Queen Marie Casimire was born the daughter of Henri de La Grange, Marquis d’Arquien, and Françoise de La Châtre. The date and place of the Queen’s birth are not entirely certain. Michał Komaszyński, author of the best of her biographies, assumes that Marie Casimire must have been born in 1641; a precise date—28 June 1641—is mentioned in the papers of Prince Jakub, but there is no way of ensuring its validity, and neither the Queen herself nor her father had confirmed it. Upon her departure for Poland in 1646, Louise-Marie de Gonzague took the girl—one of several siblings—along in hope that it would improve her parents’ financial situation. A while later, Marie Casimire returned to France to finish her education in a monastic school.
The lady reappeared at the Polish royal court as a teenager, celebrating many triumphs thanks to her remarkable beauty. Hoping to ensure her beautiful pupil a brilliant future, Louise-Marie wed her to the immensely rich Jan Zamoyski, grandson of a Grand Chancellor. During the Deluge, the magnate remained independent from both Jan Kazimierz and Charles X Gustav, and Queen Louise-Marie hoped the marriage would dissuade him from joining the Swedes. In spite of her good will, conveyed in her letters, Marie Casimire did not become intimate with her husband and their union proved unfavourable. She was bored in Zamość, where her husband expected her to remain even during his frequent sojourns beyond the city.
Searching for enjoyment and emotional relief, Marie Casimire drifted toward Jan Sobieski, who had met her before at the royal court and is often thought to have fallen in love with her at first sight—although a lot seems to suggest that this is merely a beautiful legend. The few extant historical accounts suggest that his relationship with Lady Zamoyska began in a rather tempestuous and unromantic manner. However, these initial difficulties were eventually surmounted and the mutual feelings between the two developed and fascination turned into love. In 1661 Jan Sobieski declared that he would not marry another woman and the pair began to picture a future together. Sources indicate that Marie Casimire proceeded cautiously due to her marital status. Trips to France may have been designed to help her escape the tension into the safety of her family.
Zamoyski died rather unexpectedly in the Spring of 1665. The subsequent actions of both Marie Casimire and Jan Sobieski still seem ambiguous, and contemporary scholars believe an element of foul play may have been involved. Nevertheless, the pair married; in fact, they took vows twice—first in secret, and then during an official ceremony, sparking a wave of gossip and disaffection, as Marie Casimire did not respect the required year-long period of mourning. At the time, Jan Sobieski was a crucial figure at the court and received many high promotions.
A while after the wedding, Marie Casimire departed to France to save her health and pregnancy. The sojourn at the Seine improved her well-being to the extent that she would appear less likely to fall ill as time went by. The son she gave birth to at the time, Jakub, was the healthiest and most long-lived child of the royal couple. The partings of the Sobieskis, caused both by Marie Casimire’s trips (she visited France again, and also travelled across Poland, tending to her husband’s properties) and Jan Sobieski’s responsibilities away from his wife, bore fruit in the shape of an abundant correspondence between the couple. Of the husband’s letters, only those that express his deep love and longing for his wife remain; at his most emotional, he could even accuse her of lacking in reciprocity, giving some scholars a pretext for portraying Marie Casimire as a cold-hearted manipulator. In fact, an in-depth analysis of the letters, as well as accounts from the court and remaining letters from Marie Casimire to her husband and others, do not justify this assumption. Even if the Queen did not match her husband’s exaltation, she could hardly be accused of the egotism that he often exhibited.
Marie Casimire was pregnant with her second husband over a dozen times, giving birth to seven children, of whom four survived into adulthood. The children were the subject of their father’s adoration—expressed in his letters—but also of their mother’s constant care. Her pursuit of suitable spouses for her offspring ended in success in two instances—Jakub and Teresa Kunegunda married people of an appropriate rank, members of ducal families. The Queen did not manage to couple her younger sons before her husband’s demise, but her pursuit of adequate spouses continued unabated. She also wished that her granddaughters marry well, hoping to see them ascend European thrones. Until the end of her life, her actions were persistently geared toward securing the well-being of her entire family. She despaired that the famous and venerated line of Jan III would die out, but never reproached her daughter-in-law, Jakub’s wife, for not giving him a healthy son.
After Jan Sobieski’s election, some attempted to thwart the coronation of Marie Casimire, but eventually both spouses were crowned in February 1676. The Queen’s role in shaping her husband’s policies remains unclear. It seems that the couple discussed common aims and means, and Marie Casimire stood up for Jan III. In time, after her husband’s death, the Queen seems to have been inclined to claim a greater part in the politics of his era regardless of the facts, seeking to insure her own position and continue to support her sons. Typically, historians recognise her overwhelming influence on Polish politics in Jan III’s twilight years, going so far as to call Marie Casimire a regent. It can generally be assumed that the ailing King, despondent after losses in Moldova and troubled by the activities of the opposition, cut down on his own public presence. Compared the tensions and sudden, though politically justified, shifts, and particularly in view of the achievements of the first period of his reign, Sobieski’s later years were not only much less eventful, but most of all burdened with failures. One might think that the fixation on the Queen’s influence on her husband in that period is really indicative of a desire to clear Jan III of responsibility for these complications. Marie Casimire came to be compared to Louise-Marie, and, just like her fellow French-born Queen, condemned for her extensive—or even excessive—activity, often perceived as detrimental to the Polish cause.
