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The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (or Union, since 1791 the Commonwealth of Poland) was a dualistic state of Poland and Lithuania ruled by a common monarch. It was the largest and one of the most populous countries of 16th- and 17th-century Europe with some 400,000 square miles (1,000,000 km2) and a multi-ethnic population of 11 million at its peak in the early 17th century. It was established at the Union of Lublin in July 1569, and was destroyed by the Third Partition of Poland in 1795.[1][2][3][4]

The Union possessed features unique among contemporary states: its political system was characterized by strict checks upon monarchical power. These checks were enacted by a legislature (Sejm) controlled by the nobility (szlachta). This idiosyncratic system was a precursor to modern concepts of democracy,[5] constitutional monarchy[6][7][8] and federation.[9] The two component states of the Commonwealth were formally equal, yet Poland was the dominant partner in the union.[10]

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was marked by high levels of ethnic diversity and by relative religious tolerance guaranted by Warsaw Confederation Act 1573,[11][12][13] though the degree of religious tolerance varied over time.[14]

After several decades of prosperity,[15][16][17] it entered a period of protracted political,[8][18] military and economic[19] decline. Its growing weakness led to its partitioning among its more powerful neighbors, Austria, Prussia and the Russian Empire, during the late 18th century. Shortly before its demise, the Commonwealth adopted a massive reform effort and enacted the Constitution of May 3, 1791, described by Norman Davies as the first of its kind in Europe.[20]

Name

The official name of the Commonwealth was The Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania Prior to the 17th century, international treaties and diplomatic texts referred to it by its Latin name Regnum Poloniae Magnusque Ducatus Lithuaniae. In the 17th century and later it became known as the Most Serene Republic of Poland[21] (Polish: Najjaśniejsza Rzeczpospolita Polska, Latin: Serenissima Res Publica Poloniae). Its inhabitants referred to it in everyday speech as "Rzeczpospolita" (Lithuanian: Žečpospolita). Foreigners often simply called it Poland, applying the pars pro toto synecdoche. The widespread term Commonwealth of the Two Nations (Polish: Rzeczpospolita Obojga Narodów) was coined in the 20th century by Paweł Jasienica.[22]

History

Poland and Lithuania underwent an alternating series of wars and alliances during the 14th century and early 15th century. Several relatively weak agreements between the two (the Union of Kraków and Vilna, the Union of Krewo, the Union of Vilnius and Radom, the Union of Grodno, and the Union of Horodło) were struck before the more permanent 1569 Union of Lublin. This agreement was one of the signal achievements of Sigismund II Augustus, last monarch of the Jagiellon dynasty. Sigismund believed he could preserve his dynasty by adopting elective monarchy. His death in 1572 was followed by a three-year interregnum during which adjustments were made to the constitutional system; these adjustments significantly increased the power of the Polish nobility and established a truly elective monarchy.[23]

The Commonwealth reached its Golden Age in the early 17th century. Its powerful parliament was dominated by nobles who were reluctant to get involved in the Thirty Years' War; this neutrality spared the country from the ravages of a political-religious conflict which devastated most of contemporary Europe. The Commonwealth was able to hold its own against Sweden, Tsardom of Russia, and vassals of the Ottoman Empire, and even launched successful expansionist offensives against its neighbors. In several invasions during the Time of Troubles Commonwealth troops entered Russia and managed to take Moscow and hold it from September 27, 1610 to November 4, 1612, until driven out after a siege.
Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth during the reign of Władysław IV (ca. 1635)

Commonwealth power began waning after a series of blows during the following decades. A major rebellion of Cossacks in the southeastern portion of the Commonwealth (the Khmelnytskyi Uprising in modern-day Ukraine) began in 1648. It resulted in a Ukrainian request, under the terms of the Treaty of Pereyaslav, for protection by the Muscovian Tsar.[24] Muscovian annexation of part of Ukraine gradually supplanted Polish influence. The other blow to the Commonwealth was a Swedish invasion in 1655. Supported by troops of Transylvanian duke George II Rakoczy and Friedrich Wilhelm I, Elector of Brandenburg, The Deluge was the Swedish royal response to years of Commonwealth belligerence.

In the late 17th century, the weakened Commonwealth's King John III Sobieski allied himself with Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor to deal crushing defeats to the Ottoman Empire. In 1683, the Battle of Vienna marked the final turning point in a 250-year struggle between the forces of Christian Europe and the Islamic Ottoman Empire. For its centuries-long stance against the Muslim advances, the Commonwealth would gain the name of Antemurale Christianitatis (bulwark of Christianity).[9][25] During the next 16 years the Great Turkish War would drive the Turks permanently south of the Danube River, never to threaten central Europe again.[26]

By the 18th century, destabilization of its political system brought Poland to the brink of anarchy. The Commonwealth was facing many internal problems and was vulnerable to foreign influences. An outright war between the King and the nobility broke out in 1715 and Tsar Peter the Great's mediation put him in a position to further weaken the state.[27] The Russian army was present at the Silent Sejm of 1717, which limited the armed forces to 24,000 and specified its funding, reaffirmed the liberum veto, and banished the King's Saxon army; the Tsar was to serve as guarantor of the agreement.[27] Western Europe's increasing exploitation of resources in the Americas rendered the Commonwealth's supplies less crucial.[28] In 1768 the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth became a protectorate of the Russian Empire.[29] Control of Poland was central to Catherine the Great's diplomatic and military strategies.[30] Attempts at reform, such as the Four-Year Sejm's May Constitution came too late. The country was partitioned in three stages by the neighboring Russian Empire, Kingdom of Prussia, and the Habsburg Monarchy. By 1795, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had been completely erased from the map of Europe. Poland and Lithuania would not be re-established as independent countries until 1918; Ukraine and Belarus established independence in the 1990s.



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