By Moina Arcee, Jul 2, 2013, edited August 30 2018
After Casimir the Great’s death in 1370 the Polish crown passed to his nephew Louis, who was also King of Hungary. Louis considered Poland so inferior to Hungary he didn‘t bother to learn Polish. Poland’s historians had the last laugh, calling Louis’ reign the “Interregnum”, defined in the dictionary as “the interval of time between two successive reigns of government.”
Louis visited Poland twice, at the beginning and end of his twelve year reign. The second visit was forced when Louis was unable to sire a male heir. Louis struck a deal with the Polish nobles: in return for Louis increasing their power, the nobles agreed to let the Polish crown pass to Louis’ daughter. So the next Polish King was really a Queen, and the Queen was a ten year old girl.
The Way Things Were
Her name was Jadwiga (pronounced Yad-VEE-ga). Like her daddy, she wanted no part of Poland. At age four Poland’s future female king became engaged to eight year old Prince William, son of Austria’s King Leopold III. It was a political betrothal either child could break before William turned fourteen. Jadwiga and William were childhood friends and played together until their childhoods – and their friendship – were ended by the politics of nations. Jadwiga, a pretty, waif-like girl of ten, traveled to Wawel Cathedral in Krakow, and was crowned King of Poland on October 15, 1384.
Being separated from her family and William was hard for the little girl. Matters worsened after her coronation, when Polish nobles presented Jadwiga with a husband: Lithuania’s Grand Duke Jagiello. Poland had good reasons for wedding Jadwiga and Jagiello. Lithuanian warriors routinely swooped down from the northeast to raid Poland’s border towns. More recently Jagiello’s army routed the Tartars and took control of Western Russia (later known as the Ukraine), which bordered Poland on the east. A union with Lithuania would end its warfare with Poland, and Lithuania would be an ally and a buffer between the Tartars and Poland.
Jadwiga and William
Jagiello appreciated these military and political realities as much as the Polish nobles, and after long negotiations he consented to merging pagan Lithuania with Christian Poland in a Commonwealth. Jadwiga, however, had no intention of merging with Jagiello. She clung to her prior engagement to William, and planned to rule Poland with him, not Jagiello. A year after Jadwiga’s coronation William of Austria, now fifteen, rode into Krakow to wed Jadwiga. Although Jadwiga was kept under guard in Wawel Castle, she snuck out to feast with William at a nearby Franciscan monastery. The situation became the talk of Krakow. While many Poles did not take the childhood engagement seriously, others sided with Jadwiga and William, and offered to help them secretly marry.
Polish nobles also took sides, and the best and worst of human emotions ran free. Jagiello approached Krakow with a small army, blissfully unaware he had become part of a romantic triangle. While nobles argued and townsfolk gossiped, William and Jadwiga hatched a plot. Since he had reached the age of majority his marriage to Jadwiga would be legally binding with her consent and the consummation – no religious ceremony was necessary. In late August William snuck into Wawel Castle with this intent in mind.
Neither Jadwiga nor William were sexually precocious. Jadwiga was an eleven year old girl far from home. Strangers were trying to make her marry a man she had never met from a land, Lithuania, which Jadwiga’s father had told her awful stories about. She was alone and frightened. William was her best friend. As for romantic feelings between the two:
“A love, innocent indeed but thus more moving, developed between the prospective spouses in spite of their young age. And if William was prompted by his desire to be King of Poland, Jadwiga had no other personal motive for listening to him than a tender feeling which she was old enough to have for a charming prince who admired her famous beauty.”
The controversy is whether William and Jadwiga actually consummated their childhood engagement. Many lurid tales have swirled around the young couple. The most reliable version is that William did sneak into WawelCastle, but Polish Knights discovered William in Jadwiga’s room and forced the lad to beat an undignified retreat before anything happened. The awkward confrontation left Jadwiga furious and humiliated.
She vowed to escape from Wawel Castle via a seldom used stairway. Then she would reunite with William and they would flee Poland together. The night of her escape found the door at the bottom of the stairway locked and guarded. The young monarch commanded the guard to give her his axe. Gripping the large weapon with her small hands, she hewed at the door with desperate strength. Alas, the axe was too heavy, the door too stout, and Jadwiga too little. Her frail shoulders shuddered and she wept helplessly. She was led back upstairs by kind hands. She composed herself and wrote William a letter he never received – most likely it was never delivered. William waited for Jadwiga. Silence abided and his heart sank. Interpreting her silence as betrayal, William disguised himself as a merchant and fled Poland. He would grow up to be Jadwiga’s bitterest foe.
