Everipedia Logo
Everipedia is now IQ.wiki - Join the IQ Brainlist and our Discord for early access to editing on the new platform and to participate in the beta testing.


The szlachta ([ˈʂlaxta] (listen), exonym: Nobility) was a legally privileged noble class in the Kingdom of Poland, and in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. After the Union of Lublin in 1569, the Grand Duchy and its neighbouring Kingdom became a single state, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth.

The origins of the szlachta are obscure and have several theories.[1] [] Traditionally, its members were landowners, often in the form of "manorial estates" or so-called folwarks.[2] The nobility won substantial and increasing political and legal privileges for itself throughout its entire history until the decline and end of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in the late 18th century. Apart from providing officers for the army, among its chief civic obligations were electing the monarch, plus filling advisory and honorary roles at court, e.g., Stolnik - "Master of the King's Pantry," or their assistant, Podstoli, and in the state government, e.g. Podskarbi, "Minister to the Treasury". They served as elected representatives in the Sejm (National Parliament) and in local Sejmiki assemblies, appointing officials and overseeing judicial and financial governance, including tax-raising, at the provincial level. Their roles included Voivodeship, Marshal of Voivodeship, Castellan, and Starosta.[3]

The szlachta gained considerable institutional privileges between 1333 and 1370 in the Kingdom of Poland during the reign of King Casimir III the Great.[1] [] In 1413, following a series of tentative personal unions between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland, the existing Lithuanian-Ruthenian nobility formally joined this class.[1] [] As the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569–1795) evolved and expanded in territory, its membership grew to include the leaders of Ducal Prussia and Livonia. During the Partitions of Poland from 1772 to 1795, minor szlachta began to lose these legal privileges and social status, while elites became part of the nobility of partitioning countries.

Although szlachta members had greatly unequal status due to wealth and political influence, few official distinctions existed between elites and common nobility. Because of the juridic principle of szlachta equality, and a disdain for distinction by way of titles, the relatively few hereditary titles in the Kingdom of Poland were bestowed by foreign monarchs, including personal hereditary titles granted by the Pope — see Feliks Sobański. In the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Ruthenia, and Samogitia princely titles were mostly inherited by descendants of Old Lithuanian-Ruthenian Rurikid and Gediminids princely families, or by princely dynasties of Tatar origin settled there.



The Polish term szlachta is derived from the Old High German word slahta. In modern German Geschlecht - which originally came from the Proto-Germanic *slagiz, "blow", "strike", and shares the Anglo-Saxon root for "slaughter" or the verb "to slug" – means "breeding" or gender. Like many other Polish words pertaining to nobility, it derives from Germanic words: the Polish for a "knight" is "rycerz", a cognate of the German "Ritter". The Polish word for "coat of arms" is "herb" from the German "Erbe" or "heritage". 17th century Poles assumed "szlachta" came from the German "schlachten" "to slaughter" or "to butcher", and was therefore related to the German word for battle, "Schlacht". Some early Polish historians thought the term might have derived from the name of the legendary proto-Polish chief, Lech, mentioned in Polish and Czech writings. In Gaelic society, large landholders with hereditary tenures formed the principal lineages of their own "clans" or "septs," and they were traced to a sliocht, or branch, of the ruling families.[4] In ancient Ireland, "sliocht" meant progeny.[5] The posterity of Hugh Slany, ruler of the Kingdom of Meath, were known in ancient Ireland as Sliocht Aodha Slaine, the progeny of King Hugh Slany.[6] In Shakespeare's play, Macbeth says of King Duncan, "... First, as I am his kinsman and his subject, ..."[7][8] The szlachta traced their descent from Lech/Lekh, who allegedly founded the Polish kingdom in about the fifth century.[9] []

A few exceptionally wealthy and powerful szlachta members were known as "magnates" - "możni" (see Magnates of Poland and Lithuania).

The Polish term "szlachta" designated the formalized, hereditary[10] noble class of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which constituted the nation itself, and ruled without competition.[11][12] In official Latin documents of the old Commonwealth, the hereditary szlachta were referred to as "nobilitas" from the Latin term, and could be compared in legal status to English or British peers of the realm, or to the ancient Roman idea of cives, "citizen". Until the second half of the 19th century, the Polish term obywatel (wiktionary:obywatel) ("Citizen") was used as a synonym for szlachta landlords.[13]

Today the word szlachta simply translates as "nobility". In its broadest sense, it can also denote some non-hereditary honorary knighthoods and baronial titles granted by other European monarchs, including the Holy See. Occasionally, 19th-century landowners of non-noble descent were referred to as szlachta by courtesy or error, when they owned manorial estates, but were not in fact noble by birth. Szlachta also denotes the Ruthenian and Lithuanian nobility from before the old-Commonwealth.

In the past, a misconception sometimes led to the mistranslation of "szlachta" as "gentry" rather than "nobility".[14][15][16] This mistaken practice began due to the inferior economic status of many szlachta members compared to that of the nobility in other European countries (see also Estates of the Realm regarding wealth and nobility).[17][18] The szlachta included those rich and powerful enough to be magnates down to the indigent with a noble lineage, but with no land, no castle, no money, no village, and no subject peasants.[19] At least 60,000 families belonged to the nobility, however, only about 100 were wealthy (less than 0.167%); all the rest were poor (greater than 99.83%).[20]

Over time, numerically most lesser szlachta became poorer, or were poorer than, their few rich peers in their social class, and many were worse off than the non-noble gentry. They were called szlachta zagrodowa, that is, "nobility from within the second estate compound", sometimes referred to as drobna szlachta, "petty nobles" or yet, szlachta okoliczna, meaning "local". Particularly impoverished szlachta families were often forced to become tenants of their wealthier peers. They were described as szlachta czynszowa, or "tenant nobles" who paid rent.[21] In doing so, they nevertheless retained all their constitutional and lawful prerogatives because aristocratic lineage and hereditary juridical status determined Polish nobility, not wealth nor lifestyle, as was achievable by the gentry.

An individual nobleman was called "szlachcic", while a noblewoman "szlachcianka".



The origins of the szlachta, while ancient, have always been considered obscure.[1] [] As a result, its members often referred to it as odwieczna (perennial).[1] [] Two popular historical theories about its origins have been put forward by its members and early historians and chroniclers. The first theory involved a presumed descent from the ancient Iranian tribe known as Sarmatians, who in the 2nd century AD, occupied lands in Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. The second theory involved a presumed szlachta descent from Japheth, one of Noah's sons. By contrast, the peasantry were said to be the offspring of another son of Noah, Ham — and hence subject to bondage under the Curse of Ham. The Jews were considered the offspring of Shem.[22][23][24] Other fanciful theories included its foundation by Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, or regional leaders who had not mixed their bloodlines with those of 'slaves, prisoners, or aliens'.[1] [] [1] []

Another theory describes its derivation from a non-Slavic warrior class,[25] [] forming a distinct element known as the Lechici/Lekhi (Lechitów)[26][9] [] within the ancient Polonic tribal groupings (Indo-European caste systems). Similar to Nazi racist ideology, which dictated the Polish elite were largely Nordic[27] (the szlachta Boreyko coat of arms heralds a swastika), this hypothesis states this upper class was not of Slavonic extraction[9] [] and was of a different origin than the Slavonic peasants (kmiecie; Latin: cmethones)[28][29] over which they ruled.[9] []

The Szlachta were differentiated from the rural population.[30][31] In harshly stratified and elitist Polish society,[12][32][33] the nobleman's sense of distinction led to practices that in later periods would be characterized as racism.[34] Wacław Potocki, herbu Śreniawa (1621 - 1696), proclaimed peasants "by nature" are "chained to the land and plow," that even an educated peasant would always remain a peasant, because "it is impossible to transform a dog into a lynx."[35] The Szlachta were noble in the Aryan (see Alans) sense -- "noble" in contrast to the people over whom they ruled after coming into contact with them.[9] []

The szlachta traced their descent from Lech/Lekh, who allegedly founded the Polish kingdom in about the fifth century.[9] [] Lechia was the name of Poland in antiquity, and the szlachta's own name for themselves was Lechici/Lekhi.[9] [] An exact counterpart of Szlachta society was the Meerassee (wiktionary:mirasdar) system of tenure of southern India—an aristocracy of equality—settled as conquerors among a separate race.[9] [] The Polish state paralleled the Roman Empire[36][37][38] in that full rights of citizenship were limited to the szlachta.[39][40] Rome devoted its attention nearly exclusively to agriculture[41] as did old Poland.[42] The szlachta ideal also paralleled that of a Greek polis—a body of citizens, a small merchant class, and a multitude of laborers.[43][44] Quoting Bishop of Poznań, Wawrzyniec Goślicki, herbu Grzymała (between 1530 and 1540 - 1607):

