Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo


The western part of the Sarmatian Plain together with the northern slopes of the Carpathians, i.e., the territory included between lat. 46° and 59° N., and between long. 32° and 53° E. of Ferro, with an area of about 435,200 square miles (twice as large as Germany ), constituted the former Kingdom of Poland. Very likely Poland received its name on account of its extensive plains (in Polish the word for "field", or "plain", is pole ), which are the characteristic feature of its topography. As an independent country (i.e., until the year 1772), Poland was bounded on the north by the Baltic Sea, on the east by the Russian Empire, on the south by the dominions of the Tatars and Hungary, on the west by Bohemia and Prussia. The rivers of Poland flow either to the north and west, and empty into the Baltic, or flow south into the Black Sea. The rivers that empty into the Baltic are the Oder, Vistula, Niemen, and the western Düna; those that empty into the Black Sea are the Dniester, Boh (Bug), and Dnieper. The climate is universally temperate, and the four seasons are sharply defined. The chief industry has always been agriculture, and little account has ever been made of either commerce or manufactures, although the country was situated on the direct line of communication between Europe and Asia.

The various divisions, by the union of which the Kingdom of Poland was formed, still bear their original names. They are: (1) Great Poland, in the basin of the Warthe. Cities: Gnesen, Posen on the Warthe; (2) Kujavia, north of Great Poland, at the foot of the Baltic ridge to the left of the Vistula. City: Bromberg; (3) Little Poland, the basin of the upper and middle Vistula. Cities: Cracow, Sandomir, Czenstochowa, Radom; (4) Silesia, at the headwaters of the Vistula and on the upper Oder, belonged to Poland only until the year 1335. Capital: Breslau ; (5) Masovia, in the basin of the middle Vistula. Capital: Warsaw ; (6) Pomerania, between the Baltic Sea, the Vistula and Netze. Cities: Kolberg and Danzig; (7) Prussia, originally the country between the Baltic, the Vistula, the Niemen and the Drewenz. Cities: Thorn, Marienburg, and Königsberg; (8) Podlachia, on the rivers Narew, and Bug. City: Bjelsk; (9) Polesia, in the valley of the Pripet. City: Pinsk; (10) Volhynia in the basin of the rivers Styr, Horyn, and Slucz. Cities: Vladimir and Kamenetz; (11) Red Russia, on the Dniester, San, Bug, and Prut. Cities: Sanok, Przemysl, Lemberg, and Kolomyia; (12) Podolia, in the basin of the Strypa, Seret., Sbrucz, and upper Boh. Cities: Kamenetz, on the Smotrycz, Mohileff, on the Dniester, Buczacz; (13) The Ukraine, east of the Dniester in the basin of the Bug and Dnieper. Cities: Kieff, Zhitomir, Poltava, Oczakow, and Cherson; (14) White Russia, on the upper Dnieper, Düna, and Niemen. Cities: Minsk, Vitebsk, and Polotsk; (15) Lithuania, on the middle Niemen, extending to the Düna. Cities: Vilna, Grodno, Kovno; (16) Samland, to the right of the lower Niemen. City: Worme; (17) Courland, on the Gulf of Riga, with the city of Mitau, belonged to Poland only indirectly; (18) Livonia, on the Gulf of Riga, and Esthonia, on the Gulf of Finland, belonged to Poland for a short time only.

Poland was, for the most part, populated by Poles; after the union of Lithuania with Poland were added Ruthenians and Tatars, and furthermore, though in no considerable numbers, Jews, Germans, Armenians, Gipsies, and Letts. As a matter of fact, the Poles inhabited the whole of Great Poland, Little Poland, and a part of Lithuania, as well as part of the Ruthenian territory. Moreover, the nobility, the urban population, and the upper and better educated classes in general throughout the whole country were either Poles or thoroughly Polonized. The total population was generally given as nine millions. The Ruthenians inhabited the eastern (White and Red Russia ), and the south-eastern provinces (Red Russia and the Ukraine). The Lithuanians formed the bulk of the population in Samland and the waywodeships of Wilna and Troki. A political distinction was made between "Crown Poland" and Lithuania. These two divisions, which united after 1569, differed more particularly in that each country had its own officials. After 1569, also, the designation "Republic of Poland" became customary to denote not any definite polity, but a league of states (Lithuania and Crown Poland). Crown Poland was called a kingdom; Lithuania, a grand-duchy. In 1772, 1793, and 1795 the territory of Poland was divided among the three adjoining states: Lithuania and Little Russia were given to Russia ; the purely Polish territories, to Prussia and Austria. The new boundary between these states was formed by the Pilica and the Bug. Thus Russia received 8500 square miles and 6,500,000 inhabitants; Prussia, 2700 square miles and 3,000,000 inhabitants; Austria, 2100 square miles and 4,275,000 inhabitants.

