6 Unusual People Offered the Throne of Poland
default, tron-zamek-en.jpg, Audience Hall (Throne), Royal Castle in Warsaw, photo by Zenon Zyburtowicz / East News, center
Poland used to choose its monarchs through elections, a unique system unthinkable elsewhere. But it turns out it wasn’t only Poles who were throwing their hat into the ring, including an English prince who nearly brought back the monarchical system in the 20th century.
Before the partitions of Poland in the late 18th century, the country possessed a monarchy – with individual royals, rather than families, elected to the throne. Anxieties about power struggles within and outside the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth meant successors could originate from the farthest reaches of Europe, some with little obvious or native connection to Poland itself. In fact, it was often those from dominant European dynasties – or wealthy and influential continental leaders and diplomats – who were offered the Polish throne, with all male szlachta (nobility) in Poland given the chance to vote on them. But who were some of the most unusual candidates or potential candidates for the Polish throne?
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Peter Lely, "Portrait of James II of England", (detail), circa 1650-1675, oil on canvas gift from William Hesketh Lever, photo: Bolton Museum and Art Gallery
Connections between Poland and Scotland are rich and longstanding: histories of oppression united the peoples of both nations and strengthened the appeal of assimilation between them, with David Dobson estimating that '[b]y the 1640s it was reckoned that there were approximately 30,000 Scots resident in Poland'. Economic and religious liberty were the main attractions for Scots to move to the Polish nation, which became known as ‘Scotland’s America’. Still today there are tangible signs of a Scottish presence in the country: villages are named after Scotland; St John’s Archcathedral in Warsaw holds the grave of Alexander Chalmers, originating from Dyce near Aberdeen, who became mayor of Warsaw four times in the late 17th and early 18th century; and there are records that – during the reign of King Stephen Báthory – Scottish merchants even supplied the royal court in Kraków.
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But it was the royal links between the two nations which that were most significant. As Adrienne Hytier puts it:
[The] ‘idea of having the Stuarts as sovereigns in the elective monarchy of Poland ... had been discussed more or less seriously ever since 1688.’
That year marked the Glorious Revolution in England – during which the current reigning monarch, James II, was deposed from the throne. It was a result of his keen Catholicism: Protestantism in England was growing, and the 1688 birth of James’s son (later the ‘Old Pretender’ to the throne) meant James’s Protestant daughter Mary would no longer be heir. This, combined with James’s clear decrees favouring Catholics, prompted rebellion in the nation, whilst James’s political opponents urged his son-in-law William of Orange (married to Mary) to invade. James eventually fled to exile in France and was welcomed by Louis XIV, who concluded peace with William of Orange in 1697. To appease James, Louis XIV offered him the empty throne of Poland.
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In 1696, King John III Sobieski of Poland had died, prompting the necessity of another royal election. French-Polish relations date back to the 16th century, when Henry III of France was briefly made king of Poland, and dynastic connections persisted through the ages. A prevalent French wariness of Russia also prompted French monarchs to support candidates for election to the Polish throne: with his offer to James, Louis XIV would gain an ally in the east and retain good relations with William of Orange, Poland would gain a Catholic figurehead to reign, and James would gain another crown to replace the one he had lost. Yet the offer was not taken up: James feared accepting would entail full abdication from the thrones of Great Britain and Ireland, which he still aspired to regain. He also did not want to deprive John III Sobieski’s son of the throne, and in any case refused to vie for a throne which was not his hereditary right – perhaps he feared losing the election.
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This would mark the last occasion of support from Louis XIV for James – Louis went on to successfully promote Francois Louis, the Prince of Conti, as a candidate for the throne, whilst James became increasingly devoted to religion until his death in 1701. Yet this was not the end of Polish-Scottish relations: James’s son, the Old Pretender, married Clementina Sobieska, a granddaughter of King John III Sobieski, meaning their son was half-Polish.
James’s unsuccessful potential candidacy was not the only English link to the Polish throne: once William and Mary had died, the next English monarch was Queen Anne – whose husband, Prince George of Denmark, had been a candidate to be King of Poland in the mid-17th century.
