Poland’s Early Kings – Part 5
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…..
“Poland’s 15th Century Rulers and their Wars”
In the 15th century, Polish history became increasingly involved in the history of other European countries. Poland began playing a more important role in Europe. Her voice gained authority at international meetings, such as the Council of Constance. In internal affairs, the gentry consolidated their privileged position at the cost of the burghers and peasants. A struggle between the king and lords began in the latter part of the reign of Ladislaus Jagiello. The Council of Constance (1414-18) ended the Great Schism during which three popes opposed each other. In France, Joan of Arc led French armies to victory against the English, in the closing stages of the Hundred Years’ War (1429-31).
The union between Poland and Lithuania, for which foundations had been laid in 1385, was in constant danger of dissolution. Poland’s intention to subject Lithuania to Polish rule was strongly resisted by Lithuanian princes, brothers and cousins of Ladislaus Jagiello. But the common danger, which the Teutonic Order still represented, led to the consolidation of the union between Poland and Lithuania at Horadlo in 1413.
The Council of Constance which lasted from 1414 till 1418 ended the Great Schism in the Catholic Church. King Ladislaus Jagiello restored the Cracow Academy in 1400. Since that time it has been known as the Jagiellonian University.
Following the birth of his first son, Jagiello endeavored to obtain recognition for the boy’s rights to the throne. The Polish lords and nobles promised their consent on condition that the king would extend their privileges and that, contrary to the decisions of the Union of Horodlo, he would incorporate the Grand Duchy of Lithuania with the Kingdom of Poland. The king was forced to accept these conditions and granted a great new charter of liberties in 1430.
After the death of Ladislaus Jagiello, the helm of government was taken over by a powerful group of magnates. During the minority of King Ladislaus of Varna (named Warnenczyk after the Battle of Varna in which he lost his life), government rested in the hands of the Royal Council, in which Zbigniew Olesnicki, Bishop of Cracow, and his brother Jan, Lord Marshal of the Realm, held predominant positions.
In 1440, King Ladislaus went to Hungary to accept the Hungarian crown, offered him by the Hungarian gentry. He did not return to Poland again, busy with preparations for war with the Turks, which broke out in 1444. The three brilliant victories he won could have averted the Turkish danger hanging over Hungary. However, the new expedition undertaken by the Hungarians the same year was routed by the Turkish army at Varna. King Ladislaus lost his life. The Turks consolidated their hold on Balkans. In 1453, they took Constantinople. The Hundred Years’ War came to an end. England lost her last possessions in France.
The Address to the Throne at the coronation of King Ladislaus’s brother Casimir Jagiellon, delivered the following passage in 1447…..
“Our country is rich and abounds in everything, hence it can well be prized above lands because of its fertile fields, its great variety of fruit, its abundance of game, it riches of crops and plenitude of the things needed for a good life….. But the peasants are oppressed and driven into serfdom…. Great hopes are placed in the ascent of King Casimir to the throne, hope that the king….will abolish serfdom which is the worst punishment of an evil, heavier that the worst of plain, and restore freedom to all his Christian subjects…. For it is plain that nature made all men to be free.”
At the outbreak of the Thirteen Years’ War, the king called out the gentry of Great Poland. This body, assembled in a camp at Cerekwica, agreed to take part in the war on the condition that the king would grant them the privilege of participating in decisions on important policy changes. The king granted this privilege on September 15, 1454. Three days later, the Polish army was crushed by the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Chojnice. After this defeat the gentry from Little Poland, the regions of Sieradz, Chelm, Sanok and Przemysl, demanded the same privileges as the Great Poland gentry and obtained them that year.
The levy of poorly-trained and undisciplined gentry proved completely ineffectual against the Teutonic Knights. From the outset of the war up to 1461, Poland sustained successive setbacks, while the Teutonic Order owed its successes to mercenary troops. In 1462, Poland also enlisted soldiers whose command was given to Piotr Dunin, Chamberlain of Sandomierz. Successes won by this brilliant commander turned the scales of the war in Poland’s favor.
Following the Polish victory at Swiecino and the defeat of the Teutonic fleet by Gdansk and Elblag warships, Gniew was taken in 1463, Puck in 1464, and Nowe and other Pomeranian castles in 1465. The fall of Chojnice in 1466 convinced the Order that surrender was inevitable and the Order asked for peace.
In 1471, Ladislaus, eldest son of Casimir Jagiellon, was called to the throne of Bohemia and in 1490 he also obtained the crown of Hungary. The dynastic policy of the Jagiellonians took no account of Polish interests. The idea of reuniting Silesia with Poland was not fulfilled by the Jagiellonian Dynasty, even at the turn of the 15th century, when between 1491 and 1508 one part of Silesia came under the rule of Kings Jan Albert and Sigismund. King Casimir Jagiellon died in 1492 and was succeeded in turn by his sons John Albert (1492-1501), Alexander (1501-06) and Sigismund the Old (1506-48).
The last decade of the 15th century witnessed the great geographical discoveries and voyages of Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama.
At the Diet of Piotrkow in 1496, the King’s Council, subsequently called the Senate, and representatives of the gentry, later known as the Chamber of Deputies, passed statutes by which peasants were bound to their land and burghers were forbidden to purchase, lease or hold previously acquired lands. The formation of a Parliament marked a victory of the gentry over the magnates, which the Statues of Piotrkow were a victory of the gentry over burghers and peasants.
Only after there statues had been passed did the gentry agree to support the king’s plans of war against the Turks. The expedition led by John Albert against the Turks in 1497 was crushed by Stephen the Great of Moldavia who sided with the Turks.
In 1501, taking advantage of the unfavorable situation in which King Alexander found himself as Grand Duke of Lithuania, the magnates obtained a privilege, which restored monopoly of power to them, in violation of the principle of equality between the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. The gentry put up a successful defense against the magnates and took the offensive. In 1504, the Diet of Piotrkow passed a law directed against the magnates, which forbade the holding of several high-ranking offices by one person. And, so went the saga of Poland’s 15th Century!!
. . . . SEE YOU SOON, GOD BE WILLING . . .