10th – 19th century

1. Pre-history

The first agricultural societies settled down in the contemporary Polish territory in the Neolithic period (4000-2000) and it was then that trade routes emerged through the densely forested country. In the first millennium AD it was occupied by several groups like the Celts, Scythians, Baits, Goths, Huns and Germanic tribes.

Biskupin, reconstruction of the settlement of the 8th century BC

Biskupin – visualisation

Various Slavonic tribes eventually settled down between the eastern Baltic Sea and the mountains of the Carpathians. In the middle of 10th century The tribe of the Polanen (literally: people of the field) had already settled on the banks of the River Warta in present Poznan, and they became the dominant tribe in this area. Their legendary (some historians assume he was a real person) chieftain Piast managed to bring together various tribes into one political unit and named the area Polska from the name of the tribe. The region was later known as Greater Poland (Wielkopolska). The earliest known historical ruler of the country, Mieszko I, was according to a legend a descendant of this Piast. It was Mieszko I who in 966 year converted the Polanen to Christianity.

On the pic: Slavic god Świętowit, a statue of Zbrucz

West Slavs in 9th / 10th century

2. Genesis of Polish state and Middle Ages

This historical moment is considered as the formal beginning of the Polish state. Mieszko used the church for increasing political significance of his country and its territory, so did also his son Boleslaw I Chrobry (The Brave) to even larger extend. In 1000 year the first arch-diocese was founded in Gniezno, where in 1025 Boleslaw I was crowned as the first king of Poland. The main settlements in the north were Gniezno, Poznan and Kalisz (Greater Poland), and Cracow, Lublin, Kielce and Sandomierz in the south (Lesser Poland = Malopolska). Both areas became the heart of the Polish kingdom. To this realm were also Pomerania, Silesia and Mazovia. On the picture: Bolesław Chrobry by Jan Matejko.

Poland in 960 – 992

Like other early feudal monarchies in Europe, Piast’s Poland suffered of a weak internal structure. The decentralization of power was supported by interests of the nobles and the clergy of the Catholic Church, seeking independence from royal authority. The primary unifying factor was the ruler, but after his death the members of the dynasty had numerous conflicts over the succession, with negative consequences in emancipation of some districts and some territorial losses. To prevent these phenomena Boleslaw Krzywousty (the Wry-mouthed) established in 1138 a succession law, which regulated the succession to the throne according to the principle of seniority. The Act did not prevent struggles for the throne however, and in the period from 1138 to 1320 Poland was split up into several independent principalities. This period is called “the breakdown of the district”.

 Interesting remark

The history of the Duke Boleslaw Krzywousty is described in the oldest Polish chronicle Cronicae et gesta ducum sive principum Polonorum written by Gallus Anonymus. The Chronicle is on a very high level, but its author remains a mystery to this day. The same relates to a conflict of the King Boleslaw the Bold and Bishop Stanislaus, which ended in the death of the bishop (murdered by the king) and the exile of Boleslaus. Discretion of the chronicler annoys historians up today! Read also: The biggest mystery. Anonymus is also the author of a song promoting prince Krzywousty and his knights who conquered Pomerania and gained this way access to the sea.

 Song of the conquest of the sea shore – performance Czesław Niemen (1977)

It finally led to increasing the power of the nobilities and the clergy and the lack of cooperation between them made it easier for the Tatars to invade Poland in 1241 and to capturing Legnica.

Battle of Legnica, 14th century miniature

The North suffered in turn of a wave of immigration from Prussia. When Prussians started to invade northern Mazovia, in the year 1225 Konrad, the Duke of Mazovia, called for help to the crusaders of the Teutonic Order (Teutonic Knights) and asked them to drive the Prussians from the Polish territory. (Read: Knights of the Teutonic Order). This decision had very important consequences and a significant impact on the subsequent fate of the Polish state. Konrad didn’t predict that Teutonic Knights would use the occasion to occupy the north (Pomerania and Prussia) and build a strong Teutonic state there, becoming a big threat to Po-land. So soon the Poles had no longer free access to the Baltic Sea and were also threatened by Bohemia in the south and by Lithuania in the east.

