The Nihil novi act adopted by the Polish Diet in 1505 transferred all legislative power from the king to the Diet. This event marked the beginning of the period known as "Nobles' Democracy" or "Nobles' Commonwealth" (Rzeczpospolita szlachecka) when the state was ruled by the "free and equal" Polish nobility (szlachta). The Lublin Union of 1569 constituted the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as an influential player in European politics and a vital cultural entity. By the 18th century the nobles' democracy gradually declined into anarchy, making the once powerful Commonwealth vulnerable to foreign influence. Eventually the country was partitioned by its neighbors and erased from the map in 1795.
The death of Sigismund II Augustus in 1572 was followed by a three-year interregnum period during which adjustments were made to the constitutional system. The lower nobility was now included in the selection process, and the power of the monarch was further circumscribed in favor of the expanded noble class. Each king had to sign the so called Henrician Articles, which were the basis of the political system of Poland, and pacta conventa which were various personal obligations of the chosen king. From that point, the king was effectively a partner with the noble class and constantly supervised by a group of senators. Once the Jagiellons disappeared from the scene, the fragile equilibrium of the Commonwealth government began to go awry. The constitutional reforms made the monarchy electoral in fact as well as name. As more and more power went to the noble electors, it also eroded from the government's center.
In its periodic opportunities to fill the throne, the szlachta exhibited a preference for foreign candidates who would not found another strong dynasty. This policy produced monarchs who were either totally ineffective or in constant debilitating conflict with the nobility. Furthermore, aside from notable exceptions such as the able Transylvanian Stefan Batory (1576–1586), the kings of alien origin were inclined to subordinate the interests of the Commonwealth to those of their own country and ruling house.
In April 1573, Sigismund's sister Anna, the sole heir to the crown, convinced the Sejm to elect the French prince Henry of Valois as ruler. A marriage with Henry was to further legitimize Henry's rule but less than a year after his coronation, Henry fled Poland to succeed his brother Charles IX as King of France.
Poland defeated Russia's Ivan the Terrible and retrieved most of the lost provinces, including Livland. At the end of his reign, Poland ruled two main Baltic Sea ports: Gdańsk controlling the Vistula river trade and Riga controlling Western Dvina trade. Both cities were among the largest in the country.
During the Livonian War (1558–1582), between Ivan the Terrible of Russia and Stephen Báthory of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Pskov was besieged by Polish forces. Poland failed to capture the city, but Batory, with his chancellor Jan Zamojski, led the Polish army in a brilliant decisive campaign and forced Russia to return other territories and gained Livonia and Polock. In 1582 the war ended with Commonwealth victory with the peace treaty in Jam Zapolski.Christian alliance against the Islamic Ottomans. He proposed an anti-Ottoman alliance with Russia, which he considered a necessary step for his anti-Ottoman crusade. However, Russia was on the way to the Time of Troubles so he could not find a partner there. When Stefan Bathory died, there was a one year interregnum. Emperor Mathias's brother Maximilian III tried to claim title of King of Poland, but was defeated at Byczyna in 1588 and Sigismund III Vasa followed Stefan Bathory's reign.
For 10 years between 1619 and 1629 the Commonwealth was at its greatest geographical extent in history. In 1619 the Russo-Polish Truce of Deulino came into effect, whereby Russia conceded Commonwealth control over Smolensk and several other border territories. In 1629 the Swedish-Polish Truce of Altmark came into effect, whereby the Commonwealth conceded Swedish control over most of Livonia, which the Swedes had invaded in 1626.
In the end, Zygmunt III Vasa failed to strengthen the Commonwealth nor to solve its internal problems; instead he concentrated on a futile attempt to regain his former Swedish throne.
Sigismund desire to reclaim the throne drove Sigismund into prolonged military adventures waged against his native Sweden under Charles IX and later also Russia. In 1598 Sigismund tried to defeat Charles with a mixed army from Sweden and Poland but was defeated in the battle of Stångebro. The war continued, punctuated by many ceasefires and broken peace treaties. On occasion, these campaigns brought Poland to a nearly complete conquest of Russia and the Baltic coast during the Time of Troubles and False Dimitris, had it not been for the military burden imposed by the ongoing rivalry on multiple borders: the Ottoman Empire, the Swedes and the Russians.
Commonwealth-Ottomans relations were never too warm, as the Commonwealth viewed itself as the 'bulwark of the Christendom' and together with Habsburgs and Republic of Venice was the thorn in the Ottoman plans of European conquest. Since the second half of the 16th century, Polish-Ottomans relations, never too friendly, were further worsened by the escalation of Cossacks-Tatars border warfare, which turned the entire border region between the Commonwealth and Ottoman Empire into a semi-permanent warzone. A constant threat from Crimean Tatars supported the appearance of Cossackdom.
