Jadwiga of Poland was a very remarkable woman, and one who is sadly neglected by those in Western Europe. Living in the fourteenth century, she was the first female monarch of Poland – beating England by nearly 200 years – and despite leading a short life, she left a legacy that continues to today.
Jadwiga was born between late 1373 and early 1374. Her father was Louis I, King of Hungary and Poland, and her mother was Elizabeth of Bosnia. As both of her grandmothers were Polish princesses, she was closely tied to the throne of Poland. After 1370, when her father Louis inherited Poland, he worked to ensure his daughters would succeed him as he had no male heir. He gave various liberties to the Poles to win their support, and as his health was failing in 1382 he made the Poles swear loyalty to his eldest surviving daughter, Mary, and her soon-to-be-husband, Sigismund of Luxembourg. Louis had made sure his daughters would be in the best position to exert their rights over his lands after his death by swiftly marrying them off to eligible husbands. On his death, Mary was formally engaged to Sigismund, whom she had been promised to since before she was one year old. Jadwiga, only 8 years old, was engaged to William of Austria, a member of the powerful Habsburg family, and heir to a significant kingdom.
Jadwiga’s mother Queen Elizabeth, with Jadwiga and her sisters, presenting the Chest of Saint Simeon to the saint.
On Louis’ death on 10th – 11th September, 1382, his eldest surviving daughter Mary was crowned King of Hungary just 5 days later. She was crowned alone, before being formally married to Sigismund and therefore without having to have a joint coronation. It is widely believed this was done to emphasise that Hungary was Mary’s kingdom and that she had her own authority in the kingdom – she was a Queen Regnant, not a Queen Consort. This is also why it is believed both she and Jadwiga were crowned ‘king’ rather than ‘queen’; they were rulers in their own right. As per Louis’ instructions, Mary was to be sole heir of Hungary and Poland, with Jadwiga as her heir if she were to die childless. However, when Sigismund asserted his authority on Poland, the Poles were not too happy; they were tired of being ruled by a monarch residing in Hungary, feeling that they were a subsidiary kingdom. They wanted a Polish monarch who would rule from Poland.
As such, the nobles of Greater and Lesser Poland declared in quick succession that they would obey nobody but the daughter of Louis who would settle in Poland. Further problems arose in that both the daughters’ future spouses, Sigismund and William, were unpopular in Poland. The Poles began to cast their eyes on other potential monarchs who were part of the Polish Piast dynasty, to avoid the rule of these men (as it was known that they would rule as co-monarchs). Jadwiga’s great uncle, Władysław the White, was considered, but he had taken monastic vows and although the Antipope Clement VII released him from his vows so that he could take the throne, he stayed in his Benedictine abbey. Another possibility was Siemowit IV, Duke of Masovia, who was particularly popular in Greater Poland.
A map showing lands ruled or claimed around 1370 by King Louis. WikiCommons.
Queen Elizabeth, anxious that her daughters could lose their claims to the throne, and aware of the delicate situation, offered to change Louis’ succession plans and offered the Poles Jadwiga as their monarch – she would live in Poland, making the Poles happy, and Mary still had the significant kingdom of Hungary. This was deemed acceptable to the Polish lords, particularly as many were keen to marry Jadwiga to Siemowit in order to join the two claimants and rival clans. They agreed with Queen Elizabeth that they would accept the rule of Jadwiga, provided she arrived in Poland by 10th May 1383 to be crowned, and that she was to remain in Poland thereafter. However, Queen Elizabeth – not yet ready to give up her daughter – delayed sending Jadwiga, and the deadline was missed.
This nearly proved a devastating mistake. Siemowit seized his chance, and advanced with troops across Poland. His supporters gathered in Sieradz in August to have him proclaimed king but, luckily for Elizabeth and Jadwiga, Archbishop Bodzanta refused to perform the coronation. Elizabeth then agreed another time to send Jadwiga to Poland before November. A further agreement was made that, in the event of the childless death of Mary or Jadwiga, the other sister would inherit the other’s kingdom.
An imagining of Jadwiga, painted 1579-1587, and an imagining of Mary, 1488, in the Chronica Hungarorum.
