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Robert Nisbet Bain
Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th edition, 1910,
vol 25, pages 67-8

SIGISMUND I. (1467—1548), king of Poland, the fifth son of Casimir IV and Elizabeth of Austria, was elected grand-duke of Lithuania on the 21st of October 1505 and king of Poland on the 8th of January 1506. Sigismund was the only one of the six sons of Casimir IV gifted with extraordinary ability. He had served his apprenticeship in the art of government first as prince of Glogau and subsequently as governor of Silesia and margrave of Lusatia under his elder brother Wladislaus of Bohemia and Hungary. Silesia, already more than half Germanized, had for generations been the battle-ground between the Luxemburgers and the Piasts, and was split up into innumerable principalities which warred incessantly upon their neighbours and each other.

Into the midst of this region of banditti Sigismund came as a sort of grand justiciar, a sworn enemy of every sort of disorder. His little principality of Glogau soon became famous as a model state, and as governor of Silesia he suppressed the robber knights with an iron hand, protected the law-abiding classes, and revived commerce. In Poland also his thrift and businesslike qualities speedily remedied the abuses caused by the wastefulness of his predecessor Alexander. His first step was to recover control of the mint, and place it in the hands of capable middle- class merchants and bankers, like Caspar Beer, Jan Thurzo, Jan Boner, the Betmans, exiles for conscience' sake from Alsace, who had sought refuge in Poland under Casimir IV, Justus Decyusz, subsequently the king's secretary and historian, and their fellows, all practical economists of high integrity who reformed the currency and opened out new ways for trade and commerce. The reorganization of the mint alone increased the royal revenue by 220,000 gulden a year and enabled Sigismund to pay the expenses of his earlier wars. In foreign affairs Sigismund was largely guided by the Laskis (Adam, Jan and Hieronymus), Jan Tarnowski and others, most of whom he selected himself. In his marriages also he was influenced by political considerations, though to both his consorts he was an affectionate husband. His first wife, whom the diet, anxious for the perpetuation of the dynasty, compelled him, already in his forty-fourth year (Feb. 25,2), to marry, was Barbara Zapolya, whose family as represented first by her father Stephen and subsequently by her brother John, dominated Hungarian politics in the last quarter of the 15th and the first quarter of the 16th century. Barbara brought him a dower of 100,000 gulden and the support of the Magyar magnates, but the match nearly brought about a breach with the emperor Maximilian, jealous already of the Jagiello influence in Hungary. On Barbara's death three years later without male offspring, Sigismund (in April 1518) gave his hand to Bona Sforza, a kinswoman of the emperor and granddaughter of the king of Aragon, who came to him with a dowry of 200,000 ducats and the promise of an inheritance from her mother of half a million more which she never got. Bona's grace and beauty speedily fascinated Sigismund, and contemporary satirists ridiculed him for playing the part of Jove to her Juno. She introduced Italian elegance and luxury into the austere court of Cracow and exercised no inconsiderable influence on affairs. But she used her great financial and economical talents almost entirely for her own benefit. She enriched herself at the expense of the state, corrupted society, degraded the clergy, and in her later years was universally detested for her mischievous meddling, inexhaustible greed, and unnatural treatment of her children.

The first twenty years of Sigismund's reign were marked by exceptional vigour. His principal difficulties were due to the aggressiveness of Muscovy and the disloyalty of Prussia. With the tsars Vasily III and Ivan IV Sigismund was never absolutely at peace. The interminable war was interrupted, indeed, by brief truces whenever Polish valour proved superior to Muscovite persistence, as for instance after the great victory of Orsza (Sept. 1514) and again in 1522 when Moscow was threatened by the Tatars. But the Tatars themselves were a standing menace to the republic. In the open field, indeed, they were generally defeated (e.g. at Wisniowiec in 1512 and at Kaniow in 1526), yet occasionally, as at Sokal when they wiped out a whole Polish army, they prevailed even in pitched battles. Generally, however, they confined themselves to raiding on a grand scale and, encouraged by the Porte or the Muscovite, systematically devastated whole provinces, penetrating even into the heart of Poland proper and disappearing with immense booty. It was this growing sense of border insecurity which led to the establishment of the Cossacks (see POLAND: History).

The grand-masters of the Teutonic Order, always sure of support in Germany, were also a constant source of annoyance. Their constant aim was to shake off Polish suzerainty, and in 1520—22 their menacing attitude compelled Sigismund to take up arms against them. The long quarrel was finally adjusted in 1525 when the last grand-master, after a fruitless pilgrimage through Europe for support, professed Lutheranism and as first duke of Prussia did public homage to the Polish king in the market-place of Cracow. The secularization of Prussia was opposed by the more religious of Sigismund's counsellors, and the king certainly exposed himself to considerable odium in the Catholic world; but taking all the circumstances into consideration, it was perhaps the shortest way out of a situation brisling with difficulties.

Personally a devout Catholic and opposed in principle to the spread of sectarianism in Poland, Sigismund was nevertheless too wise and just to permit the persecution of non-Catholics; and in Lithuania, where a fanatical Catholic minority of magnates dominated the senate, he resolutely upheld the rights of his Orthodox subjects. Thus he rewarded the Orthodox upstart, Prince Constantine Ortrogski, for his victory at Orsza by making him palatine of Troki, despite determined opposition from the Catholics; severely punished all disturbers of the worship of the Greek schismatics; protected the Jews in the country places, and insisted that the municipalities of the towns should be composed of an equal number of Catholics and Orthodox Greeks. By his tact, equity, and Christian charity, Sigismund endeared himself even to those who differed most from him, as witness the readiness of the Lithuanians to elect his infant son grand-duke of Lithuania in 1522, and to crown him in 1529.

After his sixtieth year there was a visible decline in the energy and capacity of Sigismund. To the outward eye his gigantic strength and herculean build lent him the appearance of health and vigour, but forty years of unintermittent toil and anxiety had told upon him, and during the last two-and-twenty years of his reign, by which time all his old self-chosen counsellors had died off, he apathetically resigned himself to the course of events without making any sustained effort to stem the rising tide of Protestantism and democracy. He had no sympathy with the new men and the new ideas, and the malcontents in Poland often insulted the aged king with impunity. Thus, at his last diet, held at Piotrkow in 1547, Lupa Podlodowski, the champion of the szlachta, openly threatened him with rebellion. Sigismund died on the 1st of April 1548. By Bona he had five children—one son, Sigismund Augustus, who succeeded him, and four daughters, Isabella, who married John Zapolya, prince of Transylvania2 Sophia, who married the duke of Brunswick, Catherine, who as the wife of John III. of Sweden became the mother of the Polish Vasas, and Ann, who subsequently wedded King Stephen Bathory.

See August Sokolowski, History of Poland (Pol.), vol. ii. (Vienna, 1904); Zygmunt Celichowski, Materials for the history of the reign of Sigismund the Old (Pol.) (Posen, 1900); Adolf Pawinski, The youthful years of Sigismund the Old (Pol.) (Warsaw, 1893); Adam Darowski, Bona Sforza (1904). (R. N. B.)