Hedwige was the youngest daughter of Lewis, nephew and successor to Casimir the Great, who, on account of the preference he evinced for his Hungarian subjects, drew upon himself the continued ill-will of the nation he was called upon to govern. Finding he was unable to cope with the numerous factions everywhere ready to oppose him, he, not without many humiliating concessions to the nobles of Poland, induced them to elect as his successor his daughter Maria, wife of Sigismund, Marquis of Brandenburg (afterward emperor), and having appointed the Duke of Oppelen regent of the kingdom, retired to his native Hungary, unwilling to relinquish the shadow of the sceptre which continually evaded his grasp.
On his death, which happened in 1382, Poland became the theatre of intestine disorders fomented by the turbulent nobles, who, notwithstanding the allegiance they had sworn to the Princess Maria, refused to allow her even to enter the kingdom. Sigismund was not, however, inclined thus easily to forego his wife’s claims; and as the Lord of Mazovia at the same time aspired to the vacant throne, many of the provinces became so desolated by civil war that the leaders of the adverse factions threw down their arms, and simultaneously agreed to offer the crown to the Princess Hedwige, then residing in Hungary under the care of her mother Elizabeth. By no means approving of a plan which thus unceremoniously excluded her eldest daughter from the throne, the queen dowager endeavored to oppose injustice by policy. Hedwige was at the time only fourteen years of age, and the deputies were informed that, as the princess was too young to undertake the heavy responsibilities of sovereignty, her brother-in-law Sigismund must act in her stead until such time as she herself should be considered capable of assuming the reins of government. This stratagem did not succeed; the duke was not allowed to cross the frontiers of Poland, and Elizabeth found herself compelled to part with her daughter, if she would not see the crown placed on the brow of whomever the diet might elect.
Now commenced the trials of the young Hedwige, who was thus early called upon to exercise those virtues of heroic fortitude, patient endurance, and self-denial which rendered her life a sort of continual martyrdom, a sacrifice daily offered up at the shrines of religion and patriotism. At the early age of four years she had been affianced to William, Duke of Austria, who, in accordance with the custom of the times, had been educated in Hungary; his affection for his betrothed growing with his growth, and increasing with his years. Ambition had no charms for Hedwige; her fervent piety, shrinking modesty, and feminine timidity sought to conceal, not only her extraordinary beauty, but those rare mental endowments of which she was possessed. Bitter were the tears shed by this gentle girl, when her mother, alarmed at the menaces of the Polish nobles, informed her she must immediately depart for Cracow, under the protection of Cardinal Demetrius, Bishop of Strigonia, who was pledged to deliver her into the hands of those whom she was disposed to regard rather as her masters than as her subjects. There had been one stipulation made, which, had she been aware of its existence, would have added a sharper pang to the already poignant anguish of Hedwige: the Poles required that their young sovereign should marry only with the consent of the diet, and that her husband should not only reside constantly in Poland, but pledge himself never to attempt to render that country dependent on any other power. Although aware of the difficulties thus thrown in the way of her union with Duke William, her mother had subscribed to these conditions; and Hedwige, having been joyfully received by the prelates and nobles of her adopted country, was solemnly crowned in the cathedral at Cracow, October 15, 1385, being the festival of her patron, St. Hedwige. Her youth, loveliness, grace, and intellectual endowments won from the fierce chieftains an enthusiastic affection which had been denied to the too yielding Lewis; their national pride was flattered, their loyalty awakened, by the innocent fascinations of their young sovereign, and they almost sought to defer the time which, in her husband, would necessarily give them a ruler of sterner mould. Nor was Hedwige undeserving of the exalted station she had been compelled to fill: a worthy descendant of the sainted Lewis, her every word and action waa marked by a gravity and maturity which bore witness to the supernatural motives and heavenly wisdom by which it was inspired; and yet, in the silence of her chamber, many were the tears she shed over the memory of ties severed, she feared, for ever. Amongst the earliest candidates for her hand was Ziemovit, Duke of Mazovia, already mentioned as one of the competitors for the crown after the death of her father; but the Poles, still smarting from the effects of his unbridled ambition, dismissed his messengers with a refusal couched in terms of undisguised contempt. The question of her marriage once agitated, the mind of Hedwige naturally turned to him on whom her heart was unalterably fixed, and whom from her childhood she had been taught to consider as her future husband; but an alliance with the house of Austria formed no part of Polish policy, and neither the wishes nor the entreaties of their queen could induce the diet to entertain the idea for a moment; in short, their whole energy was employed in bringing about a union which, however disagreeable to the young sovereign, was likely to be in every way advantageous to the country and favorable to the interests of religion.
