Poland under Casimir the Great (1333–70)
The Polish duchies were able by and large to resist efforts to impose the vassalage and dependency that successive German emperors had tried to impose on the Polish lands – lands whose rulers had often welcomed that overlordship to advance their own interests. With the disintegration of political authority after the death of the emperor Henry VI in 1197, Germany began to slide into the same sort of fragmentation as Poland. When, at the beginning of the thirteenth century, bishop Vincent of Kraków was chronicling the mythical successes of the ancient Poles against the Roman emperors, he was not simply engaged in a flight of whimsy: he was asserting the independence of the Polish duchies, no matter how weak they may have been, against the claims of the ideological successors to the mantle of Roman imperial authority, the emperors of the German lands.
The road to even partial reunification was a tortuous one. In 1289, the nobles, knights and the bishop of Kraków chose as princeps Duke Bolesław II of Płock, in Masovia. Bolesław transferred his rights over the principate to his cousin, Władysław ‘the Short’ (Łokietek, literally ‘Elbow-High’), ruler of the little duchies of Łęczyca, Kujawy and Sieradz. This princely thug found that his penchant for brigandage won much support among knights and squires on the up. He was quite unacceptable in Kraków, whose townsmen handed over the capital to Henry IV Probus, the Honourable, duke of Wrocław/Breslau. It was Henry who took the first serious steps towards what would be so symbolically important for any reunification of the Polish lands. He began to negotiate with the papacy and with his patron, the emperor-elect Rudolf, for agreement to his coronation. Just before his childless death in June 1290 he bequeathed the duchy of Kraków to Duke Przemysł II of Wielkopolska. Przemysł was already suzerain of the port of Gdansk and of eastern Pomerania. On paper, he had a stronger territorial power-base than any of his predecessors for over a century. The idea of a crowned head was much more attractive to a more latinized Poland than it had been in the early Piast state. Archbishop Świnka was all in favour: the canonization in 1253 of Bishop Stanisław of Kraków, whose dismembered body had undergone a miraculous regrowth, provided an irresistible metaphor for Świnka’s aspirations. Przemysł’s only serious Polish rival was Łokietek, clinging on in the duchy of Sandomierz. Both men were, however, overshadowed by an ambitious and powerful foreign ruler, Vaclav II of Bohemia.
Vaclav was one of the Middle Ages’ most successful territorial stamp-collectors. His father, Přemysl Otakar II (1253–78) – Přemysl to his Slav subjects, Otakar to his Germans – had built up a glittering court at Prague. Bohemia’s mineral, commercial and agricultural wealth enabled him to support an ambitious programme of expansion, until his bid for leadership of the German Empire came to an abrupt end when he fell at the battle of Durnkrütt on 26 August 1278, against the closest he had to a German rival, Rudolf of Habsburg. The petty rulers of the dis-integrating Piast lands looked abroad for protection: one such focus of attraction was the Přemyslid court of Bohemia; the other was its rival, the Arpad court of Hungary. After the death of Henry Probus, Vaclav’s own ambition to acquire Kraków was abetted by the local barons and patricians. In terms of security, prestige and economic prospects, he offered far more than either Przemysł or Łokietek. Vaclav secured the crucial support of Małopolska by the Privilege of Litomyšl of 1291. He promised its clergy, knights, lords and towns the preservation of all their existing rights, immunities and jurisdictions; he would impose no new taxes on them and fill all existing offices from their ranks. Łokietek’s position collapsed. His unruly soldiery and knightly followers spread alienation everywhere they went. By 1294, he had not only to sue for peace but to receive his own remaining lands back from Vaclav as a fief. It may have been to pre-empt the almost certain coronation of Vaclav that Archbishop Świnka persuaded the pope to consent to Przemysł II’s coronation in Gniezno cathedral on 26 June 1295. The machinations behind this decision are as obscure as anything in Polish history; nor is it clear whether Przemysł regarded himself as ruler of the whole of Poland, or just of Wielkopolska and eastern Pomerania. He did not survive long enough to test his real support. In February 1296 he was murdered, almost certainly on the orders of the margraves of Brandenburg, whose territorial ambitions were blocked by the new king’s lands. He left Poland one enduring bequest, in the shape of the crowned eagle which he adopted as the emblem of his new state.
