From tragic beginnings Poland’s King Jadwiga founded a centuries-long union between Lithuania and Poland.
The Girl King
Jadwiga, also known as Hedwig, ascended the throne at the age of 10 after the death of her father, Louis the Great, who was also the king to both Hungary and Poland. Her elder sister, Maria (or Mary) was supposed to be heir to Poland while Jadwiga was meant to be the heir to Hungary following the king’s death. The Polish, however, decided to opt out of the personal union with Hungary and Poland. Instead, they crowned Maria as “king” of Hungary and Jadwiga was to rule over Poland.
Jadwiga’s heartbroken mother, Elizabeth of Bosnia, was forced to move from Hungary to Poland to begin her rule. Elizabeth reluctantly sent her daughter with the Polish nobles after being threatened that if she didn’t let her go, another person would be elected to the throne as her replacement.
Ten-year-old Jadwiga returned to Poland and was crowned rex (“king”) on October 15, 1384. The reason she was crowned king instead of queen was made to reflect upon the Polish nobles’ enmity towards her prearranged husband, William of Austria. Her coronation emphasized Jadwiga’s status as the legitimate ruler of Poland.
Family Tragedy Continues
Elizabeth remained in Hungary serving as regent until Maria came of age, she never saw Jadwiga again. At the time, the idea of a female monarch was looked down upon across the globe let alone two female monarchs. Croatian nobles saw this as the perfect time to revolt. Charles III of Naples invaded Hungary.
After Charles broke ground in Hungary, Mary relinquished the crown to him. Both vengeful and fearful that her and Mary would be killed, Elizabeth arranged the assassination of Charles, who was stabbed to death in her presence and succumbed to his wounds in 1386. When his murder sparked a civil war, Elizabeth and Maria were imprisoned. After an attempted escape, Elizabeth was strangled in front of her daughter. Maria was released and given the title of queen while her husband Sigismund became the king of Hungary. Mary would rule until 1387 when her life was cut short due to a horse riding accident.
Back in Poland, Jadwiga’s heartbreak would not cease after hearing the fate of her mother and sister. Resistance towards Jadwiga’s intended betrothed grew and eventually marriage negotiations opened between Jadwiga and the pagan king of Lithuania, Jogaila. The Polish magnates desired a strong union with a country that was larger and stronger than Hungary whom they previously united with. Even then the Polish nobles knew a potential union between Poland and Lithuania would transform the balance of power within Europe for ages to come.
At the age of 12, Jadwiga was understandably reluctant to marry the 35-year-old seasoned Lithuanian monarch. Before her father’s death, Austria and Poland both came to the agreement regarding the marriage between William and Jadwiga, she had even been sent to the court in Vienna where she lived from 1378 to 1380.
According to legend, both Jadwiga and William were desperately in love, considered themselves already married and only needed to consummate their marriage to be recognized by both the courts and God. The story goes that Jadwiga attempted to flee or fled to the capital of Poland to consummate her marriage with her royal teenage love. Some accounts say that Polish guards barred William from entering the gates to reach his fiancée. In a fit of passion, Jadwiga attempted to chop through the wooden gate to open a passage to reunite with William, but ultimately failed. Another account suggests that William managed to sneak through the gate and entered Jadwiga’s bedchambers only for his naked body to be dragged by nobles who attempted to murder him for almost stealing the heir to the crown of Poland’s virtue.
Whatever the case, William was persuaded to let go of the marriage by the royal bishop when he told William that spreading the Christian faith to Lithuania was an invaluable opportunity. William agreed to the decision.
The battle for the bride ended following the establishment of a document known as the Treaty of Krewo (1385.) The treaty declared that Jadwiga and Jogaila would wed under the condition that Jogaila Christianize Lithuania and unite completely with Poland. Within the next year, Jogaila was baptized into Catholicism under the name Władysław II Jagiełło.
Typical royal regulations would result in Władysław II, absorbing complete authority over both Lithuania and Poland. Władysław II, however, would soon realize that his new wife was anything but typical. As long as Jadwiga lived, she remained the leading luminary in the realm, having married a foreigner, Jadwiga was granted the prerogative of ruling in her own right.
During her rule as king (1384-1399,) she sponsored dozens of educational institutions, her most famous restoration was of the academy at Kraków (now the Jagiellonian University.) The university was founded on the purpose educating a class of people – potential lawyers – who could assist in arranging a clearer set of laws and administration of courts in Poland. Jadwiga donated all her personal jewels and trinkets to the university, granting the opportunity to enroll 203 students. The university would go on to educate a variety of eminent scholars and was the first in Europe to have chair positions in Mathematics and Astronomy.
Besides her educational enterprises she was also known for her charity work. In her short rule she founded churches, hospitals and promoted the use of the Polish religion within churches and religious centers.
Jadwiga’s reign was cut short in 1399 due to complications during childbirth at the age of 25. She successfully gave birth to a baby girl named Elżbieta Bonifacja, Unfortunately, the child lived only 22 days. Poland wept for their saintly monarch, one who had led a life of charity and piety. Jadwiga was buried with her daughter in the Wawel Cathedral’s graveyard.
Jadwiga’s reign is unparalleled in Polish history, her sacrifice of marrying a man she didn’t love would result in Lithuania transforming into a Catholic nation and gave Poland an ally that they would benefit from years later. In 1979, Pope John Paul II prayed at Jadwiga’s exalted sarcophagus. Eighteen years later, the pope would canonize her a saint after reviewing her holy and miraculous life. She is the patron saint of religion and scholarship – a worthy title as Poland’s female king.