Sigismund I the Old

gigatos | March 13, 2022


Sigismund I the Old (born January 1, 1467 in Kozienice, died April 1, 1548 in Cracow) – since 1506 Grand Duke of Lithuania, since 1507 King of Poland. He was the penultimate of the Jagiellonian dynasty. He sat on the Polish throne after the death of his brother Alexander Jagiellonian. He was the penultimate of six sons of Casimir IV Jagiellon and Elizabeth Rakuszanka, father of Sigismund II Augustus. He married twice: to Barbara Zápolya (1512) and, after her death, to Bona of the Sforza family (1518).

After the death of King Alexander Jagiellon, Sigismund went to Vilnius, where, contrary to the provisions of the Union of Mielnica of 1501, which provided for a joint Polish-Lithuanian election, he was elected by the Lithuanian Grand Ducal Council on September 13, 1506, and on October 20, 1506, he was elevated to the Lithuanian throne. On December 8, 1506, at the Diet of Piotrków, Sigismund was elected king of Poland by the Senate. He arrived in Cracow from Vilnius on January 20, 1507, and was crowned on January 24, 1507, at Wawel Cathedral by the Primate of Poland, Archbishop Andrzej Boryszewski.

In February 1507, he persuaded the Lithuanian Seimas to adopt a resolution on readiness for war with the Grand Duchy of Moscow. The two-year Lithuanian-Moscow War (1507-1508) strengthened the Lithuanian holdings in the east.

The internal situation in Poland at that time was characterised by wide powers of the parliamentary chamber, confirmed and extended in the nihil novi privilege of 1505. The king had no influence on the composition of this body, unlike in the case of senators, whom he appointed himself. Therefore, when ruling, Zygmunt I relied on the advice of the senators and competent ministers who headed the royal chancellery, the office of the treasurer and the Cracow magistrates. Although he was averse to the parliamentary system and the political independence of the nobility, Sigismund I recognized the authority of legal norms and was characterized by legalism, so he convened annual sejm, usually obtaining tax resolutions (conscriptions) for the common defense. However, attempts to create a permanent fund for defense from income-based taxes ended in failure. At the Diet of Prudnik in 1506 he forced a resolution to prevent robberies in Silesia. He enlisted 200 soldiers of light cavalry, who were to catch thieves and rapists.

Probably related to tax matters was an unsuccessful attempt on the king”s life, made on May 5, 1523. The identity of the would-be assassin – who shot the king walking in the evening through the cloisters of Wawel Castle – and his possible principals were never established. The motives for the assassination attempt also remain unclear. The only clue may be the fact that three weeks earlier Sigismund I had announced a tax edict “on czopowy”, because the monarch imposed this tax without the consent of the Sejm.

Among the successes can be counted the partial debt relief of the treasury. Zygmunt I separated the accounts of public taxes from the royal treasury. He strengthened the activity of the Cracow mint, sought to regulate the revenues from salt mines and salt mines, issued a statute for Armenians (1519) and procedural rules (1523), and intended to unify the law throughout the country (correctura iurium, known as the Taszycki correction, 1532, rejected by the Sejm in 1540).

At the instigation of his wife, Bona, he obtained, during his lifetime, the granting to his minor son Sigismund Augustus of the Grand-Ducal throne in Lithuania (1522) and the Polish throne (1529) (as a result of a vivente rege election). In 1530 Zygmunt August was crowned king of Poland. It was the first and also the last election of this kind of ruler to the royal throne in Poland.

An achievement was the incorporation of Mazovia into Poland (after the extinction of the male line of the Mazovian dukes in 1526) as the Mazovian Voivodeship (1529), and the introduction of the Mazovian Sejmiks to the Sejm.

In the years 1530 and 1538 the king issued two statutes, defining the principles of electing a monarch, by which he established once and for all a viritim election. The election could be attended by anyone who wished (unusquisque qui vellet) and the election was to be free (electio Regis libera).

To support the national Almae Matris, in 1534 he forbade, by a special edict which was withdrawn a few years later, visits to foreign universities, and in 1544 he granted the privilege of nobility to professors of the Cracow Academy who had meritoriously worked as teachers for twenty years.

The king organized the customs economy (“new customs duty”), took care of the development of royal cities, and recovered for the treasury numerous complexes of properties of the crown royal domain that were under pledge. The king was supported in his financial activities by Queen Bona, who strove to enlarge the royal estates, also through purchases and improvements in economic efficiency.

In the Lvov rebellion of 1537 (the so-called “Kokosz War”), a popular movement convened for an expedition to Wallachia put forward demands for the reorganization of the rights of the middle nobility dissatisfied with the actions of the court (Execution of Rights). The nobility”s demands were directed against the hegemony of the senatorial-ministerial elite (which involved disobeying the ban on combining certain secular and ecclesiastical offices, the so-called incompatibilitas). They also objected to the prominent role in political life of the queen and her campaign to buy back the crown”s pawned royal estates, the upbringing of Zygmunt August at his mother”s court (without providing him with political and knightly education), and the excessively high “new customs duty”. In view of the lack of decisiveness among the leaders of the nobility (they were Mikołaj Taszycki, Jan Sierakowski and Piotr and Marcin Zborowski), after long negotiations the rebellion ended with a compromise. The nobility dispersed to their homes, not getting involved in the war expedition organized by the king (the magnates claimed that the only result of the rebellion was to eat poultry in the vicinity of the camp, hence the contemptuous name “kokosz war”).