The nobles of Wielkopolska opted at first for Łokietek as his successor – but his continued inability to control his own men, his readiness to carve up Przemysł’s kingdom with other petty dukes, and a military offensive from Brandenburg drastically eroded his support. In 1299, he once again acknowledged Vaclav as overlord. Even Archbishop Świnka, conscious that the Kraków clergy were behind Vaclav, accepted the inevitable. In September 1300 he crowned him king – although he could not refrain from complaining at the ‘doghead’ of a priest who delivered the coronation sermon in German.
Unity, of a kind, was restored. Łokietek was forced into exile. His quest for support took him as far as Rome, where he won the backing of Pope Boniface VIII, hostile to the Přemyslids. Vaclav’s last serious opponent, Henry, duke of Głogów/Glogau (1273–1309), nephew of Henry Probus, recognized his suzerainty in 1303. Much of Poland, however, remained under the rule of territorial dukes. Vaclav’s direct authority covered mainly Kraków–Sandomierz, Wielkopolska and eastern Pomerania. He left an enduring administrative legacy in the office of starosta (literally ‘elder’). Its holders acted as viceroys in and administrators of royal estates, although his preference for Czechs in this role provoked growing resentment. To Vaclav, of course, the Polish lands were simply a subordinate part of a greater Přemyslid monarchy. Polish reunification for its own sake was of little interest to him.
In January 1301, King Andrew III of Hungary died, leaving no male heirs. Vaclav found the temptation irresistible. His attempts to impose his 11-year-old son, another Vaclav, on Hungary and, in the process, massively expand Přemyslid power, were too much for the Hungarians, the papacy, Albrecht of Habsburg and the rulers of south Germany. By 1304 a Hungarian–German coalition had been formed. To gain the support of the margraves of Brandenburg, Vaclav promised to hand over to them eastern Pomerania and the port city of Gdańsk. His supporters in Wielkopolska, already seething at the harsh rule of Czech starostowie, could not accept this. Early in 1305, revolt shook the southern part of the province. Those not reconciled to Czech rule would have preferred to turn to Henry, duke of Głogów. Vaclav’s Hungarian and German enemies declared for his exiled rival, Łokietek. Hungarian forces supporting Charles Robert of Anjou’s bid for their throne helped Łokietek seize control of almost all the territories of Małopolska, except for Kraków itself. Vaclav II made peace with the coalition, just before he died on 21 June 1305. He agreed to withdraw from Hungary. But to keep the margraves of Brandenburg on his side, the young Vaclav III renewed his father’s undertaking to cede Gdańsk and Pomerania and prepared to enter Poland at the head of an army. If Vaclav had not been murdered at the instigation of discontented Czech lords on 4 August 1306, he and Łokietek might well have divided the Polish territories between themselves. Instead, Bohemia was plunged into rivalries over the succession, until the election of John of Luxemburg in 1310. In Poland, although the townsmen of Kraków reconciled themselves to Łokietek, most of Wielkopolska preferred to recognize Henry of Głogów.
In 1307, disaster struck Łokietek in Pomerania. The German patriciates of the two chief towns, Tczew and Gdańsk, gravitated towards the margraves of Brandenburg; the Polish knighthood of the countryside remained loyal to Łokietek. In August 1308, the castle of Gdańsk was besieged by the troops of margraves Otto and Waldemar. Łokietek called on the help of the Teutonic Knights. The arrival of their forces lifted the siege of the castle – which on the night of 14 November they proceeded to seize for themselves, massacring Łokietek’s men in the process. By the end of 1311, most of Polish Pomerania was in the Knights’ hands.
