Sigismund I the Old

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Sigismund I the Old
Sigismund I of Poland.PNG
Sigismund I the Old
King of Poland
Grand Duke of Lithuania
Reign 1506–1548
Coronation 24 January 1507 in Wawel Cathedral, Kraków
Predecessor Alexander I
Successor Sigismund II Augustus
Spouses Barbara Zápolya
Bona Sforza
Hedwig, Electress of Bradenburg
Isabella, Queen of Hungary
Sigismund II Augustus
Sophia, Duchess of Brunswick-Lüneburg
Anna I of Poland
Catherine, Queen of Sweden
Dynasty Jagiellon
Father Casimir IV of Poland
Mother Elisabeth of Austria
Born (1467-01-01)1 January 1467
Kozienice, Poland
Died 1 April 1548(1548-04-01) (aged 81)
Kraków, Poland
Burial 7 July 1548
Wawel Cathedral, Kraków

Sigismund I of Poland (Polish: Zygmunt I Stary; Lithuanian: Žygimantas I Senasis) (1 January 1467 – 1 April 1548), of the Jagiellon dynasty, reigned as King of Poland and also as the Grand Duke of Lithuania from 1506 until 1548. Earlier, Sigismund had been invested as Duke of Silesia. A successful monarch and a great patron of arts, he established Polish suzerainty over Ducal Prussia (East Prussia) and incorporated the duchy of Mazovia into the Polish state, securing the nation's wealth, culture and power.

Sigismund I, the fifth son of Casimir IV and Elisabeth of Habsburg, had ruled Głogów, Silesia, since 1499 and became margrave of Lusatia and governor of all Silesia in 1504. In a short time his judicial and administrative reforms transformed those territories into model states. He succeeded his brother Alexander I as grand prince of Lithuania and king of Poland in 1506. Although he established fiscal and monetary reforms, he often clashed with the Polish Diet over extensions of royal power. At the Diet’s demand he married Barbara, daughter of Prince Stephen Zápolya of Hungary, in 1512, to secure a defense treaty and produce an heir. She died, however, three years later, leaving only daughters. In 1518 Sigismund married the niece of the Holy Roman emperor Maximilian, Bona Sforza of Milan, by whom he had one son, Sigismund II Augustus, and four daughters. One of them later married John III of Sweden, from whom the Vasa kings of Sweden were descended.[1]

In 1521 Sigismund’s army, led by one of the principal advisers and commanders, Jan Tarnowski, subdued the Order of the Teutonic Knights, a paramilitary religious order that ruled East Prussia. In 1525 the Teutonic grand master Albert became a Lutheran and agreed to do public homage to Sigismund in return for being granted the title of secular duke of Prussia; Albert then dissolved the order, and Ducal Prussia came under Polish suzerainty. Sigismund added the duchy of Mazovia (now the province of Warsaw) to the Polish state after the death, in 1529, of the last of its Piast dynasty rulers. Again under the command of Tarnowski, Sigismund’s army defeated the invading forces of Moldavia at Obertyn in 1531 and Muscovy in 1535, thereby safeguarding Poland’s eastern borders.[2]

Sigismund, influenced by his wife, brought Italian artists to Kraków and promoted the development of the Polish variety of the Italian Renaissance. Although a devout Catholic, he accorded religious toleration to Greek Orthodox Christians and royal protection to Jews. At first he vigorously opposed Lutheranism but later resigned himself to its growing power in Poland.[3]

Sigismund I was a member of the Order of the Golden Fleece.

Early life[edit]

The son of King Casimir IV Jagiellon and Elisabeth of Austria, Sigismund followed his brothers John I of Poland and Alexander I of Poland to the Polish throne. Their elder brother Vladislaus II of Bohemia and Hungary became king of Hungary and Bohemia.

Sigismund was christened as the namesake of his mother's maternal grandfather, Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, who had died in 1437.


