Eastern Europe of the fourteenth century, growing steadily more peaceful despite two centuries of warfare, raiding, bickering and succession disputes, was still in a state of flux. Though regional borders had become more pronounced, national borders were still flexible, and the great (and petty) rulers schemed, warred, and bargained over which region belonged to which country. Even the relatively sparse English language descriptions of the era show that mix of piety, cold-blooded politics, and pageantry that we think of as typically medieval; especially so when describing the players of this game.
Casimir the Third of Poland, called the "the Great", King of Poland from 1333 to 1370, consolidating Great and Little Poland, Mazovia, and Red Ruthenia into a large Polish state. He was known for his state craft and diplomacy, as well as for his code of law and his consideration for the non-noble (one of his nicknames was "The Peasant King"). However, he apparently had no legitimate heirs to his lands; he had no surviving male issue, and because of a trifling dispute over his second marriage (his first wife being still alive when the marriage took place) his daughters by that marriage had to be legitimated.
After prolonged discussion and diplomacy, Casimir nominated for his heir Louis of Anjou, King of Hungary, the son of his sister Elizabeth (a queen famed for her beauty and-- perhaps-- her passion, since the Holy Roman Emperor nearly started a war by calling her "shameless"). Louis was so well beloved in Hungary to be called 'the Great' there. However, when Louis inherited the throne of Poland from his uncle, he did not make the same good impression. Concerned more with his affairs in Italy (wars with Venice and Naples) than this inherited country, Louis tended to leave the governing of Poland to his mother Elizabeth, and to compel the Polish nobles to wait upon him in Hungary when he wanted to discuss something with them. Despite the lively court that Elizabeth held in Cracow (she appears to have been one of the flamboyant, diplomatic queens of history), Louis' high-handedness did not endear him to the Poles.
Louis of Anjou also had no male issue; of his three daughters by Elizabeth of Bosnia, the two surviving girls, Maria and Hedvig (Jadwiga), were betrothed to the sons of powerful men. Louis forced his nobles to accept the girls and their betrothed as his heirs: Maria, betrothed to Sigismund of Luxembourg, was to unite Poland, the German states and Bohemia; Hedvig, betrothed to Wilhelm of Austria, was to rule over Austria-Hungary. (It is said that when the assemblage of Polish nobles initially refused to accept Maria as their queen presumptive, he simply locked the gates of meeting place and kept them prisoners until they did.)
However, when Louis died in 1382, his plans were upset. His widow, acting for the two princesses, not only dithered, but actively disregarded some of his arrangements. The Hungarian nobles (whether in fear of an interregnum or in an attempt to continue the Hungarian-Polish combination), crowned Maria queen of Hungary; presumably she would then be queen of Hungary, Poland and her husband's lands. However, her betrothed, Sigismund, was chased out of Poland after his first attempt to assert authority.
The Polish nobles in return convened and demanded that one of the princesses be sent to be crowned Queen of Poland. On February 26, 1383, Elizabeth of Hungary's envoys relieved them of their oaths to Maria and promised that Hedvig (Jadwiga) would be sent to them. There were some plans to marry the young princess off to Duke Siemowit of Mazovia, but these fell through, either out of respect for the princess or fear of Siemowit. Elizabeth dilly-dallied, playing for time either to hatch alliances or to raise her daughter, but finally sent her to Poland in the summer or fall of 1384. (Just as well; had she sent the girl at the first demand, Siemowit was waiting to capture and marry her.)
Hedvig (called Jadwiga in Polish) was born in the winter of 1373-1374 (Fr. Przybyszewski postulates a birth date of February 15, 1374, based on negotiations relating to her coming of age). In 1378 she was united with the child Wilhelm of Austria in a marriage ceremony, which according to Church law, needed only to be consummated when they came of age to be legal. (This was to cause trouble later.) She had been raised in the courts of Buda and Vienna, and well educated; she certainly spoke Hungarian, Latin, Italian and probably Polish. Her family was known for their closeness, their skill in diplomacy and war, and for their piety and love of learning.
Not more than eleven years old when she came to Poland, she was crowned king (Rex) of Poland on October 15, 1384, the feast day of her patron saint, St. Jadwiga of Silesia (an ancestral relative-- Jadwiga/Hedwig being a very popular name for Piast princesses). And then the confusion began.
Long before Jadwiga reached Poland, the nobles were resolved to repudiate her betrothal to the Austrian prince Wilhelm, despite the infant marriage. Jagiello, Grand Duke of Lithuania, had already contacted them, interested in an alliance. Jadwiga's mother, Elizabeth, may not have intended the marriage arrangements to go through either; she was already scheming to marry Jadwiga's sister Maria to the king of France instead of Sigismund of Luxembourg.
So Jadwiga may or may not have been surprised when her advisers urged her to agree to the proposal of marriage (and national union) offered by Jagiello's envoys in January of 1385.
Jagiello was one of the 12 sons of the famous Duke Olgierd, who had incorporated much of Russia into Lithuanian lands. Olgierd had designated Jagiello as his heir, but Jagiello had already had to fight to protect his inheritance from his brothers. At different times, he, his brother Andrew, and his cousin Vytautas (Witold) had taken refuge with the Teutonic Knights though the Knights were ardent foes of the Lithuanians.