Napoleon took from Prussia the Polish territories annexed in 1793 and 1795 and out of them formed what he called the Duchy of Warsaw. New territorial changes were effected by the Congress of Vienna : Prussia received a part of the Duchy of Warsaw as the Grand duchy of Posen; Russia received the rest of the Duchy of Warsaw as a separate Kingdom of Poland (Congress Poland); Austria retained the territories previously acquired, under the name of the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria. Galicia now has a population of more than seven millions, of whom somewhat less than four millions are Poles, and 3,074,000, Ruthenians. Grouped according to religion there are 3,350,000 Catholics of the Latin Rite, 3,104,000 Greek Uniats, and 811,000 Jews.

The San, a tributary of the Vistula, divides Galicia into an eastern and western part. The latter is occupied by the Poles, the former by the Ruthenians, though there are also many Poles. For administrative purposes Galicia is divided into seventy-nine districts. The intellectual centre of the country is Cracow (150,000 inhabitants), but the actual capital is Lemberg (250,000 inhabitants). There are two universities, one at Cracow and one at Lemberg, one polytechnic institute at Lemberg, and one commercial academy in each of these two cities. In the Polish provinces belonging to Prussia there are approximately four million Poles. In Silesia they constitute two-thirds of the population; they are also found on the Baltic and in the provinces of East and West Prussia, being most numerous (more than 1,500,000) in the Grand duchy of Posen. The capital, Posen, numbers about 150,000 inhabitants. Among the Poles the Catholic religion predominates. The Poles under Russian rule are found chiefly in Congress Poland; also, in small numbers, in Lithuania, Volhynia, Podolia, and the Ukraine. The total probably amounts to nine millions. The capital of Russian Poland is Warsaw, with 800,000 inhabitants. The Greek Uniat Bishopric of Chelm (Kholm), situated within the boundaries of the Kingdom of Poland, was compelled by force to accept the schism in 1875; however, since 1905, a large majority of the former Uniats have returned to the Catholic Church.


At the period when the authentic history of Poland begins, the Germans had already become the most powerful nation of Europe, and their kings sought to extend their dominion to the Slavic tribes beyond the Elbe. The latter were very soon partly exterminated, partly subjugated. The eastern boundary of Germany was advanced as far as the Oder; beyond this was Polish territory. But the German armies did not halt there; in the neighbourhood of where Frankfort now stands they crossed the Oder and attacked the Polish strongholds. Mieszko, the Polish ruler of Posen (962-92), acknowledged the German Emperor as his lord paramount, promising to pay a yearly tribute, and upon demand to aid him with an armed force. In 963 Mieszko bound himself and his people to embrace Christianity. Christian missionaries were at once sent to Poland; the first bishopric was that of Posen, which was placed under the supervision of the German archbishop at Magdeburg. This was the first contact of the Poles with European civilization. From Germany and Bohemia numerous missionaries entered the country to baptize the people, while from all the Western countries came immigrants and monks, and convents began to be built. The spread of Christianity was greatly furthered by the two wives of Prince Mieszko: first, Dabrowska, a sister of the King of Bohemia, and then Oda, formerly a nun whom Mieszko had married after the death of Dabrowska. Prince Mieszko considered himself a vassal of the pope, and as such paid him tribute. From this time on, the Church contributes so much to the national development that it will be impossible to trace intelligently the political history of Poland without at the same time following its ecclesiastical development.

Poland had hardly begun to play a part in history when it acquired extraordinary power. This was in the reign of the famous Boleslaw Chrobry (992-1025), the eldest son of the first Polish ruler. His dominions included all the lands from the Baltic to the country beyond the Carpathians, and from the River Oder to the provinces beyond the Vistula. He had at his command, ready for instant service, a well-equipped army of 20,000 men. In spite of his great power, Boleslaw continued to pay the customary tribute to Germany. By his discreet diplomacy he was successful in obtaining the consent of the pope, as well as of the German emperor, to the erection of an archiepiscopal see at Gnesen, and thus the Polish Church was relieved of its dependence upon German archbishops. To emphasize Poland's independence of Germany, Boleslaw assumed the title of king, being crowned by the newly created archbishop of Gnesen in 1024. The clergy in Poland were at that time exclusively of foreign birth; intimate relations between them and the people were therefore impossible. The latter did not become enthusiastic about the new religion, nor yet did they return to paganism, for severe penalties, such as knocking out the teeth for violating the precept of fasting, maintained obedience to the clergy among the people.

