Royal elections in Poland
Royal elections in Poland (Polish: wolna elekcja, lit. free election) was the election of individual kings, rather than of dynasties, to the Polish throne. Based on traditions dating to the very beginning of the Polish statehood, strengthened during the Piast and Jagiellon dynasties, they reached their final form in the period of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth between 1572 and 1791. The "free election" was abolished by the Constitution of May 3, 1791.
The tradition of electing the ruler of the country, which occurred when there was no clear heir to the throne, or confirming the heir's appointment, dates to the very beginning of Polish statehood. There are legends of a 9th-century election of the legendary founder of the first Polish royal family, Piast the Wheelwright of the Piast dynasty, and a similar election of his son, Siemowit (this would place a Polish ruler's election a century before an Icelandic one's by the Althing), but sources for that time are very sparse, and it is hard to estimate to whether those elections were more than a formality. The election privilege, exercised during the gatherings know as wiec, was usually limited to the most powerful nobles (magnates) or officials, and was heavily influenced by local traditions and strength of the ruler.
Those traditions diverged between different regions of Poland during the period of fragmentation of Poland. In the Duchy of Masovia, the hereditary principle was dominant, whereas in the Seniorate Province, elections became increasingly important; in the other provinces both elements where mixed. By the 12th or 13th centuries, the wiec institution likewise limited its participation to high ranking nobles and officials. The nation-wide wiec's gathering officials in 1306 and 1310 can be seen as a precursor of the general sejm (Polish parliament).
The elections also set way for the empowerment of the electorate (the nobility), as the contender to the throne would increasingly consider issuing promises to be fulfilled after the successful election. The first of those (the Litomyšl Privilege) occurred in 1291, and was issued by Wenceslaus II of Bohemia. Nonetheless, for most of the Piast Dynasty period, it was customary to elect rulers from that dynasty that would have inherited the throne. This came to an end with the heirless death of the last of the Polish Piasts of the main line, Casimir the Great, in 1370. In another milestone for the process of the free elections he was succeeded by his nephew, Louis I of Hungary, after the sejm offered him the crown, thus creating a precedent of offering the crown to another dynasty, imitated by the sejm. Louis' only children were daughters, and this created another dilemma for the succession of the Polish throne. In an attempt to secure the throne of Poland for his line, he gathered the nobles and sought their approval to have one of his daughters be retained as the queen regnant of Poland in exchange for the Privilege of Koszyce (1374).
The next election of a Polish king had occurred in 1386, with the selection of Władysław Jagiełło (Jogaila), Grand Duke of Lithuania, to be the first king of Poland's second dynasty. Władysław Jagiełło was elected as king, marrying Louis I daughter, Jadwiga of Poland, but without any promise that his dynasty would be retained; he would need to issue more privileges to the nobility to secure the guarantee that upon his death, one of his sons would inherit the throne. The candidates were chosen by the royal council, confirmed by the delegates of nobility and towns during the sejm. The principle of election continued in effect throughout the nearly two centuries of the Jagiellon Dynasty, although just like in the Piast times, it actually amounted to mere confirmation of the incoming heir. The type of monarchy of Poland at that time could be described as "the hereditary monarchy with a elective legislature." A major reason for that was the desire on the part of Polish nobility to retain the Polish-Lithuanian union, and the Jagiellon dynasty were the hereditary rulers of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Nonetheless, the pretense of having a choice through elections was important for the nobility, and when in 1530 Sigismund I the Old attempted to secure the hereditary throne for his 10-year old son, this provoked a political crisis, and the Polish parliament, the sejm, ruled that a new king cannot be chosen during the life of his predecessor (this issue became known in the Polish politics as the vivente rege).
