The Elected Monarchy

With the death of Zygmunt, the last of the Jagiellonians in 1574, there was nobody who could legally convene the Sejm. An "interrex" (Regent), the Archbishop of Gniezno, was appointed by the Senate and a special "Convocational Sejm" was called which decided to let the "szlachta" (nobility) the elect a king in a free election. Prior to his coronation the king-elect had to swear to uphold the Constitution and all "szlachta" privileges. In 1573, Henri de Valois, younger brother to Charles IX of France, was elected king by an overwhelming majority. In May 1574 Charles died suddenly and Henri had become King of France. It was generally agreed that he should hold both crowns and go back to France in the autumn but, in his impatience Henri slipped away early. Affronted, the Poles presented him with the ultimatum of returning by May 1575 or the throne would be declared vacant.

In December, under the influence of Jan Zamoyski, Stefan Batory (b. Szilagysomlyo, Transylvania 1533; d. nr Grodno 1586), Prince of Transylvania (1571 - 76) was elected king of Poland (1575 - 86) by the szlachta (the nobility). Batory was the son of Istvan Bathory, governor of Transylvania for the Habsburg king of Hungary. He won renown as a soldier with John Sigismund Zapolya, prince of the newly independent Transylvania and was elected as Zapolya's successor (1571). As king of Poland, Batory carried out important reforms, encouraged further overseas trade and creating the first regular Polish infantry by conscripting peasants from the Royal estates. He was also the first to employ Cossacks on a regular basis. He overcame the revolt of Danzig (1577), which was given autonomy in its internal affairs (at a price) and in a war with Muscovy (1579 - 82), after a successful campaign and a brilliant victory at Pskov, Batory defeated Ivan the Terrible in the Livonian War (1558 - 83). By the Treaty of Vam Zapolsky, Ivan returned all Lithuanian territory it had captured and renounced his claims on Livonia; Livonia joined the Commonwealth and Poland was now recognised as the greatest power in Central Europe and only the Turkish Sultan ruled over more extensive territories. In 1579 he created the University at Wilno. By the 1550s eighty per cent of the world's Jews lived in Poland. Batory gave the Jews their own national assembly drawn from the local self-governing communities (Kahal). In 1583 Batory granted the postal monopoly to Sebastian Montelupi who organised a regular postal system both internally and abroad. After his sudden death, Batory was succeeded, in the 1587 election, by Sigismund (Zygmunt) Vasa, son of John III Vasa of Sweden.


The Vasa were a dynasty of Swedish Kings whose name is derived from the family estate around Uppsala. The founder of the dynasty was Gustav Eriksson Vasa who became, firstly, Regent of Sweden (1521) and then King Gustavus I Vasa (1523 - 60). After the unexpected death of Batory in 1586, there was a major crisis when the pro-Hapsburg Zborowski faction forced through the election of Archduke Maximilian and almost brought the nation to a state of civil war. The great Renaissance politician (and staunch anti-Austrian), Jan Zamoyski confronted Maximilian and held Krakow for the Swedish crown prince, grandson of Gustavus I and son of John III of Sweden, Zygmunt III Vasa (b. Gripsholm, 1566; d. Warsaw,1632), who came to the throne 1587 - 1632. There would eventually be three Vasa Kings and the period would see long rivalry and wars between Poland and Sweden for the control of the Baltic. Under Zygmunt's reign the Polish magnates (great lords) rose to a position of power and would eventually destroy Poland through their greed; he was also in constant struggle with Jan Zamoyski, the Chancellor (1587 - 1605) whose diplomatic and military successes he regarded with suspicion. Zygmunt was forced to work with Zamoyski when he overreached himself in arranging a secret marriage with the Austrian Archduchess Anna (1592) and was subsequently humiliated by the Inquisition Diet of 1592. In the same year he received the Sejm's permission to become King of Sweden but was only crowned (1594) after promising to uphold Swedish Lutheranism.

Returning to Poland, Zygmunt left his uncle, Charles Suderman, as Regent of Sweden. He then decided to move the capital from Krakow to Warsaw (1596), which was closer to Sweden and the junction of all major routes criss-crossing the Commonwealth. When his uncle rose in rebellion Zygmunt invaded Sweden (thus losing any support there was for him amongst the Swedish nobility) only to be defeated at Stangebro (1598). In 1599 the Riksdag (Swedish Parliament) dethroned Zygmunt offering the crown to his four-year-old son, Wladyslaw, on condition that he would come to Sweden and accept Lutheranism. Zygmunt refused to accept these conditions and lost the crown of Sweden to his uncle (who was crowned Charles IX, 1604 - 11). Zygmunt never relinquished the throne and his foreign policy was, from that point onwards, directed at regaining the Swedish crown.

