Elżbieta Sieniawska – A woman not even afraid of the devil

The uncrowned Queen of Poland

Frederick Augustus, the Duke of Saxony, calculated that Warsaw was well worth the price of a mass and converted to Catholicism in 1697. His wife, an ardent Lutheran, felt no temptation to put the Jagiellonian crown on her head and refused. The lonely nights of Duke Frederick Augustus on the Vistula River were made pleasant by a legion of lovers, but the absence of his wife was at striking odds with tradition.

by Wiesław Chełminiak


Poles and Lithuanians had already accepted the importance of the queen’s court as well as its possible importance as the center of power in the country. [Without a queen], the void was filled by ambitious women from the richest magnate families and in their opinion, neighboring rulers needed to take this fact into account. This political phenomenon, which even survived the destruction of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, amazed foreigners. Prussian King Frederick II the Great, an incorrigible antifeminist, even sneered that reason in Poland had fallen so far as to become dependent on women.


A Lady with a Pipe

This group of imperious women began with Elżbieta Helena née Lubomirska Sieniawska. ‘A very proud lady and a great ruler, she held ‘conferences’ with all of Europe’ – wrote an 18th-century historian. Russia’s Tsar Peter the Great organized banquets in honor of the Hetman’s wife and showered her with expensive gifts. Vienna and Paris strove for her favor. Elizabeth was famous for her love for male entertainments: hunting, horse riding, hunting dogs, smoking and playing cards. She brought mounts to her stables from Crimea and Constantinople. She loved music and could dance until late at night, but hated the drunkenness that was widespread among high society.

Elżbieta Sieniawska by Ádám Mányoki, ca. 1715 (public domain)

Sieniawska’s greatest passion, apart from politics, was managing the family property. She had a hard hand, as many shady tenants and administrators discovered. At that time, Poland’s economy consisted mostly of agricultural and cattle-breeding endeavours, but apart from mills and sawmills, the vast estates of Sieniawska also included paper mills, brickworks, glassworks and calamine mines. The owner looked after the peasants, established schools and provided for their upkeep. She allowed Jews to settle in her private cities and towns.

The law could not stop Sieniawska. She won every trial by corrupting or intimidating judges. She was able to sue the city council of Gdańsk, the port known as Poland’s window to the world, ‘for violating its commercial interests’ before the tribunal. Family connections, supported by her husband’s position, ensured her inviolability. Like other magnates, she believed that whatever was good for her was also good for Poland. She had informants all over the country and subscribed to Parisian newspapers because she knew French very well. Like the Marquis de Sévigné, she wrote thousands of letters. The few that have survived allow us to see the artistry of epistolography. She adapted the language to the addressee. She scorned the economist: ‘You know as much about it as a pig about pepper.’ while addressing the senators as ‘a kind sister and humble servant.’

Modesty was not her forte. She had herself painted with the attributes of Minerva – the Roman goddess of wisdom. In another portrait, she is dressed as a Sarmatian, in a pose worthy of a victorious leader. It says a lot about the character and temperament of the model. She amazed contemporaries with her mobility, traveling regardless of her health. Doctors concerned about ‘hot blood’ recommended Sieniawska to bathe in the Vistula and undergo bloodletting. Fortunately, she rarely listened to them.

Elżbieta Sieniawska as Minerva, ca. 1725 (public domain)

She also rarely had to take advantage of someone else’s hospitality, having at her disposal a dozen or so of her own residences that could be found scattered along the route from Lwów to Warsaw. Three hundred years ago, she made a decision that washed away all her political sins: she bought the neglected, Wilanów residence of King Jan III Sobieski and set out to make it the most beautiful palace in Poland.

Ah, what a wedding it was!

Elżbieta didn’t simply inherit her aristocratic parents’ pride. Her mother, Zofia née Opalińska, was one of the best educated women in old Poland and was passionate about mathematics. Her father, Stanisław Herakliusz Lubomirski, was a philosopher, writer and patron known as the ‘Polish Solomon’. He also brought genius architect Tylman of Gameren to Poland. Less fortunate as a politician, he nevertheless held the Grand Crown Marshal’s Office for 25 years, one of the most important offices in Poland. He placed his daughter, who was born in 1669 or 1670, at the royal court, where she quickly became the favorite of Sobieski’s French wife. Maria Kazimiera d’Arquien was like a mother to her (her real mother had died when she was five).

Her stay in Wilanów shaped Elżbieta’s personality. It wasn’t a good school. Maria Kazimiera, a woman as ambitious as she was capricious, exerted a disastrous influence on the aging and ailing monarch, and her intrigues buried the Sobieskis’ chances of succession to the throne. Marshal Lubomirski, who was drifting more and more towards the opposition, insisted on marrying his daughter to the starost of Lwów. Adam Mikołaj Sieniawski was neither an eagle of intellect nor a handsome man, but he came from a senatorial family and had inherited a great fortune. The Lubomirski family thought that they would manage it easily. The wedding took place with great pomp on 6 July 1687, and the young couple was blessed by the Primate of Poland.

