“When King Albert was alive, no nobleman did survive”?

The tombstone of king Jan I Olbracht, 1502–1505, The Wawel Royal Cathedral, public domain.

John I Albert, son of Casimir IV Jagiellon and the grandson of Władysław II Jagiełło, became the King of Poland on the 27th of August 1492.

Our website presents a three-dimensional model of his tombstone. The real monument of the ruler is located in Kaplica Bożego Ciała i świętego Andrzeja Apostoła [the Chapel of Corpus Christi and Saint Andrew the Apostle] at the Wawel Cathedral in Kraków. The tombstone, carved in the years 1502–1505, is a seminal work, which combines northern European art with Italian influences. It was created by two artists: Francesco Fiorentino, who made the renaissance frame of the niche and Jörg Huber, responsible for the tomb with the image of the king.

The relatively short rule of John I Albert, who reigned from 1492 to 1501, is usually associated with the proverb: “When King Albert was alive, no nobleman did survive”, which became the basis for the negative assessment of his entire reign. This saying was mentioned for the first time in Kronika Polska [the Chronicle of Poland] by Marcin Bielski (1495-1575) published by Joachim Bielski (d. 1599) in 1597 and in Proverbium polonicum – a collection of Polish proverbs written by Salomon Rysiński (d. 1625) in 1618. This adage was created after the army led by the king was defeated by the Moldovan army during the Black Sea expedition on the 26th of October 1497 near Cosmin in Bukovina. Specialists in this field have different opinions regarding the assessment of this expedition and the reasons for the defeat suffered. Sometimes the king’s command and bravery of his guard are the only positively assessed elements of the campaign. The fact is, however, that the losses among the members of the mass conscription were considerable, and the unsuccessful expedition provoked Turkish retaliatory invasions of the Kingdom of Poland.

The tombstone of king Jan I Olbracht. Drawing by Michała Stachowicza, 1818 (National Library of Poland, R.4411), public domain.

The unequivocally negative opinion about the reign of John I Albert is unwarranted. It is known, however, that the ruler enjoyed considerable authority. The king took care of his country’s defence, began the process of unifying Masovia with the Crown and effectively cooperated with his brother Alexander I Jagiellon, who ruled in Lithuania. He was also a good governor, able to impose his will on the magnates, which became increasingly difficult as their privileges and power grew. It is known, for example, that John I Albert successfully confiscated the property of the elite representatives who failed to appear when called upon in accordance with martial law or committed fraud. Moreover, the king was uncommonly kind to townspeople, as evidenced by his obituary in Kraków’s city books. The monarch is described in it as a king so gracious to townspeople as none before him.

Although the vast majority of people know his name, John I Albert as a ruler is almost forgotten. The unfavourable opinion that his descendants gave him, however, is nothing compared to the complete oblivion, to which his successor, Alexander I Jagiellon, who only ruled for five years (1501–1506), had been consigned in the eyes of the public. It is a shame because it was he who started the reconstruction of the royal castle in Wawel – he erected the western wing of the palace, which, as we know from sources, was richly decorated with paintings. On the other hand, Lithuanians remember Alexander because of his fruitful reign over the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (1492–1506).

Both John I Albert and Alexander were overshadowed by their successors – Sigismund I the Old and Sigismund II Augustus, who ruled over Poland and Lithuania for over half of the 16th century.

The proverb “When King Albert...” may also lead us to reflect on whether military and political successes are the only reasons why people from the past should be remembered. If we disagree, new perspectives will open before us – we will see normal people, such as craftsmen, peasants, beggars, and the ordinary lives of extraordinary people – what, when, to whom, and in what way the kings were speaking, whether they were liked and whether they were approachable to their subjects.

Historians answer these questions, but for some reason, this is hardly noticed and most of us are limited mainly to the hermetic history of battles, treaties, great politics and trade.

Elaborated by: Adam Spodaryk (Editorial team of Małopolskas Virtual Museums),
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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland License.