After the death of Chrobry disaster befell the Poles. Their neighbours attacked them on all sides. The son of Boleslaw, Mieczyslaw II (1025-34), unable to cope with his enemies, yielded allegiance to the emperor and lost the title of king. After his death there was an interregnum (1034-40) marked by a series of violent revolutions. Hosts of rebellious peasants traversed the country from end to end, furiously attacked castles, churches, and convents, and murdered noblemen and ecclesiastics. In Masovia paganism was re-established. Casimir, a son of Mieczyslaw II, surnamed the Restorer, recovered the reins of government, with the aid of Henry VIII , restored law and order, and rooted out idolatry. At his death the sovereignty devolved upon his son, Boleslaw II, Smialy (1058-79). This ruler was favoured by fortune in his warlike undertakings. His success at last led him to enter upon a conflict with the emperor. Conditions at the time were favourable to his securing political independence. The Emperor Henry IV was engaged in a struggle for supremacy with Pope Gregory VII, who allied himself with the vassal princes hostile to the emperor, among them Boleslaw Smialy, to whom he sent the kingly crown. Poland revolted from the empire, and the Polish Church began a reform in accordance with Gregory's decrees. By the leading nobles Boleslaw was thoroughly hated as a despot; the masses of the people murmured under the burden of incessant wars ; the clergy opposed the energetic reformation of the Church, which the king was carrying on, their opposition being particularly directed against Gregory's decree enforcing the celibacy of the clergy. The dissatisfied elements rose and placed themselves under the protection of Bohemia, Bishop Stanislaw even placed the king under the ban of the Church, while the king declared the bishop guilty of high treason for allying himself with Bohemia and the emperor. The king's sentence was terribly executed at Cracow, where the bishop was done to death and hewn in pieces. In the civil war which ensued Boleslaw was worsted and compelled to take refuge in Hungary.

After his death Poland had to pass through severe and protracted struggles to maintain its independence. Towards the end of the eleventh century its power was broken by the Bohemians and Germans, and it was once more reduced to the condition of an insignificant principality, under the incompetent Wladislaw Herman (1081-1101). At this period the clergy constituted the only educated class of the entire population, but they were foreigners, and the natives joined their ranks but slowly. At all events they are entitled to extraordinary credit for the diffusion of learning in Poland. The convents were at that time the centres of learning; the monks taught the people improved methods of cultivating the soil, and built inns and hospitals. During the whole of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Poland was in a most unfortunate condition. Boleslaw III, Krzywousty (1112-39), at his death divided the country into principalities, which were bequeathed to his sons as hereditary possessions. The eldest son was to receive the territory of Cracow, with his capital at Cracow, and to be the overlord of the whole country. In course of time the other sons again divided their lands among their children, and thus Poland was split up into smaller and smaller principalities -- a process which proved fatal. The overlords were unable to effect permanent reforms; Wladislaw II (1139-46), Boleslaw the Curly-haired (1146-73), Mieczyslaw the Old (1173-77), Casimir II the Just (1177-94), Mieczyslaw the Old (supreme for the second time, 1194-1202), Wladislaw III (1202-06). The only spiritual bond that held the dismembered parts of Poland together was the Church. With this in mind Leszek the Wise (1206-27) increased popular respect for the clergy by giving them the right to elect their bishops, and territorial jurisdiction over church lands. His brother, Prince Conrad of Masovia, about this time summoned the knights of the Teutonic Order. The heathen tribes on the borders of Poland -- Jazygians, Lithuanians, and Prussians -- were constantly making predatory incursions into the country. The Prussians, who had settled east of the Vistula, were active in these raids.