"The kingdome of Polonia doth also consist of the said three sortes, that is, the king, nobility and people. But it is to be noted, that this word people includeth only knights and gentlemen. ... The gentlemen of Polonia doe represent the popular state, for in them consisteth a great part of the government, and they are as a Seminarie from whence Councellors and Kinges are taken."[45]

The szlachta were a caste,[46] a military caste, as in Hindu society.[39][17] In the year 1244, Bolesław, Duke of Masovia, identified members of the knights' clan as members of a genealogia:

"I received my good servitors [Raciborz and Albert] from the land of [Great] Poland, and from the clan [genealogia] called Jelito, with my well-disposed knowledge [i.e., consent and encouragement] and the cry [vocitatio], [that is], the godło, [by the name of] Nagody, and I established them in the said land of mine, Masovia, [on the military tenure described elsewhere in the charter]."

The documentation regarding Raciborz and Albert's tenure is the earliest surviving of the use of the clan name and cry defining the honorable status of Polish knights. The names of knightly genealogiae only came to be associated with heraldic devices later in the Middle Ages and in the early modern period. The Polish clan name and cry ritualized the ius militare, i.e., the power to command an army; and they had been used some time before 1244 to define knightly status. (Górecki 1992, pp. 183–185).

"In Poland, the Radwanice were noted relatively early (1274) as the descendants of Radwan, a knight [more properly a "rycerz" from the German "ritter"] active a few decades earlier. ..."[47][48]

Escutcheons and hereditary coats of arms with eminent privileges attached is an honor derived from the ancient Germans. Where Germans did not inhabit, and where German customs were unknown, no such thing existed.[49] The usage of coats of arms in Poland was brought in by knights arriving from Silesia, Lusatia, Meissen, and Bohemia. Migrations from here were the most frequent, and the time period was the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.[50] However, unlike other European chivalry, coats of arms were associated with Polish knights' clans' (genealogiae) names and war cries (godło), where heraldic devices came to be held in common by entire clans, fighting in regiments.[51][52][53] (Górecki 1992, pp. 183–185).

Around the 14th century, there was little difference between knights and the szlachta in Poland. Members of the szlachta had the personal obligation to defend the country (pospolite ruszenie), thereby becoming the kingdom's most privileged social class. Inclusion in the class was almost exclusively based on inheritance.[10][54]

Concerning the early Polish tribes, geography contributed to long-standing traditions. The Polish tribes were internalized and organized around a unifying religious cult, governed by the wiec, an assembly of free tribesmen. Later, when safety required power to be consolidated, an elected prince was chosen to govern. The election privilege was usually limited to elites.[55]

The tribes were ruled by clans (ród) consisting of people related by blood or marriage and theoretically descending from a common ancestor,[48] giving the ród/clan a highly developed sense of solidarity. (See gens.) The starosta (or starszyna) had judicial and military power over the ród/clan, although this power was often exercised with an assembly of elders. Strongholds called grόd were built where the religious cult was powerful, where trials were conducted, and where clans gathered in the face of danger. The opole was the territory occupied by a single tribe. (Manteuffel 1982, p. 44) The family unit of a tribe is called the rodzina, while a collection of tribes is a plemię.

Mieszko I of Poland (c. 935 – 25 May 992) established an elite knightly retinue from within his army, which he depended upon for success in uniting the Lekhitic tribes and preserving the unity of his state. Documented proof exists of Mieszko I's successors utilizing such a retinue, as well.

Another class of knights were granted land by the prince, allowing them the economic ability to serve the prince militarily. A Polish nobleman living at the time prior to the 15th century was referred to as a "rycerz", very roughly equivalent to the English "knight," the critical difference being the status of "rycerz" was almost strictly hereditary;[10][54] the class of all such individuals was known as the "rycerstwo".[54] Representing the wealthier families of Poland and itinerant knights from abroad seeking their fortunes, this other class of rycerstwo, which became the szlachta/nobility ("szlachta" becomes the proper term for Polish nobility beginning about the 15th century), gradually formed apart from Mieszko I's and his successors' elite retinues. This rycerstwo/nobility obtained more privileges granting them favored status. They were absolved from particular burdens and obligations under ducal law, resulting in the belief only rycerstwo (those combining military prowess with high/noble birth) could serve as officials in state administration.

Select rycerstwo were distinguished above the other rycerstwo, because they descended from past tribal dynasties, or because early Piasts' endowments made them select beneficiaries. These rycerstwo of great wealth were called możni (Magnates). Socially they were not a distinct class from the rycerstwo from which they all originated[56] and to which they would return were their wealth lost. (Manteuffel 1982, pp. 148–149)

The Period of Division from, A.D., 1138 – A.D., 1314, which included nearly 200 years of feudal fragmentation and which stemmed from Bolesław III's division of Poland among his sons, was the genesis of the social structure which saw the economic elevation of the great landowning feudal nobles (możni/Magnates, both ecclesiastical and lay) from the rycerstwo they originated from. The prior social structure was one of Polish tribes united into the historic Polish nation under a state ruled by the Piast dynasty, this dynasty appearing circa 850 A.D.

Some możni (Magnates) descending from past tribal dynasties regarded themselves as co-proprietors of Piast realms, even though the Piasts attempted to deprive them of their independence. These możni (Magnates) constantly sought to undermine princely authority.[1] [] In Gall Anonym's chronicle, there is noted the nobility's alarm when the Palatine Sieciech "elevated those of a lower class over those who were noble born" entrusting them with state offices. (Manteuffel 1982, p. 149)


In Lithuania Propria and in Samogitia, prior to the creation of the Kingdom of Lithuania by Mindaugas, nobles were called die beste leuten in German sources. In Lithuanian, nobles were named ponai. The higher nobility were named kunigai or kunigaikščiai (dukes) — a loanword from Scandinavian konung. They were the established local leaders and warlords. During the development of the state, they gradually became subordinated to higher dukes, and later to the King of Lithuania. Because of Lithuanian expansion into the lands of Ruthenia in the middle of the 14th century, a new term for nobility appeared — bajorai, from Ruthenian бояре. This word is used to this day in Lithuania to refer to nobility in general, including those from abroad.

After the Union of Horodło, the Lithuanian nobility acquired equal status with its Polish counterparts. Over time they became increasingly polonized, although they did preserve their national consciousness, and in most cases recognition of their Lithuanian family roots. In the 16th century, some of the Lithuanian nobility claimed that they were descended from the Romans, and that the Lithuanian language was derived from Latin. This led to a conundrum: Polish nobility claimed its own ancestry from Sarmatian tribes, but Sarmatians were considered enemies of the Romans. Thus, a new Roman-Sarmatian theory was created. Strong cultural ties with Polish nobility led to a new term for Lithuanian nobility appearing in the 16th century — šlėkta, a direct loanword from Polish szlachta. Recently, Lithuanian linguists advocated dropping the usage of this Polish loanword.[57]

The process of polonization took place over a lengthy period. At first only the leading members of the nobility were involved. Gradually the wider population became affected. Major effects on the lesser Lithuanian nobility occurred after various sanctions were imposed by the Russian Empire, such as removing Lithuania from the names of the Gubernyas shortly after the November Uprising.[58] After the January Uprising the sanctions went further, and Russian officials announced that "Lithuanians were actually Russians seduced by Poles and Catholicism" and began to intensify russification, and to ban the printing of books in Lithuanian.


After the principalities of Halych and Volhynia became integrated with the Grand Duchy, Ruthenia's nobility gradually rendered loyalty to the multilingual and cultural melting pot that was the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Many noble Ruthenian families intermarried with Lithuanians.

The rights of Orthodox nobles were nominally equal to those enjoyed by the Polish and Lithuanian nobility, but they were put under cultural pressure to convert to Catholicism. It was a policy that was greatly eased in 1596 by the Union of Brest. See, for example, the careers of Senator Adam Kisiel and Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki.

