The Polish and Lithuanian Nobility

Dec 13, 2017 | Noble Titles, Royal Titles

Polish Lithuanian Nobility.

The Polish and Lithuanian Nobility, whose proper and original name is Szlachta, certainly was a legally demarcated state with extensive legal rights. The Szlachta was a lawfully privileged and elite order, and no member of this nobility was a commoner at law. The Polish Nobility was at the same time gentry and nobility, and though the idea of gentility was important for the nobility of Poland, the quality of being noble was far more important and formally recognised by a functioning legal system. In England, for example, the English Gentry were after all commoners.

The Polish Nobility were not common people but legally recognised noblemen who also were meant to be gentlemen. The concept is radically different.
The Nobility of Poland did inspire admiration and even reverence. The noble elite of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth personified the merits of the ideal noble state. It was indeed a haven and a model, and foreign visitors stared with envy at the matchless power and privileges of the nobility of Poland and Lithuania.

Privileges and organisation of the Polish and Lithuanian Nobility

Right to separate courts and tribunals. This fact was legally approved in Poland in 1578, and in Lithuania in 1580. This meant that the nobility of Poland was totally in control of their own judicial affairs. If a judicial case involved a nobleman, a Polish or Lithuanian holder of nobility always could appeal to a separate court with judges designated by the nobility itself (not even by the King or other powers or authorities).

The Nobility of Poland was exempt from taxation since 1374, especially on the transmission mortis causa of hereditary noble land or feudalistic states.
No member of this nobility could be imprisoned without a formal conviction of a crime.

The Polish-Lithuanian nobility had an enormous degree of control over their serfs. The Granting of total jurisdiction over their serfs was further confirmed by a Grant of Sigismund I in 1518.

The Privileges of Piotrkow in 1496 banned non-members of the nobility of Poland from buying landed estates, awarded even wider powers to the Szlachta, and restricted even more peasant mobility.

The Polish Nobility was organised in a Diet and Dietines. There was a Bicameral Diet made up of two assemblies:

  1. The Senate: comprised of Chief provincial officials such as Bishops, Castellans, government ministers and palatines.
  2. The Chamber of Envoys: composed of 2 delegates from each local Dietine.

The Statute of Nihil Novi of 1505 dictated that all new legislation had to be approved by the Diet. After the Parliamentary Union of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in at Lublin in 1569, the diet became exclusively noble. Following the extinction in the male line of the Jagiellon Dynasty in 1572, the right of all nobles to participate in royal elections was confirmed. Therefore, the elective nature of the monarchy was considered the fundamental guarantee of liberty and freedom for the nobility.

These measures extended the control of the nobility over the executive, legislative and judicial powers of the kingdom. By 1600, Poland Lithuania was a state run by the nobles and for the nobles.

Indeed it was the extent of power and privilege won by the Polish Szlachta which helped persuade Lithuanian Nobles to accept political union against the opposition of a small group of magnates. From 1569, powerful forces of cultural integration operated among the noble elites of Poland and Lithuania, coalescing round a shared vision of a state based on the perfect coincidence of citizenship with noble status.

This was justified by a heady mixture of classical political theory, whose principles were adapted to match a noble-dominated political system, with an elaborate justification of this monopoly through the creation of a mythical common past and identity for the new commonwealth’s ruling class. This identity myth claimed that the Polish Szlachta, whether of Polish, Lithuanian, Ruthenian or German Descent, formed one political nation, descended from the ancient sarmatian tribe which had long resisted the Roman Empire.

By the mid-seventeenth century, the hallmarks of the “sarmatian nation” were the use of the Polish Language, adherence to the catholic faith and the adoption of a distinctive style of dress, heavily influenced by Turkish and Tatar models, which symbolized the difference between the Polish Constitution and the political systems of western Europe, whose mincing, effete fashions were taken to denote the domination of society by absolute royal power.

