Poland Early 18th Century – The Reign of Anarchy I

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Augustus II of Poland.

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17th Centruy Polish Dragoons

By the last quarter of the seventeenth century it was becoming obvious to all that the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was a very different kind of political unit from all the surrounding states, and that it did not lend itself to the conduct of the kind of policies they were pursuing. Commentators referred to it as ‘the Polish Anarchy’. It was also evident that this curious polity was an expression of a culture which was growing increasingly alien to that of the rest of Europe.

At one level, Polish society differed little from that of other countries, and fed on the same literary and cultural canon. There was nothing particularly exotic about magnates such as the Treasurer of the Crown Jan Andrzej Morsztyn (1620-93). A gifted writer, he effortlessly wrote short erotic poems and aphorisms, religious and lyrical verse, and made fine translations of Corneille and Tasso. Stanisław Herakliusz Lubomirski (1642-1702), son of the rebellious Marshal Jerzy Lubomirski, spent two years on a grand tour before starting on a political career which was to culminate in his appointment to the office of Marshal by Jan III in 1676. He was a brave soldier and a discriminating patron of the arts, and in 1668 he married Zofia Opalińska, a bluestocking with a passion for music and mathematics: together they covered every conceivable interest from engineering to astrology. He wrote Italianate comedies as well as some of the best seventeenth-century religious verse in Polish, dissertations on current affairs and a treatise on literary taste, and translated a number of foreign works.

These and other magnates patronised the arts and studded the towns and the countryside with palaces and churches in a synthesis of the Baroque style that owed much not only to Italy and Austria but also to France and the Netherlands.

If Renaissance architecture suited the style and thought of the Poles of the sixteenth century, the Baroque might have been invented for those of the seventeenth. It awakened a degree of sensual appreciation of form, ornament and luxury which found immediate satisfaction in and complemented the increasing contact with the East. This fed on war just as well as on peacetime trade. Ottoman armies believed in comfort and splendour, and as a result the booty could be spectacular. ‘The tents and all the wagons have fallen into my hands, et mille autres galanteries fort jolies et fort riches, mais fort riches, and I haven’t looked through all of it yet,’ wrote a triumphant Jan III to his wife from the Turkish camp outside Vienna a few hours after the battle.

By the early 1600s the Polish cavalry had adopted most of the weapons used by the Turks as well as many of their tactics. The hetmans used the Turkish baton of command, and the horse-tails which denoted rank among the Turks were borne aloft behind them too. The Poles also dressed more and more like their foe, and even the Tatar habit of shaving the head was widely practised on campaign. So much so that on the eve of the Battle of Vienna the King had to order all Polish troops to wear a straw cockade so that their European allies should not take them for Turks, from whom they were all but indistinguishable. With Sobieski’s accession to the throne, military fashion invaded the court and became institutionalised. This ‘Sarmatian’ costume became a symbol of healthy, straightforward patriotic Polishness, while French or German clothes were equated with foreign intrigue.

The Poles also had a feeling for the beauty of Islamic art, which was not generally appreciated in western Europe. Eastern hangings replaced Flemish tapestries and arms joined pictures on the walls of manor houses. At the Battle of Chocim, Jan Sobieski captured a silk embroidery studded with ‘two thousand emeralds and rubies’ from Hussein Pasha which he thought so beautiful that he wore it as a horsecloth for his coronation. A few years later he gave it as the richest gift he could think of to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, who put it away and wrote it down in his inventory as ‘una cosa del barbaro lusso’.

Turkish clothes suited Baroque architecture, and servants were dressed up accordingly. Wealthy szlachta often kept captive Tatars or janissaries at their courts, but they also dressed their Polish pages as Arabs and their bodyguards as Circassian warriors. This taste was carried so far that religious music was provided in Karol Radziwiłł’s Baroque chapel at NieświeŻ by a Jewish orchestra dressed as janissaries.