In 1540 Bernard Pretwicz disclosed to Bona the formation of an alleged conspiracy by Marcin Zborowski, supported by 700 nobles from Wielkopolska. After the death of Zygmunt I the Old, the conspirators were to gather an army and force Zygmunt II August to guarantee their privileges and to deprive the clergy of a third part of their salary, allocating it for defence. Zborowski denied everything and unknown perpetrators seriously wounded Pretwicz.

During his reign the Seym passed a law in 1538 forcing the townsmen to give up their landed estates, which resulted in impoverishment of the townsmen. In 1543 the Sejm issued a law depriving the peasants of the right to buy themselves out of serfdom and increasing the penalties for leaving the village without the lord”s permission.

Sigismund I the Old”s prudence and peaceful disposition, manifested also in the fact that he tried to avoid conflicts, made him generally respected at home and abroad at the time of his death. The king lived to be 81 years old, which meant that in the last few years of his life he no longer actively influenced politics, which were decided by his wife, Queen Bona Sforza. The period of his reign is described in the culture as the golden age of Poland.

Religious matters

In 1520, he issued an edict in Torun forbidding the import, sale, or use of books by a certain Martin Luther, in which much is said against the Holy See, as well as for disturbing public order, undermining religion, and the entire ecclesiastical state. Sigismund I the Old”s edict of 1523 stated that anyone who introduced, sold, bought, or read Luther”s works, or who preached, defended, or praised Luther”s principles should be punished not only by burning the books themselves but also by death at the stake and confiscation of all property.

The king actively opposed Lutheranism spreading in revolted Gdansk and other cities of Royal Prussia. In April 1526 he came to Gdansk at the head of the army. He conducted trials and passed sentences in that city. Lutheran preachers who did not flee Gdansk were sentenced to death and taken to Malbork. 14 leaders of Danzig revolt with George Wendland as a leader were beheaded on 13 June 1526 in Dlugi Targ. The King announced Statuta Sigismundi, according to which the supporters of the Reformation had to leave the city within 14 days, and the priests supporting the new religion within 24 hours. The trials of about 200 clergymen and monks who were accused of breaking chastity vows began. Catholic services were restored, as well as private masses.

In 1534, he issued an edict ordering the immediate return of subjects visiting Martin Luther or residing in Protestant states, forbidding travel for the purpose of receiving education at dissenting universities.

In foreign policy Sigismund I the Old primarily resisted encirclement by enemies. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania was threatened by an attack from the Grand Duchy of Moscow. As a result of the unresolved Lithuanian-Moscow war of 1507-1508, the status quo was still maintained, but already the war waged in 1512-1522 led to the loss of Smolensk in 1514 (despite the great Polish-Lithuanian victory at the Battle of Orsha in 1514), and Seversk Novgorod in 1522. At the same time, in 1514 Vasily III allied against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth with Emperor Maximilian I of Habsburg, and the lack of acceptance by the Empire of the provisions of the Peace of Torun in 1466 enabled the Grand Masters of the Teutonic Knights to break out of their fief dependence on Poland. The consequences of the alliance signed in Moscow in 1514 between the Grand Duke of Moscow Wasyl III and the new Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights Albrecht Hohenzollern were also feared. For this reason, Sigismund the Old decided to make concessions to the Habsburgs and, working with his brother, King of Bohemia and Hungary Wladyslaw II Jagiellonian, led to the breakdown of the anti-Polish alliance of the Habsburg and Scandinavian states under the rule of the Oldenburg dynasty. The Congress of Vienna in 1515, which ended with the Emperor withdrawing his support for Moscow and recognizing Poland”s rights as a fief of Prussia, untied Sigismund I”s hands in the north.

The conflict with the Moldavian hospodar Bogdan ended with the signing of the peace treaty in Kamieniec Podolski on 23 January 1510, by virtue of which Bogdan resigned from seeking Elisabeth”s hand and the disputed Pokucie issue was handed over to Wladyslaw of Hungary.

An unfavourable consequence of the congress was that the Jagiellonians lost the thrones of Bohemia and Hungary after the death of Louis II the Jagiellonian in 1526. Although Sigismund the Old, at the urging of his wife, put forward his candidacy for the Bohemian and Hungarian crowns after Louis the Jagiellonian, the king and his deputies acted tardily. In addition, in 1527 the king forbade the Polish nobility to help the Hungarian candidate Jan Zapolya against the Habsburgs, which went against the realistic policy pursued by Bona Sforza. As a result, Western Hungary and Bohemia were taken over by Ferdinand I of Habsburg and remained under his family”s rule until 1918. Sigismund, as the legal guardian of the minor Louis II Jagiellonian, contributed to the election of Charles V Habsburg as Holy Roman Emperor in 1519.

