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Poland’s Early Kings – Part 11

A series focusing on the Poland of old, when warring tribes were common and kings were really tested by the mettle in their swords, the strength in their words, the philosophy of their politics, and the honor in their hearts…..

  

PART 11:  “POLAND’S DECLINE: THE BEGINNING”

  By the peace treaty with Russia known as the Peace of Grzymultowski, concluded in 1686, Poland gave up all claims to territories ceded to Russia by the truce of Andruszow, namely the regions of Smolensk, Tchernikhov and Seversk, as well as lands east of the Dnieper together with Kiev. The Karlovci Peace concluded in 1699 ended the wars with Turkey which had lasted almost a hundred years. Poland recovered Podolia and the part of the Ukraine west of the Dnieper. In 1697, Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony, was elected king of Poland.

  In England the bloodless rebellion of 1688-1689 abolished the Stuart Dynasty, Parliament invited William of Orange, general Stadholder of the Netherlands, married to Mary, daughter of the last of the Stuarts, James II, to the throne of England. The Bill of Rights voted in 1689 established Parliament’s supremacy over the king as the foundation of the constitutional monarchy. In 1682, Peter I, mounted the throne.

  The increased importance of regional diets in the second half of the 17th century marked the weakening of central authority in Poland and the growth of the power of the magnate oligarchy. Regional diets gradually gained more importance than the Seym, which became increasingly ineffective, and took over the functions of starosts in their respective regions and voivodships. Things reached a stage where regional diets assembled without royal consent, usurped the right to levy taxes, disposed at will of the funds thus obtained, and even ordered troop conscriptions. In voivodships where magnate landed estates were dominant, a magnate’s vote was often decisive, or, worse still, not only his vote but the swords of his “clients” among the local gentry.

  In the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the late 17th century the Sapiehas succeeded to the position of power previously held in the late 16th and early 17th centuries by the Radziwills and by the Pac family in the reigns of John Casimir and Michael Wisniowiecki. Theirs was no longer the rule of the Lithuanian magnate oligarchy – rule by a few great families – but the outright dictatorship of a single family. The despotism of Jan Kazimierz Sapieha, Voivode of Vilna, Grand Hetman of Lithuania, and his sons, the corruption of the regional diets, the terror exercised over the court tribunals by the Sapiehas and their clients, mobilized almost the whole of the gentry and other magnates in Lithuania against them. In 1700, forces of the gentry met the Grand Hetman’s troops at Olkienniki near Vilna, and routed them in a hard fought battle.

  John III Sobieski died on June 10, 1696. Following a long interregnum, the election of 1697 ended in a split result. The Primate Radziejowski proclaimed king the candidate of the majority, the French Prince Francois de Conti. But after the election was officially over, one of the bishops proclaimed Frederick Augustus, Elector of Saxony, who had the support of the Habsburgs and Russia. The Elector was first to set foot in Poland, swore to keep the Pacta Conventa, and was crowned king as Augustus II. His coronation opened the worst period in Polish history, the Saxon period, which lasted till 1763.

  Here follows an extract from contemporary memoirs:

  “In October 1696 during the interregnum, Polish troops, heedless of the love they owed their country, on account of long overdue backpay…..formed a military confederation, led by Piotr Baranowski. Not only did this union do nothing good and useful to eliminate corrupt practices in the treasury or help to preserve the gentry’s liberties, but it engaged in such rapacious practices at the cost of poor peasants and the minor gentry, that it rendered the very name of soldier odious to all. What the country and the common people had to suffer from the confederation, goes beyond description. They squeezed almost the last drop of blood out of the poor, so that it will take our unfortunate country years to get over this misery.”

  The Northern War was a strange war in Polish history. For several years it rages over Polish territory without Poland taking any real part in the operations. Poland did not provoke this war, but its devastated economy was forced to pay a large share of the costs. Formally, the Swedish army which manoeuvred freely over Polish territory between 1701 and 1703 was at war with Saxony, not Poland. The characteristic feature of the Polish period of the Northern War was incredible political confusion and civil war between the party supporting Augustus II and his opponents, on whom Charles XII of Sweden had forced his own candidate to the Polish throne, Stanislaus Leszcynski.

  The stakes in the “Great Northern War”, as it was called to distinguish it from other wars between Baltic states for supremacy on the Baltic, were the Swedish possessions on the north-eastern coast: Estonia and Livonia. The Russian Tsar Peter I wanted to gain possession of the Gulf of Finland including the mouth of the Narva and Neva, while Augustus II coveted the former Polish part of Livonia. The war between Sweden on the one hand and Denmark, Saxony and Russia on the other began in 1700 and ended in a Russian victory. Military operations continued in Poland from 1701 until 1706, at first between Charles XII and Saxon troops and later Russian troops also, without the participation of regular Polish troops, but extensive raiding operations were conducted against the Swedes both in Poland and Lithuania.

  At the beginning of the war, Charles XII defeated Denmark and then Russia at Narva (1700). In 1701 he successfully fought the Saxons at Riga and entered Poland in the wake of the defeated Saxon army. In 1702 the Swedes entered Warsaw, routed the Saxons at Kliszow, the Grand Hetman of the Crown Hieronim Lubomirski refusing to engage Polish troops in the battle, and captured Cracow. In the two following years the Swedes also captured Poznan and Torun.

  Charles XII reached an understanding with the anti-Saxon party formed during the election of 1697, proclaimed an interregnum and procured the election of Stanislaus Leszczynski, Voivode of Poznan, as king.

  When in 1704 a small group of the gentry and magnate partisans of Charles XII elected Stanislaus king, the latter was twenty-seven years old. Lacking any real support in the country, he became a pliant tool in the hands of the Swedish king and was forced to resign after his protector was defeated in 1709 at Poltava in the Ukraine by the Russian army under the personal command of Peter I. With the support of victorious Russia, Augustus II was restored to the throne of Poland.

   . . . . SEE YOU SOON, GOD BE WILLING . . .