Barbara Radziwiłł

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"Barbara Radziwiłłówna" redirects here. For the 1936 Polish film, see Barbara Radziwiłłówna (film).
Barbara Radziwiłł
Cranach the Younger Barbara Radziwiłł.jpg
Portrait of Barbara Radziwiłł by Lucas Cranach the Younger (ca. 1553)
Queen consort of Poland
Grand Duchess consort of Lithuania
Tenure 1547 – 8 May 1551
Coronation 7 December 1550
Spouse Stanislovas Goštautas
Sigismund II of Poland
House Radziwiłł family
Father Jerzy Radziwiłł
Mother Barbara Kolanka
Born (1520-12-06)6 December 1520
Vilnius or Dubingiai
Died 8 May 1551(1551-05-08) (aged 30)
Burial 23 June 1551
Vilnius Cathedral

Barbara Radziwiłł (Lithuanian: Barbora Radvilaitė, Polish: Barbara Radziwiłłówna, Belarusian: Барбара Радзівіл; 6 December 1520 – 8 May 1551) was Queen of Poland and Grand Duchess of Lithuania as consort of Sigismund II Augustus, the last male monarch of the Jagiellon dynasty. Barbara, a great beauty and already widowed, became a royal mistress most likely in 1543 and they married in secret in July or August 1547. The marriage caused a scandal; it was vehemently opposed by Polish nobles, including Queen mother Bona Sforza. Sigismund Augustus, assisted by Barbara's cousin Mikołaj "the Black" Radziwiłł and brother Mikołaj "the Red" Radziwiłł, worked tirelessly to gain recognition of their marriage and to crown Barbara as Queen of Poland. They succeeded and Barbara's coronation was held on 7 December 1550 at Wawel Cathedral. However, her health was already failing and she died just five months later.

Her contemporaries generally viewed Barbara in a negative light, accusing her of promiscuity and witchcraft. Her life became surrounded by many rumors and myths. From the 18th century, the life of Barbara became romanticized as the great tragic love affair. It has been used as an example of "love conquers all" with Bona Sforza often acting as the chief villain. It caught public imagination and has inspired many artists to create poems, plays, films, and other works. That made Barbara Radziwiłł one of the best known and most recognized women in the history of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Kingdom of Poland.

Marriage to Stanislovas Goštautas[edit]

Barbara was the youngest child of Jerzy Radziwiłł, Voivode of Trakai and Vilnius and Great Lithuanian Hetman, and his wife Barbara Kolanka, daughter of Voivode of Podolia. Details of her education are unknown, but it is unlikely that it was extensive. It is known that she could speak and write in Polish. According to her contemporaries, Barbara was very beautiful. Moreover, Barbara had an interest in fashion and cosmetics; she used perfumes and face powder.

In 1536, Stanislovas Goštautas, Voivode of Nowogrodek, canceled his betrothal to Anna Elżbieta Radziwiłł, elder sister of Barbara. Jerzy Radziwiłł then offered the hand of Barbara even though it was against custom for a younger sister to wed first. The wedding treaty was signed on 20 October 1526 in Radun'. Another plan to wed either Anna Elżbieta or Barbara to Ilia Ostrogski, the only son of Great Hetman Konstanty Ostrogski, fell through. The wedding of Barbara and Stanislovas Goštautas took place on 18 May 1537 in Goštautas' residence in Hieraniony. Her dowry included numerous silver and gilded tableware items, 24 fine horses, dresses of satin and damask decorated with gold and precious stones. In exchange, Stanislovas transferred property worth 8,000 kopas of Lithuanian groschens to Barbara. Their marriage was childless. Stanislovas died unexpectedly after a brief illness on 18 December 1542.

Marriage to Sigismund Augustus[edit]

Love affair and secret marriage[edit]

Sigismund Augustus and Barbara Radziwiłł in Vilnius by Jan Matejko

Stanislovas Goštautas was the last male member of the Goštautai family and, according to law, majority of his possessions were inherited by Sigismund I the Old, Grand Duke of Lithuania. On 15 June 1543, Sigismund transferred the property to his son Sigismund II Augustus who visited Hieraniony in October 1543 to take over the estate. It is likely that it was when Barbara and Sigismund Augustus became lovers. She moved to Vilnius and the affair continued.

In July 1544, Sigismund Augustus traveled to Brest and returned with his wife Elizabeth of Austria in October. It seems that Sigismund Augustus attempted to behave appropriately and did not flaunt his affair. On 15 June 1545, Elizabeth died from epileptic seizures. Sigismund Augustus and Barbara were free to continue their affair – rumors spread about their romantic rendezvous, hunts, and parties. It was said that Sigismund Augustus ordered construction of a secret tunnel connecting Royal Palace with the nearby Radziwiłł Palace so that the couple could meet as frequently as possible. At the same time, Sigismund Augustus and his parents searched for a new bride. Sigismund I the Old contemplated a marriage to Anna Sophia, daughter of Albert, Duke of Prussia.