In the 1595, magnates of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth intervened in the affairs of Moldavia. This would start a series of conflicts that would soon spread to Transylvania, Wallachia and Hungary, when the Commonwealth forces clashed with the forces backed by Ottoman Empire and occasionally Habsburgs, all competing for the domination over that region.
With the Commonwealth engaged on its northern and eastern borders with near constant conflicts against Sweden and Muscovy, its armies were spread thin. Finally, the southern wars culminated in the Polish defeat at the battle of Cecora in 1620. Eventually the Commonwealth was forced to renounce all claims to Moldavia, Transylvania, Wallachia and Hungary.
The population of Poland-Lithuania was neither overwhelmingly Roman Catholic nor Polish. This circumstance resulted from the federation with Lithuania, where ethnic Poles were a distinct minority. In those days, to be Polish was much less an indication of ethnicity than of rank; it was a designation largely reserved for the landed noble class, which included members of Polish and non-Polish origin alike. Generally speaking, the ethnically non-Polish noble families of Lithuania adopted the Polish language and culture. As a result, in the eastern territories of the kingdom a Polish aristocracy dominated over a peasantry whose great majority was neither Polish nor Catholic. Moreover, the decades of peace brought huge colonization efforts to Ukraine, which heightened tensions between peasants, Jews and nobles. The tensions were aggravated by the conflicts between Orthodox and Greek Catholic churches following the Union of Brest and by several Cossack uprisings. On the West and North, cities had big German minorities, often of reformed belief. According to the Risāle-yi Tatar-i Leh (an account of the Lipka Tatars written for Süleyman the Magnificent by an anonymous Polish Muslim during a stay in Istanbul in 1557-8 on his way to Mecca) there were 100 Lipka Tatar settlements with mosques in Poland. In the year 1672, the Tatar subjects rose up in open rebellion against the Commonwealth.
Władysław tried to achieve many military goals, including conquest of Russia, Sweden and Turkey. His reign is that of many small victories, few of them bringing anything worthwhile to the Commonwealth. For a time, he was elected a tsar, but never had any control over Russian territories. In the end, like his father, he failed to strengthen the Commonwealth or prevent the crippling events of The Deluge or Khmelnytsky Uprising, that devastated the Commonwealth in 1648.
The reign of the last of Vasas in the Commonwealth would be dominated by the culmination in the war with Sweden, groundwork for which was laid down by the two previous Vasa kings of the Commonwealth.
In 1660 Jan Kazimierz would be forced to renounce his claims to the Swedish throne and acknowledge Swedish sovereignty over Livonia and city of Riga. He abdicated on 16 September 1668 and returned to France where he joined the Jesuit order and became an ordinary monk. He died in 1672.
This largest of all Cossacks rebellions, led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky, proved disastrous for the Commonwealth. In the end, Commonwealth not only lost parts of its territory to Russia, but was weakened at the moment of invasion by Sweden.
Although Poland-Lithuania escaped the ravages of the Thirty Years' War, which ended in 1648, the ensuing two decades subjected the country to one of its severest trials. This colorful but ruinous interval, the stuff of legend and the popular historical novels of Nobel laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz, became known as the potop, or The Deluge, for the magnitude and suddenness of its hardships. The emergency began with an uprising of Cossacks in Ukraine that culminated in a reassertion of an independent Cossack nation centered in Kyiv, in spite of Warsaw's efforts to subdue it by force. After the Cossacks concluded the Treaty of Pereyaslav with Russia, prolonged and increasing Russian intervention began in the Ukrainian and Belarusian territories. Taking advantage of Poland's preoccupation and weakness, Charles X of Sweden rapidly overran much of the remaining territory of the Commonwealth in the same year. Pushed to the brink of dissolution, Poland-Lithuania rallied to recover most of its losses from the Swedes. In exchange for breaking the alliance with Sweden, the ruler of Ducal Prussia was released from his vassalage and became a de facto independent sovereign, while much of the Polish Protestant nobility went over to the side of the Swedes. Swedish brutality, and especially the ineffectual siege of Jasna Góra monastery in Częstochowa in winter of 1655–1656, raised widespread revolts against Charles, whom a part of Polish nobles had recognized as their ruler in the meantime. Under hetman Stefan Czarniecki, the Poles and Lithuanians had driven the Swedes from their territory by 1657.
Further complicated by dissenting nobles and wars with the Ottoman Turks, the thirteen-year struggle over control of Ukraine ended in the Truce of Andrusovo in 1667. Although Russians had been ousted from Vilnius and Lwów by 1662, the Tsar gained eastern Ukraine in the peace treaty.