Jagello, the pagan Duke of Lithuania, was from his proximity and the extent of his possessions (comprising Samogitia and a large portion of Russia) a formidable enemy to Poland. Fame was not slow in wafting to his ears rumors of the beauty and accomplishments of Hedwige, which being more than corroborated by ambassadors employed to ascertain the truth, the impetuous Jagello determined to secure the prize, even at the cost of national independence. The idolatry of the Lithuanians and the early betrothal of Hedwige to Duke William were the chief obstacles with which he had to contend; but, after a brief deliberation, an embassy was despatched, headed by Skirgello, brother to the grand-duke, and bearing the most costly presents; Jagello himself being with difficulty dissuaded from accompanying them in person. The envoys were admitted into the presence of the council, at which the queen herself presided, and the prince proceeded to lay before the astonished nobles the offers of the barbarian suitor, offers too tempting to be weighed in the balance against such a trifle as a girl’s happiness, or the violation of what these overbearing politicians were pleased to term a mere childish engagement, contracted before the parties were able to judge for themselves. After a long harangue, in which Skirgello represented how vainly the most illustrious potentates and the most powerful rulers had hitherto endeavored to effect the conversion of Lithuania, he offered as “a tribute to the charms of the queen” that Jagello and his brothers, together with the princes, lords, and people of Lithuania and Samogitia, should at once embrace the Catholic faith; that all the Christian captives should be restored unransomed; and the whole of their extensive dominions be incorporated with Poland; the grand-duke also pledging himself to reconquer for that country Pomerania, Silesia, and whatever other territories had been torn from Poland by neighboring states; and, finally, promising to make good to the Poles the sum of two hundred thousand florins, which had been sent to William of Austria as the dowry forfeited by the non-fulfilment of the engagement entered into by their late king Lewis. A murmur of applause at this unprecedented generosity ran through the assembly; the nobles hailed the prospect of so unlooked-for an augmentation of national power and security; and the bishops could not but rejoice at the prospect of rescuing so many souls from the darkness of heathenism, and securing at one and the same time the propagation of the Catholic faith and the peace of Poland. But the queen herself shared not these feelings of satisfaction: no sooner had Skirgello ceased than she started from her seat, cast a hasty glance round the assembly, and, as if reading her fate in the countenances of the nobles, buried her face in her hands and burst into a flood of tears. All attempts to soothe and pacify her were in vain: in a strain of passionate eloquence, which was not without its effect, she pleaded her affection for Duke William, the sacred nature of the engagement by which she was pledged to become his wife, pointed to the ring on her finger, and reminded an aged prelate who had accompanied her from Hungary that he had himself witnessed their being laid in the same cradle at the ceremony of their betrothal. It was impossible to behold unmoved the anguish of so gentle a creature; not a few of the younger chieftains espoused the cause of their sovereign; and, at the urgent solicitation of Hedwige, it was finally determined that the Lithuanian ambassadors, accompanied by three Polish nobles, should repair to Buda for the purpose of consulting her mother, the Queen of Hungary.
But Elizabeth, though inaccessible to the temptations of worldly ambition, was too pious, too self-denying, to allow maternal affection to preponderate over the interests of religion. Aware that the betrothal of her daughter to the Duke of Austria had never been renewed from the time of their infancy, she, without a moment’s hesitation, replied that, for her own part, she desired nothing, but that the queen ought to sacrifice every human feeling for the glory of Christianity and the welfare of Poland. To Hedwige herself she wrote affectionately, though firmly, bidding her lay every natural inclination at the foot of the cross, and desiring her to praise that God who had chosen so unworthy an instrument as the means by which the pure splendor of Catholicity should penetrate the darkness of Lithuania and the other pagan nations. Elizabeth was aware of the real power of religion over the mind of her child, and doubted not but that, after the first paroxysm of grief had subsided, she should be able to overcome by its means the violence of her daughter’s repugnance to the proposed measure. In order to give a color of impartiality to their proceedings, a diet was convoked at Cracow, immediately on the return of the embassy, to deliberate on the relative claims of Jagello, William of Austria, and the Dukes of Mazovia and Oppelen, all of whom aspired to the hand of Hedwige and the crown of Poland. The discussion was long and stormy, for amongst those nobles more immediately around the queen’s person there were many, including a large body of ecclesiastics, who, although convinced that no lawful impediment existed to the marriage, yet shrank from the cruelty of uniting the gentle princess to a barbarian; and these failed not to insist upon the insult which would be implied by such a choice to the native Catholic princes. The majority, however, were of a different opinion, and at the close of the diet it was decided that an ambassador should be despatched to Jagello, inviting him to Cracow for the purpose of continuing the negotiations in his own person. But William of Austria was too secure in the justice of his cause and the affection of his betrothed to resign his pretensions without an effort; and his ardor being by no means diminished by a letter which he received from the queen herself, imploring him to hasten to her assistance, he placed himself at the head of a numerous retinue, and, with a treasure by which he hoped to purchase the good-will of the adverse faction, appeared so suddenly at Cracow as to deprive his opponents of their self-possession. The determination of Hedwige to unite herself to the object of her early and deep affection was loudly expressed, and, as there were many powerful leaders – among others, Gniewosz, Vice-chamberlain of Cracow – who espoused her cause, and rallied round Duke William, the Polish nobles, not daring openly to oppose their sovereign, were on the point of abandoning the cause of Jagello, when Dobeslas, Castellain of Cracow, one of the staunchest supporters of the Lithuanian alliance, resolved at any risk to prevent the meeting of the lovers, and actually went so far as to refuse the young prince admission into the castle, where the queen at the time was residing, not only drawing his sword, but dragging the duke with him over the drawbridge, which he commanded to be immediately lowered. William, thus repulsed, fixed his quarters at the Franciscan monastery; and Hedwige, fired by the insult, rode forth accompanied by a chosen body of knights and her female attendants, determined by the completion of her marriage to place an insuperable bar between her and Jagello.