From 1605, after the death of Zamoyski, Poland became involved in internal problems as a result of Zygmunt's absolutionist tendencies (the Zebrzydowski rebellion, 1606 - 8) and wars with Sweden (1617 - 29) and the Turks (1620 - 21). During the Swedish War, Gustavus II Adolphus (the son of Charles IX) seized Riga (1621) and almost all of Livonia. The Poles also, inevitably, became involved in the internal "troubles" of Muscovy ("Smuta", 1605 onwards), usually at the request of the boyars, but the events surrounding the short-lived careers of the two "False Dimitris" did not benefit the Republic. In 1610, after a successful military campaign, Zygmunt proposed his own son, Wladyslaw, as candidate to the Muscovite throne but Wladyslaw's refusal to convert to the Orthodox faith led to the driving out of the Poles and the enthroning of the first Romanov (1613). The devastation and loss of life were tremendous and Poland was only saved by a number of outstanding military commanders; Stanislaw Zolkiewski, Jan Karol Chodkiewicz, Stefan Czarniecki (b. 1599; d. 1665) and Stanislaw Koniecpolski who achieved some great victories (Kluszyn, 1610; Kircholm, 1605; Chocim, 1612).

This was also the period that saw the Republic at its greatest territorial extent and economically the nation was prosperous (but there were also new extremes of wealth and poverty). Religious tolerance was maintained despite Zygmunt's own Catholic fanaticism (his greatest success was the establishment of the Uniates; the union of the greater part of the Ruthenian Orthodox Church with Rome in 1596 ratified at the Synod of Brzesc). The followers of Fausto Sozzini (Socinius, b. 1539; d. 1604), the Polish Brethren, founded a centre of protestant culture at Rakow (which became known as the Sarmatian Athens), between Kielce and Sandomierz, where they published the Rakowian Catechism (1604), the most well-known statement of Unitarian theology at the time and an important expression of radical thought. When the Hussites suffered the crushing defeat at the battle of White Mountain (1620) many were forced into exile, some making their way to Poland and influencing the Arian movement there. The Jewish community thrived and spread out from the cities into the provinces; but by linking their fortunes with greedy lords through the "arenda" system (whereby an estate would be leased out by an absentee lord to a manager who could exploit it and those who worked it) they exposed themselves to the hatred of the peasantry.

Zygmunt's son, Wladyslaw IV (b. 1595; d. 1648), King 1632 - 1648, served as a youth in the Muscovite campaigns (1610 - 12 and 1617 - 18). On his accession to the throne he fought a war with Muscovy and won a victorious peace (1634). He made a favourable settlement with the Turks (1634) and with Sweden (1635). He was involved in serious disputes with the Sejm and unsuccessfully attempted to establish order in the last years of his reign. For some time the Arian movement had thrived in the climate of religious tolerance that Poland had offered but their own success led to their downfall. In 1641 all Arians were forced to convert or leave the country, resulting in mass exodus. A particular danger came from within when, in 1648, the Cossacks, mainly of Ruthenian and Polish origin, for a variety of reasons but chiefly due to the arrogance of the magnates who were treating the free Cossacks as serfs, broke their oath of allegiance to the Polish King under the instigation of their Hetman, Chmielnicki. Wladyslaw died whilst this revolt was still in force. Wladyslaw travelled widely visiting Florence where he was honoured by the Italian composer, Francesco Caccini who wrote a composition "La Liberazione di Ruggero dell Isola di Alcina" dedicated to him. He corresponded with Galileo, ordering telescopes from him, and modelled for Peter Paul Rubens in his studio in Antwerp.

