuania
to Poland (1564), thus placing the two states in
constitutional equality but not in a complete union. In 1569
he formally incorporated Podlasie, Volhynia, and Kiev
provinces into the Polish kingdom, thereby giving their
representatives seats in the Sejm; the enlarged Sejm then
enacted the Union of Lublin (1569), uniting Poland and
Lithuania as well as their respective dependencies.
Sigismund III Vasa
king of Poland and Sweden
Polish Zygmunt Waza, Swedish Sigismund Vasa
born June 20, 1566, Gripsholm, Swed.
died April 30, 1632, Warsaw, Pol.
king of Poland (1587–1632) and of Sweden (1592–99) who
sought to effect a permanent union of Poland and Sweden but
instead created hostile relations and wars between the two
states lasting until 1660.
The elder son of King John III Vasa of Sweden and Catherine,
daughter of Sigismund I the Old of Poland, Sigismund
belonged to the Vasa dynasty through his father and to the
Jagiellon dynasty through his mother, who brought him up as
a Catholic. He was elected king of Poland in August 1587,
succeeding his uncle King Stephen Báthory. To obtain the
throne he had to accept a reduction of royal power and a
consequent increase of the power of the Sejm (Diet). In 1592
he married the Austrian archduchess Anna, and, after his
father’s death the same year, he received the Sejm’s
permission to accept the Swedish throne. He was crowned king
of Sweden in 1594, but only after promising to uphold
Leaving his paternal uncle Charles (later Charles IX) as
regent in Sweden, Sigismund returned to Poland in July 1594.
Charles, however, rose in rebellion, and, when Sigismund
returned to Sweden with an army, Charles defeated him at
Stångebro (1598) and deposed him in 1599. Sigismund’s
subsequent foreign policy was aimed at regaining the Swedish
throne, and from 1600 Poland and Sweden were involved in an
intermittent war. He also attempted to maintain an alliance
with the Austrian Habsburgs. When his first Austrian wife
died (1598) and he married her sister Constantia (1605), he
provoked his opponents, already aroused by his efforts to
introduce majority rule in place of unanimity in the Sejm,
to engage in a civil war (1606–08).
Shortly after his victory over his internal enemies,
Sigismund took advantage of a period of civil unrest in
Muscovy (known as the Time of Troubles) and invaded Russia,
holding Moscow for two years (1610–12) and Smolensk
thereafter. In 1617 the Polish-Swedish conflict, which had
been interrupted by an armistice in 1611, broke out again.
While Sigismund’s army was also fighting Ottoman forces in
Moldavia (1617–21), King Gustavus II Adolphus of Sweden
(Charles IX’s son) invaded Sigismund’s lands, capturing Riga
(1621) and seizing almost all of Polish Livonia. Sigismund,
who concluded the Truce of Altmark with Sweden in 1629,
never regained the Swedish crown. His Swedish wars resulted,
moreover, in Poland’s loss of Livonia and in a diminution of
the kingdom’s international prestige.
John II Casimir Vasa
king of Poland
Polish Jan Kazimierz Waza
born March 22, 1609, Kraków, Pol.
died Dec. 16, 1672, Nevers, France
king of Poland (1648–68) and pretender to the Swedish
throne, whose reign was marked by heavy losses of Polish
territory incurred in wars against the Ukrainians, Tatars,
Swedes, and Russians.
The second son of Sigismund III Vasa, king of Poland and of
Sweden, John Casimir fought on the Habsburg side against
France during the Thirty Years’ War from 1635 until, on his
way to Spain to assume the office of admiral, he was
arrested by the French and imprisoned for two years
(1638–40). After his release he decided to forgo military
life and became a Jesuit novice (1646), but he resigned his
position a year later.
A few months after the death of his brother King
Wladyslaw IV in May 1648, John Casimir was elected to the
Polish throne and soon married Marie Louise de
Gonzague-Nevers, his brother’s widow.
John Casimir tried to end an insurrection of Poland’s
semiautonomous Ukrainian Cossack subjects by negotiation but
was forced to continue the war by Polish nobles who wished
to increase their control over Ukraine. He defeated the
Cossacks and their Tatar allies at Beresteczko June 28–30,
1651, but the fighting began anew when the Cossacks
submitted themselves to the Russian tsar in return for
military aid. While the Polish army was fighting on the
eastern border of Poland, the Swedish army invaded from the
west and occupied most of the country by October 1655.
