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24: The Reformation Period

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HITHERTO the Republic had given the Holy See but little anxiety. Hussite influences, in the beginning of the 15th century, had been superficial and transitory. The Polish government had employed Hussite mercenaries, but rejected Hussite propagandists. The edict of Wielun (1424), remarkable as the first anti-heretical decree issued in Poland, crushed the new sect in its infancy. Lutheranism, moreover, was at first regarded with grave suspicion by the intensely patriotic Polish gentry, because of its German origin. Nevertheless, the extremely severe penal edicts issued during the reign of Sigismund I., though seldom applied, seem to point to the fact that heresy was spreading widely throughout the country. For a time, therefore, the Protestants had to be cautious in Poland proper, but they found a sure refuge in Prussia, where Lutheranism was already the established religion, and where the newly erected university of Königsberg became a seminary for Polish ministers and preachers.

While Lutheranism was thus threatening the Polish Church from the north, Calvinism had already invaded her from the west. Calvinism, indeed, rather recommended itself to the Poles as being of non-German origin, and Calvin actually dedicated his Commentary on the Mass to the young krolewicz (or crown prince) Sigismund Augustus, from whom protestantism, erroneously enough, expected much in the future. Meanwhile conversion to Calvinism, among the higher classes in Poland, became more and more frequent. We hear of crowded Calvinist conventicles in Little Poland from 1545 onwards, and Calvinism continued to spread throughout the kingdom during the latter years of Sigismund I. Another sect, which ultimately found even more favour in Poland than the Calvinists, was that of the Bohemian Brethren. We first hear of them in Great Poland in 1548. A royal decree promptly banished them to Prussia, where they soon increased so rapidly as to be able to hold their own against the Lutherans. The death of the uncompromising Sigismund I. came as a great relief to the Protestants, who entertained high hopes of his son and successor. He was known to be familiar with the works of the leading reformers; he was surrounded by Protestant counsellors, and he was actually married to Barbara, daughter of Prince Nicholas Radziwill, "Black Radziwill," the all-powerful chief of the Lithuanian Calvinists. It was not so generally known that Sigismund II. was by conviction a sincere though not a bigoted Catholic; and nobody suspected that beneath his diplomatic urbanity lay a patriotic firmness and statesmanlike qualities of the first order. Moreover, they ignored the fact that the success of the Protestant propaganda was due rather to political than to religious causes. The Polish gentry's jealousy of the clerical estate, whose privileges even exceeded their own, was at the bottom of the whole matter. Any opponent of the established clergy was the natural ally of the szlachta, and the scandalous state of the Church herself provided them with a most formidable weapon against her. It is not too much to say that the condition of the Catholic Church in Poland was almost as bad as it was in Scotland during the same period. The bishops were, for the most part, elegant triflers, as pliant as reeds, with no fixed principles and saturated with a false humanism. Some of them were notorious evil-livers. "Pint-pot" at Luski, bishop of Posen, had purchased his office for 12,000 ducats from Queen Bona; while another of her creatures, Peter, popularly known as the "wencher," was appointed bishop of Przemysl with the promise of the reversion of the still richer see of Cracow. Moreover, despite her immense wealth (in the province of Little Poland alone she owned at this time 26 towns, 83 landed estates and 772 villages), the Church claimed exemption from all public burdens, from all political responsibilities, although her prelates continued to exercise an altogether disproportionate political influence. Education was shamefully neglected, the masses being left in almost heathen ignorance and this, too, at a time when the upper classes were greedily appropriating the ripe fruits of the Renaissance and when, to use the words of a contemporary, there were "more Latinists in Poland than there used to be in Latium." The university of Cracow, the sole source of knowledge in the vast Polish realm, still moved in the vicious circle of scholastic formularies. The provincial schools, dependent upon so decrepit an Alma Mater, were suffered to decay. This criminal neglect of national education brought along with it its own punishment. The sons of the gentry, denied proper instruction at home, betook themselves to the nearest universities across the border, to Goldberg in Silesia, to Wittemberg, to Leipzig. Here they fell in with the adherents of the new faith, grave, earnest men who professed to reform the abuses which had grown up in the Church; and a sense of equity as much as a love of novelty moved them, on their return home, to propagate wholesome doctrines and clamour for the reformation of their own degenerate prelates. Finally the poorer clergy, neglected by their bishops, and excluded from all preferment, took part with the szlachta against their own spiritual rulers and eagerly devoured and imparted to their flocks, in their own language, the contents of the religious tracts which reached them by divers ways from Goldberg and Königsberg. Nothing indeed did so much to popularize the new doctrines in Poland as this beneficial revival of the long- neglected vernacular by the reformers.