Founded in the late twelfth century as an offshoot of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, just in time to be forced out by Islam’s counter-attack against the Crusader states of the Middle East, the Teutonic Knights had relocated their military-proselytizing operations to Hungary and Transylvania. King Andrew II threw them out once their ambitions to carve out their own independent state revealed themselves. In 1227, Conrad I, duke of Masovia, settled them in the county of Chełmno on the Vistula in order to defend his eastern borders against the pagan tribes of Prussia, while he devoted himself to feuding with his Piast relatives and meddling in the politics of the Rus’ principalities. Backed by emperors and popes (the Knights proved adept at playing one off against the other), patronized by the rulers and knighthood of Christian Europe (not least by individual Piast princes), they built up a de facto independence. Their most enthusiastic supporters included Přemysl Otakar II (in whose honour they named the new port of Königsberg in 1255), Vaclav II and John of Bohemia. By the late 1270s, they had subdued the Prussian tribes; they could embark on the process of colonization which gave the area its Germanic character for almost 700 years. The Order was also able – precisely because it was a religious organization, bound by a rule, dedicated to the higher goal of the spread of the Catholic faith and the conversion of the heathen – to organize its territories on lines very different from those of contemporary medieval territories. The Order represented the impersonal state – something higher than a dynastic or patrimonial entity. The command structures of what has come to be known as the Ordensstaat were less subject to the whims and favouritisms of individual monarchs. Its Grand Masters were elected from the tried and the tested by an inner circle of superiors who had shown how to combine prayer and aggression, faith and brutality. They and their fellow northern-Crusaders, the Knights of the Sword further along the Baltic coast, in what are now Latvia and Estonia, could suffer setbacks, but, constantly renewed by fresh recruits and enthusiastic part-timers, they could always rise above them. The actual fighting monks, the German Knights of the Blessed Virgin, were, however, few in numbers – this was their weakness. Control of Gdańsk and its hinterland permitted a steady flow of settlers, soldiers, recruits and allies from the German lands. In 1309 the Grand Master, Conrad von Feuchtwangen, moved his principal headquarters from Venice to Marienburg (now Malbork) on the lower Vistula. This was the Ordensstaat’s new capital, rapidly built up into one of the most formidable fortified complexes of medieval Europe, a mirror of the Knights’ power and pride. The fragile entity ruled by Łokietek and his successors could do little more than rail and complain at the Order’s perfidy and brutality – but its rulers could not subdue what they had nurtured.
Łokietek had no realistic hopes of recovering Pomerania. Most of Wielkopolska remained alienated. The dukes of Masovia mistrusted him. In May 1311, only Hungarian help enabled him to subdue a major revolt of German townsfolk in Kraków. Poles replaced Germans in key positions on the town council, Latin replaced German as the official language of town records. True, it was not many years before German burghers and merchants regained their old influence, but the town itself ceased to be the political force it once had been. The repression did little to enhance Łokietek’s appeal to townsmen elsewhere.
In 1309, his rival in Wielkopolska, Duke Henry of Głogów died, leaving five young sons, all more German than Polish. The knights preferred Łokietek to fragmentation and German rule, but it was not until the submission of the town of Poznań in November 1314 that serious opposition was eliminated. In control of Wielkopolska and Kraków, Łokietek could realistically aspire to the royal dignity – were it not for the rival claims of the new king of Bohemia, John of Luxemburg, who had cheerfully taken over the claims of his Přemyslid predecessors. Most of the Silesian and Masovian dukes looked to him. Brandenburg and the Teutonic Knights endorsed him as the supposed heir of the Vaclavs in Poland, in the expectation of satisfying their own titles and claims. Pope John XXII, whose approval was necessary to a coronation in what was technically a papal fief, was reluctant to offend either party. He gave his consent in terms so ambiguous as to suggest that he considered both men to have a legitimate royal title. When Łokietek’s coronation did finally take place on 20 January 1320, it was not in Gniezno but, for the first time, in Kraków. The new venue was dictated not only by a recognition of the greater economic importance of the southern provinces but by a tacit acknowledgement of the still limited extent of Łokietek’s territorial support. He controlled less than half of the territory which Bolesław Wrymouth had ruled: Wielkopolska in the west, Kraków and Sandomierz in the south, the two regions linked in the central Polish lands by his own duchies of Łęczyca and Sieradz. Łokietek was more king of Kraków than king of Poland. He was fortunate that John of Bohemia had his own difficulties with the Czech nobility.
