Two events at the outset of this period deeply influenced Polish history. In 1652, for the first time, a single member of the Sejm defeated a measure by exercising the liberum veto, which allowed any delegate in that parliament to overrule any majority. Formerly the consent of all the provinces had been required for the passage of any measure, and sometimes a small minority had made legislation impossible; but no individual had yet asserted the right to veto a proposal acceptable to all the rest. Forty-eight of the fifty-five sessions of the Sejm after 1652 were “exploded” or terminated by the “free veto” of a single deputy. The plan supposed that no majority could justly override a minority, however small. It rose not out of popular theory but out of feudal pride; every landowner considered himself supreme on his lands. The result was a maximum of local independence and collective futility. As the kings were subject to the Sejm, and this to the liberum veto, a consistent national policy was usually impossible. Nine years after that first veto King John Casimir made a remarkable prediction to the Sejm:
Would God I may prove a false prophet! But I tell you that if you do not find a remedy for the present evil [the liberum veto] the republic will become the prey of foreign countries. The Muscovites will attempt to detach our Russian Palatinates perhaps as far as the Vistula. The House of Prussia . . . will try to seize Great Poland. Austria will hurl herself upon Cracow. Each of these Powers will prefer to partition Poland rather than possess the whole of it with such liberties as it enjoys today. 2
This prediction was almost literally fulfilled.
Next only to this veto in historical importance was the revolt of the Cossacks in the Ukraine (1648). The consolidation of Lithuania with Poland in the Union of Lublin (1569) had brought under chiefly Polish rule the Dnieper region of the Ukraine, largely peopled by Zaporogue Cossacks accustomed to independence and war. Polish nobles, buying land in this western Ukraine, sought to establish feudal conditions there, and Polish Catholics discouraged the exercise of that freedom which the Union of Lublin had guaranteed to the Orthodox worship. Out of a now inextricable complex of dissatisfactions a Cossack rebellion took form, led for a time by a rich hetman, Bogdan Chmielnicki, and supported by the Moslem Tatars of the Crimea. On May 26, 1648, the Cossacks and the Tatars routed the main Polish army at Korsun, and enthusiasm for the revolt spread among rich and poor alike.
Meanwhile the death of Ladislas IV on May 20 had left the throne of Poland to noble debate that lasted till November 20, when the electoral Diet chose John II Casimir. Chmielnicki, fearing that the revolt could maintain itself against renewed Polish armies only by accepting alien aid and suzerainty, cast in his lot with Orthodox Russia. He offered the Ukraine to Czar Alexis; the Russian government, quite aware that this meant war with Poland, welcomed the offer; and by the “Act of Pereyaslav”, January 18, 1654, the Ukraine passed under Russian rule. The region was guaranteed local autonomy under a hetman elected by the Cossacks and ratified by the Czar.
In the ensuing war between Poland and Russia the Crimean Tatars, preferring a Polish to a Russian Ukraine, shifted their aid from the Cossacks to the Poles. On August 8, 1655, the Russians took Wilno, massacred thousands of the inhabitants, and burned the city to the ground. While the Poles defended themselves on their eastern front, Charles X led a Swedish army into western Poland and took Warsaw (September 8). Polish resistance to him collapsed. The Polish gentry, even the Polish army, paid homage and swore allegiance to the conqueror. 3 Cromwell sent him congratulations on having seized one of the pope’s horns, 4 and Charles assured the Protector that soon there would not be a papist left in Poland; 5 nevertheless he promised religious toleration in Poland.
His plans were frustrated by his victorious army. Escaping control, it pillaged towns, massacred inhabitants, despoiled churches and monasteries. The famous Monastery of Jasna Gora, near Częstochowa, stoutly resisted siege; this success, regarded as a miracle, aroused the religious ardor of the populace; the Catholic priests appealed to the nation to expel the impious invaders; peasants led the way in taking up arms; the garrison that Charles had left in Warsaw fled before the advancing crowd; John Casimir was restored to his capital (June 16, 1656). The Tatars turned against Russia, and Russia, preferring Poland to Sweden as a neighbor, signed a truce with Poland (1656). The sudden death of Charles X led to the Peace of Oliva (May 3, 1660), ending the war between Poland and Sweden. In 1659 the struggle with Russia was resumed. After eight years of chaos, campaigns, and vacillations of Cossack loyalty, the Peace of Andrusovo (January 20, 1667) ceded Smolensk, Kiev, and the Ukraine east of the Dnieper to Russia. This division of the Ukraine endured till the first partition of Poland (1772).