Such was the situation when Sigismund II. began his reign. The bishops at once made a high bid for the favour of the new king by consenting to the coronation of his Calvinist consort (Dec. 7, 1550) and the king five days afterwards issued the celebrated edict in which he pledged his royal word to preserve intact the unity of the Church and to enforce the law of the land against heresy. Encouraged by this pleasing symptom of orthodoxy the bishops instead of first attempting to put their own dilapidated house in order, at once proceeded to institute prosecutions for heresy against all and sundry. This at once led to an explosion, and at the diet of Piotrków, 1552, the szlachta accepted a proposition of the king, by way of compromise, that the jurisdiction of the clerical courts should be suspended for twelve months, on condition that the gentry continued to pay tithes as heretofore. Then began a religious interim, which was gradually prolonged for ten years, during which time Protestantism in Poland flourished exceedingly. Presently reformers of every shade of opinion, even those who were tolerated nowhere else, poured into Poland, which speedily became the battle-ground of all the sects of Europe. Soon the Protestants became numerous enough to form ecclesiastical districts of their own. The first Calvinist synod in Poland was held at Pinczów in 1550. The Bohemian Brethren evangelized Little Poland, but ultimately coalesced with the Calvinists at the synod of Kozminek (August 1555). In the diet itself the Protestants were absolutely supreme, and invariably elected a Calvinist to be their marshal. At the diet of 1555 they boldly demanded a national synod, absolute toleration, and the equalization of all the sects except the Anti-trinitarians. But the king intervened and the existing interim was indefinitely prolonged. At the diet of Piotrków 1558-1559, the onslaught of the szlachta on the clergy was fiercer than ever, and they even demanded the exclusion of the bishops from the senate. The king, however, perceiving a danger to the constitution in the violence of the szlachta, not only supported the bishops but quashed a subsequent reiterated demand for a national synod. The diet of 1558-1559 indicates the high-water mark of Polish Protestantism. From this time forward it began to subside, very gradually but unmistakably. The chief cause of this subsidence was the division among the reformers themselves. From the chaos of creeds resulted a chaos of ideas on all imaginable subjects, politics included. The Anti-trinitarian proved to be the chief dissolvent, and from 1560 onwards the relations between the two principal Protestant sects, the Lutherans and the Calvinists, were fratricidal rather than fraternal. An auxiliary cause of the decline of Protestantism was the beginning of a Catholic reaction. The bulk of the population still held persistently, if languidly, to the faith of its fathers; the new bishops were holy and learned men, very unlike the creators of Queen Bona, and the Holy See gave to the slowly reviving zeal of both clergy and laity the very necessary impetus from without. For Poland, unlike Scotland, was fortunately, in those days of difficult inter-communication, not too far off, and it is indisputable that in the first instance it was the papal nuncios, men like Berard of Camerino and Giovanni Commendone, who reorganized the scattered and faint-hearted battalions of the Church militant in Poland and led them back to victory. At the diet of Piotrkólw in 1562, indeed, the king's sore need of subsidies induced him, at the demand of the szlachta, to abolish altogether the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts in cases of heresy but, on the other hand, at the diet of 1564 he accepted from Commendone the Tridentine decrees and issued an edict banishing all foreign, and especially Anti-trinitarian, heretics from the land. At the diet of 1565 Sigismund went still farther. He rejected a petition for a national pacificatory synod as unnecessary, inasmuch as the Council of Trent had already settled all religious questions and at the same time consented to the introduction into Poland of the most formidable adversaries of the Reformation, the Jesuits. These had already been installed at Poltusk, and were permitted, after the diet rose, to found establishments in the dioceses of Posen, Ermeland and Vilna, which henceforth became centres of a vigorous and victorious propaganda. Thus the Republic recovered her catholicity and her internal harmony at the same time.

With rare sagacity Sigismund II. had thus piloted the Republic through the most difficult internal crisis it had yet encountered. In purely political matters also both initiative and fulfilment came entirely from the Crown, and to the last of the Jagiellos Poland owed the important acquisition of Livonia and the welding together of her loosely connected component parts into a single state by the Union of Lublin.