Łokietek sought security through marriage alliances: in 1320, he cemented his long-standing alliance with the Angevins of Hungary when his daughter Elizabeth (1305–80) married King Charles Robert (1308–42). In 1325, the king secured his son’s marriage to Aldona (d. 1339), daughter of the Lithuanian prince Gediminas – at the cost of driving the Masovian dukes, perpetually feuding over their eastern borderlands with the Lithuanians, into an alliance with the Ordensstaat. His only recourse against the Knights lay in persuading the papacy to issue legal pronouncements enjoining them to restore Pomerania. Such pronouncements (never definitive) were indeed made, but the Knights paid no attention. John of Bohemia prepared, in 1327, to attack Kraków – and had he not been kept in check by Charles Robert from Hungary, Łokietek’s monarchy might not have survived. Most of the dukes of southern Silesia declared themselves John’s vassals. Łokietek’s offensive against Duke Wacław (1313–36) of Płock only precipitated incursions by his allies, Brandenburg and the Knights. Łokietek bought Brandenburg off in 1329 with the county of Lubusz (Lebus), at the confluence of the Warta and the Oder. In the winter of 1328–9, John of Luxemburg and the Knights undertook a ‘crusade’ against Łokietek’s Lithuanian allies. The Polish military diversion into the county of Chełmno backfired: John and the Knights conquered the northern Polish territory of Dobrzyń, which John, by virtue of his claims to the Polish throne, generously awarded to the Knights. Duke Wacław of Płock declared himself to be his vassal. So did most of the remaining Silesian dukes.
The Knights followed up with an offensive into Wielkopolska in July 1331. They comprehensively sacked Gniezno, although, as a religious order, they felt it politic to spare the cathedral. On 27 September, the Polish and Teutonic armies met at Płowce. The battle lasted most of the day; if, on balance, this pyrrhic encounter was a Polish victory, it resolved nothing. It marked the limit of Łokietek’s military endeavour. The king could raid, but not reconquer; above all, he lacked the resources and the organization to take on the Knights’ strongholds. Had John of Luxemburg also invaded – as he had promised the Knights – Płowce might have been even more irrelevant than it was. In 1332, the Knights more than made up for Płowce by occupying Łokietek’s old patrimonial duchy of Kujawy. In August, he had to agree to a truce which left them in possession of all their recent gains. Through sheer, murderous persistence, he had semi-reunited Poland. But at his death, on 2 March 1333, he left an even smaller kingdom than the one which had acknowledged him at his coronation in 1320. His successor, Casimir III, began his reign by renewing the truce with the Teutonic Knights.
