Orders of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth

This week, on Polish National Flag Day and the May 3rd Constitution Day we would like to dedicate a few words to the history of the oldest orders in the former Republic of Poland and to present the most important Polish decorations and their artistic representations, which may be seen on the website of Małopolska’s Virtual Museums.

The Cross of the Order of the White Eagle, before 1774, Wawel Royal Castle – State Art Collection, public domain.

It should be noted from the outset, that originally the order was not only a state distinction. An order was not only a medal and a document that could be kept in a drawer – it was a form of association. The very word “order” has such a meaning in English, even nowadays. Knights of the Order were, and still are, an elite brotherhood, the entrance into which was reserved only for the financial and political elite. In his work Adnotacje historyczne o początku, dawności, zacności heroicznego, wielkiego i wielce sławnego w Królestwie Polski Orderu Kawalerów Białego Orła published in 1730, Jan Fryderyk Sapieha explains perfectly what orders meant in the past: “It was an award for citizens, those meritorious in times of war and peace, and the ministers of monarchs, for their contribution to the royal magnificence [greatness – AS], not an ordinary decoration. For such shining emblems on the chest of senators and lords, who were the first to walk by the king’s side and the ones closest to his heart, distinguished them from others.”

According to popular opinion, the Order of the White Eagle is the oldest Polish decoration. Perhaps not everyone knows about this, but it was preceded by not just one but two other orders. They were not remembered because their nature was ephemeral. The first one of them was the Order of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Plans to create this order appeared very early, in the 1st half of the 17th century. Pope Urban VIII encouraged King Sigismund III to found a knighthood of the Immaculate Conception, whose objective was to fight against the Turks. The task of establishing it was taken by Władysław IV Vasa, and on his request, in 1634, the Pope approved a statute pertaining to the order. In spite of the ready statute and the published draft of the order, plans to establish it came to nothing, in light of a protest of the nobility gathered in the Sejm four years later.

A draft of the Order of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 1634. Source: Zygmunt Gloger, Encyklopedia Staropolska, vol. 3, Warsaw 1902, p. 305.

In the First Polish Republic, aristocratic orders and titles initially aroused widespread resentment among the nobility. It was believed that such honours were a violation of the declared equality of the entire nobility. An exception was the dukedoms, titles born by the members of the Rurykowicz and Giedyminowicz lines, confirmed in the Act of the Union of Lublin.

Besides this, Poland did not have order traditions. It is worth remembering that in other countries the orders had been already created in the Middle Ages, such as the English Order of the Garter, which was established in 1348. The lack of any Polish orders was rather embarrassing for Polish kings –  they were endowed by foreign monarchs with membership in numerous orders and had nothing with which to repay them. Among the many modes of decoration worn by Polish rulers, the following ought to be mentioned: the Danish Order of the Elephant, the Russian Orders of Saint Andrew and Alexander Nevsky, the English Order of the Garter, as well as the Imperial Order of the Golden Fleece, which may be seen on our website, on the chest of Augustus III, portrayed in a Polish costume.

The chronologically second Polish order was the Order of the House of Sobieski, commonly known as the Order of Janina. It was established by John III Sobieski, probably in 1684 and, surprisingly, its approval happened without the resistance from the nobility. Only one copy of the cross of the Order of Janina has survived to this day, and it was not until 1956 when it was identified as the Order of the House of Sobieski.

Whereas with regard to the two previous orders which did not enter into force permanently, the circumstances of their establishment are known, in the case of the Order of the White Eagle, which is still awarded to this day, the exact date of its establishment is not certain – Augustus II the Strong established the order probably around the year 1707.

Portrait of King August III in a Polish costume, ca. 1737, The National Museum in Kraków, public domain. A statue of Augustus III, 18th century, Wawel Royal Castle – State Art Collection, public domain.

In 1713 Augustus II issued the statute of the Order of the White Eagle and of its awarding. There could only be 72 Knights of the Order at any one time. They could only be Poles, and Lithuanians, as well as foreigners, but only Catholics who were at least 35 years of age. In terms of age, an exception was made only for the sons of monarchs. Moreover, unlike today, there was a limitation related to being a member of a noble family for at least 3 generations.

