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The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, formally the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, after 1791 the Commonwealth of Poland, was a dualistic state, a bi-confederation of Poland and Lithuania ruled by a common monarch, who was both the King of Poland and the Grand Duke of Lithuania.

The Commonwealth was established by the Union of Lublin in July 1569, but the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania had been in a de facto personal union since 1386 with the marriage of the Polish queen Hedwig and Lithuania's Grand Duke Jogaila, who was crowned King jure uxoris Władysław II Jagiełło of Poland.

The Union possessed many features unique among contemporary states.

The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth was marked by high levels of ethnic diversity and by relative religious tolerance, guaranteed by the Warsaw Confederation Act 1573; however, the degree of religious freedom varied over time.

After several decades of prosperity, it entered a period of protracted political, military and economic decline.


The official name of the state was The Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (Polish: Królestwo Polskie i Wielkie Księstwo Litewskie, Lithuanian: Lenkijos Karalystė ir Lietuvos Didžioji Kunigaikštystė, Latin: Regnum Poloniae Magnusque Ducatus Lithuaniae) and the Latin term was usually used in international treaties and diplomacy.


Poland and Lithuania underwent an alternating series of wars and alliances during the 14th century and early 15th century.

The Commonwealth reached its Golden Age in the early 17th century.

Commonwealth power began waning after a series of blows during the following decades.

In the late 17th century, the king of the weakened Commonwealth, John III Sobieski, allied with Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I to deal crushing defeats to the Ottoman Empire.

By the 18th century, destabilization of its political system brought Poland to the brink of civil war.

In 1768, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth became a protectorate of the Russian Empire.

State organization and politics

The political doctrine of the Commonwealth was: our state is a republic under the presidency of the King.

The monarch's power was limited, in favor of a sizable noble class.

The foundation of the Commonwealth's political system, the "Golden Liberty" (Polish: Złota Wolność, a term used from 1573 on), included:

  • election of the king by all nobles wishing to participate, known as wolna elekcja (free election);
  • Sejm, the Commonwealth parliament which the king was required to hold every two years;
  • Pacta conventa (Latin), "agreed-to agreements" negotiated with the king-elect, including a bill of rights, binding on the king, derived from the earlier Henrician Articles.
  • religious freedom guaranteed by Warsaw Confederation Act 1573,
  • rokosz (insurrection), the right of szlachta to form a legal rebellion against a king who violated their guaranteed freedoms;
  • liberum veto (Latin), the right of an individual Sejm deputy to oppose a decision by the majority in a Sejm session; the voicing of such a "free veto" nullified all the legislation that had been passed at that session; during the crisis of the second half of the 17th century, Polish nobles could also use the liberum veto in provincial sejmiks;
  • konfederacja (from the Latin confederatio ), the right to form an organization to force through a common political aim.

The three regions (see below) of the Commonwealth enjoyed a degree of autonomy.

Golden Liberty created a state that was unusual for its time, although somewhat similar political systems existed in the contemporary city-states like the Republic of Venice.

This political system unusual for its time stemmed from the ascendance of the szlachta noble class over other social classes and over the political system of monarchy.

  • confederation and federation, with regard to the broad autonomy of its regions. It is, however, difficult to decisively call the Commonwealth either confederation or federation, as it had some qualities of both;
  • oligarchy, as only the szlachta—around 15% of the population—had political rights;
  • democracy, since all the szlachta were equal in rights and privileges, and the Sejm could veto the king on important matters, including legislation (the adoption of new laws), foreign affairs, declaration of war, and taxation (changes of existing taxes or the levying of new ones). Also, the 15% of Commonwealth population who enjoyed those political rights (the szlachta) [101] was a substantially larger percentage than in majority European countries even in the nineteenth century; [104] note that in 1820 in France only about 1.5% of the male adult population had the right to vote, and in 1840 in Belgium, only about 5%. [101] [104]
  • elective monarchy, since the monarch, elected by the szlachta, was Head of State;
  • constitutional monarchy, since the monarch was bound by pacta conventa and other laws, and the szlachta could disobey any king's decrees they deemed illegal.

The end of the Jagiellon dynasty in 1572—after nearly two centuries—disrupted the fragile equilibrium of the Commonwealth's government.

When presented with periodic opportunities to fill the throne, the szlachta exhibited a preference for foreign candidates who would not found another strong dynasty.

