The Political Landscape in 1598 (Peyton #2)
The length of this posting turned out to be a little gross.
It includes a cursory description of religious composition, social structure and political system of the Republic of Both Nations. Once again our guide is John Peyton, an English spy and author of Relation of the State of Polonia and the Provinces United with that Crowne, Anno 1598. Lengthy quotations in his charming Early Modern English will follow.
I think that addressing the issues of religious diversity, serfdom of peasantry and popular sovereignty of noblemen are the highlights. Hopefully, some of the things that I mention here will form a larger background for the views of specific writers. Next time, we’ll be talking about Stanisław Dunin Karwicki. He wrote in the early 18th century, and was one of the foremost Polish republicans.
All of religions
The problem with religions in the Republic is that it would be easier to enumerate those which weren’t present. Religion in thys lande is manifold, bothe for the manifest opposition and diversity of sectes, states John Peyton, and they are
… devided uppon the Messias into Christianisme, acknowledging Christ, Turcisme–Mahumet and Judaisme, in expectation, theise twooe last retayning circumcision though diversly. The Christians are subdevided into the Latyne and orientall Churche. Thys latter into Greek and Armenian. The Latyn into suche as have publike churches and those which eyther communicate in Conventicles, or privately mainteyn, and propagate theire opinions. Those which have publike churches are the Papistes , Calvinistes and Lutheranes. (42v)
A relatively small group of Muslim (“Turcist”) nobility–Lipka Tatars–really existed, mainly in Lithuania, descending from captive Tatar warriors. Their cavalry was particularly well-reputed.
In 16th, 17th century people in Europe were divided mainly by their religion. That’s why there were Catholic and Protestant states, or Catholic and Protestant factions, and even the bloodbath of Thirty Years’ War 1618-1648, fought in the whole Western Europe mainly over that disagreement.
So when Peyton lays out the list of senators of the Republic, their faith is about the most prominent thing he cares about. Okay, he also mentions their military capabilities, because it was important whether they were good soldioures (ie. soldiers). Of course, the author focuses here on informations that could be useful for a foreign power trying to mess with Polish affairs.
Castellane of Cracow. Janusius, a papist, sonne of the Duke of Ostrog.
Palatyne [voivod, wojewoda]: of Cracow. Nicholas Firley, Catholike.
Brzestije [Brześć Kujawski]. Lessczynsky. Evangelicall very zealous in hys profession.
Kiovia [Kiev]. Constantyne Duke of Ostrog, Greekish, very olde, hath don greate service against the Tartars.
Rawa. Mitszkowsky [Myszkowski, died 1601], learned, riche. Cathol.
According to the Relation, there were 13 Catholic bishops having seats in Senate tied to their spiritual office. Of all the secular senators whose denomination is stated explicitly, 24 are Catholic, 10 are Protestant and 2 are Orthodox. 7 are mentoned by name without indicating their faith, and the whole Senate seems to have 132 seats. (Actually there were ca. 140 senators.) We can assume that Peyton wrote down the names of the most vocal and influential politicians. Also, do keep in mind that almost all these people were appointed by very Catholic kings, namely Stephen I and Sigismund III. The former was a far more open-minded person that the latter, though.
The Catholic Church succeeded in remaining intermingled with state affairs in many respects; although one should remember that the king appointed the bishops, who were then in some way state officials. The archbishop of Gniezno himself had the title of interim king (interrex) when the previous one had died, until a new one was elected. The Church, as in the whole Catholic and Orthodox Europe, had vast earthly possessions as well. According to the Relation, the whole lay nobility owned 140,000 villages, whereas the Church had 76,560 (45r; there was also a royal domain). The spiritual domain was constantly increasing because of testamentary devises. There was much legislation of Sejm trying to curtail that (since 1635) and, mainly in 1500s, to restore to the Republic land that was acquired by Church by questionable means.
The Catholic baptism of Poland took place in 966. The most popular national saint is Stanislaus (Stanisław) of Szczepanów, bishop of Cracow said to be slain personally by king Bolesław II the Bold in 1079. Lithuania received the Catholic faith for the first time in 1250-1251 because of king Mindaugas, but returned to Paganism shortly thereafter. The final baptism was made by grand duke Jogaila, when he became king of Poland as Władysław in 1385.
Janusz Ostrogski, one of the greatest Ruthenian magnates at the time. As castellan of Cracow, he had the first seat in the Senate of the Republic.