In the middle of the 16th century the ancient order of the Knights of the Sword, whose territory embraced Esthonia, Livonia, Courland, Semgallen and the islands of Dagö and Oesel, was tottering to its fall. All the Baltic powers were more or less interested in the apportionment of this vast tract of land, whose geographical position made it not only the chief commercial link between east and west, but also the emporium whence the English, Dutch, Swedes, Danes and Germans obtained their corn, timber and most of the raw products of Lithuania and Muscovy. Matters were complicated by the curious political intricacies of this long-coveted domain, where the grand-master, the archbishop of Riga, and the estates of Livonia possessed concurrent and generally conflicting jurisdictions. Poland and Muscovy as the nearest neighbours of this moribund state, which had so long excluded them from the sea, were vitally concerned in its fate. After an anarchic period of suspense lasting from 1546 to 1561, during which Sweden secured Esthonia, while Ivan the Terrible fearlessly ravaged Livonia, in the hope of making it valueless to any other potentate Sigismund II., to whom both the grand-master and the archbishop had appealed more than once for protection, at length intervened decisively. Both he and his chancellor, Piotr Myszkowski (d. 1591), were well aware of the importance of securing a coast-land which would enable Poland to become a naval power. But the diet, with almost incredible short- sightedness, refused to waste a penny on an undertaking which, they argued, concerned only Lithuania, and it was not as king of Poland, but as grand duke of Lithuania, and with purely Lithuanian troops, that Sigismund, in 1561, occupied Livonia. At his camp before Riga the last grand-master, Gotthard von Ketteler, who had long been at the head of the Polish party in Livonia, and William of Brandenburg, archbishop of Riga, gladly placed themselves beneath his protection, and by a subsequent convention signed at Vilna (Nov. 28 1561) Livonia was incorporated with Lithuania in much the same way as Prussia had been incorporated with Poland thirty-six years previously. Ketteler, who had adopted Lutheranism during a visit to Germany in 1553, now professed the Augsburg Confession, and became the first duke of a new Protestant duchy, which he was to hold as a fief of the Polish crown, with local autonomy and absolute freedom of worship. The southern provinces of the ancient territory of the Order, Courland and Semgallen, had first been ceded on the 24th of June 1559 to Lithuania on similar conditions, the matter being finally adjusted by the compact of March 1562.

The apathy of Poland in such a vital matter as the Livonian question must have convinced so statesmanhke a prince as Sigismund II. of the necessity of preventing any possibility of cleavage in the future between the two halves of his dominions whose absolute solidarity was essential to their existence as a great power. To this patriotic design he devoted the remainder of his life. A personal union, under one monarch, however close had proved inadequate. A further step must be taken - the two independent countries must be transformed into a single state. The great obstacle in the way of this, the only true solution of the difficulty, was the opposition of the Lithuanian magnates, who feared to lose the absolute dominancy they possessed in the grand duchy if they were merged in the szlachta of the kingdom. But, at the last moment, the dread of another Muscovite invasion made them more pliable and, at a Polish diet held at Warsaw from November 1563 to June 1564, which the Lithuanians attended, the question of an absolute union was hotly debated. When things came to a deadlock the king tactfully intervened and voluntarily relinquished his hereditary title to Lithuania, thus placing the two countries on a constitutional equality and preparing the way for fresh negotiations in the future. The death, in 1565, of Black Radziwill, the chief opponent of the union, still further weakened the Lithuanians, and the negotiations were reopened with more prospect of success at the diet which met at Lublin on the 10th of January 1569. But even now the Lithuanians were indisposed towards a complete union, and finally they quitted the diet, leaving two commissioners behind to watch their interests. Then Sigismund executed his master- stroke. Knowing the sensitiveness of the Lithuanians as regards Volhynia and Podolia, he suddenly, of his own authority, formally incorporated both these provinces with the kingdom of Poland, whereupon, amidst great enthusiasm, the Volhynian and Podolian deputies took their places on the same benches as their Polish brethren. The hands of the Lithuanians were forced, Even a complete union on equal terms was better than mutilated independence. Accordingly they returned to the diet, and the union was unanimously adopted on the 1st of July 1569. Henceforth the kingdom of Poland and the grand duchy of Lithuania were to constitute one inseparable and indivisible body politic, under one sovereign elected in common, with one diet and one currency. All dependencies and colonies, including Prussia and Livonia, were to belong to Poland and Lithuania in common. The retention of the old duality of dignities was the one reminiscence of the original separation. No decision, however, could be come to as to the successor of the childless king partly because of the multiplicity of candidates, partly because of Austrian intrigue, and this, the most momentous question of all, was still unsettled when Sigismund II. expired on the 6th of July 1572.