Domestically, Poland needed stability, which could only come about by strengthening royal authority. Externally, the new king had not only to resolve relations with the Ordensstaat and the House of Luxemburg, he had to deal with a power vacuum on Poland’s south-east borders, which threatened to embroil him with the Tatars and with Lithuania. Poland continued to lie in the shadow of the Hungarian Angevins, first, of Casimir’s brother-in-law, Charles I Robert, and then his nephew Louis the Great (1342–82), both of whom had their own designs on the Polish throne. The realm, the ‘Crown’ as it was styled by his jurists – Corona Regni Poloniae – that Casimir ruled, a narrow and irregular lozenge of territory, spilled from north-west to south-east on either side of the Vistula; with probably fewer than 800,000 inhabitants, it contained less than half the territories and population that might plausibly have been called Polish. Against the Knights, Casimir was largely on his own. The Angevins wanted good relations with them in their own struggles against the Wittelsbachs and the Luxemburgs. Poland was to be kept in its subordinate place. The treaty of Kalisz of 8 July 1343 was a ‘compromise’ which benefited the Knights. They restored the vulnerable border territories of Dobrzyń and Kujawy lost by Łokietek, but kept what they really wanted – Gdańsk and Pomerania. Casimir also had to face up to the loss of Silesia. In 1348, John of Bohemia’s successor and heir-elect to the Empire (he was to succeed Louis the Bavarian in 1349), Charles IV, decreed its incorporation into the kingdom of Bohemia. He even contemplated the incorporation of the duchies of Płock and Masovia, by virtue of the claims he had inherited from the Vaclavs and his father. With only faltering support from Louis of Hungary and with a storm brewing in the south-east, Casimir resigned himself. By the treaty of Namysłów (Namslau) of 22 November 1348, he abandoned his claims to the Silesian principalities. There was some consolation in the north-east, where in 1355, Duke Ziemowit III (1341–70), who succeeded in reuniting (albeit briefly) most of the Masovian lands, acknowledged Casimir’s overlordship. He stipulated, however, that the preservation of the relationship after Casimir’s death was contingent on the king’s siring a legitimate male heir.
The troubled situation in the south-east, in the lands of Rus’, helps explain Casimir’s retreat in the west. After the reign of Yaroslav I the Wise (1019–54), the once-great principality of Kiev had undergone its own dynastic fragmentation. The Mongol onslaughts of 1237–40 had savaged these lands far more viciously than Poland. The successor-states of Kievan Rus’ were largely reduced to tributaries of the Golden Horde, established in the Eurasian steppes. The continued raids of the Mongols, or Tatars as they were widely known, carried them periodically into Polish territory. In 1340, Bolesław-Iurii, the childless ruler of the two westernmost principalities of Halych and Vladimir, and a scion of the Masovian Piasts, was poisoned by his leading boyar-advisers, thoroughly alienated by his open contempt for them and his over-enthusiastic support for Roman Catholicism.
No credible claimant to Halych-Vladimir emerged from among the other Rus’ princes. Casimir seized the moment. These fertile Rus’ principalities, straddling the great east–west overland trade route from Germany to the Black Sea, offered pleasing prospects of enriching both the nobility of southern Poland and the merchants of Kraków. They could serve as a buffer zone against Tatar raids. They offered some compensation for the lands renounced in the west and north. They also aroused the appetite of Lithuania and the Hungarian Angevins. If Casimir did not annex them, others would. His invasion of 1340 may have been prompted by the very real fear that the Tatars would impose their direct rule in the ‘regnum Galiciae et Lodomeriae’, the ‘kingdom of Halych and Vladimir’.
It took twenty years of intermittent struggle to impose even partial Polish authority. The Lithuanians established themselves in the north. Casimir satisfied himself with acknowledgement of his suzerainty by Lithuanian princelings. Casimir held the south, centred on the town of L’viv (Lwów/Lvov/Lemberg). But even here he owed his position to Hungarian support. Poland’s Rus’ lands remained separate from the rest of the Crown: in return for Louis of Hungary’s assistance in their subjugation, Casimir agreed in 1350 that they would pass to him on his demise. Divisions in Lithuania, where Duke Gediminas’ seven sons quarrelled among themselves after his death in 1341, worked to Casimir’s advantage. Even the Black Death helped: it left a sparsely populated Poland largely unscathed, but in 1346 it devastated the Golden Horde. Despite all this, the venture cost Casimir dear. In 1352, to raise money for his war effort, he plundered the archiepiscopal treasury in Gniezno. He borrowed from all and sundry, even from the Teutonic Knights, to whom he assigned the county of Dobrzyń as security. Impoverished Dobrzyń could scarcely begin to compare with Rus’ potential prosperity.
