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Stanisław II Augustus (also Stanisław August Poniatowski, January 17, 1732 – February 12, 1798), who reigned as King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania from 1764 to 1795, was the last monarch of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. He remains a controversial figure in Polish history. Recognized as a great patron of the arts and sciences and an initiator and firm supporter of progressive reforms, he is also remembered as the King of the Commonwealth whose election was marred by Russian intervention. He is criticized primarily for his failure to stand against the partitions, and thus to prevent the destruction of the Polish state.

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He was one of eight surviving children and fourth son of Princess Konstancja Czartoryska and of Count Stanisław Poniatowski, Ciołek coat of arms, Castellanof Kraków. He was a great-grandson of the poet, courtier and alleged traitor, Jan Andrzej Morsztyn and through his great-grandmother, Catherine Gordon, lady-in-waiting to Queen Marie Louise Gonzaga, he was related to the House of Stuart and thereby connected to the leading families of Scotland, Spain and France. The Poniatowski family had achieved high status among the Polish nobility (szlachta) of the time.

In 1750, he travelled to Berlin where he met a British diplomat, Charles Hanbury Williams, who became his mentor and friend. In 1751, Poniatowski was elected to the Treasury Tribunal in Radom, where he served as a commissioner. He spent most of January 1752 at the Austrian court in Vienna. Later that year, after serving at the Radom Tribunal and meeting King Augustus III of Poland, he was elected deputy of the Sejm (Polish parliament).

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Young Catherine the Great

In Saint Petersburg, Williams introduced Poniatowski to the 26-year-old Grand Duchess Catherine Alexeievna, the future Empress Catherine II the Great. The two became lovers. Whatever his feelings for Catherine, it is likely Poniatowski also saw an opportunity to use the relationship for his own benefit, using her influence to bolster his career. Poniatowski had to leave St. Petersburg in July 1756 due to court intrigue. Through the combined influence of Catherine, that of Russian Empress Elizabeth and of chancellor Bestuzhev-Ryumin, Poniatowski was able to rejoin the Russian court now as ambassador of Saxony the following January. Still in St. Petersburg, he appears to have been a source of intrigue between various European governments, some supporting his appointment, others demanding his withdrawal He eventually left the Russian capital on August 14, 1758.

In 1762, when Catherine ascended the Russian throne, she sent him several letters professing her support for his own ascension to the Polish throne, but asking him to stay away from St. Petersburg. Nevertheless, Poniatowski hoped that Catherine would consider his offer of marriage, an idea seen as plausible by some international observers. He participated in the failed plot by the Familia to stage a coup d’état against King Augustus III. In August 1763, however, Catherine advised him and the Familia that she would not support a coup as long as King Augustus III was alive.

Upon the death of Poland’s King Augustus III October 5, 1763, lobbying began for the election of the new king. Catherine threw her support behind Poniatowski. The Russians spent about 2.5m rubles in aid of his election. Poniatowski’s supporters and opponents engaged in some military posturing and even minor clashes. In the end, the Russian army was deployed only a few miles from the election sejm, which met at Wola near Warsaw. In the event, there were no other serious contenders, and during the convocation sejm on September 7, 1764, 32-year-old Poniatowski was elected king, with 5,584 votes. He swore the pacta conventa on November 13, and a formal coronation took place in Warsaw on November 25. The new King’s “uncles” in the Familiawould have preferred another nephew on the throne, Prince Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski, characterized by one of his contemporaries as débauché, sinon dévoyé (in French: debauched if not depraved), but Czartoryski had declined to seek office.

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“Stanisław II Augustus”, as he now styled himself combining the names of his two immediate royal predecessors, began his rule with only mixed support within the nation. It was mainly the small nobility who favoured his election. In his first years on the throne he attempted to introduce a number of reforms. He founded the Knights School, and began to form a diplomatic service, with semi-permanent diplomatic representatives throughout Europe, Russia and the Ottoman Empire.