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Again, it was Louis XIV who initially supported this nomination, which came in the 1674 election after Michael Korybut Wiśniowiecki died in 1673. Prince George was a well-rounded royal, who had a good political understanding of European affairs, and so was seen as a comfortable choice – if only were he not a Lutheran Protestant. His refusal to convert to Catholicism, and Catholic Poland’s discomfort at the thought of a Protestant monarch, meant the idea was not to be. Louis XIV then supported Philip William, Elector Palatine – though the throne eventually went to John III Sobieski.
Prince George, Duke of Kent (1902-1942), Naval and air force officer; son of King George V, 1934, photo: National Portrait Gallery
Flash-forward 300 years, and the fourth son of George V also came close to becoming the Polish monarch. Well, sort of.
Prince George, Duke of Kent was brother to Edward VIII and George VI, two British monarchs of the 20th century. Prince George, however, was still an active royal, and the archives of British Pathé depict a visit he took to Count Potocki’s palace in Łańcut, southern Poland, with his wife, Princess Marina of Greece, in 1937. The short videos show a pleasurable carriage ride and stroll through Count Potocki’s palace grounds, and were shown in British cinemas labelled as a holiday for the prince, though the visit was a more diplomatic affair: they were sent in place of George VI in order to express British backing for Poland in the deteriorating political situation in Europe.
Prince George was certainly friendly with Poles, which may be the reason behind two stories – perhaps rumours – suggesting he was to be the key to the revival of the Polish monarchy. The first details that, in the 1930s, Prince George was named as an ideal candidate for the throne by Polish monarchists. In 2011, Dr. Andrzej Suchcitz, Chief Archivist at London’s Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum, told Radio Polonia that, during the same period, a Belgian prince had also been proposed by Polish monarchists for the role.
The second story involves General Władysław Sikorski, Prime Minister of the Polish Government in exile during WWII. Sikorski is alleged to have offered the throne in the late 1930s, though Suchcitz notes that this may be a rumour amalgamated with the suggestion during the war that a Polish-Czechoslovakian Federation should be set up after the conflict, with Prince George as monarch. Though the archives bear little information on either stories, Suchcitz explained that ‘there is no smoke without fire’ – during WWII, Prince George certainly made regular visits to Polish troops stationed in the UK. And, when Prince George died in an air crash in 1942, Sikorski sent a dispatch saying he was ‘a proven friend of Poland and the Polish armed forces’.
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Philip William of Neuburg, Elector Palatine
And the stories surrounding Prince George were not the most unbelievable attempts at candidacy for the Polish monarchy: in 1668, King Jan II Kazimierz Waza abdicated, leaving the throne open for a struggle for power among France, Austria and Russia. A compromise was sought in the candidacy of Philip William of Neuburg, Elector Palatine – whose daughter, incidentally, married James Louis Sobieski, son of John III Sobieski, giving birth to Clementina Sobieska. Count Neuburg possessed sufficient connections and reputation among merchants to allow him a satisfactory attempt at the throne; with his noble background and credit dealings, as well as his Catholicism, he was seen as a safe and prosperous candidate for the country.
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In fact, Count Neuberg was supported to such an extent that the famous German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was commissioned by German politician Johann Christian von Boyneburg to produce a pamphlet to prove mathematically that Count Neuburg was the only appropriate candidate for the position. The 360-page pamphlet, under the name of a fictitious Polish nobleman, was Leibniz’s first piece of political writing and, as quoted by historian Benson Mates, he allegedly worked ‘day and night the whole winter’ to produce the treatise, ‘without receiving any recompense for it’. Making generalisations about the socio-economic landscape of Poland, Leibniz established the nature of an ideal Polish ruler, finally concluding Count Neuburg alone to be acceptable.
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Yet the treatise did not work as planned. Leibniz’s efforts had taken so long that the pamphlet actually arrived after the election, during which Count Neuburg had been rejected. As Mates points out, one of Leibniz’s staunch conclusions was that the Polish monarch should be from outside Poland and not a member of the Piast dynasty – but the ruler ultimately elected was the Piast Michał Korybut Wiśniowiecki.
