The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth ("Nobility Commonwealth" or "Commonwealth of Both Nations", in Polish: Rzeczpospolita Szlachecka or Rzeczpospolita Obojga Narodów; in Lithuanian: Abiejų Tautų Respublika or sometimes Žečpospolita) was a federal aristocratic republic of the period 1569 – 1795, comprising the Kingdom of Poland, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and their fiefs. The Commonwealth was governed by the Parliament (Sejm) consisting of the King, the King-appointed Senate (Voivodes, Castellans, Ministers, Bishops) and the rest of hereditary nobility either in person or through the Lower Sejm (consisting of deputies representing their lands). The nobility's constitutional domination of the state made the King very weak and the commoners (burgesses and peasants) almost entirely unrepresented in the Commonwealth's political system.
The Commonwealth's administrative system was a pre-bureaucracy. In terms of Max Weber's tripartite classification of authority, it was, as with other contemporary monarchies, largely based on "traditional domination". There was, however, evidence of "rational-legal authority" in the nobility's respect for laws such as the Pacta conventa.
The Privy council and Upper chamber of the First Republic's Sejm (parliament, or diet) was the Senat (now Senate), comprising Bishops, Voivode, Castellan and ministers (central officials). The list of dignitaries eligible to serve in the Senat had been finalized when, in the Union of Lublin (1569), the Kingdom of Poland was transformed into the confederal state of Crown of Poland and Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
The most important official was the Primate, who was the Archbishop of Gniezno. From 1572, the first time that Poland had been without a king (the Jagiellon Dynasty having died out with King Zygmunt II August), the Archbishop of Gniezno served as interrex, i.e. as interim head of state until a new king could be elected. He represented the country and prepared elections for a new king.
In addition, the Archbishop of Gniezno had the power to call a new Senat session, if he deemed it important to do so, even in the absence of the King. He could also invoke the "de non praestanda obedientia" article, giving the country the right to legally depose the King. From among other senators, he chose his own court marshal (often a Castellan). That person acted as the Archbishop's messenger during Senat meetings, giving signs (by moving a cross) that conveyed how the Archbishop wished his allies to vote. The Archbishop of Gniezno had two deputies: the bishops of Wrocław and Poznań.
The power of the Voivodes had declined since that title had been introduced about the 12th century; in the 17th century, however, they were still the highest regional dignitaries. They were the highest representatives of their Voivodeships to the Senat. They were the leaders of the Land Parliaments (Sejmiki Wojewódzkie, Voivodeship Sejmiks). They were in charge of assembling local nobility's military forces in the event of a pospolite ruszenie (levée en masse). Each chose a Deputy Voivode, who was responsible for setting local prices and measures. Voivodes were chosen by the King, except for those of Połock Voivode and Vilna Voivode, who were elected by (and from) the local nobility (but still had to be appointed by the King).
Except for the Castellan of Kraków Land (which has its seat in a privileged city, as the Commonwealth's capital to 1596), Castellans were often considered subordinate to Voivodes. A Castellan was in charge of part of a Voivodship (till the 15th century called a Castellany, and thereafter divided into provinces for Major Castellans and powiats for Minor Castellans).
From 1565, the principle of "incompatibilitas" ("incompatibility") forbade Voivodes and Castellans to hold a second title as a Minister, except for the post of Hetman. Ministers were comparable to modern central-government officials. They were 10 officials (5 for the Crown of Poland, 5 for Lithuania). The Ministers were the Grand Marshal of the Crown (Marszałek Wielki Koronny), Grand Marshal of Lithuania (Marszałek Wielki Litewski), Grand Chancellor of the Crown (Kanclerz Wielki Koronny), Grand Chancellor of Lithuania (Kanclerz Wielki Litewski), Vice-Chancellor of the Crown (Podkanclerzy Koronny), Vice-Chancellor of Lithuania (Podkanclerzy Litewski), Grand Subtreasurer of the Crown (Podskarbi Wielki Koronny), Grand Subtreasurer of Lithuania (Podskarbi Wielki Litewski), Court Marshal of the Crown (Marszałek Nadworny Koronny) and Court Marshal of Lithuania (Marszałek Nadworny Litewski). Court Marshals were considered subordinate to Grand Marshals. Lithuanian ministers, while vested with the same powers as Crown Ministers, were considered below them in precedence. Hetmans were also considered "Ministers" but had no seat in the Senat.
