Nobility Of The Polish Commonwealth
The Polish Nobility Association Foundation
Villa Anneslie 529 Dunkirk Road
Anneslie, Maryland 21212-2014 USA
The kingdom of Poland, generally known as Res Publica, i.e. a commonwealth, was highly diversified. Not only did the Polish nation contain ethnic mixtures, the unusual result of cohabitation of different groups within the same state, but the country comprised several peoples whose mother tongue was not Polish. Few if any of them had as yet a clear consciousness of national identity. The Polish-speaking group probably had a slight overall majority, but Lithuanians, Ruthenians, and Belorussians predominated in several areas, and Germans and Jews constituted sizable segments of the population. The smaller groups comprised Russians (mainly Old Believers), Tartars, Wallachians, Gypsies, Karaites and Latvians. Some of these nationalities were native to the area, other were descended from immigrants who had settled there in the course of History.
The state consisted of two principal units: The Crown (Korona) which comprised Polish and Ruthenian (Ukrainian) areas, and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania encompassing Lithuanian and Belorussian lands. The city of Gdans’k (Danzig) enjoyed autonomy under the direct jurisdiction of the king. The Duchy of Courland was a vassal state, and Livonia was placed under both the Crown and Lithuania. In addition, there were special autonomous regions in certain parts of the country. Polish-Lithuanian dualism, expressed in the phrase “Res Publica of two nations”, was reflected in separate administrations, armies, treasuries, and legal codes. Common executive organs appeared only at the end of the eighteenth century; a basic change embodied in the 1791 constitution-four years before the last partition occurred too late to affect the country.
The old commonwealth recognized estates as social groups or classes but in a different manner than, for instance, the ancient regime in France. Although people spoke of the gentry, Jew, burghers, and peasants as estates, formally and in a political sense the term was applied to the king, the senate, and the chamber of deputies (the last two known collectively as the diet or Sejm). The diet comprised only representatives of the gentry (szlachta) unlike the Etats Generaux which consisted of three estates.
Hence, politically speaking, the gentry were the only estate that really mattered. In the course of centuries Poland developed a parliamentary republic of the szlachta. The word szlachta defied translation because everyone who had a noble status was a member of it, irrespective of his wealth or social position. A “noble-man” enjoyed his rights that were both anachronistic and progressive. Unlike many a European counterpart, he was free from arbitrary arrest and need not fear confiscation of his land, which he held in full ownership. He participated in the election of the king and of the deputies to the diet; he had a virtual monopoly of all the offices in the state; and however how poor he might be, he could boast of a status of legal equality with the most powerful magnate of the land. Neither race nor creed-except for a relatively brief period of discrimination against the Orthodox and Protestants- was an obstacle to his exercise of rights and liberties. In actual practice there were, of course, great distinctions within the body of the szlachta, based on wealth and tradition.
A magnate may well have addressed a well-to-do squire by the appellation “brother”, but in reality the two were not equals. Those of the most ancient lineage were referred to as Szlachta Karmazynska or ‘Crimson Nobility’, and were considered the most illustrious members of their class. The wealthiest and most powerful nobles were referred to as the magnateria or ‘Great Magnates’ and consisted of forty to fifty families who lived in palaces, maintained private armies and directed national affairs. Beneath the ‘Great Magnates’ was the middle nobility or Zamoz’na Szlachta, who maintained a prominent role in the government bureaucracy and army.
At the lowest level of the noble class was the Drobna Szlachta or, minor nobility who represented almost half of the noble class. This unique group were descended of warriors of the thirteenth and fourteenth century who had been endowed with the land but whose families had sunk to a low socio-economic level as a consequence of their numerical increase and division of land. The Drobna Szlachta, while retaining all their rights and privileges of nobility, lacked the economic resources to exercise many of their prerogatives. They usually owned small parcels of land which they worked themselves and frequently became paid retainers for the magnate families.
The nobility of the commonwealth was a melting pot of its nationalities. When the Grand Duchy of Lithuania joined Poland, first in a dynastic and later real union, the Lithuanian boyars became members of the szlachta. Many a nobleman had a Ruthenian, Belorussian or German name. Jews who embraced Christianity were traditionally ennobled. There were cases of ennoblement of entire villages as a reward for their military exploits.
