Four hundred years — sound like a long time ago? In terms of millenniums of history it really isn’t. In terms of the history of Poland, four hundred years ago, however, turns out to be a very important time. For in the year of 1575, a brave soldier and brilliant statesmen received the scepter of his adopted country. Stephen Batory, Prince of Transylvania (otherwise known as Hungary), became the new King of Poland.
Under the wise and prudent guidance of Batory, Poland arrived at a high pinnacle of power and wealth. He punished the ‘szlachta’ who up to that time were a massive group of nobles that created a directionless monarchy. Batory did away with much of their autocratic power. He handled the religious question with great tact. Though raised as a Protestant he became a Catholic and used his best efforts in forming a strong alliance with Rome. This pace the country in a position of security at a time when surrounding nations were being torn by religious strife.
Schools increased and education improved. Stephan Batory was friendly to the peasant and he is credited with the elevation of many peasants to the ranks of the nobility. The individual who owned his own land was considered a noble, entitled to vote and had a voice in the affairs of his country. One who was not a landowner was not a noble, and therefore could not vote. This was the case not only in Poland but also throughout Europe. Stephan Batory, however, made it possible for a Polish peasant to become a noble more easily. Isn’t this, in effect, how our democracy presently works?
The Poles were by nature democratic and many of them seized the opportunity to acquire land and join the ranks of the nobility. This democracy was so definitely a Polish trait that it caused uneasiness among the aristocracy of Prussia, Russia, and Austria. It could have been one of the reasons why these nations banded together later on to dismember Poland.
Stephan Batory ruled with an iron hand. When his reign came to an end, he left Poland strengthened both internally and externally. He laid the foundation of domestic and political reform and culture and improved living conditions. If his successors had been as sincere in their efforts to promote progress as he was, the Polish nation might have achieved greater things.
Stephan Batory was one of Poland’s ablest and greatest leaders. He increased the privileges which the Jews had obtained from time to time from former rulers. From his time until 1764 the Polish Jews were permitted to have a parliament of their own which met twice a year and had the power to impose taxes. Batory, by special edict, restricted the trading rights to 30,000 Scottish peddlers who were doing a flourishing business in the country. Thai was done chiefly in the interests of the Jews whose trading rights he wished to protect. He was a patron of the arts and sciences and in 1579 he founded the university of Wilno which flourished for many centuries until it was suppressed by the Russians.
It should be mentioned that during his reign a group of borderbandits had appeared who were to become known in the history books as Cossacks. The Cossacks were destined to pay an important role in the history of Poland.
Along the wild regions of the Ukraine, Poland’s eastern border, there lived a group of people called Kazakis. They plundered and attacked Tartars, Turks and Poles alike. Because of them, Poland found herself drawn into many disputes with the Eastern neighbors. Stephan Batory was responsible for forming them into a military band to fight under a Polish hetman in the war against the Tartars. But the Cossacks, wild and undisciplined, were uncertain allies. When the Polish government attempted to put the Cossack lands under the supervision of the nobles, and tried to force upon them Roman Catholic religion in place of the Orthodox, they rebelled, under the leadership of Bohdan Chmielnicki. Thai rebellion lasted several years and during that time the Cossacks and their new allies, the Turks, laid waste the Polish borderline.
During his short reign of eleven years, Stephan Batory, who saw the apparent evils of an elective monarchy, tried to induce the Diet (the ruling body) to make the crown hereditary — but to no avail.
Militarily, Batory’s armies under the able leadership of Jan Zamoyski were unbeatable. They were responsible for turning back the westward advance of Ivan the Terrible at Pskow in 1581. Poland had even used the Hungarian Infantry formation — a new departure in Polish warfare.
Socially, Batory had imported many of his native country’s customs into Poland. For the Poles had adopted Hungarian dress; there were many goods exchanged between the countries; they wound up studying in each other’s universities; and they began the process of adopting numerous Hungarian words into the Polish language. For example, words like “kontasz’ meaning a long coat with fancy sleeves, “dobosz” meaning drummer and “orszak” meaning retinue.
Politically, Batory’s predecessors had an unbelievable history. It goes something like this . . . .
Charles I (1808-43) of the House of Anjou, King of Hungary, married Elizabeth, sister of Kazimierz the Great. Their son Louis became King of Hungary and Poland. He was succeeded by his daughter Jadwiga whose marriage to Jagiello, Grand Duke of Lithuania, brought forth another fruitful union between Poland and Lithuania.
In 1440, the Hungarian’s offered their crown to Wladyslaw III of Poland and he reigned five years, giving his life in 1444 at Varna leading his combined Polish and Hungarian forces in a crusade against the Turks. Forty-six years later, another Wladyslaw of the Polish House of Jagiello was elected King of Hungary to rule until 1516.
After the Jagiellon line of Kings of Poland died out in 1572, the Poles elected a series of foreign kings, the second of which, Stephan Batory, is considered to have been their greatest king. As a matter of fact, it has been said that one of the saddest facts in the first eight centuries of Polish history was the brevity of his rule. The dignity of his person and the magnitude of his achievements might almost be said to have given origin in Poland to a permanent sentiment in favor of Hungary.
Stephan Batory died suddenly in 1586 and the troubles he had so successfully held in check began to make themselves felt. It would be only a matter of time. His deeds, however, have withstood the test of time and Stephan Batory has become one of Poland’s greatest sons.
. . . SEE YOU SOON, GOD BE WILLING . . .