Despite the improbable survival of the Commonwealth in the face of the potop, one of the most dramatic instances of the Poles' knack for prevailing in adversity, the episode inflicted irremediable damage and contributed heavily to the ultimate demise of the state. When Jan II Kazimierz abdicated in 1668, the population of the Commonwealth had been nearly halved by war and disease. War had destroyed the economic base of the cities and raised a religious fervor that ended Poland's policy of religious tolerance. Henceforth, the Commonwealth would be on the strategic defensive facing hostile neighbors. Not until the Polish-Soviet War of the early 20th century would Poland compete with Russia as a military equal.
In the Treaty of Oliwa in 1660, John II of Poland finally renounced his claims to the Swedish Crown, which ended the feud between Sweden and the Commonwealth and the accompanying string of wars between those countries (War against Sigismund (1598-1599), Polish-Swedish War (1600-1629) and the Northern Wars (1655-1660)).
Polish culture and the Greek Catholic Church gradually advanced and by the 18th century, the population of Ducal Prussia was a mixture of Catholics and Protestants and used both the German and Polish languages. The rest of Poland and most of Lithuania remained firmly Roman Catholic, while Ukraine and some parts of Lithuania (i.e., Belarus) were Greek Orthodox. The society was split into an upper stratum (8% nobles, 1%priests), townspeople (6%), Jews (10%), Ormians/Tatars (2%), and peasants (73%Poles, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Lithuanians and other). In the year 1772 out of the 12mln inhabitants there were: 43% Roman Catholics, 33% Greek Catholics, 10% Orthodox, 9% Jews, 4% Protestants, 1% Muslims.
During the 18th century the Polish crown itself became subject to the manipulations of Russia, Sweden, the Kingdom of Prussia, France and Austria. Poland's weakness was exacerbated by an unworkable constitution which allowed each noble or gentry representative in the Sejm to use his vetoing power to stop further parliamentary proceedings for the given session. This greatly weakened the central authority of Poland and paved the way for its destruction.
Most accounts of Polish history show the two centuries after the end of the Jagiellon dynasty as a time of decline leading to foreign domination.
Before another hundred years have elapsed, Poland-Lithuania had virtually ceased to function as a coherent and genuinely independent state. The commonwealth's last martial triumph occurred in 1683 when King Jan Sobieski drove the Turks from the gates of Vienna with a heavy cavalry charge. Poland's important role in aiding the European alliance to roll back the Ottoman Empire was rewarded with some territory in Podole by the Treaty of Karlowicz (1699). Nonetheless, this isolated success did little to mask the internal weakness and paralysis of the Polish-Lithuanian political system. For the next quarter century, Poland was often a pawn in Russia's campaigns against other powers. Augustus II of Saxony, who succeeded Jan Sobieski, involved Poland in Peter the Great's war with Sweden, incurring another round of occupation and devastation by the Swedes between 1704 and 1710.
In the eighteenth century, the powers of the monarchy and the central administration became purely formal. Kings were denied permission to provide for the elementary requirements of defense and finance, and aristocratic clans made treaties directly with foreign sovereigns. Attempts at reform were stymied by the determination of the szlachta to preserve their "golden freedoms" as well as the liberum veto. Because of the chaos sown by the veto provision, under Augustus III (1733-63) only one of thirteen Sejm sessions ran to an orderly adjournment.
Unlike Spain and Sweden, great powers that were allowed to settle peacefully into secondary status at the periphery of Europe at the end of their time of glory, Poland endured its decline at the strategic crossroads of the continent. Lacking central leadership and impotent in foreign relations, Poland-Lithuania became a chattel of the ambitious kingdoms that surrounded it, an immense but feeble buffer state. During the reign of Peter the Great (1682–1725), the commonwealth fell under the dominance of Russia, and by the middle of the eighteenth century Poland-Lithuania had been made a virtual protectorate of its eastern neighbor, retaining only the theoretical right to self-rule.
The War of the Polish Succession was fought from 1733–1735.
Following the abdication of King Jan Kazimierz Vasa and the end of The Deluge, the Polish nobility (szlachta) elected Michael Korybut Wisniowiecki as king, believing he would further the interests of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. He was the first monarch of Polish origin since the last of Jagiellonian dynasty, Sigismund II Augustus, died in 1572. Michael was a son of a successful but controversial military commander Jeremi Michał Wiśniowiecki, known for his actions during the Khmelnytsky Uprising led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky.
His reign was less than successful, and the nobility was not satisfied with the House of Vasa's dynastic policies. Despite his fathers military fame Michael lost a war against the Ottoman Empire, with Turks occupying Podolia. He was unable to cope with his responsibilities and with the different quarreling factions within Poland.
John III Sobieski's most famous achievement was to deal crushing defeat to the Ottoman Empire in 1683 at the Battle of Vienna, which marked the final turning point in a 250-year struggle between the forces of Christian Europe and the Islamic Ottoman Empire. Over the 16 years following the battle (the so-called Great Turkish War), the Turks would be permanently driven south of the Danube River, never to threaten central Europe again.
