Joanna Orzeł
University of Lodz


Mieszko I (ca. 960-992) is widely regarded as the founder of Polish statehood. Although he never became king, his role in creating the first Polish state is hard to overestimate. Mieszko I was forced to recognise the supremacy of the Holy Roman Empire (colloquially referred to as the First German Reich). However, he pursued a deliberate policy of seeking independence for himself and his subjects. 

On the one hand, the wars he fought were bringing increasingly large swaths of land under his control (Western and Gdansk Pomerania, Greater Poland, Silesia, Lesser Poland, part of Mazovia), laying out the future borders of Poland. 

On the other hand, Mieszko’s baptism in 966 put the Polish state under the influence of Christianity and, consequently, in the cultural sphere of Western Europe. From then on, Poland’s position vis-à-vis the other Christian states of Western Europe could no longer be questioned. 

The date of baptism is also the symbolic beginning of Polish statehood, as Christianisation’s long-term effect was to consolidate society and strengthen Poland’s internal organisational structure.


Mieszko’s efforts to consolidate the independence of the Polish state were continued by his son, Boleslaus the Brave (Bolesław I Chrobry, 992-1025). His name means “greatly glorious” and the nickname Chrobry – given by the Rusyns – translates as valiant or brave. He expanded Poland’s borders by conquering Ruthenia (with its capital in Kiev) to the east and annexing Lusatia and Milsko to the west and Moravia to the south. It was his tireless warfare that earned him the nickname “brave”. Above all, however, Christianity proved to be the key to consolidating Poland’s importance on the international stage. 

The foundation of successive bishoprics (in Cracow, Kołobrzeg and Wrocław) and the archbishopric in Gniezno, as well as Boleslaus’ support for missions to convert pagans to Christianity (especially the mission of Adalbert, later a saint, to Prussia) were the factors behind the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III’s very positive perception of the Polish ruler. It was Otto III who recognised Boleslaus the Brave as an independent ruler, an event of paramount importance to strengthening Poland’s sovereignty in Europe. 

At the Congress of Gniezno in 1000, the emperor put his diadem on Boleslaus’ head, an act of significance but not paramount to formal coronation. .

Unfortunately, the circumstances surrounding the untimely death of the emperor friendly to the Polish ruler, followed by the pope’s demise, meant that the symbolic yet important manifestation of Polish sovereignty took place as late as 1025, shortly before Boleslaus’ death. Upon Boleslaus the Brave’s crowning as the first ruler of Poland, the Polish state could no longer be regarded as dependent on others, notably the Holy Roman Empire.


The political turmoil of the following years led to the loss of land and plunged Poland into a crisis that was caused mainly by the absence of a central authority. Prince Casimir, later called, not without reason, the Restorer (Kazimierz Odnowiciel, 1034-1058), attempted to remedy the situation by reuniting the Kingdom of Poland and rebuilding the state’s political and ecclesiastical organisation. 

Just as Mieszko I married the Bohemian princess Dobrava, which led to his baptism, so did Casimir seek political opportunity through marriage to the Ruthenian princess Maria Dobroniega, the sister of Yaroslav the Wise, the Grand Prince of Kiev. It was Yaroslav who helped Casimir deal with his enemies and conquer Mazovia and Silesia (although the latter became part of Poland in exchange for a yearly tribute paid to the Czechs). 

Under the rule of Casimir the Restorer, Poland’s position – both internally and externally – became stable, if not prosperous. Although he was most likely dependent on the emperor and his state was weaker than that of Mieszko I and Boleslaus the Brave, Casimir must be commended for his efforts to regain the former Piast lands and painstakingly rebuild the state.


The next few years were difficult for Poland, especially after its fragmentation in 1138 when the country had been divided by Boleslaus the Wrymouth (Bolesław Krzywousty) into separate principalities. The feuds that followed among the dukes and their successors were skilfully exploited by other political players, including the Teutonic Order. Brought to Poland in 1226 to spread Christianity in Prussia, the Teutonic Knights were busy building an increasingly powerful state. Their conquest of Gdansk Pomerania, at Poland’s expense, in 1308-1309 stood out as a particularly prominent success. It was only Ladislaus the Elbow-High (Władysław Łokietek, 1306-1333) who succeeded in the task of reuniting Polish lands. The year of Ladislaus’ coronation (the first one to take place in Cracow), 1320, is commonly regarded as the date of Poland’s reunification. While not recognised by Western Europe as the king of Poland (he was dubbed “King of Cracow”), Ladislaus laid a solid foundation for the country’s recovery of independence. Most of all, he symbolically reasserted Poland’s status as a monarchy. And he proved to be a skilful foreign policy operator. He brought and won a case against the Teutonic Knights before a papal court for the return of Gdansk Pomerania to Poland. Alas, the sentence was not carried out, and it became clear that those important lands had to be forcefully taken away from the Teutonic Order. 