John Casimir fled abroad but returned in 1656 when Polish
peasants and gentry rebelled against Swedish control. At the
conclusion of the war with Sweden in 1660, he had to
renounce his rights to the Swedish throne and to northern
Livonia. In January 1667 Poland signed the Truce of
Andrusovo with Russia, whereby half of Belorussia (with
Smolensk), Chernigov (modern Chernihiv, Ukraine), and all of
Ukraine east of the Dnieper River, as well as Kiev, west of
the river, were ceded to Russia. Disgusted with external
warfare, facing a rebellion by the Diet, and in mourning
after the death of his wife, the king abdicated (Sept. 16,
1668) and retired to France, where he served as titular
abbot of Saint-Germain-des-Prés until his death in 1672.
When Ukraine was lost to Russia, the
A branch of the house of Jagiellon had ruled in Bohemia and Hungary since
the 15th century.
A pact was made with the Habsburgs for the 7 double
wedding of the children of King Wladyslaw II, Louis and Anna, with the
grandchildren of Holy Roman emperor Maximilian I, Ferdinand and Mary, in
When the young King Louis II fell in the Battle of Mohacs against
the Turks in 1526, his brother-in-law, Ferdinand I claimed Bohemia and
Hungary. But Ferdinand was only able to hold Bohemia; the Ottomans, who
supported their own kings, occupied most of Hungary for a century and a
Ferenc Rakoczi, II
prince of Transylvania
born March 27, 1676, Borsi, Hung.
died April 8, 1735, Rodosto, Tur.
prince of Transylvania who headed a nearly successful national
rising of all Hungary against the Habsburg empire.
He was born of an aristocratic Magyar family. Both his father
and his stepfather had led insurrections against the Habsburgs,
and Rákóczi grew up in an atmosphere of fervent Magyar
patriotism. He was separated from his mother after the surrender
of Munkács to the Austrians (1688) and taken to Vienna and
placed in a Jesuit college in Bohemia to be brought up in
Rákóczi returned to his Hungarian estates in 1694, having
forgotten much of his heritage. Encouraged by other Hungarian
nobles, however, he came to believe in the Hungarian cause, and,
on the eve of the War of the Spanish Succession, he and his
fellow magnates sought help from Louis XIV of France. Their
intermediary betrayed his trust, and Rákóczi was arrested and
imprisoned, escaping death with his wife’s help by leaving his
cell in disguise. After two years in Poland, he returned in 1703
to put himself at the head of the peasant revolt known as the
Kuruc (or Kurucok) rising. He had considerable initial success,
but the Anglo-Austrian victory at Blenheim in 1704 destroyed
hopes of help from France and of eventual success, though
fighting in Hungary continued until 1711.
Meanwhile, the Transylvanians were looking to Rákóczi to
restore their independence, electing him prince on July 6, 1704,
a major result of which was the destruction of any hopes for
compromise with the emperor Leopold I, who was also king of
Hungary. France sent no effective aid, Rákóczi’s efforts to
secure the Russian tsar Peter I’s help against Austria failed,
his peasant armies suffered further heavy defeats, and finally
he left his country forever on Feb. 21, 1711, a few months
before the signing of the Peace of Szatmár with Austria.
After seeking refuge in Poland and France, Rákóczi went to
Constantinople in 1717 on the invitation of the Sultan to help
organize an army against the Austrians. Peace, however, was
concluded before he arrived, the Sultan had no use for his
services, and Rákóczi lived out his life in exile in Turkey.
John III Sobieski
king of Poland
Polish Jan Sobieski
born August 17, 1629, Olesko, Poland
died June 17, 1696, Wilanów
elective king of Poland (1674–96), a soldier who drove back the
Ottoman Turks and briefly restored the kingdom of
Poland-Lithuania to greatness for the last time.
Early life and career
Sobieski’s ancestors were of the lesser nobility, but one of his
great-grandfathers was the famous grand-hetman (military
commander) St. Żółkiewski, and, when John was born, his father,
James (Jakub) (1588–1646), had already taken a step to the
higher ranks, sharing an office on the royal court. At the end
of his life, the father even became castellan of Kraków, an
office that secured him the highest rank among the members of
the Polish Senate, or first chamber of the parliament.
John was well educated and toured western Europe in his
youth, as was usual for a Polish noble of his class. When the
Swedes invaded Poland in 1655, he joined them in opposition to
the Polish king John Casimir. The following year he changed
sides again and became one of the leaders in the fight to expel
the Swedes. In 1665, through the influence of his patroness,
Queen Maria Louisa (Ludwika), he was appointed to the
prestigious office of grand marshal. In 1666 he became hetman of
the Polish army. In October 1667 he defeated the Tatars and the
Cossacks near Podhajce (now Podgaytsy, in Ukraine), and in the
spring of 1668, when he triumphantly returned to Warsaw, he was
named grand-hetman. In 1665 he had married an ambitious young
French widow, Marie-Casimire de la Grange d’Arquien (Marysieńka).