Identity of the Nobility of Poland and Lithuania: the Sarmatian Myth

Poland-Lithuania was described by its political writers as a mixed state, in which the king formed the first estate, the aristocratic element of the constitution was embodied in the senate, while the popular element was formed by the ordinary nobility, not the commonality as was the case elsewhere. This did not affect the equality of all nobles be they senators or not, before the law.

The Asiatic appearance of eighteenth century nobles made them appear as descendants of the Tatars.

Although the Polish and Lithuanian Nobility enjoyed, at least in theory, a greater degree of social and political power than nobles elsewhere in Europe, nobility was defined in essentially similar terms.

The Theoretical justification of the Polish Nobility’s privileged position, and the idealizations of noble life offered by poets and political theorists were, therefore, highly conventional: nobility was fundamentally transmitted by descent, having originally been earned for the services rendered by a noble’s forebears. Since nobility was in origin a reward for virtue and service, especially military service, nobles could be created, although nobles by birth enjoyed greater status than those who had been born commoners. A polish nobleman was expected to maintain a noble lifestyle and perform the functions proper to his station: he was to live as a gentleman, to be based on the land and to defend the fatherland in time of danger; indeed, the legal requirement to serve in the general levy survived into the eighteenth century.

Nowhere in Europe was a nobility so limitless in its ability to make the letter of the law match a view of society based on noble authority. A 1505 statute decreed that a noble must prove Szlachta descent on his maternal as well as his maternal side; from 1578 the law required that the diet sanction all new noble creations, to limit royal initiative and to block the selling off noble status by the crown.

The degree of noble power might suggest that the Polish and Lithuanian Nobility was a stable and static class which, having seemingly reduced the monarchy to a nonentity and the peasantry to wretched serfdom, had ample dominion over its own position, standing and affiliation. However , reality was quite different from theory, and despite the clearly defined legal framework, the conventional idealisation of the nobility and the spread of sarmatism in the seventeenth century, the nobility of Poland and Lithuania was not a consistent class, and demonstrated to be unstable.

Much of the apparent control was deceptive, and the period from 1569 to 1795 saw constant alterations within this elite, ending with the collapse from within of the noble nation and a fundamental redefinition of nobility itself.

The Sarmatian Myth claimed a common origin for the whole Szlachta, but the assertion of a common identity could not conceal that the commonwealth was a state whose component parts, each with its own traditions, and social structure, had only recently come together. By the thirteenth century, a noble estate with clear legal privileges, composed of the landed, warrior class, had emerged within the medieval kingdom of Poland.

The influence of the Latin civilization of Western Europe was strong: many polish terms for ordino equestris (knightly estate), came from German via Czech, including Szlachta terms, and Herb (coat of arms) from the German Erbe (inheritance). Yet while the Polish Nobility shared many characteristics with the nobilities of Hungary and Bohemia, it acquired particular features of its own as a result of Poland’s political development.

Originally, there had been various groups among the military entourages of the earliest polish princes, and a distinction between those referred to as nobiles, who enjoyed greater privileges, and the simple rycerzy or milites(knights). Already by the 12th century, the practice of temporary, revocable grants of land by princes to both nobiles and milites was giving way to the establishment of hereditary ownership.

Despite the widely different economic and social positions within the broad categories of Nobiles and milites, a series of factors prevented the solidifying of a feudal hierarchy. From the 11th century, the practice of conferring knighthoods on a wide range of members of the landed warrior class spread rapidly. The custom of partible inheritance acted against the entrenchment of the economic power of the upper nobility, not least because it all but caused the permanent break-up of the state when Boleslaw the Wrymouth divided his kingdom on his death in 1138.

His descendants, in their separate duchies, sought to consolidate their power through the mass granting of various immunities to all nobles, high and low, who held land iure military(by military law). This trend reached its peak in the late 13th and early 14th century, as Wladyslaw Lokietek struggled to reunite the Polish State, which he ruled as a king from 1320.

The death of Wladyslaw’s son, Casimir the Great (1333-1370), without a male heir, although it did not lead to the break-up of the kingdom, ensured that the nobility was able to maintain and extend the privileges it had won while central authority had been weak.

