Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth

Coordinates: 50°03′N 19°56′E / 50.050°N 19.933°E / 50.050; 19.933

Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth

The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (green) with vassal states (light green) at their peak in 1619
The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (green) with vassal states (light green) at their peak in 1619

(de jure)

  • Kraków[2] (1569–1596)
  • Warsaw[2][b] (1596–1795)
(de facto)
Common languages Official:
Polish and Latin
Roman Catholicism
King / Grand Duke  
• 1569–1572
Sigismund II Augustus (first)
• 1764–1795
Stanisław August Poniatowski (last)
Legislature General sejm
• Privy council
Historical era Early modern period
1 July 1569
5 August 1772
3 May 1791
23 January 1793[1]
24 October 1795[1]
1582 815,000[7] km2 (315,000 sq mi)
1618 1,000,000[8][9] km2 (390,000 sq mi)
• 1582
• 1618
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Kingdom of Poland
Grand Duchy of Lithuania
Duchy of Warsaw
Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria
Russian Empire
Kingdom of Prussia

The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, formally known as the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and, after 1791, the Commonwealth of Poland, was a country and bi-federation[10] of Poland and Lithuania ruled by a common monarch in real union, who was both King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania. It was one of the largest[11][12] and most populous countries of 16th to 17th-century Europe. At its largest territorial extent, in the early 17th century, the Commonwealth covered almost 1,000,000 square kilometres (400,000 sq mi)[13][14] and as of 1618 sustained a multi-ethnic population of almost 12 million.[15][16] Polish and Latin were the two co-official languages.

The Commonwealth was established by the Union of Lublin in July 1569, but the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania had been in a de facto personal union since 1386 with the marriage of the Polish queen Hedwig and Lithuania's Grand Duke Jogaila, who was crowned King jure uxoris Władysław II Jagiełło of Poland. The First Partition in 1772 and the Second Partition in 1793 greatly reduced the state's size and the Commonwealth was partitioned out of existence with the Third Partition in 1795.

The Union possessed many features unique among contemporary states. Its political system was characterized by strict checks upon monarchical power. These checks were enacted by a legislature (sejm) controlled by the nobility (szlachta). This idiosyncratic system was a precursor to modern concepts of democracy,[17] as of 1791 constitutional monarchy,[18][19][20] and federation.[21] Although the two component states of the Commonwealth were formally equal, Poland was the dominant partner in the union.[22]

The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth was marked by high levels of ethnic diversity and by relative religious tolerance, guaranteed by the Warsaw Confederation Act 1573;[23][24][a] however, the degree of religious freedom varied over time.[25] The Constitution of 1791 acknowledged Catholicism as the "dominant religion", unlike the Warsaw Confederation, but freedom of religion was still granted with it.[20]

After several decades of prosperity,[26][27][28] it entered a period of protracted political,[20][29] military and economic[30] decline. Its growing weakness led to its partitioning among its neighbors (Austria, Prussia and Russia) during the late 18th century. Shortly before its demise, the Commonwealth adopted a massive reform effort and enacted the 3 May Constitution – the first codified constitution in modern European history and the second in modern world history (after the United States Constitution).[31][32][33][34][35]


The official name of the state was the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (Polish: Królestwo Polskie i Wielkie Księstwo Litewskie, Lithuanian: Lenkijos Karalystė ir Lietuvos Didžioji Kunigaikštystė, Latin: Regnum Poloniae Magnusque Ducatus Lithuaniae) and the Latin term was usually used in international treaties and diplomacy.[36]

In the 17th century and later it was also known as the 'Most Serene Commonwealth of Poland' (Polish: Najjaśniejsza Rzeczpospolita Polska, Latin: Serenissima Res Publica Poloniae),[37] the Commonwealth of the Polish Kingdom,[38] or the Commonwealth of Poland.[39]

Western Europeans often simplified the name to 'Poland' and in most past and modern sources it is referred to as the Kingdom of Poland, or just Poland.[36][40][41] The terms 'Commonwealth of Poland' and 'Commonwealth of Two Nations' (Polish: Rzeczpospolita Obojga Narodów, Latin: Res Publica Utriusque Nationis) were used in the Reciprocal Guarantee of Two Nations.[42] The English term Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and German Polen-Litauen are seen as renderings of the 'Commonwealth of Two Nations' variant.[36]

Other informal names include the 'Republic of Nobles' (Polish: Rzeczpospolita szlachecka) and the 'First Commonwealth' (Polish: I Rzeczpospolita), the latter relatively common in historiography to distinguish it from the Second Polish Republic.


Poland and Lithuania underwent an alternating series of wars and alliances during the 14th century and early 15th century. Several agreements between the two (the Union of Kraków and Vilna, the Union of Krewo, the Union of Wilno and Radom, the Union of Grodno, and the Union of Horodło) were struck before the permanent 1569 Union of Lublin. This agreement was one of the signal achievements of Sigismund II Augustus, the last monarch of the Jagiellon dynasty. Sigismund believed he could preserve his dynasty by adopting elective monarchy. His death in 1572 was followed by a three-year interregnum during which adjustments were made to the constitutional system; these adjustments significantly increased the power of the Polish nobility and established a truly elective monarchy.[43]

The Commonwealth reached its Golden Age in the early 17th century. Its powerful parliament was dominated by nobles (Pic. 2) who were reluctant to get involved in the Thirty Years' War; this neutrality spared the country from the ravages of a political-religious conflict that devastated most of contemporary Europe. The Commonwealth was able to hold its own against Sweden, the Tsardom of Russia, and vassals of the Ottoman Empire, and even launched successful expansionist offensives against its neighbors. In several invasions during the Time of Troubles, Commonwealth troops entered Russia and managed to take Moscow and hold it from 27 September 1610 to 4 November 1612, when they were driven out after a siege.[citation needed]