Tired of war and the liberum veto, John Casimir abdicated the Polish throne (1668), retired to Nevers in France, and lived a quiet life of study and prayer until his death (1672). His successor, Michael Wisniowiecki, fought a disastrous war with the Turks; by the Peace of Buczacz (1672) Poland acknowledged Turkish sovereignty over the western Ukraine, and pledged an annual tribute of 220,000 ducats to the sultans. In that war Poland discovered the military genius of Jan Sobieski; and when Wisniowiecki died (1673), the Diet, after the usual costly delay, elected Poland’s greatest King (1674).
Jan—now John III—was already forty-four years old. He had had a propitious origin as son of the castellan (military governor) at Cracow; his mother was the granddaughter of the Polish general Stanislas Zólkiewski who had captured Moscow in 1610; Jan had arms in his blood. Education at the University of Cracow, travels in Germany, the Netherlands, England, and France, with almost a year in Paris, made him a man of culture as well as of martial courage and skill. In 1648 his father died, shortly after being chosen to represent Poland at the Peace of Westphalia. Jan hurried home, and joined the Polish army in action against the Cossack revolt. When the Swedes invaded Poland, and John Casimir fled, Sobieski was among the many Polish officials who accepted Charles X as King of Poland, and for a year he served in the Swedish army. But when the Poles rose against the invaders Sobieski came back to his national allegiance, and fought so well for his country that in 1665 he was made commander in chief of the Polish armies. In that year he married the remarkable woman who became half of his life and molder of his career.
Maria Kazimiera, of royal French blood, was born at Nevers in 1641, and brought up in France and Poland. At Warsaw, when she was thirteen, her vivacious beauty inflamed Sobieski, then twenty-five. But the fortunes of war took him away, and when he returned he found her married to Jan Zamojski, a noble debauchee. Neglected by her husband, Maria accepted Sobieski as her cavaliere servente. Apparently she kept her marriage vows, but she promised to marry Sobieski as soon as she could have her union with Zamojski annulled. The husband made this unnecessary by dying; the lovers were soon wed; and their long love became a legend in Polish history. Many Polish women rivaled the French in combining classic beauty of features with an almost masculine courage and intelligence, and a penchant for making or guiding kings. From the day of their marriage Maria began to plan the elevation of Sobieski to the throne.
Her love was sometimes unscrupulous, as love can be. In 1669 Sobieski seems to have accepted French money to support a French cardinal against Wisniowiecki. After Michael’s election Jan joined other nobles in plots to depose the King as a coward unfit and unwilling to defend Poland against the Turks. He himself led his men to four victories within ten days. On November 11, 1673, the day of the King’s death, Sobieski routed the Turks at Khotin in Bessarabia. The achievement made him a logical candidate for a throne that only the most resolute arms could now maintain against foes on every side. To reinforce logic he appeared at the electoral Diet at the head of six thousand troops. French money played a part in his election, but this was quite in the mores of the age.
He was a king in body and soul as well as in name. Foreigners described him as “one of the handsomest and best-built men” in Europe, “of proud and noble visage, eyes of light and fire,” 6 physically strong, venereally assiduous, mentally curious and alive. His natural acquisitiveness was spurred by the extravagance of his beloved Marysienka, but he often atoned for a parsimonious Sejm by paying his soldiers out of his own pocket, and selling his property to buy them guns. 7 He deserved all that he took, for he saved both Poland and Europe.
His foreign policy was simple in aim: to drive the Turks into Asia, or at least to repel their attacks upon the bastion of Western Christendom at Vienna. In this effort he was harassed by the alliance of his ally France with the Sultan, and by the attempts of the Emperor to embroil him in Turkish wars; Leopold I hoped thus to leave Austria free to appropriate Danubian or Hungarian territory to which both Austria and Poland laid claim. Treading angrily through the maze, Sobieski longed for the freedom to plan policy and issue directives without being subject at every step to the Sejm and the liberum veto. He envied the power of Louis XIV and the Emperor to make decisions definitely and to issue orders accordingly and immediately.
