Sforza, Bona (1493–1557)

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Sforza, Bona (1493–1557)

Queen of Poland and duchess of Bari. Name variations: Bona of Poland. Born in January 1493 (some sources cite 1494) in Milan, Italy; died on November 19, 1557 (some sources cite 1558), at Bari, Italy; daughter of Giangaleazzo or Gian Galeazzo Sforza, duke of Milan (r. 1476–1479), and Isabella of Naples (1470–1524); became second wife of Zygmunt I Stary also known as Sigismund I the Elder (1467–1548), king of Poland (r. 1506–1548), in December 1517; children: Zygmunt August also known as Sigismund II Augustus (1520–1572), king of Poland (r. 1548–1572); Isabella of Poland (1519–1559, who married John Zapolya, king of Hungary [r. 1526–1540]); Zofia also known as Sophia (who married Henry, duke of Brunswick); Catherine Jagello (1525–1583, who married John III, king of Sweden); Anna Jagello (1523–1596, who married Stephen Bathory, king of Poland-Lithuania). Sigismund I the Elder's first wife was Barbara Zapolya (mother of Hedwig of Poland who married Joachim II of Brandenburg).

Bona Sforza was born in Milan in 1493, the second child of Gian Galeazzo Sforza, duke of Milan and head of one of Italy's most powerful families, and the Spanish princess Isabella of Naples . Bona was three years old when her father died in 1496. A struggle for the succession ensued between partisans of Bona's brother, six-year-old Francesco Sforza (d. 1511), and her uncle Ludovico il Moro (Sforza). Ludovico soon triumphed, taking control of Milan and forcing out Bona, her mother, and her siblings. Francesco was made a prisoner of Ludovico's allies in France, where he died in 1511. In compensation for her losses, Ludovico gave Isabella the small duchy of Bari. Although Isabella spent the rest of her life struggling to retain Bari from other enemies, she managed to create there a court well known for its Renaissance writers, artists, and poets. Raised in this intellectual climate, Bona absorbed the Renaissance values of scholarship and humanism, along with her mother's strong political ambition.

Isabella sought a marriage for Bona which would allow her to regain the political power taken from her by Ludovico Sforza. As Bona's younger sister had died in 1501 and her brother was a prisoner in France, Bona was her mother's only hope for recapturing her lost power. Marriage negotiations with the new duke of Milan, Ludovico's son, ended when Isabella learned how weak his control on Milan was. Isabella then looked farther afield for her daughter's husband, turning to negotiations with the ruling house of Poland. The kingdom of Poland in the 16th century encompassed much of Eastern Europe, and claimed Lithuania and western Russia as well, making it an important player in European politics. Its king Sigismund I was recently widowed and seeking new political alliances in Italy. Isabella believed that a powerful ally such as Sigismund could help her regain Milan.

In 1517, the negotiations were concluded, and 24-year-old Bona was married by proxy to 52-year-old Sigismund in an elaborate ceremony at Naples. She departed for Poland in February 1518, finally meeting her new husband in April in Krakow. There a second wedding was celebrated, followed by Bona's coronation. Polish chroniclers of the events described Bona as high-ly learned and beautiful, with blonde hair and very dark eyes. Sigismund fell in love with his young wife, who quickly became a major influence in his reign.

The king was an intellectual and moderate ruler, well liked by his subjects for his efforts to bring peace and economic prosperity to Poland. Despite their age difference, the new royal couple shared similar interests. He was vitally fascinated with the Italian Renaissance culture in which Bona had been raised. They also came to share a passionate determination to preserve the royal dynasty and enhance the crown's power after the births of their five children, including four daughters and the future king of Poland.

Like most queens, Bona presided over the social aspects of court life—receiving guests, planning banquets and other events, supervising the daily management of the royal residences. Her most lasting contributions to Polish culture were her efforts to introduce the Renaissance of her native Italy to her adopted land. With Sigismund's encouragement, Bona brought Italian writers, painters, architects, and musicians to her court. Her architects designed castles and palaces, and redesigned existing ones in the new Renaissance style. She also established art studios and workshops for the foreign artists to teach their crafts.

In addition, Bona was unusually active for a queen politically and economically. In 1524, her mother Isabella died, leaving Bona the contested duchy of Bari. There were several contenders for its possession, primarily Francesco Sforza (d. 1535), son of Beatrice d'Este and her mother's old enemy Ludovico Sforza. Although Bona was the rightful heir, her claim was weakened politically by her absence from Italy and by the fact that she was part of a culture which usually favored male heirs over female heirs. Unwilling to relinquish her rights to Bari despite her distance from it, Bona spent many years alternately fighting and negotiating with Bari's would-be ruler until Francesco, duke of Milan (r. 1521–1535), died.

Bona then turned her attention back to Poland, becoming involved in the political struggles emerging between the crown, aristocracy, and landholding gentry. She supported Sigismund's desire to strengthen royal power and centralize authority in the king. She contributed to this effort by promoting her followers to key positions at the royal court, materially rewarding their support of the king at the expense of the old nobility, who found themselves losing offices traditionally held by their families. In doing so, she helped create a new magnate class loyal to and dependent on royal favor.

