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The kingdom of Poland, as it formerly existed, occupied no small portion of the European continent. When at the height of its prosperity, it extended from the 48° to the 57° of north latitude, and from the 16° to the 33° of east longitude. It was bounded on the north and north-west by the Baltic Sea, on the east by Russia, on the west by Germany, and on the south by Hungary, Moldavia, and Austria ; embracing an area of two hundred and eighty-four thousand square miles, and a population of about fifteen million souls. It comprehended the provinces of Great and Little Poland on the west, Masovia and Podlachia in the centre, Volhynia, Podolia, and the Ukraine in the south-east. The grand duchy of Lithuania occupied a large portion of the north and centre. These provinces were subdivided into palatinates, of which there were thirty-six. This extensive territory contained, comparatively, few cities and towns of importance, the principal being Warsaw, Crakow, Dantzic, Lemberg, Wilna, Brodyj, Kiov, Posen, Charkov, Mohilev, Vitepsk, &c. With the exception of the Carpathian chain of mountains, which separates it from Hungary, Poland is a level country, possessing a rich fertile soil, but a cold and humid climate. Although the land is wretchedly cultivated and undrained, it is very productive, and immense quantities of wheat of the finest quality are grown; the plan pursued being, to continue cropping the fields as long as they will produce grain without manure ; and when exhausted, they allow it to remain untilled, and break up a fresh tract. The south-eastern portion of the country, comprising the Ukraine, Podolia, Volhynia, &c., are by far the most agreeable portions of ancient Poland, as well as the most productive. The whole country is intersected by numerous large rivers, as the Vistula, Niemen, Bug, Dniester, Dnieper, Dvina, Przypice, Pregel, &c., all of which, except the Niemen, are shallow, and in spring, overflow their banks, rendering the adjoining country marshy. The entire export of corn from this portion of Europe, is, probably, not less than five million quarters annually; the chief of which is wheat. And notwithstanding the backward state of agriculture, it is worthy of remark, that from no country is the wheat produced so free from a mixture of other grain and seeds of weeds. Large numbers of cattle are reared and exported. In some of the less populous districts, there are herds of wild oxen, as well as horses.
The inhabitants of Poland are chiefly a branch of the great Sclavonic family, formerly occupying the banks of the Danube, but who migrated at an early period, and spread themselves along the valley of the Vistula, where they mingled with the Goths. They are supposed to have come originally from Siberia, and were known by the ancients under the name of Badins or Bouddins. Being driven westward by hordes of nomad Tartars, and other Asiatics, about three centuries before the Christian era, they came as far as the Danube, and settled along its banks. At that period, Poland was occupied by the Sarmatians, Herules, Vandals, Goths, and several other tribes. These afterwards abandoned their wild country, and invaded the south of Europe ; and the Sclaves, who were more addicted to the peaceable pursuits of agriculture than to war, migrated, and took possession of the vacant territory. Very little is known of their bistory, until the fourth century, at which period, they had increased in numbers, and extended themselves over Eastern Poland, so as to form a powerful nation, composed of numerous republics, something on the principle of the United States of America, having one common political interest, but separate local organizations. This form of government continued until the ninth century, when the hostility of the Russians on one side, and the Germans on the other, suggested the necessity of a more strict and armed confederation of the several tribes of which the nation was composed, to enable them to repel their common foes.
It was at this period that Christianity was introduced into Poland, whose inhabitants were previously heathens. Mieczyslas, their military chief, married a Bohemian princess, who had embraced Christianity, and having followed her example, he soon converted his subjects to the same faith. The enormous power, however, claimed and exercised by the clergy, and sanctioned, for political purposes by the western emperors, reduced the authority of the sovereign to that of a simple marquis or duke, and Mieczyslas was compelled to pay tribute to the Emperor, and assist him in his wars. Boleslaus I., the eldest son of Mieczyslas, resolved to relieve his country from this yoke; and having set aside his brothers, who shared the kingdom with him by the will of his father, he conquered Bohemia, Silesia, and Crakovia, and rendered himself so powerful, that the Emperor thought it most prudent to make a league, and place him in the position of a friend
and ally, rather than a vassal; and at the same time, recognized him as Grand Duke of Poland.
On the death of the Emperor Otho, his successor, Henry II., renewed the war; upon which Boleslaus invaded successfully Lusatia, Servia, Bohemia, and Moravia, and pushed his conquests to Bavaria. At the conclusion of this war in 1018, he gave up Bohemia and Servia, but retained Moravia and Lusatia, which with Masovia, Crakow, Silesia, and Poland Proper, were firmly united into one kingdom under his sway. During his reign civilization and education made a rapid progress. All the male population bore arms, and those who possessed horses and equipments, were considered nobles, which was the only distinction existing amongst them. Such was the founder and the foundation of the once powerful kingdom of Poland.
Boleslaus the Great died in 1025; and for thirty years after his death, no events occurred worthy of remark; but from that period, Poland was divided into twelve palatinates; and a succession of conquests, until about the year 1140, added to the kingdom, the provinces of Red Russia, Bohemia, and Hungary.