Soon after his election he undertook to recover the western Ukraine from the Turks, who had now advanced as far north as Lvov. There, with only five thousand cavalry, he defeated twenty thousand Turks (August 24, 1675). By the Treaty of Zuravno (October 17, 1676) he compelled the Turks to surrender their claim to tribute, and to acknowledge Polish suzerainty in the western Ukraine. He felt that the opportunity had come to expel the Ottoman power from Europe. He appealed to Leopold to join with him in war à l’outrance against the Turks; but Leopold objected that he had no assurance that if he sent his armies to the east, Louis XIV would not attack him in the west. Sobieski begged France to give Austria such assurance; Louis refused. 8 Sobieski turned more and more toward alliance with Austria. When French agents tried to bribe the Sejm against him, he exposed their plot and published their secret correspondence. In the resultant reaction against France the Sejm signed (April 1, 1683) an alliance with the Empire. Poland was to raise forty thousand men, the Empire sixty thousand. If Vienna or Cracow should be besieged by the Turks, the other ally would come to the rescue with his entire force.
In July the Turks moved toward Vienna. In August Sobieski and the Polish army left Warsaw with the declared purpose “to proceed to the Holy War, and with God’s help to give back the old freedom to besieged Vienna, and thereby help all wavering Christendom.” 9 The finest spirit of medieval chivalry seemed restored. The Poles reached the beleaguered capital just in time; disease and hunger had already decimated its defenders. Sobieski in person led the combined armies of Poland and the Empire in one of the most crucial engagements in European history (September 12, 1683). Half of the twenty-five thousand Poles who had followed him in the crusade died in battle or on the way.
He returned to Poland in triumph and disappointment. Warsaw received him proudly as the hero of Europe, but he had been rebuffed by the Emperor in his hopes of marrying his son to the Archduchess of Austria. To secure a kingdom for his son he attempted the conquest of Moldavia; he won all the battles except against weather and accident, and came back empty-handed.
Amid the turmoil of politics, and in the intervals of war, he made his court the center of a cultural revival. He himself was a man of wide reading: he had studied Galileo and Harvey, Descartes and Gassendi, he had read Pascal, Corneille, and Molière. While supporting the Catholic Church as a matter of state policy, he extended religious freedom and protection to Protestants and Jews; 10 the Jews loved him as they had loved Caesar. He had the will, but not the power, to save from death a freethinker who had expressed some doubts as to the existence of God (1689); 11 this was the first auto-da-fé in Polish history. Poland continued to produce her own poets, but to import most of her major artists. Waclaw Potocki wrote an epic on the Polish victory at Khotin; Wespazian Kochowski composed similar epics, and a Polish psalmody in poetic prose; and Andrzej Morsztyn, after translating Tasso’s Aminta and Corneille’s Cid, showed in his lyrics the influence of French and Italian poetry in Poland. Sobieski encouraged the French influence, admiring everything in France except its politics. He brought French and Italian painters and sculptors to work in Warsaw. He engaged architects, chiefly Italian, to build baroque palaces at Wilanów, Zólkiew, and Jaworów. Sumptuous churches were erected during his reign: St. Peter’s in Wilno, and in Warsaw the churches of the Holy Cross and the Benedictine nuns. Andreas Schlüter came from Germany to carve decoration for the palace at Wilanów and the Krasiński Palace in the capital. Amid these Western influences in art, Eastern influence predominated in dress and appearance: the long cloak and the broad and colorful waistband, and mustaches turned up like double scimitars.
The old age of the King was darkened by the rebelliousness of his son Jakob, the intransigence of his wife, and his failure to have the monarchy made hereditary in his family. The liberum veto stood always over his head. He could not improve the condition of the peasants, for their masters dominated the Sejm; he could not compel the rich to pay taxes, for the rich were the Sejm; he could not keep the factious nobles in order, for they refused him a standing army. He died of uremia on June 17, 1696, not, as story has it, brokenhearted, but saddened by the decline of his beloved country from the pinnacle of heroism to which he had raised it.
The Diet passed over his son and sold the crown to Frederick Augustus, Elector of Saxony, who easily transformed himself from a Protestant to a Catholic to become Augustus II of Poland. He was a character in his own right. History calls him Augustus the Strong, for he was an athlete in body and bed; legend credits him with 354 illegitimate children. 12 In January, 1699, he signed at Karlowitz a treaty by which Turkey yielded all claim to the western Ukraine. Feeling safe now in south and east, Augustus listened to Patkul, and allied Poland with Denmark and Russia for the partition of Sweden.