Consequently, the commonwealth developed a leading class that was more numerous than in most European countries. The gentry constituted roughly eight to ten percent of the entire population; the figures were somewhat higher for Lithuania and lower for the Crown. According to recent calculations, a quarter of all Polish-speaking inhabitants of the commonwealth belonged to the szlachta. Most noblemen in Lithuania, the Ukraine, or Belorussia became “Polish” in the sense of embracing a higher form of state nationality.
They did not become denationalized, as witnessed by the expression “gente Rutheni natione Poloni” (of Ruthenian race and Polish nation). In a sense the szlachta was a nation, and it could rightly claim that it had achieved a degree of liberty and of participation in state affairs unsurpassed by any other nation in Europe.
After the death of Kazimierz the “Great” in 1370 there were noticeable signs of political anarchy in Great Poland, when Kazimierz of Sl/upsk and another pretender, Wl/adysl/aw the White of the Piasts of Kujawy, tried to overthrow the foreign dynasty. However, the Angevin episode (1370-1386) succeeded in maintaining the supremacy of a centralized government. The attempt was all the more significant as King Louis did not rule Poland in person. The regency was held by an old woman, Queen Elizabeth, mother of Louis and daughter of Wladyslaw the Short (Lokietek). Louis d’Anjou strengthened Hungarian influence in Halicz, Ruthenia by handing over the administration of the country to a reliable viceroy, Duke Wladyslaw of Opole, who enhanced the prestige of the Roman Catholic Church in that area. From 1381, Poland herself was governed by a regency of five persons representing the lords of Little Poland and headed by John IV Radlicki, Bishop of Cracow (died 1382).
The major problem of the Angevin House in Poland was to secure the throne for the daughters of Louis against opposition of the episcopate and a section of the nobles. The candidacy was however, looked upon with favor by the towns which saw a promise of wide foreign trade in personal unions of the royal dynasties of that part of Europe.
In 1372 Louis granted the privilege of Kosice by which he secures the support of nobles for the succession of his daughters to the Polish throne at the price of reducing taxes, while soon afterwards he granted them similar concessions. Upon the death of Louis in 1382, however, the lords ruling the country would not allow a German prince to occupy the Polish throne.
They rejected as well Wilhelm of Austria, engaged to Jadwiga (Hedwig), Louis’ second daughter. Siemowit of Mazovia, another pretender to the Polish throne, was also repulsed by an armed intervention of Hungary. Jadwiga was placed on the Polish throne and the personal union with Hungary was broken. In 1384 the 10 year old Jadwiga entered Cracow, the royal capitol, and assumed the title of King (Rex). In fact Poland since 1370 was actually governed by a group of oligarchs who were fully aware of their aims and possibilities.
The Cracow lords were fully aware of the benefits to be derived from an expansion in the east when Kazimierz the Great was still alive. At the close of the 14th century a new and significant factor made its appearance, the desire to draw closer to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and to establish a partnership with her against the Teutonic Order, as well as to settle the affairs of Halicz, Ruthenia in accordance with Polish plans.
The Lithuanian State was founded as a monarchy in the middle of the thirteenth century. In the second half of the fourteenth century it had reached the peak of its political power. Under the rule and alliance of two brothers, Kiejstut (Kestutis), Duke of Troki, and Olgierd (Algirdas), the Grand Duke of Lithuania, the state stubbornly defended as its western frontiers from encroachments of the Teutonic Order. At the same time Lithuania extended her original territories (Aukstote, the highlands, and Samogitia [Zmudz], the lowlands) to embrace vast areas of the future Ukraine and Belorussia up to Smolensk, Bryansk and the Black Sea steppes. The military nature of the challenge that faced the State helped to concentrate all authority in the hands of the Grand Duke. While Lithuania proper, clung to pagan beliefs despite the repeated attempts made from the middle of the thirteenth century to convert the Lithuanians, the Russian population in the major part of the Grand Duchy professed the Othodox Christianity. Russian customs and Russian literary culture characterized the whole ruling class, including also, the reigning house, and the native Lithuanian lords who still played the leading role in the State government and were loath to share their power with the Russian boyars. The population was not distributed evenly throughout the large State but its economy was by no means backward.