Under these circumstances it is difficult to envy Jagiello the bride-groom. The seventh child of a Ruthenian princess, Jagiello was dark-haired, dark-eyed, and compactly built. A hunter of boars, wolves, and buffalo from horseback, he was even more formidable as a warrior. Three times Jadwiga’s age, he was the leader of the last pagan country in Europe. Lithuanians worshipped the serpent, and a fire that glowed perpetually in woods so thick the forest floor knew neither sun nor rain. The fire was used for sacrificing animals and, occasionally, humans.
Jadwiga’s choices were stark. She could follow her own will and reject Jagiello, thus provoking renewed hostilities between her country and Lithuania. Or she could wed Jagiello and start the conversion of Europe’s last pagan nation to Christendom. Most twelve-year olds would need help with such a problem. Polish tradition has it that as Jadwiga prayed in front of her crucifix, Christ spoke to her either from the crucifix or interiorly. The result was that Jadwiga “renounced every dream of love. She accepted a marriage that could bring her no personal joys, for the sake of her faith and nation.” Her resolve did not waver when she met Jagiello for the first time. Pale, calm, and dignified beyond her years, she showed no emotion when Jagiello knelt before her to kiss her hand.
Three days later Jagiello was baptized. He took the Christian name Ladislaus II and agreed to pay William’s father, Austria’s King Leopold, for the broken engagement. On February 18, 1386, Jadwiga publicly revoked her engagement to William. Then she and Jagiello knelt before the altar at Wawel Cathedral to receive the sacrament of matrimony. Beneath them, in the lower level of the Cathedral, lay rows of crypts containing the monarchs of the Piast dynasty. Above the resting place of the old kings a new monarchy had begun.
The Royal Couple
The marriage of Jadwiga and Jagiello made an impression on Polish royalty. During the great feast that followed members of the Piast line began pairing up with Jagiello’s relatives. There were many inter-marriages that further solidified the new Commonwealth of Poland. On March 4 Jagiello was crowned King of Poland, and Christendom expanded eastward into Russia. On the same day young William finally arrived home at Vienna.
Together and separately, Jagiello and Jadwiga underwent an accelerated spiritual mortification for which their marriage was both an end and a beginning. To say that Jadwiga became as one with the crucifix she prayed and mourned before overstates things, but it approximates her struggles to accept her abruptly changed young life, and her effort to realign her will with the Lord of the sacred wounds. The struggle created its own wound: her beautiful young face was marred by a mournful expression that, like a scar, would fade but never disappear.
She did not pout. Neither did she avenge herself at the expense of Jagiello – and Poland. Instead, she endeavored to become a more devout Christian and a worthier Queen. Only then did she discover that both endeavors supported each other in a very natural way.
Jagiello was more disposed to war than to prayer. The serpent and fire worship of his native land did not inform his outlook on life; it was the battle that mattered. To this end he fought against the marauding Tartars and the deformed Christianity of the corrupted order of Teutonic Knights. When Jagiello saw the beauty of true Christianity, particularly as practiced by his new wife, it may have seemed the discovery of a hope unlooked-for. The mortification of King and Queen continued, and in the Christian economy was leavened with consolations.
The Making of a Kingdom
It was winter when King Jagiello returned to Lithuania. Franciscans with axes felled the statue of the fire god Perkinas. In its place a cross was erected. King, bishops and monks knelt in the snow. The men sang a shivering Te Deum as their breath rose in clouds like incense. Jagiello taught his people the Pater Noster in Lithuanian, and translated the preaching of the bishops and Franciscans.
Thousands came forward for baptism, and were led in groups to the river bank. The new Christians were given white robes, supplied by Jadwiga. Jagiello personally laid the cornerstone for Lithuania’s first Cathedral. Not a sword was drawn. Surely Jagiello’s stature among his people was crucial to the bloodless conversion, but perhaps the victory had been secured earlier by Jadwiga’s fiat to the God of the sacred wounds.
While the former pagan warrior peacefully converted his subjects to Christianity, his young, peace-loving wife led an army to reclaim Red Ruthenia for Poland. Ruthenia (now known as Galicia) had been incorporated into Hungary by Jadwiga’s father, King Louis. Whatever the physical costs of Jadwiga’s suffering, it was clear that the blood of Piast nobility flowed in her veins. She traveled on horseback nearly the entire journey, a feat which amazed and inspired the Polish knights. Such was her bearing that the Hungarian garrisons hailed her instead of warring with her army. When Jadwiga approached Ruthenia’s capital, Lwow, the city gates were opened, and she entered to cheers. Ruthenia was returned to Poland.