Origins of noble surnames

In Polish "dąb" means "oak."[59] [] "Dąbrowa" means "oak forest," and "Dąbrówka" means "little oak forest" (or grove). In antiquity, the nobility used topographic surnames to identify themselves.[60] The expression "z" (meaning "from" sometimes "at") plus the name of one's patrimony or estate (dominion) carried the same prestige as "de" in French names such as "de Châtellerault", and "von" or "zu" in German names such as "von Weizsäcker" or "zu Rhein".[61] In Polish "z Dąbrówki" and "Dąbrowski" mean the same thing: "of, from Dąbrówka."[59] [] More precisely, "z Dąbrówki" means owning the patrimony or estate Dąbrówka, not necessarily originating from. Almost all the surnames of genuine Polish szlachta can be traced back to a patrimony or locality, despite time scattering most families far from their original home. John of Zamość called himself John Zamoyski, Stephen of Potok called himself Potocki.[62]

At least since the 17th century the surnames/cognomens of noble families became fixed and were inherited by following generations, remaining in that form until today. Prior to that time, a member of the family[48] would simply use his Christian name (e.g., Jakub, Jan, Mikołaj, etc.), and the name of the coat of arms common to all members of his clan.[63] A member of the family would be identified as, for example, "Jakub z Dąbrówki",[64] herbu Radwan, (Jacob to/at Dąbrówki of the knights' clan Radwan coat of arms), or "Jakub z Dąbrówki, Żądło (cognomen)[65] (later a przydomkiem/nickname/agnomen), herbu Radwan" (Jacob to/at [owning] Dąbrówki with the distinguishing name Żądło of the knights' clan Radwan coat of arms), or "Jakub Żądło,[65] herbu Radwan".

The Polish state paralleled the Roman Empire[36] in that full rights of citizenship were limited to the nobility/szlachta.[39] The nobility/szlachta in Poland, where Latin was written and spoken far and wide,[66] used the Roman naming convention of the tria nomina (praenomen, nomen, and cognomen)[37] to distinguish Polish citizens/nobles/szlachta from the peasantry[67] and foreigners, hence why multiple surnames are associated with many Polish coat of arms.

Example - Jakub: Radwan Żądło-Dąbrowski[68] (sometimes Jakub: Radwan Dąbrowski-Żądło)



Nomen (nomen gentile—name of the gens[48]/ród or knights' clan):


Cognomen (name of the family branch/sept within the Radwan gens):

For example—Braniecki, Dąbrowski,[69] Czcikowski, Dostojewski, Górski, Nicki, Zebrzydowski, etc.

Agnomen (nickname, Polish wiktionary:przydomek):

Żądło (prior to the 17th century, was a cognomen[65])

Bartosz Paprocki gives an example of the Rościszewski family taking different surnames from the names of various patrimonies or estates they owned. The branch of the Rościszewski family that settled in Chrapunia became the Chrapunski family, the branch of the Rościszewski family that settled in Strykwina became the Strykwinski family, and the branch of the Rościszewski family that settled in Borkow became known as the Borkowski family. Each family shared a common ancestor and belonged to the same knights' clan, so they bore the same coat of arms as the Rościszewski family.[70]

Each knights' clan/gens/ród had its coat of arms, and there were only a limited number. Almost without exception, there were no family coat of arms.[71] Each coat of arms bore a name, the clan's call word. In most instances, the coat of arms belonged to many families within the clan.[51] The Polish state paralleled the Roman Empire,[36][37] and the Polish nobility had a different origin and structure in law than Western Europe's feudal nobility.[52] The clan/gens/ród system survived the whole of Polish history.[53]


In the Kingdom of Poland

The number of legally granted ennoblements after the 15th century was minimal.

In the Kingdom of Poland and later in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, ennoblement (nobilitacja) may be equated with an individual given legal status as a szlachcic member of the Polish nobility. Initially, this privilege could be granted by the monarch, but from 1641 onward, this right was reserved for the sejm. Most often the individual being ennobled would join an existing noble szlachta clan and assume the undifferentiated coat of arms of that clan.

According to heraldic sources, the total number of legal ennoblements issued between the 14th century and the mid-18th century is estimatedat approximately 800.[72][73] This is an average of only about two ennoblements per year, or only 0.000,000,14 – 0.000,001 of the historical population. Compare: historical demography of Poland. Charles-Joseph, 7th Prince of Ligne, when trying to obtain Polish noble status, supposedly said in 1784, "It is easier to become a duke in Germany, than to be counted among Polish nobles."[74][75]

The close of the late 18th century (see below) was a period in which a definite increase[72][73] in the number of ennoblements can be noted. This can most readily be explained in terms of the ongoing decline and eventual collapse of the Commonwealth and the resulting need for soldiers and other military leaders (see: Partitions of Poland, King Stanisław August Poniatowski).

Estimated number of ennoblements

According to heraldic[72][73] sources 1,600 is the total estimated number of all legal ennoblements throughout the history of Kingdom of Poland and Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from the 14th century onward (half of which were performed in the final years of the late 18th century).

Types of ennoblement:

  • Adopcja herbowa – The "old way" of ennoblement, popular in the 15th century, connected with adoption into an existing noble clan by a powerful lord, but abolished in the 17th century.

  • Skartabellat – Introduced by pacta conventa of the 17th century, this was ennoblement into a sort of "conditional" or "graduated nobility" status. Skartabels could not hold public offices or be members of the Sejm, but after three generations, the descendants of these families would "mature" to full szlachta status.

  • Indygenat – from the Latin expression, indigenatus, recognition of foreign noble status. A foreign noble, after acquiring indygenat status, received all privileges of a Polish szlachcic. In Polish history, 413 foreign noble families were recognized. Prior to the 17th century this was done by the King and Sejm, after the 17th century it was done only by the Sejm.

  • "secret ennoblement" – This was of questionable legal status and was often not recognized by many szlachta members. It was typically granted by the elected monarch without the required legal approval of the Sejm.

In the Grand Duchy of Lithuania

In the late 14th century, in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Vytautas the Great reformed the Grand Duchy's army: instead of calling all men to arms, he created forces comprising professional warriors—bajorai ("nobles"; see the cognate "boyar"). As there were not enough nobles, Vytautas trained suitable men, relieving them of labor on the land and of other duties; for their military service to the Grand Duke, they were granted land that was worked by hired men (veldams). The newly formed noble families generally took up, as their family names, the Lithuanian pagan given names of their ennobled ancestors; this was the case with the Goštautai, Radvilos, Astikai, Kęsgailos and others. These families were granted their coats of arms under the Union of Horodlo (1413).

In 1506, King Sigismund I the Old confirmed the position of the Lithuanian Council of Lords in state politics and limited entry into the nobility.


Specific rights of the szlachta included:

  1. The right to hold outright ownership of land (Allod) -- not as a fief, conditional upon service to the liege Lord, but absolutely in perpetuity unless sold. The szlachta had a monopoly on land. Peasants did not own land.[76] See Polish landed gentry (Ziemiaństwo).

  2. The right to join in political and military assemblies of the regional nobility.

  3. The right to form independent administrative councils for their locality.

  4. The right to cast a vote for Polish Kings.

  5. The right to travel freely anywhere in the old Commonwealth of the Polish and Lithuanian nobility; or outside it, as foreign policy dictated.

  6. The right to demand information from Crown offices.

  7. The right to spiritual semi-independence from the clergy.

  8. The right to interdict, in suitable ways, the passage of foreigners and townsmen through their territories.

  9. The right of priority over the courts of the peasantry.

  10. Special rights in Polish courts, including freedom from arbitrary arrest and freedom from corporal punishment.

  11. The right to sell their military or administrative services.

  12. Heraldic rights.

  13. The right to receive higher pay when entitled in the "Levée en masse" (mobilization of the szlachta for defence of the nation).