Jagiello (Iogailas), son of Olgierd, removed from power his uncle Kiejstut, became head of the Grand Duchy in 1382 and took the guidance of the political issues into his own skillful hands. The first concept of his entourage was a closer understanding with the Grand Duchy of Muscovy. Jagiello was to accept the Orthodox faith together with the hand of the daughter of Demetrius Donskoi. Muscovy, however, as the center of an effort to unite the Russian lands, appeared already as a dangerous rival of Lithuania which was attempting the same task. Consequently, the cause of an alliance with Poland prevailed among the Lithuanian lords. The direct threat to the western frontiers, especially in Samogitia, hence a community of interest with Poland against the Teutonic Order, was an argument in favor of the Polish alliance.
Poland was fully aware of the value of such an alliance, which would enable her to regain her lost territories with the help of the Lithuanians and would moreover, strengthen her hold on her conquest in Halicz, Ruthenia. These prospects seemed so attractive to the ruling groups in Cracow that they were willing to arrange a marriage between Jadwiga and Jagiello. The conversion of the pagan part of Lithuania to the Roman Catholic Church played a major role in conciliating the Polish clergy to the union. This conversion also struck out the major argument used internationally by the Teutonic Order to justify its actions against Lithuania, and cast doubt upon the missionary program of Teutonic expansion.
By an act drawn up at Krewno in 1385, a union was affected between the Polish and Lithuanian States. Jagiello took the name of Wladyslaw when he was baptized and upon marrying Jadwiga became King of Poland in 1386. Poland and Lithuania had actually established only a personal union. By this union, however, both States could prepare to carry out their external objectives, like the removal of Hungarian garrisons from Halicz, Ruthenia and the exaction of homage from the voivods of Moldavia and Wallachia, to be paid to Jagiello and Jadwiga. Poland helped Lithuania strengthen her eastern frontiers.
Catholics obtained a privileged position within the Lithuanian State. The more important cultural and social consequences of the union were to emerge only in time. There was, however, an unfavorably disposed group in Lithuania which was particularly hostile to the interpretation given to the union by Polish lords that the Grand Duchy was incorporated in Poland. This faction was led by Witold (Vytautas), the able son of Kiejstut, who was at first allied with the Teutonic Knights and who after 1392, was accepted by Jagiello as co-regent of the whole of Lithuania. Witold’s ultimate aim was the royal crown which he planned to acquire after establishing Lithuanian supremacy over the whole of Russia and subduing the Tartars with the aid of Khan Tochtamish, who had been driven out by Tamerlane.
Witold’s plans regarding the Tartars suffered a setback in the defeat of 1399 inflicted upon him by the Tartars on the Vorskla River, where a number of Polish Knights, who had been sent to Witold’s assistance, were killed in battle. In 1401 Witold was recognized as the Grand Duke of Lithuania under the suzerainty of Wladyslaw Jagiello, as “Supreme Duke”. The Teutonic danger was now the factor that drove them both into closer cooperation. At the same time Lithuania’s relation to Poland was satisfactorily explained as a personal union in the person of Jagiello. Although Jadwiga, heiress to the Polish throne, died without issue in 1399, Jagiello was nevertheless recognized by the Polish lords as King of Poland.
The Teutonic Order now found itself in a dangerous position. The knights tried to take advantage of the difference within Lithuania and Poland arising from the interest of parties in both States in an eastward expansion. Yet the Order could not avoid the “Great War” in 1409-1410. A decisive encounter and one of the largest battles of the Middle Ages was fought on the fields of Grunwald (Tannenberg), on July 15, 1410. The combined forces of the Polish and Lithuanian armies, commanded by King Wlasyslaw, routed the Teutonic Knights as the end of the days’ heavy fighting. The Grand Master and many dignitaries of the Order fell in battle (as well as many knights from western Europe who fought as allies to the Order). The Order was no longer a dangerous military neighbor.