Zebrzydowski Rebellion (1606–07) marked a substantial increase in the power of the Polish magnates, and the transformation of szlachta democracy into magnate oligarchy.

The Commonwealth did eventually make a serious effort to reform its political system, adopting in 1791 the Constitution of May 3, 1791, which historian Norman Davies calls the first of its kind in Europe.

The new constitution:

These reforms came too late, however, as the Commonwealth was immediately invaded from all sides by its neighbors, which had been content to leave the Commonwealth alone as a weak buffer state, but reacted strongly to attempts by king Stanisław August Poniatowski and other reformers to strengthen the country.


The economy of the Commonwealth was dominated by feudal agriculture based on the plantation system (serfs).

Urban population of the Commonwealth was low compared to Western Europe.

While similar conflicts among social classes may be found all over Europe, nowhere were the nobility as dominant at the time as in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Poland-Lithuania played a significant role in the supply of 16th century Western Europe by the export of three sorts of goods, notably grain (rye), cattle (oxen) and fur.

Although the Commonwealth was Europe's largest grain producer, the bulk of her grain was consumed domestically.

Still, grain was by far the largest export commodity of the Commonwealth.

From Gdańsk, ships, mostly from the Netherlands and Flanders, carried the grain to ports such as Antwerp and Amsterdam.

The Commonwealth imported wine, fruit, spices, luxury goods (e.g.

With the advent of the Age of Discovery, many old trading routes such as the Amber Road () lost importance as new ones were created.

Commonwealth currency included the złoty and the grosz.


The military of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth evolved from the merger of the armies of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

Commonwealth forces were engaged in numerous conflicts in the south (against the Ottoman Empire), the east (against the Tsardom of Muscovy, later known as the Russian Empire) and the north (the Kingdom of Sweden); as well as internal conflicts (most notably, numerous Cossack uprisings).

The Commonwealth was formed at the Union of Lublin of 1569 from the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

Several years before the Union of Lublin, the Polish obrona potoczna was reformed, as the Sejm (national parliament of Poland) legislated in 1562–1563 the creation of wojsko kwarciane (named after kwarta tax levied on the royal lands for the purpose of maintaining this formation).

Following the end of the Commonwealth, Polish military tradition would be continued by the Napoleonic Polish Legions and the Army of the Duchy of Warsaw.


The Commonwealth was an important European center for the development of modern social and political ideas.

With its political system, the Commonwealth gave birth to political philosophers such as Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski (1503–1572) (), Wawrzyniec Grzymała Goślicki (1530–1607) and Piotr Skarga (1536–1612).

Kraków's Jagiellonian University is one of the oldest universities in the world (established in 1364), together with the Jesuit Academy of Wilno (established in 1579) they were the major scholarly and scientific centers in the Commonwealth.

The works of many Commonwealth authors are considered classics, including those of Jan Kochanowski (), Wacław Potocki, Ignacy Krasicki, and Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz.

The two great religious cultures of the Commonwealth, Latin and Eastern Orthodox, coexisted and penetrated each other, which is reflected in the great popularity of icons () and the icons resembling effigies of Mary, as well as the metal dresses typical of the Orthodox Church in the predominantly Latin territories of today's Poland (Black Madonna) and Lithuania (Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn).

A common art form of the Sarmatian period were coffin portraits, particular to the culture of the Commonwealth, used in funerals and other important ceremonies.

Another characteristic is common usage of black marble.

Music was a common feature of religious and secular events.

Magnates often undertook construction projects as monuments to themselves: churches, cathedrals, monasteries (), and palaces like the present-day Presidential Palace in Warsaw and Pidhirtsi Castle built by Grand Hetman Stanisław Koniecpolski herbu Pobóg.

The prevalent ideology of the szlachta became "Sarmatism", named after the Sarmatians, alleged ancestors of the Poles.

In its early, idealistic form, Sarmatism represented a positive cultural movement: it supported religious belief, honesty, national pride, courage, equality and freedom.

The Commonwealth comprised various identities: Poles, Lithuanians, Czechs, Hungarians, Slovaks, Ruthenians (Belarusians and Ukrainians), and Vlachs (Romanians).

Historian Norman Davies wrote: “Certainly, the wording and substance of the declaration of the Confederation of Warsaw of 28 January 1573 were extraordinary with regards to prevailing conditions elsewhere in Europe; and they governed the principles of religious life in the Republic for over two hundred years."