Casimir’s principal achievement was to restore strong monarchic rule at home, within the narrow limits open to any medieval ruler. His deliberate patronage of talented lay and ecclesiastical advisers from southern Poland, the advancement of their careers by service on the royal council, created a generation of new men, ready to aid and abet fresh fiscal and administrative initiatives. The king was more aware than his predecessors of the value of more formal means of government. In 1364, he set up, in Kraków, a partial university or studium generale, teaching mainly law, with some medicine and astronomy (the papacy would not agree to instruction in theology). The new institution above all aimed at producing the jurists and lawyers increasingly indispensable to the government of a self-respecting monarchy. Casimir introduced written regulation of judicial procedure and criminal law. In the 1360s, he began to widen the bases of his support to Wielkopolska. He never sought to put an end to the established divisions and differences between his two chief provinces, but instead played their elites off against each other. An extensive programme of revindication of usurped royal lands, often by arbitrary royal fiat, recovered hundreds of properties, though it led to revolt in Wielkopolska in 1352. Casimir made some tactical concessions. In 1360, after the troubles had died down, the revolt’s leader, Maćko Borkowic, was arrested, chained in a dungeon and starved to death, though it seems that his involvement with local brigandage rather than his political past was more responsible – not so much a royal act of revenge as a warning to powerful men not to get above themselves.
It may be that Casimir wished to build up new elements on which he could base royal power. For the first time, the non-knightly administrators of peasant villages, the wójtowie and sołtysi, were expected to turn out in their own right on military campaigns. His confiscational programme was matched by an extensive settlement of peasants under ‘German law’ on royal domain. The king encouraged Jewish settlement, mainly of Ashkenazim from the Empire. While the same baggage of prejudices and misconceptions found across Christendom was reflected in Poland, it was clearly not enough to put a stop to such immigration. He took a Jewish mistress. And although the merchants and guilds of many towns, fearful of competition, secured bans on Jewish residence inside the town walls, they were almost invariably able to settle in the suburbs or in privileged enclaves beyond municipal jurisdiction. Whatever reservations his Christian subjects had about them (and there were occasional anti-Jewish riots), Casimir appreciated that they represented an invaluable asset. The 1338 coinage reform helped boost the circulation of small-denominational silver monies. All this, combined with a flourishing north–south and west–east trade, with Kraków at its crossroads, enabled Casimir successfully to pursue a harsh fiscality. He subjected peasant holdings on lay and ecclesiastical estates to an annual land (‘plough’, poradlne) tax of 12 groszy per łan (about 18.5 hectares). Only land worked directly for the lords was exempt. Such taxation, combined with a reform of the administration of the lucrative royal salt-mines at Bochnia and Wieliczka, first exploited in 1251, enabled him to finance a major defence and reconstruction programme. He built some fifty castles across Poland, and provided twenty-seven towns with new curtain walls (or, rather, they did so on his orders). It was enough to contain the incursions of the Tatars and the ever more frequent raids of the Lithuanians; but none of Casimir’s new fortresses could match the Teutonic Knights’ defensive marvel at Marienburg. The Kraków patriciate was kept sweet by the king’s successful commercial policies and by the enhanced prestige it enjoyed from his ban on all municipal appeals to Magdeburg: two appellate urban courts were set up in the capital.
