Post-classical history

Chapter Seventy-Eight


The Union of Krewo

Between 1364 and 1399, Hungary and Poland join briefly under one crown, and then Poland and Lithuania join under another

IN 1364, Casimir the Great of Poland called a council, and the world came.

Charles V of France, newly crowned, was there. So was the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, elected as king of Germany to replace the unpopular Louis in 1346 and then crowned emperor in 1355; he had just married the king of Poland’s own granddaughter Elizabeth. The king of Hungary was present; dukes and barons from German principalities, Polish duchies, and Mediterranean islands filled out the guest list.

The council itself, the Congress of Krakow, was a bust. Casimir the Great had hoped to whip the assembled kings and aristocrats up into an enthusiasm for a new crusade, this one against the eastern threat of the Ottoman Turks. But calling for crusade had become a little bit like throwing a charity dinner and passing the hat; people paid lip service to the need, but looked the other direction when the actual demand was made. The assembled rulers were much more interested in jousting: “The king of Poland / Who holds Cracow in his domain . . . promised that he would help. . . . To put the holy crusade into execution,” wrote the French poet Guillaume de Machaut, who was among the attendees.

And of all the princes who were there,

Some avowed, and others swore on oath

That they would willingly assist,

And do everything in their power.

But the heralds proclaimed the lists

For they all wished to tarry

To joust and to hold a great tournament.

In short, they jousted together.1

The tournament was as close to fighting as any of them would get; they went home, and that was the last of it.

But the Congress of Krakow had fulfilled its more foundational purpose, which was to demonstrate to the world that Poland had joined the first rank of nations.

Unity had not come easy to the land of the Polans. The first “King of Poland,” the eleventh-century Duke of Piast Boleslaw I, had controlled only a handful of Polish dukedoms, and none of his successors had done much better. Casimir’s father, the short but ambitious Wladyslaw the Elbow-High (also a Duke of Piast) had made a good try at rounding up all of the dukes, but the Polans in the north and east had remained outside of his control.

Since his coronation in 1333, Casimir had worked at finishing the job. The Teutonic Order, between his domain and the Baltic Sea, had taken all of Prussia; he made a treaty with the order that settled an ongoing quarrel over his northern border. He paid off the king of Hungary and in return was given control over the duchy of Mazovia. He fought other duchies into submission, and built at least fifty new castles across Poland to help hold the newly expanded country together. He founded schools and convinced the pope to approve the charter of a new university in Krakow. He sponsored the massive revision and republication of a law code for all Polans. He threw himself into the renovation of his capital city: “He found Poland dressed in timber,” says an old Polish proverb, “and left her dressed in brick.”2

The Congress of Krakow revealed to the world a new Poland: a third larger, prosperous and well educated, at peace. But Casimir had left one task undone: he hadn’t managed to produce a male heir. He had married three times, had two mistresses, and indulged in an illegal bigamous marriage with one girl from Prague, but his only legitimate children were girls.


78.1. Poland under Casimir the Great

Late in October 1370, the sixty-year-old king was out hunting on horseback when he took a hard fall. His physicians suggested that he recuperate in peace and quiet, but he refused to take to his bed. Soon he was suffering from fever and shortness of breath, probably pneumonia; at sunrise on November 5, Casimir the Great died.3

His funeral was massive and elaborate, with a mile-long ceremonial procession of knights and courtiers and the distribution of silver coins to the people. At the end of the funeral mass, his royal standard was broken into pieces. “At this, there arose such a shriek from the congregation in the cathedral, such an outburst of weeping from young and old, from high and low alike, that they could hardly be calmed,” wrote the king of Hungary, who was present. “And no wonder! The death of the peace-loving king had caused them to fear that the peace to which they had all grown accustomed during his lifetime would now end.”4

The king of Hungary, Louis of Anjou, had attended in order to register his claim to the Polish throne. He was the closest male relative of the dead king (his mother had been Casimir’s sister), and Casimir himself had promised him the crown. Louis soon managed to negotiate a compromise with the Polish dukes: they would recognize him as king of Poland, and in return he would leave them alone. He further sweetened the deal with a proclamation issued in 1374, the Privilege of Košice, that reduced their obligations to the crown to three duties (payment of a small land tax, military service within Poland only, and the upkeep of castles and fortifications). He also redistributed hundreds of acres of royal land among them. He then rarely came into Poland, and for twelve years, the united kingdoms of Hungary and Poland were a single realm only on paper.5

Unfortunately, Louis shared his uncle’s inability to father a son. Before he died, in 1382, he had arranged for his oldest surviving daughter, ten-year-old Mary, to succeed him as queen of Hungary and Poland; he had also arranged her marriage to the Roman Emperor Charles IV’s teenaged second son, Sigismund.