Peyton doesn’t fail to mention the burgeoning Counterreformation in Poland: Jesuits were making progress, even though the chancellor and hetman Zamoyski doth not greatly fancy theise, and the University of Cracow–which was a purely Catholic institution–shared that sentiment (43v). But the Society of Jesus did manage to have a considerable influence on kings (on Sigismund III on particular), and in subsequent decades–which is the most important–to dominate schooling.
As Zamoyski famously said, when founding his Academy in Zamość, Republics will be such as their youth’s education (takie będą Rzeczypospolite, jakie ich młodzieży chowanie).
In most regions of ethnic Poland and ethnic Lithuania (ie. not counting Ruthenia), Catholicism was the religion of majority. In many places, though, various Protestant denominations became the the dominant faith. Of those the Reformed (Calvinist) was the most widespread. If we look at the senators, Peyton mentions Protestants as voivods (chief local officials) in Vilna (capital of Lithuania), Podolia (in Ruthenia), Brześć Kujawski (between Greater Poland and Prussia), and castellans in some places mainly in Lesser Poland and Ukraine. We can notice that some regions (eg. Troki/Trakai, Vilna, Red Ruthenia, Poznań–capital of Greater Poland) had a Catholic voivod and Protestant castellan, or the other way around.
The history of Protestantism of Poland started early; the views of John Wycliffe and Czech Hussites were known in the Middle Ages. Luther’s catechisms were printed in Polish in Königsberg, Ducal Prussia mere years after he wrote them around 1530. Rise of Lutheranism contributed to the eventual downfall of vassalized Teutonic Order in Prussia. In 1520-1530s, king Sigismund I still had the power to conduct brutal persecutions against the religious dissenters in Gdańsk. But in 1550s, Sigmund II Augustus provided refuge to the Duchess of Suffolk, Catherine Brandon–contemplated by Henry VIII as his possible seventh wife–who fled from the anti-Protestat policies of Mary Tudor. The Polish Lutherans and Calvinists tended to get along well, although the latter broke down into moderate and radical faction–the Polish Brethren.
… in theise contreys are also greate stoare of Anabaptistes, Oriandristes, Ebonites, and of all sortes of Antitrinitaries … (43r)
Today it is easy to forget how fringe and outrageous could be belief that Christians should be baptized as adults, or that Jesus was a son of God but not a God by himself. Most very righteous “contreys” wuld burn or exile you, if you were lucky. You generally had to flee–for example–to the Republic. There was an immigration of Scots–often Calvinists (Alexander Chalmers, known as Czamer was the mayor of Warsaw 1697-1698), pacifist Anabaptists (Mennonites) from Netherlands, etc. Many views and activities of Polish Brethren (who denied existence of the Trinity) are quite interesting, and maybe I’ll have an occasion to write about them.
Mazovia was clearly Catholic, Prussia–Lutheran, and Ruthenia–predominantly Orthodox.
Orthodox Church in the Republic was nominally reunited with the Catholic Church since 1596 (the Union of Brest), and when the Greek Catholic Church was born. Its priests and bishops were given the same status as their Roman Catholic counterparts and kept their doctrine and liturgy, on the condition of recognizing the supremacy of Pope. This obviously raised much of a resistance from patriarchs of Constantinople and Moscow (who wanted their own supremacy) and groups of their supporters. It didn’t help that the Republic (and king Sigismund III) didn’t deliver on promise that the Greek Catholic bishops will get votes in the Senate. The matters of the Orthodox/Greek Catholic Church were thus heavily politicized and dividing. The fact that in the Ukraine there were few educated people who weren’t also Orthodox priests–to be voices of moderation–also contributed to that: together with the stiffness of the Catholic hierarchy and Sigismund III who supported them blindly.
The striking difference between Poland and almost all republics was that citizens were excluded from trade. As the Relation puts it, poor noblemen may not helpe themselves by trade, or any plebeian gayne, that being by statute the losse of theire gentrye [= noble status] (54v), and again that nobility is forbidden to trade or use any plebeian meanes of gayne (48v). This, I think, had many deep, toxic consequences, but on the surface created many opportunities for immigrants.
I already mentioned Scots, there was also many Armenian merchants for example, but allmost all trade is in handes of Jews, the Poles esteeming it [ie. trade] sordide (44v). Which is a bit of Peyton’s overstatement. Really they weren’t so dominant in large scale commerce (where the Dutch influence was significant) as in small store- and innkeeping, and local finance, most prominently on the Eastern territories of the Republic, where they were favorites of the noblemen.