Wladyslaw's son, Jan II Kazimierz (b. 1609; d. 1672), was a Jesuit and Cardinal (1640) and had to be absolved of his religious vows by the Pope in order to be able to take on his duties as King 1648 - 1668. In the continued revolt of the Cossacks, Chmielnicki used the Ukraine as a pawn between the powers of Poland, Muscovy and Turkey which resulted in further wars, with the Tartars (1649), and a disastrous 13 - year war with Muscovy (1654 - 67). Janusz Radziwill, Grand Hetman of Lithuania, defeated by Tsar Alexei of Muscovy during Chmielnicki's revolt (1654), appealed for help from Charles X Gustavus of Sweden, himself fearful of Muscovite expansion. He invaded Poland in 1655. This period in which the Republic was inundated by enemy forces, and the chaos that accompanied it, became known as the "Deluge" ("Potop"). The collapse of Polish resistance led to the desertion of many Polish officers and szlachta (the nobility) from Jan Kazimierz to Charles. In October Radziwill signed an agreement at Kiejdany which detached Lithuania from Poland, placing it under the protection of Sweden. In the following guerrilla war, where Polish forces were supported by Tartars fearful of the further expansion of Muscovy into the vacuum caused by the war with Sweden, and Danish and Dutch fleets came to the defence of Gdansk, it is the defence of Czestochowa, at the monastery of Jasna Gora, (1655), Poland's most sacred shrine containing the picture of the Virgin Mary (the "Black Madonna"), by a small force led by Prior Kordecki and his monks against a besieging army of 9,000 Swedes, that actually changed the course of the war and became a signal for a general uprising that resulted in the eventual expulsion of the Swedes from the Republic. In 1658, at Hadziacz, an agreement between the King and the new Cossack Hetman, Wyhowski, was to enable Ruthenia to join the Commonwealth on equal terms with Poland and Lithuania but a further Cossack rebellion (1659) instigated by Muscovy (herself attempting to annex the Ukraine) and Polish involvement in war with Sweden (1655 - 60), meant that the agreement bore no fruit and in 1667, by the treaty of Andruszowo, the Ukraine was divided evenly along the Dnieper between the Commonwealth and Muscovy. For the Polish Commonwealth this was a disaster since it weakened an important frontier area and left a discontented people open to manipulation by Poland's enemies.

The general decline was especially noticed in the Sejm; the parliamentary system grew awkward and ineffective as deputies used the notorious "Liberum Veto", which allowed any deputy to prevent legislation since all resolutions had to be carried unanimously. The idea of consensus rule was, in principle, a good one but the "Liberum Veto" was first used in a manner that destroyed the working of the Sejm, in 1652, by a Jan Sicinski on the orders of Janusz Radziwill. It soon became obvious to Poland's neighbours that the veto could be used to their own political ends and they soon clubbed together to "defend Polish freedoms". The szlachta, themselves, becoming less influential as they lost their military valour and, in many cases, impoverished, saw the veto as the last symbol of their ability to play a role in the running of the Commonwealth.

This was also a period of great rivalry and suspicion between the pro-Bourbon factions (led by the Queen, Louise-Marie) and the pro-Habsburg szlachta (many of whom were in the pockets of Vienna. The need for reform had become obvious and the Jesuit preacher, Piotr Skarga, had blamed social injustice as the main cause of evil. The final indignity came when, as a direct result of attempting to introduce reforms that would modernise the state, Jerzy Lubomirski, the Grand Marshal, rebelled against the King. The royal faction was defeated at the battle of Matwy (1666) but not long afterwards Lubomirski came and begged for a pardon which was granted; the whole farce had merely served to damage the prestige of the crown. Shortly after his chief support, Queen Louise-Marie, died (1667) Jan Kazimierz took refuge in Silesia, resigned as King (1668) and retired to France as Abbe de Saint-Germain. The farcical elections that followed led to the appointment of a Polish nonentity despised by both Bourbon and Habsburg factions, Michal Korybut Wisniowiecki.


The Wisnioweckis were a noble Ukrainian family. During the early 1500s the idea of hiring the Cossacks to guard the Dnieper crossings by building fortresses on its islands was proposed but never developed, it was Dmitri (d.1563), a magnate from Southern Volhynia who independently founded the first Cossack fortress, Niz, at Chortyca, out of which grew the Sicz of Zaporoze. After a failed attempt to involve Poland-Lithuania in a war against the Tartars, he became heavily involved in Moldavian affairs only to be betrayed to the Turks and executed for piracy. Dmitri is credited with being the first to create a stable organisation for the Cossacks and for putting the Cossack-Ukrainian cause on the map. His son signed the Union of Lublin and his grandson led a notorious expedition to Moldavia (1616). His great-grandson was Prince Jarema (b. 1612; d. 1651), Voivode of Ruthenia and chief enemy of Chmielnicki.