By the mid-14th century, any trend towards a feudal hierarchy had been decisively reversed. Immunities and privileges were granted to the Szlachta as a whole: nobilitas was now taken to apply to all who possessed land iure military and who could, according to the statutes passed by Casimir the Great, demonstrate noble descent. Even those who did not own land, but were noble by descent-the Szlachta nieosiadta or Imposessionati-were regarded as noble, even if they did not enjoy all the privileges of the state.

This trend towards equality of treatment was consolidated in the great wave of privileges granted by Casimir’s successors after 1370 as the price of recognition as king. The emergence of noble clans, composed of groups of noble families of differing status under a common coat of arms as a focus of identity encouraged the idea that the nobility was one estate with common privileges: adoption into a clan remained a way into the nobility until the 16th century. While the theory that the Polish Nobility developed from these clans has long been discounted, there is evidence that rody developed as more than just heraldic fictions in the 11th and 12th centuries.

Despite this trend, the nobility remained extremely diverse, reflecting differences between the kingdom’s component provinces. The importance of magnates was greater in little Poland than in Great Poland, where the middle and petty nobility was both numerous and powerful. Royal Prussia came under the Polish Crown during the 13 years’ war against the Teutonic Knights (1454-1466).

It only began sending official envoys to the diet in 1569, and it maintained its own political structure into the 18th century. The continuing importance of the great trading cities of Danzig, Elbing and Thorn meant that the nobility was never in as dominant a position as elsewhere: representatives of these three cities sat in the senate of the Prussian diet, and the lesser cities sent envoys to the lower house until 1662.

The duchy of Mazovia, part of the Polish state until 1138, was only reincorporated in 1529; it remained the heartland of the petty nobility. The dukes of Mazovia had encouraged settlement of the forest wastelands which made up so much of their duchy by liberally distributing charters of nobility to colonists, whose numerous descendants defended their noble status with tenacity: so numerous were they that Bartlomiej Paprocki, who published his “Coat of Arms of the Polish Nobility” in 1584, gave up in despair when he came to Mazovia.

The Nobility of Lithuania

If the influence of Latin Civilization of Western Europe was strong in the development of the Polish Nobility, the nobility of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, while increasingly open to western ideas and concepts, emerged from a more distinctly eastern tradition. From the 13th century the Grand Dukes of Lithuania ruled vast tracts of sparsely populated territory from the Lithuanian Heartland round Wilno and Troki to much of the western Ruthenian Lands (present day Belarus and Ukraine) which came under Lithuanian rule after the collapse of Kievan Russia following the Mongol onslaughts of the 13th century. Constant warfare against the tatars, the Teutonic knights and various eastern Slavic princes, meant that the transformation from a military to a landed state took rather longer than in Poland.

The Grand Duchy was an uneasy amalgam of pagan Lithuanians and eastern Slavs. The influence of east Slavic culture was strong: since orthodox clergymen were probably the only literate members of society, Old Court Ruthenian-an ancestor of modern Belarusian and Ukrainian- became the official language. Western influences, however, were always important, through contacts with Poland and the Teutonic Knights.

By the 14th century, the sources describe the elites of Lithuanian Society in various ways: in western terms as Nobiles, nobiliores, satrapa, potentiores, barones, meliores, or from Polish: shliaktich, and in eastern terms as kniaz or boyar. Quite what these terms meant in practice is difficult to determine. East-Slavic influence was strong: the importance of Princely Blood was recognized, and descendants of the Houses of Gedymin, the Lithuanian Dynasty, and Rurik, which had ruled Kievan Russia, were entitled to use the title Kniaz (prince, duke).

The Grand Duke maintained a small council of high nobles; otherwise, there were various ranks of servitors, who might be bonded men, free peasants or enjoy the greater privileges of the zemianin (a member of the military service class).

