Royal elections in Poland (Polish: wolna elekcja, lit. free election) were the election of individual kings, rather than dynasties, to the Polish throne. Based on traditions dating to the very beginning of the Polish statehood, strengthened during the Piast and Jagiellon dynasties, they reached their final form in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth period between 1572 and 1791. The "free election" was abolished by the Constitution of 3 May 1791, which established a constitutional-parliamentary monarchy.
The tradition of electing the country's ruler, which occurred either when there was no clear heir to the throne, or to confirm the heir's appointment, dates to the very beginning of Polish statehood. Legends survive of the 9th-century election of the legendary founder of the first Polish royal family, Piast the Wheelwright of the Piast dynasty, and similar voting of his son, Siemowit (that would place a Polish ruler's vote a century before the earliest Icelandic ones by the Althing). Still, sources for that time are very sparse, and it is hard to estimate whether those elections were more than a formality. The election privilege, exercised during the gatherings known as wiec, was usually limited to the most powerful nobles (magnates) or officials, and was heavily influenced by local traditions and strength of the ruler.
Traditions diverged in different regions of Poland during the period of fragmentation of Poland. In the Duchy of Masovia, the hereditary principle dominated, but in the Seniorate Province, elections became increasingly important. In the other provinces both elements mixed together. By the 12th or 13th centuries, the wiec institution limited participation to high-ranking nobles and officials. The nationwide wiec gatherings of officials in 1306 and 1310 can be seen as a precursor of the general sejm (Polish parliament).
The elections reinforced the empowerment of the electorate (the nobility), as the contender to the throne would increasingly consider issuing promises that he undertook to fulfil in the event of a successful election.Wenceslaus II of Bohemia made the first of such undertakings (the Litomy?l Privilege) in 1291. Nonetheless, for most of the Piast dynasty, electors customarily endorsed rulers from that dynasty, in accordance with hereditary descent. The Piast dynasty came to an end with the death without an heir of the last of the Polish Piasts of the main line, Casimir III the Great, in 1370.
In a milestone for the process of the free elections, Casimir's nephew, Louis I of Hungary, became king after the agreement between him, Casimir III the Great and the Polish nobility (Privilege of Buda). Louis had no sons, which created another dilemma for the succession of the Polish throne. In an attempt to secure the throne of Poland for his line, he gathered the nobles and sought their approval to have one of his daughters retained as the queen regnant of Poland in exchange for the Privilege of Koszyce (1374).
The next election of a Polish king had occurred in 1386, with the selection of W?adys?aw II Jagieo (Jogaila), Grand Duke of Lithuania, as the first king of Poland's second dynasty. The electors chose W?adys?aw II Jagieo as king, and he married a daughter of Louis I, Jadwiga of Poland, but had no promise that his dynasty would continue on the throne. He would need to issue more privileges to the nobility to secure the guarantee that upon his death, one of his sons would inherit. The royal council chose the candidates, and the delegates of nobility and towns confirmed them during the sejm. The principle of election continued in effect throughout the nearly two centuries of the Jagiellon Dynasty, but just as in Piast times, it actually amounted to mere confirmation of the incoming heir.
One could describe the monarchy of Poland at that time as "the hereditary monarchy with a[n] elective legislature." A major reason was the desire on the part of Polish nobility to retain the Polish-Lithuanian union, and the Jagiellon dynasty were the hereditary rulers of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Nonetheless, the pretense of having a choice by elections remained important for the nobility, and when in 1530 Sigismund I the Old attempted to secure the hereditary throne for his 10-year-old son, there was a political crisis, and the Polish parliament, the sejm, ruled that a new king could be chosen during the life of his predecessor (that became known in the Polish politics as the vivente rege).
