The Polish Commonwealth
In 1576 the prince of Transylvania, Stephen Báthory (Batory), became king. A brilliant soldier, he closely cooperated with Jan Zamoyski, chancellor of the Crown and grand hetman (commander in chief). The most spectacular achievement of Báthory's reign was a series of military victories (1579–81) over Ivan IV the Terrible of Russia. Yet, it is likely that the king's eastern policies were inspired by the ultimate goal of liberation of Hungary, which was not necessarily a Polish concern.
Sigismund III Vasa
The long reign of his successor, Sigismund III Vasa (1587–1632), raised hopes of a union with Sweden that would strengthen Poland's standing in the north. Sigismund was the grandson of the legendary Swedish ruler Gustav I Vasa, but, as an ardent Roman Catholic and champion of the Counter-Reformation, he was unable to hold on to the crown of Lutheran Sweden, and a 10-year succession struggle ensued. His attempts to secure the throne involved Poland in a series of wars with Sweden. Although one of Lithuania's great military commanders, Jan Karol Chodkiewicz, triumphed at Kirchholm (1605) and the Gdansk-based navy defeated the Swedish fleet near Oliwa (1627), the truce that followed was inconclusive. The same was true for most settlements in foreign and domestic affairs. Although Poland remained neutral in the Thirty Years' War (1618–48), Sigismund stealthily supported the Habsburgs, a policy that contributed to a war with Turkey. Poland suffered a major defeat at Cecora in 1620 but was victorious at Chocim (now in Moldova) and negotiated peace a year later.
There was, however, no real peace with Muscovy, then going through its Time of Troubles. The support extended by some Polish magnates to the False Dmitry (who claimed to be the son of Ivan IV the Terrible) eventually embroiled Poland in hostilities. The victory at Klushino in 1610 by hetman Stanislaw Zólkiewski resulted in a Polish occupation of Moscow and the election by Moscow's boyars of Sigismund's son Wladyslaw as tsar. Sigismund's veto wasted this opportunity and instead left a residue of Russian hatred of Poland.
Suspicions that Sigismund's policies were guided by his dynastic interests contributed to a domestic confrontation: the 1606–08 rokosz (“rebellion”). Accusing the king of absolutist designs, the rokosz brought together sincere reformers (who demanded the “execution” of the laws), Roman Catholics, and Protestants, as well as magnates pursuing their own ends. Although the royal forces triumphed in battle, both the king and the reformers were losers in the political realm to the magnates posing as defenders of freedom.
Wladyslaw IV Vasa (1632–48) continued his father's policy of strengthening the monarchy and of insisting on the rights to the Swedish throne. Some of the bellicose plans he formulated to increase his power were thwarted by the Sejm and by international circumstances. The anti-Turkish crusade he planned, however, in which Cossacks were to play a major role, contributed to the upheaval that shook the Commonwealth between 1648 and 1660—the uprising in Ukraine and war in the northeast.
Transferred as a result of the Union of Lublin from the grand duchy of Lithuania to the more ethnically homogenous Crown, Ukraine was “colonized” by both Polish and Ukrainian great nobles. Most of the latter gradually abandoned Orthodoxy to become Roman Catholic and Polish. These “little kings” of Ukraine controlled hundreds of thousands of “subjects” and commanded armies larger than those of the regular Crown troops. In 1596 the Union of Brest-Litovsk subordinated the Eastern Orthodox church of the Commonwealth to the papacy by creating the Eastern-rite (Uniate) church. Politically, this was intended to cement the cohesion of the state vis-à-vis Moscow; instead it led to internal divisions among the Orthodox. The new Eastern-rite church became a hierarchy without followers while the forbidden Eastern Orthodox church was driven underground. Wladyslaw's recognition of the latter's existence in 1632 may have come too late. The Orthodox masses—deprived of their native protectors, who had become Polonized and Catholic—turned to the Cossacks.
The Zaporozhian Cossacks were frontiersmen who organized themselves in a self-governing centre at modern Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine, first to resist Tatar raids and then to plunder as far away as Constantinople (modern Istanbul). Their prowess was recognized by Sigismund Augustus and Báthory, who “registered” a number of Cossacks for military duty. This privileged status was coveted by other Cossacks and all those diverse groups of settlers or tenants whom the lords tried to turn into serfs. The heavy-handed behaviour of the “little kings,” bent on realizing maximum profits and employing Jews as middlemen and overseers, was resented even by small nobles and burghers. Growing socioeconomic antagonisms combined with religious tensions.