Poland has a long tradition of religious freedom.

To be Polish, in the non-Polish lands of the Commonwealth, was then much less an index of ethnicity than of religion and rank; it was a designation largely reserved for the landed noble class (szlachta), which included Poles, but also many members of non-Polish origin who converted to Catholicism in increasing numbers with each following generation.

As a result, in the eastern territories a Polish (or Polonized) aristocracy dominated a peasantry whose great majority was neither Polish nor Catholic.

Until the Reformation, the szlachta were mostly Catholic or Eastern Orthodox (). However, many families quickly adopted the Reformed religion.

The Crown had about double the population of Lithuania and five times the income of the latter's treasury.

  • Polish – officially recognized; dominant language, used by most of the Commonwealth's nobility and by the peasantry in the Crown province; official language in the Crown chancellery and since 1697 in the Grand Duchy chancellery. Dominant language in the towns.
  • Latin – off. recog.; commonly used in foreign relations and popular as a second language among some of the nobility.
  • French – not officially recognized; replaced Latin at the royal court in Warsaw in the beginning of the 18th century as a language used in foreign relations and as genuine spoken language. It was commonly used as a language of science and literature and as a second language among some of the nobility.
  • Ruthenian – also known as Chancellery Slavonic; off. recog.; official language in the Grand Duchy chancellery until 1697 (when replaced by Polish); used in some foreign relations its dialects (modern Belarusian and Ukrainian) were widely used in the Grand Duchy and eastern parts of the Crown as spoken language.
  • Lithuanian – not officially recognised; but used in some official documents in the Grand Duchy and, mostly, used as a spoken language in the northwest part of the Grand Duchy (in Lithuania Proper) and the northern part of Ducal Prussia (Polish fief).
  • German – off. recog.; used in some foreign relations, in Ducal Prussia and by minorities in the cities especially in the Royal Prussia.
  • Hebrew – off. recog.; and Aramaic used by Jews for religious, scholarly, and legal matters.
  • Yiddish – not officially recognized; used by Jews in their daily life
  • Italian – not officially recognised; used in some foreign relations and by Italian minorities in cities.
  • Armenian – off. recog. used by the Armenian minority.
  • Arabic – not officially recognised; used in some foreign relations and by Tatars in their religious matters, they also wrote Ruthenian in the Arabic script.


The Duchy of Warsaw, established in 1807, traced its origins to the Commonwealth.

Administrative divisions

While the term "Poland" was also commonly used to denote this whole polity, Poland was in fact only part of a greater whole—the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, which comprised primarily two parts:

The Commonwealth was further divided into smaller administrative units known as voivodeships (województwa). Each voivodeship was governed by a Voivode (wojewoda, governor).

The lands that once belonged to the Commonwealth are now largely distributed among several Central and East European countries: Poland, Ukraine, Moldova (Transnistria), Belarus, Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.

Other notable parts of the Commonwealth, without respect to region or voivodship divisions, include:

Commonwealth borders shifted with wars and treaties, sometimes several times in a decade, especially in the eastern and southern parts.


In the 16th century, the Polish bishop and cartographer Martin Kromer published a Latin atlas, entitled Poland: about Its Location, People, Culture, Offices and the Polish Commonwealth, which was regarded as the most comprehensive guide to the country.

Kromer's works and other contemporary maps, such as those of Gerardus Mercator, show the Commonwealth as mostly plains.

Image gallery

See also


a. Name in native and official languages:

  • Latin: Regnum Poloniae Magnusque Ducatus Lithuaniae / Serenissima Res Publica Poloniae
  • French: Royaume de Pologne et Grand-duché de Lituanie / Sérénissime République de Pologne et Grand-duché de Lituanie
  • Polish: Królestwo Polskie i Wielkie Księstwo Litewskie
  • Lithuanian: Lenkijos Karalystė ir Lietuvos Didžioji Kunigaikštystė
  • Belarusian: Каралеўства Польскае і Вялікае Княства Літоўскае (Karaleŭstva Polskaje і Vialikaje Kniastva Lіtoŭskaje)
  • Ukrainian: Королівство Польське і Велике князівство Литовське
  • German: Königreich Polen und Großfürstentum Litauen

b. Some historians date the change of the Polish capital from Kraków to Warsaw between 1595 and 1611, although Warsaw was not officially designated capital until 1793.

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