Queen Jadwiga had come full circle. Once loath to leave Hungary for Poland, she now reclaimed Polish territory from Hungary. It was at this moment of triumph (known as “the miracle of Jadwiga”) that she learned her mother Elizabeth had been murdered in a political intrigue. Jadwiga returned to Krakow and secluded herself in mourning for six weeks. She came out of mourning to hear rumors that she had been unfaithful to Jagiello. Jagiello was told that while he was in Lithuania Jadwiga had been seeing Prince William of Austria. King confronted Queen, and the husband was skeptical of his wife’s denials. The wife rebuked the husband, and the Queen departed from the King in a fury.
The rumors were started by the Order of Teutonic Knights and Jadwiga’s ex-fiancé, William. To forestall the threat posed by the Polish-Lithuanian alliance the Knights sowed internal dissension by pitting the Lithuanian King against his Polish Queen. William’s motive for rumor-mongering is less clear. Perhaps he still resented what he thought was Jadwiga’s rejection of him. But he may also have coveted Poland, and sought to weaken the country in order to subordinate it to the Hapsburg monarchy.
In either event, the agent of dissension was one Gniewosz, a royal courtier and trusted confidant of Jadwiga and Jagiello. So subtle were Gniewosz’ insinuations that Jadwiga and Jagiello became completely alienated from each other. The situation became a crisis when Jadwiga’s confessor admonished her for her pride. Queen Jadwiga commanded him to be silent and stormed out of the confessional in a huff.
Eventually Gniewocz’ treachery was revealed, and the wrath of Jadwiga departed from Jagiello and descended like a thunder-clap on the conniving Gniewocz. The Queen demanded a public trial. So formidable was Jadwiga’s presence that Gniewocz was literally unable to speak a word in his own defense. No courage was supplied the luckless traitor by the presence of armed knights eager to defend their Queen’s honor by armed combat with her slanderer. They were disappointed by the now craven Gniewocz, who finally found voice to confess his guilt according to legal formula: he crouched under a bench, proclaimed “I have lied like a dog” and then barked three times. In those days, that was the extent of his punishment. A chastened Gniewocz continued in royal employment, and attention turned to other matters.
Jadwiga’s behavior during the crisis is noteworthy. She had been exceptionally docile to her confessor before Gniewocz’ slanders. After her innocence was avenged her docility resumed, as did her gentle relations with Jagiello. One can sympathize with her injured innocence, particularly in light of her wrenching renunciation of William and acceptance of Jagiello. To be accused of a liaison with William by Jagiello must have utterly galled her. Yet one can also detect a subtle pride in her righteous indignation. The Lord of the sacred wounds was not yet finished with the twenty year old Queen of Poland.
William and the Teutonic Knights continued to intrigue against Poland. They complained to the Holy See that William was Jadwiga’s lawful husband, and asked that her marriage to Jagiello be annulled. After a thorough examination Pope Urban VI found the marriage of Jadwiga and Jagiello lawful. In fact, Urban seems to have greatly appreciated the royal couple. Calling Jagiello “my most beloved son”, the pope rejoiced in Jagiello’s conversion and the conversion of Lithuania. From Jadwiga Urban sought counsel on Polish Episcopal appointments. Poland was a bright spot for Urban, compared to the rest of Europe where the Western Schism had sown confusion and heresy.
Poland had been on the verge of war with the Teutonic Knights for years. Jagiello had no love for the Order because of their violence against Lithuania. He longed to avenge his people against the Knights of the black cross and white cape, and only Jadwiga’s influence restrained him. She grew up on stories of the heroic crusades of the Teutonic Knights. Unlike Jagiello’s people, Jadwiga had never been on the wrong end of a Knight’s sword. As Queen, however, it was more than sentiment that made her attempt negotiations with the Order.
She hated violence. She wished to recall the Order back to its holy origins. She also believed that Prussia, a Slavic land, belonged to Poland. In 1397, two years before her death, Jadwiga met with the Order.
Unaccompanied by Jagiello, Queen Jadwiga presented Poland’s claims on Prussia. She spoke softly and firmly to the men who had slandered her, killed her subjects, and attempted to destroy her country and her marriage. Yet her hopes for a peaceful absorption of Prussia into Poland were dashed. It was clear to Jadwiga that the crosses and capes worn by the holy Order of her childhood were now only costumes. She stood and her voice rose. Pointing to heaven she proclaimed:
“So long as I live, the Crown will bear your lawlessness with patience. But after my death the punishment of Heaven for all the wrongs you have done to Poland shall fall on you. War that cannot be averted will destroy you.”