Once again, however, Elizabeth delayed. By March 1384, Jadwiga was still not in Poland. A general assembly of all the Polish provinces and towns declared that if Jadwiga was not in Poland within 2 months, they would elect Siemowit King. Elizabeth could delay no longer. Jadwiga was finally sent to Poland to be crowned. It is striking that there seems to have been little protest at the idea of a female monarch in her own right – particularly given the number of opportunities Elizabeth was given to have Jadwiga crowned. If anything, the Polish people seemed keener to have the direct heir of Louis crowned, even if the choices were between two women, rather than following what was possibly an easier option of an older man who would have been more prepared for ruling than two girls not yet in their teens.
Moreover, any strife that had been occurring in Poland prior to Jadwiga’s arrival seems to have quickly dissipated upon her arrival. There were no protests at her coronation on 16th October, 1384, when she was 10 or 11 years old. As her sister, Jadwiga was proclaimed King. Many historians have followed the belief that for the early years of her reign, Jadwiga was merely a puppet of her advisors, as many child monarchs are believed to be. However, some historians have proposed that Jadwiga matured quickly and swiftly took up the reins of ruling.
An imaginary depiction of Jadwiga based on historical sources and seals, by Marcello Bacciarelli, 1768 – 1771.
The hurdles were not yet over for Jadwiga, however. Whilst the Hungarians had accepted Sigismund as Mary’s husband, the Poles were not willing to accept 14-year-old William as Jadwiga’s. It was instead suggested that Jadwiga would marry Jogaila of Lithuania, a man 10 – 20 years older than her. Although Jogaila was a Pagan, it was believed he would better serve Poland’s interests. What followed is a jumble of facts, stories, and legends. William, of course, was not willing to give up such an eligible bride, and his father hurried to Hungary in summer 1385 to demand the consummation of William and Jadwiga’s marriage. As Jadwiga was not yet 12 years old, the age required for the completion of the marriage sacrament, a dispensation was issued by the Archbishop of Esztergom.
It is not known what happened next. Even contemporary evidence is contradictory. Some chronicles claim that William tried to enter Jadwiga’s bedchamber to consummate the marriage, but before he could a group of Polish noblemen broke in and drove him away. Upon this, Jadwiga tried to leave the castle to be with William, but the gates were locked. When she called for an axe to break open the door, Dymitr of Goraj, her advisor, persuaded her to give up the idea. Other sources, however, claim that the marriage had indeed been consummated and the couple had shared a bed for a fortnight. In August 1385, Kraków indeed gave an amnesty to the prisoners in the city jail in celebration of the Queen’s marriage.
A painting by Dymitr z Goraja, nineteenth century, imagining Jadwiga taking an axe to try and break down the door to her love, William of Austria.
Whether the marriage was consummated or not cannot be known for sure. If Jadwiga’s future saintly behaviour is to be believed, then her later oath that she had never slept with William would be taken as truth and it would seem they never did consummate. Regardless, negotiations for Jadwiga’s marriage to Jogaila were continued. He agreed that he would convert to Catholicism, as well as making all of his kinsmen and subjects also convert, and pay compensation to William, in return for Jadwiga’s hand.
At some point, Jadwiga agreed to switch husbands from William to Jogaila. Popular legend records this as giving up her true love, William, in order to serve her kingdom. Whilst it is true that she most likely changed grooms because she was trying to serve the interests of her subjects who clearly preferred Jogaila, how far her affections could have been for William must be questioned.
On 15th February, 1386, Jogaila was baptized in Kraków, taking the Christian name Władysław, and 3 days later he married Jadwiga, who was just 12 years old. Władysław-Jogaila was crowned King on 4th March the same year, and Poland became a diarchy, ruled by two sovereigns. Jadwiga and Władysław-Jogaila seem to have worked well together, his experience of ruling working well with her excellent reputation and skill in winning over the populace.
A contemporary portrait of Władysław II Jagiełło, detail of the Triptych of Our Lady of Sorrows in the Wawel Cathedral from the mid to late fifteenth century.