  14. Educational rights

  15. The right of importing duty-free goods often.

  16. The exclusive right to enter the clergy until the time of the three partitions of Poland.

  17. The right to try their peasants for major offences (reduced to minor offences only, after the 1760s).[77]

Significant legislative changes in the status of the szlachta, as defined by Robert Bideleux and Ian Jeffries, consist of its 1374 exemption from the land tax, a 1425 guarantee against the 'arbitrary arrests and/or seizure of property' of its members, a 1454 requirement that military forces and new taxes be approved by provincial Sejms, and statutes issued between 1496 and 1611 that prescribed the rights of commoners.[78]

Real and false nobles

Nobles were born into a noble family, adopted by a noble family - this was abolished in 1633 - or achieved noble rank through Ennoblement by a king or Sejm for reasons such as bravery in combat, services to the state, etc. Yet this proved to be the rarest means of gaining noble status. Many nobles were, in fact, usurpers who were commoners that had moved to another part of the country and falsely claimed noble status. Hundreds of such "false nobles" were denounced by Hieronim Nekanda Trepka in his "Liber generationis plebeanorum", or "Liber chamorum", in the first half of the 16th century. The law forbade non-nobles to own folwarks and promised such estates as a reward to denouncers. Trepka was himself an impoverished nobleman who lived a town dweller's life and documented hundreds of such false claims hoping to take over one of the usurped estates. He does not seem to have succeeded in his quest despite his employment as the king's secretary.[79] Many sejms issued decrees over the centuries in an attempt to resolve this issue but with little success. It is unknown what percentage of the Polish nobility came from the 'lower orders' of society,.

Ambitions of aggrandizement of perceived status was not confined to commoners. It was not uncommon for members of the lower szlachta to seek further ennoblement from foreign, therefore less verifiable, sources. That is, they might acquire by legitimate means or otherwise, such as by purchase, one of a selection of foreign titles ranging from Baron, Marchese, Freiherr to Comte, all readily translatable into the Polish Hrabia. Alternatively, they would simply appropriate a title by conferring it upon themselves. An example of this is cited in the case of the last descendant of the Ciechanowiecki family, who managed to restore a genuinely old Comital title, but whose actual origins are shrouded in 18th century mystery.[80]

Accretion of sovereignty to the szlachta

Polish nobility enjoyed many rights that were not available to their equivalents in other countries. Over time, each new monarch ceded to them further privileges. Those privileges became the basis of the Golden Liberty in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. Despite having a king, Poland was considered the 'nobility's Commonwealth' because Royal elections in Poland were in the hands of members of a hereditary class. Poland was therefore the domain of this class, and not that of the king or the ruling dynasty. This arose in part because of the extinction of male heirs in the original royal dynasties: first, the Piasts, then the Jagiellons. As a result, the nobility took it upon itself to choose "the Polish king" from among the dynasties' matrilinial descendants.

Poland's successive kings granted privileges to the nobility upon their election to the throne - the privileges having been specified in the king-elect's Pacta conventa - and at other times, in exchange for ad hoc leave to raise an extraordinary tax or a pospolite ruszenie, a military call up. Poland's nobility thus accumulated a growing array of privileges and immunities.

In 1355 in Buda King Casimir III the Great issued the first country-wide privilege for the nobility, in exchange for their agreeing that if Casimir's had no male heirs, the throne would pass to his nephew, Louis I of Hungary. He further decreed that the nobility would no longer be subject to 'extraordinary' taxes or have to use their own funds for foreign military expeditions. He also promised that when the royal court was touring, the king and the court would cover all expenses, instead of requiring facilities to be provided by the local nobility.

The Privilege of Koszyce and others

In 1374 King Louis of Hungary approved the Privilege of Koszyce - przywilej koszycki to guarantee the Polish throne for his daughter, Jadwiga. He broadened the definition of membership of the nobility and exempted the entire class from all but one tax - łanowy - a limit of 2 groszes per łan of land, Old Polish units of measurement. In addition, the King's right to raise taxes was effectively abolished: no new taxes would be levied without the agreement of the nobility. Henceforth, also, district offices were reserved exclusively for local nobility, as the Privilege of Koszyce forbade the king to grant official posts and major Polish castles to foreign knights. Finally, this privilege obliged the King to pay indemnities to nobles injured or taken captive during a war outside Polish borders.

In 1422 King Władysław II Jagiełło was constrained by the Privilege of Czerwińsk - przywilej czerwiński which established the inviolability of nobles' property. Their estates could not be confiscated except upon the verdict of a court. It also made him cede some jurisdiction over fiscal policy to the Royal Council, later, the Senate of Poland, including the right to mint coinage.

In 1430 with the Privileges of Jedlnia, confirmed at Kraków in 1433, Polish: przywileje jedlneńsko-krakowskie, based partially on his earlier Brześć Kujawski privilege (April 25, 1425), King Władysław II Jagiełło granted the nobility a guarantee against arbitrary arrest, similar to the English Magna Carta's Habeas corpus, known from its own Latin name as "neminem captivabimus nisi jure victum". Henceforth no member of the nobility could be imprisoned without a warrant from a court of justice. The king could neither punish nor imprison any noble on a whim. King Władysław's quid pro quo for this Easement was the nobles' guarantee that the throne would be inherited by one of his sons, who would be bound to honour the privileges granted earlier to the nobility. On May 2, 1447 the same king issued the Wilno Pact - Wilno Privilege which gave the Lithuanian boyars the same rights as those already secured by the Polish szlachta.

In 1454 King Casimir IV granted the Nieszawa Statutes - Polish: statuty cerkwicko-nieszawskie, clarifying the legal basis of voivodship sejmiks - local parliaments. The king could promulgate new laws, raise taxes, or call for a mass military call up pospolite ruszenie, only with the consent of the sejmiks, and the nobility were protected from judicial abuses. The Nieszawa Statutes also curbed the power of the magnates, as the Sejm, the national parliament, had the right to elect many officials, including judges, voivods and castellans. These privileges were demanded by the szlachta in exchange for their participation in the Thirteen Years' War.

First Royal Election

The first "free election" - Polish: wolna elekcja - of a king took place in 1492. In fact, some earlier Polish kings had been elected with help from assemblies such as those that put Casimir II on the throne, thereby setting a precedent for free elections. Only senators voted in the 1492 free election, which was won by John I Albert. For the duration of the Jagiellonian Dynasty, only members of that royal family were considered for election. Later, there would be no restrictions on the choice of candidates.

In 1493 the Sejm, began meeting every two years at Piotrków. It comprised two chambers:

  • a Senate of 81 bishops and other dignitaries

  • a Chamber of Deputies of 54 deputies representing their respective domains.

The numbers of senators and deputies later increased.

On April 26, 1496 King John I Albert granted the Privilege of Piotrków. The Statutes of Piotrków increased the nobility's feudal power over serfs. It bound the peasant to the land, and only one son though not the eldest, was permitted to leave the village. Townsfolk mieszczaństwo were prohibited from owning land. Positions in the Church hierarchy were restricted to nobles.

On 23 October 1501, the Polish–Lithuanian union was reformed by the Union of Mielnik. It was there that the tradition of a coronation Sejm was founded. Here again, the lesser nobility, lesser in wealth only - not in rank - attempted to reduce the power of the Magnates with a law that made them impeachable before the Senate for malfeasance. However, the Act of Mielnik of 25 October did more to strengthen the Magnate-dominated Senate of Poland than the lesser nobility. Nobles as a whole were given the right to disobey the King or his representatives — non praestanda oboedientia, and to form confederations, armed opposition against the king or state officials if the nobles found that the law or their legitimate privileges were being infringed.

On 3 May 1505 King Alexander I Jagiellon granted the Act of Nihil novi nisi commune consensu - "I accept nothing new except by common consent". This forbade the king to pass new laws without the consent of the representatives of the nobility in the assembled Sejm, thus greatly strengthening the nobility's powers. Essentially, this act marked the transfer of legislative power from the king to the Sejm. It also marks the beginning of the First Rzeczpospolita, the period of a szlachta-run "Commonwealth".

In 1520 the Act of Bydgoszcz granted the Sejm the right to convene every four years, with or without the king's permission. At about that time the Executionist Movement, seeking to oversee law enforcement, began to take shape. Its members sought to curb the power of the Magnates at the Sejm and to strengthen the power of the monarch. In 1562 at the Sejm in Piotrków they forced the Magnates to return many leased crown lands to the king, and the king to create a standing army wojsko kwarciane. One of the most famous members of this movement was Jan Zamoyski.