The Jagiellonic period (1386-1572) is the history of the consolidation and fusion into one homogeneous, political whole of numerous national elements, more or less akin ethnologically but differing immensely in language, religion and, above all, in degrees of civilization. But of the ancient Piast kingdom, mutilated by the loss of Silesia and the Baltic shore, arose a republic consisting at first of various loosely connected entities, naturally centrifugal, but temporarily drawn together by the urgent need of combination against a superior foe, who threatened them separately with extinction. Beneath the guidance of a dynasty of princes which, curiously enough, was supplied by the least civilized portion of this congeries of nationalities, the nascent republic gradually grew into a power which subjugated its former oppressors and, viewed externally, seemed to bear upon it the promise of empire. It is dangerous to prophesy, but all the facts and circumstances before us point irresistibly to the conclusion that had the Jagiellonic dynasty but endured this promise of empire might well have been realized. The extraordinary thing about the Jagiellos was the equable persistency of their genius. Not only were five of the seven great statesmen, but they were statesmen of the same stamp. We are disturbed by no such sharp contrasts as are to be found among the Plantagenets, the Vasas and the Bourbons. The Jagiellos were all of the same mould and pattern, but the mould was a strong one and the pattern was good. Their predominant and constant characteristic is a sober sagacity which instinctively judges aright and imperturbably realized its inspirations. The Jagiellos were rarely brilliant, but they were always perspicacious. Above all, they alone seem to have had the gift of guiding the most difficult of nations properly. Two centuries of Jagiellonic rule made Poland great despite her grave external difficulties. Had that dynasty been prolonged for another century, there is every reason to suppose that it would also have dealt satisfactorily with Poland s still more dangerous internal difficulties, and arrested the development of that anarchical constitution which was the ruling factor in the ruin of the Republic.

Simultaneously with the transformation into a great power of the petty principalities which composed ancient Poland, another and equally momentous political transformation was proceeding within the country itself.

The origin of the Polish constitution is to be sought in the wiece or councils of the Polish princes, during the partitional period (c. 1279-1370). The privileges conferred upon the magnates of which these councils were composed, especially upon the magnates of Little Poland who brought the Jagiellos to the throne, directed their policy, and grew rich upon their liberality, revolted the less favoured szlachta, or gentry, who, towards the end of the 14th century, combined for mutual defence in their sejmiki, or local diets, of which originally there were five, three in Great Poland, one in Little Poland and one in Posen- Kalisz.š In these sejmiki the deputies of the few great towns were also represented. The Polish towns, notably Cracow, had obtained their privileges, including freedom from tolls and municipal government, from the Crown in return for important services, such as warding off the Tatars, while the cities of German origin were protected by the Magdeburg law. Casimir the Great even tried to make municipal government as democratic as possible by enacting that one half of the town council of Cracow should be elected from the civic patriciate, but the other half from the commonalty. Louis the Great placed the burgesses on a level with the gentry by granting to the town council of (Cracow jurisdiction over all the serfs in the extra-rural estates of the citizens. From this time forth deputies from the cities were summoned to the sejmiki on all important occasions, such, for instance as the ratification of treaties, a right formally conceded to them by the sejmik of Radom in 1384. Thus at this period Poland was a confederation of half a dozen semi-independent states. The first general assembly of which we have certain notice is the zjazd walny which was summoned to Koszyce in November 1404, to relieve the financial embarrassments of Wladislaus, and granted him an extraordinary subsidy of twenty groats per hide of land to enable him to purchase Dobrzyn from the Teutonic Knights. Such subsidies were generally the price for the confirmation of ancient or the concession of new privileges. Thus at the diet of Brzesc Kujawski, in 1425, the szlachta obtained its first habeas corpus act in return for acknowledging the right of the infant krolewicz Wladislaus to his father s throne. The great opportunity of the szlachta was, of course, the election of a new king, especially the election of a minor, an event always accompanied and succeeded by disorders. Thus at the election of the infant Wladislaus III., his guardians promised in his name to confirm all the privileges granted by his father. If, on attaining his majority the king refused to ratify these promises his subjects were ipso facto absolved from their obedience. This is the first existence of tile mischievous principle de prestanda obedientia, subsequently elevated into a statute. It is in this reign, too, that we meet with the first rokosz, or insurrection of

š The Red Russian sejmik was of later origin, c. 1433.