In 1572 Poland's Jagiellon dynasty became extinct upon the death, without a successor, of King Zygmunt II August. During the ensuing interregnum, anxiety for the safety of the Commonwealth eventually led to agreements among the political classes that, pending election of a new king, supreme authority would be exercised by the Roman Catholic Primate of Poland, acting as interrex (from the Latin); and that special "hooded" confederations (Polish: konfederacje kapturowe, named after the hoods traditionally worn by their members) of nobility would assume power in the country's respective regions. The most important decision, however, was that the next king would be chosen by election, whose terms were finally established at a convocation sejm (sejm konwokacyjny) in 1573. On the initiative of southern-Polish nobles, supported by the future Great Crown Chancellor and hetman Jan Zamoyski, the election would be by all male szlachta (nobles) who assembled for the purpose. Any Catholic nobleman could stand for election, through in practice only rich and powerful members of the foreign dynasties or Commonwealth magnates stood serious chance for a consideration. With the election of the first king of the "free election" period, the elections have assumed their final form that would remain stable for the next two centuries.
Particularly in the late 17th and 18th centuries, the political instability wrought by the elections have led numerous political writers to suggest major changes to the system; most notably, to restrict the elections to the Polish candidates only (this became known as the "election of a Piast".). None of those reform projects came to be realized, however, till the elimination of the elections by the Constitution of May 3, 1791.
- Convocation sejm (Sejm konwokacyjny). This Sejm was called upon a death or abdication of a king by the Primate of Poland. The deputies would focus on establishing the dates and any special rules for the election (in particular, preparation of pacta conventa, bills of privileges to be sworn by the king), and screening the candidates. This sejm was to last two weeks.
- Election sejm (Sejm elekcyjny), during which the nobility voted for the candidate to the throne. This sejm was open to all members of the nobility who desired to attend it, and as such they often gathered much larger number of attendees than the regular sejms. The exact numbers of attendees have never been recorded, and are estimated to vary from 10,000 to over 100,000; the usual numbers tended to be towards the lower end of the scale, around 10,000-15,000. Subsequently the voting could last days (in 1573 it was recorded that it took four days). The entire sejm was to last six weeks. To handle the increased numbers, those Sejms would be held in Wola, then a village nearby Warsaw. Royal candidates themselves would be barred from attending this sejm, but were allowed to send representatives. Attending nobles would have discussed their preferences before attending the election sejm, during local sejmiks sessions, but often matters came to a heated debate that would last days, and on occasions, led to fights and battles. Norman Davies notes that "in 1764, when only thirteen electors were killed, it was said that the Election was unusually quiet."
- Coronation sejm (Sejm koronacyjny). This sejm was held in Kraków, where the coronation ceremony was traditionally held by the Primate, who relinquished his powers to the chosen king. This sejm was to last two weeks. During the coronation sejm, the king-elect undertook various ceremonies and formalities, such as swearing an oath to uphold the pacta conventa and Henrician Articles. The coronation itself would take place in the Wawel Cathedral. The two exceptions were the Warsaw coronations of Stanisław Leszczyński and Stanisław August Poniatowski, both of which took place in Warsaw.
The elections played a major role in curtailing the power of the monarch, and thus were a significant factor in preventing the rise of an absolute monarchy (and thus, a strong executive) in the Commonwealth. Most tellingly, one of the provisions of the pacta conventa included the right of revolution (rokosz) for the nobility, if they deemed that the king is not adhering to the laws of the state.
While seemingly introducing a very democratic procedure, in practice the free elections contributed to the inefficiency of the Commonwealth's government. The elections, open to all nobility, meant that magnates, who could exert significant control on the masses of poorer nobility, could exert much influence over the elections. The elections also encouraged foreign dynasties' meddling in Polish internal politics. On several occasions, where the magnates could not come to an agreement, two candidates would proclaim themselves the king and civil wars erupted (most notably, the War of the Polish Succession of 1733–1738, and the War of the Polish Succession of 1587–1588, with smaller scale conflicts in 1576 and 1697). By the last years of the Commonwealth, the royal elections grew to be seen as a source of conflicts and instability; Lerski describes them as having "became a symbol of anarchy".