Poland was the center of world’s Jewish community at the time, and probably well over the half of all Jews lived here. Almost the whole continent exiled them, including England in 1290. (Even in 1612 certain Jacob Barnet was caught and deported to France for confessing Judaism.) In the Republic they fit into the social structure, sometimes regarded as the fourth estate–alongside nobles, burghers and peasants. Some Jewish scholars argued that the Hebrew name of Poland, Polin, is an omen, meaning po lin–‘here you should dwell’. The community governed itself in the Sejm of Four Lands (Va’ad Arba’ Aratzot), which also managed their collective fiscal duties. Religious education and publishing prospered for Polish and European diaspora. The Relation says that Cracow, Lvov and Troki were places of cheife Jewish residency (44v)–one should add at least Lublin in Lesser Poland to that list.
As it’s well known, the sizable Jewish population of Poland (some say 10% to even 16% of all inhabitants, far more than anywhere else) was almost fully exterminated by Nazi Germany during World War II. It’s another reason why the Eastern Europe today is quite different from what it used to be.
There’s a myth that in Lithuania, Jews who converted to Christianity automatically became noblemen. In fact, the relevant article of Lithuanian Statute says that neophytes and their descent should be regarded as nobles for the purposes of criminal law (which was indeed favorable). The legal systems of Poland and Lithuania, as most in Europe, differentiated people by their social status.
And finally, there’s this delightful passage about Pagans. Oh yeah.
Those which retayne Polytheoticall Idolatry are the Pagans dwelling in Livonia, Samogitia, Lithuania and at Ceremissa on the borders of Russia [= Ruthenia], whoe worshipp severall creatures, and idolles, retayning still Ethnicall rites and sacrifices. For theise there are no statutes or lawes written, onely in those vast regions they lyve at theire pleasure, not forced to Christianity, no man being over hasty to instructe them, or seeke theire conversion, save that of late the Jesuites begynn to teache … (45r)
One should remark that indeed it wasn’t religious tolerance so much as just neglect of peasants.
Did all this matter politically? Well, I think we’ve seen some examples of serious ecclesiastical controversies influencing the public life of the Republic. But with any religion you could have royalist political leanings or remain skeptical towards the king, be for preserving or reducing magnate power, and so on. Of course, it was easier to be a royalist when you were Catholic, but it didn’t stop many Catholics from having quite republican convictions. There was also no shortage of Protestants rooting for greater royal power. In the grand Lithuanian Radziwiłł family, there was a Catholic and Reformed branch, and they didn’t differ much in their political outlook–and exorbitant familial pride. As one could expect, for Peyton this sobriety wasn’t annoying or anything, not at all.
Okay, actually it was. He went on to infer that since people don’t vote with their religion, they’re not really honest believers.
Religion in thys lande is manifold, bothe for the manifest opposition and diversity of sectes, which commes, for that it confynes with nations of most contrary rites, all men drawing by nature some novelty from theire neighboures. And therefore borderers uppon severall religions doe never syncerely observe that of theire contrey, but mixe it with borrowed superstitions. Theise we see in the confynes of Polonia, Wallachia, Moldavia etc., where besydes the wonderfull nombers of heretikes, especially in the capitall article of the Trinity, there are many Qui aut nullos, aut Deos tantum colunt impios [= lat. “who worship either no Gods or only the impious ones”; atheism here is only an invective, it didn’t exist in 1500s], the collision of dyvers opinions easely corrupting, if not altogeather extinguishing the religious affection of mans mynde. (42r-v)
Wow. I would say that this is so 1598, but it wouldn’t be quite true.
It’s perhaps important to say that if believers of the mainstream religions defended the rights of heretics, it wasn’t because they didn’t care about their own faith. (Overall apathy is in fact rather a friend of persecutions, which could be seen in late 1600s.) It was because the citizens thought that the only way to preserve their liberty was to derail every attempt to institute some violation of common freedom. Even if, for now, it seemed that this particular violation couldn’t possibly affect them personally. So their reaction wasn’t ‘meh, they’re obnoxious, so can be excluded: who cares’. Polish nobility was faulty in many ways, but a lack of civil alertness and solidarity no-matter-what wasn’t one of them.