The farcical elections that followed the resignation of Jan II Kazimierz, the last of the Vasas (1668), led to the appointment of a Polish nonentity, the favourite of the szlachta (the nobility) suspicious of foreigners and seeking a "new Piast", despised by both Bourbon and Habsburg factions, Jarema's son, Michal Korybut (b. 1640; d. 1673), king (1669 - 1673); he proved to be a weak monarch unable to control the magnates who nicknamed him "le Singe". In 1672 the Turkish invasion of Podolia led to the fall of the fortress of Kamieniec Podolsk and, with the country in a state of chaos, the Poles sued for peace; at the Treaty of Buczacz the Poles lost what was left of Podolia and the Ukraine and had to pay a humiliating annual tribute. Michal Korybut died suddenly whilst a new invasion was in force, on the eve of Chocim; he was succeeded by the victor of that battle, Jan Sobieski.

Sobieski, Jan III (b. Olesko, nr. Lwow, 1674; d. 1696) the son of Jakub Sobieski, the Castellan of Krakow and Voivode of Ruthenia, Jan Sobieski was educated in Krakow. A great military leader, Sobieski entered military service in 1648, seeing action against both the Tartars and Cossacks (1651 - 52) and Swedes under Lubomirski and Czarniecki, although, along with many other officers who had deserted the royal cause in the dark days of the Deluge, he had briefly accepted a commission under Swedish King, Charles X (1655 - 56). He was first entered the Sejm in 1659. Sobieski was appointed Commander - in - Chief of the Polish Army (1665) and Grand Hetman in 1668. Besieged by an army of Cossacks and Tartars at Podhajce he raised 8000 men at his own expense and forced the enemy to retire. Later, when the Turks seized the fortress of Kamieniec (1672), Sobieski beat the Turkish forces back and virtually annihilated them at Chocim (1673), earning from them the nickname of the "Fearful Lion of the North". He was elected King a few months later (1674 - 96). The climax of his career came in 1683 when, with 20,000 Polish troops he relieved the Turkish siege of Vienna. Unable to break into Europe through Poland, the Turks had invaded Hungary and Austria in 1683 and swept all before them. 130,000 Turks besieged Vienna and threatened to overpower Europe. Sobieski, at the request of the Pope, marched on Vienna through rugged mountain passes and sent the Husaria into their last great charge, taking the Turks unawares. It was a turning point in history. Combined with the Imperial Army, he drove the Turks back to the Raab. He was acclaimed as the hero of Christendom - Jan Matejko's painting of "Sobieski at Vienna" hangs in the Vatican. His later years were a failure, unable to overturn the political decline of Poland; he was unable to solve Poland's problems on the Baltic or on the eastern frontier because the long years of campaigning and wars had drained her resources and, in 1686, in an unbelievably naive move, the Grzymultowski Peace literally gave away the entire Ukraine and transformed "Muscovy" into "Russia" - enabling her to emerge as the major power in Eastern Europe. He was a patron of science and literature and his marvellous palace at Wilanow, on the outskirts of Warsaw reflect his domestic grandeur. The elections after the death of Sobieski were contentious; his son, Jakub (b. 1667; d. 1737), was forced to withdraw for lack of funds, and the French candidate was cheated of victory by bribery and corruption so that the Elector of Saxony, Frederick Augustus was elected king, Augustus II. It would be the beginning of the end. Sobieski's granddaughter, Clementina (b. 1702; d.1735), married James Edward Stuart, the "Old Pretender"; their son was Charles Edward Louis Philip Kazimierz, the "young Pretender" - "Bonny Prince Charlie".


The Wettins were a German dynasty that was active, in the Tenth century, in pushing Germany's eastern frontier into Slav lands. By c.1100 they had acquired the Margrave of Meissen and extended their rule over Thuringia and Saxony. In 1485 the dynasty divided into the Ernestine and Albertine branches. The Albertines became the Electors of Saxony (1547) and provided two kings of Poland, Augustus II and Augustus III. The sixty-six years of Saxon rule, from 1697 - 1763, were a national disaster and drove the country to the brink of anarchy. The causes are twofold: firstly, from the outset the Saxon kings fell into a partnership with Russia in which they became more and more dependent on the support of the stronger partner; secondly, The Republic, which had been severely weakened by the period of warfare and internal strife of the seventeenth century, was reduced to the state of a helpless bystander in the wars of the eighteenth. The nation was further undermined as the powerful land-owning magnates began to look to the preservation their own self-interests in whatever manner they could, whilst the less powerful szlachta attempted to hang on to the only power they held - their traditional rights - even at the expense of important reforms. The Republic had no standing army, it was a citizen army with only a small core of professionals. Whilst Sobieski had carried out important reforms which had significantly improved the army's tactical and technological stature there was a heavy reliance on foreign infantry and there was no centralised funding. There was, also, internal resistance to the idea of a regular army which could be used by an autocratic ruler to restrict personal liberties (as in Prussia, for example). Poland also became sandwiched between two rising powers; Russia, ruled by Peter the Great, and Prussia which the Elector of Brandenburg, Frederick III, was to declare a kingdom in 1701.