Convergence of Nobilities: integration and union of the nobility of Poland and Lithuania

It was in the context of the growing political relationship with Poland from the late 14th century that a noble estate in the western sense began to develop. Lithuania, increasingly unable to resist the Teutonic knights and Muscovy, looked to Poland for military support. After Wadyslaw Jagiello accepted the Polish Crown in 1385, he wooed pagan Lithuanian boyars into converting them into Catholicism-as he had-by granting them in 1387certain privileges, the most important of which for the creation of a true landed nobility was the removal of service obligations on estates and the introduction of rights of inheritance.

Nevertheless, the 1387 privilege does not appear to have been fully implemented, and the exact status of individual estates and of individual members of the Lithuanian elites was still unclear: the extent of service obligations continued to vary widely. The uncertainty of Lithuania’s political status after 1385, however, gave lesser groups among the landed-service elites the opportunity to win an even greater degree of privilege and control over their affairs.

For most of the 15th century, Lithuania was governed by various members of the Jagiellonian dynasty, while the head of the family assumed the Crown in Cracow. As ideas concerning noble rights and privileges entered from Poland, and the de facto rulers of Lithuania starting with Witold (Vitautas), Jagiello’s cousin sought to maintain control by buying off political support, the position of the Lithuanian nobility began to change.

At the Union of Horodlo in 1413, hereditary rights over certain estates were reaffirmed for catholic nobles, and 47 leading Lithuanian Noble Families were adopted by polish noble clans, assuming their coats of arms. Over the next 150 years, these privileges were gradually extended to wider strata of the military landed elite. The conversion to Catholicism of Lithuanian nobles and their failure to include Orthodox Ruthenians among those granted privileges after 1387 threatened to blow the fragile state apart.

Ruthenian Boyars displayed growing hostility to Witold, which erupted into civil war on his death between Svidrigailo, Jagiello’s younger brother, and Sigismund Keistutovich, Witold’s brother. Svidrigailo allied with the Teutonic Knights and courted Ruthenian support; although he was ultimately defeated, the victorious Keistutovich was forced to extend equal privileges to Ruthenian boyars in 1434.

The Ruthenian and Cossack Nobility

Although some Ruthenians still looked east, and there was a degree of support for political union with Muscovy until the mid-seventeenth century, from the 1430s, the growing attraction of the Polish Model of extensive noble privileges brought the noble elites of Poland and Lithuania ever closer, especially against the background of developments in Muscovy, where the behaviour of Ivan the Terrible created a negative image of Muscovite power which lasted deep into the 17th century.

As the autonomy of the high nobles was steadily reduced during the 15th century, there was a series of defections of Ruthenian magnates to Muscovy, but the trend towards granting greater privileges to the lesser nobility restricted the appeal of Muscovy: while the position of the boyar elites of Muscovy remained uncertain, and dominated by the service ethic, their Lithuanian counterparts began to flourish.

From the 15th century, estates in Lithuania grew in Size as the rights and privileges of the nobility were codified: in the general land privileges of 1447, 1492 and 1506, and in the three Lithuanian Statutes of 1529, 1566 and 1588. The privileges of 1492 and 1506 agreed that the prince could decide nothing new without council agreement, but the growing power of the high nobility was matched by the political assertiveness of the lesser Lithuanian Boyars, who were still required to serve and who did not enjoy the full rights and privileges of the upper levels of Lithuanian Society.

Gradually, a Lithuanian Diet developed, including representatives of the ordinary nobility as well as council members. When called out to fight at the start of the Livonian war in September 1562, the boyars refused to obey the commands of their leaders, demanding union and the extension of the privileges enjoyed by the polish counterparts. The second Lithuanian Statute of 1566 formally established a bicameral diet on Polish lines; three years later, the triumph of the lesser Lithuanian nobility was crowned with the Lublin Union.
Lublin was merely one of the most important stepping stones in the gradual convergence of noble elites of Poland and Lithuania.

Cultural and Political integration continued after 1569, marked by the spread of the Polish language and Catholicism among Lithuanian and Ruthenian nobles. The transfer of Podolia, Volhynia and the Ukrainian lands to the Kingdom of Poland at Lublin encouraged both the immigration of Polish Nobles to these territories, and the increasing involvement of great Ruthenian families in Polish politics. Yet integration had its limits. Local identities remained strong, and Dietines provided an important focus for local political action. Lithuania retained its own army, administration and law, as well as a powerful sense of autonomy.

