Different than all others - part I

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

The political system of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569–1791) stood out against the background of other European countries. While other Western countries gravitated towards absolutism, the Polish political form developed an elaborate self-government, the principle of the election of a king, the dominant role of the parliament and the relatively weak position of the monarch.

by Michał Rzeczycki


Social differences also had their significance. The Commonwealth was characterized by the lack of a strict feudal hierarchy and had a large number of knights, who during the fifteenth century were strongly privileged in relation to other classes. Another difference between the broadly understood West and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth came with the Reformation and the outbreak of religious conflicts. The juxtaposition of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of August 23–24, 1572, when the slaughter of French Protestants was carried out, with the Warsaw Confederation, the act passed on January 28, 1573, obliging all signatories to “keep peace with each other and not to spill blood over differing faiths and variety in the Church.” To better capture the specificity of the political system of the Commonwealth, I will compare it with two Western countries, i.e. with England and France, which, while maintaining all proportions, are the most typical examples of European feudalism.

St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre
(painting by François Dubois)

In “A History of the Middle Ages” (Historii powszechnej średniowiecza), Benedykt Zientara wrote that “the disintegration of the Carolingian state initiated a new era in the history of Western Europe and contributed to the acceleration of feudalization processes. As a result, the socio-economic system of the Western European village, based on divided ownership of land, fully crystallized. This system was reflected in specific political-legal forms, the so-called “feudal relations”, and in the field of ideology in adapting Christian doctrine to the tasks of defending and justifying the social hierarchy of the time.”1 Peasants were the basis of the new system. They could use the land of the feudal lord in return for a series of obligations to the owner of the land. Of the most important were serfdom and the obligation to pay tribute in kind and in money. For this reason, the peasants were dependent on the feudal lord, who had personal rights to his subjects, was the owner of the land which the peasants used, and exercised judicial, police and military powers over the peasants. In return, the lord was obliged to provide care for his vassals. This network of feudal dependencies was hierarchical and stopped at the ruler of a given state. As a result, the local landowner was not the sole master of his lands, but also had the status of a vassal, in that case to his social superior. For knights and magnates who were vassals of the monarch, the main duty was military service. The land granted for use to vassals was to enable this service, for example by guaranteeing a material base allowing for the purchase of equipment.

As the feudal system developed, the issue of transitivity of fiefdoms became the key problem for governing the state. In other words: were the vassals of the great landowners just as dependent on the king as on their masters? The answer to this question was dependent on local conditions. In England, for example, conquered by the Normans in 1066, this problem did not appear at all. In Normandy itself, even before William the Conqueror — despite the existence of a feudal hierarchy — everyone was obliged to obey the prince. This type of feudalism was then brought to England along with William’s knights, with an additional reinforcement on the spot through confiscation of the lands of the Anglo-Saxon nobility. Ultimately, therefore, the entire land was considered the property of the monarch. Although the great princes could have their vassals using their land, everyone was obliged to take an oath to the king.

William the Conqueror, from the Bayeux Tapestry (public domain)

A different situation prevailed in France, in which the famous “the vassal of my vassal is not my vassal” rule was in force. As a result, a very complex network of dependencies arose. There were cases of knights involved in feudal oaths against two rival rulers. This state of affairs did not only apply to minor knights, but also to large vassals, such as the Dukes of Lorraine. The growing chaos made it necessary to introduce order and centralize the state. Subsequent French rulers from the Capetian dynasty effectively took this on, in the persons of King Philip Augustus and his son, Louis VIII, which led to the minimization of the continental properties of the Plantagenets, who sat on the English throne. These struggles and the efforts of the Capetians to ensure the position of the dynasty led to the creation of a strong French state, united around the royal family.