the nobility against the executive. The extraordinary difficulties of Casimir IV. were freely exploited by the szlachta, who granted that ever impecunious monarch as little as possible, but got full value for every penny they grudgingly gave. Thus by the Articles of Cerekwica presented to him by the sejmik or dietine of Great Poland in 1454 on the outbreak of the Teutonic War, he conceded the principle that no war should in future be begun without the consent of the local diets. A few months later he was obliged to grant the Privileges of Nieszawa, which confirmed and extended the operation of the Articles of Cerekwica. The sejmiki had thus added to their original privilege of self-taxation the right to declare war and control the national militia.š This was a serious political retrogression. A strongly centralized government had ever been Poland's greatest need, and Casimir the Great had striven successfully against all centrifugal tendencies. And now, eighty-four years after his death, Poland was once more split up into half a dozen loosely federated states in the hands of country gentlemen too ignorant and prejudiced to look beyond the boundaries of their own provinces. The only way of saving the Republic from disintegration was to concentrate all its political factors into a sejm-walny or general diet. But to this the magnates and the szlachta were equally opposed, the former because they feared the rivalry of a national assembly, the latter because they were of more importance in their local diets than they could possibly hope to be in a general diet. The first sejm to legislate for the whole of Poland was the diet of Piotrków (1493), summoned by John Albert to grant him subsidies; but the mandates of its deputies were limited to twelve months and its decrees were to have force for only three years. John Albert's second diet (1496) after granting subsidies the burden of which fell entirely on the towns and peasantry passed a series of statutes benefiting the nobility at the expense of the other classes. Thus one statute permitted the szlachta henceforth to export and import goods duty free, to the great detriment of the towns and the treasury. Another statute prohibited the burgesses from holding landed property and enjoying the privileges attaching thereto. A third statute disqualified plebeians from being elected to canonries or bishoprics. A fourth endeavoured to bind the peasantry more closely to the soil by forbidding emigration. The condition of the serfs was subsequently (1520) still further deteriorated by the introduction of socage. In a word, this diet disturbed the equilibrium of the state by enfeebling and degrading the middle classes. Nevertheless, so long as the Jagiello dynasty lasted, the political rights of the cities were jealously protected by the Crown against the usurpations of the nobility. Deputies from the towns took part in the election of John Albert (1492) and the burgesses of Cracow, the most enlightened economists in the kingdom, supplied Sigismund I. with his most capable counsellors during the first twenty years of his reign (1506-1526), Again and again the nobility attempted to exclude the deputies of Cracow from the diet, in spite of a severe edict issued by Sigismund I. in 1509, threatening to prosecute for treason all persons who dared to infringe the liberties of the citizens. During Slgismund's reign, moreover, the Crown recovered many of the prerogatives of which it had been deprived during the reign of his feeble predecessor, Alexander, who, to say nothing of the curtailments of the prerogative, had been forced to accept the statute nihil novi (1505) which gave the sejm and the senate an equal voice with the Crown in all executive matters. In the latter years of Sigismund I. (1530-1548) the political influence of the szlachta grew rapidly at the expense of the executive, and the gentry in diet assembled succeeded in curtailing the functions of all the great officers of state. During the reign of Sigismund II. (1548-1572) they diverted their attention to the abuses of the Church and considerably reduced both her wealth and her privileges. In this respect both the Crown and the country were with them, so that their interference, if violent, was on the whole distinctly beneficial.

The childless Sigismund II. died suddenly without leaving any regulations as to the election of his successor. Fortunately for Poland the political horizon was absolutely unclouded. The Turks, still reeling from the shock of Lepanto, could with difficulty hold their own against the united forces of the pope, Spain and Venice; while Ivan the Terrible had Just concluded a truce with Poland. Domestic affairs, on the other hand, were in an almost anarchical condition. The Union of Lublin, barely three years old, was anything but consolidated, and in Lithuania it continued to be extremely unpopular. In Poland proper the szlachta were fiercely opposed to the magnates; and the Protestants seemed bent upon still further castigating the clergy. Worst of all, there existed no recognized authority in the land to curb and control its jarring centrifugal political elements. It was nearly two hundred years since the Republic had suffered from an interregnum, and the precedents of 1382 were obsolete. The primate, 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 caldron, and a rival assembly was simultaneously summoned to Cracow by Jan Ferlej the head of the Protestant party. Civil war was happily averted at the last moment and a national convention, composed of senators and deputies from all parts of the country, assembled at Warsaw, in April 1573, for the purpose of electing a new king, Five candidates for the