Excuse me, but since these people put it on damn paper as an obligation for themselves, I will quote Warsaw Confederation of 1573 once again:
… obiecujemy … pokój miedzy sobą zachować, a dla różnej wiary i odmiany w Kościelech krwie nie przelewać ani się penować odsądzeniem majętności, poczciwością, więzieniem i wywołaniem i zwierzchności żadnej ani urzędowi do takowego progressu żadnym sposobem nie pomagać. I owszem, gdzie by ją kto przelewać chciał, z tej przyczyny zastawiać się o to wszyscy będziem powinni, choćby też za pretekstem dekretu albo za postępkiem jakim sądowym kto to czynić chciał.
[… we swear … to mantain peace between each other and not to spill blood for different faiths and churches. There will be no penalties of confiscation of goods, proscription, prison or exile, and we will provide aid to no authority or office in introducing such. On the contrary, where someone would want to spill blood, even on the pretense of a court order, every one of us shall stand together against it.]
Here’s how the *Relation* sums up the bad situation of non-noble people in the Republic:
The Plebeian order (except in Prussia, where in righte it is equall, and in other prerogatives but lyttle inferior to the gentry) is the most base, and contemptible, not onely barred from the State, but allso obnoxious [= exposed] to the wronges and insolencies of the gentry, from which the lawes have not sufficiently secure theire goodes, honor, especially against theire Lordes, whoe cannot be called into question for murdering of hys villanes [= serfs], nor they have safe conducte, or security from any officer [= supervisor] against hym, but have thys onely remedy, that in certayne cases they may acquitt hym [= serfs can be released by law because of some crimes of their lord] … (58r)
The social and legal distinctions between people were indeed rather complex.
1) Peasants. Most of them were serfs of noblemen, Church or the king. Small portions of them were free or semi-free, mainly foreign immigrants and people living in isolated areas, such as highlanders.
Serfs were entirely under jurisdiction of their lord, which, as Peyton notes, often led to horrible abuses.
2) Burghers: dwellers of towns and cities. The royal cities were in relatively better situation compared to private ones, because they were ruled by public law. Private cities had some sorts of local governance, enacted by their owners. Few royal cities of Prussia: Gdańsk, Elbląg and Toruń enjoyed many privileges, being almost independent of the government. Cities of Cracow, Vilna, Gdańsk, Lvov, Lublin, Toruń and Kamianets-Podilskyi (Polish: Kamieniec Podolski) sent their representatives to the House of Envoys, but without the right to vote.
A burgher could not own land outside his city (except eg. for the burghers from Lvov), but noblemen managed to exclude many of their urban possessions from the power of local authorities. In Polish these enclaves were called *jurydyki*.
This is how 19th century painter Jan Matejko imagined the burghers (above, with coats of arms of Cracow and Warsaw) and nobles (below).
3) Nobles. All noblemen were considered equal, and bearing hereditary titles (such as counts, barons) was forbidden, with the exception of Ruthenian families of dukes descending from rulers of the Kievian Rus’. Magnates were distinguished by their power and offices, not special status. There were also many “middle-class” and poor nobles, some even not having any land. Strictly speaking, there were small portions of subordinate noblemen in Lithuania, swearing allegiance to their patrons (these semi-nobles were called boyars).
4) Other groups: Catholic and Orthodox priests, Jews etc.
I found an estimation that 5-6% of inhabitants of the Polish Crown (that is, not counting Lithuania) were noblemen, about 20%–burghers (perhaps including Jews) and almost all of the 75% that remained were peasants (as we should also account for priests and various outcasts, such as Cossacks).
A peasant family had to work for their lord one, and later even four days a week for each łan of land (around 20 hectares, or 50 acres) that they were using for themselves. It was called in Polish pańszczyzna, literally ‘working for the lord’. This kind of compulsory service was used to run a specific type of big manor, called folwark. The monetary revenue of folwarks was practically free of attached expenses, as the workers weren’t paid. Noblemen didn’t have much of an incentive to invest in their property.
The Relation informs that:
Anno 1520 it was enacted, that all Bawres [peasants] not tasked at more dayes that one in the weeke, should for every Laneus or Mansus laboure in theire lordes husbandry one daye weekely excepting only those which by covenante of a yearely rent in money or grayne had acquitt themselves of that service. In Lithuania and Samogitia theire condition is farre worse, and indeede miserable; where they must laboure for theire lorde six dayes, having left for them for theire owne onely the seaventh … (59v)
It’s hard for me right now to fact-check this particular claim, regarding year 1598: it is true that the feudal duties increased, at the same time labor becoming less effective. As to the abuses (off limits of the law that existed), they were condemned but not cracked down on. Even in 1656 the king John II Casimir promised to make the commoners free of any cruelty, but not much came form that.