Ladislaus looked for allies in the East; indeed, he must be credited for Poland’s centuries-long alliance with Lithuania. The Polish-Lithuanian alliance was sealed with the marriage of the rulers’ children: the daughter of the Grand Duke of Lithuania Gediminas, Aldona (baptised Anna), and the son of Lokietek, Casimir, called in the future – not without reason – the Great (Kazimierz Wielki, 1333-1370).


Casimir’s achievements in promoting the country’s development are celebrated to this day (there is a saying that Casimir “inherited wooden towns and left them fortified with stone and brick”), although, truth be told, there would not have been much for him to reform had it not been for his father’s successes. 

Also worth noting is Casimir the Great’s thoughtful foreign policy that helped the country steer clear of conflicts with its neighbours (notably the Teutonic Knights). Moreover, he seized significant chunks of land in the east. Under his reign, the Polish state was strengthened and emerged as an important player on the international stage. 

This new role was symbolised by the Congress of Cracow in 1364 (with a famous banquet at the house of the Cracow merchant Wierzynek) – a meeting of European monarchs that was designed as a demonstration of the Polish king’s power. While the Jagiellonian dynasty is commonly credited for making Poland a power, it was in fact Casimir the Great who had laid the foundation for the country’s supremacy under Jagiellonians.


Ladislas Jagiello (Władysław Jagiełło, 1386-1434) who, while still Grand Duke of Lithuania, concluded a union with Poland in 1385, was the first representative of the Jagiellonian dynasty. As part of the deal, he became a Catholic, as well as pledged to Christianise the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and marry Queen Jadwiga (Hedwig) of Poland. The territory of Lithuania was much larger than that of Poland – and the two combined under a single ruler formed a huge swathe of land. This was a prelude to the creation of Europe’s largest state under what became known as the Union of Lublin (1569). The strengthening of ties between Poland and Lithuania under the agreement signed by Jagiello was also beneficial in economic terms. Christianisation made Lithuania, just as Poland had been made, part of the Western Latin culture, which was a clear sign to the Grand Duchy of Moscow, Lithuania’s perennial enemy, that it would be increasingly difficult to win support there.

The union with Poland was a deliberate step by Jagiello – one intended to tip the balance in the wars Lithuanians were waging against the Teutonic Knights. The Polish and Lithuanian armies joined forces against a common enemy. Despite the extremely important victory over the Teutonic Order at the Battle of Grunwald (15 July 1410), one of the greatest battles of the medieval era, Gdansk Pomerania had not been regained. Undeterred, Jagiello continued to fight, not only on the battlefield but also on the diplomatic front.


Unfortunately, the conflict with the Teutonic Knights dragged on. Despite successive victorious battles, it was not until the rule of Casimir Jagiellon (Kazimierz Jagiellończyk, 1447-1492) that Gdansk Pomerania was recaptured in 1466 (as Royal Prussia) and, from then on, every Grand Master of the Teutonic Order was obliged to swear an oath of allegiance to the reigning Polish king. This success was primarily a symbolic manifestation of power by the Polish state.

Casimir Jagiellon also made his mark in domestic politics. Importantly for Polish statehood, his rule led to the emergence of the nobility-based parliamentary system. The first General Assembly (Sejm) was convened in 1468 and was attended by the deputies elected by the county assemblies (sejmik) from among the representatives of the noble estate. 

Indeed, Casimir Jagiellon chose to rely on gentry rather than magnates in his task of running the country. His other achievements included the development of the army and the introduction of fiscal reforms. He sought to increase state centrism. Casimir’s reign was one of the most glorious periods of the Polish Kingdom, and the ruler himself is often considered the best Polish king. Not only did he have an overwhelming impact on strengthening Poland’s sovereignty, but he also succeeded in expanding his sphere of influence. 

He placed his son Ladislaus first on the throne of Bohemia (1471) and then Hungary (1490), while his daughters married European rulers: Hedwig became Duchess of Bavaria, Sophie – Margravine of Brandenburg, Anna – Duchess of Pomerania and Kashubia, Barbara – Duchess of Saxony, and Elisabeth – Duchess of Legnica. With these alliances, the Jagiellonians strengthened their hold over increasingly large swathes of land in Central and Eastern Europe, whilst ensuring Poland’s security.


