History of Poland Part 7 The Era of Expansion
14th – 16th Centuries by Jennie Bonday


After the Mongol-Tatar invasion of Eastern Europe in the 13th century, Poland was militarily weakened and extremely vulnerable to foreign invasion from both the remaining Tatar forces in Central Asia and the Ottoman armies of Turkey. Commercial trade and foreign capital required access to roads, rivers, and the ports from the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean, Black, and Caspian Seas. Following the Crusades of the 11th to 12th centuries, Polish trade was severely limited in the Mediterranean region due to the maritime power of the Arab Empire since the 8th century. As well, the Arabs, Persians, and the Ottomans blocked the land routes of the Middle East and the Silk Roads of Central Asia.

In the 10th century when the Piast Dukes founded Poland, the nation was pagan. After Christianity was adopted in Poland, the armies of the Vatican and Holy Roman Empire in Germany initially allowed Poland to develop without their military interference. During the ensuing centuries, Poland faced the Teutonic Knights in Prussia and Pomerania, who were militarily aggressive neighbors that protected access to the Baltic ports.

Religious competition between the Orthodox faith of Russia and Roman Catholic faith of Poland added further conflict between Poland and their Christian neighbors. The conflicts of the Christian nations were further complicated by the religious tensions of the Islamic nations within the Arabic Empire, including Persia, and the Ottoman Sultans of Turkey.

In the 14th century, the Union of Poland with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania provided a unique joint governance of two nation states, who shared power over a vast territory that stretched from the Baltic Sea ports to the Black Sea, and incorporated Western Russia and Ukraine.

14th-15th Centuries

The Teutonic Knights and German settlers from the region of the northern Baltic shore caused continuing difficulties for the Polish state. German presence threatened Poland’s hold on Pomerania and its access to the Baltic Sea. The Poles were unable to restrain the Teutonic Knights and violent clashes between Poles and Knights intensified throughout the 14th century.

After the death of Casimir the Great, the throne passed to the foreign king of Hungary, Louis of Anjou (1370-1382), whose reign was followed by a period of civil strife until 1384.

Events that occurred between the death of Casimir the Great (1370) and the union of Poland with Lithuania (1385) had a lasting impact on the future fate of Poland. Throughout that period, royal power and authority lessened while that of the Polish nobility grew. With each successive generation of princes, the Polish monarchy divided the royal estates among many additional descendants. Lacking male heirs, Casimir forged an agreement with his nephew, Hungarian King Louis of Anjou, authorizing Louis’ succession to the Polish throne in return for his guarantee of additional privileges for the nobility. The nobles, taking advantage of the lack of a Polish male dynasty, demanded additional concessions from Louis, who had no male heirs of his own. To ensure their election, Jadwiga and Jagiello relinquished additional royal privileges to the dominant nobility.

Princess Jadwiga, Louis’ daughter, succeeded to the throne (1384-1386) as queen, but was crowned king because Poland had no royal designation for a queen. The dangers posed by the Teutonic Knights along the shores of the Baltic, partly led to the marriage of Jadwiga and Władysław V Jagiello, prince of Lithuania. Lithuania also was threatened by the Teutonic Knights’ militant presence. Jagiello converted to Catholicism when he assumed the Polish throne (1386-1434), thus uniting the states of Poland and Lithuania as a common ruler of a huge territory that extended from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

Lithuania’s main conflict concerned the Duchy of Muscovy in the east, who were the successors of the Kievan Rus (Kiev). Lithuania’s primary common interest with Poland was resisting the threat from the Teutonic Knights, who could cut off maritime access to the Baltic Sea ports of trade.

The incessant source of conflict between the Teutonic Knights and Poland was the seizure of Gdansk-Pomerania. It became particularly painful towards the end of the 14th century, when the growing trade in Polish grain that rafted on the Vistula to Gdansk, went against the political barrier. The Teutonic Knights resolved to preempt the growth of strength of Poland and Lithuania by starting a war against both states in 1409.

The decisive battle took place on July 15, 1410, when the combined Polish-Lithuanian forces defeated the Teutonic Knights in the Battle of Grunwald (Tannenberg) and Poland had a brief domination over the Baltic Shore. Although the German threat to Poland lessened after victory at Grunwald, which had resulted in Prussia’s submission to Polish sovereignty [in 1466], Teutonic Prussia remained in existence as an independent dukedom.

By the 15th century, the Polish royal office was greatly limited in its power and authority. The noble class, exacted legal recognition of its status as political entity, won numerous tax exemptions, and removed the ruler’s central control over the noble-led Polish military.