For all the difficulties that Casimir experienced in Halych-Rus’, it was in his reign that the processes took off which were to give the area its variegated ethnic character for almost the next six centuries. The campaigning devastated the countryside; but the area’s fertility made it a magnet for the dispossessed, impoverished and adventurous from all over Poland and beyond. The boyar aristocrats of the area either died out during the wars or preferred to migrate to Rus’ lands under Lithuanian lordship: the surviving lesser nobility was in no shape to stand up to the influx of immigrants. The great trading centre of L’viv continued to attract a vigorous mix of settlers. Germans formed the largest number of incomers, then Poles and Czechs – though by the end of the fifteenth century, most of these elements were to be polonized and L’viv/Lwów itself became something of a Polish island in a sea of Rus’, Orthodox peasantry. The first Jews established themselves in 1356, alongside a thriving Armenian community. During Casimir’s last years and over the next decades, petty and not-so-petty Polish nobles were granted extensive land rights in the area. Casimir and his successors preferred to govern through an alien, non-boyar, non-Orthodox class on whose loyalty they could rely. The process was made easier in that even the Rurikid princes of Halych-Rus’ had shown considerable interest in accepting union with the Latin Church, as a channel for securing help against the Mongols. The petty Orthodox boyars who clung on, loaded with service obligations, uncompensated by any rights or liberties on the Polish or Hungarian models, found that polonization and Catholicization offered the easiest route to preserving and advancing their status and fortunes. It was in these lands of western Rus’ that the process of the separation and alienation of the elites from the mass of the local population first began and proceeded furthest.
Casimir’s greatest failing was dynastic. He had four wives: the first, Aldona-Anna of Lithuania, produced two daughters. The second, Adelaide of Hesse, was pious, unexciting and possibly barren. Casimir despised her and ensured that she spent a miserable marriage confined in remote castles until a divorce came through around 1356 – in scandalous circumstances. The king’s lust for Krystyna, the widow of a patrician of Prague, got the better of him. He contracted a bigamous marriage with her even before his divorce from poor Adelaide. No children were produced. In a race against time, he put Krystyna aside to marry, in 1363, Jadwiga, daughter of Duke Henry of Żagań Four children followed – all girls. Casimir could not produce legitimate sons. He may, nevertheless, have had second thoughts about letting the Angevins get their hands on his lands. In 1368 he adopted as his heir his grandson Kaźko, heir to the duchy of Słupsk in Pomerania. Days before his death on 5 November 1370, he bequeathed his patrimony of Łęczyca, Sieradz and Kujawy to Kaźko. The Rus’ lands, Wielkopolska and the territories around Kraków and Sandomierz were to pass to Louis of Hungary. Casimir had clearly not shaken off the sense that this was a family, patrimonial monarchy, ultimately his and his alone to dispose of. But this was not a view shared by the lawyers, clergy and barons who had helped him rule. His thirtyseven-year reign had persuaded them that their political arena was more than a local or regional one: that the ‘Crown’, the Corona Regni Poloniae, was a real political entity that had to be preserved. A freshly divided Poland was unlikely to hold on to the potential riches of the hard-won Rus’ lands. At the same time these notables had an unmissable opportunity to return to the politics their predecessors had practised at the height of Poland’s fragmentation, of playing off one potential ruler against another, albeit now on a scale that went beyond Poland’s borders. The county court of Sandomierz ruled the will invalid. Kaźko settled for compensation in the shape of the county of Dobrzyń, to be redeemed from the Knights, as a fief to be held of Louis of Hungary, who was to inherit the Crown.
Even in his own lifetime, Casimir III’s attainment of a relative peace and prosperity, his legal and administrative reforms earned him the title ‘the Great’ (the only Polish monarch so honoured). Yet Poland remained a lesser power, too weak to assert its claims to its old territories in the west and north. Casimir probably did as much as could have been done with some unpromising materials. For better or worse, he paved the way for a new course of eastwards expansion. He restored strong monarchic rule, although nothing that he did could compensate for the lack of a legitimate son.
Whatever the vagaries of Casimir’s policies, he had been a strong, at times even brutal, ruler. The nobility had good reasons for welcoming Louis’ accession. An absentee king (he ruled in Poland largely through his mother, Casimir’s sister, Elizabeth) would almost inevitably be less demanding. He had made promising concessions in return for acceptance of his succession. In 1355, by the Privilege of Buda, Louis had solemnly assured the nobility and clergy that he would exempt them from any new taxation. His uncertain health, and the gratifying inability he shared with Casimir to father sons, opened up even more favourable prospects. In 1374, the nobility agreed that he could designate one of his three daughters as successor in Poland. In return, from Košice in northern Hungary, Louis promulgated a Privilege, reducing in perpetuity the poradlne tax paid by peasants on noble and knightly estates from 12 to 2 groszy per łan. He went on to promise that he would pay his knights for any military service beyond Poland’s borders. In 1381, he extended these provisions to the clergy.