It was in the Ukrainian Lands, however, that the limits of convergence first became apparent. Many leading Ruthenian Families, including the Vyshnevetsky, Chartorysky (Chartorysky) and Sangushko (Sangushko) eagerly embraced the philosophy of the Szlachta in the century after 1569. Their conversion to Catholicism was an important part of a process in which the commonwealth’s noble elites moved away from the religious divisions which had followed the reformation, when large numbers had turned protestant, towards an increasing identification of Catholicism as a defining feature of the Sarmatian Identity. This left large groups in Ukraine who by their lifestyle were not so different to the minor nobility of the rest of the commonwealth.

The emergence of Cossack society in the second half of the 16th century provided an alternative in which some petty Ruthenian nobles sought the military employment which was traditional for the nobility and part of the functions of the nobility as a class.

However, the resurgence of a large Cossack noble class, useful as it was in time of war, it was considered by many a tangible threat to the noble state, as kings saw the Cossacks as a potential source of military support.

For a long time, the commonwealth and the Cossacks tried to coexist in an ambiguous relationship which in the end collapsed in the Cossack uprising of 1648.
The treaty of Hadiach of 1659 wanted to create the Grand Duchy of Ruthenia, in an attempt to integrate the Cossack upper classes with the rest of the polish and Lithuanian nobles. However, the nobility opposed vehemently the mass ennoblement of Cossacks and the inevitable fact that the Orthodox Church would gain privileges. This opposition led to the failure of the integration and the Grand Duchy never came into life. Therefore, Catholicism was reinforced as one of the main features of the identity and personality of the Sarmatian Nobility.

The Composition of the Polish and Lithuanian Nobility

The numbers and size of the polish nobility was quite large. Noble condition and status was conferred upon all children of a noble, both male and female; the nobility, already large, constituted nearly a 10% of the population, according to Censuses, and the poll or hearth taxes.

The Polish Nobility rate per region was of nearly 5% in the Palatinates of Poznan and Kalisz, and inferior to 2% in the Palatinate of Cracow.

Another figure, far more conservative, establishes that of the 14 million inhabitants of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, about 7% were nobles. The distribution of the nobility was quite diverse and not homogeneous. The Duchy of Mazovia had immense concentrations of petty noblemen, making up to the 25% of the total census in some parts. In Lithuania, however, nobility did not even make the 1% of the Population, being the total figure closer to the 0.50% of the total inhabitants.

The usurpation of noble status was quite common, and many people passed themselves as noblemen. The safest routes to ennoblement were military service, to be in the employ of a magnate of the upper nobility, or get enough riches to buy land and obtain noble status in court. It was not uncommon the forgery of documents and genealogical trees, in order to buy villages and estates that could only be acquired by the nobility. Members of the urban bourgeoisie were also eager to enter the noble class, and this was frequently accomplished by the privileges that the councillors of the cities had to acquire land.

The Economic and Financial Diversity Nobility of Poland and Lithuania

The nobility economic condition was very varied. At the very bottom of the group were the “Golota”, the landless and poorer noblemen who had nearly nothing. A step above were situated the “Imposessionati”, who did not own land, and were therefore employed in the military or in the service of a grand nobleman or the royal court. The “Czastkowa” were poor noblemen who had partial ownership of villages, or had land without serfs and had to work at least part of the aforementioned land by themselves, farming and harvesting on their own.

Several registers tended to classify the nobility as Landed, Landed without Serfs, or in Service (Army, Court, Estate Managers for Grand Nobles). In Lublin and Mazovia the “poor nobility” had large numbers. The 17% of the Nobility of Poland was rich, owning considerable tracts of land. A 40% of the Nobility of was comprised of small landowners. About a 20% of the nobles were just renters of their lands, and the rest, another 20%, were in service or other professions.