Sigismund faced the challenge of consolidating internal power in order to face external threats to the country. During Alexander's reign, the law of Nihil novi had been instituted, which forbade kings of Poland from enacting laws without the consent of the Sejm. This proved crippling to Sigismund's dealings with the szlachta and magnates.

Despite this Achilles heel, he established (1527) a conscript army and the bureaucracy needed to finance it. He set up the legal codes that formalized serfdom in Poland, locking the peasants into the estates of nobles.

Prussian Homage, by Jan Matejko, 1882. Albrecht Hohenzollern receives the Duchy of Prussia in fief from Poland's King Sigismund I the Old, 1525

After the death of Janusz III of Masovia in 1526, he succeeded in annexing the Duchy of Masovia.

Intermittently at war with Vasily III of Muscovy, starting in 1507 (before his army was fully under his command), 1514 marked the fall of Smolensk (under Lithuanian domination) to the Muscovite forces (which lent force to his arguments for the necessity of a standing army). Those conflicts formed part of the Muscovite wars. 1515 he entered into alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I.

In return for Maximilian lending weight to the provisions of the Second Peace of Thorn (1466), Sigismund consented to the marriage of the children of Vladislaus II of Bohemia and Hungary, his brother, to the grandchildren of Maximilian. Through this double marriage contract, Bohemia and Hungary passed to the House of Habsburg in 1526, on the death of Sigismund's nephew, Louis II.

Worried about the growing ties between the Habsburgs and Russia, in 1524 Sigismund signed a Franco-Polish alliance with King Francis I of France.[4] The agreement fell through, however, when Francis I was vanquished by Charles V at the Battle of Pavia (1525).[5]

The Polish wars against the Teutonic Knights ended in 1525, when Albert, Duke of Prussia, their marshal (and Sigismund's nephew), converted to Lutheranism, secularized the order, and paid homage to Sigismund. In return, he was given the domains of the Order, as the First Duke of Prussia. This was called the "Prussian Homage".

Sigismund's eldest daughter Hedwig (1513–1573) married Joachim II Hector, Elector of Brandenburg.

In other matters of policy, Sigismund sought peaceful coexistence with the Khanate of Crimea, but was unable to completely end border skirmishes.

On Sigismund's death, his son Sigismund II August became the last Jagiellon king of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania.

Interest in Renaissance movement[edit]

Sigismund was interested in Renaissance humanism and the revival of classical antiquity. He and his third consort, Bona Sforza, daughter of Gian Galeazzo Sforza of Milan, were both patrons of Renaissance culture, which under them began to flourish in Poland and in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

Portraits and art[edit]

Portraits of Sigismund I

Portrait by Hans Süß von Kulmbach, 1511/1518
Portrait made by Andrzej Master, 1546
Portrait of Sigismund I in an advanced age by Marcin Ostrowski, 1550
Portrait by Lucas Cranach the Younger made in around 1553
The Vienna double wedding in 1515. Woodcut by Albrecht Dürer. Sigismund I the Old is on the far right.

Marriages and issue[edit]

In 1512, Sigismund married a Hungarian noblewoman named Barbara Zápolya, with whom he had two daughters:

Barbara died in 1515.

In 1517, Sigismund married Bona Sforza, with whom he had:

By his mistress, Katarzyna Telniczenka (d. 1528), he also fathered three children out of wedlock:[6]

  • Jan (8 January 1499 – 18 February 1538), Bishop of Wilen (1519) and of Posen 1536
  • Regina (1500/1–20 May 1526), wed ca. 20 October 1518 Hieronim von Szafraniec, Starost of Teschen (d. 1556/59)
  • Katharina (Katarzyna) (1503–before 9 September 1548) wed after 1522 George II Count von Montfort in Pfannberg (d. 1544)


See also[edit]


Regnal titles
Preceded by
Grand Duke of Lithuania
with Sigismund II Augustus (1529–1548)
Succeeded by
Sigismund II Augustus
as sole ruler
King of Poland
with Sigismund II Augustus (1530–1548)