Rarely in history a king wants to abdicate for the love of a woman. Poland had such a case when a ruler was willing to leave the throne only to stay with his woman, beloved by him, though despised by the whole nation.
It happened in the 16th century, and the protagonists of the drama were king Zygmunt August (1520–1572) from the Jagiellonian dynasty, and Barbara Radziwillowna (1520–1551), a Lithuanian aristocrat and the widow to Gasztold castellan. Their clandestine love affair and marriage deeply upset Polish public opinion, who regarded the king’s chosen one as unworthy of such a marriage and thought because of her as a harlot because of her numerous love affairs. For the later generations it became however a symbol of the beautiful, undying love.
Zygmunt August (below on painting by Lucas Cranach Jr.) was the only son of king Zygmunt Stary (the Old), whom his Italian wife, Bona Sforza of Bari, also gave four daughters (the second son did not survive premature birth caused by falling from a horse during a hunt). Very ambitious and politically talented queen Bona (one of the most important in Polish history) wished to strengthen the Jagiellonian dynasty, but unfortunately future events and her son’s choices put an end to such hopes. Zygmunt August was a very handsome man, cultural, highly educated and tolerant (which in the era of the religious wars was infrequent), and of high sexual temperament (he had hot southern blood in his veins). He liked only women experienced and skilled in the art of sex so it’s no wonder that young king could not be pleased in this matter by his first wife, the young Elizabeth of Austria (daughter of Ferdinand I of Habsburg, king of Hungary and Bohemia), whom he married on May 6, 1543 in Cracow. Completely unprepared for her conjugal duties, timid and frightened Elizabeth was not able to arouse desire in her husband, and worse, her situation was deteriorated by her epilepsy. In such circumstances Zygmunt August saw no obstacles in betraying his wife and entangling in a love affair with Barbara Radziwillowna.
Radziwillowna, or Mrs. Gasztold rather, was a very beautiful woman, blonde with dark eyes, enamored in expensive clothes and jewelry, especially pearls, whose fame carried widely on contemporary Europe (queen Elizabeth I of England was very interested in buying them after Barbara’s death). She was also a very liberated woman and a sophisticated seductress, having many lovers, which made her extremely fluent in ars amandi. This was exactly what Zygmunt August expected from the perfect lover, so he did not mind while conservative in terms of moral Poles considered Barbara as a whore. Certainly he did not anticipate the reeling from the early romance would turn into the undying love and the death of Barbara which became the biggest tragedy of his life. On the picture: A possible portrait of Barbara Radziwillowna (the only that can give an idea of her beauty).
The affair began at a time of the young king’s stay in Lithuania in 1543. Both were 23 years old, young and beautiful, hungry for entertainment and sexual pleasure, which they easily delivered to each other. Initially just a simply love affair, it gradually turned into something deeper, so after Elizabeth’s death (the repelled queen died in Vilnius in 1544, perhaps aware of her husband’s affair with Barbara) it led to the clandestine marriage. It did not happen, however, without the pressure and intrigues of relatives of the bride, Nicholas Redhaired, Barbara’s brother, and her cousin, Nicholas Black, who saw this marriage as a great opportunity to enhance the position of the family.
Their marriage took place in Vilnius in the summer of 1547, and although it was a deep secret, it soon became known in Poland sparking widespread outrage and the opposition of the parents of the king. You can only imagine that the news was a blow in particular to ambitious Bona. Her son’s scandalous marriage with the Radziwill woman was – besides the bad opinion about her – a misalliance destroying Bona’s plans of strengthening the dynasty in Europe. As it is easy to imagine, it led to a nation wide campaign against Barbara and the Radziwill family that had not ended with the death of Zygmunt the Old in 1548. As an independent ruler, Zygmunt August refused the dissolution of the marriage and what is more , he decided to crown his own beloved Barbara. Particularly dramatic was the parliamentary session, when deputies begged the king on their knees for annulment of the marriage. He himself was affected by this tense atmosphere and even considered abdication, but eventually prevailed. His subjtects had to accept the marriage and crowning of the much hated woman. On the photo: The Royal Chapel where Zygmunt August and Barbara Radziwllowna got secretly married in 1547.
Barbara Radziwillowna was crowned on December 12, 1550, but the joy of the event was highly disturbed by Barbara’s progressing disease, which finally led to her death six months later.
“Barbara Radziwillowna”, 1937
Today it is hard to say what caused the premature death of Radziwillowna, but it was probably a cancer of the cervix. At that time it was speculated that the disease was caused by some treatments which were to make queen pregnant, some also talked about poisoning her by Bona. (Remember, that Italian people were at those times considered as a well qualified poisoners, by the way – after returning to Bari Bona was poisoned by her long time courtier and advisor who robbed her). Barbara was dying for a long time, in a very nasty way. At the end of the illness her body emitted such unpleasant odor that no one wanted to stay by her bed and care for her. No one except the king, who devotedly cared for his beloved woman, all the time believing in the possibility of her recovery. She passed away on May 8, 1551, in the presence of her husband (some legends claimed later she had died in his arms). She was just 31 years old.
Death of Barbara Radziwillowna, Jozef Simmler
In accordance with the wishes of the deceased, king took her body to Vilnius, because the queen did not want to be buried in unfriendly Cracow. The coffin was put in the basement of the town’s cathedral. During the month-long journey king often followed the hearse on foot, alone in his despair (very few people cried after Barbara), not a great ruler, but a man broken with big pain and despair. In each village and place which was associated with nice memories of wonderful moments with Barbara, the hearse stopped for a while on his demand. One can only guess at what he felt, alongside the lime covered remains of the woman whom once he held in his arms (one day they had to open the coffin to put the lime on Barbara’s rottening corpse.)
After the funeral Zygmunt August became a completely different person. Although having not resigned from his prolific sex life, no woman was able to replace Barbara. For the rest of his life he wore black clothes in bereavement for her, used to watch her dresses and – according to some legend – asked the famous magician Twardowski to invoke the spirit of dead queen.
The ghost of Barbara Radziwill, Wojciech Gerson
At the end of his life the king was involved with a woman very similar in look to the deceased, named Christine Gizanka. He also married Catherine Habsburg, a sister of Elizabeth, but later he rebuffed her and asked to leave Poland. Neither of these women bore him a child, so after his death the Polish throne went to his sister Anna Jagiellonka, who had to marry Hungarian prince Stephen Batory (in Poland woman could not be a separate ruler). Unfortunately, due to her age (she was over 50 years old), Anna could not provide the dynasty a heir. With the death of the recent Jagiellons the best period in the history of the First Commonwealth was over.
The love story of Zygmunt August and Barbara Radziwillowna has found a wide resonance in romantic legends, literary works , paintings and also in movies. Historians are however more critical of it as the act of the king, preferring scandalous love over state and dynasty interest, brought many negative consequences for Poland.
Epitaph for Barbara Radziwill, 1982 (excerpts)
When you visit the Royal Castle Wawel in Cracow, you will relate to all those tragic persons connected with the story:
- Queen Bona, a politically very gifted and ambitious woman who saw all her dreams ruined at the end of her life
- King Zygmunt August in great despair after losing his beloved woman, but for some time gifted by life by the great love which was usually infrequent on royal courts
- unhappy Barbara Radziwillowna who died too early
- luckless Elizabeth Habsburg, who was repelled and humiliated by her husband and harassed by her hostile mother in law (Bona) and who found no hapiness but tears in her short and dramatic life
Click to enlarge pictures
Zygmunt August and Barbara Radziwillowna
Read also: Magical Cracow.
Foto: Wikipedia, public domain