There had never been any sumptuary laws in Poland and the tendency to show off was unrestrained. Money still had no investment role in the minds of most Poles, and all surplus went into movable property of the most demonstrable kind. Inventories made on the death of members of the szlachta are illuminating. A poor gentleman would be found to possess a horse or two, fine caparisons and horsecloths, saddles, arms and armour, a small number of rich clothes, jewellery, perhaps some personal table-silver, a few furs and lengths of cloth, and little in the way of money. Inventories of country houses and castles reveal the same pattern. Jewellery, clothes, silver, saddlery, arms and armour, cannon, uniforms for the castle guard, furs, lengths of cloth, Turkish, Persian and Chinese hangings, banners, tents, horsecloths and rugs, Flemish tapestries and pictures are listed. Furniture hardly figures, except where it is made of silver.

The Polish magnate’s coat was a tradable item, so stiff was it with gold thread. Every button was a jewel, the clasp at his throat and the aigrette on his fur cap were works of art. The French traveller Verdum noted that Jan III wore 200,000 thalers’ worth of jewels on a normal day, and that on a great occasion his attire would be worth a considerable proportion of his (by no means negligible) weight in gold. Urszula Sieniawska, whose inheritance was being disputed by a number of relatives in 1640, left no fewer than 5,000 diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires in her jewel case. Maryanna Stadnicka, wife of the Palatine of BeŁz, left 8,760 pearls. In 1655, when they looted the Lubomirskis’ Wiśnicz, the Swedes required no fewer than 150 carts to carry away the booty. Many collections were so vast that the looting made only a slight impression. The inventory of żółkiew, one of the Sobieski family seats, drawn up after Peter the Great had personally looted it in 1707, still lists upwards of seven hundred oil paintings in the castle.

These castles were also full of people, on the principle that the more there were surrounding a man, the more important he was. Poor relatives and landless friends, the sons of less wealthy henchmen and clients of one sort or another would form a court around a magnate. On top of this, he would employ teachers for his children, musicians, whole corps de ballet, jesters and dwarfs, chaplains, secretaries, managers and other officers. After that came servants, stable staff, kitchen staff, falconers, huntsmen, organists, castrati, trumpeters, units of cavalry, infantry and artillery. The fashion for show attendants meant that there were dozens of hajduks, wearing Hungarian dress, pajuks, in Turkish janissary costume, and laufers in what looked like something out of Italian opera, covered in ostrich feathers. These attendants had no purpose beyond standing about or running before the master when he rode out. The numbers were impressive. When Rafał Leszczyński’s wife died in 1635, he had to provide mourning dress for just over 2,000 servants—and neither cooks nor kitchenmaids were included, as they were not seen. Karol Radziwiłł’s army alone amounted to 6,000 regular troops.

The heads of great houses took themselves seriously, and much of this splendour was dictated by a feeling of self-importance. When Karol Radziwiłł’s intendant commented that he lived better than the King, the characteristic reply was: ‘I live like a Radziwiłł—the King can do as he likes.’ Every major event in the life of the family was treated with pomp, and ceremonies were constructed round it. When a child was born, the artillery fired salutes and occasional operas were staged. When the master returned from the wars, triumphal arches were erected and fireworks let off.

It was more than mere show—it was a style of behaviour which introduced ritual into every action and translated its significance into visible activity. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the practice of religion as it developed in the seventeenth century, partly under the influence of the taste of the faithful, partly as a result of the Church’s continuing policy of bringing every aspect of the life of the Commonwealth within its own ambit, if not actually under its control.

Control was not something that could be effectively exerted over the likes of Karol Radziwiłł, who summed up his attitude in a letter to Anna Jabłonowska in 1764: ‘I praise the Lord, believe not in the Devil, respect the law, know no king, because I am a nobleman with a free voice.’ A man whose ideal was the cult of unbounded liberty did not take easily to having, for instance, his sexual freedom restricted by laws even more nebulous than those of the Commonwealth. The hold on society which the Church did have was based on a juxtaposition of life and ritual which succeeded in making religion into an integral part of every person’s regular activities. The leaders of the Counter-Reformation insisted on the inseparability of the Church as an institution from the Commonwealth as an institution, of piety from patriotism. They were largely successful in that they bred the notion in the average Pole that the Catholic Church ‘belonged’ to him in much the same way as the Commonwealth did. Churches were used for sejmiks and for the sessions of local tribunals. National commemorations and holidays were fused with religious feasts. The priesthood became for the poorer nobility much what the civil service or army were in other countries—the only noble profession and a refuge for upper-class mediocrity.

