Saints and Orators: the role of religion in cementing the legitimacy of the Jagiellonian dynasty in Poland and abroad, 1480-1506
By Natalia Nowakowska
Paper given at The Contours of Legitimacy in Central Europe: New Approaches in Graduate Studies (2002)
Introduction: The Jagiellonians originated as belligerent warlords of the Lithuanian empire, the last pagan state in Europe. In 1383, the dynasty reinvented itself when Jagiello converted to Catholicism and married the Queen of Pland, Jadwiga of Anjou, who soon died without issue. It was by his third wife, the Lithuanian princess Zofia, that jagiello founded his own line. As a result of these events, the Jagiellonians gained control of the Polish crown – the pirce of this was an ongoing crisis of legitimacy for monarchy and dynasty alike. Three factors undermined the Jagiellonians’ authority as kings.
The first problem was one of identity. Throughout the Middle Ages, Poland had been ruled by the great Piast dynasty, who came from the heartlands of the kingdom. The Jagiellonians wer foreigners, and their Lithuania, even after its conversion, was deeply influenced by an Orthodox Russian culture where was highly alien to most Poles.
Secondly, the constitutional situation rapidly changed. Aftere Jawdiga’s deaht, the royal council invited Jagiello to stay on as king on an ad hoc basis, but would not recognise him as the true heir to the Polish throne – he was rex but not heres, Over the next decades, Polish magnates exploited this constitutional no-man’s land to carve out new rights for themselves, to the extent that the monarchy was transformed into an elective institution. The Jagiellonians retained the throne, sometimes by the skin of their teeth, as in 1492. Every time a Jagiellonian king was elected, he was forced to sign new privileges as part of his acclamatio. The most notable of these was the Mielnica Privilege of 1501, with which Aleksander Jagiellon signed away a raft of royal rights.
Finally, the dynasty’s legitimacy was further undermined by a period of poor political leadership during the reigns of Jan Olbracht and Aleksander. The years 1492-1506 were a time of military disaster and financial crisis – the chronicler Miechowita wrote that people were so weary of Tartar attacks that they begged God to take Aleksander’s soul.
The dynasty’s most formidable political opponent was the royal council itself. All bishops and provincial governors had the right to sit in the council – although the king controlled the appointment of these dignitaries, such men legally had to be nobles. In effect, the royal council was the power-base of the magnate classes who wished to whittle away the powers of the crown. It was over this group that the Jagiellonians had to assert themselves, and as part of their campaign they turned to the church.