A Marshal's duties consisted in providing security to the King and keeping order where he was present. Marshals commanded two regiments of infantry, a regiment of militia, and a special court of law with a marshal's judge (sędzia marszałkowski), marshal's clerk (pisarz marszałkowski) and assessors (singular: asesor). These courts passed sentence on the spot, without possibility of appeal. For crimes such as drawing a weapon in the King's presence, the penalty was death. A Marshal's court had jurisdiction over all crimes committed against the royal court and by courtiers.
When the King traveled, Marshals supervised the local Voivodes. The Marshals decided who would be admitted to royal audience. They were the organizers and masters of royal and court ceremonies (including weddings, funerals and the like). They were the masters of the court, kept track of lesser courtiers, and (where applicable) set their salaries. Each Marshal wielded a marshal's staff, which he had received from the Chancellor (Kanclerz). In exchange, all Chancellor nominations were heralded by the Marshals. If no Marshal was present, his functions were carried out by a Grand Treasurer or secular Grand Chancellor. On formal occasions and during travel, where appropriate, a Marshal with his staff of office preceded the King. Close after the Marshals in the hierarchy were the Chancellors.
From 1507, the title of Grand Chancellor of the Crown was rotated between secular and ecclesiastic Chancellors. After the Union of Lublin (1569), the two offices, Chancellor (Kanclerz) and Subchancellor (Podkanclerzy) were doubled (Chancellors of the Crown, for the Crown of Poland, and Chancellors of Lithuania). The Chancellor and his respective Subchancellor (who was not a direct subordinate of the Chancellor) were responsible for the work of two Chancelleries, a Major and a Minor. These were expected to be in constant contact and to develop common policies. Their responsibilities included foreign and internal affairs.
The Chancellors' offices were the "Chancelleries" (Crown and Lithuanian, Major and Minor). The Chancelleries were staffed with a "Regens," Secretaries (singular: Sekretarz), Scriptors (singular: Pisarz), clerks and "metrykants." The Regens divided the work among the clerks. Two Secretaries (one for private, the other for official, correspondence) presented the ready letters to the King for signature. The Scriptors drafted the letters, the clerks prepared the final copies. The documents were also copied into books called "Metryki" (singular: Metryka), which were kept by two "metrykants", each, in Poland and Lithuania. The Grand Chancellor's Metrykant was called the Grand Metrykant, the Subchancellor's was the Lesser Metrykant. The Chancelleries' staffs, like the Chancellors, received no wages, but the middle of each reception room featured a box into which clients were expected to deposit varying amounts of money, and no one who planned to return could afford to be stingy.
The Chancellors also had judiciary powers, exercised through assessors’ courts, which were the highest appellate courts for persons subject to crown law (i.e., not subject to ecclesiastic or magnate courts). Each such court was staffed by a secretary, Referendary (Referendarz) and writer. In the 17th century, each such court was enlarged to include four assessors; and, in 1775, a metrykants and a regens.
The Chancellor often gave speeches representing the royal will. The symbol of his office was the Seal, which was used to seal all documents passing through his office. He also sealed documents signed by the monarch, and could refuse to seal a document that he considered illegal or damaging to the state (such documents had no force without his seal). When the King died, the seal was destroyed at his funeral and a new one was issued to the Chancellor by the late King's succeessor. Therefore the Chancellors were considered the guardians of the King and state, ensuring that the King's folly would not endanger the state by forcing it into an unnecessary war (the wars that were prevented by the Chancellors included a great crusade against the Ottoman Empire that King Władysław IV Waza had planned in the 1630s).
The Chancellor's powers tended to be reinforced by the fact that wars required funds that were appropriated by the Senate. The richer nobles who controlled the Senate were usually loath to increase and levy taxes upon themselves, which meant that Poland herself very rarely declared wars. Usually she was attacked by her neighbors, and while she repelled all attacks till the end of the 18th century, she almost never exploited her victories. The army was undermanned and underequipped (since usually any suggestion to augment the military budget when an enemy was not on the Commonwealth's doorstep was labeled as warmongering) and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth's lands were constantly ravaged by new invasions that crippled the economy.