One of Casimir Jagiellon’s sons was Sigismund who, being fourth in line to the throne, was not raised to be king. However, after the brief reigns of John Albert (Jan Olbracht) and Alexander Jagiellon (Aleksander Jagiellończyk), he became ruler of Poland. It is thanks to the rule of Sigismund and his son, Sigismund Augustus (Zygmunt August), that the 16th century is often referred to as the “golden age” of Polish history. Sigismund the Old (Zygmunt Stary, 1507-1548) was successful in many fields. He strengthened the state thanks to his thoughtful foreign policy, which is all the more remarkable considering the many adversaries he had to confront. For one thing, the Habsburg dynasty, which had an influence on the Teutonic Knights, was building up its control over Hungary. The Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, Frederick of Saxony, was supported by Emperor Maximilian in his decision not to do homage to the Polish king, which was a breach of the duty binding on the Teutonic Knights since 1466. Emperor Maximilian also turned out to be an ally of Grand Duke Vasily III of Moscow, who was plotting to take away Kiev, Smolensk and Polotsk from Poland. Poland was thus under threat from several directions. Following Moscow’s attack, Smolensk was taken from Poland, but after the Poles won the Battle of Orsha (1514), Maximilian terminated the treaty with Vasily. 

This victory was, above all, successfully turned into a propaganda success for Sigismund the Old on the international stage. Descriptions of the battle (authored by, amongst others, the papal nuncio) were printed and distributed to the main European capitals. They portrayed the duplicity of Emperor Maximilian, who had concluded an alliance with Moscow after accusing Sigismund the Old of anti-Christian conduct towards the Teutonic Order. 

However, Sigismund the Old was aware that an armed conflict with the Habsburgs would not be the best idea. The Polish king resorted to peaceful means to address the threat. On the one hand, he had sought to strengthen relations with Hungary even before the emperor’s alliance with Moscow, so as to indirectly weaken Habsburg influence. He married Barbara Zápolya, a representative of the leaders of the national party in Hungary (opponents of the Habsburgs). On the other hand, he successfully tackled the problem of the Teutonic Order. On 10 April 1525, Sigismund the Old received tribute (known as the Prussian Homage) from the last Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, Albrecht Hohenzollern, on Cracow’s market square. It was an extremely important event that signified the secularisation of Teutonic Prussia (Ducal Prussia was then created), which became the Polish fief. Moreover, the Prince of Prussia (i.e. Albrecht) pledged to provide armed assistance to the Polish ruler whenever asked to do so. Sigismund the Old’s power thus extended to even more territories. He also eventually incorporated Mazovia, which became a full-fledged province, into his kingdom.

The king chose his ministers wisely and proved adept at managing Poland’s finances, urban development and customs matters. He also recovered numerous estates which, while forming part of the crown lands of Poland, had been held under pledge. By accumulating estates throughout the country and expanding the crown land, the monarch was emerging as an increasingly strong political player. In this respect, he was supported by his second wife, Bona Sforza. She was also keen to strengthen the monarch’s position by ensuring the succession to her son, Sigismund Augustus. A vivente rege election (one taking place during the lifetime of the reigning king) was then held, although the nobility made it clear that this was an exceptional case.


Sigismund the Old also had great merits in the field of culture, which was another domain in which the importance of the state was manifested. European rulers were increasingly often patrons and collectors of the art. Sigismund the Old, largely again thanks to Bona, also attached increasing importance to the development of culture in the Polish-Lithuanian lands. His son, Sigismund Augustus (Zygmunt August, 1548-1572), whose collection of tapestries can be admired to this day in Cracow, was even more renowned for his achievements as an art collector.

Elected during his father’s lifetime, however, the monarch was not free to devote his attention only to culture. In foreign policy, the focus shifted from the south to the north, with the Baltic Sea playing an increasingly pivotal role. On the one hand, Moscow was looking to gain access to the Baltic, on the other – Sigismund Augustus sought to expand the coastline of the Polish-Lithuanian state. Above all, he set his eyes on Livonia, as these territories, if they came under Moscow’s rule, would pose a constant threat to Lithuania. The representatives of Livonia themselves chose a Polish, rather than a Muscovite, ruler: they recognised the supremacy of Sigismund Augustus in exchange for the incorporation of their territory into Poland (it had previously been directly subject to the king). In order to better integrate such a vast state, Sigismund Augustus sought to change Poland’s union with Lithuania – from personal to real. 

To this end, a new union was concluded in Lublin on 1 July 1569 that gave rise to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth: a huge, strong and prosperous state.