Sometime in 1547, Sigismund Augustus and Barbara wed in secret. Neither exact date nor circumstances are known. According to research by Władysław Pociecha, the wedding probably took place between 26 July and 6 August. Her cousin Mikołaj "the Black" Radziwiłł was sent to Kraków to inform the Polish court that Sigismund Augustus and Barbara were married since 25 November 1545. It seems he failed the assignment and Sigismund Augustus had to travel to Poland himself. He departed Vilnius on 15 November. Barbara was sent to Radziwiłł estate in Dubingiai. In a letter dated 20 November, Stanisław Dowojno informed Sigismund Augustus that due to the difficult journey Barbara had a miscarriage. If that indeed was true, and not an elaborate intrigue by Radziwiłłs, it would explain the secret marriage – an attempt to provide legitimacy to the child.

Political struggle for recognition[edit]

Barbara Radziwiłł in coronation robes and pearls that became her signature jewelry. 18th-century copy of an original 16th-century portrait.

Sigismund Augustus informed his parents of the marriage on 2 February 1548 in Piotrków Trybunalski. The news caused an uproar among Polish nobles as Sigismund Augustus wed without the approval of the Senate. What was worse, Barbara was his subject and lover. Queen mother Bona Sforza was one of the most vocal opponents. In the ensuing campaign against recognizing the marriage, Barbara was widely accused of promiscuous behavior and of using witchcraft or poison to seduce Sigismund Augustus. The charge of promiscuity often enters works of modern historians though it it not based on any actual evidence. Lithuanian nobles did not openly protest the marriage, but were distrustful of Radziwiłłs and their rise to power.

King Sigismund I the Old died on 1 April 1548. Sigismund Augustus, who briefly returned to Vilnius, had to travel back to Kraków to attend the funeral and secure himself on the Polish throne. Barbara stayed in Vilnius. It seems that around the same time Barbara informed him of another pregnancy; it too ended in a miscarriage. Since it is known only from Radziwiłł reports, it is unknown whether it was real pregnancy or another intrigue. In September 1548, Sigismund Augustus invited Barbara to Poland to show the strength of their marriage. The issue was discussed by the general sejm on 31 October – 12 December in Piotrków Trybunalski. The sessions were loud and rowdy. The nobles pleaded the King to abandon the marriage and even threatened to take up arms. Sigismund Augustus steadfastly refused and stood by his wife. The sejm ended in a stalemate.

After the sejm, Sigismund and Barbara entered Kraków on 13 February 1549. In Wawel, Barbara enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle and expensive gifts. In May 1549, she received large territories in the Trakai Voivodeship, including Kaunas, Alytus, Merkinė. While she had immense influence on Sigismund Augustus, she showed no interest in politics unlike her ambitious cousin Mikołaj "the Black" Radziwiłł and brother Mikołaj "the Red" Radziwiłł. They worked with her husband to secure her the Polish crown. In summer 1549, to protect himself from a possible armed rebellion, Sigismund Augustus concluded an alliance with Ferdinand, King of Hungary, leaving his Isabella Jagiellon to fed off for herself in the succession disputes in the Kingdom of Hungary. When a compromise solution was offered – recognize Barbara as Sigismund Augustus' wife but not to crown her as Queen of Poland – Sigismund Augustus refused because that would cast a doubt on legitimacy of any future children. To obtain papal brief allowing Barbara's coronation, Sigismund Augustus issued an edict prohibiting heresy – a controversial move in a country that had many Eastern Orthodoxs. He also worked to threaten, bribe, or otherwise persuade Polish nobles not to oppose the marriage. His mother and one of the most vocal opponents, dowager Queen Bona Sforza, was removed from the court and moved to Mazovia.

Illness and death[edit]

Death of Barbara Radziwiłł by Józef Simmler

At the next sejm in May–July 1550, no one objected to the marriage. Therefore, while neither the sejm nor the senate gave an express permission, Barbara was crowned as Queen of Poland on 7 December 1550 in Wawel Cathedral. However, her reign lasted only five months. She complained of poor health, particularly of stomach pain. After the coronation her health took a turn for worse. She had fever, stomach pain, lost appetite. A lump appeared on her stomach full of pus. In March 1551, her condition improved somewhat, but it soon worsened. She had fever, diarrhea, nausea. Sigismund Augustus tended to his sick wife and wanted to take her to Niepołomice where he hoped that spring weather would lessen her suffering. When there was a doubt whether a special wagon to transport Barbara could fit through the city gates, Sigismund Augustus ordered the gate demolished.

The cause of her illness has been debated by contemporaries and historians. Sigismund Augustus was convinced that she was poisoned by Bona Sforza. Others thought that she had a sexually transmitted disease. Secretary of Giovanni Francesco Commendone claimed that her illness was caused by her use of contraceptive measures. Modern historians tend to think it was cancer.