To put an end to this state of things a knightly order established by Germans in Palestine was summoned by Conrad for the conquest and Christianization of Prussia. These Knights of the Cross, so called from the black cross upon their white cloaks, established themselves on the Vistula in 1228. They were also known as the Teutonic Knights (Deutschen Ritter). In a short time they exterminated the Prussians, to replace whom German colonists were brought into the land, forming a powerful state controlled by the order, a state of strictly German character, which soon directed its attacks against Poland. The condition of Poland, meanwhile, was disastrously affected by another cause: it was subdivided into about thirty small states, and the supreme princes, Henry I the Bearded (1232-38), Henry II the Pious (1238-41), Boleslaw (1243-79), Leszek the Black (1279-88), Henry Probus (1288-90), Przemyslaw II (1290-95), and Waclaw II (1290-1305), could find no remedy for the evil. Moreover, in the years 1241 and 1259 the Tatars invaded the country, completely devastated it, and carried off vast multitudes into captivity. The territories thus depopulated were then occupied by well organized colonies from Germany. In the early thirteenth and late fourteenth centuries these colonists became possessed with a desire to seize the sovereign power in the State, weakened as it was by sub-division. But the magnates of Poland decided to oppose this scheme resolutely. The clergy issued instructions at synods against the admission of Germans to church benefices, the church being the only power that could supply any means of firm national organization. The Archbishop of Gnesen was the supreme religious head of all the Polish principalities. The clergy of the time, having been for fully a century native Poles, cultivated the Polish language in the churches and schools. It was among the clergy that the opposition to the German influence first took form. Above all, it was the clergy who took active measures to bring about the union of the various divisions of Poland into one great kingdom.

Circumstances favoured this plan. For during this period of incessant civil wars, Tatar invasions, famine, contagious diseases, conflagrations, and floods, the piety of the common people was remarkable. Never before or after was the number of hermits and pilgrims so large, never was the building of convents carried on so extensively. Princes, princesses, nobles, and knights entered the various orders; large sums of money were given for religious foundations. To this period belong the Polish saints whom the Church has recognized. The clergy gained extraordinary influence. In the convent-schools singing and preaching was henceforth carried on in the Polish language. Germans were not admitted to the higher dignities of the Church. At the same time the Polish clergy prepared to bring about a union of the several states into which the country was divided. This was accomplished after many years of war by the energetic prince Wladislaw, surnamed the Short (1305-33). He determined, furthermore, to have himself crowned king. After receiving the kingly crown from the pope, he crowned himself in the city of Cracow (1320). His whole reign was spent in warfare ; in a way, he restored Poland and preserved it from foreign domination. His son and successor, Casimir the Great (1333-70), undertook to restore order in the internal affairs of the realm, demoralized by a century of almost uninterrupted warfare. He promoted agriculture, the trades, and commerce; he built fortresses and cities, constructed highways, drained marshes, founded villages, extended popular education, defended the laws made them known to the people by collecting them into a code (1347), established a supreme court at Cracow (1366), and offered a refuge in Poland to the Jews, who were then everywhere persecuted. He also founded a university at Cracow (1364) and organized a militia. When he inherited the Principality of Halicz (Galicia), a part of Little Russia, he brought this district to a high degree of prosperity by his policies. Casimir died without issue, and with him the Piast dynasty became extinct.

During Casimir's reign the clergy, on account of their services in bringing about the unification of the kingdom, gained extraordinary popularity, all the more because they were the only educated element of the nation. There were seven religious orders: Benedictines, Templars, Cistercians, Dominicans, Franciscans, Lateran Canons, and Præmonstratensians. Libraries and schools were to be found only in the convents, where, also, the poor, the sick, and the crippled received comfort and help. Besides promoting religion, some of the convents, especially those of the Cistercians, sought to promote agriculture by clearing forests, laying out gardens, and introducing new varieties of fruits, etc. The Cistercians employed the lay members attached to their order in manual labour, under strict regulations, in their fields, gardens and workshops. The Norbertine, Cistercian, Dominican, Franciscan, and Benedictine nuns devoted themselves more particularly to the education of girls. Laymen despised learning as something unworthy of them. On the other hand, the clergy only unwillingly admitted laymen into their schools, which they regarded as preparatory institutions for those intending to take orders. The first schools were established by the Benedictines at Tyniec, but as early as the thirteenth century this order, composed for the most part of foreign-born members, ceased teaching. The secular clergy established schools in the cathedral, collegiate, and parish churches.

