Different than all others - part II

The political system of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth against the background of Europe

As Urszula Augustyniak pointed out, a series of misunderstandings arose about the political system of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.1 As a rule, it was a variant of state monarchy, hence researchers (e.g. the aforementioned Juliusz Bardach) used to refer to the legal form of the Commonwealth as noblemen’s democracy or the noblemen’s republic. Both terms — state monarchy and noble democracy — were questioned. The first because of the deficiencies of the representation of different social classes. There were no representatives of any other class in the Sejm other than nobles. In turn, the second term is marked by reductionism, because it reduces the legal grounds of a class only to the state interest. Meanwhile, in the records of the Crown statutes, the raison d’état was represented — something broader than the sum of noble freedoms. Another proposed term was parliamentary monarchy, but according to Augustyniak, this notion must also be rejected because it defines the state through the method of making political decisions.

Lamentation of various people over the dead credit. The woodcut depicting the diversity of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth’s society (public domain)

Meanwhile, it is hard to say that from the second half of the seventeenth century, the parliament was the decision-making center, since the Sejm, as a result of using the liberum veto, that is, the right to break off debate by an individual representative, often dissolved without passing resolutions, and the state still functioned in spite of it all. It seems, therefore, that the most accurate term defining the system of the Commonwealth is a mixed monarchy (monarchia mixta). This concept traces its origin to Cicero, who defined a mixed government (regimen commixtum), consisting of elements of three different systems: monarchic, aristocratic and democratic. How was the mixed government implemented in Poland? An anonymous author from Zebrzydowski’s period wrote about it in the following way:

“In summa in this free Commonwealth, no one can stand for anything, one for the free will of all and the consensus of these three states. Which is the Commonwealth, composed of these three ways: ex monarchia, aristocratia et democratia. There is a king in it, there is a senate, there is knighthood. However, these three states become one body of the Commonwealth”.2

First part of the text

The philosophical and political essence of this construction was to ensure a balance between particular components of the political system, to avoid rebellion on the one hand, and to protect itself against tyrannical authorities on the other. Although there was a hierarchy of titles and offices within its framework, it had the character of the difference between legally appointed state positions. It did not have any connection with aristocratic titles, for these the Commonwealth did not have. 3 The whole country thus had a relatively “horizontal” structure, which in the perception of those of the time was easily conceptualized in terms of classical republican thought.

Royal power, as I mentioned earlier, was subject to ever greater reduction as a result of the granting of subsequent privileges. As a result of this process, the monarch ceased to be treated as the master and owner of the ruled land, and he began to be treated as the administrator of the goods he was entrusted with. The legal construct of Corona regni (Crown of the Kingdom), that is, the entirety of an independent state in its existence from those currently in power, was present in all of Europe. This can be seen from the example of Joannes de Terra Rubea, quoted earlier, according to whom the law prohibited the kings of France from freely administering the entire domain. Quoting Jacek Bartyzel, the French author “proves that the kingdom is a public thing (chose publique), not a private good, and a reign — a function, not a patrimony (patrimoine). (…) The [personal] will of the king, or any other person in the kingdom, has no part in the functioning of the Crown’s devolution principles, about which only custom decides. The king can neither limit the powers or the scope of authority of his successors nor enlarge them.” 4 In Polish law, however, there was no prerequisite for customary law specifying the manner of transferring the highest titles in the state. On the contrary, the strengthening of the election of a king shaped a completely different way of thinking. Such examples can be found in the “Treatise on the Nature of Royal Rights and Goods” 5 by Stanisław Zaborowski.