The Sobieskis doubtless continued to share the dream of securing the throne for their son, Jakub, throughout Jan III’s reign. Sources give no support to the charge that the Queen favoured Aleksander as heir to the crown. At the same time, the Sobieskis’ incessant activity at home and abroad suggest that they had harboured doubts about their son’s chances in the election from the very beginning.
Marie Casimire acted as protector for her family. When Jan Zamoyski was still alive, she summoned her brother, Count de Maligny, to Poland, hoping to further his military career. However, her first husband wanted no part of that. Jan Sobieski, on the other hand, did his best to help his brother-in-law to please his wife. From that point on, the Count accompanied Sobieski in military expeditions. When the Sobieskis ascended to the Polish throne, Marie Casimire summoned her sister, Marianne, to the Commonwealth and had her marry Jan Wielopolski, the future Grand Chancellor of the Crown. The Queen’s other sister, Marie Louise, also came to Poland as the wife of Marquis de Béthune, Louis XIV’s envoy to Poland. Marie Casimire sought to give the couple’s two daughters away to suitable suitors. The court of Jan III was also visited by Henri de La Grange, Marquis d’Arquien. The Queen was later accused of surrounding herself with her own family and caring more for its lot than that of her own children, a claim that finds no support in extant sources. One of the most oft-repeated legends about the Queen states that she had convinced Jan III to break ties with France and ally himself to the Holy Roman Emperor purely on a whim, seeking revenge on Louis XIV for failing to grant her father a ducal title and peerage. Yet, the decision was clearly justified by the political circumstances of the period, the threat posed by the Ottomans, and Sobieskis’ dynastic interests.
Marie Casimire also inspired the formation of a theatre at the court of the Sobieskis. Looking back to a tradition dating back to the Vasas, the Queen offered support to Italian troupes which performed musical plays during important events at the court. She was also treated to French plays authored by the finest playwrights, performed by courtiers and ladies-in-waiting. The garden at Yavoriv often served as a stage for these performances, and great attention was devoted to costumes—the Queen is said to have even borrowed her own jewellery to the actors. Among the performers, one would also find the children of the Sobieskis, who followed in the footsteps of their mother: as a lady-in-waiting to Queen Louise Marie, Marie Casimire had also performed in plays.
During Jan III’s twilight years, the Queen engaged in a search for a medicine to cure his ailments. She believed in the beneficial influence of water cure, and considered travelling to Bourbon or Aachen, famous spas of the period. Marie Casimire personally attended to her ill and pained husband; she had a folding bed placed in his bedchamber and spent nights by his side, often giving up sleep altogether. She also tried to improve her husband’s condition with broth she cooked herself.
After Jan III’s death, in spite of the initial tensions between the Queen and her eldest son, she promptly engaged in actions designed to ensure Jakub’s electoral success. For a while, she considered her son-in-law, Maximilian Emanuel, a more promising candidate, but he rejected his mother-in-law’s offer, opting not to stand election for the Polish throne.
After the electoral failure, Marie Casimire attempted to establish positive relations between her family and King Augustus II, but it quickly transpired that there was no longer any room for the Sobieskis at the royal court. This prompted the monarch to decide to leave Poland; she decided to visit Rome, a city she wanted to go to already during the interregnum, at the invitation of the Pope’s nephew, Don Livio Odescalchi. Under the pretence of a jubilee pilgrimage, the Queen left the country in 1698 with the new monarch’s blessing. She took her father along, a still lively man despite his ninety years, whom she had successfully recommended for the position of a cardinal when Jan III was still alive. The Queen was also accompanied by her eldest and favourite granddaughter, Maria Kazimiera, who remained with her grandmother until the latter’s death. The Queen spent years searching for a properly elevated suitor for her granddaughter, trying her luck even with the Stuarts exiled from England. At one point, even the Pope became involved in the struggle to improve the young lady’s prospects.
The trip through Italy became a major triumph for Marie Casimire and her entourage. Her arrival was greeted with solemn ceremonies and displays of gratitude for Jan III’s part in saving Christendom and Europe. In Rome, the Queen enjoyed widespread popularity and was widely revered. Cardinals stopped their carriages to let her coach pass and took off their hats when they met her. The monarch sat before His Holiness at official audiences with her granddaughter on her lap. On the anniversary of the triumph at Vienna, she arranged masses for Poles who died in the battle. That day, the Square of the Holy Trinity (Piazza della Trinità dei Monti) was illumined and participants in the festivities donned Sarmatian-Oriental suits, capturing the attention of the viewers. Incidentally, Marie Casimire’s servants wore similar clothing every day. A bust of the Queen was placed at the Capitol and a commemorative plaque was installed in place of the monument to Jan III that Marie Casimire had been working to establish, to no avail. As part of her consistent efforts to preserve the memory of 1683, Marie Casimire commissioned panegyrics and plays devoted to the victory at Vienna.