While Casimir still lived the nobility elected as his successor Louis, King of Hungary (1370-82), who assumed the regency without opposition immediately after Casimir's death. Under him the relations existing between the people and the Crown underwent substantial changes. Louis had no sons, only daughters, and he was anxious that one of these should occupy the Throne of Poland. With this object in view he began to treat with the Polish nobles. The nobles assented to his plan and in return received numerous privileges. Thereafter there was bargaining and haggling with each new king, a course which finally resulted in the complete limitation of the royal power. On the other hand, the despotism of the aristocracy increased in proportion as the power of the kings declined, greatly to the detriment of the other estates of the realm. Louis was succeeded, after much hesitation on her part, by Queen Hedwig (Jadwiga), in the year 1384. The Poles urged her marriage to Jagiello, or Jagellon, the Prince of Lithuania, but on condition that he and all his people should embrace Christianity. As soon as Jagiello had accepted this proposal and had been baptized, he was crowned King of Poland (1386-1434) -- on the strength of being the consort of Queen Hedwig. Soon after the close of the coronation festivities at Cracow a large body of ecclesiastics crossed into Lithuania, where, after a short resistance on the part of the heathen priests, the people were baptized in vast multitudes. One of the most important tasks of the united kingdom of Poland and Lithuania was the final reckoning with the Teutonic Knights , whose power still threatened both countries. In 1409 began a war which was signalized by the crushing defeat of the order at Tannenberg-Grnfelde. The battle of Tannenberg broke for all time the power of the order, and placed Poland among the great powers of Europe. Until then Poland had been looked upon as a semi-civilized country, where the natives were little better than savages, and culture was represented by the German clergy and colonists. With the battle at Tannenberg this period of disrepute was at an end.

The influence of the Polish clergy was still further increased after the union of Poland and Lithuania. The royal chancery was administered by clerics. The clergy now (1413-16) caused the adoption of a whole series of enactments against heresy with especially severe provisions against apostates. In the general synods, in which the Polish clergy had formerly been classed as German, its representatives in the course of time received even greater attention, and the candidacy of Polish church dignitaries for the papal Throne was considered in all seriousness. Polish ecclesiastics brought it about that the adherents of the Eastern Schism in the Province of Halicz (Galicia) made their submission to the Holy See at Florence in 1439. Jagiello's son Wladislaw (1434-44) in the year 1440 accepted the Hungarian Crown also, in order that, with the united forces of the two kingdoms, he might successfully resist the power of the Turks. He gained a brilliant victory over the Turks (1443), but, continuing the war at the pope's instance, in spite of the treaty of peace, met with disaster, and fell in the battle of Varna. His successors, Casimir the Jagellon (1447-92), John Albert (1492-1501), and Alexander (1501-06), wrought for the welfare of the State with varying success. The son of Alexander, Sigismund I (1506-48), sought to consolidate his military power and replenish his treasury. He succeeded in redeeming the mortgaged estates of the Crown, but could not obtain the consent of the nobility to the formation of a standing army and the payment of regular taxes. Sigismund also carried on several wars -- with the Russians, the Tatars, and the Wallachians. In his reign, too, the secularization of the domains of the Teutonic order took place. The grand master, Albert, with the whole chapter and a majority of the knights, abjured their allegiance to the emperor, and adopted Lutheranism, an example followed by a large part of the Prussian nobility and all the commonalty. At the same time the land which had heretofore belonged to the order was proclaimed as a secular Prussian principality. Poland, desirous of continuing its suzerainty over Prussia, sanctioned these changes (1525), on condition, however, that Albert should swear allegiance to the Polish king. Albert accepted these terms, and Prussia accordingly became a fief of the Jagellons.

Towards the end of Sigismund's reign, between 1530 and 1540, a powerful tendency towards reform in religious matters manifested itself throughout Poland. This reform was indeed necessary. At the close of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth century the clergy were thoroughly depraved. As a memorial, presented to the papal nuncio by the better elements, proves, the bishops were concerned only about the attainment of new dignities and the collection of their revenues; they oppressed the labourers on church lands, keeping them at work even on Sundays and holy days; the priests were uneducated and in many cases were only half-grown youths; the clergy were venal; monks dressed in silken robes often shared in the carousals of the nobility. The nobles envied the flourishing estates of the clergy. Thus a fruitful soil was provided for the spread of heresies in Poland. The spread of Hussite doctrines was not arrested until as late as 1500. The aristocracy, especially the younger members, who had attended foreign universities, now began to turn more and more to Calvinism, because this religion gave laymen a voice in matters affecting the church. Complete freedom of speech and belief was introduced. From all sides the Reformers, driven from other countries on account of their teachings, migrated to Poland, bringing with them a multiplicity of sects. The depraved clergy were unable to maintain their supremacy. Zebrzydowski, Bishop of Cracow, was wont to say openly: "You may believe in what you will, provided you pay me the tithe ". Moreover, many of the clergy married. The aristocracy regarded the new doctrines as an advance upon the old, drove the Catholic priests from the villages, substituted Protestant preachers, and ordered their dependents to attend the Calvinistic or Hussite devotions. But the common people opposed this propaganda.