For several centuries after the death of Boleslaus II. the history of Poland, like that of all the continental states, is one continuous narrative of war and bloodshed, in which, whilst the success was various to the belligerents, the miseries inflicted upon the inhabitants were , beyond description. The true genius of Christianity was little understood at that period; and in the prosecution of war, the fiercer passions of men were allowed their full sway. In the contests with Prussia and the Teutonic knights, for instance, eighteen thousand towns, villages, and hamlets were destroyed (according to Malte Brun), and the wars with Russia were equally destructive; and those waged with the Teutonic Order, were of the most treacherous and sanguinary character. In the fourteenth century the Grand Duke Vladislaus, caused himself to be proclaimed King of Poland, and the White Eagle upon a red shield or buckler was, from that period, the escutcheon of Poland. In the great battle of Plowce in 1331, with the Teutonic Knights, that celebrated Order lost twenty thousand of their number. Vladislaus died soon after, leaving as a legacy to his son and heir, his personal and national animosity against the Teutonic Order, they having seized several of the Polish provinces, after conquering Prussia.
During the following two hundred years, ending. in 1587, Poland was under the sway of the Jagellon dynasty, and enjoyed
the blessings of a limited monarchy, and an equitable code of laws. Louis of Hungary, dying about the year 1382, left the crown of Poland, with the consent of the nobles, to his daughter Hedwige of Anjou, who was crowned in 1384. This young and handsome princess had been affianced to William, Prince of Austria ; but believing that it would be more for the interests of her kingdom and nation, she gave her hand to Jagellon, Grand Duke of Lithuania, who was soon after known by the title of Vladimir II. ; and thus the Duchy of Lithuania, which had been wrested from Poland by the Teutonic Knights, was again united to it. Upon the death of Hedwige, Jagellon would have retired from the sovereignty, but so satisfied were the nobles with his wise and upright conduct, and of the benefits he had conferred on the nation, that they unanimously elected him to the vacant throne.
This prince reduced still more the power of the Teutonic Knights, and contributed further to the consolidation of the kingdom, by the promulgation of a new code of laws, one of which ordained that no citizen should be imprisoned until he had been examined and proved guilty by a magistrate. After a reign of fifty years, distinguished as much by wisdom in council, as by bravery and prudence in the field, he died in 1434, having previously procured his son to be acknowledged as his successor. During his reign, the Romish and Greek Churches were united in Poland, and the Russian boyars were admitted to the privileges of Polish nobility.
Vladislaus III. ascended the throne in 1434, and followed in the steps of his father ; but having engaged in a war with the Turks, he was killed in battle at Varna, in 1444, being then only twenty-one years of age. Soon after his death, considerable accessions of territory accrued to the crown of Poland, partly by purchase and partly by cession. Thus, the inhabitants of the territories of Dantzic and Prussian Konigsberg, growing weary of the iron yoke of the Teutonic Knights, placed themselves under the protection of the crown of Poland, then held by Casimir. The war which ensued, and which terminated in 1466, by the peace of Thorn, greatly circumscribed the power of the order, and contracted their sway to the remainder of Prussia Proper, for which, too, their grand master was compelled to do homage to the king of Poland.
The peace of Thorn was followed by a series of years of prosperity, such as Poland had never before enjoyed. Commerce,
agriculture, education, and science flourished exceedingly, and the lowest of the people had easy access to literary honours. Many such rose to eminence as poets, historians, and in other branches of polite literature. Kromer, the Prince Bishop of Warmy, who was styled the modern Titus Livius, was a peasant's son; and Janizki, whose Latin poetry was celebrated throughout Europe, and Dantiscus, were the sons of men in humble life.
The political condition of the country was equally beneficial to the people with their social state. The legislative diets, which became more frequent, applied themselves to the adoption of measures for the extension of freedom. It was decreed, that the king could not declare war without the consent of the senate, which was the king's council, and was composed of the first nobility and chief magistrates. In 1468, the diets, which had previously been convoked by royal edict, were rendered elective, each district choosing its own deputies to represent them, upon the same principle as the English parliament. These were called “territorial deputies," and they received their instructions from their constituents, from which they had no liberty to depart, but were bound to render an account of their proceedings. To enforce this dietine, ante-committees, for receiving instruction, and post-committees, for rendering their account, were appointed, so that in all respects the power of the parliament was strictly vested in the hands of the people.
All the nobility were admitted to civil rights, and rendered equal in the eye of the law; aristocratic distinctions were abolished, and the titles of prince, baron, count, &c., were no longer recognized. However palatable this change inight be to the common people, and even to the lower order of nobles, the higher were a good deal scandalized by it, and attempted, in vain, to oppose it at the time. Subsequently, however, they gained their point.
Although the Lithuanians had been allied to Poland, by the marriage of Hedwige with Jagellon, their nobles were jealous of the power being lodged in the hands of the people, as well as of the extension of the Polish territory, and they sought the protection of the empire. In 1452 they commenced hostilities, and invaded several of the Russo-Polish provinces, and their pretensions vere rather encouraged than checked by Casimir, who had been brought up amongst them. They continued their machinations unchecked until they had erected the principality into a grand duchy. This disunion, however, was productive of so much misery to both parties, that towards the close of the fifteenth century the Lithua