End of the Jagiellonian dynasty

Until the death of Sigismund II Augustus, the last king of the Jagiellonian dynasty, all monarchs had to be elected from within the royal family. However, from 1573, practically any Polish noble or foreigner of royal blood could potentially become a Polish–Lithuanian monarch. Every newly elected king was supposed to sign two documents: the Pacta conventa, the king's "pre-election pact", and the Henrican articles, named after the first freely elected king, Henry of Valois. The latter document was a virtual Polish constitution and contained the basic laws of the Commonwealth:

  • Free election of kings

  • Religious tolerance

  • The Sejm to meet every two years

  • Foreign policy controlled by the Sejm

  • A royal advisory council chosen by the Sejm

  • Official posts restricted to Polish and Lithuanian nobles

  • Taxes and monopolies set up by the Sejm only

  • Nobles' right to disobey the Monarch should s/he break any of these laws.

In 1578 king, Stefan Batory, created the Crown Tribunal to reduce the enormous pressure on the Royal Court. This placed much of the monarch's juridical power in the hands of the elected szlachta deputies, further strengthening the nobility as a class. In 1581 the Crown Tribunal was joined by a counterpart in Lithuania, the Lithuanian Tribunal.

Transformation into aristocracy

For many centuries, wealthy and powerful members of the szlachta sought to gain legal privileges over their peers. Few szlachta were wealthy enough to be known as Magnates, karmazyni, the "Crimsons" - from the crimson colour of their boots. A true Magnate had to be able to trace his ancestry for many generations and own at least 20 villages or estates. He also had to hold high office in the Commonwealth.. Thus, out of about one million szlachta, only 200–300 persons could be classed as great Magnates with country-wide possessions and influence. Of these some 30–40 were considered as having significant impact on Poland's politics. Magnates often received gifts from monarchs, which greatly increased their wealth. Although such gifts were only temporary leases, often the Magnates never returned them. This gave rise in the 16th century, to a self-policing trend by the szlachta, known as the ruch egzekucji praw — movement for the enforcement of the law - against usurping Magnates to force them to return leased lands back to their rightful owner, the monarch.

One of the most important victories of the Magnates was the late 16th century right to create Ordynacjas, similar to Fee tails under English law, which ensured that a family which gained landed wealth could more easily preserve it. The Ordynacjas that belonged to families such as the Radziwiłł, Zamoyski, Potocki or Lubomirskis often rivalled the estates of the king and were important power bases for them.

Very high offices of the Polish crown were de facto "hereditary" and guarded by the magnateria of Poland, leaving the lower offices below for "middling" nobility ("the baronage" -- SEE: Offices in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth for a sense of the hierarchy). The prestige of lower offices depended on the wealth of the region. The Masovia region of Poland had a long-standing reputation of being rather poor due to the condition of the soil.

The difference between the magnateria and the rest of the szlachta was primarily one of wealth and life-style, as both belonged to the same legally defined class being members of the same clans. Consequently, any power wrested from the king by the magnates was consequently trickled down to the entirety of the szlachta. This often meant the rest of the szlachta tended to cooperate with the magnates rather than struggle against them.[56]

The szlachta's loss of influence

The notion of the szlachta's accrued sovereignty ended in 1795 with the final Partitions of Poland, and until 1918 their legal status was dependent on the policies of the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia or the Habsburg Monarchy. A project begun in the Golden Age of Poland was finally eclipsed, but arguably the memory of it has lingered in succeeding generations.[81]

In the 1840s Nicholas I reduced 64,000 szlachta to commoner status.[82] Despite this, 62.8% of all Russia's nobles were Polish szlachta in 1858 and still 46.1% in 1897.[83] Serfdom was abolished in Russian Poland on February 19, 1864. It was deliberately enacted with the aim of ruining the szlachta. Only in the Russian Partition did peasants pay the market price for land redemption, the average for the rest of the Russian Empire was 34% above the market rates. All land taken from Polish peasants since 1846 was to be returned to them without redemption payments. The ex-serfs could only sell land to other peasants, not szlachta. 90% of the ex-serfs in the empire who actually gained land after 1861 lived in the 8 western provinces. Along with Romania, Polish landless or domestic serfs were the only ones to be given land after serfdom was abolished.[84] All this was to punish the szlachta's role in the uprisings of 1830 and 1863. By 1864 80% of szlachta were déclassé - downward social mobility. One quarter of petty nobles were worse off than the average serf. While 48.9% of the land in Russian Poland was in peasant hands, nobles still held onto 46%.[85] In the Second Polish Republic the privileges of the nobility were legally abolished by the March Constitution in 1921 and as such not reinstated by any succeeding Polish law.

Cultural and international connections

Despite preoccupations with warring, politics and status, the szlachta in Poland, as did people from all social classes, played its part in contributing in fields ranging from literature, art and architecture, philosophy, education, agriculture and the many branches of science, to technology and industry.[86][87] Perhaps foremost among the cultural determinants of the nobility in Poland were its continuing international connections with the Rome-based Catholic Church. It was from the ranks of the szlachta that were drawn the church's leading Prelates until the 20th century. Other international influences came through the more or less secretive and powerful Christian and lay organisations such as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, focused on hospital and other charitable activity.[88] The most notable Polish Maltese Knight was the Pozńan commander, Bartłomiej Nowodworski, founder in 1588 of the oldest school in Poland. One alumnus was John III Sobieski.[89] In the 18th century, after several false starts, international Freemasonry, wolnomularstwo, from western lodges, became established among the higher échelons of the szlachta, and in spite of membership of some clergy, it was intermittently but strongly opposed by the Catholic Church. After the partitions it became a cover for opposition to the occupying powers.[90] Also in the 18th century there was a marked development in Patronage of the arts during the reign of Stanisław August Poniatowski, himself a freemason, and with the growth of social awareness, in Philanthropy.

The role of women as purveyors of culture

High-born women in Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth exerted political and cultural influence throughout history in their own country and abroad, as queens, princesses and the wives or widows of magnates. Their cultural activities came into sharper relief in the 18th century with their hosting of salons in the French manner. They went on to publish as translators and writers and as facilitators of educational and social projects.[91]

Notable women members of the szlachta who exerted political and/or cultural influence include:

  • Queen Jadwiga

  • Bona Sforza

  • Zofia Lubomirska

  • Anna Jabłonowska

  • Elzbieta Lubomirska

  • Eleonora Czartoryska

  • Izabela Czartoryska

  • Barbara Sanguszko

  • Tekla Teresa Lubienska


The szlachta, no less than the rest of the population, placed a particular accent on food. It was at the centre of courtly and estate entertaining and in good times, at the heart of village life. During the Age of Enlightenment, King Stanislaw August Poniatowski emulated the French Salons by holding his famed Thursday Lunches for intellectuals and artists, drawn chiefly from the szlachta.[92] His Wednesday Lunches were gatherings for policy makers in science, education and politics.

There was a tradition, particularly in Mazovia, kept till the 20th century, of estate owners laying on a festive banquet at the completion of harvest for their staff, known as Dożynki, as a way of expressing an acknowledgment of their work. It was equivalent to a harvest festival. Polish food varied according to region, as elsewhere in Europe, and was influenced by settlers, especially Jewish cuisine, and occupying armies.[93][94]


One of the favourite szlachta pastimes was hunting Łowiectwo.[95] Before the formation of Poland as a state, hunting was accessible to everyone. With the introduction of rulers and rules, big game, generically zwierzyna: Aurochs, bison, deer and boar became the preserve of kings and princes on penalty of poachers' death. From the 13th century on the king would appoint a high-ranking courtier to the role of Master of the Hunt, Łowczy. In time, the penalties for poaching were commuted to fines and from around the 14th century, landowners acquired the right to hunt on their land. Small game, foxes, hare, badger and stoat etc. were 'fair game' to all comers. Hunting became one of the most popular social activities of the szlachta until the partitions, when different sets of restrictions in the three territories were introduced. This was with a view to curbing social interaction among the subject Poles.[96] Over the centuries, at least two breeds of specialist hounds were bred in Poland. One was the Polish Hunting Dog, the brach. The other was the Ogar Polski. Count Xavier Branicki was so nostalgic about Polish hunting, that when he settled in France in the mid 19th century, and restored his estate at the Chateau de Montresor, he ordered a brace of Ogar Polski hounds from the Polish breeder and szlachcic, Piotr Orda.[97]

Demographics and stratification

The szlachta differed in many respects from the nobility in other countries. The most important difference was that, while in most European countries the nobility lost power as the ruler strove for absolute monarchy, in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth a reverse process occurred: the nobility actually gained power at the expense of the king, and enabled the political system to evolve into an oligarchy.