In the refectory of the monastery, the queen and the prince at length met; and, after several hours spent in considering how best to avert the separation with which they were threatened, it was arranged that William should introduce himself privately into the castle of Cracow, where they were to be united by the queen’s confessor. Some time elapsed before this plan could be carried into execution; for although even Dobeslas hesitated to confine his sovereign within her own palace, the castle gates were kept shut against the entrance of the Duke of Austria. Exasperated at this continued opposition, and her affection augmented by the presence of its object, from whom the arrival, daily expected, of Jagello would divide her for ever, Hedwige determined to admit the prince disguised as one of her household, and a day was accordingly fixed for the execution of this romantic project. By some means or other the whole plan came to the knowledge of the vigilant castellain; the adventurous prince was seized in a passage leading to the royal apartments, loaded with insult, and driven from the palace, within the walls of which the queen now found herself a prisoner. It was in vain she wept, and implored to be allowed to see her betrothed once more, if only to bid him farewell; her letters were intercepted, her attendants became spies on her movements, and, on the young prince presenting himself before the gates, his life was threatened by the barons who remained within the fortress. This was too much; alarmed for her lover’s safety, indignant at the restraint to which she was subjected, the passion of the girl triumphed over the dignity of the sovereign. Quitting her apartment, she hurried to the great gate, which, as she apprehended, was secured in such a manner as to baffle all her efforts; trembling with fear, and eager only to effect her escape, she called for a hatchet, and, raising it with both hands, repeatedly struck the locks and bolts that prevented her egress. The childish simplicity of the attempt, the agony depicted in the beautiful and innocent countenance of their mistress, so touched the hearts of the rude soldiery, that, but for their dread of the nobles, Hedwige would through their means have effected her purpose. As it was, they offered no opposition, but stood in mournful and respectful silence; when the venerable Demetrius, grand-treasurer of the kingdom, approached, and falling on his knees, implored her to be calm, and to sacrifice her own happiness, if not to the wishes of her subjects and the welfare of her country, at least to the interests of religion. At the sight of that aged man, whose thin white hairs and sorrowful countenance inspired both reverence and affection, the queen paused, and, giving him her hand, burst into an agony of tears; then, hurrying to her oratory, she threw herself on the ground before an image of the Blessed Virgin, where, after a sharp interior conflict, she succeeded in resigning herself to what she now believed to be the will of God – embracing for his sake the heavy cross which she was to bear for the remainder of her life.
Meanwhile Duke William, to escape the vengeance of the wrathful barons, was compelled to quit Poland, leaving his now useless wealth in the charge of the vice-chamberlain, who still apparently continued his friend. Not long after his departure, Jagello, at the head of a numerous army, and attended by his two brothers, crossed the frontiers, determined, as it seemed, to prosecute his suit. At the first rumor of his approach, the most powerful and influential among the nobles repaired to Cracow, where prayers, remonstrances, and even menaces were employed to induce the queen to accept the hand of the barbarian prince. But to all their eloquence Hedwige turned a deaf ear: in vain did agents, despatched for the purpose, represent the duke as handsome in person, princely and dignified in manner; her conscience was troubled, duty had enlisted on the same side as feeling, and the contest again commenced. Setting inclination aside, how dared she break the solemn compact she had made with the Duke of Austria? She persisted in regarding her proposed marriage with Jagello as nothing short of an act of criminal infidelity; and, independently of the affliction of her heart, her soul became a prey to the most violent remorse. To obtain the consent of Duke William to their separation was of course out of the question; and before the puzzled council could arrive at any decision, Jagello entered Cracow, more in the style of a conqueror than a suitor, and repaired at once to the castle, where he found the queen surrounded by a court surpassing in beauty and magnificence all that his imagination had pictured. Pale as she was from the intensity of her sufferings, he was dazzled, almost bewildered, by the childlike innocence and winning loveliness of Hedwige; and his admiration was expressed the following day by the revenues of a province being laid at her feet in the shape of jewels and robes of the most costly description. But the queen was more obdurate than ever. With her knowledge and consent Duke William had returned to Cracow, though compelled to resort to a variety of disguises to escape the fury of the barons, now determined to put an end to his pretensions and his existence together; and it is said that, in order to avoid his indefatigable enemy, Dobeslas, he was once compelled to seek refuge in a large chimney. Forced eventually to quit the capital without seeing Hedwige, he still loitered in the environs; nor did he return to Austria until her marriage with Jagello terminated those hopes which he had cherished from his earliest infancy. In order to quiet the queen’s religious scruples, a letter is said to have arrived from Rome, in which, after pronouncing that the early betrothal involved no impediment to the marriage, the Holy Father placed before her the merits of the offering she was called upon to make, reminding her of the torments so cheerfully suffered by the early martyrs for the honor of God, and calling upon her to imitate their example. This statement, however, is not sufficiently authenticated.
