© Muzeum of King Jan III’s Palace at Wilanów
Silva Rerum   Silva Rerum   |   17.08.2015

The politician Queen in the eyes of the nobility – Marie Casimire in political writings of the late 17th century

Although beautiful and smart, Marie Casimire d’Arquien did not enjoy the sympathy of her subjects. The main reason for this was her great political activity, which was incompatible with the Old Polish images of a woman and a queen. The more Marysieńka tried to enter the world of politics, the more she was criticized by her male politician contemporaries. This is confirmed by journalists of the time, who intensified their attacks while she was strongly engaged in the internal affairs of the state (for example during the coronation, her attempts to put Prince Jakub on the Polish throne or during the new election). The anonymous slanderous letters allowed their authors to express their blunt opinions of Marie Casimire not only as a bad queen, but also as an unfaithful wife and indifferent mother.  She was attacked not only as a public figure, but also as a person, and her attackers did not respect the authority of the position she held in the country. The main feature of this image was exaggeration, distorting the reality. Her adversaries often spoke about the great influence she had on the Polish throne, meanwhile her real function was mostly representative. This is why queens with greater political aspirations had to resort to actions behind the scenes.

Marysieńka, who was strongly interested in politics, quickly started her work, facing strong criticism even before the enthronement of Jan III. Although the Habsburg queens did not instil fear in the nobility, queens from France, the country of political intrigues, such as Madame de Chevreuse’s, had to face the misogyny of the nobility. Eleanor of Austria, wife of King Michał Korybut Wiśniowiecki was the predecessor of Marie Casimire. She captivated the nobility with her kindness and the fact she distanced herself from politics. No one expected Marysieńka to continue the same trend, knowing that she had been a lady in waiting of Marie Louise Gonzaga, who was not remembered fondly by her subjects.

Those fears were quickly confirmed by her actions in the French court during the election which concluded with the enthronement of the victor of Chocim (Khotyn). It was widely understood that hetman Sobieski was a pretender to the throne led by her ambitions, so there were efforts to prevent her from becoming queen. The malcontents strongly advised the new king to marry the widow of Michał Korybut Wiśniowiecki, referring to the constitution of 1576, which had a provision that the choice of the Queen should be agreed upon with the Senate council. It was important in regard to the international politics, especially when it turned in the wrong direction - towards the absolutist France. Meanwhile, Sobieski took away the senators’ influence over the political orientation of the Commonwealth by marrying the woman he loved beforehand.

For this reason, the opponents of the court sought to demonstrate that Marie Casimire is not worthy of the honour bestowed upon her. They often referred to the fact they were not a part of any royal family, however French genealogists could trace the d’Arquien family back to king Clovis I, Charlemagne, Hugo Capet and St Louis of France. This is, however, the fact that was omitted in the political pamphlets, which tried to compare the noblewoman with the Eleanor of Habsburgs.

The fact that she “interfered” with politics, by using her “intrigues and schemes”, was the key argument of the opponents of the new Queen. Her political activity was often called “devilish concepts” and “clever tricks”, and she was often accused of taking inspiration from the cynical Machiavelli. She was often compared to the ambitious Richeza, the wife of Mieszko II, as well as to Agrippina, who had achieved strong political influence thanks to her affairs. The way in which she took any actions – behind the scenes, outside of the sejm and the senate, was also criticised.

Her attempt to put Jakub on the throne in 1688 was often referred to as an example of such actions, even though it was a plan that had been prepared long before by the court faction.

Her opponents described with greatest concern her attempts to create her own faction, which gathered together the wives of the most prominent dignitaries – they influenced the decisions taken by their husbands, and in the meantime they got sensitive information from them. They emphasised the fact that Marysieńka cleverly bestowed her graces upon the wives of politicians from both factions, which allowed her to gain knowledge not only about the secret plans of the court, but also about the opposition. This led to, according to the authors of those slanderous pamphlets, the Polish Agrippina acquired position almost equal to that of the King, and was able to control the proceedings of the sejms, among others. Many distinguished politicians had fallen prey to her intrigues: chancellor Jan Wielopolski, the Bishop of Poznan Jan Witwicki, the Castellan of Vilnius Bogusław Słuszka or the leader of the king’s faction – Antoni Szczuka.

However, according to her opposition, she had the greatest influence on her husband, the poor Mars Polonus, who, fascinated with the charm of Aurora, granted her all her wishes. Also, he owed a debt of gratitude for helping him to get the Crown of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This is why the authors of the pamphlets asked the king to see through all those intrigues and end the reign of the woman. Meanwhile the Polish Lion seemed to accept the actions of his wife, who created other creatures similar to her. In order to achieve that she deluded the politicians with vacats, for which they had to pay not only with their money, but also jewels and beautiful costumes. In reality, it was the king who decided who would assume which position, based on political and financial reasons.