Outward signs of the faith were encouraged in every way. The cult of the Virgin and of the saints, which had died away during the Reformation, made a triumphant comeback. Every town, village, institution, guild and confraternity was provided with a patron. Pictures of the Virgin before which miracles allegedly took place were ‘crowned’ and declared to be miraculous. The solemn coronation of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa took place on 8 September 1717 before 150,000 faithful. By 1772 there were a staggering four hundred officially designated miraculous pictures of the Virgin, each one a centre of pilgrimage and a recipient of votive offerings of jewellery, money, tablets and symbolic limbs.

From the purely religious sphere, the ritual spread into every other. When a man of substance died, a huge architectural folly, a castrum doloris, would be erected in the church as a canopy for his coffin, and this would be decorated with symbols of his office and wealth, his portrait and coat of arms, and with elaborate inscriptions in his honour. The ritual included the old Polish custom of breaking up the dead man’s symbols of office and, if he were the last of his family, shattering his coat of arms. Neighbours, friends, family, servants and soldiers would pay their last respects in more or less theatrical ways, while congregations of monks and nuns sang dirges and recited litanies. The funeral of Hetman Józef Potocki in 1751 took two weeks, for six days of which 120 pieces of cannon saluted continuously (using up a total of 4,700 measures of powder). Over a dozen senators, hundreds of relatives and entire regiments congregated in Stanisławów to pay their last respects in the church which was entirely draped in black damask, before a huge catafalque of crimson velvet dripping with gold tassels, decorated with lamps, candelabra, Potocki’s portrait, captured standards, pyramids of weapons and other symbols of his office and achievements.

This Sarmatian lifestyle was a unique growth, produced by cross-pollenation between Catholic high Baroque and Ottoman culture. Everything about it was theatrical, declamatory and buxom. It was inimical to the bourgeois ethic of thrift, investment, self-improvement and discipline which was beginning to dominate western Europe, and as a result it was condemned, even by Poles of later centuries. At its worst, sarmatism was absurd and destructive, encouraging as it did outrageous behaviour and an attitude that bred delusion. But it did permit what was possibly an irreconcilable collection of people to reach a kind of harmony. As Jan III’s English physician Bernard Connor commented: ‘It is certain had we in England but the third part of their liberty, we could not live together without cutting one another’s throats.’

And it helps explain how the Commonwealth was able to go on functioning, in a kind of parallel world, along lines that defied logic. The delusional condition it created was an essential ingredient in the survival of a polity whose constitution had broken down and which should have imploded or been conquered by one of its increasingly powerful neighbours.

The election that followed the death of Jan III in 1696 was a fiasco. The principal candidates were the King’s son Jakub; François Louis de Bourbon, Prince de Conti; and Frederick Augustus Wettin, Elector of Saxony. Jakub Sobieski was rapidly eliminated from the contest by the intervention of Saxon troops. On 27 June 1697 the szlachta assembled on the election field voted overwhelmingly for the Prince de Conti, and the Primate proclaimed him king. On the same evening a small group of malcontents elected Frederick Augustus, who marched into Poland at the head of a Saxon army. On 15 September, while the Prince de Conti was sailing into the Baltic, Frederick Augustus was crowned in Kraków by the Bishop of Kujavia, as Augustus II of Poland. At the end of the month the Prince de Conti came ashore only to discover that he had been pipped at the post. His supporters were not keen to start a civil war, so he re-embarked and sailed back to France. It was the first time that a deceased monarch’s son had not been elected to succeed him; that the successful candidate had been debarred from the throne by military force; and that the new incumbent was also the ruler of another state.