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Sir Philip Sidney
Another diplomat who allegedly came close to the throne of Poland was Sir Philip Sidney, a famed poet, courtier and scholar under Elizabeth I. He is reported to have been offered the throne at some point in the mid-16th century. Sidney was already interested in Eastern Europe, having been impressed during a visit to Hungary in the 1570s, calling it a ‘right souldierlike nation’, but it was the contemporary power struggles in Poland which really caught his attention. The election of Henry III of France in the first free election of 1573 had resulted in only a one year reign, before which Henry returned to his native nation – Sidney visited the country in 1574, during which he gained first-hand experience of the arbitrary nature of rule in the period between monarchical rule, as another election would not ultimately be scheduled until 1576. In 1574, a letter from Sidney claimed the Poles ‘hartily repente their so fur fetcht election’ of 1573, and later that year the English courtier commented on his estimations for a new election, illustrating a deep knowledge of contemporary Polish politics.
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Between then and 1576, Sidney’s favourite candidate for the throne, Stephen Báthory, faced a fierce struggle against Maximilian II, Holy Roman Emperor for the royal title: Sidney’s mentor, Hubert Languet, sent long and detailed updates on the progress of each respective contender’s progress – which is the origination of the suggestion that Sidney himself was offered the throne. Though there is little evidence that Sidney was personally captivated by the tussle, Naunton’s Fragmenta Regalia of the 1630s suggests the English courtier was also a suggestion for the throne, with Queen Elizabeth I having to put a stop to his prospects ‘out of fear to lose the jewel of her times’.
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Nonetheless, Sidney did maintain some interest in Poland, even after the 1576 election yielded his preferred result: his poem Astrophel and Stella, written in the 1580s, even alludes to Báthory’s Russian campaign:
How Poles right king means without leaue of host
To warm with ill-made fire cold Muscouy.
And, when Báthory died just after Sidney in 1586, one poet, Robert Dow, wrote a double eulogy of the pair, saying:
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Nor would a king have been far to seek if the Fates had not removed Philip Sidney from the earth in October and if he, who in the normal course of nature have succeeded Stephen at his death, had not been taken first.
Jacob Ferdinand Voet, "Portrait of Livio Odescalchi", between 1676 and 1677 , Baroque, Walters Art Museum, photo: Acquired by Henry Walters with the Massarenti Collection, 1902
The final unusual candidate in our list was Livio Odescalchi, who attempted to acquire the throne of Poland in 1697, the same year James II was offered the role. Odescalchi was an Italian nobleman, and nephew of Pope Innocent XI. He had become the patron of the court painter to John III Sobieski, Jerzy Siemiginowski-Eleuter, when he was sent to study in the Accademia di San Luca in Rome in 1677.
The publication of The Present State of Europe, released in London in 1697, included a paper by Odescalchi’s supporters in Poland arguing his proposals for acquiring the throne. It promised that, should Odescalchi be successful in his bid, ‘he would willingly submit his person, and all that he has in the world, to the pleasure of the most serene republic.’ But the authors of The Present State of Europe were not convinced. In a scathing summary of Odescalchi’s chances, they deemed it would be ‘almost a miracle if he should carry [the throne] from so many potent competitors’, though recognised his election would allow beneficial alliances due to Odescalchi’s links to the Pope.
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Though the throne ultimately went to Francois Louis, Prince of Conti, Odescalchi’s friendship with Poland nevertheless continued – when the widow of John III Sobieski, Queen Maria Kazimiera, visited Rome in 1699, she stayed at the Palazzo Odescalchi.
His candidacy, as well as the involvement of so many other unusual and foreign figureheads in the struggle for power of the Polish throne across history, clearly demonstrates the widespread diplomatic interests in the Polish state – and the strength of its international ties. Though none of the above candidates were ultimately successful, the real victory – long-standing traditions of friendship with multiple countries in Europe – is quite clear.
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