From what I wrote above, it is worth drawing two important conclusions. First, regardless of the local specifics, the cases of England and France draw a vision of a hierarchical society crowned with a ruler. In this community, everyone has their own place and tasks, there is a division into those who are working, fighting or praying. All of them are bound together by the constraints of strict conditions. Depending on their place on the feudal ladder, these could limit their freedom or, on the contrary, guarantee a permanent participation in power. Regardless of whether someone was a peasant or a great landowner, his obligations toward the lord were always based on a personal act of homage to him. Although in time it gained legal value, the basic principle did not change: the knight’s duty of military service was based on the solemn word given to the lord. Jürgen Habermas is correct when he writes that in the Middle Ages, the public domain remained indistinguishable from the private domain, while the political was manifested through symbols and ceremonies. 2

Secondly, the principles of inheritance and the consistently growing systematic position of the monarch were a consequence of the feudal system. Often, the law of succession corresponded with the right of inheritance, which was relevant to magnates or knights. Ultimately, it was the king who was at the end of the chain of fiefdom dependencies, which naturally strengthened his position in relation to his subjects.

If the correlation described above between the way of social organization and the constitution of political power is real, the question arises: what was Poland’s uniqueness based on? Why did royal authority gradually weaken rather than become stronger? I consider the other type of land ownership used by Polish knights to be key. First of all, it must be said that under the Piast dynasty, a feudal system that would be analogous to the Western one, hardly ever took root. Conferral of knighthood, which began between the reign of Casimir I the Restorer and the reigns of Bolesław III Wrymouth, were of an alodial character. In other words, the land received by the knight was given in absolute possession. Of course there was an obligation to military service, but its foundation was a legal one, not a legal-personal dependence of the feudal type.3

Bolesław III Wrymouth, a Duke of Poland, 1107-1138
(painting by Jan Matejko)

With time, the knights’ land was granted immunity and was exempted from most regalia, i.e. obligations to the Crown. One of the most important early privileges included in the knight’s law was the so-called “ius non responsivum“. Under it, an accused nobleman could avoid being tried by a local official or another nobleman and appeal directly to the king’s judgment. As a result of these two circumstances, i.e. the existence of absolutne land ownership and the possibility of direct judicial appeal to the highest court, strict vertical fiefdom dependencies were not established. This set apart the situation in the Kingdom of Poland from what happened in Western Europe. Although Polish knighthood was distinguished by law (including under the statutes of Casimir the Great), its internal differentiation was only economic in nature. This particular egalitarianism eventually led to the removal of the old magnates from government influence, which took place during the reign of Casimir IV Jagiellon.

Growing privilege was very important for the particularity of knighthood in Poland. The first general privilege was announced in Košice in 1374. It established tax breaks and reduced the duty of the gentry to help build castles when construction was decided on with their advice and consent. However, the key point of the privilege was an advisory tax. From that moment, the king could only receive funds for all extraordinary expenses with the consent of the nobility as a whole. As one of the most eminent historians of Polish law wrote, “this meant extending to the entire nobility the possibility of influencing state policy by granting permission for taxation.”4 In itself, this was not a special event at that time, in other countries rulers also agreed to limit their power in tax matters in favor of the consent of states or parliaments. 5 However, along with subsequent royal concessions, the fate of the influence of the general nobility on state affairs was sealed. Fundamentally important was the neminem captivabimus nisi iure victum privilege (i.e. no one will be captured without the court’s consent), given in Czerwińsk in 1422 by King Władysław II Jagiełło, and then confirmed by separate acts in Jedlno in 1430 and in Krakow in 1433. The nobility obtained the same legal guarantee that imprisonment or confiscation of property would not be possible without a court judgment. 6

The last element that must be mentioned is the issue of heredity of the throne. The Kingdom of Poland, united in 1320, was a uniform organism yet had not fully centralized. Certainly Władysław the Short and Casimir the Great did not struggle with the problems of feudal fragmentation, which were so characteristic for French society. So how did it come about that strong hereditary power was transformed into weakening electoral power? Well, certainly the Kingdom of Poland was a state monarchy, and the process of closing the states was expressed in the statutes of Casimir the Great. However, the uniqueness of this monarchy, Bardach emphasizes, consisted of the fact that in Poland, for a number of reasons — among others due to the weaker position of cities — the role of feudalists in unifying the state and shaping the state monarchy was stronger than elsewhere. It inhibited the processes of state centralization, was conducive towards the maintenance of autonomy of particular provinces and lands in which a considerable part of power, thanks to land offices, regional councils and state courts, was gathered up by the local lords, limiting the role of the district governor. An expression of this balance of power was also the establishment of the principle of the election of a king after the death of Casimir the Great.7