The peace conditions satisfied only the war aims of Lithuania by returning Samogitia to the Lithuanian State. The military and financial power of the Teutonic Order, however was considerably weakened by the war. Instead, rising political movements led several decades later to the solution which Poland desired in Pomerania. The victory at Grunwald enhanced the prestige of the Polish-Lithuanian monarchy and added vigor to its political activity, while the circles that favoured Church reform were deeply impressed by the defeat of the Teutonic lords. The mood was reflected in a letter of congratulations address to Wladyslaw Jagiello by Jan Huss. The military and diplomatic struggle with the Teutonic Order drew the lords of Lithuania and Poland closer together. In 1413 a new treaty of union was signed at Horodlo on the Bug River, and fourty-three Polish clans adopted a corresponding number of Lithuanian lords who were allowed to use the Polish family clan shields or escutcheons. Wladyslaw and Grand Duke Witold granted the Lithuanian lords the same fiscal and judicial privileges as were enjoyed by the Poles.
PRIVILEGES OF THE NOBILITY
The nobility, a term which in time became synonymous with citizenship in Poland, did not necessarily imply ownership of land. The Polish nobility came into existence at a time when the poles were in a comparatively early stage of social development, when the clan was the basic unit of social structure. With the introduction of escutcheons, whole clans were admitted to nobility. In this manner, unlike the other European nations, where nobility developed in a relatively later stage of social evolution, a great many elements of a low economic and social status became nobles, and this also accounts for the fact that there were no differences in the grades of nobility as found among other nations.
The subsequent additions to the nobility were also numerous and were accomplished either through adoption or the conferring of escutcheons by the King, who, in an earlier period, conferred his own escutcheon upon the candidate, admitting him, as it were, to his own clan. At a later date various coats-of-arms were bestowed at the nobilitation ceremonies. All those who had an escutcheon were nobles. The possession of land was not necessarily a prerequisite to a title of nobility, but those of nobility who were land owners in some instances enjoyed special privileges.
LEGAL STATUS OF THE VARIOUS CLASSES
The nobles were the ruling class with the exclusive right to enjoy citizenship. Nobility was hereditary in the male line, and an escutcheon was an outward sign of it. The power to ennoble resided originally in the King, but after the end of the XVIth century, the approval of the Diet was required. As the class consciousness of the nobility grew, attempts were made to restrict admission to the caste. Naturalization of foreign nobles, after 1641, similarly became a matter over which the Diet had sole control.
In the XVIth century a new conception, that of a scartabellate, developed, whereby the newly ennobled person(s) enjoyed certain privileges. Only their progeny in the third generation came into possession of full rights of citizenship. This was the only gradation in the ranks of the nobility who guarded jealously against the rise in station of anyone by reason of hereditary title.
By the act of 1638 no noble could accept or use a title which had not been registered in the acts of the Union of Lublin in 1569. The Polish Kings were prohibited from giving titles to Poles, but were free to bestow them upon foreigners. Orders were not allowed in Poland. In violation of the law, however, however, the first Order was established in 1705, during the period of political disintegration. The following were some of the special privileges and immunities enjoyed by the nobility exclusively: The right to acquire and own land in the country as well as real estate in the cities, with all the wealth below the surface; the property of the nobles was exempt from confiscation without due process of law; only to the nobility was the door of the more exalted temporal and spiritual offices open; they were exempt from taxation, making only contributions as they voluntarily imposed upon themselves, with the single exception of compulsory military duty in case of war. A noble was answerable only to his peers.
The Church in early Poland was not only the most influential social institution, it exercised considerable control over the administration of the state as well. The Church was, in actual fact, a measure of true progress and unity of Poland’s early development. It created the schools, encouraged the fine arts, and became a close friend of the King since it supported his rule as being God’s will. It was the leader and molder, without necessarily being the ruler, of the mind, thought, and development of everyone in early Poland, be it King, noble or peasant.