The likely image of Elizabeth in childhood (public domain)

‘The marriage of Elżbieta was based on an agreement of the parties, and feelings usually came to the fore in the event of misunderstandings,’ says Bożena Popiołek, the author of Sieniawska’s biography. If only Adam, accustomed from a young age to being a warrior, had displayed any talent as a leader, they could have formed a duo as effective as John and Sara Marlborough in England. The starost, however, felt best in his residence in Brzeżany with a glass of wine in his hand. They spent little time together. In March 1691, Elżbieta went to Warsaw for the wedding of Prince Jakub Sobieski and did not return to Brzeżany until December. The husband, not believing that the reason for the delay was due to illness, complained to his father-in-law. He, however, always took the daughter’s side.

It is no wonder that the couple did not have children until 12 years into their marriage. Their daughter Zofia Maria received her first name from her grandmother and the second in honor of the queen. Earlier, however, rumors were circulating about Elżbieta’s affair with Jan Stanisław Jabłonowski, whom she had known since childhood. The enemies of the voivode of Volhynia obtained his love correspondence and passed it on to Adam. The scandal was covered up, and the Lubomirski family managed to convince the Lord of Brzeżany that he had fallen victim to a political intrigue. The next object of Elżbieta’s passionate feelings was Prince Aleksander Sobieski. His mother would have liked to see him on the throne more so than her firstborn Jakub. The Polish crown, however, was not hereditary, and after the death of King Jan III it turned out that the nobility had become fed up with the Sobieski family.

Jan S. Jabłonowski by Ádám Mányoki (public domain)


Everything for the lover

The Lubomirski family supported the French candidate, Prince Conti, while the minority supported the ruler of Saxony. A brief civil war broke out. Wettin was closer to Warsaw and acted vigorously – he was crowned immediately. The astute Elżbieta persuaded her husband to recognize the validity of this act, not for free, of course. Acquiring the Sieniawski family cost August II 40 thousand thalers. The dying father-in-law wanted Adam to become the marshal, but the latter – to the despair of his wife – refused, explaining that he felt it ‘impractical to make orations’.

When Maria Kazimiera lost, she decided to leave Poland, and Sieniawska escorted her to the border. On behalf of the ex-queen, she undertook to manage the Sobieski family. She broke up with Aleksander, having learned that he had been hanging out with Countess Esterle, one of Augustus II’s mistresses, entering into alliances with the monarch’s other lovers. Thanks to this, Sieniawski became the field hetman of the crown. With the outbreak of the Third Northern War, the command of the army guaranteed great power. Adam understood to whom he owed this honor, so he closed his eyes to Elżbieta’s next romance.

Sieniawska was fascinated with Prince Franciszek II Rakoczy, seven years younger, who had escaped from the imperial prison and sought refuge in Poland. She, in turn, impressed the Hungarian by shooting darts accurately. She granted him asylum in her estate, helped to recruit mercenaries and establish political contacts. In fact, she became Rakoczy’s minister of foreign affairs. She lent him money to buy weapons, sewed combat banners for kurucs (the name of the participants of the anti-Habsburg uprising). The prince was also supported by France, which was fighting with the emperor. One of the secret agents of Versailles was Elżbieta’s secretary.

Francis II Rákóczi by Ádám Mányoki (public domain)

The successes achieved by the Swedes in the fight against August II prompted our heroine to play a double or even triple game. Assuring Wettin of her faithfulness, she got into a deal with the opposition and the invaders. She explained to her husband briefly and bluntly: ‘Whoever lives next to hell, asks the devil to be a godfather.’ On her advice, the queen maneuvered, trying to remain neutral. The appointment of the new king, Stanisław Leszczyński, who was a Swedish puppet, offended the pride of the Poles. The country was in chaos, which Russia took advantage of.


Eastern temptations

In February 1706, the Sieniawski family hosted Tsar Peter in Lwów. The future was discussed. The guest, officially an ally of August II, offered to hand over the throne to one of the Sobieskis. In April, Elżbieta met Wettin in Krakow, demanding a great mace and the Krakow castellany in return for her husband’s loyalty. Peter promised even more: a crown. Sieniawska, however, doubted the sincerity of her eastern neighbor’s intentions. ‘I don’t want to be a tsarist fool, so that I should walk with my tied head,’ she warned Adam. More than anyone else, she realized that he was simply not fit to be a monarch.

