1.07.2019 450th anniversary of the Union of Lublin

450th anniversary of the Union of Lublin

2019 is the year of 450th anniversary of the Union of Lublin, a legal act of utmost importance that significantly impacted the history of Central and East Europe and its population. The decisions made in 1569 led to creation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a multicultural, multilingual and religiously diverse country whose legacy affected to various extent the creation of peoples who now live in its former territory: Belorussians, Lithuanians, Poles, and Ukrainians.  This impact was appraised differently in various historiographies, and the problem of significance of the Union of Lublin still causes heated discussions. The tendency to choose a position depending on current political interests is very strong among us. The Sejm that approved the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth lasted from January to August of 1659 and had quite a tempestuous history. There is not enough space here to describe all the details of the negotiations and provide the complete calendar of results. However, we must briefly remind how the event occurred.

In 1560s Europe was a battleground of many conflicts. The Reformation had been going on, new confessions had sharp discussions with the Catholicism which led to political and sometimes military opposition.  England, Scotland, and Sweden officially turned to the Protestant side. Germany, France, Poland, and Lithuania suffered internal divisions. Spain, Portugal, and Italy. which was split into many small states, remained Catholic. At the same time dynasties of Habsburgs, who ruled over the Empire and Spain, and Valois, who represented French ambitions, competed for the domination in Europe. The 16th century is considered the time of creation of centralized states with strong monarchical power, but in fact the political map of Europe at that time was awash with states with complex inner structure and dynastic connections.  Spain was largely theoretical concept at that time. King Philip ІІ ruled over separate kingdoms of Castille and Aragon, and several other states, such as the Netherlands, Burgundy, Naples, Sicily, Sardinia, the duchy of Milan, etc. The German Empire was a conglomerate of various big and small territories with some degree of independence. In addition, the “empire” of Austrian Habsburgs included many countries with separate political systems, such as Hungary, Bohemia, Austria, Carinthia, Tirol and many small principalities, counties, and domains. The English King also ruled over Ireland, the Danish monarch ruled over Norway, and the Swedish one over Finland. Even France that seemed monolithic was separated into pays d’élections, i. e. royal districts ruled by pays d’états, with strong regional institutions, the rudiments of former independence. In this context, the union of the Polish Kingdom and the Great Duchy of Lithuania seemed quite natural.

Both countries had had a common strategic interest, the struggle against the expansive crusaders’ order, since the end of 14th century. In 16th century they succeeded in final crushing of the crusaders, although those left an inheritance of the Duchy of Prussia, a vassal state of Poland. After a little while the state of the Order of the Brothers of the Sword (Livonia), a neighbour and ally of the crusaders, also began to decline. This created an area of the geopolitical vacuum that encouraged all powerful neighbours to act. Sweden, Denmark, Prussia, and first and foremost, Muscovy began to pretend to control the unstable territory. Sigismund Augustus, who ruled over Poland and Lithuania, thought that the annexation of Livonia to his realm as an autonomy was the only way to achieve stability, and that the expansion of Northern and Eastern neighbours, particularly Muscovy, will be a deadly threat to this stability. He wanted to consolidate his position at the Baltic coast and create a “Marine state”.   

Ivan Grozny’s Muscovy was considered the main strategic adversary not only because of the altercation over Livonia, but first of all because of almost bicentennial competition between the Great Duchy of Lithuania and the Great Duchy of Moscow over the Russian lands, the heritage of Kievan Rus. Initially Lithuania was successful in this contest for more than a century, but since the end of the 15th century it only suffered losses. Its eastern border moved from the fields not far from Moscow to the Dvina river, when Ivan Grozny’s army captured Polotsk in 1563. The Great Duchy of Lithuania not only switched to defence, but was under a real threat.

Sigismund Augustus was sure that the Polish Crown and the Great Duchy could tackle the great challenges of the international politics only together in a close alliance. At the same time he thought about the order of the countries that he ruled over. As many other European conglomerates of countries, Poland and Lithuania had a dynastic bond that could be easily broken after the death of a childless monarch. The last of Jagiellons understood this threat and decided to transform the dynastic union into a monolithic state structure that could survive a dynastic crisis.  That is why his attitude towards the Polish-Lithuanian alliance changed from skepticism to enthusiasm in the beginning of 1560s.  His correspondence with friends and in-law relatives in Lithuania, Mikołaj “the Black” Radziwiłł and Mikołaj “the Red” Radziwiłł, well illustrates this change of philosophy.