But after his funeral, the aristocrats of both countries objected to Mary’s rule. In Poland, a strong party of dukes argued for election of Mary’s younger sister Hedwig instead; this would break the union of the two crowns and preserve Poland’s separate existence. In Hungary, a dissenting party of Hungarian nobles who disliked the idea of female rule invited the king of Naples (the southern part of Italy, separate from Sicily for the last century) to come in and take the crown.6

The Hungarian disagreement turned out much bloodier than the Polish. The king of Naples, Charles II, arrived in Hungary in 1386. He was assassinated a month later, by agents of Mary’s mother Elizabeth, who had hoped to rule as regent for her young daughter. In retaliation, the supporters of the dead king kidnapped Mary and her mother and dragged them off to Croatia, where, in a mountain fortress, Elizabeth was strangled in front of her daughter’s eyes.7

Sigismund (with his father’s assistance) put together a force of German soldiers and Venetian sailors and arrived in Hungary a few months later. By a combination of force and concessions, he managed to negotiate Mary’s release and also claim the throne of Hungary for himself. The antiqueen contigent, pacified by his promise that Mary would have no more power than a queen consort, finally accepted his claim.

Mary, suspecting that her new husband had been complicit in her mother’s death, refused to live with him. He was no more enthusiastic than she was; the two occupied separate households until her accidental death in a riding accident in 1395. She was twenty-four, pregnant with their first child; her death prevented the crown from passing out of Sigismund’s hands, and after that he reigned alone as king of Hungary.

Meanwhile, little Hedwig, not yet eleven, had been crowned king on October 16, 1384. The Polans had no other way to designate a ruling queen, a queen regnant, since Polish queens had always simply been wives of the king. But the name king did not solve the primary problem: their country, newly enlarged, newly powerful, was now governed by a female child.

For help, the Polish dukes turned to their most likely ally: the Grand Duke of Lithuania.

The Teutonic Knights had originally been invited into the Polish duchies to help conquer the Lithuanians. But the Teutonic conquest of the Lithuanian-speaking region of Prussia had had the side effect of uniting the Lithuanians to the east into a stronger and stronger block of resistance, governed and directed by a Grand Duke who ruled from the capital city of Vilnius.

Teutonic aggression had also convinced Casimir’s father that an alliance with the Lithuanians would provide good protection against both the German-Prussian state and the possible expansion of the Golden Horde. In 1325, he had arranged for Casimir to marry the daughter of the Grand Duke, creating a union between the two countries.

Casimir’s wife, Aldona, converted to Christianity at the time of her marriage. But the Lithuanians remained unapologetically “pagan,” continuing in their traditional nature worship; the armed conversion of Prussia had not done much to convince them that Christianity would improve their condition. Now, however, the Polish dukes had a proposal for the Grand Duke of Lithuania. If he converted to orthodox Christianity and married Hedwig, he could become king of Poland and Lithuania, a strong country that would be vulnerable to neither Teutonics nor Mongols.

The Grand Duke, Jogaila, was in his midtwenties and already showing signs of the political intelligence that would mark the rest of his reign. He was a man of moderate habits: he dressed plainly, ate sparingly, never drank, and entertained himself with hard-riding hunts. “A person of simple manners, better suitable for hunting rather than government,” the fifteenth-century chronicler Jan Dlugosz called him, scornfully; but Dlugosz was not a fan of the Lithuanian-Polish union, and even he had to pay grudging credit to Jogaila’s character, “sincere and honest, and without double dealing.”8

Jogaila’s mother, a Rus’ aristocrat, had been an orthodox Christian, and Christianity was not unfamiliar to him. He agreed to the conditions, and on August 14, 1385, Hedwig’s regents met Jogaila at the city of Krewo and signed a formal agreement: the Union of Krewo, a personal union of the two countries under the Grand Duke.

Hedwig remained queen, but all power passed into Jogaila’s hands. By all accounts he treated her well. Pregnant for the first time in 1399, she gave birth to a daughter. The little girl died shortly afterwards, and within a week Hedwig too died, of puerperal fever. Casimir’s two great-nieces were now both dead, the Piast dynasty at a final end, and Poland and Lithuania tied together: one monarch, one crown, two armies, two administrations, and one religion, since most Lithuanians followed their Grand Duke into the Catholic fold.9


If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!