After the severest interior trials, days spent in tears, fasting, and the most earnest petitions to the throne of Divine grace, the queen received strength to consummate the sacrifice demanded from her. Naturally ardent and impulsive, and at an age when every sentiment is freshest and most keen, she was called upon to extirpate from her heart an affection not only deep but legitimate, to inflict a wound on the object of her tenderest love, and, finally, to transfer her devotion to one whom she had hitherto regarded with feelings of unqualified aversion. The path of highest, because self-sacrificing duty, once clear before her, she determined to act with generosity toward a God from whom she had received so much: her beauty, talents, the virtues with which she was adorned, were so many precious gifts to be placed at the disposal of him by whom they had been bestowed. Covering herself with a thick black veil, she proceeded on foot to the cathedral of Cracow, and, repairing to one of the side chapels, threw herself on her knees, where for three hours, with clasped hands and streaming eyes, she wrestled with the violent feeling that struggled in her bosom. At length she rose with a detached heart, having laid at the foot of the cross her affections, her will, her hopes of earthly happiness; offering herself, and all that belonged to her, as a perpetual holocaust to her crucified Redeemer, and esteeming herself happy so that by this sacrifice she might purchase the salvation of those precious souls for whom he had shed his blood. Before leaving the chapel she cast her veil over the crucifix, hoping under that pall to bury all of human infirmity that might still linger round her heart, and then hastened to establish a foundation for the perpetual renewal of this type of her “soul’s sorrow.” This foundation yet exists: within the same chapel the crucifix still stands, covered by its sable drapery, being commonly known as the Crucifix of Hedwige.
The queen’s consent to the Lithuanian alliance endeared her still more to the hearts of her subjects, who regarded her as a martyr to the peace of Poland. On the 14th of February, 1386, her marriage was celebrated with becoming solemnity, Jagello having previously received the sacrament of baptism; shortly afterward he was crowned, in the presence of Hedwige, under his Christian name of Wladislas, which he had taken in deference to the wishes of the Poles. The unassuming piety, gentle disposition, and great learning of the young queen commanded at once the respect and admiration of her husband. So great, indeed, was his opinion of her prudence, that, being obliged to march into Upper Poland to crush the rebellion of the Palatine of Posnia, he took her with him in the capacity of mediatrix between himself and the disaffected leaders who had for months desolated that province. This mission of mercy was most acceptable to Hedwige; after the example of the sainted Elizabeth of Hungary, her generosity toward the widows, orphans, and those who had lost their substance in this devastating war, was boundless; whilst ministering to their wants, she failed not, at the same time, to sympathize with their distress; and, like an angel of peace, she would stand between her husband and the objects of his indignation. On one occasion, to supply the necessities of the court, so heavy a contribution had been laid upon the peasants that their cattle did not escape; watching their opportunity, they, with their wives and children, threw themselves in the queen’s path, filling the air with their cries, and conjuring her to prevent their utter ruin. Hedwige, deeply affected, dismounted from her palfrey, and, kneeling by their side, besought her husband not to sanction so flagrant an act of oppression; and when the satisfied peasants retired fully indemnified for their loss, she is said to have exclaimed, “Their cattle are restored, but who will recompense them for their tears?” Having reduced the country to obedience, it was time for Wladislas to turn his attention to his Lithuanian territories, more especially Russia Nigra, which, although governed by its own princes, was compelled to do homage to the house of Jagello. Pomerania, which by his marriage articles he was pledged to recover for Poland, had been usurped by the Teutonic Knights, who, sensible with how formidable an opponent they had to contend, endeavored to frustrate his intentions, first by carrying fire and sword into Lithuania, and then by exciting a revolution in favor of Duke Andrew, to whom, as well as to the heathen nobles, the alliance (by which their country was rendered dependent on Poland) was displeasing. Olgerd, the father of Wladislas, was a fierce pagan, and his thirteen sons, if we except the elder, inherited his cruelty, treachery, and rapacity. The promised revolution in religion was offensive to the majority of the people; and, to their shame be it spoken, the Teutonic Knights (whose order was first established to defend the Christian faith against the assaults of infidels) scrupled not to adopt a crooked policy, and, by inciting the Lithuanians against their sovereign, threw every impediment in the way of their conversion. Before the king had any suspicion of his intentions, the grand-master had crossed the frontiers, the duchy was laid waste, and many important fortresses were already in the hands of the order.
Wladislas, then absent in Upper Poland, despatched Skirgello into Lithuania, who, though haughty, licentious, and revengeful, was a brave and skilful general. Duke Andrew fled before the forces of his brother, and the latter attacked the Knights with an impetuosity that compelled them speedily to evacuate their conquests. The arrival of the king, with a number of learned prelates, and a large body of clergy, proved he was quite in earnest regarding the conversion of his subjects, hitherto immersed in the grossest and most degrading idolatry. Trees, serpents, vipers, were the inferior objects of their adoration; gloomy forests and damp caverns their temples; and the most disgusting and venomous reptiles were cherished in every family as household gods. But, as with the eastern Magi, fire was the principal object of the Lithuanian worship; priests were appointed whose office it was to tend the sacred flame, their lives paying the penalty if it were allowed to expire. At Wilna, the capital of the duchy, was a temple of the sun; and should that luminary chance to be eclipsed, or even clouded, the people fled thither in the utmost terror, eager to appease the deity by rivers of human blood, which poured forth at the command of the Ziutz, or high priest, the victims vying with each other in the severity of their self-inflicted torments.