As a result of the war with the Teutonic Order (1519-1521), the Treaty of Cracow was signed in 1525. It also accepted the transfer of Teutonic properties and offices from ecclesiastical to secular power and accepted Albrecht”s fief homage as Lutheran prince of Prussia (the Prussian homage 1525). To Poland, the treaty secured the right to annex Ducal Prussia after the extinction of Albrecht”s unmarried male line.

The Lithuanian-Moscow War (1534-1537), despite the capture of Starodub (1535), did not restore Smolensk to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Under the terms of the 1537 peace treaty, Lithuania retained the captured city of Gomel. Fights also continued with the Crimean Tatars every year in 1510-1512, 1516, 1519, 1521, 1524, 1526-1528, and 1537 (their raids were repulsed with common defense and “gifts”).

From 1530 the conflict over Pokucie with Moldavia escalated, with mutual raids and clashes, such as Hetman Jan Tarnowski”s victories at Ścianka, Gwoździec and Obertyn in 1531, which ended after more fighting in 1538 with a treaty granting Pokucie to the Kingdom of Poland, but at the same time Turkey captured Moldavia, which deprived Poland of a buffer separating it from the Ottoman Empire.

In relations with the Pomeranian Duchy, in 1513 the king did not show any initiative in connection with the proposal of Prince Boguslaw X to pay homage to the Kingdom of Poland.

Dominion on the Baltic Sea

Zygmunt Stary”s relations with Gdańsk were not the best. In the second half of the 15th century the city had gained a basis of prosperity which in the 16th century and in the first half of the 17th century allowed it to reach the peak of wealth and to become an important factor in the political, economic, and even cultural affairs of the Republic. Gdansk became the sole intermediary for Polish maritime trade, but a cumbersome intermediary which caused growing discontent among both the king and the nobility.

The citizens of Gdansk were reluctant to pursue Poland”s independent maritime policy which resulted in their support for Elblag competing with Gdansk. As the project of building his own navy was not feasible due to financial reasons, Zygmunt Stary, probably advised by Jan Dantyszek who knew maritime affairs, decided to create a fleet using the caper system. The first royal caper ship under the command of Adrian Flint from Gdansk began operating in the waters of the Gulf of Finland in 1517. Soon the Polish fleet grew to a dozen or so ships and Flint probably became its commander. Its area of operations was the eastern Baltic.

In 1519, in connection with the war with the Teutonic Knights, the caper ships also conducted actions in the Gdansk Bay blockading Königsberg. Mainly Dutch and Danish ships maintained contacts with Teutonic Knights” ports and they also became the targets of the Kaper fleet attacks. This fleet was supported against Teutonic Knights by Danzig, which for years competed with Königsberg. After the armistice was signed in 1521 the caper ships returned to nava shipping, capturing several ships with cargoes for the Grand Duchy of Moscow. On September 14, 1522 a Polish-Moscow truce was concluded, and soon afterwards King Sigismund disbanded the Kaper fleet. The ships mostly went into Danzig service (in fact, they were almost exclusively Danzig vessels) to take part in the troublesome Hansa war with Denmark.

The Polish caper fleet was organized on an ad hoc basis, and its activity was short. It was too weak to play a serious role in the war with Moscow, and this resulted from the fact that Sigismund the Old attached much less importance to maritime affairs than is generally supposed. It was not until the end of his life, under the influence of Bona, that the king did not extend to Gdańsk the debt on the Puck Starosty. The Gdansk City Council treated the ownership of Puck as one of the elements of exercising power over the coast. It had its tradition and was established already in the Teutonic Knights” times. An official called “rybicki” resided in Puck; his competences included all the matters related to the ownership of the sea shore and fishery. Gdañsk, which claimed ownership of the entire coast of the Bay of Gdañsk, held the starosty of Puck until 1546, but at that time the king already had many dedicated people in Royal Prussia who were competent in maritime affairs and who supported a more active policy towards Gdañsk.

Sigismund I the Old was an outstanding patron of the arts. He is credited with the very early introduction of Renaissance art to Poland, which (apart from Hungary) was ahead of other European countries in this respect. Not being the king yet, he funded the Renaissance tomb of his brother, King Jan I Olbracht, in the Wawel Cathedral (ca. 1505). During his reign, among other things, the Wawel Royal Castle was rebuilt in the same style with the largest Renaissance courtyard in Europe, and the Sigismund Chapel at the Wawel Cathedral founded by him is called “the pearl of the Tuscan Renaissance north of the Alps”. In 1540, he also founded the Rorantist Chapel, a male vocal ensemble that continued to perform at Wawel Cathedral for many years after his death.


  1. Zygmunt I Stary
  2. Sigismund I the Old
Ads Blocker Image Powered by Code Help Pro

Ads Blocker Detected!!!

We have detected that you are using extensions to block ads. Please support us by disabling these ads blocker.