On the picture: the Great Master of the Teutonic Order Ulrich von Jungingen (1360 – 1410).

Fighting the Teutonic Knights became an important element of Polish politics. Fortunately, in 1320, together with the coronation of Wladyslaw Lokietek (the Short), the desintegration of Polish state came to an end. Under the rule of his son Kazimierz Wielki (the Great) started a flowering period of the Polish state, although Silesia was lost to the King of Bohemia. King Kazimierz built a system of castles to defend Poland (so called eagles’ nests) and promoted the development of trade, economy and culture.

One of the “eagle’s nests” the castle in Będzin

Jews who had fled from Central Europe were admitted to Poland without any problems and even got a small measure of autonomy. The nobility was further unified by its own rights and other important administrative functions – this is how the foundations for the later noble republic were established.

After Kazimierz death (1370) the royal authority in Poland went to Hungarian Anjou dynasty: king Louis of Hungary (his mother Elizabeth was a sister of Kazimierz), and then to his 11-year-old daughter Jadwiga, who was crowned Polish queen in 1384. It was a time when Poland saw opportunities in the anti-Teutonic Order alliance with Lithuania, so Jadwiga had to marry Jagiello, Grand Duke of Lithuania, who had to be baptized and was then named Wladyslaw. 

  Jadwiga and Wladyslaw Jagiello

This is how Poland and Lithuania combined into a so-called personal union, arranged for resistance against Teutonic Order.

Poland and Lithuania 1386 – 1434

Wladyslaw Jagiello defeated the Teutonic Knights in the great battle of Grunwald (1410) but it didn’t finish Polish-Teuton wars.

Battle of Grunwald in the montage of the clips from the Polish movieKnights of the Teutonic Order”  from 1960 (with English subtitles)

The problem was finally solved in 1519-1521. Another defeat forced the Grand Master Albert of Hohenzollern to convert into Lutheranism, transforming the reli-gious state into a secular duchy and paying a homage to Polish king Zygmunt I Stary (Sigismund the Old) in 1525.

Prussian Homage, Jan Matejko

In late 15th century there were done major changes in many areas in Poland. The nobility (“szlachta”) increasingly got more power as they got more and more public functions assigned, and in this century Polish parliament, so called “sejm”, was established. Sejm was formed by a Chamber of Deputies and the Senate and king participated always in its sessions.

3. 16th century – The Golden Age

16th century is called “The Golden Age”. The Jagiellon dynasty ruled in Poland but also influenced Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, Ruthenië, Ukraine, Hungary and Bohemia. Agriculture, mining and commerce flourished and major trade routes ran through Polish territory. In particular, the Hanseatic towns in the north (Szczecin, Gdansk, Koszalin, Torun and Elblag) played a major role in the economic development of Poland.

 Gdańsk, 1550

Also the culture flourished under King Sigismund I, partly thanks to his marriage with princess Bona Sforza from Bari, as connections with Italy and its art became very close. It is especially well seen in Cracow and in the Royal Castle Wawel architecture. During this time a new class of powerful families, the “magnates”, developed at the expense of the nobility. These families owned vast areas, many villages, towns, castles and often a large army and strongly influenced political life.

Polish aristocracy in 16th century, Jan Matejko

In 1569 a very important political event changed the character of the Polish – Lithuanian relationship – The Union of Lublin, which replaced the personal union of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

Act of the Union of Lublin

Now it became a real union and an elective monarchy (the ruling Sigismund II August remained childless in spite of three marriages – see The royal love story). It was signed on July 1, 1569 in Lublin and created the Polish–Lithuanian Common-wealth. The Commonwealth was ruled by a single elected monarch who carried out the duties of Polish King and Grand Duke of Lithuania, and governed with a common Senate and parliament (the Sejm).

Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, 1569

Professor Norman Davies on Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

Election of the king meant, among other things, that the kingship was accepted subject to certain safeguards and conditions. Poland was in this time the most democratically governed country in Europe. The first elected king was Henry de Valois, the future King Henry III of France, but after his escape to France he was succeeded by Stefan Batory, Prince of Transylvania. To be Polish king Batory had to marry the then 50 years old Anna Jagiellonka, Sigismund August’s sister and the last representant of Jagiellon dynasty.