Last among the ministers were the Grand Treasurers. They kept accounts of the state finances, cash flow and State Treasury, and controlled the minting of coin. Since, like the Chancellors, they received no wages, corruption ran rampant and a sizable portion of state finances was lost in their pockets. If a Treasurer moved to another post, he was obliged to render accounts of his disbursements, and if he died, his family were required to produce them. A telling story is that of Bogusław Leszczyński, who while a Grand Treasurer (1650–1658) was offered a Chancellor's post, which he accepted in 1658. He bribed the members of the Parliament to grant him "absolution", and when one of them later opposed him, he asked, curious: "Who's this son of a bitch that I failed to pay off?"
Grand Treasurers supervised lesser officials such as the Master of the Mint (mincerz), dyspensators, kurators, tax collectors (poborca podatkowy), superintendents (overseer of customs officers), customs officers (celnik) and subkolektors. It should be remembered that, in those times, goods – as well as people – were taxed not only at borders but at bridges, crossroads and city gates.
See Castellans of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth for details.
The Senate also included Bishops of Poland. See Bishops of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth for details. After 1668, though there was no law explicitly forbidding it, no non Roman Catholics were nominated to the senatorial offices. It is interesting to note, that even the 1717 laws did not forbid Calvinists or the Orthodox known as "dyssydents" to sit in the Senate.
The most important such officials were the Great Secretaries (singular: sekretarz wielki), Crown and Lithuanian. Only a man of the cloth could be a Great Secretary. These functionaries were considered more consequential than any district or court official, with the exception of the Court Marshal. They could act as Chancellors when no Chancellor was in attendance. They dealt with secret letters; in Senat they read out letters of the King's and resolutions of the Sejm. The Great Secretaries often acted as Assessors and were called "innate Assessors."
Next were 4 Referendaries (singular: referendarz), 2 secular and 2 ecclesiastic, one each for the Crown and for Lithuania. They rarely left the royal court, and their duties consisted in hearing petitions and complaints, which they referred (hence their name) to the King. They also acted as judges in cases involving peasants from the King's lands, and often acted as Assessors at other courts. Close to the office of Referendary was that of the "Instygator" — what today would be termed a State Prosecutor. One each for Crown and for Lithuania, the Instygators were tasked with uncovering and dealing with crimes against the King and the country, and were authorized to prosecute any dignitary save the King. They had deputies known as "viceinstygators."
Then came the Great Writers (singular: pisarz wielki) – one for the Crown, three for Lithuania. It was their task to clarify royal decrees and send letters to those dignitaries who must hear of them. They often acted as ambassadors and Assessors.
The Crown Keeper (kustosz koronny) was the official responsible for safeguarding the Royal Treasury, where the royal insignia were kept. The keys to the Treasury were held by the Great Treasurer and six voivods, and without each of them, the Treasury could not be opened. Traditionally, the Crown Keeper was chosen from among the priests of Kraków Cathedral. The Lithuanian Keeper was actually called a Treasurer (skarbny).
From 1647, the ministers were joined by a Postmaster General (Poczmistrz generalny, also known as Poczmistrz naczelny or Generał poczmistrz), the supervisor of the Royal Post, founded in 1547.
In principle, Polish-Lithuanian officials enjoyed life tenure. Of several notable exceptions to that rule, the most important involved the Senat Marshal, who chaired Senat meetings and could suggest, but not determine, the subject of a meeting. Traditionally, the post of Senat Marshal rotated among Senators from the three prowincyje ("provinces" — major divisions) of the Republic, or Commonwealth: Wielkopolska ("Greater Poland") and Małopolska ("Lesser Poland"), in the "Polish Crown"; and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
The office of Marshal of the Sejm (Marszałek Sejmu) existed only during sessions of the Commonwealth's parliament (the Sejm). The Marshal chose the Secretary of the Sejm (sekretarz sejmowy), who kept the records of Sejm meetings.
The highest court for nobles was called the Crown Tribunal (Trybunł Koronny, created 1579) and was headed by a Tribunal President and a Marshal. The Marshal was chosen from and by the judges themselves, while the President dealt with ecclesiastic matters (and was himself a high-ranking priest). There was also a Lithuanian Tribunal (Trybunał Litewski) and Crown and Lithuanian Treasury courts, created in 1613 (Trybunał Skarbowy Koronny, Trybunał Skarbowy Litewski). Salaries for all judges were set at Sejm meetings.
