Sigismund I the Old

Sigismund I the Old

Sigismund I the Old
King of Poland
Grand Duke of Lithuania
Reign 8 December 1506 – 1 April 1548
Coronation 24 January 1507 in Wawel Cathedral, Kraków
Predecessor Alexander I
Successor Sigismund II Augustus
Born (1467-01-01)1 January 1467
Kozienice, Poland
Died 1 April 1548(1548-04-01) (aged 81)
Kraków, Poland
Burial 7 July 1548
Wawel Cathedral, Kraków
Spouses Barbara Zápolya
Bona Sforza
Hedwig, Electress of Bradenburg
Isabella, Queen of Hungary
Sigismund II Augustus
Sophia, Duchess of Brunswick-Lüneburg
Anna I of Poland
Catherine, Queen of Sweden
Dynasty Jagiellon
Father Casimir IV of Poland
Mother Elisabeth of Austria

Sigismund I of Poland (Polish: Zygmunt I Stary, Lithuanian: Žygimantas I Senasis; 1 January 1467 – 1 April 1548), of the Jagiellon dynasty, reigned as King of Poland and also as the Grand Duke of Lithuania from 1506 until 1548. Earlier, Sigismund had been invested as Duke of Silesia. A successful monarch and a great patron of arts, he established Polish suzerainty over Ducal Prussia (East Prussia) and incorporated the duchy of Mazovia into the Polish state, securing the nation's wealth, culture and power.

Sigismund I, the fifth son of Casimir IV and Elisabeth of Habsburg, had ruled Głogów, Silesia, since 1499 and became margrave of Lusatia and governor of all Silesia in 1504. In a short time his judicial and administrative reforms transformed those territories into model states. He succeeded his brother Alexander I as grand prince of Lithuania and king of Poland in 1506. Although he established fiscal and monetary reforms, he often clashed with the Polish Diet over extensions of royal power. At the Diet’s demand he married Barbara, daughter of Prince Stephen Zápolya of Hungary, in 1512, to secure a defense treaty and produce an heir. She died three years later, however, leaving only daughters. In 1518 Sigismund married the niece of the Holy Roman emperor Maximilian, Bona Sforza of Milan, by whom he had one son, Sigismund II Augustus, and four daughters. His daughter Catherine later married John III of Sweden, from whom the Vasa kings of Poland were descended.[1]

In 1521 Sigismund made peace with his nephew Albert, Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights, a paramilitary religious order that ruled East Prussia. Albert became a Lutheran and converted the Teutonic state to Protestantism in 1525, defecting from both the Papacy and Holy Roman Emperor and agreeing to do public homage to Sigismund in return for being granted the title of secular duke of Prussia and Ducal Prussia coming under Polish suzerainty. Sigismund added the duchy of Mazovia (now the province of Warsaw) to the Polish state after the death, in 1529, of the last of its Piast dynasty rulers. Again under the command of Tarnowski, Sigismund’s army defeated the invading forces of Moldavia at Obertyn in 1531 and Muscovy in 1535, thereby safeguarding Poland’s eastern borders.[1]

Sigismund, influenced by his wife, brought Italian artists to Kraków and promoted the development of the Polish variety of the Italian Renaissance. Although a devout Catholic, he accorded religious toleration to Greek Orthodox Christians and royal protection to Jews. At first he vigorously opposed Lutheranism but later resigned himself to its growing power in Poland.[1]

Sigismund I was a member of the Order of the Golden Fleece.

Early life and coronation

The son of King Casimir IV Jagiellon and Elisabeth of Austria, Sigismund followed his brothers John I of Poland and Alexander I of Poland to the Polish throne. Their elder brother Vladislaus II of Bohemia and Hungary became king of Hungary and Bohemia. Sigismund was christened as the namesake of his mother's maternal grandfather, Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, who had died in 1437.