š In view of the frequency of the Tatar inroads, the control of the militia was re-transferred to the Crown in 1501.


throne were already in the field. Lithuania favoured Ivan IV. In Poland the bishops and most of the Catholic magnates were for an Austrian archduke, while the strongly anti- German szlachta were inclined to accept almost any candidate but a German, so long as he came with a gift in his hand and was not a Muscovite. In these circumstances it was an easy task for the adroit and energetic French ambassador, Jean de Montluc (d. 1579), brother of the famous marshal, and bishop of Valence, to procure the election of the French candidate, Henry, duke of Anjou. Well provided with funds, he speedily bought over many of the leading magnates, and his popularity reached its height when he strenuously advocated the adoption of the mode of election by the gentry en masse (which the szlachta proposed to revive), as opposed to the usual and more orderly "secret election" by a congress of senators and deputies, sitting with closed doors. The religious difficulty, meanwhile, had been adjusted to the satisfaction of all parties 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 bad manifested in the religious peace of Augsburg eighteen years before. Finally, early in April 1573, the election diet assembled at Warsaw, and on the 11th of May, in the midst of intrigue, corruption, violence and confusion, Henry of Valois was elected king of Poland.

The election had, however, been preceded by a correctura jurum, or reform of the constitution, which resulted in the famous "Henrican Articles" which converted Poland from a limited monarchy into a republic with an elective chief magistrate. Henceforward the king was to have no voice in the choice of his successor. He was not to use the word haeres, not being an hereditary sovereign. He was to marry a wife selected for him by the senate. He was neither to seek for a divorce nor give occasion for one. He was to be neutral in all religious matters. He was not to lead the militia across the border except with the consent of the szlachta, and then only for three months at a time. Every year the senate was to appoint sixteen of its number to be in constant attendance upon the king in rotas of four, which sedecimvirs were to supervise all his actions. Should the king fail to observe any one of these articles, the nation was ipso facto absolved from its allegiance. This constitutional reform was severely criticized by contemporary political experts. Some strongly condemned the clause justifying renunciation of allegiance, as tending to treason and anarchy. Others protested against the anomalous and helpless position of the so-called king, who, if he could do no harm, was certainly powerless for good. But such Cassandras prophesied to heedless ears. The Republic had deliberately cast itself upon the downward grade which was to lead to ruin.

The reign of Henry of Valois lasted thirteen months. The tidings of the death of his brother Charles IX., which reached him on the 14th of June 1574, determined him to exchange a thorny for what he hoped would be a flowery throne, and at midnight on the 18th of June 1574 he literally fled from Poland, pursued to the frontier by his indignant and bewildered subjects. Eighteen months later (Dec. 14, 1575), mainly through the influence of Jan Zamoyski, Stephen Báthory, prince of Transylvania, was elected king of Poland by the szlachta in opposition to the emperor Maximilian, who had been elected two days previously by the senate, after disturbances which would have rent any other state but Poland to pieces.

The glorious career of Stephen Báthory (1575-1586) demonstrates the superiority of genius and valour over the most difficult circumstances. But his reign was too brief to be permanently beneficial.

The Vasa period of Polish history which began with the election of Sigismund, son of John III., king of Sweden, was the epoch of last and lost chances. The collapse of the Muscovite tsardom in the east, and the submersion of the German Empire in the west by the Thirty Years' War. presented Poland with an unprecedented opportunity of consolidating, once for all, her hard-won position as the dominating power of central Europe. Everywhere circumstances were favourable to her, and in Zolkiewski, Chodkiewicz and Koniecpolski she possessed three of the greatest captains of that or any other age. With all the means at her disposal cheerfully placed in the hands of such valiant and capable ministers it would have been no difficult task for the Republic to have wrested the best part of the Baltic littoral from the Scandinavian powers, and driven the distracted Muscovites beyond the Volga. Permanent greatness and secular security were within her reach at the commencement of the Vasa period how was it, then, that at the end of that period, only fifty years later, Poland had already sunk irredeemably into much the same position as Turkey occupies now, the position of a moribund state, existing on sufferance simply because none was yet quite prepared to administer the coup de grâce ? There is only one answer; the principal cause of this complete and irretrievable collapse is to be sought for in the folly, egotism and selfishness of the Polish gentry, whose insane dislike of all discipline, including even the salutary discipline of regular government, converted Poland into something very like a primitive tribal community at the very time when every European statesman, including the more enlightened of the Poles themselves, clearly recognized that the political future belonged to the strongly centralized monarchies, which were everywhere rising on the ruins of feudalism. Of course there were other contributory causes. The tenacity with which Sigismund III. clung to his hereditary rights to the Swedish Crown involved Poland in a quite unnecessary series of wars with Charles IX. and Gustavus Adolphus, when her forces were sorely needed elsewhere. The adhesion of the same monarch to the League of the Catholic Reaction certainly added to the difficulties of Polish diplomacy and still further divided the already distracted diet, besides alienating from the court the powerful and popular chancellor Zamoyski. Yet Sigismund III. was a far more clear- sighted statesman than any of his counsellors or contradictors. For instance, he was never misled by the successes of the false Demetrius in Muscovy, and wisely insisted on recovering the great eastern fortress of Smolensk rather than attempting the conquest of Moscow. His much-decried alliance with the emperor at the outbreak of the Thirty Years' War was eminently sagacious. He perceived at once that it was the only way of counteracting the restlessness of the sultan's protégés, the Protestant princes of Transylvania, whose undisciplined hordes, scarcely less savage than their allies the Turks and Tatars, were a perpetual menace both to Austria and to Poland. Finally he was bent upon reforming the Polish constitution by substituting the decision of all matters by a plurality of votes for a unanimity impossible to count upon.