In the War of the Bar Confederation (1768–1772), Poniatowski supported the Russian army’s repression of the Bar Confederation. In 1770, the Council of the Bar Confederation proclaimed him dethroned. The following year, he was kidnapped by Bar Confederates and was briefly held prisoner outside of Warsaw, but he managed to escape. In view of the continuing weakness of the Polish-Lithuanian state, Austria, Russia, and Prussia collaborated to threaten military intervention in exchange for substantial territorial concessions from the Commonwealth – a decision they made without consulting Poniatowski or any other Polish parties.

Although Poniatowski protested against the First Partition of the Commonwealth (1772), he was powerless to do anything about it. He considered abdication, but decided against it. During the Partition Sejm of 1773–1775, in which Russia was represented by ambassador Otto von Stackelberg, with no allied assistance forthcoming from abroad and with the armies of the partitioning powers occupying Warsaw to compel the Sejm by force of arms, no alternative was available save submission to their will. Eventually Poniatowski and the Sejm acceded to the “partition treaty”.

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In July 1792, when Warsaw was threatened with siege by the Russians, the king came to believe that surrender was the only alternative to total defeat. Having received assurances from Russian ambassador Yakov Bulgakov that no territorial changes would occur, a cabinet of ministers called the Guard of Laws (or Guardians of Law, Polish: Straż Praw) voted eight to four in favor of surrender. On July 24, 1792, Poniatowski joined the Targowica Confederation.

The Polish Army disintegrated. Many reform leaders, believing their cause lost, went into self-exile, although they hoped that Poniatowski would be able to negotiate an acceptable compromise with the Russians, as he had done in the past. Poniatowski had not saved the Commonwealth, however. He and the reformers had lost much of their influence, both within the country and with Catherine. Neither were the Targowica Confederates victorious. To their surprise, there ensued the Second Partition of Poland. With the new deputies bribed or intimidated by the Russian troops, the Grodno Sejm took place. On 23 November 1793, it annulled all acts of the Great Sejm, including the Constitution. Faced with his powerlessness, Poniatowski once again considered abdication; in the meantime he tried to salvage whatever reforms he could.

Poniatowski’s plans had been ruined by the Kościuszko Uprising. The King had not encouraged it, but once it began he supported it, seeing no other honourable option. Its defeat marked the end of the Commonwealth. Poniatowski tried to govern the country in the brief period after the fall of the Uprising, but on December 2, 1794, Catherine demanded he leave Warsaw, a request to which he acceded on January 7, 1795, leaving the capital under Russian military escort and settling briefly in Grodno.

On 24 October 1795, the Act of the final, Third Partition of Poland was signed. One month and one day later, on 25 November, Poniatowski signed his abdication. Reportedly, his sister, Ludwika Maria Zamoyska and her daughter also his favourite niece, Urszula Zamoyska, who had been threatened with confiscation of their property, had contributed to persuading him to sign the abdication: they feared that his refusal would lead to a Russian confiscation of their properties and their ruin.

Catherine died on November 17, 1796, succeeded by her son, Paul I of Russia. On February 15, 1797, Poniatowski left for Saint Petersburg. He had hoped to be allowed to travel abroad, but was unable to secure permission to do so. A virtual prisoner in St. Petersburg’s Marble Palace, he subsisted on a pension granted to him by Catherine. Despite financial troubles, he still supported some of his former allies, and continued to try to represent the Polish cause at the Russian court. He also worked on his memoirs.

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Poniatowski died of a stroke on February 12, 1798. Emperor Paul I sponsored a royal state funeral, and on 3 March he was buried at the Catholic Church of St. Catherine in St. Petersburg. In 1938, when the Soviet Union planned to demolish the Church, his remains were transferred to the Second Polish Republic, and interred in a church at Wołczyn, his birthplace. This was done in secret, and caused controversy in Poland when the issue became known. In 1990, due to the poor state of the Wołoczyn Church (then in the Byelorussian SSR), his body was once more exhumed and brought to Poland, to St. John’s Cathedral in Warsaw, where, on May 3, 1791, he had celebrated the adoption of the Constitution that he had co-authored. A final funeral ceremony was held on February 14, 1995.