In retrospect, these concessions can be viewed as the beginning of a linear process which was to give the nobility a dominant and domineering position within the state. At the time, they were more an attempt to secure protection against royal fiscal arbitrariness. The ‘nobility’ were the beneficiaries because they held a nearmonopoly of military force. But the Polish ‘nobles’ at this time were simply all those who held land carrying the obligation – even if it was in many cases notional, rather than real – of performing military service. Those affected ranged from lords of the royal council to backwoods squires barely able to afford a horse and military accoutrement. The driving force consisted of a core of some twenty families, most of whom had risen under Casimir III and were determined not to lose their standing in the state. These were the primary beneficiaries of the Privileges of Buda and Kosice. That their lesser fellow-rycerze also gained was a useful bonus which enabled the great families to build up followings and clienteles – it was to be at least another century before these junior knights/nobles became a serious political force in their own right. Louis’ Privileges also applied to the townsmen – their existing rights were confirmed – but they enjoyed only local and ad hoc concessions, grants and favours. The towns, divided by commercial rivalries, failed to show a common front. Members of the Kraków patriciate, who might even sit on the royal council, were concerned only with the well-being of their own city, not that of other towns; in any case, they could reasonably aspire to a niche among the aristocratic core. The clergy followed on the coat-tails of the ‘communitas nobilium’.
While Louis accepted that he had to make concessions in order to secure the throne for his daughters, like Vaclav II barely two generations previously, he felt no compunction at truncating Polish territory. In 1377 he incorporated Polish Rus’ into Hungary, a step already agreed on with Casimir and made easier by its separate status of a royal dominium. He confirmed the cession of Silesia to the Luxemburgs. He transferred disputed border territories to Brandenburg. These measures and the behaviour of Hungarian officials caused immense resentment, culminating in the massacre of dozens of Hungarian courtiers during riots in Kraków in 1376. In 1380, Louis judged it prudent to relinquish rule in Poland to a caucus of Małopolska potentates, which did nothing for his wavering support in Wielkopolska. When he died, in September 1382, the question of the succession was almost as vexed as ever. The Polish elites had promised to accept his daughter, Maria – but jibbed when Louis, in an attempt to unite the Angevin and Luxemburg houses, insisted that she should marry the unpopular Sigismund of Luxemburg. The Hungarians compromised and suggested that a younger daughter, Jadwiga (she was barely 10 years old), could be substituted. Małopolska agreed, but Wielkopolska wanted Duke Ziemowit IV of Płock as king. Angevin support in the south proved too strong for him. The entry of pro-Jadwiga troops obliged Ziemowit to withdraw.
Wielkopolska’s leaders were prepared to accept Jadwiga if her long-standing betrothal to Wilhelm of Habsburg could be broken off in favour of Ziemowit. She was crowned ‘king’ (this was not an age which discarded law and custom lightly) in Kraków on 15 October 1384. The southern lords had little truck with Wielkopolska’s provincialism. They, too, could play the dynastic card as well as any Luxemburg or Angevin. Jadwiga’s engagement was broken off – not in favour of Ziemowit, but of the illiterate heathen, Jogaila, ruler of Lithuania. At Kreva, in Lithuania, on 14 August 1385, Jogaila confirmed a deal his representatives had struck with Louis’ widow, the queen-dowager Elizabeth, and with Małopolska’s lords: he and his Lithuanian subjects would convert to Catholicism; he would marry Jadwiga, provide money to pay off the disappointed Wilhelm of Habsburg and annex to Poland his vast principality, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Małopolska’s elite had embarked on a spectacular exercise in corporate dynasticism, well worth the price of a 12-year-old’s feelings. Former Piast Poland stood on the threshold of a bizarre and unexpected new career.