This means that by the end of the 18th century there were about 750000 noblemen in Poland and Lithuania, of very different financial status. One of the causes of the decline of wealth in the nobility was the partible inheritance laws, which largely reduced patrimony and income. This was done to the effect of securing a dowry for the daughters of the nobility and procured them better marriage prospects. Also, marriages between poor noblemen and rich burghers and even peasants was not uncommon.

Commercial practices, trades and activities were not unknown among the polish nobility. The upper nobility was already involved in large scale trade and money lending. Poorer nobles could even go to the cities to gain employment as artisans or apprentices in professions, which in theory forfeited their rights to maintain their nobility.

Access to Royal Land: The Birth of the Magnates among the Polish and Lithuanian Nobility

At the top of the pyramid there was a small elite of immensely wealthy families. A certain number of reasons widened the gap between the ordinary nobility and the extraordinary magnates at the top. At the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th, it was quite clear that only the best managed estates had chances of survival. The effects of war and the price of grain and variations in the market contributed to the absorption of land by the biggest landowners, more able to resist change.

Poorer landowners, very often had to sell their lands. Also, access to royal land was very important and played a significant factor and role in this. The Royal estates totalled about one fifth of the lands of the Poland and Lithuania. Nevertheless, the King was in no position to manage or administrate these big landed domains. Therefore, these enormous landed estates known as “Starosties”, were leased out, in many cases for life, to the most influential noble families.

About a 25% of the Starosties was in theory destined to the keeping of the frontier armies. Another 20% was intended for the noble who administrated the lease, and the rest was for the crown. However, inability of the crown to audit the estates and the inefficacy in enforcing a proper accounting system signified that in practice the leaseholder kept most of the earnings from the land. There were a very elite and select group of families that managed to obtain several Starosties. In fact, the princely Lubomirsky family had rights over the administration of up to five Starosties.

The Ostrogski noble family held well over 1140 villages. Nearly half of these villages were situated in royal land. The royal land administered by several families was far greater than their private lands and was used in boosting their positions and consolidating their wealth.

The richest nobility was also engaged in other economic activities such as manufacturing glass and textiles, as well as in the propinacja, the practical monopoly exercised by the polish and Lithuanian nobility in the field of production, sale and distribution of alcohol. In fact, many nobles sold with exclusive rights alcohol to their serfs.

The noble elites of Poland and Lithuania certainly lived lives of splendour, with royal-like courts, and able to exercise patronage of the arts and the keeping of large private armies.

The wealth and power of the higher nobility of Poland increased the political power and influence of this elite.

The limited influence, culture, prestige and financial ability of the Polish court meant that nobles could not develop careers in accordance with the expectations and wishes of a typical nobleman at that age. This meant that many polish nobles sought employment in foreign armies from neighbour countries as Prussia, or became factors or managers or mercenaries in the estates of the highest ranking nobles. This broke the supposed egalitarianism of the nobility of Poland.

Titles of Nobility, Ranks and Hierarchy in Poland and Lithuania

The hierarchy of titles of nobility in Poland and Lithuania was certainly confusing. The Lithuanian and Ruthenian families claiming descent from the ancient royal houses of Rurik or Gedymin were legally allowed to use the title of Kniaz (Prince). The foreign nobility used and flaunted their titles in Poland if they had obtained Polish Nobility. The Polish Nobles also sought with enthusiasm titles of nobility in a foreign country, especially from the Holy Roman Empire or the Holy See. Radziwills, Lubomirskis and Ossolinskis were Dukes and Princes of the Holy Roman Empire. Others were created Marquises, Counts and Barons of the Empire.

Polish Titles of nobility were not as important in hierarchy as it was the concept of office. Therefore, in the protocol of the state, the precedence was made not according the titles of nobility held by families but for the office they held in the hierarchy of the state.

Forms of Address of the Polish and Lithuanian Nobility

There were many offices and a veritable maniac frenzy and fashion for noble forms of address.