Marysieńka planned to have John elected king after King John
Casimir’s resignation in 1668. When this plan failed—the
nobility elected Michael Wiśniowiecki in 1669—she began working
to obtain support from Louis XIV of France for her husband’s
advancement. Since they were often separated—the husband on the
front, his wife on journeys to France—Sobieski wrote long
letters to Marysieńka, which are now a highly interesting and
important historical source. Her letters have not been
During the short reign of King Michael (1669–73), Sobieski
distinguished himself by further victories over the Cossacks,
and simultaneously he tried to undermine Michael, whose policies
favoured the Habsburgs against France. Michael died in November
1673, and almost on the same day Sobieski won a splendid victory
over the Turks under Hussein Paşa near Chocim (Hoţin). Although
this victory did not alter the disastrous conditions of the
Peace of Buczacz concluded in 1672 (Poland had to cede territory
to the Turks and to pay a considerable indemnity), Sobieski’s
reputation was so great that in May 1674 he was elected king in
preference to the candidate backed by the Habsburgs.
At first Sobieski followed a pro-French policy. He tried to
end the Turkish war by French mediation and concluded the secret
Treaty of Jaworów with France (June 1675), in which he promised
to fight the Holy Roman (Habsburg) emperor after the conclusion
of peace with the Turks. In fact, only an armistice with them
was concluded at Żórawno (October 1676), and the conditions were
only slightly more favourable than those of Buczacz.
Sobieski’s hopes of compensating for losses to the Turks in
the southeast by using French and Swedish support to make
territorial gains from Prussia in the northwest were also
disappointed. Furthermore, Louis XIV was neither ready to
recognize Marysieńka’s French relatives as members of a royal
family nor willing to support the succession of Sobieski’s son
James (Jakub) to the Polish throne. The great nobles, especially
those from Lithuania, were opposed to the French alliance
because they feared that Sobieski was striving to attain
absolute power with the help of France. It was becoming clear,
moreover, that it was impossible to reconcile the interests of
Poland and those of Louis, whose aim was to use Sobieski as an
obedient vassal against the Habsburgs. Poland, for its part, had
no differences with the Habsburgs and, after a series of Turkish
attacks, came to regard the Ottomans, the allies of France, as
its deadliest enemies.
The siege of Vienna
Sobieski, therefore, though always an admirer of France, shifted
away from the French alliance and concluded a treaty with the
Holy Roman emperor Leopold I against the Turks (April 1, 1683).
By the terms of the treaty, each ally had to support the other
with all his might if the other’s capital were to be besieged.
Thus, when a great Turkish army approached Vienna late in the
summer of 1683, Sobieski himself rushed there with about 25,000
men. Because he had the highest rank of all military leaders
gathered to relieve Vienna, he took command of the entire relief
force (about 75,000 men) and achieved a brilliant victory over
the Turks at the Kahlenberg (September 12, 1683), in one of the
decisive battles of European history.
In the campaign that followed in Hungary (in the autumn of
1683), however, Sobieski was less successful, and his relations
with the emperor Leopold deteriorated because of differences in
temperament and conflicting political plans. Sobieski’s idea was
to liberate Moldavia and Walachia (present-day Romania) from
Ottoman rule and to expand Poland’s influence to the shores of
the Black Sea. But his advances into Moldavia, undertaken
between 1684 and 1691, were mostly failures, and during the last
one he was even in danger of being captured. Despite his
previous victories, he was thus not able to achieve his
objective. Only in 1699, three years after his death, were the
territories that had been lost in 1672 recovered.
In the last years of his life, from 1691 until his death in
1696, Sobieski was often seriously ill and had to face quarrels
with the nobles and within his own family. His eldest son,
James, was bitterly opposed to the queen and the younger
princes. All of Sobieski’s sons were interested in succeeding to
the throne and tried to obtain help, either from the emperor or
from France. The marriage of Sobieski’s daughter Kunegunda to
Maximilian II Emanuel, elector of Bavaria (1694), was the only
bright spot in these rather gloomy years.
Although the second half of the reign was much less brilliant
than the first, the personal wealth of the royal couple
continued to grow because they knew how to obtain money in
exchange for offices and favour. Thus, the king left a
considerable fortune when he died.
Sobieski also spent large sums on his residences in Żółkiew
and Jaworów and especially on the palace of Wilanów near Warsaw,
a fine example of Baroque architecture. He was also a patron of
poets and painters. Of all the Polish rulers of the 17th
century, he was the best educated and took the greatest interest
in literature and cultural life.