After his father's death, Sigismund was the only son who did not hold any land titles. In the years 1495-1496, he addressed his older brother, the Lithuanian Grand Duke Alexander, and demanded the separation of a domain from the Lithuanian Duchy, but was refused. Queen Dowager Elisabeth Habsburg also tried without success to ensure the succession of his son to the throne of Austria. Also, the disastrous and unsuccessful invasion of Bukovina led by his oldest brother King John I Albert dispelled the plans for placing Sigismund on the Moldavian throne. Eventually Sigismund came under the care of Vladislaus II, King of Bohemia and Hungary, from whom he received the duchy of Głogów (1499) and Opava (1501) and in 1504 became governor of Silesia and Lower Lusatia.

After the death of King Alexander I, Sigismund arrived in Vilnius, where he was elected by the Lithuanian Ducal Council on 13 September 1506 as Grand Duke of Lithuania, contrary to the Union of Mielnik, which involved a joint Polish-Lithuanian election of a monarch. On 8 December 1506, during the session of the Polish Senate in Piotrków, Sigismund was elected King of Poland. He arrived in Kraków on 20 January 1507 and was crowned four days later in Wawel Cathedral by Primate Andrzej Boryszewski.

Internal politics

Crown of the Kingdom of Poland

Coat of Arms of the Jagiellon kings of Poland

The internal situation in Poland was characterised by broad authorisation of the Chamber of Deputies, confirmed and extended in the constitution of Nihil novi. During Alexander's reign, the law of Nihil novi had been instituted, which forbade kings of Poland from enacting laws without the consent of the Sejm. Sigismund had little control over the act, unlike the senators, whom he personally appointed. Eventually, during his reign, Sigismund benefited from the advice of the local nobility, competent ministers in charge of the royal judiciary system, and the wealthy and influential treasurers of Kraków. Although he was reluctant to the parliamentary system and political independence of the nobility, he recognised the authority of legal norms, supported legalism and summoned annual sessions of the Sejm, usually obtaining funds on state defence. However he was unsuccessful at attempting to create a permanent fund for defence from the annual income tax. Despite this "Achilles heel", in 1527 he established a conscript army and the bureaucracy needed to finance it. He set up the legal codes that formalised serfdom in Poland, locking the peasants into the estates of nobles.

Likely related to tax matters was an unsuccessful attempt on the life of the king, made on 5 May 1523. The identity of the would-be assassin - who shot the ruler while he was strolling in the evening around the cloisters of the Wawel castle - and his potential supporters was never established. Unclear motives remained after the assassination attempt. The only clue was the fact that three weeks before the event, Sigismund I introduced a new edict that was very unfavourable and somewhat hostile to the high-ranking nobles.

Sigismund I achieved several economic successes, including partial debt reduction, separation of accounts of public taxation from the royal treasury, strengthening of the activities of the mint operating in Kraków, and the attempt to organise the processing of income from operating salt mines. Furthermore, he issued a statute for the Armenians (1519) and strongly intended to harmonise the law across the country.

Between 1530 and 1538 the king issued two statutes defining the rules for the selection of the monarch, which permanently established the election viritim. The laws held that all social groups, regardless of their wealth, could watch the election process (unusquisque qui vellet), and the election was to be free (electio Regis libera).

The king successfully organised the agricultural economy, looked after the development of the royal cities and recovered numerous goods of the treasury belonging to the crown that were under lien. During the financial activities, the king received full support of his wife, Queen Bona, who aimed to expand the royal estates by purchasing and improving economic efficiency.