When we turn to the szlachta who absolutely controlled the diet, we find not the slightest trace, I will not say of political foresight - that they never possessed - but of common patriotism, or ordinary public spirit. The most urgent national necessities were powerless to stir their hearts or open their purses. The diets during the reign of Sigismund III. were even more niggardly than they had been under the Jagiellos, and on the single occasion when the terrors of an imminent Tatar invasion constrained them to grant extraordinary subsidies, they saw to it that such subsidies should rest entirely on the shoulders of the burgesses (who had in the meantime been deprived of the franchise) and the already over- burdened peasantry. In the very crisis of the Swedish War, the diminutive army of the victorious Chodkiewicz was left unpaid, with the result that the soldiers mutinied, and marched off en masse. Both Chodkiewicz and Zolkiewski frequently had to pay the expenses of their campaigns out of their own pockets, and were expected to conquer empires and defend hundreds of miles of frontier with armies of 3000 or 4000 men at most. When they retreated before overwhelming odds they were publicly accused of cowardice and incompetence. The determination to limit still further the power of the executive was at the bottom of this fatal parsimony, with the inevitable consequence that, while the king and the senate were powerless, every great noble or lord-marcher was free to do what he chose in his own domains, so long as he flattered his "little brothers," the szlachta. Incredible as it may seem, the expedition to place the false Demetrius on the Muscovite throne was a private speculation of a few Lithuanian magnates, and similar enterprises on the part of other irresponsible noblemen on the Danube or Dniester brought upon unhappy Poland retaliatory Tatar raids, which reduced whole provinces to ashes. Every attempt to improve matters, by reforming the impossible constitution, stranded on the opposition of the gentry. Take, for instance, the typical and highly instructive case of Zebrzydowski's rebellion. Nicholas Zebrzydowski, a follower of the chancellor Zamoyski, was one of the wealthiest and most respectable magnates in Poland. As palatine of Cracow he held one of the highest and most lucrative dignities in the state, and was equally famous for his valour, piety and liberality. Disappointed in his hope of obtaining the great seal on the death of Zamoyski, he at once conceived that the whole of the nobility had been insulted in his person, and proceeded to make all government impossible for the next three years. On the 7th of March 1606 Sigismund summoned a diet for the express purpose of introducing the principle of decision by majority in the diet, whereupon Zebrzydowski summoned a counter-confederation to Stenczyn in Little Poland, whose first act was to open negotiations with the prince of Transylvania, Stephen Bocskay, with the view of hiring mercenaries from him for further operations. At a subsequent confederation, held at Lublin in June, Zebrzydowski was reinforced by another great nobleman, Stanislaus Stadnicki, called the Devil, who "had more crimes on his conscience than hairs on his head," and was in the habit of cropping the ears and noses of small squires and chaining his serfs to the walls of his underground dungeons for months at a time. This champion of freedom was very eloquent as to the wrongs of the szlachta, and proposed that the assembly should proceed in a body to Warsaw and there formally renounce their allegiance. The upshot of his oratory was the summoning of a rokosz, or national insurrection, to Sandomir, which was speedily joined by the majority of the szlachta all over the country, who openly proclaimed their intention of dethroning the king and chastising the senate, and sent Stadnicki to Transylvania to obtain the armed assistance of Stephen Bocskay. Only the clergy, naturally conservative, still clung to the king, and Sigismund III., who was no coward, at once proceeded to Cracow to overawe the rokoszanie, or insurrectionists, by his proximity, and take the necessary measures for his own protection. By the advice of his senators he summoned a zjazd, or armed convention, to Wišlica openly to oppose the insurrection of Sandomir, which zjazd was to be the first step towards the formation of a general confederation for the defence of the throne. Civil war seemed inevitable, when the szlachta of Red Russia and Sieradz suddenly rallied to the king, who at once ordered his army to advance, and after defeating the insurrectionists at Janowiec (in October), granted them a full pardon, on the sole condition that they should refrain from all such acts of rebellion in future. Despite their promises, Zebrzydowski and his colleagues a few months later were again in arms. In the beginning of 1607 they summoned another rokosz to Jendrzejow, at the very time when the diet was assembling at Warsaw. The diet authorized the king to issue a proclamation dissolving the rokosz, and the rokosz retorted with a manifesto in which an insurrection was declared to be as much superior to a parliament as a general council was to a pope. In a second manifesto published at Jezierna, on the 24th of June, the insurrectionists again renounced their allegiance to the king. Oddly enough, the diet before dissolving had, apparently in older to meet the rokosz half-way, issued the famous edict De non praestanda obedientia, whereby, in case of future malpractices by the king and his subsequent neglect of at least two solemn warnings thereanent by the primate and the senate, he was to be formally deposed by the next succeeding diet. But even this was not enough for the insurrectionists. It was not the contingent but the actual deposition of the king that they demanded, and they had their candidate for the throne ready in the person of Gabriel Bethlen, the new prince of Transylvania. But the limits of even Polish complacency had at last been reached, and Zolkieswski and Chodkiewicz were sent against the rebels, whom they routed at Oransk near Guzow, after a desperate encounter, on the 6th of July 1607. But, though driven from the field, the agitation simmered all over the country for nearly two years longer, and was only terminated, in. 1609, by a general amnesty which excluded every prospect of constitutional reform.