A knight of the English Order of the Thistle dressed in the Order’s uniform, 19th century, public domain.

Jan Fryderyk Sapieha, quoted above, expressed the attitude towards the “badly born”: “They [the Orders of the White Eagle] were always given to more significant people [...] and they [the orders] could not be awarded to someone of communal ordinary origin but to those of noble ancient names and from high-born families”. Fortunately, days, when people were judged according to their origin, have gone. However, it is important to remember that such a way of determining someone’s value was common in the 18th century.

The development of the Polish system of orders occurred during the reign of Stanisław August Poniatowski. On 7 May 1765, he established a new Order of Saint Stanislaus the Bishop and Martyr – as a tribute to his personal patron and, above all, the patron of Poland. As the only order of the First Republic of Poland, it was introduced by a statute, whose diploma has fortunately survived to this day. Initially, the Order of the White Eagle adopted the form of a medallion or an octagonal cross, which ultimately became the only form of decoration. The sash was also initially different from the one which is currently used. At first, it was red and later white with red stripes. It was not until 1713 that a light blue sash, which was adopted permanently, was introduced. 

In addition to the cross and the Order’s star, the Order’s uniform was also introduced, which was to be worn by its knights on major celebrations. It consisted of a white żupan [long, male, traditional garment of the nobility], a red kontusz [a male outer garment with loose sleeves]  and a blue sash worn over the left shoulder and across to the right side. There was also a Western European version of this costume – with a white vest and a red jacket. Clergymen, unlike the laity, were to wear the order on their necks. Today, this distinction no longer applies.

The Star of the Order of Saint Stanislaus, the 2nd half of the 18th century, Wawel Royal Castle – State Art Collection, public domain. A portrait of Jan Sariusz Stokowski (d. 1794) in the uniform of the Order of Saint Stanislaus, 1787, Muzeum XX. Lubomirskich in Wroclaw.

The motto of the Order of Saint Stanislaus read “Praemiando Incitat”, which means “by awarding, I encourage”. Thus, in principle, the new decoration was to be not only a reward but also an encouragement to further faithful service. Sometimes receiving the Order of Saint Stanislaus was treated as a milestone on the road to being awarded the Order of the White Eagle.

Like in the case of the highest decoration, a uniform of the Order of Saint Stanislaus was designed in the Polish and Western European versions. However, order uniforms never gained such popularity in the Polish Republic as civil provincial uniforms, which corresponded more to the declared equality of the whole nobility – the same uniform was worn by an ordinary minister and a high-born prince and dignitary.

Medal of the Order of Virtuti Militari, 1792, Wawel Royal Castle – State Art Collection, public domain. Virtuti Militari Cross of General Benedykt Kołyszko, 1792, The National Museum in Krakow, public domain.

Stanisław August Poniatowski also introduced the first Polish military decoration – Order of Virtuti Militari (“For Military Virtue” in Latin). Its story is inextricably linked to the adoption of the Constitution of the 3rd May 1791. Only a year after its enforcement, the Polish army faced an armed intervention by Russia in defence of the Act and the country’s independence. The victory of the Republic of Poland in the Battle of Zieleńce on 18 June 1792 was the first military success of Poland and Lithuania for many years. Just after the battle, Prince Józef Poniatowski sent the King a list of meritorious officers. On June 22nd, Stanisław August sent his nephew twenty gold medals for officers and forty silver decorations for privates and non-commissioned officers. There were far too few orders and Józef Poniatowski soon asked for at least two hundred additional silver medals to be sent. On the website of Małopolska’s Virtual Museums, we present two versions of the order: the earliest one, in the form of an oval medal and the one introduced a while later, in the form of a cross.

Elaborated by: Adam Spodaryk (Editorial team of Małopolskas Virtual Museums),
Licencja Creative Commons

 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland License.

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