Although the Church dominated the early part of Poland’s development, the nobility began to monopolize Poland’s cultural development as early as the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The Church’s influence was still powerful, although now, the administration and spread of culture was in the hands of the nobles. The nobles, however, became more interested in gaining the power to rule, especially over their own domains. Thus began a steady encroachment on the powers of the King. The King’s rule over the state disintegrated as each noble began to exercise more and more authority over his own land. Yet a fusion of religious sentiment and pious hope seemingly justified this structure at this time. It was expressed in the rewriting of an earlier chronicle which reflected accurately the emerging Polish traditional spirit. The lesson, if we can call it such, was:
“As Bolesl/aw the Brave, one of Poland’s earlier Kings, slew St. Stanisl/aw, cut up the body and scattered his remains; so God has divided Poland, in order that each Prince could reign over a section. And, as the body of St. Stanislaw was put together by God, so also, will the Kingdom be united”.
The position of the central authority and power of the King was continually getting weaker, especially in regard to maintaining the defense of the state. Realizing this, the King of Poland joined Lithuania in an alliance in the late fourteenth century.
The union proved so successful that it was broadened and within a century, a commonwealth was established. In the meantime, the gentry was still getting more and more powers at the expense of the King until finally, in 1573 they gained what proved to be their ultimate power, the right to elect the King. The King continued to reign, but no longer did he rule.
With the extinction of the illustrious and beloved dynasty of the Jagiellons, a constitutional form was established of which the rudiments had already begun to exist. Poland became in fact, and indeed called itself a Commonwealth, headed by a king elected for life. None the less, despite the full parliamentary democracy established, because of his power to dispose of high offices and large revenues from the royal possessions, the king had great political power and influence on state affairs.
Meanwhile, the form of election had to be steeled. Under the influence of Jan Zamoyski, known as the tribune of the common gentry, the principle was laid down that the king was to be elected by all the nobility and gentry without exception, voting in person, at electoral congresses known as election viritim. But in reality, usually the views of the high officers of the state, i.e. the senators, were decisive, as their lead was followed by the gentry.
But this form of election was not satisfactory, for it enabled the politically underdeveloped gentry living nearest to Warsaw to have a very powerful influence. Moreover, in all subsequent elections the dislike of absolutum dominium, in other words, of strong government, was decisive. This explains why the Hapsburgs never gained the crown of Poland, though they always put forth candidates, for they were regarded as representatives of reaction and oppressors of liberty.
BELATED RENAISSANCE AND DOWNFALL OF POLAND
The long reign (1764-1795) of the last elected King of Poland, Stanisl/aw Augustus Poniatowski, saw the unfortunately belated internal revival of the nation, and the tragic partitioning and disappearance of the State.
KEY TO POLISH ALPHABET AND GRAMMAR
Properly Polished Polish
It irritates grammarians to no end, but any language spoken by humans is a sprawling, untidy thing—sort of the linguistic equivalent of a teenager. No matter how insistently we lay down the rules, the language itself goes its own way, sometimes following the rules, sometimes ignoring them, sometimes smashing them to bits. For every hour honest language teachers spend explaining rules of grammar, they have to spend as least two, pointing out all the exceptions.
Yet the rules are useful because they summarize useful patterns. A language must have observable patterns to be coherent, and speakers of that language can’t ignore those patterns too drastically without becoming unintelligible to others. (Consider Humpty Dumpty’s conversation with Alice in Through The Looking Glass if you doubt this). So the patterns apply most of the time, and rules summarize how they apply; with any luck, they help you figure out enough to make sense even of parts that aren’t properly polished.
A discussion of Polish surnames requires a look at Polish orthography—the rules that govern how Polish words, including names, are spelled and written—and at Polish grammar. I know many readers approach this discussion with the kind of spontaneous glee usually visible in a dentist’s waiting room, but a grasp of the essential points of Polish spelling can pay off handsomely when it comes time to make sense out of real, live Polish surnames. Until you understand how Rza,dca and Z.onica can be different spellings of the same name, you can literally pass right by vital information without even suspecting that you just missed the payoff to years of research.
These are the letters of the Polish alphabet:
a a, b c’ d e e, f g h I j k l l/ m n’ o o’ p r s s’ t u w y z’ z. (z with a dot over it).
