Lithuania, Grand Duchy of, to 1569

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LITHUANIA, GRAND DUCHY OF, TO 1569. The dates 1385 and 1569 mark important turning points in Polish historiography concerning the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a governing myth of which is that of state creation by marriages and free unions. In 1385 the Act of Union signed in Krėva (Krewo) marked the beginning of a federation between the Grand Duchy and the Polish crown that was to last until the third partition of Poland-Lithuania in 1795. Grand Duke Jogaila (Polish, Jagiełło; after baptism, Władysław Jagiełło) agreed to marry the twelve-year-old queen of Poland, Jadwiga of Anjou. The ceremony occurred 14 February 1386 in Cracow.

Interpretation of the Act of Union hinges on the term applicare used in the document: Did Jagiełło agree to an incorporation of the Grand Duchy into the Polish state (as Polish historiography once argued), or did he envisage a federation of two more or less equal states (as Lithuanian historians have insisted)? Polish historiography sees the union as a foundational moment and emphasizes the importance, for the history of early modern Lithuania, of Jogaila's acceptance of Western Christianity and his baptism of Lithuania (Aukštaitija, the eastern "highlands" around Vilnius, in 1387; Samogitia, or Žemaitija, the western central "lowlands," in 1417). It also highlights the increasingly strong ties with Poland. Lithuanian scholarship sees the long reign of Jogaila's still pagan grandfather Gediminas (ruled 13161341) as the foundational moment and focuses on attempts to strengthen Lithuanian autonomies after 1385, especially during the reign of Jogaila's cousin Vytautas (Polish, Witold; ruled 14011430) as grand duke of Lithuania. In short, the period 13851569, as viewed from the Polish side, was a direct progression from the personal union, through a period of strengthening ties between the two states (during which time a single member of the Jagiellonian house most often ruled both), to the writing into law of a Commonwealth of the Two Nations at the Union of Lublin in 1569. The view from the Lithuanian side is one of lost opportunities for state formation; it focuses on moments of Lithuanian separateness and sees the union as the eventual forced marriage of two very unequal partners.

A mutual enemy helped bring the two states together. The Order of the Teutonic Knights had posed a threat to both Christian Poland and pagan Lithuania since its arrival in Mazovia and on the Baltic in 1226. A decisive victory of Lithuanian and Polish forces over the Order at Grunwald at Tannenberg in 1410 prepared the way for an ultimate subordination of what would become Ducal Prussia to the Polish crown. Lithuanian historiography views the fifteenth century as a missed opportunity, as the decline of a Gediminian concept of Lithuanian statehood and identity after the death of Vytautas in 1430 and its supplanting with a Polish-oriented Jagiellonian dynasty of Lithuanian origin. Polish historiography has emphasized a willing adoption of Polish political and cultural norms. In 1413 at a renewal of the union at Horodło, forty-seven Lithuanian noble families were "adopted" by, and took on the coats of arms of, forty-seven Polish lines. This marked the beginning of a gradual Polonization of the Lithuanian elites that reached Lithuania's burghers by the early seventeenth century.

The Lithuanian state was multiethnic from the preconversion period. Large territories of Kievan Rus' (destroyed by the Mongolian Tatar invasion of 1240) gradually came under Lithuanian rule, and the Ruthenian element contributed to Lithuanian identity in later periods. Some individual conversions among the Lithuanian elite were to Orthodoxy, and many underwent a Ruthenianization before submitting to Polonization. Ruthenian became the language of the Lithuanian chancery. Lack of full legal rights for Orthodox Ruthenian nobles (fully granted only in 1563) helped speed the Polonization of Lithuanian (and Ruthenian) society.

The period immediately following the conversion of Lithuania witnessed the first settlements of Tatars and Karaim (around Vilnius and Trakai, among other settlements), to which continuing immigrations were later added those of Poles and Jews. Grand Duke Alexander (ruled 14921506; king of Poland from 1501) banished the Jews from the Grand Duchy in 1495 but allowed them to return in 1503. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Jews were most numerous in Brest, Hrodna (Grodno), and Pinsk, which first comprised the Vaad or Council of the Chief Lithuanian Jewish Communities. (Vilnius joined only in 1652.) German merchants, engaged in Baltic trade and with contacts to Riga, Königsberg, and Gdańsk, were present in Vilnius before 1386, and their numbers and significance increased here and in other cities of ethnic Lithuania, such as Kaunas, throughout the early modern period. One estimate sees a Grand Duchy of the mid-sixteenth century with a population of about 3 million, of which one-third was Lithuanian and one-half Ruthenian.

The move to formalize the personal union between Poland and Lithuania that culminated in the Union of Lublin on 1 July 1569 gathered momentum as it became clear that the last Jagiellonian king, Sigismund II Augustus (ruled 15481572), would indeed die without a male heir. It was again a mutual enemynow an ascending Muscovythat helped facilitate the marriage. The middling Lithuanian gentry was now in favor of the union and saw it as a defense of the state against Muscovy. They also saw in the union and the extension of Polish views on the legal equality of the entire szlachta ('gentry,' or 'nobles') a strengthening of their own position vis-à-vis the Lithuanian magnates. The latter, a group of unusually wealthy and powerful families, led in this instance by the Calvinist Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Red, then palatine of Vilnius and chancellor of the Grand Duchy, attempted to block the union. In response to Lithuanian recalcitrance, Sigismund II removed the palatinates of Volhynia, Podlachia, Podolia, Bratslav, and Kiev from the Grand Duchy and subordinated them directly to the Polish crown.

Consequently a much smaller and weaker Grand Duchy of Lithuania entered into the Commonwealth of the Two Nations, forming a federation of two quite unequal partners, with one common, elected ruler, one parliament, and one foreign policy. The Grand Duchy would retain a limited sovereignty with a separate administration, army, treasury, judiciary, and legal system (based on the Third Lithuanian Statute of 1588). Other elements of Lithuanian differencesuch as the use of chancery Ruthenian, which was abandoned only in 1697remained a part of Lithuanian identity for the increasingly Polonized elite after the union. The union would bring Lithuanian causes more directly into the center of Polish politics, especially eastern questions, such as the struggles with the Tatars, the Ottoman Empire, and Muscovy. Population in the Grand Duchy declined sharply in the wars of 16481667 (by 46 percent according to one estimate). The growth that began in the 1730s brought numbers back to their prewar peak only by 1790. The Grand Duchy disappeared with the third partition of Poland in 1795.

See also Lublin, Union of (1569) ; Poland-Lithuania, Commonwealth of, 15691795 ; Poland to 1569 ; Teutonic Knights ; Władysław II Jagiełło (Poland) .


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Kiaupa, Zigmantas, Jūratė Kiaupienė, and Albinas Kuncevičius. The History of Lithuania before 1795. Vilnius, 2000.

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Stone, Daniel. The Polish-Lithuanian State, 13861795. Seattle, 2001.

David Frick