The Reformation failed in Poland; but it stimulated the intellectual activity of the Poles and contributed very largely to the creation of a national Polish literature in place of the hitherto prevalent Latin literature. The sectarians were compelled to employ the vernacular in their addresses, if their teachings were to be effective with the masses. The Reformation gained momentum and growth especially after the death of Sigismund I, when his son Sigismund Augustus (1548-72) succeeded him. There was at the time much discussion as to convoking a national synod and establishing a national Church, independent of Rome. The representatives of various denominations in 1550 demanded the abolition of the ecclesiastical courts and complete religious liberty; they furthermore proposed the confiscation of church lands, the permission of marriage to the clergy, and communion in both kinds. But the king would not consent to these demands. The diet even passed stringent laws against the Protestant agitators, placing them on the footing of persons guilty of high treason. Nevertheless a decree was issued forbidding the payment of any and all tribute to the pope ; at the same time the ecclesiastical courts were deprived of jurisdiction in cases of heresy, and the civil power was no longer obliged to execute their sentences. The heretics, however, did not gain complete equality of rights under the law. This curtailment of their liberty was because the sects were at variance with one another and because, furthermore, the Reformation was hardly more than a matter of fashion with the magnates, while the gentry and common people remained true to the Church ; so that the heretics were unable to secure a majority in any part of Poland.

Still the number of Catholic churches converted to Protestant uses amounted to 240 in Great Poland and more than 400 in Little Poland, in addition to which the various sects had built 80 new churches, while in Lithuania, where Calvinism was particularly prevalent, there were 320 Reformed churches . As many as 2000 families of the nobility had abandoned the Faith. But the Protestants, although a very considerable portion of the population, were rendered incapable of successful effort by endless dissensions, while the Catholics, led by Hosius, Bishop of Ermland, sought to strengthen their position more and more. The latter took advantage of all the blunders committed by the sectarians, organized the better part of the Polish clergy, and with great energy carried into effect the reforming decrees of the Council of Trent. Furthermore, the Catholics adopted all that was good in the policy of the heretics. Polish works no longer appeared in Latin but in Polish, and it was even decided to translate the Holy Scripture into Polish. In the field of science the Jesuits also developed great activity after the year 1595. As a result of these measures, the dissidents steadily lost ground; the Senate and the Diet were exclusively Catholic. The plan of creating a national Church lost ground, and at last was entirely abandoned (1570).

Sigismund Augustus endeavoured to bring the nations under his sway into closer relations with one another, and he succeeded in effecting the union of Poland with Little Russia and Lithuania at the Diet of Lublin (1569), after which these three countries formed what was called the Republic (see above, under 1). With Sigismund the House of Jagiello came to an end. After his death the Archbishop of Gnesen, Primate of Poland, assumed the reins of government during the interregnum. As early as the reign of Sigismund the Old, the nobility had secured a fundamental law in virtue of which the king was to be elected not by the Senate but by the entire nobility. After the death of Sigismund the nobles elected Henry of Valois king (1574). But after five months, upon receiving news of his brother's death, he secretly left Poland to assume the Crown of France. Stephen Bathori, Prince of Transylvania, was next chosen king. His wise administration (1576-86) had many good results, more particularly in extending the boundaries of the kingdom. After his death the Swedish prince, Sigismund III, of the House of Vasa (1587-1632) was elected. This king was one of the most zealous champions of Catholicism. His main object was, besides completely checking the propaganda of the Reformation, to give Poland a stable form of government. In the very first years of his reign Catholicism gained considerably. At this time, also, the Jesuits came into Poland in larger numbers and very soon made their influence felt among the entire population. Their schools, founded at enormous expense of energy and capital, were soon more numerously attended than the schools of the heretics. Jesuit confessors and chaplains became indispensable in great families, with the result that the nobles gradually returned to Catholicism. Among the masses the Jesuits enjoyed great esteem as preachers and also because of their self-sacrifice in the time of the plague. Lastly, they pointed out to the nobility the exalted mission of Poland as a bulwark against the Turks and Muscovites. After the influence of the heretics in Poland had been destroyed, the Society of Jesus resolved to reclaim from the Greek schism the millions of inhabitants of Little Russia. To these efforts of the Jesuits must be ascribed the important reunion of the Ruthenian bishops with Rome in 1596. Ecclesiastically, the Polish dominions were at this time divided into two Latin archbishoprics with fifteen suffragan dioceses, while the Uniat Greeks had three archbishoprics with five bishoprics. The schismatical Greeks had the same number of archbishoprics (Metropolia), besides four bishoprics.