In the 16th century, there was still present a significant social mobility in the Republic, which later started to decline.
We have the Liber chamorum (The Book of Peasants), written by Walerian Nekanda Trepka before 1626. It contains names of 2534 people from a fragment of Lesser Poland who were allegedly plebeians claiming noble status. Trepka collected names to sue these individuals, which could be a lucrative bussiness: if you proved that someone was a false nobleman, you would get half of their property. On the other hand, you could sneak into the ruling class by finding a few members of gentry who would attest it for you, and then making someone “challenge” you in court. It was a way available unofficially for good, long time servants of magnates.
Until 1616, it was possible to be adopted into a noble family (or get a patent from the king), if the Sejm gave a permission. Later, only the Sejm could ennoble outstanding heroic soldiers. It was linked to the belief that noblemen were strictly people of war; for the same reason they couldn’t be merchants or artisans.
As an aside, it’s crucial to understand the history of the Republic as the history (to some extent) of religions and social classes and in a very limited way–of nations. The problem is that today a ‘nation’ is a cultural, sometimes still an ethnic concept, whereas to people of the period a ‘nation’ meant just the community of citizens. Mudding the waters here often serves to provoke mutual hatred, particularly between Poles and Ukrainians. In Poland, there is this 19th-century concept of Kresy (‘borderlands’ on the East). It is sometimes innocent, nostalgic, or used by people who suffered actual ethnic cleansings by Soviets and Ukraine, but by present day nationalists used to make claims to Ruthenian territories.
Some historians and radical left in Poland (sometimes well-meaning) try to frame the presence of Polish-speaking people in Ukraine as “colonialism”. It would be a strange type of colonization, where it isn’t at all clear who colonizes whom. A general statement that “Polish lords mistreated Ruthenian serfs” is misleading, not only because it was as frequently Ruthenian-speaking lords making fortunes on exploiting Polish-speaking immigrant peasants, but also because Polish peasants were opressed all the same in the ethnic Poland–not for their ethnicity or even religion, but because of their social status.
The lowest class tended even not to call themselves Poles until late 19th century (very much like French peasants, by the way). The only Poles for them werepanowie szlachta–lords noblemen. But regarding the political system of the Republic, there was a truth to that definition of the political nation.
The political system
The Republic was governed by the Sejm. It had the sole authority to enact laws, impose taxes and decide on matters of war and peace, and foreign policy.
The Sejm consisted of three Estates: the monarch, the Senate, and the House of Envoys (in Polish Izba Poselska, also translated as ‘Chamber of Deputies’). All decisions required unanimity to pass. Our author uses many words to explain what it looked like in practice, by the example of royal-election Sejm:
The choise itselfe, which is the onely essentiall poynte in thys busines, should passe by universall consent, but reason shewes, that the lesser parte should not commaunde, or withstand the greater, and that suche difference must some waye be ended, which cannot otherwise be, but by prevailing of the greater. (33v)
Sejms were summoned by the king, who issued universals (Pol. plural uniwersały) to the sejmiks, outlining the purpose and matters of the future Sejm. One or a few sejmiks existed in each voivodship (of which there were around 30 in the whole Republic), and they elected ca. 200 envoys in total. (The exact numbers were volatile.) The sejmik–called a ‘convent’ by Peyton–discussed subjects that were expected to come up in the Sejm, and then appointed an envoy (Polish: poseł; the Relation uses Latin term nuncius, or knight of the sheire , borrowed from the English practice in the House of Commons). Furthermore, the envoy could receive a detailed and legally enforcable instruction, as to how he should represent his constituency in the Sejm. All the citizens, nobles that is, had their direct vote in sejmik.
Sejmiks could also enact local laws, so-called lauda (singular laudum). The state also fell back to this method when the Sejms were unable to reach conclusions, to impose taxes, for example.
So the sovereignty was in the hands of the (political) nation, regardless of particular means by which it was expressed. Citizens could assume power just by coming together and forming a public assembly. It was called a confederation, or rokosz, if armed resistance against the government was present. The people possessed the so-called ius de non praestanda oboedientia (right to deny obedience), in case the king broke a fundamental law.