She also challenged Polish tradition to ensure that her family would continue to rule for generations to come. Poland's Sejm (Parliament) had traditionally elected new monarchs on the old king's death; hoping to avoid the possibility that her son Sigismund (II) Augustus would not be chosen, Bona arranged for his early coronation in 1530, while her husband still reigned. This affront to Poland's aristocracy, combined with her other political maneuvers, earned the queen the animosity of the old noble and gentry classes, who traditionally opposed any increase in royal power or centralization of royal authority. In 1537, this animosity erupted in armed opposition to the king and queen, forcing them to reverse some of their reforms in favor of the gentry.

Bona was also active economically. Recognizing the king's dependence on Parliament to vote him funds for state administration, she sought to increase crown revenues, hoping to make the king independent of Parliament by giving him alternate sources of funds. She introduced Italian crops and invested her wealth in revitalizing Polish industry and commerce. Bona also established a considerable personal fortune for herself in Poland by using its collapsing feudal system of land tenure to her advantage. She incorporated old fiefs into her personal domain, eventually collecting the revenues from 15 towns and over 160 villages. After her death, her son incorporated these holdings into the royal domain.

In 1548, King Sigismund died at age 82. To Bona's satisfaction, her 28-year-old son Sigismund Augustus succeeded to the throne peacefully. But soon her relationship with her son soured, a fact which became obvious when his new wife, Polish-born Barbara Radziwell , died in 1551. (Sigismund had also been married to Elizabeth of Habsburg who died in 1545.) It was known that Bona had opposed the marriage because she had hoped to find a royal bride in France or Italy for her son. Public opinion accused Bona of poisoning the young queen (who actually died of cancer), but despite the lack of evidence, Sigismund Augustus refused to defend his mother against the rumors. Soon Bona began to consider returning to Italy and to her duchy of Bari, which she had not visited since she had left Italy in 1518.

It was 1556 before the dowager queen of Poland arrived in Bari, leaving Poland over the protests of her daughters. Now about 64 years old, she was received with great honor by her subjects. For the next two years, Bona established a Renaissance court which echoed that of her mother Isabella. She patronized artists and musicians, funded building projects, and contributed to religious foundations in her duchy. In November 1558, Bona died. She was buried in a magnificent tomb in the cathedral of San Nicolo di Bari.


Masellis, Vito. Storia di Bari. Trani: Vecchi, 1960.

La Regina Bona Sforza Tra Puglia e Polonia. Conference papers. Warsaw: Polish Academy of Science, 1987.

Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California

Barbara Radziwell (1520–1551)

Queen of Poland. Name variations: Radziwill. Born in 1520; died in 1551; sister of Nicholas the Black Radzi-well and cousin of Nicholas the Red Radziwell, both princes of Lithuania; married the last of the Gasztolds (died); became second wife of Zygmunt August also known as Sigismund II Augustus, king of Poland (r. 1548–1572).

On Bona Sforza 's urging, her son Sigismund II Augustus had married Princess Elizabeth of Habsburg (1543), the daughter of Emperor Ferdinand I. Within one year, the marriage had fallen apart, Elizabeth had failed to produce an heir, and Bona was dissatisfied with her new daughter-in-law. In the second year of the marriage, Sigismund and Elizabeth separated but did not divorce. When the young princess died in 1545, some speculated that Bona had put an end to the marriage with poison.

Two years later, Sigismund secretly eloped with Barbara Radziwell, the widowed daughter of a Lithuanian Hetman ("general"). This second marriage came as a shock to both Bona Sforza and the Polish Sejm (Parliament). Fearing that Sigismund's Lithuanian in-laws might influence his decisions in Polish matters, the Sejm immediately demanded an annulment. Sigismund refused. But when the union failed to produce an heir over the next four years, the marriage's end had a similar ring: the untimely death of Barbara Radziwell. Although the Lithuanian princess' death was shrouded in mystery and intrigue, many observers concluded that Queen Bona had poisoned yet another daughter-in-law. (In actuality, Barbara died from cancer.) The death of his second wife devastated Sigismund, and he never forgave his subjects' intrusion into his love "for the beautiful Barbara." He then married Catherine of Habsburg , sister of his first wife Elizabeth of Habsburg.

Elizabeth of Habsburg (d. 1545)

Queen of Poland. Name variations: Élisabeth d'Autriche; Archduchess Elisabeth or Archduchess Elizabeth. Died in 1545; daughter of Ferdinand I, Holy Roman emperor (r. 1556–1564), and Anna of Bohemia and Hungary (1503–1547); sister of Maximilian II, Holy Roman emperor (r. 1564–1576), Joanna of Austria (1546–1578), Catherine of Habsburg (1533–1572), Anna of Brunswick (1528–1590), Eleonora of Austria (1534–1594), and others; married Zygmunt August also known as Sigismund II Augustus (1520–1572), king of Poland (r. 1548–1572); no children.