The scales of victory tipped from side to side. Elżbieta fell into Swedish captivity, from which, however, she quickly redeemed herself and continued to plot intrigues. The Russians raised the stakes, proposing that the new ruler of the Commonwealth should be supported by Rakoczy’s France. Sieniawska secretly negotiated with Leszczyński and allegedly participated in the transfer of the Ukrainian hetman Mazepa to the side of the Swedes. After their final defeat, she saved her former lover, Jan Stanisław Jabłonowski, from oppression.

Sieniawski family, ca. 1725 (public domain)

Meanwhile, the balance of power in Europe definitely changed. Louis XIV’s dreams of hegemony were shattered, Austria, Prussia and Russia strengthened at the expense of their neighbors. Sieniawska, despite her aversion to the Tsar, realized that he was now the main player. When Peter made her an offer to be his descendant’s godmother, she responded with an identical invitation. The baptism of 12-year-old Zofia Maria was attended by the tsar, Rakoczy, the newly returned to the throne Augustus II (whom she called ‘a scourge’ in one of the letters), Konstanty Sobieski and many other honored guests. After the banquet, they entertained themselves until midnight.

Rakoczy, even before the defeat, began to apply for the Polish indigenate. He also bought property in the name of his mistress for French money. With time, Elżbieta began to doubt Franciszek’s affection, suspecting that he did it only for money. After the fall of the uprising, the prince continued to use the queen’s help, but in the end he left for France, and then to Turkey, leaving his wife and devoted compatriots on ice. In his old age, he published diaries in which he complained about the ‘sinful passion’ of a Polish woman.


Lady in Wilanów

The great historian Władysław Konopczyński, author of the book Kiedy nami rządziły kobiety (When women ruled us) explained the political commitment of 18th-century ladies with the thoughtlessness and indolence of men. Indeed, Sieniawska’s rivals and allies were primarily other equally bright ladies: Urszula Lubomirska, Ludwika Bielińska, her daughter Marianna Denhoff, Konstancja Towiańska, Joanna Potocka and Anna Katarzyna Radziwiłł. This was partly due to the fact that the position of women in the Commonwealth was higher than in the West. It is easier to step out of the role of obedient wife and mother if you have a separate budget, servants, and palace.

Wilanów Palace. View of the corps de logis from the cour d’honneur (photo: Rtadek; CC BY-SA 4.0)

Sieniawska became a midwife of several careers important to Polish culture. The poet Elżbieta Drużbacka, known as the ‘Slavic Sappho’, was brought up at her court. Outstanding sculptors: Jan Eliasz Hoffmann and Jan Jerzy Plersch, painters: Giuseppe Rossi and Franz Eckstein and architects: Giovanni Spazzio and Kacper Bażanka worked for Sieniawska. Malicious people explained numerous religious foundations with the desire to avoid the torments of hell by the sinner. Beautiful churches of the Piarists in Krakow, the Capuchins and the Carmelites in Lwów, the Dominicans in Sieniawa and the visitation churches in Warsaw were built by Sieniawska’s will.

The aging Sieniawska became less and less involved in politics. However, she was able to recognize her real talent, protecting Stanisław Poniatowski, an adventurer returning from exile. His son became the ruler of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Elżbieta survived her husband, the last of the Sieniawskis, by three years. Death came to her suddenly in Oleszyce on 21 March 1729, as she was going to Przemyśl for court cases. She didn’t leave a will. The uncrowned queen of Poland was buried in the family mausoleum in Brzeżany. The fortune she had accumulated passed, through her daughter’s hand, to the Czartoryski family.

The Oleszyce Castle burnt down in 1941, on the first day of the German-Soviet war. Three years later, Elżbieta’s favorite residence in Łubnice was blown up by the Red Army. The palaces in Puławy, Wysock and Warsaw were completely rebuilt, the last of which houses the Academy of Fine Arts. The castle in Brzeżany turned into a sad ruin in the 19th century. The Sieniawski coffins were placed in the castle chapel in Pieskowa Skała.

Elżbieta Sieniawska, portrayed in Sarmatian pose and in male delia cloak, by Louis de Silvestre, ca 1720 (public domain)

Sieniawska’s ghost, if it is alive somewhere, is in Wilanów. She acquired the seat of the Sobieski family, overtaking August II (who also was willing to have it) for 280,000 timpfs, and immediately started the expansion. The Italian-style villa became a real palace when Spazzio erected ornately decorated side wings, and Rossi painted a ceiling in the hallway showing the half-naked goddess Flora with the face of Elżbieta. Three hundred citrus trees were planted in the new orangery, and melons and watermelons in the orchard. The surrounding ponds were stocked with fish, and Dutch cows grazed on the Vistula meadows. Excellent cheeses were made from their milk. Such was Sieniawska.


Author: Wiesław Chełminiak
Translation: Alicja Rose & Jessica Sirotin