It is also worth mentioning that 16th century was the great age of religious tolerance in Poland and the influence of Reformation was very strong here. (This was the reason for the settlement of the persecuted Dutch Mennonites on the Polish soil. Read: Netherlands in Zulawy.)

4. 17th century – Weakening

That tolerance was lost in the 17th century, when the Counter-Reformation swept over Europe they did in Poland everything they could to thwart reformers. Unhappily the new royal dynasty Wasa from Sweden (they got the throne as descendants of the Jagiellonian princess Catherine Jagiellonka who married the Swedish king John III) was strongly catholic. The relationship with Sweden was always very tense because of the claims by the Polish Vasa kings to the throne of Sweden. The first ruler of this dynasty, Sigismund III Vasa (one of the most unpopular Polish kings), moved in 1609 the Polish capital from Cracow to Warsaw. In 1632 Sigismund III was succeeded by his son Wladyslaw IV Vasa, who waged war against the Russians and the Turks. Under the reign of Jan Kazimierz (other son of Sigismund III) Waza dark clouds gathered over Poland. In 1648 there was a Cossack uprising in Ukraine and that meant the loss of much of the Polish part of the Ukraine to Russia. On the picture: Sigismund III Vasa.

Battle of the Yellow Waters, “With fire and sword”

Interesting remark

In the whole 16th and 17th centuries the main role in many battles was played by the Polish hussars, until today a big pride for many Poles. “The Polish Hussars were the main type of cavalry of the first Polish Army, later also introduced into the Army of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, between the 16th and 18th centuries. When this cavalry type was first introduced by the Serbian mercenary horsemen around the year 1500, they served as light cavalry banners; by the second half of the 16th century hussars had been transformed into heavy cavalry. Until the reforms of 1770s the husaria banners or companies were considered the elite of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth cavalry. They were widely regarded as the most powerful cavalry formation in the world. Polish Hussars were undefeated for over 100 years” (Wikipedia)

  Hussars (montage of the movie clips)

In 1655 the Swedish army under the command of the king Charles X Gustav invaded Poland that was weakened and exhausted by wars and easily conquered the country. The so called “Swedish Deluge” ended with a national uprising and the Oliwa treaty in 1660 but its consequences were dramatic. It brought not only enormous material and cultural damages and loss of 30% of the population, but also brought to an end the era of Polish religious tolerance. The expulsion of the Protestant Polish Brethren from Poland in 1658 exemplified the increasing intolerance, also against Jews who fell victim to violence.

March of the Swedes to Kyedani, Józef Brandt

To make matters worse in 1672 Turkey declared war on Poland, but Poles under command of John Sobieski managed to defeat Turkish army. As a king, in 1683, John III Sobieski helped saving Vienna from Turkey in the great battle of Vienna.

Interesting remark
John III Sobieski was not only a great soldier, but also a great writer. He wrote beautiful love letters to his dearly beloved wife, the French lady Maria Kazimiera (d Arquien), called Marysieńka. They are the most popular and one of the most famous couple in the history of Poland.

John III Sobieski and Maria Kazimiera

John III and Marysieńka in the movie “The father of the queen

After Sobieski’s death Poland continued to decline. Tycoons and foreign powers took over the power and now the corrupted aristocrat families strongly influenced elections of the king. A lot of harm was caused by “liberum veto” (Latin for “the free veto”) – a parliamentary device in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth which allowed any member of the Sejm (legislature) to force an immediate end to the current session and nullify any legislation that had already been passed at the session by shouting “I do not allow!”. This is how liberum veto was responsible for deterioration of the Commonwealth political system, particularly in 18th century, when foreign powers bribed Sejm members to paralyze its proceedings.

Portraits of the Polish aristocrats and noblemen

5. 18th century – The Fall

Years 1697 – 1763 are known as the Saxon era, because in that time the Polish kings were two Saxonian rulers: August II Wettin and his son August III Wettin, with short periods of rule of Stanislaw Leszczynski. Both Wettins represented mainly interests of Saxony. In this era Poland was embroiled in the so-called northern war (1700-1721), during which the Swedish king Charles XII ravaged the country, and in the civil war (1704), when the anti-Saxon opposition chose as the king Stanislaw Leszczynski (father of the later French Queen Marie Leszczyńska).