As the most effectual method of at once removing the errors of this infatuated people, Wladislas ordered the forests to be cut down, the serpents to be crushed under the feet of his soldiers, and, after extinguishing with his own hand the sacred fires, he caused the temples to be demolished; thus demonstrating to the Lithuanians the impotency of their gods. With the cowardice ever attendant on ignorance and superstition, the pagans cast themselves with their faces to the earth, expecting to see the sacrilegious strangers blasted by the power of the profaned element; but, no such results following, they gradually lost confidence in their deities, and of their own free will desired to be instructed in the doctrines of Christ. Their theological knowledge was necessarily confined to the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed, and a day was fixed for the commencement of the ceremony of baptism. As, on account of the number of catechumens, it was impossible to administer the sacrament to each individual separately, the nobles and their families, after leaving the sacred font, prepared to act as sponsors to the people, who, being divided into groups of either sex, were sprinkled by the bishops and priests, every division receiving the same name.
Hedwige had accompanied her husband to Lithuania, and was gratified by witnessing the zeal with which he assisted the priests in their arduous undertaking; whilst Wladislas, aware of the value of his young auxiliary, was not disappointed by the degree of enthusiastic veneration with which the new Christians regarded the sovereign who, at the age of sixteen, had conferred upon them peace and the light of the true faith. Hedwige was admirably adapted for this task: in her character there was no alloy of passion, pride, or frivolity; an enemy to the luxury and pomp which her sex and rank might have seemed to warrant, her fasts were rigid and her bodily mortifications severe. Neither did her fervor abate during her sojourn in the duchy. By her profuse liberality the cathedral of St. Stanislas of Wilna was completed. Nor did she neglect the other churches and religious foundations which, by her advice, her husband commenced in the principal cities of his kingdom. Before quitting Lithuania, the queen’s heart was wrung by the intelligence she received of a domestic tragedy of the deepest dye. Her mother, the holy and virtuous Elizabeth of Hungary, had during a popular insurrection been put to a cruel death; whilst her sister Maria, who had fallen into the power of the rebel nobles, having narrowly escaped the same fate, was confined in an isolated fortress, subject to the most rigorous and ignominious treatment.
Paganism being at length thoroughly rooted out of Lithuania, a bishopric firmly established at Wilna, and the seven parishes in its vicinity amply supplied with ecclesiastics, Wladislas, preparatory to his return to Poland, appointed his brother Skirgello viceroy of the duchy. This was a fatal error. The proud barbarians, little disposed to dependence on a country they had been accustomed to despoil at pleasure, writhed under the yoke of the fierce tyrant, whose rule soon became odious, and whose vices were rendered more apparent by the contrast which his character presented to that of his cousin Vitowda, whom, as a check upon his well-known ferocity, Wladislas had designated as his colleague. Scarcely had the court returned to Poland, when the young prince, amiable, brave, and generous, by opposing his cousin’s unjust and cruel actions, drew upon himself the vengeance of the latter, and, in order to save his life, was obliged to seek refuge in Pomerania, from whence, as his honor and patriotism alike forbade his assisting the Teutonic Knights in their designs upon his country, he applied to the king for protection.
Wladislas, of a weak and jealous disposition, was, however, at the time too much occupied in attending to foul calumnies uttered against the spotless virtue of his queen to give heed to the application. Notwithstanding the prudence of her general conduct, and the tender devotion evinced by Hedwige toward her husband, the admiration which her beauty and sweetness of disposition commanded from all who approached her was a continual thorn in his side. Her former love for the Duke of Austria and repugnance to himself haunted him night and day, until he actually conceived suspicions injurious to her fidelity. In the polluted atmosphere of a court there were not wanting those who, for their own aggrandizement, were base enough to resort to falsehood in order to destroy an influence at which the wicked alone had cause to tremble. It was whispered in the ear of the unfortunate monarch that his queen had held frequent, and of course clandestine, interviews with Duke William, until, half frantic, he one day publicly reproached her, and, turning to the assembled bishops, wildly demanded a divorce. The proud nobles indignantly interposed, many a blade rattled in its sheath, eager to vindicate the innocence of one who, in their eyes, was purity itself; but Hedwige calmly arose, and with matronly dignity demanded the name of her accuser, and a solemn trial, according to the custom of her country. There was a dead silence, a pause; and then, trembling and abashed before the virtue he had maligned, the Vice-chamberlain Gniewosz, before mentioned as the friend of Duke William (whose wealth he had not failed to appropriate), stepped reluctantly forward. A murmur of surprise and wrath resounded through the council-chamber: many a sword was drawn, as though eager for the blood of the offender; but the ecclesiastics having at length calmed the tumult, the case was appointed to be judged at the diet of Wislica.