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1582

Commonwealth power began waning after a series of blows during the following decades. A major rebellion of Ukrainian Cossacks in the southeastern portion of the Commonwealth (the Khmelnytskyi Uprising in modern-day Ukraine) began in 1648. It resulted in a Ukrainian request, under the terms of the Treaty of Pereyaslav, for protection by the Russian Tsar.[44] Russian annexation of part of Ukraine gradually supplanted Polish influence. The other blow to the Commonwealth was a Swedish invasion in 1655, known as the Deluge, which was supported by troops of Transylvanian Duke George II Rákóczi and Frederick William, Elector of Brandenburg. The Tatars of the Crimean Khanate and the Nogai Horde conducted almost annual slave-raids in the eastern territories controlled by the Commonwealth.[45][46]

In the late 17th century, the king of the weakened Commonwealth, John III Sobieski, allied with Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I to deal crushing defeats to the Ottoman Empire. In 1683, the Battle of Vienna marked the final turning point in the 250-year struggle between the forces of Christian Europe and the Islamic Ottomans. For its centuries-long opposition to Muslim advances, the Commonwealth would gain the name of Antemurale Christianitatis (bulwark of Christianity).[21][47] During the next 16 years, the Great Turkish War would drive the Turks permanently south of the Danube River, never again to threaten central Europe.[48]

By the 18th century, destabilization of its political system brought Poland to the brink of civil war. The Commonwealth was facing many internal problems and was vulnerable to foreign influences. An outright war between the King and the nobility broke out in 1715, and Tsar Peter the Great's mediation put him in a position to further weaken the state.[49] The Russian army was present at the Silent Sejm of 1717, which limited the size of the armed forces to 24,000 and specified its funding, reaffirmed the destabilizing practice of liberum veto, and banished the king's Saxon army; the Tsar was to serve as guarantor of the agreement.[49] Western Europe's increasing exploitation of resources in the Americas rendered the Commonwealth's supplies less crucial.[50]

In 1764, nobleman Stanisław August Poniatowski was elected monarch with the connivance and support of his former lover Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia.[51] By 1768, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth started to be considered by Russians as the protectorate of the Russian Empire (despite the fact that it was officially still an independent state).[52][53] A majority of control over Poland was central to Catherine's diplomatic and military strategies.[54] Attempts at reform, such as the Four-Year Sejm's May Constitution, came too late. The country was partitioned in three stages by the neighbouring Russian Empire, the German Kingdom of Prussia, and the Habsburg Monarchy. By 1795, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth had been completely erased from the map of Europe. Poland and Lithuania were not re-established as independent countries until 1918.[55]

State organization and politics

Golden Liberty

The Republic at the Zenith of Its Power, the Royal Election of 1573

The political doctrine of the Commonwealth was our state is a republic under the presidency of the King. Chancellor Jan Zamoyski summed up this doctrine when he said that Rex regnat et non-gubernat ("The King reigns but [lit. 'and'] does not govern").[56] The Commonwealth had a parliament, the Sejm, as well as a Senat and an elected king (Pic. 1). The king was obliged to respect citizens' rights specified in King Henry's Articles as well as in pacta conventa, negotiated at the time of his election.[citation needed]

The monarch's power was limited in favor of a sizable noble class. Each new king had to pledge to uphold the Henrician Articles, which were the basis of Poland's political system (and included near-unprecedented guarantees of religious tolerance). Over time, the Henrician Articles were merged with the pacta conventa, specific pledges agreed to by the king-elect. From that point onwards, the king was effectively a partner with the noble class and was constantly supervised by a group of senators. The Sejm could veto the king on important matters, including legislation (the adoption of new laws), foreign affairs, declaration of war, and taxation (changes of existing taxes or the levying of new ones).[citation needed]

The foundation of the Commonwealth's political system, the "Golden Liberty" (Latin: Aurea Libertas or Polish: Złota Wolność, a term used from 1573 on), included:

  • election of the king by all nobles wishing to participate, known as wolna elekcja (free election);
  • Sejm, the Commonwealth parliament which the king was required to hold every two years;
  • pacta conventa (Latin), "agreed-to agreements" negotiated with the king-elect, including a bill of rights, binding on the king, derived from the earlier Henrician Articles.
  • religious freedom guaranteed by Warsaw Confederation Act 1573,[23][page needed]
  • rokosz (insurrection), the right of szlachta to form a legal rebellion against a king who violated their guaranteed freedoms;
  • liberum veto (Latin), the right of an individual Sejm deputy to oppose a decision by the majority in a Sejm session; the voicing of such a "free veto" nullified all the legislation that had been passed at that session; during the crisis of the second half of the 17th century, Polish nobles could also use the liberum veto in provincial sejmiks;
  • konfederacja (from the Latin confederatio), the right to form an organization to force through a common political aim.

The three regions (see below) of the Commonwealth enjoyed a degree of autonomy.[57][page needed] Each voivodship had its own parliament (sejmik), which exercised serious political power, including choice of poseł (deputy) to the national Sejm and charging of the deputy with specific voting instructions. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania had its own separate army, treasury and most other official institutions.[58][59]

Golden Liberty created a state that was unusual for its time, although somewhat similar political systems existed in the contemporary city-states like the Republic of Venice.[60][page needed] Both states were styled "Serenissima Respublica" or the "Most Serene Republic".[61] At a time when most European countries were headed toward centralization, absolute monarchy and religious and dynastic warfare, the Commonwealth experimented with decentralization,[21] confederation and federation, democracy and religious tolerance.[62]

This political system unusual for its time stemmed from the ascendance of the szlachta noble class over other social classes and over the political system of monarchy. In time, the szlachta accumulated enough privileges (such as those established by the Nihil novi Act of 1505) that no monarch could hope to break the szlachta's grip on power. The Commonwealth's political system is difficult to fit into a simple category, but it can be tentatively described as a mixture of:

  • confederation and federation, with regard to the broad autonomy of its regions. It is, however, difficult to decisively call the Commonwealth either confederation or federation, as it had some qualities of both;
  • oligarchy,[21] as only the szlachta (nobility) – around 15% of the population – had political rights;
  • democracy, since all the szlachta were equal in rights and privileges, and the Sejm could veto the king on important matters, including legislation (the adoption of new laws), foreign affairs, declaration of war, and taxation (changes of existing taxes or the levying of new ones). Also, the 15% of Commonwealth population who enjoyed those political rights (the szlachta)[63] was a substantially larger percentage than in majority European countries even in the nineteenth century;[64] note that in 1820 in France only about 1.5% of the male adult population had the right to vote, and in 1840 in Belgium, only about 5%.[63][64]
  • elective monarchy, since the monarch, elected by the szlachta, was Head of State;
  • constitutional monarchy, since the monarch was bound by pacta conventa and other laws, and the szlachta could disobey any king's decrees they deemed illegal.


The Troelfth Cake, an allegory of the First Partition of Poland. Contemporary drawing by Jean-Michel Moreau le Jeune

The end of the Jagiellonian dynasty in 1572 – after nearly two centuries – disrupted the fragile equilibrium of the Commonwealth's government. Power increasingly slipped away from the central government to the nobility.[citation needed]

When presented with periodic opportunities to fill the throne, the szlachta exhibited a preference for foreign candidates who would not establish a strong and long-lasting dynasty. This policy often produced monarchs who were either totally ineffective or in constant debilitating conflict with the nobility.[citation needed] Furthermore, aside from notable exceptions such as the able Stefan Batory from Transylvania (1576–86), the kings of foreign origin were inclined to subordinate the interests of the Commonwealth to those of their own country and ruling house. This was especially visible in the policies and actions of the first two elected kings from the Swedish House of Vasa, whose politics brought the Commonwealth into conflict with Sweden, culminating in the war known as the Deluge (1655), one of the events that mark the end of the Commonwealth's Golden Age and the beginning of the Commonwealth's decline.[65]

The Zebrzydowski Rebellion (1606–1607) marked a substantial increase in the power of the Polish magnates, and the transformation of szlachta democracy into magnate oligarchy. The Commonwealth's political system was vulnerable to outside interference, as Sejm deputies bribed[66][67] by foreign powers might use their liberum veto to block attempted reforms. This sapped the Commonwealth and plunged it into political paralysis and anarchy for over a century, from the mid-17th century to the end of the 18th, while its neighbours stabilized their internal affairs and increased their military might.[citation needed]

Late reforms

The Constitution of 3 May adopted in 1791 was the first modern constitution in Europe.

The Commonwealth did eventually make a serious effort to reform its political system, adopting in 1791 the Constitution of 3 May 1791, which historian Norman Davies calls the first of its kind in Europe.[35] The revolutionary Constitution recast the erstwhile Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth as a Polish–Lithuanian federal state with a hereditary monarchy and abolished many of the deleterious features of the old system.

The new constitution:

These reforms came too late, however, as the Commonwealth was immediately invaded from all sides by its neighbors, which had been content to leave the Commonwealth alone as a weak buffer state, but reacted strongly to attempts by king Stanislaus Augustus and other reformers to strengthen the country.[57][page needed] Russia feared the revolutionary implications of the 3 May Constitution's political reforms and the prospect of the Commonwealth regaining its position as a European power. Catherine the Great regarded the May constitution as fatal to her influence[68] and declared the Polish constitution Jacobinical.[69] Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin drafted the act for the Targowica Confederation, referring to the constitution as the "contagion of democratic ideas".[70] Meanwhile, Prussia and Austria used it as a pretext for further territorial expansion.[69] Prussian minister Ewald Friedrich von Hertzberg called the constitution "a blow to the Prussian monarchy",[71] fearing that a strengthened Poland would once again dominate Prussia.[68][72] In the end, the 3 May Constitution was never fully implemented, and the Commonwealth entirely ceased to exist only four years after its adoption.[73]


Gdańsk (Danzig), the Commonwealth's chief seaport and trading centre from which goods would be transported along the Vistula River to Warsaw, Kraków and other towns in the country.
Cereals exports in the years 1619–1799. Agriculture, once extremely profitable to the nobility, became much less so after the mid-17th century.

The economy of the Commonwealth was predominantly based on agricultural output and trade, though there was an abundance of artisan workshops and manufactories — notably paper mills, leather tanneries, ironworks, glassworks and brickyards.[74] Some major cities were home to craftsmen, jewellers and clockmakers.[74] The majority of industries and trades were concentrated in the Kingdom of Poland; the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was more rural and its economy was driven by farming and clothmaking.[74] Mining developed in the south-west region of Poland which was rich in natural resources such as lead, coal, copper and salt.[75] The currency used in Poland–Lithuania was the złoty (meaning "the golden") and its subunit, the grosz. Foreign coins in the form of ducats, thalers and shillings were widely accepted and exchanged.[76] The city of Gdańsk (Danzig) had the privilege of minting its own coinage.[77] In 1794, Tadeusz Kościuszko began issuing the first Polish banknotes.[78]

The country played a significant role in the supply of Western Europe by the export of grain (rye), cattle (oxen), furs, timber, linen, cannabis, ash, tar, carminic acid and amber.[79][80][81][82] Cereals, cattle and fur amounted to nearly 90% of the country's exports to European markets by overland and maritime trade in the 16th century.[81] From Gdańsk, ships carried cargo to the major ports of the Low Countries, such as Antwerp and Amsterdam.[83][84] The land routes, mostly to the German provinces of the Holy Roman Empire such as the cities of Leipzig and Nuremberg, were used for the export of live cattle (herds of around 50,000 head) hides, salt, tobacco, hemp and cotton from the Greater Poland region.[85][86] In turn, the Commonwealth imported wine, beer, fruit, exotic spices, luxury goods (e.g. tapestries, Pic. 5), furniture, fabrics as well as industrial products like steel and tools.[87]