The Elector of Saxony, Frederick Augustus (b. Dresden, 1670; d. 1733), who had unsuccessfully commanded the imperial Army against the Turks (1695 - 96), converted to Catholicism (the Republic was "worth a mass") and was elected king Augustus II of Poland in 1697 after a contentious election which, in many ways, reflected the disintegration of the nation. His reign started auspiciously with the treaty of Karlowicz by which the former provinces of Podolia and the Ukraine, including the important fortress of Kamieniec, were restored to Poland by the Turks (1699). In the mistaken belief that Sweden was in decline and with the intention of acquiring Livonia for Saxony, Augustus entered into a disastrous three-way alliance with Frederick IV of Denmark and Peter I the Great of Russia (1672 - 1725) that would eventually embroil Poland in the Great Northern War (1700-21). Although the Sejm refused to support him, Augustus invaded Livonia and laid siege to Riga. The Swedish king, Charles XII (the "Lion of the North", 1682 - 1718) defeated the Danes who had invaded Schleswig (1700), destroyed the Russian Army at Narva (November 1700) and raised the siege of Riga (1701). Charles then invaded Poland with the intention of deposing Augustus from the Polish throne as a punishment for his central role in the anti-Swedish alliance. He seized Warsaw and defeated Augustus at Kliszow (where the Polish Army, having failed in two charges against the Swedish infantry, refused to fight on, 1702) and Pultusk (1703). Charles XII then imposed his candidate, Stanislaw Leszczynski (1704 - 09), on the Polish throne.

The Leszczynskis were a noble Polish family which played a prominent part during the 16th. to 18th. centuries. The general, Rafael Leszczynski, was the father of Stanislaw I Leszczynski (b. Lwow, 1677; d. 1766), king of Poland (1704 - 09, and 1733 - 35). When Augustus II of Saxony and Poland allied himself with Russia (1700 - 1721) against Sweden in the Great Northern War, Leszczynski, the Voivode of Poznan, proved to be a staunch opponent and gained the support of Charles XII of Sweden. In 1704 Sweden won, Augustus was removed and Leszczynski was elected in his place. In 1709 the Russians defeated the Swedes at Poltava and Augustus was returned to the throne. Leszczynski settled in Alsace (1709) and, later, became governor of Zweibruken in the Palatinate (1718 - 25). In 1725, his daughter, Maria (b. Wroclaw, 1703; d. 1768), married Louis XV of France who ensured that, on Augustus' death, in 1733, Leszczynski was again elected King. The War of Polish Succession (1733 - 35) followed, Stanislaw was supported by France and Spain, while Austria and Russia supported Frederick Augustus II, elector of Saxony, Augustus II's son. Leszczynski was besieged at Danzig, receiving only moral support from France, while his rival received full military aid from Russia. Inevitably, he was obliged to flee from Danzig (1734) and accept the terms of the Treaty of Vienna (1735) by which he kept the royal title but renounced his actual rights in favour of Frederick Augustus. Leszczynski was awarded the Duchy of Lorraine and Bar (1737) by Francis I, the Holy Roman Emperor, in exchange for Tuscany and also received a pension from France. He maintained court at Luneville and Nancy which was a model of the Enlightenment. Leszczynski corresponded with the finest thinkers of his time, most notably with Rousseau who, on his request, drafted a new constitution for Poland. He wrote the influential reforming tract, "A Free Voice Insuring Freedom" (1749), and "Oeuvres du Philosophe Bienfaisant" (published 1767).

