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Casimir III, King of Poland

Casimir III, King of Poland

King Casimir III of Poland (1310-1370) made major contributions to the growth of the Polish state as it is known today. Poland's growth under his peaceful reign was memorialized in a popular saying to the effect that he inherited a Poland built of wood, but left the world a Poland built of stone.

An oblong strip of land wedged among competing kingdoms when Casimir was crowned in 1333, Poland more than doubled in size during his reign. Casimir oversaw the founding and building of Poland's greatest university, and he put in place an administrative infrastructure that resulted in the growth of many Polish cities and towns. He brought about this era of growth not by the method of military conquest favored among medieval rulers but by skillful diplomatic maneuvers that transformed Poland from a small kingdom encroached upon by larger neighbors into a major European power in its own right. Casimir was also noted for his fair treatment of Poland's Jewish minority, and the preponderance of Polish ancestry among Jews with a European background today is attributable in part to his influence.

Early Years

Casimir (or Kazimierz) was born on April 30, 1310, in the town of Kowal, in Kujawy-Pomerania province in the central part of present-day Poland. He was the son of King Wladyslav I Lokietek, or Wladyslaw the Elbow-High. Despite his diminutive stature, Wladyslaw (or Ladislaus) had involved the Polish kingdom in a host of military adventures. One in particular, carried out around the time of Casimir's birth, ended disastrously. In order to repel an invasion by forces loyal to a pair of German noblemen, Wladyslaw called on aid promised by a group called the Teutonic Knights, a Roman Catholic order with a powerful army. After helping Wladyslaw to lift the German siege of the castle at Gdansk, the Knights proceeded to seize it for themselves. By the time of Casimir's coronation, although Wladyslaw embroiled them in a long war that seesawed for several years, they controlled a large portion of northern Poland.

What remained to Casimir was a narrow diagonal strip running southeastward along the Vistula River from the Poznan region in the northwest. Access to the Baltic Sea was controlled exclusively by the Teutonic Knights, and Poland was pressed by the Lithuanian kingdom and by Central Asian tribes on the east, by Hungarians and Bohemians to the south, and by German states on the west. The country, populated by about 800,000 people, included less than half of the area that was culturally Polish; what remained was unified but severely weakened, and military action as a way of recovering lost territory seemed to be out of the question. And the new king was an unlikely candidate for leadership: he had been sent away to the court of Hungary's king Charles Robert, where he had a reputation as a playboy. In a battle against the Teutonic Knights at the northern Polish town of Plowce, Casimir fled the battlefield.

Nevertheless, Casimir confidently set out on a new course as he attempted to solve Poland's problems. In place of military campaigns he used statecraft. To quote the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, Casimir “belongs to that remarkable group of late medieval sovereigns who may be called the fathers of modern diplomacy, inasmuch as they relegated warfare to its proper place as the instrument of politics, and preferred the councilchamber to the battle-field.” His first move was to placate the Teutonic Knights with a truce in 1333; the Treaty of Kalisz in 1343 restored some of Poland's northwestern territories, although not its Baltic seacoast. The Teutonic Knights remained entrenched in northern Poland until finally dislodged by a Polish-Lithuanian army in the early fifteenth century.

Charles Robert and his nephew Louis the Great were just two of the monarchs of surrounding states who harbored the ambition of taking over Poland themselves. Another was John of Bohemia. Casimir faced his first major diplomatic test in 1335 when all these rulers met at the Hungarian castle of Vyshegrad on the Danube River. Skillfully negotiating the murky intrigues inherent in the summit, Casimir bought off John, agreeing to pay him 400,000 groats (a groat was a silver coin) if he would relinquish his longstanding claim on Poland. In turn, he conceded Bohemian sovereignty over Silesia, a region split mostly between present-day Poland and the Czech Republic. Resolution of Poland's tensions with Bohemia was formalized in the Treaty of Krakow in 1339, and Casimir was free to direct his own attention, and that of his uneasy ally Louis the Great, to the small principalities on Poland's eastern flank.

Launched War to Reclaim Eastern Region

In the late 1330s, Casimir declared war on the small states of Halych and Vladimir (now in western Ukraine), part of the Masovia (Polish: Mazowsze) region. The ruler of these states, Boleslaw-Iurii, who had no children, named Casimir as his heir, but he was then poisoned to death by a group of other noblemen from within his realm. The result was the single major military conflict of Casimir's long reign, undertaken in order to secure valuable trade routes and to provide a buffer against attacks from Tatars, Mongols, and the so-called Kievan Rus, the tribe that gave Russia its name.

