Stanisław August Poniatowski Explained

Stanisław August Poniatowski
Born:17 January 1732
Birthplace:Wołczyn, modern Belarus
Deathplace:Saint Petersburg, Russia
Burial Place:St. John's Cathedral, Warsaw
Election Date:7 September 1764
Election Place:Wola near Warsaw
Coronation Date:25 November 1764
Coronation Place:St. John's Cathedral, Warsaw
Coa Name:Ciołek
Father:Stanisław Poniatowski
Mother:Konstancja née Czartoryska
Consort 1:Elżbieta Szydłowska
Children 1:Stanisław Grabowski, Izabela Grabowska, Aleksandra Grabowska
Consort 2:Catherine II of Russia (informal)
Children 2:Anna Petrovna
Consort 3:Magdalena Agnieszka Lubomirska (informal)
Children 3:Konstancja Zwanowa, Michał Cichocki

Stanisław II August Poniatowski (born Count Stanisław Antoni Poniatowski; 17 January 1732 – 12 February 1798) was the last King and Grand Duke of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1764–95). He was the son of Count Stanisław Poniatowski, Castellan of Kraków, and Princess Konstancja Czartoryska[1] ; brother of Michał Jerzy Poniatowski, (1736 - Roman Catholic Primate Cardinal of Poland 1784 - 1794), Primate of Poland; and uncle to Prince Józef Poniatowski, (1763 - 1813).

Royal titles

The English translation of the Polish text of the 1791 Constitution: Stanisław August, by the grace of God and the will of the people King of Poland, Grand Duke of Lithuania and Duke of Ruthenia, Prussia, Masovia, Samogitia, Kiev, Volhynia, Podolia, Podlachia, Livonia, Smolensk, Severia and Chernihiv.


Poniatowski was born in 1732 at Wołczyn, Belarus. By the age of twenty, in 1752, as a Sejm deputy, Poniatowski had attracted attention with his oratory.

But he owed his career ultimately to his family connections to the powerful Czartoryski clan, who in 1755 sent him to Saint Petersburg, Russia, in the service of British ambassador Sir Charles Hanbury-Williams and the same year, through the influence of the Russian Empress Elizabeth and Chancellor Bestuzhev-Ryumin, he joined the Russian court as the ambassador of Saxony.

He met a married twenty-six-year-old, future Empress Catherine Alexeievna. She was irresistibly attracted to the handsome and brilliant young Polish nobleman, for whom she forsook all other lovers. He was stolnik litewski in 1755 and later starosta przemyski.

The death in October 1763 of elected King Augustus III of Poland opened negotiations on whom should be elected king. After a coup d'état on 7 September 1764 supported by Russian troops, the ambitious, 32-year-old Poniatowski was elected King of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

The formal coronation took place in Warsaw on 25 November 1764. The new King's uncles in the Familia would have preferred another nephew, Prince Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski, on the throne but Czartoryski had declined to seek the office.

Stanisław August, as he now styled himself, or "Ciołek" as he was called by some (after his Ciołek Coat of Arms) inaugurated economic changes by supporting the Familia's reform program until 1766, when he fell out with his uncles.

As king, Poniatowski effectively supported the Russian army's crushing of the Bar Confederation, between 1768-1772. In 1770, the Council of the Bar Confederation proclaimed him dethroned. In 1771, Poniatowski was briefly held prisoner after being kidnapped by members of the Confederation and held outside of Warsaw.

Although he protested the first partition of the Commonwealth (1772), he was powerless to do anything about it, and in the face of implacable opposition from the Polish magnates.

The violent Jacobin excesses of the French Revolution as from 1789 would even lead to very much conservative political positions of the new bourgeoisie in many European countries, (France itself, Russia, Austria - Hungary, Germanic States, Italy, Spain, Portugal, England, Poland "tied up" to Russia till 1918 or 123 years, etc.) well till no least than 1848 or even much later in many of these countries.

Moreover, Poniatowski was obliged to place his reliance in Russia's German ambassador, Otto Magnus von Stackelberg.

In 1783/1784 he married morganatically his lover Elżbieta Szydłowska (1748 - 1810), whose first husband Jan Jerzy Grabowski was general inspektor wojsk litewskich, and by whom he had an only son, born before marriage, Count Stanisław Konopnicy-Grabowski, (1780-Dresden, 1845).

Poniatowski son married firstly Cecylia Dembowska (19 December 1787 - 17 January 1821), and secondly May 8, 1822 Countess Julia Zabiello; he left issue, his descendants were the Counts Konopnicy-Grabowski. Acting in concert with him, he hoped to strengthen his authority and bring about essential reforms.

It was only during the Four-Year Sejm of 1788-1792 that he threw in his lot with the reformers, centered in the Patriotic Party, and with them co-authored the Constitution of 3 May 1791.

Poniatowski's eloquent speech before the Sejm on taking an oath to uphold the newly adopted Constitution moved his audience to tears.

Shortly thereafter, the Targowica Confederation was formed by Polish nobility to overthrow the Constitution. The confederates aligned with Russia's Catherine the Great, and the Russian army entered Poland, starting the Polish-Russian War of 1792.

After a series of battles, Poniatowski, upon the advice of Hugo Kołłątaj and others, acceded to the Confederation. This undermined the operations of the Polish Army, which under Tadeusz Kościuszko and the King's own nephew, Prince Jozef Poniatowski, had been performing prodigiously on the battlefield.

The war was ended, and Russia and Prussia undertook the Second partition of Poland in 1793.

King Stanisław August remains a controversial figure. He was accused by some of striving for absolutism, of doing away with the liberties of the szlachta (Polish nobility), of desiring the downfall of the Roman Catholic Church; by others, of weakness and subservience, even of treason, especially after he had joined the Targowica Confederation.

Nevertheless, he did accomplish much in the realm of culture and education. He founded the School of Chivalry (otherwise "Corps of Cadets"), which functioned 1765-1794 and whose alumni included Tadeusz Kościuszko; and the Commission of National Education (1773), the world's first national ministry of education. In 1765 he helped found the Monitor, the leading periodical of the Polish Enlightenment, and the Polish national theater. He hosted his famous "Thursday dinners", the most brilliant social functions in the Polish capital. He supported the establishment of manufactures and the development of mining. He remodeled the Royal Castle in Warsaw, and erected the elegant Łazienki complex in Warsaw's most romantic park. He created a numismatic collection, a picture gallery, and an engravings room. His plan to create an even larger painting gallery in Warsaw was interrupted by the destruction of Poland; nonetheless, most of the paintings he had ordered can now be seen at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London.

After the final, Third Partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Stanisław August was forced to abdicate (25 November 1795) and left for Saint Petersburg, Russia. There, a virtual prisoner, he subsisted on a pension granted to him by Empress Catherine the Great, and died deeply in debt. He was buried at the Catholic Church of St. Catherine in St. Petersburg.

In 1938 his remains were transferred to a church at Wołczyn, his birthplace, and in 1995, to St. John's Cathedral in Warsaw, where, on 3 May 1791, he had celebrated the adoption of the Constitution he had co-authored and/or endorsed. Among his living relatives is Elena Poniatowska, a famous Mexican journalist.



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Notes and References

  1. According to a contemporary statement, his father Stanisław was in reality a natural son of Great Lithuanian Hetman Kazimierz Jan Sapieha by an unknown Jewish maiden, adopted by Franciszek Poniatowski; Jerzy Łojek, Dzieje zdrajcy, Katowice, 1988, ISBN 83-216-0759-4, p. 189.