In 1572, Poland's Jagiellon dynasty became extinct upon the death, without a successor, of King Sigismund II Augustus. During the ensuing interregnum, anxiety for the safety of the Commonwealth eventually led to agreements among the political classes that pending election of a new king, the Roman Catholic Primate of Poland would exercise supreme authority, acting as interrex (from the Latin); and that special "hooded" confederations (Polish: konfederacje kapturowe, named after the hoods traditionally worn by their members) of nobility would assume power in each the country's regions. Most importantly, however, the Poles decided that they would choose the next king by election, and they finally established the terms of such election at a convocation sejm (sejm konwokacyjny) in 1573. On the initiative of nobles from Southern Poland, supported by the future Great Crown Chancellor and hetman Jan Zamoyski, all male szlachta (nobles) who assembled for the purpose would become electors. Any Catholic nobleman could stand for election, but in practice, only rich and powerful members of foreign dynasties or Commonwealth magnates had a serious chance for consideration. With the election of the first king of the "free election" period, the elections assumed their final form, which would remain stable for the next two centuries.
Particularly in the late 17th and 18th centuries, the political instability from the elections led numerous political writers to suggest major changes to the system: most notably, to restrict the elections to Polish candidates only (that became known as the "election of a Piast"). None of the projects came into force, however. The Constitution of May 3, 1791 eliminated the practice of electing individuals to the monarchy.
The elections played a major role in curtailing the power of the monarch and so were a significant factor in preventing the rise of an absolute monarchy, with a strong executive, in the Commonwealth. Most tellingly, one of the provisions of the pacta conventa included the right of revolution (rokosz) for the nobility if it considered the king not to be adhering to the laws of the state.
While seemingly introducing a very democratic procedure, free elections, in practice, contributed to the inefficiency of the Commonwealth's government. The elections, open to all nobility, meant that magnates, who could exert significant control on the masses of poorer nobility, could exert much influence over the elections.
The elections also encouraged foreign dynasties' meddling in Polish internal politics. On several occasions, if the magnates could not come to an agreement, two candidates would proclaim themselves the king and civil wars erupted (most notably, the War of the Polish Succession of 1733-1738, and the War of the Polish Succession of 1587-1588, with smaller scale conflicts in 1576 and 1697). By the last years of the Commonwealth, royal elections grew to be seen as a source of conflicts and instability; Lerski describes them as having "became a symbol of anarchy".
|Convocation Sejm||Election Sejm||Coronation Sejm||King elected
|January 1573||April 1573||February 1574||Henry III of France
|First king of the Commonwealth. Abdicated to assume the throne of France.|
|August 1574||November 1575||March 1576||Stephen Báthory
|Also Prince of Transylvania. Married to Anna Jagiellon. Election disputed, led to the Danzig rebellion.|
|February 1587||June 1587||December 1588||Sigismund III Vasa
|Born in Sweden. Son of Catherine Jagiellon. Election disputed, led to the War of the Polish Succession (1587-88).|
|June 1632||September 1632||February 1633||W?adys?aw IV Vasa
|Son of Sigismund III.|
|July 1648||October 1648||January 1649||John II Casimir Vasa
|Son of Sigismund III and brother of W?adys?aw IV. Abdicated.|
|November 1668||May 1669||October 1669||Micha? Korybut Wi?niowiecki
|January 1674||April 1674||February 1676||John III Sobieski
|August 1696||May 1697||November 1697||August II the Strong
(Saxon, 1697-1706; 1709-1733)
|Temporarily replaced by Stanis?aw I Leszczy?ski (1704-1709) due to the Great Northern War. Leszczy?ski's election was disputed and led to the Civil war in Poland (1704-1706).|
|April 1733||August 1733||January 1734||Stanis?aw I Leszczy?ski
|Election disputed, led to the War of the Polish Succession, won by Augustus III of Poland (Saxon, 1733-1763), son of Augustus II.|
|May 1764||August 1764||December 1764||Stanis?aw August Poniatowski
Stanis?aw II Augustus
|Last king of the Commonwealth. Abdicated.|