Wladislaus IV., who succeeded his father in 1632, was the most popular monarch who ever sat on the Polish throne. The szlachta, who had had a "King Log" in Sigismund, were determined that Wladislaus should be "a King Bee who will give us nothing but honey" - in other words, they hoped to wheedle him out of even more than they had wrested from his predecessor. Wladislaus submitted to everything. He promised never to declare war or levy troops without the consent of the sejm, undertook to fill all vacancies within a certain time, and released the szlachta from the payment of income-tax, their one remaining fiscal obligation. This boundless complacency was due to policy, not weakness. The second Polish Vasa was a man of genius, fully conscious of his powers, and determined to use them for the benefit of his country. The events of the last reign had demonstrated the incompetence of the Poles to govern themselves. Any amelioration of the existing anarchy must be extra-parliamentary and proceed from the throne. But a reforming monarch was inconceivable unless he possessed the confidence of the nation, and such confidence, Wladislaus naturally argued, could only be won by striking and undeniable public services. On these principles he acted with brilliant results. Within three years of is accession he compelled the Muscovites (Treaty of Polyankova, May 28, 1634) to retrocede Smolensk and the eastern provinces lost by Sigismund II., overawed the Porte by a military demonstration in October of the same year, and, by the Truce of Stumdorf (Sept. 12, 1635), recovered the Prussian provinces and the Baltic seaboard from Sweden. But these achievements excited not the gratitude but the suspicion of the szlachta. They were shrewd enough to guess that the royal triumph might prejudice their influence, and for the next five years they deliberately thwarted the enlightened and far-reaching projects of the king for creating a navy and increasing the revenue without burdening the estates, by a system of tolls levied on the trade of the Baltic ports, even going so far as to refuse for nine years to refund the expenses of the Muscovite War, which he had defrayed out of his privy purse. From sheer weariness and disgust the king refrained from any intervention in public affairs for nearly ten years looking on indifferently while the ever shorter and stormier diets wrangled perpetually over questions of preferment and the best way of dealing with the extreme dissenters, to the utter neglect of public business. But towards the end of his reign the energy of Wladislaus revived, and he began to occupy himself with another scheme for regenerating his country in its own despite, by means of the Cossacks. First however, it is necessary to describe briefly the origin and previous history of these romantic freebooters who during the second half of the 17th century were the determining factor of Polish and Muscovite politics.


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