The agricultural sector was dominated by feudalism based on the plantation system (serfs).[30] Slavery was forbidden in Poland in the 15th century, and formally abolished in Lithuania in 1588,[88] replaced by the second enserfment. Typically a nobleman's landholding comprised a folwark, a large farmstead worked by serfs to produce surpluses for internal and external trade. This economic arrangement worked well for the ruling classes and nobles in the early years of the Commonwealth, which was one of the most prosperous eras of the grain trade.[89] The economic strength of Commonwealth grain trade waned from the late 17th century on. Trade relationships were disrupted by the wars, and the Commonwealth proved unable to improve its transport infrastructure or its agricultural practices.[90] Serfs in the region were increasingly tempted to flee.[91] The Commonwealth's major attempts at countering this problem and improving productivity consisted of increasing serfs' workload and further restricting their freedoms in a process known as export-led serfdom.[90][91]

The owner of a folwark usually signed a contract with merchants of Gdańsk, who controlled 80% of this inland trade, to ship the grain north to that seaport on the Baltic Sea.[92] Countless rivers and waterways in the Commonwealth were used for shipping purposes, including the Vistula, Pilica, Bug, San, Nida, Wieprz, Neman. The rivers had relatively developed infrastructure, with river ports and granaries. Most of the river shipping moved north, southward transport being less profitable, and barges and rafts were often sold off in Gdańsk for lumber. Grodno become an important site after formation of a customs post at Augustów in 1569, which became a checkpoint for merchants travelling to the Crown lands from the Grand Duchy.[93]

Coat of arms of the Commonwealth on a 15 ducat coin featuring Sigismund III, 1617
5- złoty banknote issued in 1794

Urban population of the Commonwealth was low compared to Western Europe. Exact numbers depend on calculation methods. According to one source, the urban population of the Commonwealth was about 20% of the total in the 17th century, compared to approximately 50% in the Netherlands and Italy (Pic. 7).[82] Another source suggests much lower figures: 4–8% urban population in Poland, 34–39% in the Netherlands and 22–23% in Italy.[94] The Commonwealth's preoccupation with agriculture, coupled with the nobles' privileged position when compared to the bourgeoisie, resulted in a fairly slow process of urbanization and thus a rather slow development of industries.[82] The nobility could also regulate the price of grain for their advantage, thus acquiring much wealth. Some of the largest trade fairs in the Commonwealth were held at Lublin.[95]

Several ancient trading routes such as the Amber Road (Pic. 4)[96] extended across Poland–Lithuania, which was situated in the heart of Europe and attracted foreign merchants or settlers.[97] Countless goods and cultural artefacts continued to pass from one region to another via the Commonwealth, particularly that the country was a link between the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire and Western Europe.[98] For instance, Isfahan rugs imported from Persia to the Commonwealth were incorrectly known as "Polish rugs" (French: Polonaise) in Western Europe.[99]


Winged Hussars were a heavy cavalry formation serving the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland throughout the 16th and 17th centuries.
Krakow Militia, a local guard formation in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth during the 16th and 17th centuries

The military in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth evolved from the merger of the armies from the Polish Kingdom and from the Grand Lithuanian Duchy, though each state maintained its own division.[100] The united armed forces comprised the Crown Army (armia koronna), recruited in Poland, and the Lithuanian Army (armia litewska) in the Grand Duchy.[100] The military was headed by the Hetman, a rank equivalent to that of a general or supreme commander in other countries. Monarchs could not declare war or summon an army without the consent of the Sejm parliament or the Senate.[101] The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth Navy never played a major role in the military structure from the mid-17th century onwards.[102]

The most prestigious formation of the Polish army was its 16th- and 17th-century heavy cavalry in the form of Winged Hussars (husaria), whereas the Royal Foot Guards (Regiment Gwardii Pieszej Koronnej) were the elite of the infantry; the regiment supervised the king and his family.[103] In 1788, the Great Sejm approved landslide reforms and defined future structures of the military; the Crown Army was to be split into four divisions, with seventeen field infantry regiments and eight cavalry brigades excluding special units; the Lithuanian Army was to be subdivided into two divisions, eight field regiments and two cavalry brigades excluding special units.[104] If implemented, the reform predicted an army of almost 100,000 men.[105]

The armies of those states differed from the organization common in other parts of Europe; according to Bardach, the mercenary formations (wojsko najemne), common in Western Europe, never gained widespread popularity in Poland.[106] Brzezinski, however, notes that foreign mercenaries did form a significant portion of the more elite infantry units, at least until the early 17th century.[107] In 16th-century Poland, several other formations formed the core of the military.[108] There was a small standing army, obrona potoczna ("continuous defense") about 1,500–3,000 strong, paid for by the king, and primarily stationed at the troubled southern and eastern borders.[108][109] It was supplemented by two formations mobilized in case of war — the pospolite ruszenie (Polish for levée en masse – feudal levy of mostly noble knights-landholders), and the wojsko zaciężne, recruited by the Polish commanders for the conflict. It differed from other European mercenary formations in that it was commanded by Polish officers, and dissolved after the conflict has ended.[108]

A Polish dragoon, 17th century

Several years before the Union of Lublin, the Polish obrona potoczna was reformed, as the Sejm (national parliament of Poland) legislated in 1562–1563 the creation of wojsko kwarciane, named after kwarta tax levied on the royal lands for the purpose of maintaining this formation.[108] This formation was also paid for by the king, and in the peacetime, numbered about 3,500–4,000 men according to Bardach;[108] Brzezinski gives the range of 3,000–5,000.[109] It was composed mostly of the light cavalry units manned by nobility (szlachta) and commanded by hetmans.[108][110] Often, in wartime, the Sejm would legislate a temporary increase in the size of the wojsko kwarciane.[108]

