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Robert Nisbet Bain
Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th edition, 1910,
vol 25, pages 68

SIGISMUND III. (1566—1632), king of Poland and Sweden, son of John III, king of Sweden, and Catherine Jagiellonika, sister of Sigismund II, king of Poland, thus uniting in his person the royal lines of Vasa and Jagiello. Educated as a Catholic by his mother, he was on the death of Stephen Bathory elected king of Poland (August 19, 1587) chiefly through the efforts of the Polish chancellor, Jan Zamoyski, and of his own aunt, Anne, queen-dowager of Poland, who lent the chancellor 100,000 gulden

to raise troops in defence of her nephew's cause. On his election, Sigismund promised to maintain a fleet in the Baltic, to fortify the eastern frontier against the Tatars, and not to visit Sweden without the consent of the Polish diet. Sixteen days later were signed the articles of Kalmar regulating the future relations between Poland and Sweden, when in process of time Sigismund should succeed his father as king of Sweden. The two kingdoms were to be perpetually allied, but each of them was to retain its own laws and customs. Sweden was also to enjoy her religion subject to such changes as a general council might make. During Sigismund's absence from Sweden that realm was to be ruled by seven Swedes, six to be elected by the king and one by Duke Charles, his Protestant uncle. Sweden, moreover, was not to be administered from Poland. A week after subscribing these articles the young prince departed to take possession of the Polish throne. He was expressly commanded by his father to return to Sweden, if the Polish deputation awaiting him at Danzig should insist on the cession of Esthonia to Poland as a condition precedent to the act of homage. The Poles proved even more difficult to satisfy than was anticipated; but finally a compromise was come to whereby the territorial settlement was postponed till after the death of John III; and Sigismund was duly crowned at Cracow on the 27th of December 1587.

Sigismund's position as king of Poland was extraordinarily difficult. As a foreigner he was from the first out of sympathy with the majority of his subjects. As a man of education and refinement, fond of music, the fine arts, and polite literature, he was unintelligible to the szlachta, who regarded all artists and poets as either mechanics or adventurers. His very virtues were strange and therefore offensive to them. His prudent reserve and imperturbable calmness were branded as stiffness and haughtiness. Even Zamoyski who had placed him on the throne complained that the king was possessed by a dumb devil. He lacked, moreover, the tact and bonhomie of the Jagiellos; but in fairness it should be added that the Jagiellos were natives of the soil, that they had practically made the monarchy, and that they could always play Lithuania off against Poland.

Sigismund's difficulties were also increased by his political views which he brought with him from Sweden cut and dried, and which were diametrically opposed to those of the omnipotent chancellor. Yet, impracticable as it may have been, Sigismund's system of foreign policy as compared with Zamoyski's was, at any rate, clear and definite. It aimed at a close alliance with the house of Austria, with the double object of drawing Sweden within its orbit and overawing the Porte by the conjunction of the two great Catholic powers of central Europe. A corollary to this system was the much needed reform of the Polish constitution, without which nothing beneficial was to be expected from any political combination. Thus Sigismund's views were those of a statesman who clearly recognizes present evils and would remedy them. But all his efforts foundered on the jealousy and suspicion of the magnates headed by the chancellor. The first three-and-twenty years of Sigismund's reign is the record of an almost constant struggle between Zamoyski and the king, in which the two opponents were so evenly matched that they did little more than counterpoise each other. At the diet of 1590 Zamoyski successfully thwarted all the efforts of the Austrian party; whereupon the king, taking advantage of sudden vacancies among the chief offices of state, brought into power the Radziwills and other great Lithuanian dignitaries, thereby for a time considerably curtailing the authority of the chancellor. In 1592 Sigismund married the Austrian archduchess Anne, and the same year a reconciliation was patched up between the king and the chancellor to enable the former to secure possession of his Swedish throne vacant by the death of his father John III. He arrived at Stockholm on the 30th of September 1593 and was crowned at Upsala on the 19th of February 1594, but only after he had consented to the maintenance of the “pure evangelical religion” in Sweden. On the 14th of July 1594 he departed for Poland leaving Duke Charles and the senate to rule Sweden during his absence. Four years later (July 1598) Sigismund was forced to fight for his native crown by the usurpation of his uncle, aided by the Protestant party in Sweden. He landed at Kalmar with 5000 men, mostly Hungarian mercenaries; the fortress opened its gates to him at once and the capital and the country people welcomed him. The Catholic world watched his progress with the most sanguine expectations. Sigismund's success in Sweden was regarded as only the beginning of greater triumphs. But it was not to be. After fruitless negotiations with his uncle, Sigismund advanced with his army from Kalmar, but was defeated by the duke at Stangebro on the 25th of September. Three days later, by the compact of Linkoping, Sigismund agreed to submit all the points in dispute between himself and his uncle to a riksdag at Stockholm; but immediately afterwards took ship for Danzig, after secretly protesting to the two papal prothonotaries who accompanied him that the Linköping agreement had been extorted from him, and was therefore invalid. Sigismund never saw Sweden again, but he persistently refused to abandon his claims or recognise the new Swedish government; and this unfortunate obstinacy was to involve Poland in a whole series of unprofitable wars with Sweden.

In 1602 Sigismund wedded Constantia, the sister of his deceased first wife, an event which strengthened the hands of the Austrian party at court and still further depressed the chancellor. At the diet of 1605 Sigismund and his partisans endeavoured so far to reform the Polish constitution as to substitute a decision by a plurality of votes for unanimity in the diet. This most simple and salutary reform was, however, rendered nugatory by the opposition of Zamoyski, and his death the same year made matters still worse, as it left the opposition in the hands of men violent and incapable, like Nicholas Zebrzydowski, or sheer scoundrels, like Stanislaw Stadnicki. From 1606 indeed to 1610 Poland was in an anarchical condition. Insurrection and rebellion triumphed everywhere, and all that Sigismund could do was to minimize the mischief as much as possible by his moderation and courage. On foreign affairs these disorders had the most disastrous effect. The simultaneous collapse of Muscovy had given Poland an unexampled opportunity of rendering the tsardom forever harmless. But the necessary supplies were never forthcoming and the diet remained absolutely indifferent to the triumphs of Zolkiewski and the other great generals who performed Brobdingnagian feats with Lilliputian armies. At the outbreak of the Thirty Years' War Sigismund prudently leagued with the emperor to counterpoise the united efforts of the Turks and the Protestants. This policy was very beneficial to the Catholic cause, as it diverted the Turk from central to northeastern Europe; yet, but for the self-sacrificing heroism of Zolkiewski at Cecora and of Chodkiewicz at Khotin, it might have been most ruinous to Poland. Sigismund died very suddenly in his 66th year, leaving two sons, Wiadislaus and John Casimir, who succeeded him in rotation.

See Aleksander Rembowski, The Insurrection of Zebrzydowski (Pol.) (Cracow, 1893); Stanislaw Niemojewski, Memoires (Pal.) (Lemberg, 1899); Sveriges Historic, vol. iii. (Stockholm, 1881); Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, History of the Reign of S'igismund III. (Pol.) (Breslau, 1836). (R. N. B.)