The Jagiellonian dynasty and state

The Jagiellonian era was characterized by important historical phenomena that gave a new shape to almost all areas of state and social life. The events of that time took place in vast spaces, different from the realities of Piast Poland. Their frames were formed by the borders of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which for most of the epoch constituted two states and finally joined in 1569 into one political organism. In the international arena, the Jagiellonians rose in the ranks of major families, maintaining diplomatic contacts or confronting important dynastic and state entities, including the Habsburgs, the Teutonic

Order, and Ottoman Turkey. The modifications of the state were accompanied by the processes of forming the socio-political system. The key position of the nobility was strengthened by successive state privileges, incl. the Nihil novi constitution of 1505, formation of the general parliament. The execution movement, supported by Sigismund Augustus in the last years of his reign, turned out to be a visible manifestation of the development of the democracy of the nobles. These and other phenomena are shown through the prism of historical artefacts presented in the “Dynasty and the Jagiellonian State” section.

Autor: Grodecki, Wacław (ok. 1535-1591) ; Ortelius, Abraham (1527-1598)

Tytuł: Poloniae finitimarumque locorum descriptio. Auctore Wenceslao Godreccio Polono [w:] A. Ortelius, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. Opus nunc denuo ab ipso Auctore recognitum, multisque locis castigatum, et quamplurimis nauis Tabulis atque Commentarijs auctum

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The Jagiellonians: A Unique Renaissance Dynasty

Renaissance Europe was an age of great dynasties, and the Jagiellonians (1386-1572) were one of its most spectacular and intriguing ruling houses. Their origins as polytheists from outside the Catholic world, the vast scale of the European territories they ruled, and the richness of their royal courts – combining elements of East and West – all served to make the Jagiellonians unique among the dynasties of their epoch.

The family’s origins lay in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which under the rule of its Gediminid princes had become the largest state in Europe. This was a ‘two-winged empire’, with a Lithuanian pagan core, together with great Orthodox lands and cities lying in today’s Belarus, Ukraine and western Russia. The Gediminids’ power grew in the 13th and 14th centuries, as the original, native royal houses of Central Europe – the Polish Piasts, the Hungarian Árpád and the Bohemian Přemyslid – were dying out for. In 1386, the Lithuanian grand duke Jogaila rode to Cracow to marry the Polish queen-heiress Jadwiga, accept Christian baptism, and provide the Poles with a king. The rise of the Jagiellonians – the Catholic royal house named afer Jogaila – was swift. The dynasty expanded west by winning the thrones of Central Europe’s elective monarchies one by one: Cracow, Prague, Buda.

At its peak, circa 1500, it ruled territories stretching from the Baltic to the Adriatic, from Silesia to the Eurasian steppe. The family produced nine kings, two royal crusaders, a cardinal and a saint. Their international decline started in 1526, when the family lost Bohemia and Hungary, following a disastrous defeat by the Ottomans at the Battle of Mohács; in Poland-Lithuania, the Jagiellonian male line ended when King Sigismund Augustus died without heir in 1572.

Throughout its two-hundred year history, this was a dynasty steeped in many cultures. Its daughters married princes from Germany, Austria and Sweden; Jagiellonian kings married royal women from France, Italy and Moscow. Jagiellonian courts and capitals were places of Italian Renaissance style and learning, Orthodox painting, and Late Gothic arts. The legacies of the Jagiellonians across Central Europe were considerable. In Bohemia and Hungary, their rule laid the foundations for the Austro-Hungarian empire (1526-1918); further north, their successor was the radical ‘noble democracy’ of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569-1795). Memory of the Jagiellonian era has shaped debates about national and regional identity in Central Europe, from the sixteenth century to the present day.

 Natalia Nowakowska, University of Oxford

System and law