Every one of these letters is considered an integral part of the polish language, and you ignore the differences between them at your peril. Alphabetic order is shown, with a, after a, c’ after c, and so on, so that C’wik comes after Czyz’, S’cibak after Szymkiewicz, and so on. The Polish letters derive from the same alphabet we use—the alphabet the Romans and the Church spread throughout Europe—and most of the familiar ones sound at least reasonably like ours. The unfamiliar characters were added because certain sounds common in Polish didn’t match up well with any of the existing letters, so existing letters were modified to make new ones that could stand for those sounds. This may seem complicated, but it actually makes better sense that the approach used in English, where we just pronounce the same letters many different ways—consider –ough, in the words tough, plough, through, cough, etc.
Any attempt to represent the sounds of Polish on a printed page is doomed—to get them really right, you have to listen to and imitate native speakers—but it is possible to give you a rough idea how the letters sound.
a as in father
a, --a nasalized vowel, like own without quite finishing the n; before the b or p the a, sounds more like om in home
e as in led
e,-generally like en in men, without quite finishing the n; before b or p it sounds like em in memory
i as in machine
o- Somewhat like that in moth, soft
o’= Polish u, like oo in English foot
u as in duty
y – Like the i in English bin, pin
The I requires more attention: it serves not only as a vowel, but also as a sign that the preceding consonant is palatized or softened (like n in Russian nyet as opposed to that in English net). The consonants c’, n’, s’ and z’ are spelled that way only when they precede other consonants, otherwise they are ci, ni, si, and zi respectively. In a word like cichy, “quiet”, the i not only softens the first c to a ch-sound, it also supplies the first syllable’s vowel.
c (when not followed by –i) –like ts as in fits
ch=h--like that in German ach, but a bit less guttural
c’=ci, somewhat like English ch in screech
cz--more or less like ch in chalk
dz--sometimes sounds like ts; dz—like j in jail
g--always as in give, never as in geometry; at the end of words like k
h=ch –like that in German ach but a bit less guttural
i--lighter than in English, more as in million than in hill
j--like y as in yield (but aj sounds like I, ej like in ay in hay, oj like oy in boy and uj or oj sounds a little like uey in Huey)
l--like that in English letter, like
l/--with a slash thru it, like the English ehew,(like Elmer Fudd’s ‘L’ in hello)
n’= ni--like ni in English onion
r--like the trilled r as in the Italian language
rz--like s in English pleasure
sz--like English sh
w--like English v
z’= zi—like a voiced s, like s in English pleasure but softer
z--(with a dot over it) pronounced exactly like Polish rz
b,d,f,k,m,n,p,s,t and z--more or less as in English
Unfortunately, due to considerations that fascinate linguists and put everyone to sleep, many Polish letters have been used to represent more than one sound. This list shows some letters and combinations that can be pronounced similarly and so are often interchanged.
HONORS AND TITLES
(Niesiecki’s Herbarz Polski Vol.I - Translated by Leonard Suligowski)
The honor of a Polish Nobleman was reflected in the clan arms (shield) he displayed. The shield was his proof positive, declaring his noble status. Although the clan arms could be a common one, used by many families, it was looked upon as a reminder of past glories and achievements. Some families were fortunate enough to own their own personal shields (wlasny), thus, the honor was doubled and they ere recognized as “high” or “well-born”. The common shield used by many families signified their common affiliation to a specified group from the original tribes that eventually formed the later families, whose past deeds of valor and bravery were recalled with pride. The nobleman who signatured any and all of his documents never forgot to mention (within his signature) what clan he was a member of, or his place of origin, for example:
Jan “Jelita” Zamojski (Clan Jelita from Zamos’c’).
There were many families with similar or homonymous names, whose clan shields were different, and this did not stop these other families from establishing a brotherly relationship with one another. Many times a “nickname” or cognomen (przydomek) would be incorporated into the individual name and surname.
Among the honors of a nobleman, was the owning of land (in some cases not a prerequisite) which established his importance even amongst the poorer nobles. Owning land carried its weight, especially when it offered participation in the Sejm (Parliament). When a surname ended with “ski” or “cki”, it signified land ownership, i.e., Pilecki from Pilc, or Zamojski from Zamos’c’.