Following the end of the Commonwealth, Polish military tradition would be continued by the Napoleonic Polish Legions and the Army of the Duchy of Warsaw.[111]


Science and literature

Multi-stage rocket from Artis Magnæ Artilleriæ pars prima by Casimir Siemienowicz

The Commonwealth was an important European center for the development of modern social and political ideas. It was famous for its rare quasi-democratic political system, praised by philosophers, and during the Counter-Reformation was known for near-unparalleled religious tolerance, with peacefully coexisting Roman Catholic, Jewish, Orthodox Christian, Protestant and Muslim (Sufi) communities. In the 18th century, the French Catholic Rulhiere wrote of 16th century Poland: "This country, which in our day we have seen divided on the pretext of religion, is the first state in Europe that exemplified tolerance. In this state, mosques arose between churches and synagogues."[31] The Commonwealth gave rise to the famous Christian sect of the Polish Brethren, antecedents of British and American Unitarianism.[112]

With its political system, the Commonwealth gave birth to political philosophers such as Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski (1503–1572) (Pic. 9), Wawrzyniec Grzymała Goślicki (1530–1607) and Piotr Skarga (1536–1612). Later, works by Stanisław Staszic (1755–1826) and Hugo Kołłątaj (1750–1812) helped pave the way for the Constitution of 3 May 1791, which Norman Davies calls the first of its kind in Europe.[35]

Commonwealth referred to as 'Polonian Empyre' in the title page of Goślicki's The Counsellor published in England in 1598

Kraków's Jagiellonian University is one of the oldest universities in the world (established in 1364),[113] together with the Jesuit Academy of Wilno (established in 1579) they were the major scholarly and scientific centers in the Commonwealth. The Komisja Edukacji Narodowej, Polish for Commission for National Education, formed in 1773, was the world's first national Ministry of Education.[114] Commonwealth scientists included: Martin Kromer (1512–1589), historian and cartographer; Michael Sendivogius (1566–1636), alchemist and chemist; Jan Brożek (Ioannes Broscius in Latin) (1585–1652), polymath: a mathematician, physician and astronomer; Krzysztof Arciszewski (Crestofle d'Artischau Arciszewski in Portuguese) (1592–1656), engineer, ethnographer, general and admiral of the Dutch West Indies Company army in the war with the Spanish Empire for control of Brazil;[115] Kazimierz Siemienowicz (1600–1651), military engineer, artillery specialist and a founder of rocketry; Johannes Hevelius (1611–1687), astronomer, founder of lunar topography; Michał Boym (1612–1659), orientalist, cartographer, naturalist and diplomat in Ming Dynasty's service (Pic. 11); Adam Adamandy Kochański (1631–1700), mathematician and engineer; Baal Shem Tov (הבעל שם טוב in Hebrew) (1698–1760), considered to be the founder of Hasidic Judaism; Marcin Odlanicki Poczobutt (1728–1810), astronomer and mathematician (Pic. 12); Jan Krzysztof Kluk (1739–1796), naturalist, agronomist and entomologist, John Jonston (1603–1675) scholar and physician, descended from Scottish nobility. In 1628 the Czech teacher, scientist, educator, and writer John Amos Comenius took refuge in the Commonwealth, when the Protestants were persecuted under the Counter Reformation.[112][116]

The works of many Commonwealth authors are considered classics, including those of Jan Kochanowski (Pic. 10), Wacław Potocki, Ignacy Krasicki, and Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz. Many szlachta members wrote memoirs and diaries. Perhaps the most famous are the Memoirs of Polish History by Albrycht Stanisław Radziwiłł (1595–1656) and the Memoirs of Jan Chryzostom Pasek (ca. 1636–ca. 1701). Jakub Sobieski (1590–1646) (father of John III Sobieski) wrote notable diaries. During the Khotyn expedition in 1621 he wrote a diary called Commentariorum chotinensis belli libri tres (Diary of the Chocim War), which was published in 1646 in Gdańsk. It was used by Wacław Potocki as a basis for his epic poem, Transakcja wojny chocimskiej (The Progress of the War of Chocim). He also authored instructions for the journey of his sons to Kraków (1640) and France (1645), a good example of liberal education of the era.[117]

Art and music

An example of a coffin portrait, mid-17th century

The art and music of the Commonwealth was largely shaped by prevailing European trends, though the country's minorities, foreigners as well as native folk cultures also contributed to its versatile nature. A common art form of the Sarmatian period were coffin portraits (portrety trumienne) used in funerals and other important ceremonies.[118] As a rule, such portraits were nailed to sheet metal, six- or eight- sided in shape, fixed to the front of a coffin placed on a high, ornate catafalque.[119] These were a unique and distinguishable feature of the Commonwealth's high culture, not found elsewhere in Europe.[120] A similar tradition was only practiced in Roman Egypt.[120] Polish monarchs and nobles frequently invited and sponsored foreign painters and artisans, notably from the Low Countries (the Netherlands, Flanders and Belgium), Germany or Italy.[121] The interiors of upper-class residences, palaces and manors were adorned by wall tapestries (arrasy or tapiseria) imported from Western Europe; the most renowned collection are the Jagiellonian tapestries exhibited at Wawel Royal Castle in Kraków.[122]

Polonaise dress
Polonaise bed
Polonaise dress (left) and the Polish bed (right), both from the 18th century