Chicken War - the rebellion of Lwów

Chicken War by Henryk Rodakowski

The rebellion of Lwów (the so-called Chicken War) was an anti-royalist and anti-absolutist rokosz (rebellion) by the Polish nobility that occurred in 1537. The derisive name was coined by the magnates, who for the most part supported the King and claimed that the "war's" only effect was the near-extinction of the local chickens, eaten by the nobles gathered for the rebellion at Lwów, in Lesser Poland. The nobility, gathered near the city to meet with a levée en masse, called for a military campaign against Moldavia. However, the lesser and middle strata of the nobility called a rebellion, or semi-legal rebellion, to force the King to abandon his risky reforms. The nobles presented him with 36 demands, most notably: a cessation of further land acquisitions by Queen Bona, exemption of the nobility from the tithes, a clean-up of the Treasury rather than its expansion, confirmation and extension of the privileges of the nobility, lifting of the toll or exemption of the nobility from it, adoption of a law concerning incompatibilitas — the incompatibility of certain offices that were not to be joined in the same hand, the carrying out of a law requiring the appointment of only the local nobles to most important local offices and the creation of a body of permanent advisors to the king.[2] Finally, the protesters criticised the role of Queen Bona, whom they blamed for the "bad education" of young Prince Sigismund Augustus (the future King Sigismund II Augustus), as well as for seeking to increase her power and influence in the state.

It soon transpired, however, that the nobility's leaders were divided and that achieving a compromise was almost impossible. Too weak to start a civil war against the King, the protesters finally agreed to what was thought a compromise. The King rejected most of their demands, while accepting the principle of incompatibilitas the following year and agreeing not to force the election of the future king vivente rege, that is, in the lifetime of the reigning king.

Thereupon the nobility returned to their homes, having achieved little.

Foreign politics

European affairs

Intermittently at war with Vasily III of Muscovy, starting in 1507 (before his army was fully under his command), 1514 marked the fall of Smolensk (under Lithuanian domination) to the Muscovite forces (which lent force to his arguments for the necessity of a standing army). Those conflicts formed part of the Muscovite wars. In 1515 he entered into alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. After the death of Janusz III of Masovia in 1526, he succeeded in annexing the Duchy of Masovia. In return for Maximilian lending weight to the provisions of the Second Peace of Thorn (1466), Sigismund consented to the marriage of the children of Vladislaus II of Bohemia and Hungary, his brother, to the grandchildren of Maximilian. Through this double marriage contract, Bohemia and Hungary passed to the House of Habsburg in 1526, on the death of Sigismund's nephew, Louis II.

Worried about the growing ties between the Habsburgs and Russia, in 1524 Sigismund signed a Franco-Polish alliance with King Francis I of France.[3] The agreement fell through, however, when Francis I was vanquished by Charles V at the Battle of Pavia (1525).[4]

In other matters of policy, Sigismund sought peaceful coexistence with the Khanate of Crimea, but was unable to completely end border skirmishes.

Teutonic Knights

Prussian Homage, by Jan Matejko, 1882. Albrecht Hohenzollern receives the Duchy of Prussia in fief from Poland's King Sigismund I the Old, 1525

The Polish wars against the Teutonic Knights ended in 1525 when Albert, Duke of Prussia, their marshal (and Sigismund's nephew), converted to Lutheranism, secularized the order, and paid homage to Sigismund. In return he was given the domains of the Order as the First Duke of Prussia. This was called the "Prussian Homage". Later, Sigismund's eldest daughter Hedwig (1513–1573) married Joachim II Hector, Elector of Brandenburg.


On Sigismund's death, his son Sigismund II Augustus became the last Jagiellon king of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania.

Interest in Renaissance movement

Sigismund was interested in Renaissance humanism and the revival of classical antiquity. He and his third consort, Bona Sforza, daughter of Gian Galeazzo Sforza of Milan, were both patrons of Renaissance culture, which under them began to flourish in Poland and in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

Portraits and art

Marriages and issue

Medal of Sigismund I the Old.

In 1512, Sigismund married a Hungarian noblewoman named Barbara Zápolya (d. 1515), with whom he had two daughters:

In 1517, Sigismund married Bona Sforza, with whom he had:

By his mistress, Katarzyna Telniczenka (d. 1528), he also fathered three children out of wedlock:[6]


See also

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Sigismund I of Poland.


Regnal titles
Preceded by
Alexander I Jagiellon
Grand Duke of Lithuania
with Sigismund II Augustus (1529–1548)
Succeeded by
Sigismund II Augustus
as sole ruler
King of Poland
with Sigismund II Augustus (1530–1548)

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