Nobles of any rank were always addressed as “Pan” or “Pan Brat”, which means “brother”, in a very formal way, similar to “Confrere” or member of an exclusive order, while commoners were simply called “Friends”. Senators were addressed as “Elder brothers”, and were referred to as “Procers”, the Latin term to indicate seniority and exclusivity, as a “procer” is always at the top of the social pyramid. Urodzony, meaning “high born” was the word to designate in general other office holders. Szlachetny was the term to talk of nobles, and the Woiwode was the word to describe the sons of a palatine. The sons of a castellan would be called “Kasztelanic”. There was also an increasing Knightly Nobility of Poland from the members of the Polish Order of the Immaculate Conception, abolished in 1638, or from the Order of the White Eagle of Poland, instituted and created in 1705.

The Offices of the Polish and Lithuanian Nobility

  1. The Archbishopric of Lwow
  2. The Castellan of Cracow
  3. The Castellan of Wilno
  4. The Castellan of Troki
  5. The Starosta General of Samogitia
  6. Governors of Royal Castles in Poland and Lithuania
  7. The Grand Marshall of the Court
  8. The Chancellor
  9. The Vice-Chancellor
  10. The Treasurer
  11. The Marshalls of the Court for Poland and Lithuania
  12. Grand Hetman (Commander of the Polish Army)
  13. Field Hetman (Commander of the Lithuanian Army)
  14. Chamberlain
  15. Steward
  16. Carver
  17. Swordbearer of Cracow
  18. Cupbearer of Sandomierz
  19. Ensign of Mscislaw

Rupture of Equality and Triumph of the Hereditary Landownership Nobility System

The supposed egalitarianism of the polish nobility was broken by the elite magnates at the top, who competed ferociously for privileges and royal land. The splendour of the nobility as a supposedly homogeneous cast ended in 1795 with the third partition of Poland. This meant that the former territories of the Polish-Lithuanian Duchy or Commonwealth were divided between the Russian Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, and Prussia.

This meant that the importance of birth was legally eroded in favour of land ownership. Some diets began to exclude non property-owners. New Nobles had to buy land worth 50000 zlotys. Also, burghers and foreigners were permitted to purchase allodial lands. It was proposed that only those owning at least 270 acres of land or with an income of at least 6000-7000 zlotys per year could qualify as nobility and enjoy rights as full citizens. Nobility was eternal, but did not guarantee anymore per se political rights.

The final point was reached when the Constitution of 3 of May of 1791 attributed citizenship only to hereditary landowners. The urban statute of 18 of April of 1791 abolished many legal differences between burghers and nobles. Also, the Laws of March of 1791, effectively stripped of citizenship to nearly 350000 nobles, almost half of the nobility of Poland and Lithuania, as now landless nobility was excluded. Noble landowners, no matter how small was their hereditary plot of land were able to preserve their rights.

Famous Women in the Nobility of Poland and Lithuania

The women of the Polish and Lithuanian Nobility were legendary, even larger than life. The influence of women in the nobility and in the nation and the state itself was quite notorious. Carolyn von Hohenlohe, a noblewoman who owned a large state in Ukraine, was famous for being the lover of the famous pianist Franz List. They both run off.
Emilia Plater, perhaps the most famous heroine of the Polish and Lithuanian Nobility, induced a whole district in 1830 to rebellion against the Russian Tsar. Not content with being the spirit behind of the revolt, she took Joan of Arc as her model and became a company commander, leading her troops against the Russian army before her death at 26. The truth is that this was not an isolated fact. In the insurrection of Poland of 1830, all companies had women fighting along the men. Emilia Plater was admired with religious fervour by all the young women of Poland.

A Princess Chartorysky described herself with modesty regarding her physical attributes, but when it came to her values as a woman she told: “My predominant passion is the love of my country. This is a sort of religion with which all my future is bound up, and which my husband and children and my own disposition have made the dearest and most indispensable sentiment of my life”.

Polish wives of insurrectionists often accompanied their husbands to the exile and imprisonment in Siberia voluntarily. The aura of the inextinguishable patriotism and courage of the Polish Women was legendary. Perhaps this should be examined more closely, as it is indeed remarkable.


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