The economic, cultural and political ties between France and the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth gave rise to the term à la polonaise, French for "Polish-styled".[123] With the marriage of Marie Leszczyńska to Louis XV of France in 1725, Polish culture began to flourish at the Palace of Versailles.[124] Polish beds (lit à la polonaise) draped with baldachins became a centrepiece of Louis XV furniture in French chateaus.[125] Folk flower motifs as well as Polish fashion were popularized in the form of a back-draped polonaise dress (robe à la polonaise) worn by aristocrats at Versailles.[126]

The religious cultures of Poland–Lithuania coexisted and penetrated each other for the entirety of the Commonwealth's history – the Jews adopted elements of the national dress,[127] loanwords and calques became commonplace and Roman Catholic churches in regions with significant Protestant populations were much simpler in décor than those in other parts of Poland–Lithuania.[128] Mutual influence was further reflected in the great popularity of Byzantine icons (Pic. 13) and the icons resembling effigies of Mary in the predominantly Latin territories of today's Poland (Black Madonna) and Lithuania (Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn).[129] Conversely, Latin infiltration into Ruthenian Orthodox and Protestant art was also conventional (Pic. 3).[130]

Music was a common feature of religious and secular events. To that end many noblemen founded church and school choirs, and employed their own ensembles of musicians. Some, like Stanisław Lubomirski built their own opera houses (in Nowy Wiśnicz). Others, like Janusz Skumin Tyszkiewicz and Krzysztof Radziwiłł were known for their sponsorship of arts which manifested itself in their permanently retained orchestras, at their courts in Wilno (Vilnius).[131] Musical life further flourished under the House of Vasa. Both foreign and domestic composers were active in the Commonwealth. Sigismund III brought in Italian composers and conductors, such as Luca Marenzio, Annibale Stabile, Asprilio Pacelli, Marco Scacchi and Diomedes Cato for the royal orchestra. Notable home grown musicians, who also composed and played for the King's court, included Bartłomiej Pękiel, Jacek Różycki, Adam Jarzębski, Marcin Mielczewski, Stanisław Sylwester Szarzyński, Damian Stachowicz, Mikołaj Zieleński and Grzegorz Gorczycki.[131]


Wilanów Palace, completed in 1696, exemplifies the opulence of royal and noble residences in the Commonwealth.

The architecture of the cities in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth reflected a combination of Polish, German and Italian trends. Italian Mannerism or the Late Renaissance had a profound impact on traditional burgher architecture which can be observed to this day – castles and tenements were fitted with central Italianate courtyards composed of arched loggias, colonnades, bay windows, balconies, portals and ornamental balustrades.[132] Ceiling frescos, sgraffito, plafonds and coffering (patterned ceilings; Polish kaseton; from Italian cassettone) were widespread.[133] Rooftops were generally covered with terracotta rooftiles. The most distinguishable feature of Polish Mannerism are decorative "attics" above the cornice on the façade.[134] Cities in northern Poland–Lithuania and in Livonia adopted the Hanseatic (or "Dutch") style as their primary form of architectural expression, comparable to that of the Netherlands, Belgium, northern Germany and Scandinavia.[135]

Influence of Italian styles is evident in Polish architecture. The " attics" and sharp pinnacles along the cornice are a distinct feature.

The introduction of Baroque architecture was marked by construction of several Jesuit and Roman Catholic churches across Poland and Lithuania, notably the Peter and Paul Church in Kraków, the Corpus Christi Church in Nesvizh, Lublin Cathedral and UNESCO-enlisted sanctuary at Kalwaria Zebrzydowska. Fine examples of decorative Baroque and Rococo include Saint Anne's in Kraków and the Fara Church in Poznań. Another characteristic is the common usage of black marble.[136] Altars, fonts, portals, balustrades, columns, monuments, tombstones, headstones and whole rooms (e.g. Marble Room at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, St. Casimir Chapel of the Vilnius Cathedral and Vasa Chapel at Wawel Cathedral) were extensively decorated with black marble, which became popular after the mid-17th century.[137]

Magnates often undertook construction projects as monuments to themselves: churches, cathedrals, monasteries (Pic. 14), and palaces like the present-day Presidential Palace in Warsaw and Pidhirtsi Castle built by Grand Hetman Stanisław Koniecpolski. The largest projects involved entire towns, although in time many of them would lapse into obscurity or were abandoned. These towns were generally named after the sponsoring magnate. Among the most prominent is Zamość, founded by Jan Zamoyski and designed by the Italian architect Bernardo Morando as an ideal city. The magnates throughout Poland competed with the kings. The monumental castle Krzyżtopór, built in the style palazzo in fortezza between 1627 and 1644, had several courtyards surrounded by fortifications. Similar fortified complexes include castles in Łańcut and Krasiczyn.

The fascination with the culture and art of the Orient in the late Baroque period is reflected by Queen Marie's Chinese Palace in Zolochiv (Złoczów).[138] 18th-century magnate palaces represents the characteristic type of Baroque suburban residence built entre cour et jardin (between the entrance court and the garden). Its architecture – a merger of European art with old Commonwealth building traditions are visible in Wilanów Palace in Warsaw (Pic. 15), Branicki Palace in Białystok, Potocki Palace in Radzyń Podlaski, Raczyński Palace in Rogalin, Nieborów Palace and Kozłówka Palace near Lubartów. Lesser nobility resided in country manor houses known as dworek. Neoclassicism replaced Baroque by the second-half of the 18th century – the last ruler of the Poland–Lithuania, Stanislaus II Augustus, greatly admired the classical architecture of Ancient Rome and promoted it as a symbol of the Polish Enlightenment.[139] The Palace on the Isle and the exterior of St. Anne's Church in Warsaw are part of the neoclassical legacy of the former Commonwealth.