Following the example of Queen Christina, Marie Casimire wanted to become a patron of the arts. Theatre once was her passion, so she organised performances as an introduction to balls thrown at the palace where she lived. From 1704 on, the Queen’s secretary, Carlo Sigismondo Capece, contributed by preparing musical performances, to be replaced by performances of the so-called piccolo teatro, based on street folklore. At the turn of 1710 the Queen’s theatre functioned on a regular basis thanks to the involvement of Prince Aleksander. The Sobieski theatre caused a scandal because it staged plays even in the off season. This was not to the liking of the authorities—the Pope sought to keep the development of theatre in check, often resorting to outright bans, but the Queen did not always honour his judgement. Instead, she became deeply involved in her artistic undertaking and engaged in open rivalry with the theatre of Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni. She also stressed that, though Venice in her view boasted a more formidable machinery, performances at her palace were more accomplished, and also more popular. She also rejected the idea of ticketing the performances, likely sparked by the financial problems that her family came to face. The idea itself was not foreign to contemporary stages. Aside from her own artistic pursuits, the Queen became an honorary member of the Roman Arcadia as ‘Amirisca Telea’. Her patronage was a major contribution to the operation of the institution.
Though far away in Italy, Marie Casimire did not forget about Poland. She continued to follow the events in the country. When the Great Northern War broke out, she expressed sorrow over Poland’s fate and the havoc wrought by foreign forces marching through the land. Obviously, she was thrilled by the prospect of raising Jakub to the throne. She tried to advise her sons on their conduct in view of that goal. Eventually, she engaged in correspondence with Karl XII of Sweden. She was overjoyed at the prospect of her son’s ascendancy and the return of her family to power.
News of the arrest of the princes shocked her enormously. She immediately addressed the Pope with pleas for aid in freeing them, and also called upon Louis XIV and Leopold I, and particularly Empress Eleonor. She was even prepared to travel to Silesia to be close to the prisoners and at their disposal, but she was denied access to the Habsburg territories. Receiving no support in Rome—the Holy See did not want to antagonise Augustus II, a recently acquired convert—Marie Casimire decided to damage the King’s standing in the Eternal City. She persistently spoke of Poland’s agony under his rule, and pointed out the monarch’s conduct as injurious to the country as well as the Church.
Immediately after the arrest of her sons, the Queen thought they would be freed if Aleksander laid claim to the crown. Thus, when he informed her of his decision to decline that prospect, she reprimanded him on the assumption that this meant the Sobieskis would never regain the rule. Still, she probably knew of Stanisław Leszczyński’s promise of returning the crown to Jakub, and was angered by his failure to follow up on it.
She demanded to see her freed sons and invited them to Rome. Together with her granddaughter, she prepared a special performance for their arrival. The Queen also wanted them to join the rest of the family in a pilgrimage to Loreto, which she had vowed to make during her sons’ imprisonment. Apart from that, she thought that summoning them to Rome would prevent another arrest. She was convinced that, as potential candidates to the throne, they would always remain in danger, regardless of their personal attitudes or actions.
Longing to see her children, the Queen travelled to Venice to meet Teresa Kunegunda, who had separated from her husband. The relations between mother and daughter were never particularly close, and years of separation made it impossible for them to find a common ground. Dejected, Marie Casimire returned to Rome and sent an invitation to her daughter, a forced exile from Bavaria—to no avail.
Amid these adversities and sorrows, and mired in debt, the Queen—now less and less noted and honoured in Rome—began to dream of a move away from the city. She asked Louis XIV for permission to return to France, which was granted in 1714, and immediately set about preparing for the trip. She believed that the air of her native land would bring her back to health, but she also hoped to visit Versailles and meet the French King. These plans were thwarted by her ill health and the death of the monarch. In turn, she was visited by Maximilian Emanuel, a long-time correspondent.
Marie Casimire died in Blois on 30 January 1716. The task of guarding her remains and dissolving her small court fell to her granddaughter. In her will, the Queen expressed the wish to be buried beside her husband, but left the final decision on the matter to her children. It was to Jakub that she owed the absolute dedication to fulfilling the requirement. Since the Queen was deep in debt, creditors attempted to prevent the extraction of her remains from France in the hopes of forcing the princes to settle her accounts. However, in their infinite cleverness, the envoys from Oława smuggled the Queen’s body to the Capuchin church, the burial place of Jan III and Prince Jakub’s son. In 1734, in accordance with the Polish tradition—which stipulated that the previous monarch should be buried immediately before the new ruler was crowned—the bodies of the three Sobieskis and Augustus II were transported to Cracow in a sumptuous procession and laid in crypts inside the Wawel Cathedral. This was the last royal burial in the history of the Commonwealth.
Translation: Antoni Górny