Szlachta members were also proportionately more numerous than their equivalents in all other European countries, constituting 6–12% of the entire population.[98] [a] By contrast, nobles in other European countries, except for Spain, amounted to a mere 1–3%. Most of the szlachta were "minor nobles" or smallholders. In Lithuania the minor nobility made up to 3/4 of the total szlachta population.[99] By the mid-16th century the szlachta class consisted of at least 500,000 persons (some 25,000 families) and was possibly a million strong in 1795.[100][98]

The proportion of nobles in the population varied across regions. In the 16th century, the highest proportion of nobles lived in the Płock Voivodeship (24,6%) and in Podlachia (26,7%), while Galicia had numerically the largest szlachta population.[101] In districts, such as Wizna and Łomża, the szlachta constituted nearly half of the population. Regions with the lowest percentage of nobles were the Kraków Voivodeship with (1,7%), Royal Prussia with (3%) and the Sieradz Voivodeship with 4,6%.[102] Before the Union of Lublin, inequality among nobles in terms of wealth and power was far greater in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania than in the Polish Kingdom. The further south and east one went, the more the territory was dominated by magnate families and other nobles.[98] In the Lithuanian and Ruthenian palatinates, poor nobles were more likely to rent smallholdings from magnates than to own land themselves.[103]

It has been said that the ruling elites were the only socio-political milieu to whom a sense of national consciousness could be attributed. All szlachta members, irrespective of their cultural/ethnic background, were regarded as belonging to a single "political nation" within the Commonwealth. Arguably, a common culture, the Catholic religion and the Polish language were seen as the main unifying factors in the dual state.[104] Prior to the Partitions there was said to have been no Polish national identity as such. Only szlachta members, irrespective of their ethnicity or culture of origin, were considered as "Poles".[105][106][107]

Despite polonisation in Lithuania and Ruthenia in the XVII-XVIII centuries, a large part of the lower szlachta managed to retain their cultural identity in various ways.[108][109][110][111] Due to poverty most of the local szlachta had never had access to formal education nor to Polish language teaching and hence could not be expected to self-identify as Poles.[99][112] It was common even for wealthy and in practice polonised szlachta members still to refer to themselves as Lithuanian, Litwin or Ruthenian, Rusyn.[113]

Although born a Lithuanian and a Lithuanian I shall die, I must use the Polish idiom in my homeland.— Janusz Radziwiłł, in letter to his brother Krzysztof[114]

According to Polish estimates from the 1930s, 300,000 members of the common nobles -szlachta zagrodowa - inhabited the subcarpathian region of the Second Polish Republic out of 800,000 in the whole country. 90% of them were Ukrainian-speaking and 80% were Ukrainian Greek Catholics.[101] In other parts of the Ukraine with a significant szlachta population, such as the Bar or the Ovruch regions, the situation was similar despite russification and earlier polonization.[115][116][117] As an example:

... The first official records of the Chopovsky family, as clan members of the Korwin coat of arms, date back to mid-XVII century. As the Chopovsky family multiplied, by 1861 they were already 3063 souls of both sexes. They were considered szlachta members, but neither their way of life nor their clothing distinguished them from the neighbouring peasants, except that they were more prosperous and possessed more of their own land [...]. When Uniates began joining the Orthodox church in 1839 - The Russian government liquidated the Uniate church after the Polotsk Convocation - 43 souls of both sexes switched to the Roman faith, while the rest of the Chopovsky (86%) returned to Orthodoxy. The Heraldic Office of the Russian Senate declined to certify the Chopovsky family's noble status, but the land remained theirs. The exception were the Prokopenko-Chopovsky branch of the family who were received into the Russian nobility in 1858,[118]

However the era of sovereign rule by the szlachta ended earlier than in other countries, excluding France, in 1795 (see Partitions of Poland). Since then their legitimacy and fate depended on the legislation and policies of the Russian Empire, Kingdom of Prussia and Habsburg Monarchy. Their privileges became increasingly limited, and were ultimately dissolved by the March Constitution of Poland in 1921.

There were a number of avenues to upward social mobility and the attainment of nobility. The szlachta was not rigidly exclusive or closed as a class, but according to heraldic sources, the total number of legal ennoblements issued between the 14th and mid-18th century, is estimated at approximately 800.[72][73] This is an average of about two ennoblements per year, or 0.000,000,14 – 0.000,001 of the historical population.

According to two English journalists Richard Holt Hutton and Walter Bagehot writing on the subject in 1864,

The condition of the country at the present day shows that the population consisted of two different peoples, between whom there was an impassable barrier. There is the Sliachta, or caste of nobles (the descendants of Lekh), on the one hand, and the serfs or peasantry, who constitute the bulk of the population, on the other.[9] []


... the Statute of 1633 completed the slavery of the other classes, by proclaiming the principle that 'the air enslaves the man,' in virtue of which every peasant who had lived for a year upon the estate of a noble was held to be his property. Nowhere in history - nowhere in the world - do we ever see a homogeneous nation organise itself in a form like that which has prevailed from the earliest times in Poland. But where there has been an intrusion of a dominant people, or settlers, who have not fused into the original population, there we find an exact counterpart of Polish society: the dominant settlers establishing themselves as an upper caste, all politically equal among themselves, and holding the lands (or, more frequently, simply drawing the rents) of the country.[9] []

Sociologist and historian, Jerzy Ryszard Szacki said in this context,

... the Polish nobility was a closed group (apart from a few exceptions, many of which were contrary to the law), in which membership was inherited.[10]

Others assert the szlachta were not a social class, but a caste, among them, historian Adam Zamoyski,

A more apt analogy might perhaps be made with the Rajputs of northern India. ... unlike any other gentry in Europe, the szlachta was not limited by nor did it depend for its status on either wealth, or land, or royal writ. It was defined by its function, that of a warrior caste.[17][39]

Jerzy Szacki continues,

While Świętochowski wrote: ‘If from the deeds of the Polish nobility we took away excesses and the exclusiveness of caste, ...’.[46]

Low-born individuals, including townsfolk mieszczanie, peasants chłopi, but not Jews Żydzi, could and did rise to official ennoblement in Commonwealth society, although Charles-Joseph, 7th Prince of Ligne, while trying to obtain Polish noble status, is supposed to have said in 1784,

It is easier to become a duke in Germany, than to be counted among Polish nobles.[74][75]

According to heraldic sources 1,600 is the total estimated number of all legal ennoblements throughout the history of Kingdom of Poland and Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from the 14th century onward, half of which were enacted in the final years of the late 18th century.[72][73] Hutton and Bagehot,

... for the barrier of exclusion was partly thrown down in the last days of the monarchy ...*.[9] [] *

Each szlachcic was said to hold enormous potential influence over the country's politics, far greater than that enjoyed by the citizens of modern democratic countries. Between 1652 and 1791, any nobleman could potentially nullify all the proceedings of a given sejm or sejmik by exercising his individual right of liberum veto - Latin for "I do not allow" - except in the case of a confederated sejm or confederated sejmik.

In old Poland, a nobleman could only marry a noblewoman, as intermarriage between "castes" was fraught with difficulties.[119][120] (wiktionary:endogamy); but, children of a legitimate marriage followed the condition of the father, never the mother, therefore, only the father transmitted his nobility to his children.[121][122] See patrilineality. A noble woman married to a commoner could not transmit her nobility to her husband and their children. Any individual could attain ennoblement (nobilitacja) for special services to the state. A foreign noble might be naturalized as a Polish noble through the mechanism called the Indygenat, certified by the king. Later, from 1641, it could only be done by a general sejm. By the eighteenth century all these trends contributed to the great increase in the proportion of szlachta in the total population.

In theory all szlachta members were social equals and were formally legal peers. Those who held civic appointments were more privileged but their roles were not hereditary. Those who held honorary appointments were superior in the hierarchy but these positions were only granted for a lifetime. Some tenancies became hereditary and went with both privilege and title. Nobles who were not direct Lessees of the Crown but held land from other lords were only peers "de iure". The poorest enjoyed the same rights as the wealthiest magnate. The exceptions were a few symbolically privileged families such as the Radziwiłł, Lubomirski and Czartoryski, who held honorary aristocratic titles bestowed by foreign courts and recognised in Poland which granted them use of titles such as "Prince" or "Count". See also The Princely Houses of Poland. All other szlachta simply addressed each other by their given name or as "Brother, Sir" Panie bracie or the feminine equivalent. The other forms of address would be "Illustrious and Magnificent Lord", "Magnificent Lord", "Generous Lord" or "Noble Lord" in descending order, or simply "His/Her Grace Lord/Lady".