The unconstitutional manner of Leszczynski's election (where a hastily thrown together Sejm had been surrounded by armed Swedish troops ready to enforce Charles' will) divided the country into pro-Leszczynski and pro-Augustus camps; the Northern War had now, for the Poles, become a civil war. An attempt by Augustus to regain Poland was stopped at Fraustadt (February 1706). Charles XII invaded Saxony in August 1706 and seized Leipzig; Augustus sued for peace and abdicated the throne of Poland (Treaty of Altranstadt, 1706). Augustus was restored after the Swedish invasion of Russia failed at the battle of Poltava (1709) - in which an important role was played by Polish peasants harassing the Swedish columns, and the pro-Saxon Confederates of Sandomierz who prevented reinforcements from reaching the Swedes. By the end of this war Russia was able to interfere freely in the internal affairs of the nation. Augustus maintained a Saxon Army in Poland which reinforced the Polish view that he was intending to turn the Polish throne into that of an absolute monarch. Conflict between Augustus and the Sejm almost ended in civil war with the setting up of the Confederation of Tarnogrod (1715), only prevented by a Russian offer of mediation; 18,000 Russian troops surrounded the chamber where the deputies met, they were denied the right to speak whilst the Russian "mediator" dictated the Russian " solution". This Sejm became known as the "Dumb Sejm" and the Republic became little more than a Russian client state; a "Protectorate".

The emasculation of both Augustus and the Sejm lead to the dissipation of power into the hands of a small group of magnates who ruled their own lands as princes making independent political alliances depending on the state of their finances or interests; "a state within the state". The army had virtually disappeared as a fighting force; morale had collapsed, technical proficiency declined, corruption was rife, nobles absented themselves from duty or preferred to serve the magnates: all this at a time when the Republic's neighbours were undergoing massive militarisation. In the Northern War Russia seized Livonia and began to dominate the Baltic; Augustus, awake to the Russian threat, entered into an alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles VI, and England (who both had their own reasons to be wary of the sudden rise of Russia) to cast off Russian interference in Poland (Vienna, 1719) but the Sejm rejected the treaty (1720), at which point Augustus condemned their shameful weakness. Now Augustus attempted to establish another treaty with Prussia aimed directly at the partition of Poland - but nothing came of this for Russia made a secret pact with Prussia at Potsdam (1720) to maintain the paralysis of law and order within Poland by protecting Polish "rights" such as the Liberum Veto.

It was in this period that intolerance towards religious dissidents was intensified and perhaps the lowest point in the history of the Republic came in 1724 when the mayor of Torun and nine other Protestants were executed because they had failed to prevent anti-Jesuit excesses. The English protested at this outrage and, when Poland was partitioned (1772), the image of a bigoted and intolerant nation put aside any feelings of sympathy that there might have been. The Russo-Prussian alliance of 1730 went so far as to pledge to protect religious minorities and to secure their former privileges (despite the fact that these two states refused to offer similar rights to their own religious minorities). The Convocation Sejm of 1733 was to bring Poland into line with the rest of Europe with its ending of religious freedoms and debarring of non-Catholics from holding office or acting as representatives in the Sejm; a move that was to have its repercussions in 1766 when Russia and Prussia would use their pledges to protect the rights of dissidents as an excuse to prevent reform and a revival of the Polish state.

Augustus was a patron of the arts, greatly embellishing his capital, Dresden, and created the Meissen china industry. He is also known as Augustus the Strong but this is more in reference to his numerous affairs and his prodigious number of, largely illegitimate, offspring.

On Augustus' death, in 1733, the French candidate, Leszczynski, was again elected King; this sparked off the War of Polish Succession (1733 - 35) during which Polish resistance, the Confederation of Dzikow under the leadership of Adam Tarlo, was crushed by combined Prussian and Russian armies. The Russians sent in an army and reran the election; their candidate, Augustus' son, Frederik Augustus II (b. Dresden, 1696; d. 1763) was elected king, Augustus III, in 1734. Augustus spent his reign almost exclusively in Dresden, only fleeing to Poland when the Prussians occupied Saxony during the Seven Years War; Poland was ruled by his adviser Bruhl and son-in-law, Mniszech. He supported Prussia in the first Silesian War (1740 - 42) but sided with Austria in the second Silesian War (1744 - 45), was defeated and forced to pay indemnity. The Electorate of Saxony was occupied by Prussia during the Seven Years War - the third Silesian War (1756 - 63); during this war, by which Prussia gained Silesia, Poland's neutrality was ignored and she became a staging area for the deployment of the combatants. Frederick II (the Great) of Prussia recouped his war costs by flooding Poland with counterfeit money and imposing illegal tolls on the Wisla. Prussia and Russia continued to renew their alliances by which Poland would be kept weakened. At Augustus' death, the Russians forced the election of Stanislaw Poniatowski, destined to become the last King of Poland.