Salt mines (żupy solne) were supervised by a żupnik. Other less important dignitaries named by the King or Sejm to deal with specific short-term questions were called "commissars", "lustrates", "revisers", "delegates", "legates" or "deputies."
Court officials may be divided into those who served the King, and those who ensured the smooth running of his court (in the 16th century, comprising some 1,000-1,500 persons). Since the first group were not subject to the principle of incompatibilitas, they often held another title, usually that of a lesser district official such as a starosta. Of those who served the King, the most important was the Master of the Kitchen, who supervised the kitchen staff and equipment and the preparation of foods. During feasts, he announced the successive dishes.
Second in importance was the Pantler, who began setting the table. During feasts, he directed the setting of the dishes, aided by the Steward. The Carver finished setting the table with plates and utensils, and during the feast carved all the dishes that required the knife. After carving, he tasted them (by the 17th century, this was merely a tradition, left over from the days when this official used to detect poison).
Drink was seen to by the Cupbearer and the Royal Cupbearer. The first tasted of the drinks, poured them and ordered them; the second, upon receiving them from the former, served them to the King. A description of a 1596 banquet in the reign of King Sigismund III Vasa was set down by the secretary to the Papal Nuncio (ambassador), Giorgio Paolo Mucante: "Each dish was first given, with a bow, by the Master of the Kitchen to the Carver, who passed it to the Pantler. The latter dipped a prepared piece of bread into the dish, touched it to his tongue, then discarded it into a nearby silver bin. It took quite a while before the King and the Cardinal could begin eating, as they had to bear with all the ceremonies. The Carver bowed so often that I truly think that during the feast he bowed at least 3,000 times."
A second set of dignitaries was headed by the Court Marshal (see above):
The Queen had her own court, staffed with women; its influence in the country was much smaller.
Hetmans were very independent; they could maintain their own foreign contacts with the Ottoman Empire, Russia and the Tatars. They allocated their military budgets as they saw fit. As the highest military commanders and administrators, hetmans made administrative and juridical law concerning the military; from 1590, such law had the same force as the Sejm's legislation.
A Hetman's symbol of office was a mace (buława), which was added to his coat of arms. There were two kinds of hetman (in addition to the division into Crown and Lithuanian) — "Great" and "Field." Field Hetmans were subordinate to Great Hetmans, and were sometimes called "Border Hetmans" (hetmani kresowi), since they had evolved from commanders of permanent garrisons on Poland's southeastern borders (a great school of warfare, since it was an area almost constantly under attack by the Ottoman Turks and the Tatars).
The Hetmans chose a commissioner for a two-year period who commanded the Commonwealth's Cossack troops. Below the Hetmans were Deputy Hetmans titled Regimentarz, who commanded voivodship levées en masse.
Hetman and Regimentarz were accompanied by a staff of officers titled Great Guard, Field Guard, Field Clerk, Great Quartermaster and Field Quartermaster. These officers were salaried (the Lithuanian Field Guard, Field Clerk and Quartermaster received 15,000 Polish złotych per annum; the Crown Field Clerk, 30,000).
The Great Guard directed the scout forces while on the march and in camp and commanded the advance guard (however, if both Hetmans were present, the Field Hetman acted as Great Guard). Field Guards were found only on the eastern borders.
The Field Clerks kept accounts of men, equipment and weapons, and paid the soldiers' wages.
The Quartermasters selected campsites, built the camps, and provided logistics and camp security.
After 1635, several new military titles were created:
The combat readiness of troops was overseen by Inspector Generals (however, it is unclear exactly when "in the 17th century" they were created).
District officials were appointed by the King, with a few exceptions (local parliaments — sejmiki — chose Chamberlains, District Judges, Deputy District Judges, District Clerks, and in Lithuania also Standard-bearers and District Marshals). Chamberlains, except for the name, had nothing in common with the Court officials of the same name. They administered a court of law (the Chamberlain's Court) which had jurisdiction over property disputes. The District Judge headed the District Court, which had jurisdiction over civil and some criminal matters involving local nobility.