The notion that all Polish nobles were social equals, regardless of their financial status or offices held, is enshrined in a traditional Polish adage:

Szlachcic na zagrodzie** równy wojewodzie.

equivalent to:

The noble on the croft Is the voivode's equal.

Szlachta hierarchy

According to their wealth, the nobility were divided into:

  • magnates: the wealthiest class; owners of vast lands, towns, many villages, thousands of peasants

  • middle nobility średnia szlachta, owners of one or more villages, often having some official titles or Envoys from the local Land Assemblies to the General Assembly,

  • petty nobility drobna szlachta, owners of part of a village or owning no land at all, often referred to by a variety of colourful Polish terms such as: szaraczkowagrey nobility, from their grey, woollen, undyed żupans okolicznalocal nobility, similar to zaściankowa zagrodowa – from zagroda, a farm, often little different from a peasant's dwelling zagonowa – from zagon, a small unit of land measure, hide nobility cząstkowapartial, owners of only part of a single village panek – little pan (i.e., lordling), term used in Kaszuby, the Kashubian region, also one of the legal terms for legally separated lower nobility in late medieval and early modern Poland hreczkosiejbuckwheat sowers – those who had to work their fields themselves. zaściankowa – from zaścianek, a name for plural nobility settlement, neighbourhood nobility. Just like hreczkosiej, zaściankowa nobility would have no peasants. brukowacobble nobility, for those living in towns like townsfolk gołotanaked nobility, i.e., the landless; the poorest szlachta that was considered the "lowest of the high". It was later stripped of voting rights. półpanek ("half-lord"); also podpanek/pidpanek ("sub-lord") in Podolia and Ukrainian accent[123] – a petty szlachcic pretending to be wealthy.

Landed szlachta - ziemianie or ziemiaństwo - meant any nobleman who owned land, including magnates, the lesser nobility and those who owned at least part of the village. Since titular manorial lordships were also open to burgers of certain privileged cities with a royal charter, not all landed gentry had hereditary title to noble status.


Coats of arms were very important to the szlachta. Its heraldic system evolved together with neighbouring states in Central Europe, while differing in many ways from the heraldry of other European countries. Polish Knighthood had its counterparts, links and roots in Moravia, e.g. Poraj coat of arms and in Germany, e.g. Junosza coat of arms.

Families who had a common origin would also share a coat of arms. They would also share their crest with families adopted into the clan. Sometimes unrelated families would be falsely attributed to a clan on the basis of similarity of crests. Some noble families inaccurately claimed clan membership. The number of coats of arms in this system was comparatively low and did not exceed 200 in the late Middle Ages. There were 40,000 in the late 18th century.

At the Union of Horodło, forty-seven families of Catholic Lithuanian lords and boyars were adopted by Polish szlachta families and allowed to use Polish coats of arms.[124][125]


The tradition of differentiating between a coat of arms and a lozenge granted to women, did not develop in Poland. By the 17th century, invariably, men and women inherited a coat of arms from their father. When mixed marriages developed after the partitions, that is between commoners and members of the nobility, as a courtesy, children could claim a coat of arms from their distaff side, but this was only tolerated and could not be passed on into the next generation. The brisure was rarely used. All children would inherit the coat of arms and title of their father. This partly accounts for the relatively large proportion of Polish families who had claim to a coat of arms by the 18th century. Another factor was the arrival of titled foreign settlers, especially from the German lands and the Habsburg Empire.

Illegitimate children could adopt the mother's surname and title by the consent of the mother's father, but would sometimes be adopted and raised by the natural father's family, thereby acquiring the father's surname, though not the title or arms.


The szlachta's prevalent ideology, especially in the 17th and 18th centuries, was manifested in its adoption of "Sarmatism", a word derived from the legend that its origins reached back to the ancient tribe of an Iranic people, the Sarmatians. This nostalgic belief system embracing chivalry and courtliness, became an important part of szlachta culture and affected all aspects of their lives. It was popularized by poets who exalted traditional village life, peace and pacifism. It was also manifested in oriental-style apparel, the żupan, kontusz, sukmana, pas kontuszowy, delia and made the scimitar-like szabla a near-obligatory item of everyday szlachta apparel. Sarmatism served to integrate a nobility of disparate provenance, as it sought to create a sense of national unity and pride in the szlachta's "Golden Liberty" złota wolność. It was marked furthermore by a linguistic affectation among the szlachta of mixing Polish and Latin vocabulary, producing a form of Polish Dog Latin peppered with "macaronisms" in everyday conversation.[126]

Religious adherence

Prior to the Reformation, the Polish nobility were either Roman Catholic or Orthodox with a small group of Muslims. See the Muslim, Haroun Tazieff of princely Tartar extraction.[127] Many families, however, went on to adopt the Reformed Christian faith. Jan Łaski or Johannes Alasco (1499-1560) was a cleric, whose uncle, the eponymous Jan Łaski (1456-1531) was Grand Chancellor of the Crown, Archbishop of Gniezno and Primate of Poland. His nephew was an early convert to Calvinism and had a hand in implementing (c. 1543–1555) Reformation in England where he is known as John Laski.

After the Counter-Reformation, when the Roman Catholic Church regained power in Poland, the nobility became almost exclusively Catholic. Approximately 45% of the population were Roman Catholic or members of Protestant denominations, 36% were Greek Catholic, 4% Orthodox, of whom some were members of the Armenian Apostolic or the Armenian Catholic Churches and the Georgian Orthodox Church. The remaining 15% were made up of a substantial minority of Jews.[128] In the 18th century, the followers of Jacob Frank were ennobled as a result of their conversion to Roman Catholicism. Although Judaism per se had not been a bar to noble status, in practice there were laws that favoured religious conversion to Christianity by rewarding it with ennoblement (see: Neophyte).[129] A later example, in 1839, of certifying the noble status of converts is the Wołowski family with the Bawół coat of arms.[130]

See also

  • List of Polish titled nobility

  • List of szlachta

  • Lithuanian nobility

  • Polish heraldry

  • Polish landed gentry (Ziemiaństwo)