Sigismund I the Old, king of Poland 1506-1548 (painting by Jan Matejko)

Zaborowski’s work was written in the beginning of Sigismund I the Old’s reign. Although the title suggests that we are dealing with a lawyer’s argument, in reality it is a text that is too heterogeneous and full of various digressions, which makes it rather a political commentary. It seems that the work was created in order to prepare the political ground for the revindication of crown property, formerly granted to the representatives of the nobility. Zaborowski, like Joannes de Terra Rubea, also puts forward the thesis that crown property is an inalienable whole. The criteria that would allow it to be sold, for the benefit of the kingdom and with the consent of all, are purely theoretical. You cannot cede your rights to some of the crown goods, because the living got them from their ancestors, so they cannot manage them as their property, and the kingdom’s benefit cannot exclude subsequent generations from participating in it. In reality, therefore, these premises are impossible to apply.

One of the most interesting points of Zaborowski’s argument is the fourth condition of the final and binding alienation of the land: the consent of the superior. Immediately the question arises, who is the superior of the king? Zaborowski responds as follows:

“I am not saying that our king has an individual superior to him in the temporal commonwealth; the whole community of the kingdom is his superior or fills the role of a supervisor. He manages it on their behalf, and the sign of this is that during the coronation he hands the Archbishop and Primate of the Gniezno Metropolitan Church, on behalf of himself and other dignitaries of the kingdom, princes and nobles, an oath that he will not dispose of the kingdom’s goods without their advice.”6

These words contain the later systematic practice of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. According to it, the king is one of the parliamentary states and cannot do anything without the consent of the senate and the chamber of deputies. The monarch turns out to be the administrator of goods for the whole community, so his power must be limited by the good of the ruled and their consent, in accordance with the quod omnes tangit ab omnibus approbari debet rule (what concerns everyone, must be approved by everyone).

The strict royal competences included the co-creation of law and implementing resolutions of the General Sejm, which had the duty to convene every two years. The highest military superiors and those holding the title of the highest judges, also ruled in the Commonwealth. The execution of this last title was transferred by Stefan Báthory to the Main Crown Tribunal and the Main Tribunal of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (Trybunał Główny Koronny i Trybunał Główny Wielkiego Księstwa Litewskiego), because the enormity of the appeals made it impossible for the king to run the justice system personally. From the point of view of current policy, the right to fill offices was a particularly important monarchical prerogative. Although many dignitaries, while appointed by the king, could not be removed from their positions, the head of state gained a certain influence on the composition of the next body in this way, which constituted the system of the Commonwealth. It was the Senate.

Stephen Báthory, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania 1576–1586 (painting by Martin Kober)

From the modern point of view, it may seem that the Old Polish Senate was the upper house of parliament, but in fact there is no legal basis for such a distinction. The Senate derived from the former royal council and included the highest-ranking clergy and the most important state officials. In principle, the strict delineation of the essential competences of senators, never occurred. Of course, each of its members had separate functions for the office in question, such as the Great Crown Hetman or the Great Poland province governor. However, beyond a doubt, the Senate as a whole had only two competences. The first and traditional prerogative of senators was the right to co-create foreign policy with the king. This right also included deciding on royal marriages, which at the time was a matter of political significance and one of the tools to form alliances. The second prerogative was to vote: at the beginning of the General Sejm, every senator was obliged to take the floor on the subject that the parliament was to deal with. As Edward Opaliński emphasizes, the prerogative of voting was quite troublesome for senators. 7 On the one hand, one could set the tone and way of thinking about a given matter. On the other hand, it was easy to risk interfering with the king’s plans, if the voting expressed an opinion contrary to the opinion of the ruler. The reason for the existence of the Senate in the imagination of the time was its mediation between the king and the chamber of deputies. In practice, however, the senators often took the side of the king, and he, with the help of his ministers, was able to make political decisions bypassing the opinions of noble representatives.