Szlachta and Sarmatism

Sarmatian woman
The First Lady of the Republic [140]Elżbieta Sieniawska portrayed in Sarmata pose and in a male coat called delia
Sarmatian man
Sarmatian style for men; moustache, red kontusz coat, gold-silk pas with blue sash of the Order of the White Eagle

The prevalent ideology of the szlachta became "Sarmatism", named after the Sarmatians, alleged ancestors of the Poles.[72] This belief system was an important part of szlachta culture, penetrating all aspects of its life. Sarmatism enshrined equality among szlachta, horseback riding, tradition, provincial quaint life in manor houses, peace and pacifism; championed oriental-inspired souvenirs or attire for men (żupan, kontusz, sukmana, pas kontuszowy, delia, szabla); favoured European Baroque architecture; endorsed Latin as a language of thought or expression; and served to integrate the multi-ethnic nobility by creating an almost nationalistic sense of unity and of pride in Golden Liberty.[72]

In its early, idealistic form, Sarmatism represented a positive cultural movement: it supported religious belief, honesty, national pride, courage, equality and freedom. In time, however, it became distorted. Late extreme Sarmatism turned belief into bigotry, honesty into political naïveté, pride into arrogance, courage into stubbornness and freedom into anarchy.[141] The faults of Sarmatism were blamed for the demise of the country from the late 18th century onwards. Criticism, often one-sided and exaggerated, was used by the Polish reformists to push for radical changes. This self-deprecation was accompanied by works of German, Russian and Austrian historians, who tried to prove that it was Poland itself that was to blame for its fall.[142]


Social strata in the Commonwealth's society in 1655. From left: Jew, barber surgeon, painter, butcher, musician, tailor, barmaid, pharmacist, shoemaker, goldsmith, merchant and Armenian
Density of urban network per each voivodeship (province) in 1650

The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth was immensely multicultural throughout its existence — it comprised countless religious identities and ethnic minorities inhabiting the country's vast territory.[143] The precise number of minority groups and their populations can only be hypothesized.[144] Statistically, the most prominent groups were the Poles, Lithuanians, Germans, Ruthenians and Jews.[145] There were also considerable numbers of Czechs, Hungarians, Livonians, Romanis, Vlachs, Armenians, Italians, Scots and the Dutch (Olędrzy), who were either categorized as merchants, settlers or refugees fleeing religious persecution.[145]

Prior to the union with Lithuania, the Kingdom of Poland was much more homogenous; approximately 70% of the population was Polish and Roman Catholic.[146] With the creation of the Commonwealth, the number of Poles in comparison to the total population decreased to 50%.[147] In 1569, the population stood at 7 million, with roughly 4.5 million Poles, 750,000 Lithuanians, 700,000 Jews and 2 million Ruthenians.[148] Historians Michał Kopczyński and Wojciech Tygielski suggest that with the territorial expansion after the Truce of Deulino in 1618, the Commonwealth's population reached 12 million people, of which Poles constituted only 40%.[147][15] At that time the nobility made up 10% of the entire population and the burghers around 15%.[15] The average population density per square kilometer was: 24 in Mazovia, 23 in Lesser Poland, 19 in Greater Poland, 12 in Lublin palatinate, 10 in the Lwów area, 7 in Podolia and Volhynia, and 3 in the Kiev Voivodeship. There was a tendency for the people from the more densely inhabited western territories to migrate eastwards.[149]

A sudden change in the country's demographics occurred in the mid-17th century.[15] The Second Northern War and the Deluge followed by famine in the period from 1648 to 1657 were accountable for at least 4 million deaths.[15] Coupled with further territorial losses, by 1717 the population had fallen to 9 million.[15] The population slowly recovered throughout the 18th century; just before the first partition of Poland in 1772, the Commonwealth's population was 14 million, including around 1 million nobles.[150] In 1792, the population of Poland was around 11 million and included 750,000 nobles.[150]

The most multicultural and robust city in the country was Gdańsk (Danzig), a major Hanseatic seaport on the Baltic and Poland's wealthiest region. Gdańsk at the time was inhabited by a German-speaking majority[151] and further hosted large numbers of foreign merchants, particularly of Scottish, Dutch or Scandinavian extraction.[152] Historically, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was more diverse than the Kingdom of Poland, and was deemed a melting pot of many cultures and religions.[153] Hence, the inhabitants of the Grand Duchy were collectively known as Litvins regardless of their nationality, with the exception of Jews residing in Lithuania who were called Litvaks.

Despite guaranteed religious tolerance, gradual Polonization and Counter-Reformation sought to minimize the Commonwealth's diversity; the aim was to root out some minorities by imposing the Polish language, Latin, Polish culture and the Roman Catholic religion where possible.[154] By the late 18th century, the Lithuanian language, culture and identity became vulnerable;[154] the country's name was changed to "Commonwealth of Poland" in 1791.


The Warsaw Confederation signed on 28 January 1573 secured the rights of minorities and religions;[155] it allowed all persons to worship any faith freely, though religious tolerance varied at times. As outlined by Norman Davies, "the wording and substance of the declaration of the Confederation of Warsaw of were extraordinary with regards to prevailing conditions elsewhere in Europe; and they governed the principles of religious life in the Republic for over two hundred years."[156]

Poland retained religious freedom laws during an era when religious persecution was an everyday occurrence in the rest of Europe.[157] The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth was a place where the most radical religious sects, trying to escape persecution in other countries of the Christian world, sought refuge.[158] In 1561 Giovanni Bernardino Bonifacio d’Oria, a religious exile living in Poland, wrote of his adopted country's virtues to a colleague back in Italy: "You could live here in accordance with your ideas and preferences, in great, even the greatest freedoms, including writing and publishing. No one is a censor here."[31] Others, particularly the leaders of the Roman Catholic church, the Jesuits and papal legates, were less optimistic about Poland's religious frivolity.