The queen’s innocence was affirmed on oath by herself and her whole household, after which the castellain, John Tenczynski, with twelve knights of noble blood and unsullied honor, solemnly swore to the falsehood of the accusation, and, throwing down their gauntlets, defied to mortal combat all who should gainsay their assertion. None, however, appeared to do battle in so bad a cause; and the convicted traitor, silenced and confounded, sank on his knees, confessed his guilt, and implored the mercy of her he had so foully aspersed. The senate, in deference to the wishes of Hedwige, spared his life; but he was compelled to crouch under a bench, imitate the barking of a dog, and declare that, like that animal, he had dared to snarl against his chaste and virtuous sovereign. This done, he was deprived of his office, and banished the court; and Wladislas hastened to beg the forgiveness of his injured wife.
Meanwhile Prince Vitowda, despairing of assistance and pressed on all sides, after much hesitation joined the Teutonic Knights in an incursion against Lithuania. The country was invaded by a numerous army, the capital taken by storm, abandoned to pillage, and finally destroyed by fire; no less than fourteen thousand of the inhabitants perishing in the flames, beside numbers who were massacred without distinction of sex or age. Fortunately the upper city was garrisoned by Poles, who determined to hold out to the last. The slight fortifications were speedily destroyed; but, being immediately repaired, the siege continued so long that Skirgello had time to assemble an army before which the besiegers were eventually obliged to retreat. Vitowda, now too deeply compromised to draw back, though thwarted in his designs on Upper Wilna, gained possession of many of the frontier towns, and, encouraged by success, aimed at nothing less than the independent sovereignty of Lithuania. He was, however, opposed during two or three campaigns by Wladislas person, until, wearied of the war, the king had the weakness not only to sue for peace, but to invest Vitowda with the government of the duchy. This, as might be expected, gave great umbrage to Skirgello, and to another brother, Swidrigal, so that Lithuania, owing to the ambition of the rival princes, became for some time the theatre of civil discord.
Among her other titles to admiration, we must not omit to mention that Hedwige was a munificent patroness of learning. She hastened to re-establish the college built by Casimir II., founded and endowed a magnificent university at Prague for the education of the Lithuanian youth, and superintended the translation of the Holy Scriptures into Polish, writing with her own hands the greater part of the New Testament. Her work was interrupted during her husband’s absence by the attack of the Hungarians on the frontiers of Poland; and it was then that, laying aside the weakness of her sex, she felt herself called upon to supply his place. A powerful army was levied, of which this youthful heroine assumed the command, directing the councils of the generals, and sharing the privations of the meanest soldier. When she appeared on horseback in the midst of the troops, nothing could exceed the enthusiasm of these hardy warriors; and the simplicity with which they obeyed the slightest order of their queen was touching in the extreme. Hedwige led her forces into Russia Nigra, and, partly by force of arms, partly by skilful negotiations, succeeded in reconquering the whole of that vast province, which her father Lewis had detached from the Polish crown in order to unite it to that of his beloved Hungary. This act of injustice was repaired by his daughter, who thus endeared her name to the memory of succeeding generations. The conquering army proceeded to Silesia, then usurped by the Duke of Oppelen, where they were equally successful; so that Wladislas was indebted for the brightest trophies of his reign to the heroism of his wife.
Encouraged by her past success, he determined to reconduct her into Lithuania, in hopes by her means to settle the dissensions of the rival princes. Accordingly, in the spring of 1393, they proceeded thither, when the disputants, subdued by the irresistible charm of her manners, agreed to refer their claims to her arbitration. Of a solid and mature judgment, Hedwige succeeded in pacifying them; and then, by mutual consent, they entered into a solemn compact that in their future differences, instead of resorting to arms, they would submit their cause unreservedly to the arbitration of the young Queen of Poland.
Notwithstanding its restoration to internal tranquillity, this unfortunate duchy was continually laid waste by the Teutonic Knights; and Wladislas, determined to hazard all on one decisive battle, commanded forces to be levied not only in Lithuania, but in Poland. Before the preparations were completed, an interview was arranged to take place between the king and the grand-master, Conrad de Jungen; but the nobility, fearing lest the irritable temper of Wladislas would prove an insurmountable obstacle to all accommodation, implored him to allow the queen to supply his place. On his consent, Hedwige, accompanied by the ecclesiastics, the barons, and a magnificent retinue, proceeded to the place of rendezvous, where she was met by Conrad and the principal knight-commanders of the order. The terms she proposed were equitable, and more lenient than the Teutonic Knights had any reason to expect; but, under one trifling pretext or another, they refused the restitution of the usurped territories on which the king naturally insisted, and the queen was at length obliged to return, prophesying, says the chronicler, that, after her death, their perversity would receive its deserved punishment at the hands of her husband. Her prediction was fulfilled. Some years afterward, on the plains between Grunnervaldt and Tannenberg, the grand-master, with fifty thousand knights, was slain, and by this decisive victory the order was placed at the mercy of Poland, though, from the usual indecision of its king, the fruits of this splendid action were less than might have been expected.