  • Polish name

  • Ukrainian nobility from Galicia


Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgDavies, Norman (1982). God's Playground: A History of Poland, Volume I - The Origins to 1795. Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-05351-7.
Sep 29, 2019, 2:09 PM
Citation Linkrcin.org.plSzulc, Halina. (1995) Morfogeneza Osiedli Wiejskich w Polsce. published by Continuo. ISBN 83-86682-00-0. esp. p.59. In Polish but with a decent Summary in English about patterns of rural settlement in Poland since the Middle Ages. http://rcin.org.pl/igipz/Content/685/Wa51_5218_r1995-nr163_Prace-Geogr.pdf [accessed 2018-11-08]
Sep 29, 2019, 2:09 PM
Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgGóralski, Zbigniew (1998). Urzędy i godności w dawnej Polsce. LSW. ISBN 83-205-4533-1. (Pol.)
Sep 29, 2019, 2:09 PM
Citation Link//www.jstor.org/stable/26605109McInerney, Luke (2018). "A List of Freeholders of Kilfenora Diocese in 1601". Eolas: The Journal of the American Society of Irish Medieval Studies. Maple Grove, Hennepin county, MINNESOTA, U.S.A.: American Society of Irish Medieval Studies. 11: 60–103. JSTOR 26605109. This stratum of landholders were usually large freeholders with hereditary tenures. They formed the chief lineages of their own 'clans' or 'septs,' and they may be traced to a sliocht, or branch, of the ruling families.
Sep 29, 2019, 2:09 PM
Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgO'Donovan, John (1862). THE TOPOGRAPHICAL POEMS OF JOHN O'DUBHAGAIN AND GIOLLA NA NAOMH O'HUIDRIN. 87 & 88 Abbey Street, Northside, Dublin, Leinster province, IRELAND: Alexander Thom. p. 7. 9. Sliocht, progeny; as Sliocht Aedha Slaine, the progeny of Aedh Slaine, in Meath; Sliocht Aineslis, the progeny of Stanislaus, the tribe name of a sept of the O'Donovans, in the parish of Kilmeen, in the county of Cork.
Sep 29, 2019, 2:09 PM
Citation Linkbooks.google.comLower, Mark Antony (1849). ENGLISH SURNAMES: AN ESSAY ON FAMILY NOMENCLATURE, HISTORICAL, ETYMOLOGICAL, AND HUMOROUS; WITH SEVERAL ILLUSTRATIVE APPENDICES, VOLUME 2 (GOOGLE EBOOK). 4 Old Compton Street, Soho, City of Westminster borough, Inner London, London, Greater London ceremonial county, ENGLAND: JOHN RUSSELL SMITH. p. 66. 8. Sliocht, posterity, as Sliocht Aodha Slaine, the progeny of King Hugh Slany, in Meath.
Sep 29, 2019, 2:09 PM
Citation Linkshakespeare.mit.eduSHAKESPEARE, WILLIAM (1606). "THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH". THE COMPLETE WORKS OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE. 77 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, Middlesex county, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, U.S.A.: THE TECH. Archived from the original on 6 September 2019. Retrieved 6 September 2019. (Act 1, Scene 7) MACBETH: ... First, as I am his kinsman and his subject, Strong both against the deed; then, as his host, Who should against his murderer shut the door, Not bear the knife myself. Besides, this Duncan Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been So clear in his great office, ...
Sep 29, 2019, 2:09 PM
Citation Linkwww.historic-uk.comJohnson, Ben. "Duncan and MacBeth". HISTORIC UK. 3mc Middlemarch Business Park, Siskin Drive, Coventry, West Midlands county, West Midlands region, ENGLAND: HISTORIC UK LIMITED. Archived from the original on 6 June 2019. Retrieved 6 September 2019. Duncan became King of Scotland upon the death of Malcolm in 1034. ... His cousin MacBeth, chief of the northern Scots, also had a claim to the throne through his mother. MacBeth formed an alliance with his cousin the Earl of Orkney, and they defeated and killed Duncan near Elgin in 1040.
Sep 29, 2019, 2:09 PM
Citation Linkbooks.google.comHutton, Richard Holt; Bagehot, Walter (January 1864). "The Races of the Old World". NATIONAL REVIEW. London, England: Robson and Levey. Retrieved 9 Oct 2014.
Sep 29, 2019, 2:09 PM
Citation Linkbooks.google.comSzacki, Jerzy Ryszard (1995). LIBERALISM AFTER COMMUNISM. Budapest, Hungary: Central European University Press. p. 48. ISBN 9781858660165. ... the Polish nobility was a closed group (apart from a few exceptions, many of which were contrary to the law), in which membership was inherited.
Sep 29, 2019, 2:09 PM
Citation Linkarchive.orgDmowski, Roman Stanisław (1917). "Poland Old and New". In Duff, James Duff (ed.). RUSSIAN REALITIES AND PROBLEMS. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 116. In the past the nobility in Poland constituted the nation itself. It ruled the country without competition on the part of any other class, the middle class being small in numbers and wealth, and the peasants being serfs.
Sep 29, 2019, 2:09 PM
Citation Linkculture.plGliński, Mikołaj (8 October 2015). "Slavery vs. Serfdom, or Was Poland a Colonial Empire?". Culture.pl. Warsaw, POLAND, EU: Culture.pl. Archived from the original on 24 June 2017. Retrieved 23 June 2017. The boundaries between nobility and peasants (and other social groups) persisted well into the 19th and 20th centuries. A shocking proof of how terribly effective this Sarmatian ideology was, can be found in a personal letter of Zygmunt Krasiński, one of the three greatest Polish Romantic poets in the 19th century (and a descendant of an aristocratic family). In the mid-19th century Krasiński wrote to his English friend Henry Reeve: ‘Believe me and rest assured that apart from aristocracy there’s nothing in Poland: no talent, no bright minds, nor sense of sacrifice. Our third state [bourgeoisie] is nonsense; our peasants are machines. Only we [nobles] are Poland.’
Sep 29, 2019, 2:09 PM
Citation Linkwww.diva-portal.orgStruve, Kai (2008). "Citizenship and National Identity: the Peasants of Galicia during the 19th Century" (PDF). In Wawrzeniuk, Piotr (ed.). SOCIETAL CHANGE AND IDEOLOGICAL FORMATION AMONG THE RURAL POPULATION OF THE BALTIC AREA 1880-1939 (History). Flemingsberg, Huddinge municipality, Stockholm county, KINGDOM OF SWEDEN: Södertörns högskola. p. 77. ISBN 978-91-85139-11-8. The fact that the Polish term obywatel („citizen“) could be used as a synonym for gentry landlords until the second half of the 19th century shows how strong this concept was within Polish culture..
Sep 29, 2019, 2:09 PM
Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgMichener, James Albert (1983). POLAND. Random House; New York City, NEW YORK, U.S.A. ISBN 0-394-53189-2. Minor nobility: Linguistically, this category causes trouble. Some Polish writers refer to 'gentry', which doesn't quite sound right in English. Whereas some European writers use the term 'petty nobility' [analogously to Petite bourgeoisie], but the adjective has unfortunate connotations.
Sep 29, 2019, 2:09 PM
Citation Linkarchive.orgZamoyski, herbu Jelita, Adam (1998) [1987]. THE POLISH WAY: A THOUSAND-YEAR HISTORY OF THE POLES AND THEIR CULTURE (Fourth Printing ed.). New York City, NEW YORK, U.S.A.: Hippocrene Books. p. 55. ISBN 0-7818-0200-8. One cannot substitute the terms 'nobility' or 'gentry' for szlachta because it had little in common with those classes in other European countries either in origin, composition or outlook.
Sep 29, 2019, 2:09 PM
Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgDavies, Norman (1982). GOD'S PLAYGROUND: A HISTORY OF POLAND, VOLUME I - THE ORIGINS TO 1795. New York City: Columbia University Press. p. 206. ISBN 0-231-05351-7. For the sake of precision therefore, it is essential that szlachta should be translated as 'Nobility', szlachcic as 'nobleman', and stan szlachecki as 'the noble estate'.
Sep 29, 2019, 2:09 PM
Citation Linkarchive.orgZamoyski, herbu Jelita, Adam (1998) [1987]. THE POLISH WAY: A THOUSAND-YEAR HISTORY OF THE POLES AND THEIR CULTURE (Fourth Printing ed.). New York City: Hippocrene Books. p. 55. ISBN 0-7818-0200-8. A more apt analogy might perhaps be made with the Rajputs of northern India. ... unlike any other gentry in Europe, the szlachta was not limited by nor did it depend for its status on either wealth, or land, or royal writ. It was defined by its function, that of a warrior caste.
Sep 29, 2019, 2:09 PM
Citation Linkarchive.orgZamoyski, herbu Jelita, Adam (1998) [1987]. THE POLISH WAY: A THOUSAND-YEAR HISTORY OF THE POLES AND THEIR CULTURE (Fourth Printing ed.). New York City: Hippocrene Books. pp. 57–58. ISBN 0-7818-0200-8. While land provided the majority with a livelihood, it was not the only or even the predominant source of wealth for the magnates, whose estates were not large by the standards of the barons of England or the great lords of France. ... The magnates only started accumulating property on a large scale at the beginning of the fifteenth century.
Sep 29, 2019, 2:09 PM
Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgMichener, James Albert (1983). POLAND. Random House; New York City. ISBN 0-394-53189-2. Minor nobility: ... The category includes men almost rich and powerful enough to be magnates, and all intervening levels down to the roving rascal with no castle, no money, no village, no peasants, one horse and pride unbounded.
Sep 29, 2019, 2:09 PM
Citation Linkbooks.google.comRoss, M. (1835). "A Descriptive View of Poland: Character, Manners, and Customs of the Poles". A HISTORY OF POLAND FROM ITS FOUNDATION AS A STATE TO THE PRESENT TIME; INCLUDING A FULL ACCOUNT OF THE RECENT PATRIOTIC STRUGGLE TO RE-ESTABLISH ITS INDEPENDENCE. TO WHICH IS PREFIXED, A DESCRIPTIVE VIEW OF THE COUNTRY, ITS NATURAL HISTORY, CITIES AND TOWNS, AND THE MANNERS AND CUSTOMS OF ITS INHABITANTS. Newcastle upon Tyne, England: Pattison and Ross. p. 51. At least 60,000 families belong to this class [nobility], of which, however, only about 100 are wealthy ; all the rest are poor.
Sep 29, 2019, 2:09 PM