Poland was the “Motherland” and it took preference in allowing the nobility to take an active part in the wars and in matters of counseling. It was considered most honorable if the nobleman cited his many deeds and services. Paying for this right, in some cases, with his blood. This was a great privilege to obtain a title or military honor by participating in battles and emerging victorious, then later to recall those deeds of valor and speak of them reminiscently.
With the union of Lublin, Poles, Ruthenians and Lithuanians were united as brothers and exchanged their escutcheons, adopting the Lithuanians as their own. The titles of Prince or Duke were allowed to be carried over, but were not looked upon with any honor. It was more honorable to be born into a family of chamberlains, wojowo’ds or castellans. Any other titles were secondary and superfluous and were not accepted as recognition of esteem, as was the title of nobleman.
Once knighthood was established in Poland, it took away any inherited or dynastic difference. When the union of Lublin took place, all titles such as Prince or Duke survived only because of foreign influences. In 1637 a published work, O Tytul/ach Cudzoziemskich (On Foreign Titles) it stated that no one should seek or obtain any foreign title and try comparing it to the gentry titles. It was written into the Constitution that all ordinary knight (equistris ordinais) were equal and that other various equal nobility titles were not to be used either newly acquired or handed down, other than the titles approved at the Union of Lublin which no one would use or question anyway. The Constitution of 1637 dealt harshly with those that did not abide by the rules set forth dealing with the use of foreign titles.
Formal orders of knighthood were extremely unpopular among the Polish nobility and prohibited by law from the mid-seventeenth century, since such orders were perceived as a corruption of the ancient principles of equality among all members of the szlachta class. Though “brotherhoods” of knights existed in Poland during its earliest formative years, such “brotherhoods” were amorphous in nature and existed only to pursue very specific and limited goals. After the objectives were achieved the brotherhood was disbanded.
During and immediately after the Crusades, however, foreign Crusading Orders were introduced into Poland. In 1170 Prince Henry of Sandomierz, on returning from the First Crusade, brought the Order of St. John, later called the Knights of Malta, to Poland. Also returning from from that Crusade was Jaxa of Miechow who established in Poland, the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, known in Poland as the Knights of Miechow. Both these Orders, while attaining a degree of acceptability among certain segments of the nobility, never achieved great popularity and experienced a checkered history in Poland until their eventual disappearance shortly after the partitions. All segments of the nobility viewed these Orders with suspicion and their association with foreign powers made them especially suspect.
There were several ill-fated attempts by Polish monarchs to establish orders of knighthood with the intent of binding the upper strata of the nobility to the crown. In 1325 King Wladyslaw V instituted the Order of the White Eagle but the reaction of the nobility was one of open hostility and disdain, and, as a consequence the Order slowly disappeared. In 1632 King WladyslawVI attempted to establish the Order of the Immaculate Conception but opposition of the nobility condemned the Order to oblivion. Shortly after 1685, King John III attempted to establish the Order of Sobieski but again, the nobility extinguished the project.
Formal orders of knighthood became an accepted and important aspect of the Polish nobility with the rise of the Saxon Royal House of Wettin to the throne of Poland. The Saxon Royal House introduced the first viable order of knighthood during the Swedish invasion of Poland in 1704. August II, to secure the support of the magnates and middle aristocracy, reintroduced the Order of the White Eagle. The Order not only became accepted by the nobility, but became highly sought after. Finally, during the reign of the last king of Poland, Stanislaw Poniatowski, several Orders were created, all aimed at bringing the nobility to the throne and seeking to unify the privileged class against foreign powers. In 1765 King Stanislaw Augustus created the Order of St. Stanislaw and in 1792 established the Order of Virtuti Militari and the Order Virtuti Civili.
By 1790 Orders of Knighthood became so sought after, that young nobles could not hope to rise through the socio-political hierarchy unless they had first secured an Order of Chivalry. The partitions, however, signaled the gradual decline of this singular mark of noble status, as many of the Polish Orders were abolished for political reasons. The Order of Virtuti Militari and others were integrated into the system of foreign orders, especially that of Russia.