Peyton’s opinion on Sejms is that they’re tedious and not as effective as Queen just telling you what to do.
The Deliberations in the Dyetts [= Sejms] are slowe, which though they are ordinarily held every yeare, yet sometymes last 4 or 5 monethes, which comes by the perversenes ot the Comitialls and the tedious orations in bothe howses [= the Senate and the House of Envoys], every one being desyrous to shewe hys faculty and deepe reache, by maynteyning, adding, cautioning, or contradicting of bills, thereby to have the name of a sore canvasser; with breeds humours dangerous for the state whose good is least aymed by theise ambitious orators. Matters for the publike good (especially yf they bringe with them any charge) are not very easely concluded. Fyrst, for all the Nuncii sometyme refuse to assent, pretending want of speciall commission of those poyntes [= opinion of their sejmik] or Negative mandate. Secondily, for that they are commonly very forwarde, desiring thereby to wynn credit with theire Provincialls, especially yf they can pretend the discovery or doubte of any secreate designe, which by sinister interpretation thy maye cavill at, as tending to the preiudice of [= by a sinister intepretation of it, they can object the legislation as going to harm] the common liberty. (61v-62r)
Two features of Polish voting system received much of criticism–even though they were perceived by citizens as crucial guards of freedom, requiring protection from tiranny of majority and intrigues of the king. The first is the imperative mandate: the fact that instructions for envoys were legally binding. If a sejmik told the envoy to do or not to do something, he couldn’t change this decision by himself (as he could in modern parliaments, where the representatives aren’t instructed anyway). The second is the liberum veto, ie. the requirement of unanimity. Every single citizen could block the proceedings of a sejmik, and every single envoy could block the Sejm. In extreme situation it led to ‘breaking’, that is, dissolving the assemblies unconcluded.
The thing is that smooth operation of the system depended on the political culture. With the degeneration of this culture, the system was stuck. It’s almost unbelievable that until 1652, no Sejms were broken. Earlier, it was always assumed that dissenting sejmiks and envoys will be persuaded–or at least will have the decency not to obstruct a majority, when it’s clear and visible. It somehow tended to work. The liberum veto should be reserved for cases when the fundamental values of the Republic would be in danger. But when disastrous wars of the second half of 17th century began, all the nihilist, corrupt and bigoted, regressive elements raised their heads. I will say a little more about this period alongside my discussion of Karwicki.
The Senate consisted of the highest officials. All of them were appointed by king for life, which shows that the monarch had the power to potentially overtake the state. On the other hand, senators once appointed became pretty much independent. The role of the Senate was twofold, as a council of the king and an organ to watch him on behalf of the citizenry. The Sejm appointed so-called resident senators to accompany the king constantly, although they tended to neglect this duty.
The most prominent members of Senate were the so-called ministers: marshals (having power over domestic and judicial affairs), chancellors (overseeing the foreign policy) and treasurers (taking care of the treasure and royal property). The hetmans–supreme commanders of the military–didn’t have their seats in the Senate, for historical reasons, but were perceived as perhaps the most powerful. All these offices had a “greater” and “lesser” (“deputy”) variety, in both Poland and Lithuania. So the Republic actually had four marshals, four chancellors etc.
There were many offices in general, and most of them mainly titulary. In the Senate had their seats bishops, voivods and castellans. The latter two formed two parallel divisions of the whole Republic into voivodships and castellanies, with little practical consequences. (Although the nobles strongly identified with their voivodship as a community.)
The most sought non-senatorial office was probably that of a starost (starosta in Polish). This was really a form of giving away revenue from royal land in some region, which was nominally managed by the starost.
There were also whole hierarchies of local offices, including judges and purely feudal titles, such as master of the hunt (łowczy) or cupbearer (podczaszy). Because the nobility wasn’t differentated by family titles, offices were very much desired, even if they had no power or revenue, or pertained to territories lost by the Republic. Such virtual offices existed later for Livonia and for some parts of Ruthenia annexed by Moscovy.