Jagiello’s situation in Poland was in stark contrast to his position as grand duke in Lithuania, where rule was hereditary and the nobles, though powerful, were bound to central authority. Only Jagiello’s reputation as a strong ruler, who could handle the Teutonic Knights and would further Poland’s position in the Baltic and western Ukrainian regions, led the independent-minded Polish nobles to accept him. They saw a strong Poland under Jagiello as a boon for their dominance within the state. In uniting Poland with Lithuania, which at the time was three times larger than Poland and controlled vast territories in Ukraine on the steppes, Jagiello opened to the Polish nobility the prospect of playing a leading role in the single largest European state, one that stretched from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black sea in the south.

Both Poland and Lithuania remained technically independent states until the Union of Lublin (1569). Throughout the 15th century they often quarreled over their respective borders.

Fifteenth century Jagiellonian Poland-Lithuania emerged as a European Great Power. The Jagiello family’s acquisition of the Bohemian (1471-1516) and Hungarian (1490-1516) thrones was part of a conscious expansionary effort to counter the Habsburgs’ growing power in Central-Eastern Europe (Austro-Hungarian Empire). The dynastic system of Great Power politics reached its height around the year 1500. By that time it was coordinated through periodic meetings in Warsaw of Jagiellonian rulers from various parts of Europe.

Polish Occupation of Western Russia and Ukraine
16th – 17th Centuries

Following the union of Poland and Lithuania, effected by the marriage of Jadwiga and Jagiello, Polish aristocratic culture took root among the Lithuanian nobility until, with the official treaty of the union signed in Lublin (1569), the Lithuanians accepted direct Polish control over all their affairs, and Catholic Poland emerged as the dominant partner. The Poles were forced to concentrate on the inherited problems posed by the centuries-old Lithuanian rivalry with Muscovite Russia, which lay in the east, to the detriment of their own essential interests, which historically lay in the west.

The Jagiellonian dynasty ended in 1572 with the death of Zygmunt II August (1548-1572). The Jagiellonians ruled during a period of internal fragmentation of political authority that left Poland-Lithuania one of the most decentralized and fragile states in Europe. In 1505, the national Sejm, the general assembly of the nobility, won royal recognition as the supreme decision-making organ in the state. This proved to be a catastrophe that rewarded the self interests of the local nobles at the expense of state unity, removed virtually all central political authority, polarized Polish society between aristocratic “haves” and commoner “have-nots,” stifled governmental reform, fossilized a feudal military system, and eventually made Poland’s continued existence contingent on the interests and rivalries of foreign neighboring states.

With the end of the Jagiellonian dynasty, the Polish nobility elected a series of weak foreign and native rulers in an effort to ensure their dominant political position. Poland became involved in the Livonian War (1558-1582), begun by Russian tsar Ivan IV the Terrible (1547-1584) in an effort to win Russian ice-free ports on the Baltic. After dragging on for years, drawing in Sweden as an additional anti-Russian combatant, the war came to a costly but victorious close for Poland. Russia was exhausted militarily, and, with the death of Ivan IV, strong central authority in the state collapsed.

Zygmunt III Vasa (1587-1632) was elected Polish king in an attempt to cement a more permanent anti-Russian coalition in the Baltic. Although the Swedish Vasa dynasty was Protestant, Zygmunt was a “zealous crusader” for the Catholic faith. Under his reign, the Counter-Reformation made rapid headway within Poland. In 1596, the Union of Brest created a new form of Catholic Christianity in Poland-Lithuania drawn from among Belorussian and Ukrainian Orthodox believers and known as the Uniate [Greek Catholic] Church.

Poland started intervening in the internal affairs of Russia in an attempt to conquer Orthodox Russia by Catholic Poland. With Zygmunt III’s support, Polish and Cossack troops managed to place a pretender, Dimitri (1605-1606), on the Muscovite throne, but his pro-Catholic actions led to a Russian reaction that reinstalled a native Russian tsar, who was backed by Swedish allies. Zygmunt invaded Russia behind a new pretender, captured Smolensk, negotiated with disloyal Russian nobles for his son’s accession to the throne, and managed to occupy Moscow in 1610. The Swedes took advantage of the continued turmoil by seizing Novgorod. Zygmunt spoiled his triumph by reneging on the negotiations that would have made his son, Władysław, tsar by demanding the crown for himself. This about-face resulted in a popular national interest uprising in Russia that swept the Poles out of Moscow (1612). With roving bands of Poles, Swedes, and Cossacks continuing to devastate the countryside, the Orthodox Russians elected a native tsar, Mihail I Romanov (Michael was the first of the Romanov tsars, 1613-1645), who won general Russian and Cossack support. In 1617 Mihail made peace with Sweden, winning back Novgorod. The Poles, pushed back from Moscow, but still holding much Russian territory along the old border, were permitted to retain their border conquests by a truce signed in 1618.