Birth and Death
History proved this an accurate prophecy. Jadwiga returned to Krakow, and involved herself in ambitious projects to renew the University Casimir the Great founded. She also began a school to train missionaries. In 1399 she wrote Jagiello: “God has taken the shame of barrenness from me.” She was pregnant.
It was a difficult pregnancy, and Jadwiga exhausted herself planning the birth and baptism of her first child. In May she and Jagiello asked Pope Boniface to be the infant’s godfather. The Pope agreed and Krakow anticipated a great celebration. The Queen awaited the blessed event “in a spirit of deep humility and not without sad forebodings.” On June 22, 1399 Jadwiga began a difficult labor. Eventually she gave birth to a baby girl. The infant, born prematurely, was even frailer than her mother. She was quickly baptized and named Elizabeth Bonifacia.
Baby and mother remained in ill health for three weeks. Jadwiga wrote a very specific will, even telling Jagiello who his next wife should be. Then little Elizabeth died. Shortly afterwards Jadwiga, cradling her baby at her side, also died.
Jagiello, returning from affairs of state at a full gallop, arrived in time to mourn the death of his family. Less acquainted with grief than his wife, perhaps Jagiello’s sorrow gained him a fuller meaning of an incident that occurred right after his marriage to Jadwiga. The royal couple visited the tomb of St. Adalbert in Gniezno. Jagiello forcibly took the peasant’s cattle as provisions for the royal entourage. The peasants pleaded and wept for their return. Jadwiga interceded, Jagiello relented, and the cattle were returned. Jadwiga remained sorrowful however. When Jagiello questioned her she replied, “You can give them back their cattle, but who will give them back their tears?”
Queen Jadwiga, in her short life, was no stranger to tears. She had a very brief childhood, her best friend became her worst enemy, her adult life was forced upon her against her will, she lost her mother to murder, she lost her daughter, and then her own life. Those who imagine the lives of saints to be an uninterrupted blissful contemplation of the divine may find Jadwiga’s short hard life instructive. She climbed a mountain of sacrifice, penance, and renunciation. Upon reaching the top she contemplated the cold blue heavens, impervious and impassable. And perhaps she voiced a truth known only to other mountain climbers: Thou art a hard man O Lord, and all who love you walk with a limp…”
“Mother of Poland”
Jadwiga was buried on the Feast of the Assumption. Her crypt, which also contains her daughter Elizabeth and letters to the two from Elizabeth’s godfather, Pope Boniface, lies today beneath the altar at Wawel Cathedral. The lime wood crucifix she prayed in front of before marrying Jagiello is displayed at a side altar.
Jadwiga was 25 when she died. She had a special devotion to the Visitation, and founded a Church in honor of this mystery, which involves the presence of the Holy Spirit in the encounter between two pregnant women: Mary with the Christ-child in her womb, and St. Elizabeth with St. John the Baptist in hers. The significance of this mystery for Queen Jadwiga may be related to her longing for a child. If being a mother was a cherished hope of Jadwiga, it was as well hidden as her distress over her barrenness. It would, however, add a layer of poignancy to her grief over her daughter’s death.
The holiness and tragedy of Queen Jadwiga became a Polish national treasure. She was viewed as a saint while living, and numerous were claims of miracles and healings from Jadwiga’s intercession after her death. Robbed of motherhood in life, in death Jadwiga received the title of Mother. When Poland suffered two hundred years of foreign occupation, mourning Poles turned to someone who understood tears. Thus did Queen Jadwiga become “Mother of Poland.”
1. Monica Gardner, Queen Jadwiga of Poland, Browne and Nolan Limited, The Richview Press, Dublin, 1944 edition.
2. Oscar Halecki, Jadwiga of Anjou and the Rise of East Central Europe, Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences of America, Inc., 1991.
3. Adam Piekarski, The Church in Poland, Interpress, Warsaw, 1978.
4. F.E. Whitton, History of Poland, Major Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1918.
5. Cambridge History of Poland, Cambridge at the University Press, 1950, Volume I.
6. Christopher Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, Image Books, 1991.
7. Norman Davies, Heart of Europe, A Short History of Poland, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1984, p. 291.
8. Charlotte Kellogg, Jadwiga, Queen of Poland, Anderson House, Washington, 1936, p. 98.
9. Norman Davies, God’s Playground, A History of Poland, Clarendon Pres, Oxford, 1981, Volume I, p. 102.