Casimir the Great, king of Poland 1333-1370 (painting by Leopold Löffler)

Not without significance for what the Kingdom of Poland was and what its uniqueness depended on, was the transfer of power itself after the passing of the last ruler of the Piast dynasty, Casimir the Great, who died in 1370. According to the agreement, Louis I, Duke of Anjou succeeded him, but from the Polish point of view, things were not as good as under the previous monarch. The new ruler resided in distant Buda, and he appointed a regent to rule in Poland — his own mother, Elizabeth of Poland (Elżbieta Łokietkówna). In spite of her Piast lineage, Elizabeth quickly disaffected the Krakow lords, the fault of her entourage, composed primarily of Hungarians. As a result, already in 1376, there was turmoil that forced her to flee to Hungary. Her successor in the role of regent was Vladislaus II of Opole, who came from the Silesian Piast line, holding this position until Elizabeth’s return two years later. During this period of state instability, the key burden of maintaining the newly united kingdom fell on the Polish elite, first of all on the magnates of Lesser Poland. In The Oxford History of Poland-Lithuania, Robert Frost emphasized that the actions of the Krakow lords manifested the sense of the new term Corona Regni Poloniae. 8

It appealed to “the people”, being a natural and hereditary community of tradition, custom, law and origin. Thanks to this, a legal basis was created that distinguished the kingdom from the ruler. Whoever was supposed to rule in Poland from now on could indeed count on obedience, but it was only conditional. Władysław II Jagiełło was the first one to find out about it.

These three elements — the principle of election to the throne, the uniformity of the nobility and tax privileges combined with personal inviolability — formed the basis for the subsequent development of the parliamentary system and what is called, more or less precisely, “noble democracy”. In this way, numerous knights gained all the rights and tools necessary to become a social stratum of citizens who treated the whole of the country in terms of shared ownership. In other words, the nobility began to consider the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania as the Commonwealth.


1. B. Zientara, Historia Powszechna Średniowiecza, Wydawnictwo TRIO, Warszawa, 1994, p. 97.

2. J. Habermas, Strukturalne przeobrażenia sfery publicznej, trans. W. Lipnik, M. Łukasiewicz, Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, 2007, p. 60-75.

3. Confirmation of this state of affairs can be found in the “History of State and Polish Law” edited by Juliusz Bardach: “From the beginning, land ownership had the character of an inherited beneficjum in relation to the greater part of the knighthood” (Historia państwa i prawa Polski, tom I, ed. J. Bardach, Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, Warszawa 1964, p. 114).

4. J. Bardach, p. 424.

5. See: Angielski Status o podatkach z 1297 roku [in:] Powszechna historia państwa i prawa. Wybór tekstów źródłowyched. M. J. Ptak, M. Kinstler, Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego, Wrocław 1999, p. 292.

6. J. Bardach, p. 425.

7. J. Bardach, p. 382; It is worth mentioning that this specificity of the Polish monarchy is complemented by the fact that the last ruler of the Piast dynasty gave the right to the Polish throne to the prince of another dynasty by an act of will. A similar practice would be unthinkable in France, as can be found in the considerations of Joannes de Terra Rubea, who wrote: “The tenth conclusion; it was never allowed for the kings of France — as the current ruler is forbidden — to make a testament concerning the kingdom and make this way the heir his first-born son or some other person. This conclusion results from […] that the common law did not decide that the kingdom could be administered by means of a will.” Statutowa teoria następstwa tronu z 1420 r. z traktatu Jana de Terra Rubea [in:] Historia państwa i prawa. Wybór tekstów źródłowych, ed. M. J. Ptak, M. Kinstler, Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego, Wrocław 1999, p. 52.

8. R. Frost, Oksfordzka historia unii polsko-litewskiej. Powstanie i rozwój 1385-1569, trans. T. Fiedorek, Dom Wydawniczy Rebis, Poznań, 2018, p. 43.

Second part of the text

Author: Michał Rzeczycki
Translation: Nicholas Siekierski


New book by Richard Butterwick “The Constitution of 3 May 1791. Testament of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth”. Download for free