 August III and Stanislaw Leszczyński

With the rule of August II began a period of intervention by Russia, Austria and Prussia in the Polish internal affairs, it also deepened the downfall and corruption of Polish political life. After his death there was a struggle for the throne between his son August III and Leszczynski, which led to another civil war (1733-1735), which was won by the Wettins. During his reign Poland was plunged into anarchy and for 27 years no one parliament session was successful. Saxon era is considered as the bottom of the political, social and cultural fall of Poland.

 Warsaw, Krakowskie Przedmiescie, Bernardo Belotto “Canaletto” (18th century painting)

Interesting remark

Well detailed Italian painter Canaletto paintings were used after WW II in reconstruction of heavily destroyed Warsaw.

In 1764 Russian czarina Catherine the Great managed to enthrone Stanislaw August Poniatowski (her former lover), who became the last Polish king – very controversial one. On the one side he was a man of Enlightenment and initiated many reforms to heal and modernize state institutions (during his reign first Polish constitution was adopted on May 3, 1791).

 Stanislaw August Poniatowski and original act of the 3rd May Constitution 

Mazurka of the 3rd May – a historical song

On the other side he never tried to liberate the country from dependence of Russia, which took more and more control over Poland. Too weak politically and plagued by civil wars caused by anti-reformist aristocrats factions, Poland was unable to prevent partitions, resulting in the elimination of sovereign Poland for 122 years. The partitions (1772, 1793, 1795) were perpetrated by the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia and Habsburg Austria, which divided up the Commonwealth lands among themselves progressively in the process of territorial seizures. On November 27, 1795 Stanislaw August was forced to resign and a Polish state no longer existed on the map.

Deluge: rose – Russia, green – Austria, blue – Prussia

It happened not without any resistance. In 1794 Polish patriots under the command of general Tadeusz Kosciuszko uprised against Russia and Prussia, but despite of the successful battle of Raclawice against Russia (April 4, 1794) it was a failed attempt to save Polish independency.

 Panorama of Raclawice (fragment); on the left – General Tadeusz Kosciuszko

Panorama of Raclawice (exhibited in Wrocław)

6. Ladies in pre-deluge period

In the history of Poland before partitions only few women played an important political role. Wives of Polish kings had to be mostly pious and bear heirs to the throne. To the most important female figures of this period were (note that no one of them is a Polish woman):

Dobrawa (930 – 977) – Bohemian princess and the wife of Mieszko I; it is believed that  a pagan prince reportedly owes her  the acceptance of Christianity, but her significant role in this matter is today, however, questioned.



Jadwiga of Anjou (1373/4 – 1399) – Hungarian, a daughter of Louis of Hungary and the granddaughter of Casimir the Great, what gave her the right to the Polish throne in the rank of the king. Her marriage to the Lithuanian prince Jagiello created the foundation for Polish-Lithuanian union. Jadwiga was very popular in Poland because of the great devotion (in 1997 she was canonized), and charity. According to some legend – in order to avoid marriage with pagan and older Jagiello and marry her beloved Wilhelm von Habsburg, with whom Jadwiga was engaged since the childhood, young queen tried to escape from the castle on Wawel Hill, chopping the gate by an ax. As queen, she gave her jewelry for revival of the Cracow Academy, which became later the Jagiellonian University. Jadwiga was famous in Europe for her enormous beauty.

Bona Sforza (1494 – 1557) – Italian Princess of Bari and since 1518 the queen of Polish and Lithuanian Grand Duchess, wife of King Sigismund the Old. She played an active role in domestic policy (led to the coronation of the young son of Sigismund Augustus) and in foreign policy (she was a fierce opponent of the Habs-burgs and advocate of strengthening the alliance with France).


Barbara Radziwillowna (1520 – 1551) – Lithuanian aristocrat, second wife of Sigismund Augustus, which  married his beloved lady against the will of the nobles. Fiercely hated by the Poles because of their rich sex life, passed into history as the heroin of the greatest royal romance in Poland. Read also: The royal love story.