In the Polish-Turkish war of 1620–21, the victory in the Battle of Chocim had been largely due to the participation of some 40,000 Zaporozhian Cossacks, whom Petro Konashevych-Sahaydachny had brought to aid the Poles. Nonetheless, some 12 years later, Cossack demands to be placed on an equal footing with the szlachta were contemptuously rejected by the Sejm. The king and the magnates needed the Cossacks in wartime but feared them as an unruly and seditious group that was embroiling the Commonwealth in hostilities with Turkey and the Tatars. Complaints about the enlargement of the military register and about mistreatment led to several Cossack uprisings. After that of 1638 was put down by Polish troops, Cossack privileges were greatly curtailed.
The undertaking of an anti-Turkish crusade opened new vistas. There was talk of massive Cossack participation provided that some 20,000 men be “registered,” social grievances redressed, and a military border free of Polish troops established. Whatever the exact encouragements proffered by Wladyslaw IV, the Sejm and the szlachta were adamantly opposed and frightened lest the king use the Cossacks for his own ends.
In 1648 Bohdan Khmelnytsky, whom contemporaries likened to Oliver Cromwell, assumed the leadership of the Zaporozhian Cossacks and, allied with the Tatars, defeated the troops of the Commonwealth and some magnate contingents. Khmelnytsky became the master of Ukraine, and its peasant masses, many of its townsmen, and even lesser noblemen were among his followers. The city of Kiev hailed him as prince and defender of the Orthodox faith. His objective became the creation of a separate Ukraine under the direct rule of a king. In Poland, where the sudden death of Wladyslaw IV left the country leaderless, a policy of compromise represented by the chancellor, Jerzy Ossolinski, and the last Orthodox senator, Adam Kisiel (Kysil), clashed with warlike operations of the leading “little king,” Prince Jeremi Wisniowiecki. The nature of temporary agreements, which intervened between the Commonwealth and the Cossacks, varied depending on the changing fortunes of war. The Polish victory at Beresteczko in 1651 was followed by the pact of Biala Cerkiew, which the Cossacks found hard to accept. In 1654 Khmelnytsky submitted to Tsar Alexis in the Pereyaslav Agreement. Russian historiography characterizes that agreement as the reunification of Ukraine with Russia; the Ukrainians interpret it as an alliance based on expediency. At any rate, war began between Muscovy and the Commonwealth, and Alexis' armies drove deep into Lithuania. In 1655 they occupied its capital, Wilno. For the first time in nearly two centuries an enemy invasion had taken place, and, when it was followed by a Swedish aggression, a veritable “deluge” overtook the Commonwealth.
John II Casimir Vasa
The belligerent and ambitious Charles X Gustav of Sweden worried lest the extension of Muscovy upset the balance of power in the Baltic, which he aimed to turn into a Swedish lake. The refusal of King John II Casimir Vasa, the successor and brother of Wladyslaw IV, to give up his claims to the Swedish crown offered a good pretext for resuming hostilities with the Commonwealth. Aiming originally to seize Polish and Prussian harbours, Charles Gustav saw, after the first successes, the possibility of gaining the Polish crown and the mastery of the Commonwealth.
The magnates and gentry of Great Poland capitulated to the Swedes in July 1655. Prince Janusz Radziwill, a leading Calvinist and the greatest magnate of Lithuania, hard-pressed by the Russians, broke off the union with Poland and signed one with Sweden. His motives were a combination of Lithuanian and Protestant interests coloured by his own ambition to rule the grand duchy.
The nearly bloodless conquest of the huge Commonwealth came as a shock to many Poles and foreigners. Yet, Polish resistance to what turned out to be a regime of brutal occupation developed very quickly. The successful defense of the fortified monastery of Jasna Góra (now in Czestochowa) became a rallying point and provided a symbolic religious-ideological banner. Although the Poles were seldom a match for the Swedish professional troops, they excelled at partisan warfare and at winning minor battles. Not only the szlachta but also the peasants fought the foreigner and enemy of Roman Catholicism. Stefan Czarniecki became the hero of the war. Returning from exile in Silesia, John Casimir built an international coalition against the Swedes, whose successes were upsetting the balance of power. A cease-fire intervened on the Russian front, and the Cossacks were neutralized by the Tatars, while the Habsburgs, Denmark, and Brandenburg-Prussia came to Poland's aid. The Swedes were gradually driven out of the Commonwealth, despite an armed intervention on their side by Transylvania's Prince György II Rákóczi, who aspired to the Polish crown. The war ended with the Treaty of Oliwa (1660), which restored the territorial status quo before the Swedish invasion and brought the final renunciation of John Casimir's claim to the crown of Sweden.
The real winner in the conflict proved to be Frederick William, the elector of Brandenburg and duke of Prussia. Adroitly maneuvering between Sweden and Poland and extracting a price for his collaboration from both sides, the “Great Elector” finally switched his support to John Casimir, thereby receiving the recognition of full sovereignty over Prussia for himself and his male descendants through the treaties of Wehlau (Welawa) and Bromberg (Bydgoszcz) in 1657.