The Poniatowskis were a noble family of Italian origin including; Stanislaw (b. 1676; d. 1762), a general and diplomat who joined Charles XII of Sweden in support of Stanislaw Leszczynski, and fought at Poltava (1709). He represented Charles at the Porte. Stanislaw was the brother-in-law of Michal and August Czartoryski and formed part of that powerful group aiming at reform, "the Family". His son, Stanislaw II Augustus (b. Wolczyn, 1732; d. St. Petersburg, 1798), was a refined man who, after his education, spent a great deal of time in the West, mainly Paris and London. He was sent to St. Petersburg (1757) to gain support for the proposed overthrow of Augustus III but succeeded instead in becoming a lover of the future Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia. On the death of Augustus III, Catherine used her influence to ensure that Stanislaw Augustus became King (1764 - 1795); Poniatowski was to become the last King of Poland.

On acceding to the throne Stanislaw Augustus attempted to show that he was no puppet by setting up a range of commissions and ministries aimed at improving the process of government, carrying out financial and educational reforms and establishing a military school (the Szkola Rycerska); it was obvious that a Polish revival was under way. At this point Prussia and Russia raised the whole issue of the rights of Lutheran and Orthodox dissidents knowing that this would stir up trouble (1766). The issue was discussed in the Sejm in chaotic conditions, the Papal Nuncio protested and the proposed changes were rejected. As a result two Confederations were formed, that of the Protestants at Thorn and the Orthodox dissidents at Slupsk strongly supported by Russian troops. More significantly the Confederation of Radom (1767) was formed by a number of Catholic szlachta who had been skilfully manipulated by Russian diplomats. Now a treaty was imposed on Poland and forced through the Sejm (1768), which hypocritically protected the rights of the szlachta to elect the king and maintain the "Liberum Veto" - thus using these ancient privileges as a means to make the state impotent. A number of representatives of the Sejm who opposed Russian demands were arrested and deported to Kaluga in Russia. A large number of the szlachta, disgusted at this turn of events, revolted by setting up the Confederation of Bar (1768 - 72). Russian attempts to put the rising down were hindered by having to repress a peasant uprising in the Polish Ukraine, and by the Ottoman Turks who declared war on Russia (1768). After four years struggle, during which Stanislaw Augustus was actually kidnapped by some of the Bar Confederates (though he managed to escape in the bungled affair), the rising was eventually crushed and over 5000 captured szlachta were sent to Siberia; among the few who escaped was Kazimierz Pulaski who was to play an important role in the United States' struggle for independence.

The campaigns of 1768 - 72 so devastated Poland and weakened the government that the nation was unable to put up any meaningful resistance when Prussia, Russia and Austria agreed to annex parts of Poland in 1772. The Commonwealth lost 224,173.5 (29.5%) of her former territory and 4,020,000 of her population (a reduction by 35.2%): Prussia took the smallest, but economically best, area (5%) - cutting Poland off from the Baltic - and severed its feudal dependence on the Polish Crown; Austria took the most heavily populated areas (11.8%), whilst Russia took the largest, but least important (12.7%). To give the crime some legality the Sejm was forced to ratify the partition in 1773, despite the resistance of some Deputies, led by Tadeusz Rejtan. Amazingly some of the szlachta saw partition as a plot between Poniatowski and the Russians in order to introduce an absolute monarchy into Poland.