"This country became a place of shelter for heretics" – Cardinal Stanislaus Hosius, papal legate to Poland.[158]

Original act of the Warsaw Confederation in 1573, the first act of religious freedom in Europe

To be Polish, in remote and multi-ethnic parts of the Commonwealth, was then much less an index of ethnicity than of religion and rank; it was a designation largely reserved for the landed noble class (szlachta), which included Poles, but also many members of non-Polish origin who converted to Catholicism in increasing numbers with each following generation. For the non-Polish noble such conversion meant a final step of Polonization that followed the adoption of the Polish language and culture.[159] Poland, as the culturally most advanced part of the Commonwealth, with the royal court, the capital, the largest cities, the second-oldest university in Central Europe (after Prague), and the more liberal and democratic social institutions had proven an irresistible magnet for the non-Polish nobility in the Commonwealth.[21] Many referred to themselves as "gente Ruthenus, natione Polonus" (Ruthenian by blood, Polish by nationality) since the 16th century onwards.[160]

The Greek-Catholic St. George's Cathedral in Lwów was constructed between 1746 and 1762 following the Act of Unification of the Lwów archeparchy with the Holy See. [161]
The church in Kamieniec Podolski was converted into a mosque during the Turkish occupation between 1672 and 1699, with the 33-meter minaret being added at that time. [162]

As a result, in the eastern territories a Polish (or Polonized) aristocracy dominated a peasantry whose great majority was neither Polish nor Catholic. Moreover, the decades of peace brought huge colonization efforts to the eastern territories (nowadays roughly western and central Ukraine),[163] heightening the tensions among nobles, Jews, Cossacks (traditionally Orthodox), Polish and Ruthenian peasants. The latter, deprived of their native protectors among the Ruthenian nobility, turned for protection to cossacks that facilitated violence that in the end broke the Commonwealth. The tensions were aggravated by conflicts between Eastern Orthodoxy and the Greek Catholic Church following the Union of Brest, overall discrimination of Orthodox religions by dominant Catholicism,[164] and several Cossack uprisings. In the west and north, many cities had sizable German minorities, often belonging to Lutheran or Reformed churches. The Commonwealth had also one of the largest Jewish diasporas in the world – by the mid-16th century 80% of the world's Jews lived in Poland (Pic. 16).[165]

Until the Reformation, the szlachta were mostly Catholics (Pic. 13). However, many noble families quickly adopted the Reformed religion. After the Counter-Reformation, when the Catholic Church regained power in Poland, the szlachta became almost exclusively Catholic.[166]

The Crown had about double the population of Lithuania and five times the income of the latter's treasury. As with other countries, the borders, area and population of the Commonwealth varied over time. After the Peace of Jam Zapolski (1582), the Commonwealth had approximately 815,000 km2 area and a population of 7.5 million.[167] After the Truce of Deulino (1618), the Commonwealth had an area of some 990,000 km2 and a population of 11–12 million (including some 4 million Poles and close to a million Lithuanians).[168]


First anniversary anthem of the Constitution of 3 May 1791 (1792) in Hebrew, Polish, German and French


The Duchy of Warsaw, established in 1807 by Napoleon Bonaparte, traced its origins to the Commonwealth. Other revival movements appeared during the November Uprising (1830–31), the January Uprising (1863–64) and in the 1920s, with Józef Piłsudski's failed attempt to create a Polish-led Intermarium (Międzymorze) federation that, at its largest extent, would span from Finland in the north to the Balkans in the south.[195] The contemporary Republic of Poland considers itself a successor to the Commonwealth,[196] whereas the Republic of Lithuania, re-established at the end of World War I, saw the participation of the Lithuanian state in the old Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth mostly in a negative light at the early stages of regaining its independence,[197] although this attitude has been changing in recent years.[198]

Administrative divisions

Outline of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth with its major subdivisions after the 1618 Truce of Deulino, superimposed on present-day national borders.
   Duchy of Prussia, Polish fief
   Duchy of Courland and Semigallia, Commonwealth fief

While the term "Poland" was also commonly used to denote this whole polity, Poland was in fact only part of a greater whole – the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, which comprised primarily two parts:

The Commonwealth was further divided into smaller administrative units known as voivodeships (województwa). Each voivodeship was governed by a Voivode (wojewoda, governor). Voivodeships were further divided into starostwa, each starostwo being governed by a starosta. Cities were governed by castellans. There were frequent exceptions to these rules, often involving the ziemia subunit of administration.[citation needed]

The lands that once belonged to the Commonwealth are now largely distributed among several Central and East European countries: Poland, Ukraine, Moldova (Transnistria), Belarus, Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.[199][200] Also some small towns in Upper Hungary (today mostly Slovakia), became a part of Poland in the Treaty of Lubowla (Spiš towns).

Other notable parts of the Commonwealth, without respect to region or voivodeship divisions, include:

Commonwealth borders shifted with wars and treaties, sometimes several times in a decade, especially in the eastern and southern parts. After the Peace of Jam Zapolski (1582), the Commonwealth had approximately 815,000 km2 area and a population of 7.5 million.[167] After the Truce of Deulino (1618), the Commonwealth had an area of some 1 million km2 (990,000 km2) and a population of about 11 million.[168]


Topographical map of the Commonwealth in 1764

In the 16th century, the Polish bishop and cartographer Martin Kromer, who studied in Bologna, published a Latin atlas, entitled Poland: about Its Location, People, Culture, Offices and the Polish Commonwealth, which was regarded as one of the most comprehensive guides to the country.[202]

Kromer's works and other contemporary maps, such as those of Gerardus Mercator, show the Commonwealth as mostly plains. The Commonwealth's southeastern part, the Kresy, was famous for its steppes. The Carpathian Mountains formed part of the southern border, with the Tatra Mountain chain the highest, and the Baltic Sea formed the Commonwealth's northern border. As with most European countries at the time, the Commonwealth had extensive forest cover, especially in the east. Today, what remains of the Białowieża Forest constitutes the last largely intact primeval forest in Europe.[203]

Image gallery

See also