Until her early death, Hedwige continued the guardian angel of that beloved country for which she had made her first and greatest sacrifice; and it is likely that but for her watchfulness, its interests would have been frequently compromised by the Lithuanian union. Acting on this principle, she refused to recognize the investiture of her husband’s favorite, the Palatine of Cracow, with the perpetual fief of Podolia; and, undazzled by the apparent advantages offered by an expedition against the Tartars headed by the great Tamerlane, she forbade the Polish generals to take part in a campaign which, owing to the rashness of Vitowda, terminated so fatally.
It was shortly after her unsuccessful interview with the Teutonic Knights that, by the death of her sister Maria, the crown of Hungary (which ought to have devolved on her husband Sigismund) became again an object of contention. The Hungarians, attracted by the report of her moderation, wisdom, and even military skill – not an uncommon accomplishment in females of those times – determined to offer it to Hedwige; but her brother-in-law, trusting to her sense of justice, hastened to Cracow, praying her not to accept the proposal, and earnestly soliciting her alliance. The queen, whom ambition had no power to dazzle, consented, and a treaty advantageous to Poland was at once concluded.
Hedwige was a good theologian, and well read in the fathers and doctors of the Church; the works of St. Bernard and St. Ambrose, the revelations of St. Bridget, and the sermons of holy men, being the works in which she most delighted. In Church music she was an enthusiast; and not long after the completion of the convent of the Visitation, which she had caused to be erected near the gates of Cracow, she founded the Benedictine abbey of the Holy Cross, where office was daily recited in the Selavonian language, after the custom of the order at Prague. She also instituted a college in honor of the Blessed Virgin, where the Psalms were daily chanted, after an improved method, by sixteen canons.
It was toward the close of the year 1398 that, to the great delight of her subjects, it became evident that the union of Wladislas and Hedwige would at length be blessed with offspring. To see the throne filled by a descendant of their beloved sovereign had been the dearest wish of the Polish people, and fervent had been the prayers offered for this inestimable blessing. The enraptured Wladislas hastened to impart his expected happiness to most of the Christian kings and princes, not forgetting the Supreme Pontiff, Boniface IX., by whom the merits of the young queen were so well appreciated that, six years after her accession, he had addressed to her a letter, written with his own hand, in which he thanked her for her affectionate devotion to the Catholic Church, and informed her that, although it was impossible he could accede to all the applications which might be transmitted to the Holy See on behalf of her subjects, yet, by her adopting a confidential sign-manual, those requests to which she individually attached importance should be immediately granted. The Holy Father hastened to reply in the warmest terms to the king’s communication, promising to act as sponsor to the child, who, if a boy, he desired might be named after himself.
Unfortunately, some time before the queen’s delivery, it became necessary for her husband to quit Cracow, in order to direct an expedition against his old enemies the Teutonic Knights. During his absence, he wrote a long letter, in which, after desiring that the happy event might be attended with all possible magnificence, he entered into a minute detail of the devices and embroidery to be used in the adornment of the bed and chamber, particularly requesting that the draperies and hangings might not lack gold, pearls, or precious stones. This ostentatious display, though excusable in a fond husband and a powerful monarch about to behold the completion of his dearest wishes, was by no means in consonance with Hedwige’s intense love of Christian simplicity and poverty. We find her addressing to her husband these few touching words, expressing, as the result proved, that presentiment of her approaching end which has often been accorded to saintly souls: “Seeing that I have so long renounced the pomps of this world, it is not on that treacherous couch – to so many the bed of death – that I would willingly be surrounded by their glitter. It is not by the help of gold or gems that I hope to render myself acceptable to that Almighty Father who has mercifully removed from me the reproach of barrenness, but rather by resignation to his will, and a sense of my own nothingness.” It was remarked after this that the queen became more recollected than ever, spending whole hours in meditation, bestowing large alms, not only on the distressed of her own country, but on such pilgrims as presented themselves, and increasing her exterior mortifications; wearing a hair shirt during Lent, and using the discipline in a manner which, considering her condition, might have been deemed injudicious. She had ever made a point of spending the vigil of the anniversary of her early sacrifice at the foot of the veiled crucifix, but on this occasion, not returning at her usual hour, one of her Hungarian attendants sought her in the cathedral, then but dimly lighted by the massy silver lamp suspended before the tabernacle. It was bitterly cold, the wind was moaning through the long aisles, but there, on the marble pavement, in an ecstacy which rendered her insensible to bodily sufferings, lay Hedwige, she having continued in this state of abstraction from the termination of complin, at which she invariably assisted.
At length, on the 12th of June, 1399, this holy queen gave birth to a daughter, who was immediately baptized in the cathedral of Cracow, receiving from the Pope’s legate, at the sacred font, the name of Elizabeth Bonifacia. The babe was weak and sickly, and the condition of the mother so precarious that a messenger was despatched to the army urging the immediate return of Wladislas. He arrived in time to witness the last sigh of his so ardently desired child, though his disappointment was completely merged in his anxiety for his wife. By the advice of the physicians it had been determined to conceal the death of the infant, but their precautions were vain. At the very moment it occurred, Hedwige herself announced it to her astonished attendants, and then humbly asked for the last sacraments of the Church, which she received with the greatest fervor. She, however, lingered until the 17th of July, when, the measure of her merits and good works being full, she went to appear before the tribunal of that God whom she had sought to glorify on earth. She died before completing her twenty-ninth year.