His [king’s] power is theise poyntes. He bestoweth all magistracies, Dignities, offices and benefices at hys pleasure, he disposeth of hys revenewe … freely, and is not any way accomptable for it; he proponundes all matters in the Diet when and how he will, he iudgeth, and and executes sentences arbitrarily … For the first poynte he hath the bestowing of above (some say 40000) 20000 spirituall and secular promotions, whereof the yearely revenew of many is betweene 50000 and 60000 flors, and some more, which makes, that all seeking advauncement, depend on hym, and apply themselves to hys humor, and religion, especially if he … feareth not the offence of the mighty, if he should keepe them from offices, which especially in Polonia maketh men mighty, and without which not many famelies are very potent. (35v-36r)
It is true that many magnates were mainly strong because of starostships that they held. Peyton admits the kings could make themselves powerful. Indeed most of them plotted in that direction, with varying levels of shrewdness. But even royalists (Polish: regaliści) by and large weren’t inclined towards absolutum dominium, absolute rule.
Kings of Poland were frequently foreign monarchs, who didn’t understand exactly the system they’re getting themselves into. Politicians with some familiarity with the Republic, such as king John III Sobieski, knew that the real power lied elsewhere. After he was elected, he tried to hold his offices of hetman and marshal of Poland as long as possible, delaying the coronation for whole two years. But the point stands that:
By that example of Stephan [I Bathory] it is apparent that the kinge, if he dare stand it out, and will use hys liberty, may strengthen hymselfe uppon the advantage of hys bestowing [of land and offices], and by course of iustice make the others stoope. Stephan not regarding the repyning [= complaints] and censuringe iealousies of the factio[n]s allmost at one tyme made the Chauncellor Zamoyski generall [= hetman] of the forces of Polonia, Nicholas Radzivil Palatyne of Vilna, Generall of Lithuania, hys sonne Christofer governoure of Livonia, Castellane of Troky, and vicechauncellor of Lithuania … [list of Radziwiłłs appointed ministers, voivods, bishops] … by which meanes the kinge was possessed of the forces, and Civil estates of the kingdome, and Duchy. Thys might seeme occasion enoughe to a nation of that libertie to take armes against theire kinge, which notwithstanding they did not, though he allso executed Samuel Sborowsky [Zborowski], and banished hys brother Christofer, being of the most mighty famely of Polonia, and the most potent by faction, and followers … (39r)
The main reason because Stephen Bathory easily got away with his policy (apart from political strength of Zamoyski and Radziwiłłs among the masses of Poland and Lithuania) was the fact that he had no sons. Hereditability of the throne was one of the worst nightmares of democrats. Also, Bathory did gain respect by his successful military campaigns.
Lastly, we should discuss the chief poynte (as the Relation would say) of liberty of the Republic: the election of kings. It was conducted by a special type of Sejm, where all the citizens were admitted instead of envoys. Hence the election was viritim (another Latin term), that is, direct and universal. Peyton (to whom the idea of evaluating royalty was repulsive) says that the election:
seemeth odious by comparing and paralleling princes in theire vertues, defectes, mighte, weaknes, intelligences, correspondencies, aliances, affections, designementes, and ability of hurting the State, or impayring the publike libertie. (34r)
After long deliberations and assessing the candidates, the nobility voted with their voivodships and so the king was made. He (or theoretically she, in case of Anna Jagiellon in 1575, who later co-ruled with Stephen I) had to swear that he will abide by the Henrician Articles (containing the fundamental laws of the Republic), and the pacta conventa, an agreement between the citizens and that particular monarch. Here he promised, for example, promoting new legislation or restoring lost territories.
I think the idea of direct election was very good and right in principle, but it turned out to facilitate interference by people bringing their own military and foreign agents bringing money. In 1700s elections became nugatory: eventually they were resolved by foreign armies (Russian in 1764). Most projects of reasonable reforms (excluding, of course, royalist abominations seeking to introduce hereditability) included election by envoys, often proceeding in secrecy. Keep in mind that popular vote in a large territory wasn’t yet invented. It would be probably too great of a logistic challenge at the time, to reliably collect votes from many precincts.
There are many details that I ommited today, but that’s really the problem with the history: that it is so complex and there is always more. Now I can only wish you all a happy new year 2017 and leave you with a picture from 18th century Warsaw in December.
— *A relation of the State of Polonia and the United Provinces of that Crowne: Anno 1598*. In Elementa ad fontium editiones XIII. Res polonicae ex archivo Musei Britannici, ed. C. H. Talbot, Romae 1965. I use pagination of the manuscript, as provided in this edition. In case you’re curious, ‘r’ and ‘v’ refer to the recto (front)/verso (back) sides of the paper sheet. —