Sigismund Augustus’ careful but consistent policy led to the convocation of the joint Polish-Lithuanian Sejm that had to approve the union. It was a difficult process because the starting positions of the main partners differed significantly. Most representatives of Polish nobility and a part of senators wanted a close union that would led to complete liquidation of Lithuanian statehood. A group of Lithuanian magnates did not want the union, but instead wanted to preserve all attributes of sovereignty and establish a military alliance. The King and senators who supported him wanted to create a federation with the common monarch and Sejm, preserving the separateness of the subjects. This concept could gain supporters in Lithuania as well. Solving the problem of the Polish-Lithuanian union would also open the way to legal settlement of the status of Livonia and the Duchy of Kurland, the territories inherited from the Order of the Brothers of the Sword. Polish noblemen also demanded such decisions regarding the so called Royal Prussia that was considered the king’s domain more than a royal province. During the discussions about the union, the issue of a separate status for Volyn and Kyiv regions was also raised.

After a difficult start of the Sejm in January of 1569, a grave crisis struck in February because the visions of the union began to differ more and more. On the last night of February the Lithuanian delegation suddenly left Lublin without warning the King and the Sejm, effectively undermining the negotiations. The King demonstrated his resolution to form the union and announced the joining of Volyn (with the Bratslav region) and Podlachia, which had belonged to the Great Duchy of Lithuania, with the Crown. Podlachia was relatively quick to accept this decision of the King, but Volyn resisted. The convent of Volyn nobles at the end of March of 1569 allowed the possibility of Volyn’s union with the Crown, but only on the basis of a bilateral agreement. The King demanded obedience, but gradually the positions of the sides began to move closer to each other, and Volynians received the privilege that guaranteed them a significant extent of separateness. They also proposed that the Kyiv region would join the Crown on the same principles, and that was what happened. 

Lithuania received the news about the joining of Volyn and Podlachia with the Crown badly, but the elite of the Duchy decided to return to the negotiations about the union. The senators hoped that their coming to terms about the union would revoke the decisions about Volyn and Podlachia, but these hopes did not come true. Sigismund Augustus was firm.  In June negotiations about the final form of the Union resumed in Lublin, and on the July 1st the union was finally concluded. The status of Royal Prussia, Livonia, and Kurland was also settled. During the Sejm, the Duke of Prussia Albert Friedrich and the Ruler of Moldavia Bogdan Lăpușneanu took the oath of vassalage to the King.

Sigismund Augustus and the Polish-Lithuanian Sejm created the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Republic of Both Nations, in Lublin in 1569. The Polish-Lithuanian federation had a common ruler and Sejm, but separate treasuries, armies, central authorities, jurisdictions, and official languages. It could be said that the creation of the new country did not lead to liquidation of the two countries that had existed before. Livonia received the status of autonomy from both parts of the Commonwealth and remained attached both to Poland and Lithuania. The autonomies of Kyiv, Volyn, and Bratslav regions existed within the Polish Crown since 1569 with their own official language and jurisdiction. Royal Prussia preserved a significant amount of autonomy (for example, participation of cities in the regional councils). The Lublin Sejm settled the status of Kurland which became a vassal duchy of the Commonwealth. Duke Albert Friedrick Hohenzollern also took the oath of vassalage, confirming the allegiance of the Kingdom of Prussia with the Polish-Lithuanian state. 

The Union Sejm established a certain political order in the vast expanse of Central and East Europe. This order was based on coexistence and collaboration of many subjects with various ethnic, cultural, and religious compositions. It was maintained due to the political system developed in Poland, which was sometimes called a democracy of nobility or, more accurate, a mixed monarchy. Anyway, this order allowed the Sejm and regional councils to significantly impact the running of the nation and guaranteed a large extent of autonomy to the local nobility self-government. From the point of view of a nobleman, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was the land of freedom. The most popular “publicist” of the time Stanisław Orzechowski enthusiastically wrote about that: “A Pole is always merry in his kingdom! He sings and dances freely, having no forced obligations upon him.” Polish nobility offered such vision of the attractiveness of their system to their partners in 1569. At that moment Lithuanians undermined the possibility of the union. Only later they (especially the nobility of the middle rank) began to understand the benefits of the “Polish liberties”. Ruthenians of Volyn and Kyiv appreciated their special status that was more progressive than that under Lithuania. During the first interregnum they did not agree to return to Lithuania. Livonian nobles received the smallest political benefits because the prolonged military clashes in their territories made it impossible to put into practice the order of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth there. 

Dr. Hab. Henryk Litwin

(University of Warsaw, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland)

[1] Stanisława Orzechowskiego polskie dialogi polityczne (Rozmowa około egzekucjej i Quincunx) 1563-1564, wyd. J. Łoś, S. Kot., Kraków 1919, s. 235.

[2] Stanisława Orzechowskiego polskie dialogi polityczne (Rozmowa około egzekucjej i Quincunx) 1563-1564, wyd. J. Łoś, S. Kot., Kraków 1919, s. 235.

Scheduled 450th anniversary of the Union of Lublin