Under Sigismund III Poland waged wars of self-defence with Sweden, Russia, the Tatars, and the Turks. Poland's power at that time was so great that the Russian boyars requested a Polish prince, the son of Sigismund III, to be their ruler; but the king refused his consent. Sigismund transferred the royal residence from Cracow to Warsaw. After his death the nobility elected Wladislaw IV king (1632-48). Towards the end of this reign the warlike Cossacks, a tribe of Little Russia on the River Dnieper in the Ukraine, who defended the southeastern frontier of Poland against the Turks and Tatars, revolted, joined forces with the Tatars, and with their combined armies inflicted a severe defeat upon the Poles. But even worse times were in store for Poland under the succeeding rulers, John Casimir (1648-68) and Michael Chorybut Wisniowiecki (1669-73). The Cossacks and Tatars made terrible ravages on the eastern frontiers of Poland. Then the Swedes, under Charles Gustavus, conquered (1665) almost the whole of Poland; King Casimir was compelled to flee to Silesia. After that the Russians invaded the country and occupied Kieff, Smolensk, Polotsk, and Vilna. In the autumn of 1655 the State, as such, ceased to exist. Lithuania and the Ukraine were under the power of the Czar; Poland had been conquered by the Swedes ; Prussia was occupied by the Brandenburgers. No one dared offer any resistance. But when the Paulite monks of Czenstochau repelled an attack of 2000 Swedish troops, the spirit of the nobles and magnates revived. The clergy made this a religious war, the victory of Czenstochowa was ascribed to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin, whose gracious image was venerated in that convent ; she was proclaimed "Queen of the Crown of Poland", and John Casimir, at Lemberg (1656), devoutly placed himself and the entire kingdom under her protection. In the event, the Swedes were soon routed. The wars almost simultaneously conducted against Lutheran Swedes, the schismatic Muscovites, and Mohammedan Tatars intimately associated Catholicism with patriotism in the minds of the Poles. "For Faith and Fatherland" became their watchword.

Overwhelmed by so many reverses, John Casimir abdicated in 1668. He was succeeded by Michael Wisniowiecki, during whose reign anarchy steadily increased. The Cossacks and Tatars again invaded Poland, as did a large army of Turks. The latter were defeated, however, by Sobieski, at Chotin, when barely 4000 out of 10,000 escaped death. In gratitude for this glorious achievement the nation, after the death of Wisniowiecki, elected John Sobieski king (1674-96). An excellent general and pious Christian knight, Sobieski, immediately after his accession to the throne, entered upon a struggle with the Turks. He aimed at the complete annihilation of the Turkish power, and for this purpose zealously endeavoured to combine the Christian Powers against the Turks ; he also entered into a defensive and offensive alliance with the German Emperor. When the grand vizier, Kara Mustafa, at the head of about 200,000 men, had crossed the German frontier and was besieging Vienna, Sobieski with a Polish army hastened to its relief, united his forces with the emperor's, and utterly defeated the Turks (1683). This campaign was the beginning of a series of struggles between Poland and Turkey in which the latter was finally worsted. Under Augustus II, Elector of Saxony, Sobieski's immediate successor (1697-1733), Poland began to decline. Charles XII, King of Sweden, invaded Poland and occupied the most important cities. The Elector of Brandenburg, a former vassal of Poland, took advantage of the internal dissensions to make himself King of Prussia with the consent of Augustus II, thereby increasing the number of Poland's enemies by the addition of a powerful neighbour. Charles XII deposed Augustus II, and a new king, Stanislaus Leszczynski (1704-09), was elected by the nobility. Civil war followed, and the Swedes and Russians took advantage of it to plunder the country, pillaging churches and convents, and outraging the clergy. Augustus II resumed the throne under the protection of Russian troops, and Leszczynski fled to France.