Soon thereafter, Poland was embroiled in a new war with Sweden. In 1632, the truce with Russia expired and the Russians unsuccessfully reopened hostilities, ending in an “eternal peace” with the Poles (1634). Under this agreement, Władisław VII Vasa, Zygmunt’s son, now Polish king (1632-1648), renounced his long-standing claim to the Russian throne. Then the Polish-Russian conflict shifted to Ukraine in the 1630’s. The Orthodox Church in Ukraine turned to the Zaporozhe Cossacks for help in fending off the Poles’ constant pressures. They rose in revolt (1648), led by their hetman Bogdan Khmelnitsky, but failed. In 1654, Khmelnitsky turned to Moscow for help, and at Perejasław he and the Muscovites signed a pact that placed the eastern regions of Ukraine under Russian protection, confirmed Zaporozhe Cossack autonomy, and elicited the sworn allegiance of the Ukrainian Cossacks and peasants to the Russian tsar. The conflict that erupted after Perejasław, known in Polish history as the “Deluge,” saw Poland invaded by Swedes, Russians, Cossacks, and Turks and the near collapse of the state. In 1657, a miraculous defense of the Częstochowa Monastery against the Swedes permitted Poland to survive and eventually stabilized its situation. In 1667, the Poles and Russians negotiated an armistice at Andrusovo, in which Ukraine was partitioned. Russia gained Smolensk and eastern regions of Ukraine on the left bank of the Dnieper River, including Kiev; Poland retained western Ukraine and some territories on the right bank of the Dnieper. Random fighting broke out again soon thereafter and continued for another nineteen years. The conflict finally ended in another “eternal peace” concluded in 1686, in which the terms of Andrusovo were confirmed.

Pomerania (German: Pommern; Polish: Pomorze)

Mieszko I, founder of the Piast dynasty and ruler of Poland from 962-992, conquered Pomerania. However, the region gained independence in the 11th century, but became Polish territory again in the 12th when Boleslaw III, duke of Poland (1102 to 1138), reconquered it. In 1135, he signed a treaty at Meresburg, by which he received Pomerania as a fief.

The last act of Boleslaw III was to divide his territories among his sons. Poland was divided into the principalities of West Pomerania and East Pomerania (or Pomerelia). West Pomerania became part of the Holy Roman Empire. East Pomerania became independent in 1227, was annexed to Poland in 1294, and was taken by the Teutonic Knights (1308-1309) depriving Poland of access to the sea. The Teutonic Knights retained East Prussia until 1466 [The Second Peace of Torun], when it was again conquered by Poland. The region entered an extended period of cultural and economic development.

Pomerelia, (East Pomerania) including Danzig (Gdansk), was formally restored by the Teutonic Knights to Poland at the Treaty of Torun of 1466. Although, frequently overrun in the wars of the following three centuries, it remained an integral part of Poland until the first Partition of Poland (1772), when it was occupied by Prussia and was constituted as the province of West Prussia.

Pomerania, (West Pomerania) continued as a duchy of the Holy Roman Empire until the death of Bogusław XIV (1637), when the region was granted to the elector of Brandenburg. The Peace of Westphalia (1648) gave Hinther Pomerania (the western part) with Stettin, Stralsund, and the island of Rugen to Sweden. Farther Pomerania (the eastern part) with Starogard went to the electorate of Brandenburg. After 1701, it became the kingdom of Prussia.

  • Brandenburg: province of Prussia
  • Duchy: territory ruled by a duke or duchess
  • Elector: a German prince of the Holy Roman Empire, who took part in the election of the emperor
  • Electorate: territory of an elector in the Holy Roman Empire
  • Fief: heritable land held from a lord in return for service
  • Holy Roman Empire: empire of west central Europe; A.D. 800-1806
  • Peace of Westphalia: treaties ending the Thirty Years War (1618-1648)
  • Piast Dynasty: name of the first Polish dynasty; a succession of rulers, who were members of the same family
  • Pomorze: word formed from two Polish words Po (meaning by) and morze (meaning sea) or Pomorze (By the Sea)
  • Pomerania, Pomerelia, Pommern: words formed from the Polish word Po (meaning by) and the Latin word mer (meaning sea)
  • Prussia: kingdom of Central Europe, 1701-1871
  • Teutonic Knights: German religious military order.

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