The Teutonic Knights were a Crusading Order who had been invited into Poland and Prussia by Conrad of Mazovia in 1217 to oppose the raids of the pagan Prus. A crusading, not a missionary order, the Knights killed or enslaved (rather than converting) the heathens, and moved into their territory. After exterminating the Prus, they advanced on Lithuania. Many of the nobles of Europe had fought with the Order on occasion (Norman Davies called these "crusading package tours"), including Louis of Anjou, and they were considered to be notable allies-- or foes.
What drove Jagiello to his proposal isn't clear: was it his brothers? the
Russians? the Knights? or just plain Eastern European politics? We don't
know. However, he offered to marry Jadwiga, unite Poland and Lithuania, and
convert himself and
his people to Christianity. Some of his brothers were already Christian, though of the Eastern rite; probably because both of Olgierd's wives had been Christian. But Jagiello was still unbaptized.
While this proposal was in consideration in Poland, the Austrians were
planning to confirm the marriage of Jadwiga and
Wilhelm. As soon as she came of age, the marriage could be consummated and Wilhelm would then be king apparent of Poland. So, while Wilhelm traveled toward Cracow, and messengers traveled to Elizabeth of Hungary, Jadwiga faced
a moral dilemma.
Whether or not she had seen her betrothed since she was in Vienna, her choice was either to confirm the marriage (which her Polish advisers forbid) or break her solemn vows in order to marry a man three times her age, a pagan whom her father had warred against. Complicating her decision, two separate sets of messages arrived from her mother-- one telling her to do what her advisers thought best, the other telling her to confirm the marriage with Wilhelm.
As Wilhelm neared the city with his guard troops, the Castellan of Cracow ordered the doors of the Castle shut. No one was allowed in or out.
The romantic version of the story says that Jadwiga was locked in. Supposedly,
desperate to see her childhood beloved, she took an ax to the door. Eventually
the Franciscans took pity on her and allowed her to meet with Wilhelm in their
premises. But, realizing it was hopeless and that she could accomplish more
good by marrying Jagiello and Christianizing Lithuania,
she sent Wilhelm away.
The saintly version is that Jadwiga took the advice of her counselors and refused to see Wilhelm, for the safety of Poland and the salvation of Lithuania.
I'm rather fond of the ax story myself, and think that an adolescent of
the passionate Angevin/Piast heritage may well have lost her temper in the
face of conflicting politics and taken a swing at something, especially when
dealing with her advisor, Dobeslaus of Kurozweki, "who loved her like his
own daughter and protected her like his own right hand", the sort of thing
likely to drive any adolescent into fits. Certainly, some historians claim
that Jadwiga, despite her youth, was no puppet princess either way, displaying
the same precocious involvement with government as her ancestor Boleslav
II, who conducted his
first raid at the age of eleven.
Be that as it may, Wilhelm and his entourage left Cracow under protest. Jadwiga then publicly repudiated the marriage made in her name by her parents. (However, some stories claim that she was still nervous about Jagiello, sending one of her knights to inspect him; Jagiello obligingly invited the man to the baths, so that he could report back that the Grand Duke was a fine figure of a man and so reassure the teenage queen about her prospective husband.) She accepted Jagiello, and the union of rulers and countries were set forth in the Treaty of Krewo. The queen used the signing of the treaty (on August 23, 1385) as an excuse to have all the prisoners in Cracow released as a sign of her joy.
Jagiello journeyed into Poland in January of 1386, under a safe-conduct from the ambassadors, and was joined by a growing entourage of important nobles and officials on the road to Cracow. On January 11, the Polish nobles agreed to elect Jagiello as King of Poland upon his marriage. (Behind his back, his brother Andrew and the Teutonic Knights tried to invade Lithuania at this time, but Skirgiello, another brother, drove them out.) Around February 10, Jagiello presented to the queen in Cracow, where he was supposedly smitten with her beauty. (The queen's beauty is repeatedly mentioned, but of course the fond romancers are not to be trusted, and I have found no contemporary portrait or sculpture reproduced.)
On February 15, 1386, after three days of instruction, Jagiello was baptized, taking the baptismal name Wladyslaw. His pagan brothers were also baptized, though his Eastern rite brethren did not convert. On February 18, Jadwiga and Wladyslaw-Jagiello were married; Wladyslaw-Jagiello was crowned on March 4. This did not apparently lesson the status of Jadwiga, since the Slavs were used to having multiple kings at any one time.
In the spring, the married pair journeyed to Great Poland on one of those tours of inspection and loyalty gathering common to medieval royalty. A charming story claims that at one point Jagiello's boyars engaged in some forced procurement (it was the custom of the Polish crown to pay for all supplies, etc. when traveling, rather than requisitioning them), and when it was discovered, Jadwiga got Jagiello to make them return the cattle etc., and then mourned, "We have given the peasants back their cattle, but who will give them back their tears?" Again, a sentimental story which may or may not have a grain of truth in it. Jagiello was unlikely to have ordered such requisitioning; he was an astute enough statesman to understand that it was verboten. However, a little high-spiritedness among the retinue might have resulted in some such unpleasantness.