Over a period of about two decades, Casimir made substantial progress, which he owed as much to diplomatic initiatives as to military command skills. To Poland's northeast he came into conflict with a group of Lithuanian kingdoms, wisely settling for vague acknowledgements of Polish suzerainty (overlordship) instead of attempting a full-scale conquest. With the tacit approval of Louis the Great, he conquered the Masovia region, including Halycz and the area around what is now Lviv, Ukraine, and Poland took on more of its characteristic square shape. Casimir constantly had to fend off a variety of other external pressures, including demands from the Pope that he renew the war against the Teutonic Knights, regarded by the Holy See as an unacceptable rival. He was aided by a stroke of luck in the late 1340s: the bubonic plague epidemic known as the Black Death, which according to some estimates killed more than half of Europe's population, left Poland mostly unaffected even as its neighbors suffered serious outbreaks.

Casimir's greatest accomplishments, perhaps, lay in the domestic sphere. “Almost every aspect of Polish life,” wrote historian Norman Davies in God's Playground: A History of Poland, “was brought before the King's reforming and regulating gaze.” Casimir put in place a modern government bureaucracy, replacing the administration by local fiefdom that had prevailed up to that time, and in 1347 he codified the laws of the kingdom, publishing them in two massive volumes. These so-called “Statutes” of Casimir the Great provided the basic framework of Polish law for centuries to come. Casimir embarked on a significant construction program that included 50 military fortresses and spun off into growth enjoyed by various Polish communities. The growth attracted immigration, most significantly from Jews who were suffering especially virulent persecution in Germanspeaking lands at the time.

That Jewish immigration was in many ways the beginning of a great center of European Jewish culture that lasted until its destruction by German Fascism during World War II. Casimir vowed to protect Jews as “people of the king,” prohibited the common practice of kidnapping Jewish children in order to baptize them as Christians, and tried to mitigate the anti-Semitic thrust and frequent mob actions of the Catholic Inquisition in Poland. He put in place a measure limiting the interest rate charged by Jewish moneylenders to 8 1/3 percent, but even this had the effect of securing the place of the Jewish community within the country's legal framework. In the words of the online Jewish Encyclopedia, “This measure must not be ascribed to his animosity against the Jews, but should rather be considered as a wise act tending to the welfare of the country as well as of the Jews.” The result of Casimir's protections was that, as of the early twenty-first century, about 70 percent of the world's Jews of European background, known as Ashkhenazi, could trace their ancestries to Poland.

Constructed University

Perhaps the most visible remnant of Casimir's realm today is the University of Krakow, for which the king issued a Charter of Royal Foundation on May 12, 1364. The charter specified the provision of 11 chairs or professorships: one in liberal arts, two in medicine, three in canon (church) law, and five in Roman law. Their income was guaranteed by an annual appropriation drawn from the profits realized by the royal salt monopoly. Although Casimir had had to petition the Pope for permission to establish the university, he placed the institution under secular administration, vesting control in the hands of a royal chancellor rather than that of the Bishop of Krakow. Several major Polish churches date from Casimir's reign, and the cathedral in Lviv was also begun at his direction.

Despite his successes, Casimir's domestic life was rarely a happy one. He failed to produce a legitimate male heir, effectively putting an end to the Piast dynasty of which he was a part. It was not for lack of trying: Casimir married three times, once bigamously, and embarked on several illconcealed extramarital affairs. He had three sons, but all were illegitimate. All of Casimir's marriages were undertaken for political reasons, to cement alliances with friendly states, and the situations of the women involved were, as was typical at the time, not pleasant. After marrying his second wife, Adelheid of Hesse, Casimir essentially shut her away and began living with his mistress, Christina. When Casimir and Christina married, Adelheid charged him with bigamy, returned to Hesse, and pleaded her cause with Pope Innocent VI, all to no avail.

Casimir's reign was unusually long among those of monarchs in the violent medieval world. By the late 1360s he had lost none of his touch, concluding a new alliance with Louis of Hungary in the Hungarian capital of Buda (now half of the city of Budapest) in 1369. On November 5, 1370, however, he died from the aftereffects of a hunting accident. His funeral was a magnificent one, and as the monarchy passed into the hands of Louis (who had married Casimir's sister), Poles feared for the future. “And no wonder!” noted a Polish chronicler cited by Davies. “The death of the peace-loving king had caused them to fear that the peace to which they had all grown accustomed during his lifetime would now end.” Casimir III remains the only Polish monarch known by the descriptor “the Great.”

Books

Biskupski, M.B., The History of Poland, Greenwood, 2000.

Davies, Norman, God's Playground: A History of Poland, rev. ed., Columbia University Press, 2005.

Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed., Cambridge University Press, 1911.

Lukowski, Jerzy, and Hubert Zawadzki, A Concise History of Poland, Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Periodicals

New York Times, July 12, 2007.

Online

“Kazimierz III,” Foundation for Medieval Genealogy: Poland, http://fmg.ac/Projects/MedLands/POLAND.htm#KazimierzIIIdied1370 (February 3, 2008).

Rosenthal, Herman, “Casimir III: the Great,” Jewish Encyclopedia.com, http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=221&letter=C (February 3, 2008).

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