Within a few years, tensions rose between Sigismund, who was now co-King of Hungary, and Poland. Sigismund started to work with the Teutonic Knights who wanted to claim parts of Poland, with the view that they would split the kingdom between them. Ottoman incursions in Hungary’s southern border prevented Sigismund from sending a military force to Poland in 1392. Tensions rose further in 1395: on 17th May, Queen Mary died in a riding accident, leaving no children behind. According to the agreement made between Elizabeth and the Polish lords in 1383, Jadwiga should now inherit the kingdom of Hungary. Sigismund, however, was not willing to give up his kingdom. Jadwiga and Władysław-Jogaila gathered troops on the Polish-Hungarian border, but their invasion was stopped by the Archbishop of Esztergom and the Palatine of Hungary. Supporters in Hungary were split between Jadwiga and Sigismund. Eventually it was agreed that Sigismund would remain monarch whilst Jadwiga would adopt the title “heir to Hungary”.
Jadwiga was keen to promote religion and education in her lands. She was already hailed in Christendom for being the reason for the conversion of the kingdom of Lithuania, and she sought to solidify the conversion. She established a college for Lithuanian students in Prague in 1387, hoping to train men in the Catholic religion who could then return to Lithuania and guide the converted. She also financed the restoration of the University in Kraków, adding a faculty of theology, which she endowed after her death by donating the proceeds of the sale of her jewellery.
An imagining of Jadwiga of Poland in Coronation regalia by Antoni Piotrowski, 1900.
Jadwiga was also a pioneer in making Mass and the Bible more accessible to lay people; she promoted the use of vernacular in church services, and she ordered The Scriptures to be translated into Polish. For comparison, in England the Bible was not popularly translated into English until the 1520s, well over 100 years later. Jadwiga was responsible for the establishment of many new hospitals, schools, and churches, as well as giving money to restore existing ones.
Jadwiga sadly did not live long, and one wonders how she would have shaped her country had she lived longer. She became pregnant between late 1398 and early 1399, and gave birth to a girl on 22nd June 1399. It is believed from contemporary reports that the baby was premature. The baby was baptised Elizabeth Bonifacia, but died within a month on 13th July. Jadwiga, it is believed, suffered from birthing complications or at least post-birth infections, and was severely ill. On her deathbed, she advised Władysław-Jogaila to remarry with Anna of Cilli, who was related to the same Polish dynasty, to strengthen his claim to her kingdom. Jadwiga died on 17th July 1399, and was buried alongside her daughter in Wawel Cathedral.
Jadwiga’s sarcophagus, Wawel Cathedral.
Jadwiga left a great legacy behind her, despite dying at 25 years old. Her marriage to Władysław-Jogaila united the kingdoms of Poland and Lithuania, boosting the power of both countries and protecting them against larger kingdoms. She was vital in maintaining peace with numerous foreign powers, allowing the united kingdoms to grow in power. Her foundations of churches, schools, and hospitals looked after the spiritual, mental, and physical needs of her subjects.
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On 8 June 1997, Jadwiga was canonized by Pope John Paul II. At her funeral, she was hailed as “the most Christian queen” and legends of miracles connected to her abounded, which were used to justify her sainthood. Jadwiga went to mass daily, and one day Christ was said to have spoken to her beneath a large black crucifix in Wawel Cathedral, which is still there today. Another story recounts how she was visiting a poor stonemason who had asked for her help to pay for a doctor for his sick wife. Jadwiga placed her foot on a stone so that she could remove a golden clasp from her shoe, which she gave to the stonemason. After Jadwiga left, the workers noticed that where her foot had been placed on a stone, an imprint of her foot had been left – despite it being hard stone. The stone was chiselled out of the ground, and placed in stone in the wall of the Church of Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary – which again, can still be seen today. A further story tells how during a Corpus Christi Day procession, a coppersmith’s son drowned by falling into a river. Jadwega threw her cloak over the boy’s body, and he miraculously regained life.
The stone showing Jadwiga’s foot, Church of Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Kraków.
Whether you believe the saintly stories or not, it is undeniable that Jadwiga was a remarkable woman. The first female monarch of Poland, in an age where countries were almost exclusively ruled by men, a role which she took up as a mere child moreover, is remarkable in itself. That she rose to the challenge, improved the lives of her subjects, was vital in maintaining peace in the area, and through the union of two kingdoms with her marriage changed the political landscape in Eastern Europe which reverberated down the centuries, all by 25 years old, shows what a formidable woman she was. She certainly deserves to be remembered.
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