The Starosta generalny ("General Starosta") was the official in charge of a specific territory. The Starosta grodowy ("City Starosta") was in charge of cities, while the Starosta niegrodowy ("Non-City Starosta") was responsible for administration of the Crown lands. These were to be kept in good financial and military order. While in time these administrative responsibilities became smaller (as Kings gave away more and more land), the Starosta remained in charge of the City Courts (sądy grodzkie), which dealt with most criminal matters and had jurisdiction over all local and visiting nobility. They dealt with the most severe cases (killings, rapes, robberies) and were quite harsh (highway robbery was punishable with death), which generally made Poland a safer country than its neighbors. The Starostas also held the "power of the sword", which meant that they enforced the verdicts of all other courts. Non-City Starostas had no juridical powers.
Standard-bearers carried the local banner during Royal ceremonies, and in war when local troops served in the Army. During war, Wojskis maintained order and security in their territories. In Lithuania, the responsibilities of Ciwuns were similar to those of non-city starostas (elders). District marshals presided over local parliaments (in the "Crown", District Marshals were chosen only for the duration of the parliament session, and so were much less powerful than those of Lithuania, who were chosen for life).
The most important official was the Starosta. He was supported by a Borough Substarosta (podstarości grodowy), Burgrave (Burgrabia), Notary (Notariusz) and Scriptor (Pisarz). The Borough Substarosta assisted the Starosta and in his absence acted in his name with all his powers. Lower city officials were the Borough Regent (rejent grodzki), Borough Notary (notariusz grodzki), Borough Scriptor (pisarz grodzki) and common clerks ("subclerks" — podpiskowie).
In the eastern territories bordering on Russia, from 1667, a "Border Judge" cooperated with Russian judges in cases involving parties from the two countries; his rulings were final.
Judges were chosen from among the local hereditary nobles and had little formal training; therefore the quality of the courts varied from judge to judge, and levels of corruption were high. Attorneys, on the other hand, were required to have professional training. Sometimes a court included an asesor, who assisted the judge and collected fines and fees. Prosecutors were extremely rare. Instygators maintained order and security on court grounds, and a court runner (woźny) delivered summons.
In 1717 the "Numb Diet" barred non-Roman-Catholics from being elected Envoys (to the Parliament), and to any other land offices if there was another Roman-Catholic contender. The rights of the "Dissidents", as they were called, were reinstated in 1768, and in 1772 their representation in the Diet was limited to a stautory of two members. These rules were finally abolished in 1792 by the 3rd May Constitution.
Every city (without exception) had a Council and a Bench, the Council being the administrative branch and the Bench the judicial branch. A new Council was chosen by the old one whose term had expired. The Council was responsible for administration, law, privileges, security, finances, guild oversight, and the like. The Council chose the Mayor, and its members' decision was final — even the Starosta or Voivode could only listen to the Mayor's swearing-in and could not refuse to give him his seal. The Council met daily in the larger cities, less often in smaller ones.
The Mayor headed the Council and controlled the executive branch. He was responsible for conciliation, the care of the poor, and maintaining order by suppressing alcohol abuse and games of chance. Second to the Mayor was the Council Clerk, who ran the City Chancellery. The City Clerk (Syndyk Miejski) collected city taxes and supervised the tax collectors. Security and order in the city were the responsibility of the Hutman. He also supervised the city jail and the keyman who unlocked and locked the city gates at dawn and dusk.
The Lonar was the city treasurer, who oversaw its finances. He supervised the officials who controlled marketplace scales to ensure fair trade. Large cities also had scores of less common officials, such as Pipemasters, responsible for pipes and wells; Fire Chiefs; and City Translators, who assisted foreigners and looked out for spies.
The Bench was chaired by a wójt. He and the other Bench members were chosen by the Council for a year's term from among lesser city officials (writers, clerks, etc.).
City Chief Executioners executed not only criminals sentenced by the Bench, but often criminals sentenced by other non-military courts in Poland. They were well paid, sometimes functioned as physicians, but were also often considered social outcasts and lived outside the city walls.
A village mayor was called the sołtys and was the administrative, executive and judicial chief for the village, responsible only to the village's owner.
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