In 1764 Catherine dictated the election of her former favorite, Stanisław August Poniatowski, as king of Poland-Lithuania. Confounding expectations that he would be an obedient servant of his mistress, Stanislaw August encouraged the modernization of his realm's ramshackle political system and achieved a temporary moratorium on use of the individual veto in the Sejm (1764–1766). This turnabout threatened to renew the strength of the monarchy and brought displeasure in the foreign capitals that preferred an inert, pliable Poland. Catherine, being among the most displeased by Poniatowski's independence, encouraged religious dissension in Poland-Lithuania's substantial Eastern Orthodox population, which earlier in the eighteenth century had lost the rights enjoyed during the Jagiellon Dynasty.
Under heavy Russian pressure, the Sejm introduced Orthodox and Protestant equality in 1767. Through the Polish nobles that Russia controlled and Russian Minister to Warsaw Prince Nikolai Repnin, Czarina Catherine the Great forced a constitution, which undid the reforms of 1764 under Stanislaw II, on Poland in 1767. The liberum veto and all the old abuses of the last 1 1/4 centuries were guaranteed as unalterable parts of this new constitution. Poland was compelled to sign Treaty of Guarantee with Russia, where Catharina was imposed as protector of Polish political system. After that Poland became de facto a Russian protectorate. The real power in Poland lay with the Russian ambassadors, and the Polish king became only an executor of their will. This action provoked a Catholic uprising by the Confederation of Bar, a league of Polish nobles that fought with Russian intervention until 1772 to revoke Catherine's mandate.
The defeat of the Confederation of Bar again left Poland exposed to the ambitions of its neighbors. Although Catherine initially opposed partition, Frederick the Great of Prussia profited from Austria's threatening military position to the southwest by pressing a long-standing proposal to carve territory from the commonwealth. Catherine, persuaded that Russia did not have the resources to continue its unilateral domination of Poland, agreed. In 1772 Russia, Prussia, and Austria forced terms of partition upon the helpless commonwealth under the pretext of restoring order in the anarchic conditions of the country.
Stanislaw August's process of renovation reached its climax on May 3, 1791, when, after three years of intense debate, the "Four Years' Sejm" produced what is claimed as Europe's first modern codified constitution. Conceived in the liberal spirit of the contemporaneous document in the United States, the constitution recast Poland-Lithuania as a hereditary monarchy and abolished many of the eccentricities and antiquated features of the old system. The new constitution abolished the individual veto in parliament; provided a separation of powers among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government; and established "people's sovereignty" (for the noble and bourgeois classes). Although never fully implemented, the Constitution of May 3rd gained an honored position in the Polish political heritage; tradition marks the anniversary of its passage as the country's most important civic holiday.
Passage of the constitution alarmed nobles who would lose considerable stature under the new order. In autocratic states such as Russia, the democratic ideals of the constitution also threatened the existing order, and the prospect of Polish recovery threatened to end domination of Polish affairs by its neighbors. In 1792, Polish factions formed the Confederation of Targowica and appealed for Russian assistance in restoring the status quo. Catherine was happy to use this opportunity; enlisting Prussian support, she invaded Poland under the pretext of defending Poland's ancient liberties. The irresolute Stanislaw August capitulated, defecting to the Targowica faction. Arguing that Poland had fallen prey to the radical Jacobinism then at high tide in France, Russia and Prussia abrogated the Constitution of 3 May, carried out a second partition of Poland in 1793, and placed the remainder of the country under occupation by Russian troops.
The second partition was far more injurious than the first. Russia received a vast area of eastern Poland, extending southward from its gains in the first partition nearly to the Black Sea. To the west, Prussia received an area known as South Prussia, nearly twice the size of its first-partition gains along the Baltic, as well as the port of Gdańsk. Thus, Poland's neighbors reduced the commonwealth to a rump state and plainly signaled their designs to abolish it altogether at their convenience.
In a gesture of defiance, a general Polish revolt broke out in 1794 under the leadership of Tadeusz Kościuszko (Kościuszko Uprising), a military officer who had rendered notable service in the American Revolution. Kosciuszko's ragtag insurgent armies won some initial successes, but they eventually fell before the superior forces of Russian General Alexander Suvorov. In the wake of the insurrection of 1794, Russia, Prussia, and Austria carried out the third and final partition of Poland-Lithuania in 1795, erasing the Commonwealth of Two Nations from the map and pledging never to let it return.
Much of Europe condemned the dismemberment as an international crime without historical parallel. Amid the distractions of the French Revolution and its attendant wars, however, no state actively opposed the annexations. In the long term, the dissolution of Poland-Lithuania upset the traditional European balance of power, dramatically magnifying the influence of Russia and paving the way for the Germany that would emerge in the nineteenth century with Prussia at its core. For the Poles, the third partition began a period of continuous foreign rule that would endure well over a century.