Maria Kazimiera d’Arquien (1641 – 1716) –  French, beloved wife of John III Sobieski, whom she bore 13 children. Extremely charming, passed into history as a heroine of the beautiful love letters written by the king. In foreignh politics she supported him in the Polish-French rapprochement.

7. Kingdom of Poland and the Russian oppression (1815-1916)

The three occupants immediately began to colonize the land and many Poles fled to France. The hope for the restoration of independence appeared with Napoleon Bona-parte, who attracted many Polish troops, who created Polish Legions under command of General Henryk Dabrowski (these hopes are reflected in the words of Polish national anthem). After his victory in Prussia this country lost some of its Polish territories and Napoleon founded the Grand Duchy of Warsaw (1807-1815), much to the disappointment of Poles who hoped for reactivation of their state. This substitute for sovereignty was nullified after Napoleon’s fall.
On the picture: General Henryk Dąbrowski and his soldiers in Italy. 

Grand Duchy of Warsaw, 1807 – 1809

Grand Dutchy of Warsaw (montage)

 Interesting remark

An important female figures of this period was Maria Walewska (a wife of the chamberlain Anastasius from Walewice), who in 1807 became a lover of Napoleon. In the romance with the Emperor of the French Walewska saw a hope for the rebirth of Poland. In 1810 she bore him a son, Alexander. In 1814, as a countess d’Ornano Maria visited Napoleon on his exile on Elba.

  At the Congress of Vienna in 1815 the Kingdom of Poland (Congress Poland) was created. This was a formally independent state, a constitutional monarchy with only a personal union with Russia. The Russian Tsar Alexander I and after him Nicholas I were thus crowned kings of Poland. It didn’t last long however and Russia gradually liquidated all substitutes of independence what led in 1830 to first Polish rebel, so called November Uprising (1830/31). The uprising began on November 29, 1830 in Warsaw when the young Polish officers from the local Army of the Congress Poland’s military academy revolted. They were soon joined by large segments of Polish society, and the insurrection spread to the territories of Lithuania, Western Belarus and the Ukraine. Despite some local successes, the uprising was eventually crushed by numerically superior Imperial Russian Army.

Poznanski Cavalry Regiment during the November Uprising in 1931, painter unknown

 “War mazur”, composed by Karol Kurpiński

A 30 years later growing terror and persecutions of Polish patriots led to another uprising, so called January Uprising (January 22, 1863), which lasted until au-tumn 1864. Its consequences were very dramatic and brought a liquidation of individuality and autonomy of the Polish Kingdom, which became de facto the province named “Vistula Country”, administratively annexed to the Russian Empire. It also caused huge material losses and confiscation of assets of uprising participants – 1660 estates in the Kingdom and 1800 in the lands taken away. Tens of thousands of lesser nobility of the Polish-Ukrainian border were resettled, several thousands of patriots were exiled to Siberia. Educational and cultural activities in the Polish language in schools were banned and in administrative offices Russian became the official language.  On the photo: a Polish January insurgent, 1863

January Uprising (montage)

The January Uprising, however greatly expanded and strengthened Polish national consciousness, which found its expression in the struggle for independence in 1918.

 8. The Austrian and the Prussian territories

Another attempt to re-gain freedom took place in the having some autonomy Republic of Cracow (1815-1846). The Cracow Uprising (February 21 – March 4, 1846) was the only Polish national-liberation action directed simultaneously against three occupants: Russia, Prussia and Austria. Led under the slogans of democracy, the revolt was quickly suppressed by the Austrian army that cooperated with local peasants (they often acted against the nobles, killing many of them). The result was incorporating Cracow and its surrounding area to the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria, a province of the Austrian Empire, with its capital at Lviv.

After the year 1871 the Prussian part of Poland became a part of the German Empire under the leadership of Chancellor Bismarck. Bismarck conducted there a strong Germanization policy with persecution of every manifestation of Polishness.

Polish children from Września, who in 1901-1902 refused praying in the school and learning religion in German language and were punished by German authorities. 

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