Barbara died on 8 May 1551 in Kraków. She asked to be buried in Vilnius and her body was transported to Vilnius Cathedral, where she was buried on 23 June. Her death was a severe loss to the King; it is said that he followed her coffin on foot.

Physical remains[edit]

Remains of Barbara (painting by Ludomir Sleńdziński)

Her remains were found in Vilnius Cathedral after a flood in 1931. To preserve her body during the long summer trip from Kraków to Vilnius, it was covered in a mixture of ash and burnt lime.[1] While the wooden coffin rotted away, the lime hardened and formed a protective shell that preserved her bones rather well.[1] She was buried with regal symbols (silver gilded crown, silver sceptre, golden orb with a cross) and jewelry (long gold necklace, three gold rings; one of them, gifted to her by Sigismund Augustus, was covered with black vitreous enamel and had three stones – brilliant, ruby, and emerald).[1] These and other artifacts were kept at Vilnius Cathedral, but they disappeared during World War II.[2]

Her skeleton was cleaned, conserved, and glued together by Michał Reicher and Witold Sylwanowicz, professors at Stefan Batory University.[3] They calculated her height at 160.2 cm (5 ft 3 in), which was rather tall for her times. Her teeth were white and straight; her body was slim; her face and nose were narrow.[3] They also noted anatomical abnormalities – a cervical (extra) rib and particularly flat sacrum, which could indicate rickets, but the rest of her skeleton showed no signs of the disease.[4] However, they were unable to complete their monograph on the subject due to World War II.[4] Barbara's remains were moved to a crypt under the Chapel of St. Casimir and remained untouched until 2001. Using methods developed by Mikhail Mikhaylovich Gerasimov, Vytautas Urbanavičius reconstructed her facial features and revealed that she had an aquiline nose, a feature absent from her portraits.[5]

Personal correspondence[edit]

In total, there are 53 surviving letters from Barbara. They are addressed to her family (41 letters to her brother Mikołaj "the Red" Radziwiłł, two letters to her nephews, one letter to her father Jerzy Radziwiłł, one letter to her mother Barbara Kolanka), her husband (8 letters), and Albert, Duke of Prussia (one letter in Latin). It is known that she wrote many more letters to a wider circle of recipients, including Polish nobles and Isabella Jagiellon of Hungary. The surviving letters do not represent actual number or frequency: Sigismund Augustus in his last will asked his sister Anna Jagiellon to destroy his personal correspondence, while Mikołaj "the Red" Radziwiłł was particularly careful to preserve all his correspondence. 52 letters are in Polish (15 of them written by Barbara herself; the rest were written by her secretary Stanisław Koszutski).

In popular culture[edit]

Pan Twardowski summons Barbara's ghost. Painting by Wojciech Gerson.

Barbara's life and death have inspired legends, paintings, literary works and film. The popular legend of Pan Twardowski has that Faust-like figure summoning Barbara's ghost for King Sigismund August. In 1817 Alojzy Feliński wrote a tragedy, and in 1858 Antoni Edward Odyniec a drama, Barbara Radziwiłłówna. A 19th-century lithograph by Michał Kulesza depicting her with pearls is considered among the painter's notable works.

In 1983 Janusz Majewski directed a film, Epitafium dla Barbary Radziwiłłówny (Epitaph for Barbara Radziwiłł) about Barbara's romance with King Sigismund August, her death and her posthumous return to Vilnius. Anna Dymna starred as Barbara, and Jerzy Zelnik as King Sigismund August. Barbara has also appeared as a major character in Królowa Bona (Queen Bona), TV series on Telewizja Polska.

In Lithuania, in 1972, Juozas Grušas wrote a play, Barbora Radvilaitė. Directed at the Kaunas State Drama Theater by Jonas Jurašas, in the Soviet period the play was very popular for its sense of intellectual resistance to the Soviet-backed regime.

The story of Barbara Radziwiłł served as an inspiration for the title track from the 2013 album Czornaja Panna by the Belarusian folkmetal band Litvintroll, a lyrical account of Zygmunt August's pain and grief after Barbara's death. The band claims the song not only to have given the name to the album but also to have "set its whole outline."[6]



Wives of
Sigismund II Augustus
Cranach the Younger Elizabeth of Austria.jpg Elisabeth of Austria
Cranach the Younger Barbara Radziwiłł.jpg Barbara Radziwiłł
Cranach the Younger Catherine of Austria.jpg Catherine of Austria
  1. ^ a b c Andriulytė (2012), p. 335
  2. ^ Budrys (2011-08-12)
  3. ^ a b Žalnora & Miežutavičiūtė (2011), p. 135
  4. ^ a b Žalnora & Miežutavičiūtė (2011), p. 136
  5. ^ Jankauskas (2013-03-20)
  6. ^ (date of access: 11 Jul. 2013)
Barbara Radziwiłł
Born: 6 December 1520 Died: 8 May 1551
Royal titles
Preceded by
Bona Sforza
Queen consort of Poland
Grand Duchess consort of Lithuania

Title next held by
Catherine of Austria