Despite the disaster of this first partition, Poland underwent a national revival in 1773, thanks to the efforts of Stanislaw Augustus. The first step was the creation of the "Komisija Edukacji Narodowej" ("Committee of National Education"), the first Ministry of Education in Europe; hundreds of schools were founded and the standard of education was raised. Writers, poets, artists and scholars were encouraged by the King and the ideas of the Enlightenment were taking hold. This was the period of Naruszewicz, Krasicki, Boguslawski, and Karpinski. Taking advantage of Russia's involvement in a war against Turkey, the King launched a reform programme (1788-1792) and the task was carried out by the "Four-Year" or "Great Sejm" which established a new Constitution; the Constitution of the Third of May, 1791, in which the "Liberum Veto" was abolished, majority rule introduced, and personal freedoms guaranteed to all the people. The Constitution was hailed in the United States, England and France, but was seen as a threat to the absolute rulers of Prussia, Austria and, especially, Russia. In 1792, at Russia's instigation, a handful of magnates led by Ksawery Branicki, Szczesny Potocki and Seweryn Rzewuski betrayed the Commonwealth and formed the Confederation of Targowica against the new Constitution and then "asked" for help. Russian troops crossed the borders and war broke out. The King's nephew, Joseph Poniatowski and Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a veteran of the American War of Independence, put up heroic resistance but all hope faded away when Stanislaw Augustus, under pressure from his ministers who could see the writing on the wall, declared his adherence to the Confederation of Targowica (August 1792). Meanwhile the Prussians attacked the Polish armies in the rear. The dismayed Army dispersed; many patriots were forced to flee. In 1793 Russia and Prussia signed the Second Partition Treaty, seizing more than half the country and about four million more of the population. The last Sejm of the Commonwealth, which met at Grodno, was forced to legalise the partition and abolish most of the reforms of the "Great Sejm". Popular discontent led to Insurrection, proclaimed by Kosciuszko on 24 March 1794, followed by victory at Raclawice and Warsaw.

Tadeusz Andrzej Bonawentura Kosciuszko (b. nr. Slonim, 12 February 1746. d. Soleure, Switzerland,1817) is one of the giants of Polish history. At an early age Kosciuszko decided to join the military and studied at the Warsaw Cadet School, and in France, engineering and artillery. He volunteered to fight in the American War of Independence where he was appointed colonel of engineers in the Continental army (Oct.18 1776). During the southern advance of Burgoyne after the fall of Fort Ticonderoga (1777) he effectively delayed the British thus granting the Americans valuable time to build up their forces and he made important tactical decisions concerning the battle of Saratoga which followed. He was in charge of construction of the fortifications at West Point (1778 - 80) which made full use of the natural terrain and interlocking fields of fire. Kosciuszko proposed the establishment of a technical military school where all officers would be trained in engineering and the sciences which became the United States Military Academy at West Point. He was one of the founders of the Society of Cincinnati. In 1783 the American Congress awarded him citizenship and promoted him to the rank of Brigadier.

During the Russo-Polish War (1792- 93), or the War of the Second Partition, he defended the Bug at Dubienka for five days with only 4000 men against 18,000. After the Second Partition of 1792, following the growing humiliation of the nation by Catherine the Great, in an effort to stop the destruction of Poland, Kosciuszko went to France to propose a league of republics which would oppose the league of sovereigns. The French were vague in their response and Kosciuszko had to return empty-handed. When, on 21 February 1794 the Russians ordered a further reduction of the army and the arrest of suspected subversives, the seeds had been sown for a national uprising. Finding that Polish officers were already in the act of revolting against the limitation of the army to 15,000 men, his hand forced, Kosciuszko arrived in Krakow on 23rd March, proclaimed the Act of Insurrection on the 24th with his famous oath in the Rynek;

"I, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, swear in the sight of God to the whole Polish nation that I will use the power entrusted to me for the personal oppression of none, but will only use it for the defence of the integrity of the boundaries, the regaining of the independence of the nation, and the solid establishment of universal freedom. So help me God and the Innocent Passion of His Son."

and was appointed dictator and commander-in-chief. His army of peasants defeated a greatly superior force of Russians at Raclawice, as a result of which a national insurrection flared up in Lithuania and Warsaw. The red four-cornered caps worn by the Krakow peasants were adopted by the National Cavalry, and later worn by the Polish lancers in Napoleon's army, after which they became traditional wear for lancer units in all European armies. At Szczekociny, on 6 May, Kosciuszko was outnumbered by the Prussians under Frederick William, and defeated, leaving the way open for the occupation of Krakow (which they entered on 15 June). On 7 May his Polanice Manifesto gave freedom to the peasants. The new government's army could not withstand the combined forces of Austria, Prussia and Russia and was annihilated at the bloody battle of Maciejowice, 10 October, where Kosciuszko was seriously wounded and captured. In November, Warsaw was taken by the Russians who slaughtered the population of the suburb, Praga, including women and children. Then, in 1795, the Third Partition wiped what was left of Poland off the map. The King, Stanislaw Augustus, was forced to abdicate and taken captive to St. Petersburg (where he died in 1798).