Unfortunately, the last male representative of the Jagiellonian dynasty died in 1572, giving way to the era of elected kings. Within the span of a mere two hundred years, from 1572 to 1795, the Polish-Lithuanian state, the erstwhile European power, disappeared from the global map. The free election is considered one of the main reasons for the fall of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. However, this does not mean that there were no strong elected monarchs championing the good name of the Commonwealth and making efforts to reform the state.


The first was Stephen Bathory (Stefan Batory, 1575-1586). A native of Transylvania, the ruler had to deal mainly with problems in the north of the vast Commonwealth. Livonia was under threat, with Moscow still conniving to obtain access to the Baltic Sea. Bathory proved to be a good military commander but also an effective politician. 

In order to defeat Moscow, not only were mercenaries or excellent Cossack infantry enlisted, but diplomatic efforts were also made to bring about the tsar’s political isolation. Both neutral Turkey and the Crimean Khanate offered their support, as did Sweden, which this time sided against Moscow. Bathory was winning successive battles against the stronger army of Ivan IV the Terrible. He won back almost all of Livonia, thwarting the tsar’s plans to gain access to the Baltic Sea.

Above all, however, the successes over Moscow made Bathory a figure of authority throughout Europe. He even planned to subjugate the Muscovite state after Ivan IV’s death and then strike against Turkey, which in turn would lead to the liberation of his native Transylvania. Perhaps because he had no male offspring, he focused more on foreign policy, on making history as a great European leader, rather than on domestic politics.


The last king to rule when the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth still appeared as a power on the map of Europe was Ladislas Vasa (Władysław Waza, 1632-1648). An ambitious ruler, he lacked, however, the persistence to put his plans into action. While his father, Sigismund III, was still the king, three conflicts had erupted that were to continue for almost the entire 17th century. They were reignited during the reign of Ladislas. The truce with Moscow expired in 1633 and with Sweden in 1635, and in the case of Turkey, the Commonwealth was unable to meet the terms of the peace (i.e. withhold the Cossacks’ incursions). The threat of war came from three directions. Moscow attacked first. As required by the terms of his agreement with his subjects (pacta conventa), Ladislas reformed the army and set out to march on Smolensk. After a long siege, Moscow capitulated, but on honourable terms, with its troops being allowed to leave with weapons in hand. At the time, Ladislas was anxious to end the conflict as soon as possible because he was aware that the truce with Sweden was coming to an end and that a war fought on two fronts could prove disastrous for the Commonwealth. In return for the peace with Moscow, Ladislas renounced the title of Moscow tsar (which he had held since 1610) and recognised the legitimacy of Mikhail Romanov’s election. He chose the interest of the Commonwealth over his own ambitions. 

The threat of war with Turkey was also averted. As for Sweden, Ladislas engaged both in diplomatic efforts and in military preparations. Fortunately, the war did not happen and a truce (which was to last until 1661) was signed in 1635. While sometimes regarded as a sign of weakness on the part of the Commonwealth, the truce allowed the conflict to be avoided at this point. It was, however, inevitable that it would erupt sooner or later. For one thing, Ladislas still laid claim – like his father before him – to the Swedish crown. For another thing, Livonia, which was already divided between Poland and Sweden, was regarded by each of them as a prized acquisition target.


The last Polish king to make a contribution to Polish statehood was John III Sobieski (Jan III Sobieski, 1674-1696). Regarded as a national hero by his contemporaries and posterity alike, he is best remembered for his victory over the Turks at Vienna on 12 September 1683. 

As a matter of fact, however, the victory strengthened Austria rather than benefiting the Commonwealth in any tangible way. Therefore, it is worth remembering his military successes in defending the Polish-Lithuanian lands against the Tatars and the Turks (Podhajce, Khotyn, Párkány). 

It is often said that it was exactly the kind of a prominent military commander that the Commonwealth should have had at its helm in the 18th century when it was losing its independence and, eventually, sovereignty.

fot. Bartosz Kałużny / UŁ

Dr. Joanna Orzeł: a historian and Polish philologist, currently an Assistant Professor at the Institute of History at the University of Łódź. Her areas of interest include cultural history (especially the nobility culture of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth), cultural and intellectual history of the 18th century, and editorial studies (both historical and contemporary). She has carried out several national and international grant projects, including from the National Science Center, the De Brzezie Lanckoronski Foundation and the French government (Séjour Scientifique de Haut Niveau).

A project financed from the funds of the Chairman of the Council of Ministers the Republic of Poland within the framework of the 2022 Polonia and Polish People abroad competition