As soon as winter fell in 1386, Jagiello set out for Lithuania to begin Christianization. He removed the outward symbols of the pagan religion-- dousing the sacred flame at Vilnius, felling the sacred groves, and disposing of the serpents that traditionally lived in the temples and under house doorsteps. Apparently, no Lithuanian-speaking priests could be had, so Jagiello also instructed the people in Christianity-- primarily via the Lord's Prayer and the Apostle's creed. Mass baptisms were done. The whole country was made Christian at one fell swoop, though one must agree with the Teutonic Knights that it was unlikely to be a complete or even thorough conversion at this time.
Wladyslaw-Jagiello sent a mission to the Pope next, not only to offer his and Lithuania's obedience, but to be confirmed as king via ecclesiastical sanction and to request that the little matter of Jadwiga's betrothal be formally clarified and dismissed. This was especially urgent, as Wilhem of Austria, leagued with the Teutonic Knights, was still intriguing and campaigning to claim the Polish throne. This came to a head with the filing of a complaint with the Papal See in February of 1387, disputing the marriage and the conversion of Jagiello (which the Pope had already formally praised). Urban IV's response was that 'The Pope acknowledges that the royal couple from Cracow are in the right, though for tactical reasons he suspects the case is not yet closed." For all intents and purposes, however, the case was closed by a papal bull of April 1388 granting Wladyslaw-Jagiello the elevated title of 'rex christianissmus'.
The disputes with the Teutonic Knights continued for most of the next century. Jadwiga, staunch advocate of peace, is said to have lost her temper at the grand master of the Order (which had been buying up Polish territories via mortgages and mounting attacks on Polish and Lithuanian territories) and said, "So long as I live, the Crown will bear your lawlessness with patience. But after my death, the punishment of Heaven will fall opon you." Certainly, after her death, the combined forces of Poland and Lithuania did defeat and nearly destroy the Order, at the Battle of Grunwald. In the end the Order was formally dissolved and Prussia secularized.
It's unknown whether Jadwiga and Jagiello were happy together; the churchmen thought so, but we know they did not eat together, and Jadwiga devoted herself to peacemaking and good works. Whether her activities were the amusements of a naive puppet queen, the actions of a saint, or the machinations of a peace loving politician is disputed. Certainly, there is a certain element of 'good cop/bad cop' in the combination of her political actions and Jagiello's. She is said to have brought about a temporary reconciliation between Jagiello and his cousin Witold, afterwards Grand Duke of Lithuania, which mitigated the continuing power struggles between the King and Witold over the country. Wladyslaw-Jagiello's more pious actions are also said to be a result of her influence. It's hard to see, however, how a queen so famed for humility could have been effective as a ruler (though that may be convention: her father was also praised for his humility) .
In the areas of charity and learning, Jadwiga made her mark while her husband struggled with enemies within and without. Not only was she famous for her personal charity and kindness, but she was an active patron of learning. She re-founded the University at Cracow which, founded by Casimir, had become defunct in the interregnum-- this same University now called the Jagiellonian, the oldest in Poland. She also endowed a college in the University of Prague for Lithuanian students.
However, Jadwiga's life was cut short and her line extinguished. In 1399, she gave birth to her only child, Elizabeth, prematurely. The child lived only three weeks, and Jadwiga followed her in death on July 17, 1399. As a result, the ruling Jagiellonian dynasty was descended from Wladyslaw-Jagiello and his subsequent wives.
Wladyslaw-Jagiello lived a long life, having outlived four wives, and was forever remembered not only for defeating the Teutonic Knights, but for uniting Poland and Lithuania. Though Jadwiga's death 1399 concluded the terms of the Treaty of Krewo, the Polish-Lithuanian union was reaffirmed during Wladyslaw-Jagiello's reign, in the treated of Horodlo on October 2, 1413. In the nearly two centuries of Jagiellonian rule, the Polish and Lithuanian nobility, and their states, grew closer and closer, culminating in the Union of Lublin in 1569.
Though it took centuries for the Church to acknowledge it, the people of
Poland began venerating Jadwiga as a holy woman, even a saint, soon after
her death. Several canonization proceedings were started for her, and eventually
she was first 'beatified', and finally declared a saint by Pope John Paul
II, on June 8, 1996. (The final conclusion of this centuries-long process
may have something to do with the fact that Karl Wojtyla, later Pope John
Paul II, was one of her adherents.)
Jadwiga's life inspired several romantic biographies, including Lois Mill's So Young a Queen and Charlotte Kellog's Jadwiga, Poland's Great Queen. Monica Gardner's Queen Jadwiga of Poland, is more pious, and the hagiographic Saint Jadwiga- Queen of Poland by Fr. Boleslaw Prybyszewski gives a detailed analysis of the legal documents, and some excellent illustrations. Oskar Halecki claimed that her reign was a pivotal point in history in his Jadwiga of Anjou and the Rise of East Central Europe.