The political pamphlets of the time also said that the Queen exhibited certain favouritism towards her family and her fellow compatriots, which was evidenced by the brilliant political careers of her father and her brother, as well as the beneficial marriages of all her sisters. In fact, Marie Casimire surrounded herself by people who were the closest to her, caring for their well-being, but by elevating her family she also strengthened the position of the royal family. This was one of the main reasons for her persistent struggle to make marquis d’Arquien a cardinal, which led to some conflicts with king Louis XIV. As one of the Queen’s biographers noted: the big politics were strongly connected with her personal matters.

It was also reflected in the dynastic policy of the Sobieski family, which caused a strong, emotional reaction of her opposition. Marysieńka eagerly sought for the best marriage candidates for her children. This exposed her to accusations that she wanted to take control over the Commonwealth by using her son. However, as time passed and she became conflicted with Jakub, she was described as a bad mother, who is focused on her own career and her search for a new husband.

The attacks on the unrealised founder of a new dynasty intensified after the death of Jan III Sobieski, when she was expected to become a queen of the new ruler (for example hetman Jabłonowski, whom she allegedly promised the profits from Żółkiew) or that she will get her own candidate on the Polish throne – her son-in-law, the Elector of Bavaria, Maximilian Emanuel, or one of the younger princes. This was the reason why her opposition tried to dissuade the nobility from supporting her during the interregnum, by blaming her for all the errors of her husband. Some of the accusation were pure absurd, she was blamed for not keeping the promises from the pacta conventa, even though those were promises of only the king himself, another accusation said that she started the conflict between the Bishop of Vilnius, Brzostowski and Grand Hetman Sapieha (even though in reality she did her best to calm the conflicting parties down.)

The great political influence of the widow Queen made the opposition fearful to the point they wanted to get rid of her and make her leave the country. The authors of the slanderous pamphlets threatened the Queen with the rebellion of the nobility, the sejm where the nobility would participate directly in mass mobilisation, even with expulsion from the country. In the same time, they wrote satires, trying to ridicule her. In one of fictitious dialogues the older mother with wrinkles all over her body revealed Jakub her plans to win the Polish crown, even if she had to go through another childbirth or… marry a Jew.

Those were not the only ad personam attacks – the beautiful French woman, who wore bold outfits in a foreign style was from the very beginning accused of many affairs, among others with the aforementioned Recorder of the Crown, Szczuka, with Ferdinand Kettler, the Prince of Kurland, or the Crown Under-treasurer Benedykt Sapieha. Despite the fact that the correspondence between the couple proves their deep feelings towards each other, the Queen’s opposition described her as a woman of questionable virtue, who led a double life and cheated on the poor Sobieski. They criticised her for quickly ending her mourning, the fact that she did not cry after her husband’s death and the fact that her beauty had deteriorated: “the baggy breasts”, “lazy eyes” and “a sagging neck”.  

What was the court’s and king’s reaction to the criticism, that spread through the political pamphlets in the entire country? Jan III Sobieski decided not to get involved in political quarrels unworthy of the dignity of the people on the highest positions in the country. In the royal iconography the wife of Sobieski was represented as a beautiful Gea-Rea, the proud creator of a new dynasty, or as ethereal Aurora. Sometimes the king, perhaps urged by his wife, ordered to write a response to the pamphlets published by the opposition. The authors of the king’s responses tried to picture Marysieńka according to the imagination of a good queen.  They tried to convince the nobility that Marie Casimire was a good, tender and supportive wife, a devout Catholic and a queen who was sensitive to the fate of their subjects. They also assured that – unlike other women – she did not spend time in front of a mirror, but instead as a good patriot she cared for the well-being of the country. They presented her as Mater Patriae, emphasising that she is not French any more, but Polish, and a woman who tries to resolve the conflicts in the country.

Not all of these opinions were true – Marysieńka was known for her temperament and for how much she cared for the country – perhaps too much for the nobility. Moreover, the supporters of the Queen did not respond to the accusations about her political activity, only informing the readers that she is doing everything in the country’s best interest, by supporting the king in his life. They did not defend her by saying that, for example, she inspired the theatre in court. Sadly, the time had shown that the petty arguments of the opposition, which were repeated often, were more efficient, and the name of Marie Casimire is up to this day tarnished by slanderous legends, which need to be disproved even today.

Translation: Lingua Lab

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