The last element that was part of the Sejm was the chamber of deputies (also known as the knight’s chamber). Its number fluctuated between 140 and 170 representatives. The reason for the absence of a strict number of representatives was the lack of legal regulations. Parliament was convened by the king by virtue of a royal decree, in which the reasons for convening it were described, as well as the subject of the session and royal proposals for legal changes were given. In response to the decree, local self-government bodies, or sejmiki, chose their representatives for the General Sejm. The sejmiki not only adapted to the royal initiative, but also submitted to the king a list of eksorbitancje, or abuses that occurred since the previous parliament. A very characteristic thing for the Old Polish Chamber of Deputies was the associated mandate, namely the deputies’ instructions. They required them to vote strictly according to the opinion expressed by those whom they represented at the Sejm. Statutory sessions of the Sejm lasted six Sundays, although they could be extended with the consent of the deputies. An inseparable feature of the Old Polish parliamentary system was the treatment of the sitting of the parliament as a whole. Matters were not voted on separately, but were later written down and jointly categorized in the Sejm constitution. The proceedings were, therefore, definitely different from what happens during today’s Sejm meetings, when matters such as road construction, military funding and changes in administration are treated as independent issues. In the Old Polish Sejm, in order for a particular proposal to be accepted, it had to be approved along with all the others.

The voting mode must also be mentioned. All resolutions were adopted not by majority, but by way of unanimity. A compromise of this kind was worked out during the discussion. Custom and political culture demanded that the opposition, seeing no chance to hear its objections, withdraw from further obstruction of the proceedings under the threat of dissolving the meeting and bearing responsibility for it in the eyes of noble opinion. To the moment of the famous speech of representative Władysław Siciński, who in 1652 protested against the prolongation of the Sejm over the statutory six Sundays, thus initiating the liberum veto era, in the general opinion of citizens, both the majority vote and the demand for unanimity in each case were considered extreme solutions. Only the unanimity vote and the bound mandate were to result in the emergence of a form of parliamentary representation, thanks to which it would be possible to say that the resolutions of the Sejm were not conducted by any faction, but that these were really resolutions of the entire Commonwealth gathered at the session.

Sejm during the reign of Sigismund III Vasa, 1587–1632 (public domain)

The existence of a strong democratic component within the Old Polish system required the guarantee of a number of rights without which such a political system could not work. As Anna Grześkowiak-Krwawicz says: “further rights guaranteed the nobility the freedom to speak on state matters. Some indirectly, like the fifteenth-century Neminem capitavabimus nisi iure victim privilege, preventing the imprisonment of a nobleman without trial, and also for making too bold a statement; or the law of 1588, differentiating the insult of majesty and betrayal of the Commonwealth — crimes not separated by legislation of other countries, thanks to which, for example, Henry VIII could accuse of betrayal (and cut down) those who questioned the legality of his marriage with Anne Boleyn. In the Commonwealth, after 1588, there was no such possibility. Further laws guaranteed freedom of expression outright, starting with the “Declaration of the de non praestanda obedientia article” from 1609. 8

The certainty of preserving life, property and the legal freedom to express one’s own views are the basis for the existence of any political system, one of the most important pillars of which is debate. I have already mentioned that political actors and thinkers of the Old Polish period found a theoretical justification for the system of the Commonwealth in the writings of Aristotle, Cicero and Polybius. These ancient writers gave the Polish nobility the conviction in the special value of political life, thanks to which a person can achieve his full intellectual and ethical abilities. “As a man in the official police the right is shortened, and practiced in custom, and the learned, exquisite animal over all animals in the world is,” 9 (urzędnej policje prawy skrócony, i obyczajmi wyćwiczony, i nauką wyprawiony, wybornym zwierzęciem nad wszytkie zwierzęta na świecie jest) wrote Stanisław Orzechowski. These beliefs were ideally situated in the knight’s tradition, an integral part of which was the obligation to shape virtues. In this way, the practices and convictions received from the past gained their justification thanks to the practical attitude of Renaissance thought. Thus, the duty of the knightly struggle for the homeland was extended to care for the public good. As Łukasz Górnicki wrote in “Polish Courtier”:

“There was a parable of the Greeks: live that no one feels that you were in the world. Whom in the parable Plutarch maligns and reproves, and derives that no one is living anything in this darkness. For whoever is righteous, virtuous and wisely alive, the one not sitting in the corner, not sitting and exemplifying and helping people, may be useful; and whoever is wrong and stupid, this one, not covering his shortcomings, his illnesses, may be smitten with such a man, who will heal and repair everything. How, in this way, I wield Plutarch and say that it is not wise, as a silly relief between corpses, but stupid (because this is a degree to wisdom, want to be treated) you must show the simplicity of your people that he has lost all his foolishness, and it is wise for him to think about the common good, and in regard to fame and praise he has not walked silently around the world, as silent animals are coming down. What, when I often came to mind, I could not see in myself that my intellect could be useful to people.” 10

Equestrian portrait of king Sigismund III Vasa (painting from the workshop of Peter Paul Rubens)

The uniqueness of the Commonwealth against the background of other European countries was manifested first of all by the lack of formal hierarchies within the state and the considerable size of the knighthood. The shift towards more democratic forms of government that came with time, for example in England and France, required as its condition the existence of horizontal power relations. They began to be born together with the bourgeoisie, 11 as well as the centralization of the economic policy of the state, for which trade companies became the tool. The bourgeoisie’s growing importance as a result of this process led to an increase in the role of parliaments at the expense of traditional centers of power (the case of England) or to the outbreak of revolution and the replacement of the feudal hierarchy with a new elite based on a rich middle class (case of France).

Meanwhile, the Commonwealth immediately gave its citizens the rights that in other countries became the subject of a fierce battle between the king and the rest of society. The Polish-Lithuanian state obviously had many systemic faults, such as numerous legal deficiencies, the negative impact of which was revealed with the subsequent defeats in war and the state crisis. Nevertheless, the rejection of the feudal system as a way of organizing society meant that over time the civic sphere became a fact. The historicity of the process of forming this sphere meant that noble society did not have to reach for abstract theories of social contract to justify the genesis of the Commonwealth. For the same reason, the nobility could redefine the old medieval ethos of a mounted warrior and, with the help of new ideas coming from southern Europe, turn it into a modern ethos of a citizen who had the right to co-decide the fate of the state in which he lived.


1. U. Augustyniak, Historia Polski 1572-1795, Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, Warszawa, 2008, p. 66-67.

2. Libera respublica quae sit [in:] Dyskurs polityczny Rzeczpospolitej Obojga Narodów. Wybór źródeł, ed. Anna Grześkowiak-Krwawicz, Patryk Sapała, Wydawnictwo Naukowe Sub Lupa, Warszawa 2013, p. 47-48.

3. Existing princely titles were either Ruthenian in origin or bestowed by the emperor.

4. J. Bartyzel, Zasady sukcesji Korony podług praw fundamentalnych Królestwa Francji, http://www.legitymizm.org/zasady-sukcesji-korony.

5. See: S. Zaborowski, Traktat o naturze praw i dóbr królewskich, przeł. H. Litwin, J. Staniszewski, Wydawnictwo Arcana, Kraków 2005.

6. S. Zaborowski, p. 81.

7. See: E. Opaliński, Sejm srebrnego wieku 1587-1652, Wydawnictwo Sejmowe, Warszawa 2001, p. 68.

8. Dyskurs polityczny Rzeczpospolitej Obojga Narodów, Wybór źródeł, red. Anna Grześkowiak-Krwawicz, Patryk Sapała, s. 9.

9. S. Orzechowski, Policyja Królestwa Polskiego, Towarzystwo Przyjaciół Nauk w Przemyślu, Przemyśl 1984, p. 35.

10. Ł. Górnicki, Dworzanin polski [in:] tenże, Pisma, tom I, Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, Warszawa, 1961, p. 52.

11. J. Habermas, O genezie mieszczańskiej sfery publicznej [in:] tenże, Strukturalne przeobrażenia sfery publicznej, Warszawa 2008, p. 75-95.

Author: Michał Rzeczycki
Translation: Nicholas Siekierski