Eastern wars still continued for Poland for several years. In Ukraine the Hadziacz agreement of 1658 with Khmelnytsky's successor provided for the creation of a Ukrainian state as a third member of the Commonwealth with its own offices and army, as well as mass ennoblements of Cossacks and the suspension of the Union of Brest-Litovsk. But, denounced by a pro-Russian faction in Ukraine and nullified, the accord led to a renewal of hostilities with Muscovy, which ended in 1667 with the Truce of Andrusovo, confirmed by a treaty in 1686. Restoring the occupied parts of Lithuania to the Commonwealth, the truce divided Ukraine along the Dnieper River. Together with the Treaty of Oliwa, that agreement was a turning point that marked the decline of the Commonwealth's international standing.
The two decades of war and occupation in the mid-17th century, which in the case of Lithuania gave a foretaste of the 18th-century partitions, ruined and exhausted the Commonwealth. Famines and epidemics followed hostilities, and the population dropped from roughly 11 to 7 million. The number of inhabitants of Kraków and Warsaw fell by two-thirds and one-half, respectively. Wilno had been burned down. The Khmelnytsky uprising decimated the Jews in Ukraine, even if they recovered fairly rapidly demographically. With many farm buildings and farming implements as well as cattle destroyed, and as a result of labour shortages, the productivity of agriculture diminished dramatically. The dynamic network of international trade fairs collapsed. Grain exports, which had reached their peak in the early 17th century, could not redress the unfavourable balance of trade with western Europe. Losses in art treasures—the Swedes engaged in systematic looting—were irreplaceable.
The Commonwealth never fully recovered, unlike Muscovy, which had suffered almost as much during the Time of Troubles.
The prevalent mentality in the Commonwealth in the 17th century manifested itself in Sarmatism. The name came from alleged ancestors of the szlachta (Sarmatians), and the concept served to integrate the multiethnic nobility. Representing a symbiosis of a political ideology and a lifestyle typical of a landowning, rather provincial, tightly knit, and increasingly xenophobic culture, Sarmatism extolled the virtues of the szlachta and contrasted them with Western values. An Orientalization of Polish-Lithuanian culture (including modes and manners) was occurring. Roman Catholicism was Sarmatized in its turn, assuming a more intolerant posture toward other denominations. The struggles against Lutheran Swedes and Prussians, Orthodox Russians, and Muslim Turks and Tatars strengthened the belief in Poland's mission as a Catholic bastion. The expulsion in 1658 of Polish Brethren—accused of collaboration with the Swedes—when taken together with the virtual elimination of non-Catholics from public offices, was the first harbinger of the Pole-Catholic syndrome (the notion that a true Pole must be a Catholic).
Decline and attempts at reform
The Lubomirski rokosz was barely over and truce with Muscovy newly signed when the Cossacks in the Polish part of divided Ukraine submitted to Turkey and called for Tatar aid against Poland. Victories won by hetman Jan Sobieski only temporarily forestalled the threat, and in 1672 the Commonwealth faced a major invasion by Turkey. The fall of the key border fortress Kamieniec Podolski was followed by the humiliating Peace of Buczacz. The Commonwealth lost the provinces of Podolia and Bratslav and part of Kiev, which remained under Turkish rule for more than 20 years, and it had to pay a tribute to the Sublime Porte. Sobieski's victory over the Turks at Chocim in 1673 was not exploited, because of the lack of financial means, but it paved the way for Sobieski's election to the Polish throne. His predecessor, who had followed John Casimir—Michael Korybut Wisniowiecki—reigned for four years only (1669–73) and proved utterly incapable. Sobieski, ruling as John III (1674–96), sought to improve Poland's position and at first considered conquering Prussia in alliance with France. But that plan did not succeed. With the papacy and the Habsburgs preparing for all-out war against Turkey, John reverted to an anti-Turkish policy and concluded an alliance with Austria. In 1683 he led a relief army to a Vienna besieged by the Turks and as supreme commander of the allied forces won a resounding victory that marked the beginning of Turkish withdrawal from Europe. The Commonwealth, however, did not share in the subsequent victorious Austrian campaigns. Poland became a secondary partner, and, when the final peace with Turkey was concluded in Carlowitz (modern Sremski Karlovci, Yugos.) in 1699, the Poles recovered only the lost Ukrainian lands. By that time John was no longer alive, and Augustus II, the elector of Saxony, had succeeded him on the throne (1697–1733).
"History of Poland." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2004. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service.
Copyright H. David Marshak, All Rights Reserved