A few days previously she had taken a tender leave of her distracted husband; and, mindful to the last of the interests of Poland, she begged him to espouse her cousin Anne, by whose claim to the throne of the Piasts his own would be strengthened. She then drew off her nuptial ring, as if to detach herself from all human ties, and placed it upon his finger, and although, from motives of policy, Wladislas successively espoused three wives, he religiously preserved this memorial of her he had valued the most; bequeathing it as a precious relic (and a memento to be faithful to the land which Hedwige had so truly loved) to the Bishop of Cracow, who had saved his life in battle. Immediately after her funeral, he retired to his Russian province, nor could he for some time be prevailed upon to return and assume the duties of sovereignty.
There was another mourner for her loss, William of Austria, who, notwithstanding the entreaties of his subjects, had remained single for her sake. He was at length prevailed upon to espouse the Princess Jane of Naples, but did not long survive the union.
The obsequies of Hedwige were celebrated by the Pope’s legate with becoming magnificence. All that honor and respect from which she had sensitively shrunk during life was lavished on her remains; she was interred in the cathedral of Cracow on the left of the high altar; her memory was embalmed by her people’s love, and was sanctified in their eyes. Numerous miracles are said to have been performed at her tomb: thither the afflicted in mind and body flocked to obtain through her intercession that consolation which during her life she had so cheerfully bestowed. Contrary to the general expectation, she was never canonized; her name, however, continued to be fondly cherished by the Poles, and by the people who under God were indebted to her for their first knowledge of Christianity, and of whom she might justly be styled the apostle. On her monument was graven a Latin inscription styling her the “Star of Poland,” enumerating her virtues, lamenting her loss, and imploring the King of Glory to receive her into his heavenly kingdom.
The life of Hedwige is her best eulogium. As it has been seen, she combined all the qualities not only of her own, but of a more advanced age. The leisure which she could snatch from the affairs of government she employed in study, devotion, and works of charity. True to her principles, she at her death bequeathed her jewels and other personal property in trust to the bishop and castellain of Cracow, for the foundation of a college in that city. Two years afterward her wishes were carried into effect, and the first stone was laid of the since celebrated university.
Wladislas survived his wife thirty-five years. In his old age he was troubled by a return of his former jealousy, thereby continually embittering the life of his queen, a Lithuanian princess, who, although exculpated by oath, as Hedwige had formerly been, was less fortunate, inasmuch as she was the continual victim of fresh suspicions. The latter years of his reign were much disturbed by the hostilities of the Emperor Sigismund, and by the troubles occasioned in Lithuania by the rebels, who had again combined with the Teutonic Knights.
Wladislas died in 1434, at the age of eighty years. It is said that he contracted his mortal sickness by being tempted to remain exposed too long to the night air, captivated by the sweet notes of a nightingale. Notwithstanding his faults, this monarch had many virtues; his piety was great, and he practised severe abstinences; and although he at times gave way to a suspicious temper, his general character was trusting, frank, and generous even to imprudence. His suspicions, in fact, did not originate with himself. They sprang, in the case of both his wives, from the tongues of calumniators, to whom he listened with a hasty credulity. He raised the glory and extended and consolidated the dominion of Poland. He was succeeded by his son, a child of eleven years, who had previously been, elected to the throne, but not until Jagello had confirmed and even enlarged the privileges of the nobles. His tardy consent, at the diet of Jedlin, roused their pride, so that it was not until four years later that they solemnly gave their adhesion.
It has not been our purpose to give more than a page out of the Polish annals illustrative of the patriotic and Christian spirit of sacrifice for which Poland’s daughters have, down to the present day, been no less noted than her sons. The mind naturally reverts to the late cruel struggle in which this generous people has once more succumbed to the overwhelming power of Russia, and her unscrupulous employment of the gigantic forces at her command. Europe has looked on apathetically, and, after a few feeble diplomatic remonstrances, has allowed the sacrifice to be completed. But the cause of Poland is essentially the cause of Catholicism and of the Church; and this, perhaps, may account for the small degree of sympathy it has awakened in European governments. Russia’s repression of her insurgent subjects became from the first a religious persecution. Her aim is not to Russify, but to decatholicize Poland. The insurrection, quenched in blood, has been followed by a wholesale deportation of Poles into the eastern Russian provinces, where, with their country, it is hoped they will, ere long, lose also their faith. These are replaced by Russian colonists transplanted into Poland. To crush, extirpate, and deport the nobility – to leave the lower class alone upon the soil, who, deprived of their clergy – martyred, exiled, or in bonds – may become an easy conquest to the dominant schism – such is the plan of the autocrat, as we have beheld it actively carried out with all its accompanying horrors of sacrilege and ruthless barbarity. One voice alone – that of the Father of Christendom – has been raised to stigmatize these revolting excesses, and to reprove the iniquity of “persecuting Catholicism in order to put down rebellion.” The same voice has exhorted us to pray for our Polish brethren, and has encouraged that suffering people to seek their deliverance from the just and compassionate Lord of all.
– text taken from the article “Hedwige, Queen of Poland” in , May, 1865