The struggle against Ottoman power in Europe was the keystone
of Sobieski’s foreign policy, with which all other foreign
relations were closely connected. When the Russians,
traditionally Poland’s enemies, showed willingness to join the
league against the Turks, Sobieski concluded with them the
“Eternal” Peace of 1686 (the Grzymułtowski Peace). In this
treaty, Kiev, which had been under temporary Russian rule since
1667, was permanently ceded by Poland. But despite all the
failures and disappointments he experienced after 1683, Sobieski
was able to deliver southeastern Poland from the threat of
Ottoman and Tatar attack.
In domestic policy Sobieski was least successful. All his
endeavours to strengthen the position of the crown and stabilize
the army failed completely, and his own sons opposed him. The
nobles showed little interest in defending the country after the
great victory of 1683 had been won, and the Lithuanian magnates
fought each other rather than the Turks. Thus, John Sobieski,
although a brilliant general and organizer, was unable to
prevent rebellion in his family and the dissension among his
subjects that finally led to Poland’s downfall in the 18th
century. This tends to make him, in the final reckoning, a
somewhat tragic figure.
Gotthold K.S. Rhode
king of Poland and elector of Saxony
also called Augustus Frederick, byname Augustus the Strong,
Polish August II Wettin or August Mocny, German August Friedrich
or August der Starke
born May 12, 1670, Dresden, Saxony [Germany]
died February 1, 1733, Warsaw, Poland
king of Poland and elector of Saxony (as Frederick Augustus I).
Though he regained Poland’s former provinces of Podolia and the
Ukraine, his reign marked the beginning of Poland’s decline as a
The second son of Elector John George III of Saxony, Augustus
succeeded his elder brother John George IV as elector in 1694.
After the death of John III Sobieski of Poland (1696), Augustus
became one of 18 candidates for the Polish throne. To further
his chances, he converted to Catholicism, thereby alienating his
Lutheran Saxon subjects and causing his wife, a Hohenzollern
princess, to leave him. Shortly after his coronation (1697) the
“Turkish War,” which had begun in 1683 and in which he had
participated intermittently since 1695, was concluded; by the
Treaty of Carlowitz in 1699, Poland received Podolia, with
Kamieniec (Kamenets) and the Ukraine west of the Dnieper River
from the Ottoman Empire.
Seeking to conquer the former Polish province of Livonia,
then in Swedish hands, for his own Saxon house of Wettin,
Augustus formed an alliance with Russia and Denmark against
Sweden. Although the Polish Diet refused to support him, he
invaded Livonia in 1700, thus beginning the Great Northern War
(1700–21), which ruined Poland economically. In July 1702
Augustus’s forces were driven back and defeated by King Charles
XII of Sweden at Kliszów, northeast of Kraków. Deposed by one of
the Polish factions in July 1704, he fled to Saxony, which the
Swedes invaded in 1706. Charles XII forced Augustus to sign the
Treaty of Altranstädt (September 1706), formally abdicating and
recognizing Sweden’s candidate, Stanisław Leszczyński, as king
of Poland (see Altranstädt, treaties of). In 1709, after Russia
defeated Sweden at the Battle of Poltava, Augustus declared the
treaty void and, supported by Tsar Peter I the Great, again
became king of Poland.
When Russia intervened (1716–17) in an internal dispute
between Augustus and dissident Polish nobles (Confederation of
Tarnogród) and, in 1720, annexed Livonia, the king saw the
danger of Russia’s growing influence in Polish affairs. He tried
unsuccessfully to create a hereditary Polish monarchy
transmissible to his one legitimate son, Frederick Augustus II
(eventually king of Poland as Augustus III), and to secure other
lands for his many illegitimate children. But his hopes of
establishing a strong monarchy came to naught. By the end of his
reign, Poland had lost its status as a major European power, and
when he died the War of the Polish Succession broke out. A man
of extravagant and luxurious tastes, he did much to develop
Saxon industry and trade and greatly embellished the city of
king of Poland
original name Stanislaw Leszczyński
born Oct. 20, 1677, Lwów, Pol. [now Lviv, Ukraine]
died Feb. 23, 1766, Lunéville, Fr.
king of Poland (1704–09, 1733) during a period of great problems
and turmoil. He was a victim of foreign attempts to dominate the
Stanisław was born into a powerful magnate family of Great
Poland, and he had the opportunity to travel in western Europe
as a young man. In 1702 King Charles XII of Sweden invaded
Poland as part of a continuing series of conflicts between the
powers of northern Europe. Charles forced the Polish nobility to
depose Poland’s king, Augustus II (Frederick Augustus I of
Saxony), and then placed Stanisław on the throne (1704).