List of elections
|Convocation Sejm||Election Sejm||Coronation Sejm||King elected
|January 1573||April 1573||February 1574||Henryk Walezy
|First king of the Commonwealth. Abdicated to assume the throne of France|
|August 1574||November 1575||March 1576||Stefan Batory
|February 1587||June 1587||December 1588||Sigismund III Vasa
|June 1632||September 1632||February 1633||Władysław IV Vasa
|Son of Sigismund III.|
|July 1648||October 1648||January 1649||Jan II Kazimierz Vasa
|Son of Sigismund III and brother of Władysław IV. Abdicated.|
|November 1668||May 1669||October 1669||Michał Korybut Wiśniowiecki
|January 1674||April 1674||February 1676||Jan III Sobieski
|August 1696||May 1697||November 1697||August II the Strong
(Saxon, 1697–1706; 1709–1733)
|Temporarily replaced by Stanisław Leszczyński (Polish, 1704–1709)|
|April 1733||August 1733||January 1734||Stanisław Leszczyński
|Election disputed, led to a civil war, won by August III the Saxon (Wettin: Saxon, 1733–1763), son of August II.|
|May 1764||August 1764||December 1764||Stanisław August Poniatowski
|Last king of the Commonwealth. Abdicated.|
- Juliusz Bardach, Boguslaw Lesnodorski, and Michal Pietrzak, Historia panstwa i prawa polskiego (Warsaw: Paristwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1987, p.62-63
- Norman Davies (23 August 2001). Heart of Europe: The Past in Poland's Present. Oxford University Press. p. 249. ISBN 978-0-19-280126-5. Retrieved 29 February 2012.
- Janusz Roszko (1980). Kolebka Siemowita. "Iskry". p. 170. ISBN 978-83-207-0090-9. Retrieved 29 February 2012.
- Juliusz Bardach, Boguslaw Lesnodorski, and Michal Pietrzak, Historia panstwa i prawa polskiego (Warsaw: Paristwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1987, p.63-64
- Juliusz Bardach, Boguslaw Lesnodorski, and Michal Pietrzak, Historia panstwa i prawa polskiego (Warsaw: Paristwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1987, p.102-103
- HALINA LERSKI (30 January 1996). Historical Dictionary of Poland, 966-1945. ABC-CLIO. pp. 129–130. ISBN 978-0-313-03456-5. Retrieved 29 March 2012.
- Jacek Jędruch (1998). Constitutions, elections, and legislatures of Poland, 1493–1977: a guide to their history. EJJ Books. pp. 72–73. ISBN 978-0-7818-0637-4. Retrieved 13 August 2011.
- Juliusz Bardach, Boguslaw Lesnodorski, and Michal Pietrzak, Historia panstwa i prawa polskiego (Warsaw: Paristwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1987, p.215-215
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- Jacek Jędruch (November 1982). Constitutions, elections, and legislatures of Poland, 1493–1977: a guide to their history. University Press of America. p. 178. Retrieved August 13, 2011.
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- Jacek Jędruch (1998). Constitutions, elections, and legislatures of Poland, 1493–1977: a guide to their history. EJJ Books. p. 74. ISBN 978-0-7818-0637-4. Retrieved 13 August 2011.
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- Corwin, Edward Henry Lewinski (1917) The political History of Poland Polish Book Importing Company, New York, page 193, OCLC 626738
- Jacek Jędruch (1998). Constitutions, elections, and legislatures of Poland, 1493–1977: a guide to their history. EJJ Books. pp. 76–77. ISBN 978-0-7818-0637-4. Retrieved 13 August 2011.
- Jacek Jędruch (1998). Constitutions, elections, and legislatures of Poland, 1493–1977: a guide to their history. EJJ Books. pp. 78–79. ISBN 978-0-7818-0637-4. Retrieved 13 August 2011.
- Jacek Jędruch (1998). Constitutions, elections, and legislatures of Poland, 1493–1977: a guide to their history. EJJ Books. p. 75. ISBN 978-0-7818-0637-4. Retrieved 13 August 2011.
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