Monday, March 31, 2014

The Piasts and Polish Succession Rules

Today begins a new phase of Dynastology articles based on my ever- expanding series of genealogies I have been creating...for no apparent purpose. What can I say: I'm devout! That being said, welcome to the confusing and problematic genealogy of the Piast Dynasty which ruled over Poland from at least 960 CE to 1370 CE, the majority of the Medieval Era. The Piasts faced Vikings invasions from Scandinavia, Magyar and Slav invasions from Hungary and Bohemia, and Mongol invasions from the Russias. In the end, though, it was the unique characteristics in their hereditary succession laws that allowed the dynasty to end its leadership of Poland.

First though, let's examine the primary ruling line:
For a high-resolution version in PDF, go here.
The early succession of the Piast line followed normal conventions of the time. It was nominally elective and somewhat agnatic in nature. To remind everyone, an agnatic succession law follows male-line descent when possible (Salic Law, an extreme, follows it until the male line is extinct). The early Piasts were all males—indeed, few females fit into the line and the Polish language never had a term for "queen regnant"—and the descent of the Piasts followed mostly normal succession laws of the time. The eldest member of the family generally succeeded to the throne while granting his male siblings subsidiary titles. Indeed, Poland's monarchy was dependent on the Holy Roman Empire until it became permanent with Władysław I. Three kings of Poland reigned during the first century of the country's existence, though none of them passed the title down to their successor.

Bolesław II the Generous
Things went sour, though, when in 1138 Bolesław II died, dividing the lands between his five sons. He created a truly elective monarchy in which the only requirement seemed to be that the High Duke (the holder of the city of Krakow and the titular leader of the Poles) be a male-line member of the Piast Dynasty. This, at least, held until the elevation of the duchy to a kingdom. But such a vague succession system broke down almost immediately. Poland was fragmented for over 200 years with many parts never reuniting with the mother country. The sheer number of titles some members of the family bore during their reigns were ridiculous, with Konrad I of Oleśnica holding jointly the titles Duke of Namysłów, Ścinawa, Żagań, Poznań, Gniezno, Kalisz, Oleśnica, Koźle, and Bytom (many of these falling under the overarching title, Duke of Silesia).

During this time, the High Dukeship was to pass to the senior-most capable member of the family. But when the family is divided between literally a dozen or more branches of people, all technically in the same generation, such a system does not hold up. Scotland had a similar system known as tanistry, and it failed miserably with only three rival lines of descent. In Poland, the first to get the shaft was the Silesian line, which not surprisingly outlived all the others. The family was so expansive that it took three PDFs just to draw the entire family into the tree:

For a high-resolution version in PDF, go here.
For a high-resolution version in PDF, go here.

For a high-resolution version in PDF, go here.
The Silesian Piasts suffered greatly during the time of Poland's division. Because of the succession practices of the day, the family was forced to divide and subdivide their individual properties until some were no larger than a town. A somewhat unusual system was also in place that allowed surviving wives of dukes to inherit, in both title and fact, one of her husband's former domains. Thus you have multiple instances of women that are not descended from the Piasts, often of noble German families, inheriting for their lifetimes duchies. Naturally, upon their deaths, these passed to their surviving sons or, lacking such heirs, to close male-line relatives of the deceased duke. Like the kingship itself, there was no title for a duchess regnant, but the term oprawa wdowia (widow's land) was used heavily to describe the situation.

Jerzy Wilhelm, Duke of Legnica
Over the decades and centuries, the Silesian Piasts were forced to cede and forfeit much of their land to Bohemia or the rulers of Bohemia, the House of Luxemburg (who were also Holy Roman Emperors much of this time). Indeed, the last member of the family to rule a portion of Silesia was not Jerzy Wilhelm, the duke of Legnica and Brzeg, but rather his mother, Louise, the duke of Oława and Wołow. Another interesting thing happened to the longest-surviving branch of the family, their frequent marriages into German nobility, specifically the Hohenzollern dynasty of Brandenburg, changed the very nature of their names. No longer were people named Władysław, Bolesław, Mieszko, and Kazimierz. Now they were named Jerzy (Georg), Jaochim Fryderyk (Joachim Friedrich), Jan Chyrstian (Johann Christian), Ludwig (Ludwig), Henryk (Henry), and Wilhelm. These were German names, ones very frequent especially in the Hohenzollern family. The rulers spoke German as much as married Germans, and their lands were considered just as much German as Polish. It came as no surprise that Austria and Bavaria both fought to take over Silesia in later wars with Poland. The lands were, to a large extent, German through multiple generations of intermarriage.

Back to the royal lines, though. With the Silesian Piasts mostly out of the picture (they claimed the High Dukedom a few times, but never for long), the other branches of the family were able to consolidate power. The two rival lines that fought over the tiles ruled, among other things, Greater Poland and Masovia respectively. The Greater Poland branch succeeded in having three High Dukes, with the last, Przemysł II, securing the kingship for himself. Unfortunately for him, not only did he not have any heirs, but he also lacked close cousins. He tried desperately to secure the throne for his son-in-law, Wenceslaus II of Bohemia (as Wacław II) but the reign was short-lived and attempts to enthrone his son (from a non-Piast wife) failed.

Kazimierz III the Great
The Masovia line succeeded where the rival line did not. Indeed, the title "High Duke" almost became hereditary, though it did pass to a cadet line briefly. That cadet line, like its Silesian cousins, outlived the senior Masovia line and even had one of its members elected King of Galicia, a small neighboring kingdom east of Poland (and later incorporated into Poland). From Władysław I to the end of the dynasty, the title remained with the Masovia line. Władysław's son, Kazimierz managed to negotiate with the Holy Roman Empire for a permanent title of king, which he succeeded in obtaining. Regretably, he was the last of his line to rule, though. His cousin, Władysław of Gniewkowo, was the next closest male-line relative but was passed over in favor of Kazimierz's nephew, Louis I, a member of the French House of Capet-Anjou. Louis himself failed to sire a son and the title passed to his own daughter, Hedwig, who took the Polish name Jadwiga and became the first female king of Poland. Her husband, Jogaila of Lithuania, brought together the Polish and Lithuanian crowns and it is from him that the next two century's kings descent. When Jogaila died, he did marry Kazimierz's granddaughter, Anna, but no further dynastic unions were necessary to justify his claim to the Polish throne.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth at the time of its creation, 1436. Poland is in red (dark and light) and Lithuania is in pink (both dark and light). They were formally unified in 1440.
Kazimierz IV
Thus, dynastic politics ruined Poland, allowing an outsider to take both the throne and the lands from the Polish people. While the resulting Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, officially established by Jogaila's son, Kazimierz IV, unified two neighboring lands and created one of the largest Early Modern state in Europe, it did so at the expense of the Piast Dynasty, which continued to live for another two centuries as vassals of Polish, Bohemian, and Imperial rulers. The many failures of the family demonstrates the need for firm succession rules that are both easy to follow and acceptable to all parties. Had Bolesław III in 1138 realized the chaos that would ensue because of his succession system, perhaps he would have divided his lands differently and accepted that a unified country is stronger than dividing lands to satisfy one's sons.

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