Polish Wars of Expansion (1386–1498)

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The castle at Bêdzin is the best-preserved of all the Gothic castles built by Kazimierz the Great.

A series of wars fought sporadically between Poland and its neighbors from 1386 to 1498. By the end of the reign of Casimir III (1333–1370), the Polish monarchy had, under the Piast Dynasty, successfully unified the Kingdom of Poland and created a bureaucratic apparatus to govern the country. After the death of Casimir III in 1370 and his nephew Louis in 1382, Poland would begin a series of wars and dynastic marriages calculated to extend Polish control over neighboring territories. Some of these efforts began at the behest of the royal family; others were undertaken at the connivance of a group of powerful oligarchs close to the royal court, the so-called Cracow nobles. As a result, by the end of the expansion in 1498, the Polish royal family governed approximately one-third of mainland Europe.

In 1386, the Cracow nobles completed the first step toward the expansion of the Kingdom of Poland. At the insistence of the oligarchs, Jadwiga married the grand duke of Lithuania, Jagiello (later Wladyslaw II). As a result of this marriage, the two nations were linked through a common set of monarchs, although both remained technically independent nations.

A combined Polish and Lithuanian army was able to evict Hungarian garrisons from Ruthenia, thus advancing Polish territorial interests, and to extend Lithuanian influence along the Baltic Sea coast to the north of the grand duchy and among the Rus to the east. Combined Polish and Lithuanian forces were also able to compel the princes of Moldavia and Walachia to render homage to the Polish kingdom.

In 1409 and 1410, hostilities between Lithuania and the Teutonic Order led to the “Great War,” which ended with the defeat of the order by a Polish and Lithuanian army commanded by Wladyslaw II and Vytautas (Witold) in the Battle of Tannenberg/Grunwald in 1410.Although the power of the order was considerably reduced, it received generous peace terms and was compelled only to recognize the right of the Lithuanians to govern some disputed territories along the Baltic Sea. A second war with the order in 1422 forced the complete abandonment of its claims to Lithuanian territory.

The outbreak of the Hussite Wars in 1419 afforded a further opportunity for the aggrandizement of the Jagellonian dynasty. Hussite elements in Bohemia offered the kingdom to Wladyslaw II, which would have united a third country under his rule. Wladyslaw refused but allowed his cousin Vytautas to accept the offer.

Upon the death of Vytautas in 1430,Wladyslaw appointed his brother, Swidrigiello, as viceroy of Lithuania. Swidrigiello rebelled, abetted by the Teutonic Order, Sigismund of Luxembourg, and dissatisfied elements in Lithuania. Not until the death of Wladyslaw II in 1434 was the rebellion suppressed by his son, Wladyslaw III.

The death of Sigismund of Luxembourg at about the same time allowed the Jagellonian family another opportunity to acquire the Bohemian throne; the Polish court, in an effort to secure Bohemia, adopted a pro-Hussite policy. This in turn led to a pro-Hussite peasant rebellion in Poland, aimed at the church and noble hierarchy. The peasant revolt was defeated by the Cracow nobles at the Battle of Grotniki in 1439; noble dissatisfaction with the royal court enabled the Cracow nobles to compel the Jagellonians to defer further efforts to seize the Bohemian throne.

In 1440, Wladyslaw III appointed his brother Casimir viceroy of Lithuania. The Lithuanian nobles, true to form, rebelled and proclaimed Casimir as the independent grand duke of Lithuania. Wladyslaw was in no position to take action against his brother, for upon the death of Albert of Habsburg, also in 1440, he had been offered the kingdom of Hungary. As king of Hungary, Wladyslaw was drawn into the anti-Turkish crusade then being organized by the papacy in an effort to rescue Constantinople and Serbia from Turkish conquest.

After winning some initial victories in 1443, Wladyslaw negotiated an advantageous settlement with the Turks. Under papal pressure, this agreement was repudiated, and a second crusade was launched in 1444. This second crusade, the so-called Varna crusade, was poorly planned and led to the utter defeat of the crusading forces by the Turks at the Battle of Varna. Wladyslaw III was killed.

In 1454, Poland and Lithuania began the Thirteen Years’ War with the Teutonic Order. This conflict led to the final defeat of the order and the Treaty of Thorn, which, although harsh, failed to eliminate completely the order as a force. The order surrendered more than half its remaining territory, and its grand master also agreed to become a vassal of the king of Poland and to accept Polish suzerainty over the remainder of the land held by the order.

Casimir IV’s great object of policy was to obtain the reversion of the Kingdoms of Bohemia and Hungary for his sons. This goal was realized, and the descendants of Jagiello were able to gain by diplomacy that which would have been utterly unattainable by conquest. But in 1485, Casimir IV began a series of campaigns in Moldavia against the Crimean Tartars on behalf of the prince of Moldavia, Stefan cel Mare. Stefan became a Polish vassal, and Polish-Tartar warfare continued until the death of Stefan in 1501.

Thus, immediately before the death of Casimir IV in 1492, the Jagiellonian dynasty controlled the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania through the kingship of Casimir IV and the Kingdoms of Bohemia and Hungary through the kingship of Wladyslaw, Casimir’s eldest son. Moldavia and the Teutonic Order had been reduced to dependent vassal states. This unity was, however, more apparent than real, as none of the kingdoms or lands had been formally merged, and all retained some tradition of electing rulers rather than recognizing hereditary succession.

The death of Casimir IV in 1492 led to the unraveling of the Jagiellonian holdings. The decline of Tartar power made possible a Turkish-Muscovite alliance in 1498, which precluded further Polish or Lithuanian efforts at expansion in those directions. The careful efforts of the Jagiellonians thus benefited the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania very little in the long term.

References and further reading: Gieysztor, Aleksander, et al. History of Poland. Warsaw: PWN, 1979. Zamoyski, Adam. The Polish Way. London: John Murray, 1987.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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