From that time on Russia constantly interfered in the internal affairs of Poland. The next king, Augustus III, of Saxony (1733-63), was chosen through the influence of Russia. The political parties of Poland endeavoured to introduce reforms, but Russia and Prussia were able to thwart them. The king promoted learning and popular education ; he was inspired with the best intentions but was weak towards Russia. From the very beginning Russia had the partition of Poland in view, and for that reason fomented discord among the Poles, as did Prussia, especially by stirring up the magnates and the heretics. As early as 1733 the Diet deprived non-Catholics of political and civil rights, and Russia made use of this fact to stir up open revolt. The question of equal rights for dissidents was discussed, it is true, at one session of the Diet, but in 1766 the protest of the papal nuncio resulted in the rejection of the proposed change. At the same time a keen agitation was carried on against even the slightest concession in favour of non-Catholics. The latter, together with some of the aristocracy, who were dissatisfied with the abrogation of several aristocratic prerogatives, altogether 80,000 in number, placed themselves under the protection of Russia, with the express declaration that they regarded the Empress Catherine II as protectress of Poland, binding themselves to use their efforts towards securing equal rights for the dissidents, and not to change the Polish laws without the consent of Russia. But the patriotic elements could not submit to so disgraceful a dependence on Russia : they combined, in the Confederation of Bar (in Podolia), in defence of the Catholic Faith and the rights of independence under republican institutions. At the same time, through the efforts of the Carmelite monk Marcus, the religious brotherhood of the Knights of the Holy Cross was organized.

The confederation, therefore, was of a religious character : it desired, on the one hand, to free Poland from its dependence on Russia, on the other to reject the demands of the dissidents. After it had declared an interregnum, the king's Polish regiments and the Russian forces took the field against it. The confederation had hardly been dispersed when Austria, Russia, and Prussia occupied the Polish frontier provinces (altogether about 3800 square miles with more than four million inhabitants). The manifesto of occupation set forth as reasons for the partition: the increasing anarchy in the republic; the necessity of protecting the neighbouring states against this lawlessness; the necessity of readjusting conditions in Poland in harmony with the views and interests of its neighbours. Prussia received West Prussia and Ermland ; White Russia fell to Russia ; Galicia was given to Austria. In the countries thus annexed each state began to pursue its own policies. In White Russia there were many Ruthenian Uniats: the Russian government at once took active measures to sever their union with Rome, and bring them into the schism. The parishes of the Uniats were suppressed, and their property confiscated. A systematic course of oppression compelled them to adopt the schism. Austria and Prussia, in their turn, sought to repress the Polish national spirit; in particular, colonization of Polish territory with German colonists was begun systematically, and on a vast scale. The Poles were excluded from all official positions, which were now filled by Germans imported for that purpose in large numbers. The state schools became wholly German.

Such treatment by the neighbouring states roused all Poland to energetic action, so as to prevent a second partition. The Poles now learned the value of popular education, and their ablest men zealously applied themselves to improve the schools. The Four Years Diet (so called because its deliberations lasted four years without interruption) busied itself with reform, on 3 May, 1791, the Constitution was proclaimed. According to this fundamental law the Catholic remained the dominant religion, but the dissidents were granted complete civil equality and the protection of the law. The new ordinances curbed licentiousness, and thus caused dissatisfaction, especially among the higher nobility, who formed the Confederation of Targowitz for the purpose of annulling the Constitution which had just been granted, and called Russian troops to their assistance. The king sided with this deluded faction. Thus Russia and Prussia had another opportunity of making annexations; once more they both seized large tracts of Polish territory and thus was consummated the second partition of Poland (1793). The Poles, resolved to defend their independence, rose, under the leadership of Tadeusz Kosciuszko , against

More Encyclopedia

The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed between 1907 and 1912 in fifteen hard copy volumes.

Catholic Encyclopedia

Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.

No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.

Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912

Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online


Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Subscribe to Catholic OnlineYouTube Channel

the FEED
by Catholic Online

Daily Readings

Reading 1, First Corinthians 15:1-8
1 I want to make quite clear to you, brothers, what the message of the ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 19:2-3, 4-5
2 day discourses of it to day, night to night hands on the ... Read More

Gospel, John 14:6-14
6 Jesus said: I am the Way; I am Truth and Life. No one can come to the ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for May 3rd, 2016 Image

St. James the Lesser
May 3: St. James the Less, the author of the first ... Read More