Poland, weak and fragmented, had become a marching ground for
foreign armies who ravaged the country at will. In 1709 Charles
was defeated by the Russians at the Battle of Poltava and
withdrew to Sweden, leaving Stanisław without any real support.
Augustus II regained the Polish throne, and Stanislaw left the
country to settle in the French province of Alsace. In 1725
Stanisław’s daughter Marie married Louis XV of France.
When Augustus died in 1733, Stanislaw sought to regain the
Polish throne with the help of French support for his candidacy.
After traveling to Warsaw in disguise, he was elected king of
Poland by an overwhelming majority of the Diet. But before he
could be crowned, Russia and Austria, fearing Stanisław would
unite Poland in the Swedish-French alliance, invaded the country
to annul his election. Stanisław was once more deposed, and,
under Russian pressure, a small minority in the Diet elected the
Saxon elector Frederick Augustus II to the Polish throne as
Augustus III. Stanisław retreated to the city of Gdańsk (Danzig)
to wait for French assistance, which did not come. Fleeing
before the city fell to its Russian besiegers, he then journeyed
to Königsberg in Prussia, where he directed guerrilla warfare
against the new king and his Russian supporters. The Peace of
Vienna in 1738 recognized Augustus III as king of Poland but
allowed Stanisław to keep his royal titles while granting him
the provinces of Lorraine and Bar for life.
In Lorraine, Stanislaw proved to be a good administrator and
promoted economic development. His court at Lunéville became
famous as a cultural centre, and he founded an academy of
science at Nancy and a military college. In 1749 he published a
book entitled Free Voice to Make Freedom Safe, an outline of his
proposed changes in the Polish constitution. Editions of his
letters to his daughter Marie, to the kings of Prussia, and to
Jacques Hulin, his minister at Versailles, have been published.
Stanislaw II August Poniatowski
king of Poland
original name Stanislaw Poniatowski
born Jan. 17, 1732, Wolczyn, Pol.
died Feb. 12, 1798, St. Petersburg, Russia
last king of an independent Poland (1764–95). He was unable to
act effectively while Russia, Austria, and Prussia dismembered
He was born the sixth child of Stanisław Poniatowski, a
Polish noble, and his wife, Princess Konstancja Czartoryska.
After a careful education he traveled in western Europe as a
young man. In 1757 he was sent by his mother’s enormously
powerful family to St. Petersburg to obtain Russian support for
their plan to dethrone the Polish king Augustus III. While at
the Russian court, he apparently did little for the family’s
interests but succeeded in becoming the lover of the future
empress, Catherine II.
Poland at this time was in a period of steady decline, and,
following the death of Augustus III in 1763, Catherine sought to
ensure that the situation continued. Seeing the young
Poniatowski as a convenient pawn, she used Russian troops and
Russian influence to ensure his election as Stanisław II on
Sept. 7, 1764. After coming to the throne Stanisław sought to
bolster his royal power, improve the administration of
government, and strengthen the parliamentary system. These
reforms were opposed by some Polish nobles and by Catherine, who
threatened to have him deposed. The reforms were dropped, and
Catherine then interfered in Poland even further by pressing for
full rights for non-Catholic religious dissenters. A revolt by
Roman Catholics followed in 1768 and was not fully suppressed
for four years. Its effect was to make Stanisław even more
dependent on Russian support.
In 1772 Russia, Prussia, and Austria each annexed portions of
Polish territory, despite Stanisław’s appeals to the Western
powers. In the years following this partition, Stanisław saw his
own personal power cut away and limited by the manipulations of
the partitioning powers. Fighting back, he succeeded in
strengthening his position and achieved a full reform of Polish
education. A more basic requirement to prevent further national
decay was constitutional reform; after long and arduous debate,
the Sejm (Diet) finally approved a new constitution on May 3,
1791. To oppose this constitution, the Confederation of
Targowica was formed by a group of Polish nobles with Russian
backing. In a subsequent invasion by Russia, despite valiant
efforts by a small Polish army, the Russians succeeded in
crushing the movement for a new constitution.
Stanisław was then forced to participate in the
Russian-controlled Sejm at Grodno in 1793, which agreed to the
second partitioning of Poland, this time between Russia and
Prussia. The response was a Polish insurrection in 1794, during
which Tadeusz Kościuszko overrode all royal authority. After the
Russians had crushed the uprising, Stanisław abdicated on Nov.
25, 1795, as Poland was being partitioned again by Russia,
Prussia, and Austria, the three countries this time annexing its
entire territory. He died in semicaptivity at St. Petersburg.
His two-volume Mémoires was published by S.M. Goryaninov