The twenty-seven-year-old Augustus was nothing if not picturesque. Universally known as Augustus the Strong and described by one of his subjects as ‘half bull, half cock’, he could break horseshoes with one hand, shoot with astonishing accuracy, drink almost anyone under the table, and fornicate on a scale which would be unbelievable if he had not left platoons of bastards to prove it. He was not a stupid man, and he intended to turn the Commonwealth into a centralised monarchical state. Like Jan III, he saw war as the surest way to gain prestige and a free hand to carry out his plans.

In 1698 the Livonian nobleman Johann Patkul, who had been forced to flee his province by the occupying Swedes, turned up at the court of Augustus II with an appeal for help from the Livonian nobility. Although they wished to rejoin the Commonwealth, Augustus saw an opportunity of acquiring the province for himself. Soon after, he met Tsar Peter I (later known as Peter the Great), who was on his way back to Russia from western Europe, and in the course of an all-night drinking bout the two men planned a joint war against Sweden. Augustus suggested to his uncle King Christian V of Denmark that he join them and take Bremen and Werden from Sweden as a reward. In 1699 an agreement was signed between Peter I, Frederick IV of Denmark (who had succeeded his father Christian V) and Augustus II. Augustus was not allowed to enter into such treaties as King of Poland. It was therefore an alliance of Muscovy, Saxony and Denmark that went to war on Sweden the following year.

The allies had made a mistake in thinking that they could easily defeat the eighteen-year-old Swedish king, Charles XII. This callow youth was endowed with inhuman energy, reckless bravery and a faith in his own destiny that was soon echoed in the popular myth that he was invulnerable. He made short shrift of the Danes, beat off the Saxon army attempting to take Riga, and then turned on the Russians, whom he drubbed at the Battle of Narva. Augustus decided it was time to sue for peace.

Charles XII would have none of it and demanded that the Poles dethrone Augustus if they did not wish to be invaded. The Commonwealth was not technically at war with anyone, and the problem of how to deal with the situation was aggravated by profound internal divisions. In 1702 the Sapieha family placed Lithuania under Swedish protection, and in April Charles XII entered Wilno. The Lithuanian rivals of the Sapieha appealed to the Tsar, and Muscovite troops moved into the Grand Duchy in support. But Charles XII had already moved into Poland in pursuit of Augustus. Incensed by this invasion, the szlachta who assembled in a rump Sejm at Lublin in 1703 called for war with Sweden. The following year those loyal to Augustus II voted to ally with Muscovy against Sweden. At this point Charles XII met Stanisław Leszczyński, Palatine of Poznań, an intelligent man of twenty-seven for whom he developed a great esteem, and arranged for him to be elected king by some eight hundred szlachta assembled for the purpose. There were now two kings of Poland, neither of them with much of a following or an army, and they were being swept along by Peter I and Charles XII respectively in a contredanse which took them twin-stepping around the Commonwealth, until Charles had the idea of invading Saxony. There he finally pinned down Augustus and extorted his abdication of the Polish throne. Stanisław I was king.

Charles decided that the time had now come to take on Peter I. He laid his plans with Stanisław and with Ivan Mazepa (originally Jan Kolodyński), a former page to Jan Kazimierz who had served Peter I loyally as Ataman of the Cossacks on the Russian side of the Dnieper. Their independence was being eroded by Muscovite rule and they dreamt of reuniting Ukraine. An alliance against Russia was formed, on the basis of an independent future for Ukraine in alliance with Poland. But on 8 July 1709 Charles XII and Mazepa were routed by Peter at Poltava.

The war was over, and Augustus II re-ascended the Polish throne, a little wiser but incomparably worse off for the events of the last ten years. When he and Peter had planned the Northern War on that night in 1698, he had been the stronger partner. After ten years of bungling he was little more than the Tsar’s client, dependent on his support and protection. There was no clear way out of the predicament for him or for the Commonwealth, as the power balance in eastern Europe had altered dramatically during those ten years.