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From the Emperor’s Desk: Before I conclude talking of the life of Archduchess Catherine of Austria I would like to discuss the two marriages of her husband King Sigismund II Augustus of Poland in order to put Catherine’s marriages to Sigismund in context and perspective.

Sigismund II Augustus (August 1, 1520 — July 7, 1572) was King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania. He was the first ruler of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and the last male monarch from the Jagiellonian dynasty.

Sigismund Augustus was born in Kraków to Sigismund I the Old and his wife, Bona Sforza of Milan. His paternal grandparents were Casimir IV Jagiellon, King of Poland, and Elizabeth of Austria. Sigismund’s maternal grandparents, Gian Galeazzo Sforza and Isabella of Aragon, daughter of King Alfonso II of Naples, both ruled the Duchy of Milan until Sforza’s suspicious death in 1494.

Throughout his youth, Sigismund Augustus was under the careful watch of his mother, Bona. Being the only legitimate male heir to the Polish throne throughout his father’s reign, he was well educated and taught by the most renowned scholars in the country. It was also his mother’s wish to name her only son Augustus, after the first Roman Emperor Gaius Octavius Augustus.

However, this decision was met with Sigismund the Old’s strong disapproval, who hoped for a lineage of Sigismunds on the Polish throne. Consequently, it was established that the child will bear two names to settle the conflict. The tradition of adopting Augustus as a second or middle name was also observed during the coronation of Stanisław Antoni Poniatowski who became King Stanisław II Augustus in 1764.

When Sigismund Augustus was co-crowned, Chancellor Krzysztof Szydłowiecki organized a preliminary marriage treaty between the young king and Elizabeth of Austria (1526 – 1545) the eldest of fifteen children of Ferdinand I, Holy Roman Emperor, and his wife Anne of Bohemia and Hungary. The marriage was signed on November 10–11, 1530 in Poznań, however, the arrangement was delayed by Queen Bona Sforza, who detested the new bride.

The treaty was renewed on June 1,1538 in Wrocław by Johannes Dantiscus and the betrothal ceremony took place on July 17, 1538 in Innsbruck. Bona continued to lobby against the marriage and instead proposed Marguerite de Valois of France, the daughter of King François I of France and Claude, Duchess of Brittany, to potentially form an alliance with the French against the Habsburgs.

On May 5, 1543, Elizabeth’s escorted convoy entered Kraków and was greeted with enthusiasm by both the nobles and the townsfolk. The same day 16-year-old Elizabeth married 22-year-old Sigismund Augustus, whom she met for the first time shortly before marriage vows. The ceremony was performed at the Wawel Cathedral and the wedding continued for two weeks.

Bona began to plot against the new queen. As a result, the newly wedded couple decided to reside in Vilnius, far from the royal court.
Despite the initial euphoria demonstrated by royal subjects, the marriage was unsuccessful from the very beginning. Sigismund Augustus did not find Elizabeth attractive and continued to have extramarital affairs with several mistresses, the most famous being Barbara Radziwiłł.

Elizabeth was also known to be timid, meek and apprehensive due to strict upbringing. The young and garrulous king was also repulsed by Elizabeth’s newly diagnosed epilepsy and subsequent seizures. Only Sigismund the Old and some nobles showed compassion towards the new Queen, who was disregarded by her husband and scorned by Bona.

Sigismund Augustus was indifferent to her health condition; when the seizures continued to intensify he abandoned Elizabeth and returned to Kraków to collect her dowry. He also sent for Ferdinand’s doctors to travel the long distance from Vienna knowing that Elizabeth was ailing and deteriorating fast. She eventually died unattended and exhausted from the epileptic attacks on June 15, 1545 at the age of 18.

Second marriage

From the outset of his reign, Sigismund II Augustus came into collision with the country’s privileged nobility, who had already begun curtailing the power of the great families. The ostensible cause of the nobility’s animosity to the King was his second marriage, secretly contracted before his accession to the throne, with the Lithuanian, Calvinist and former mistress, Barbara Radziwiłł, the daughter of Hetman Jerzy Radziwiłł. The marriage was announced by the king himself on February 2, 1548 in Piotrków Trybunalski.

Portrait of Barbara Radziwiłł by Lucas Cranach the Younger, ca. 1553
The young and beautiful Barbara was despised by Queen Bona, who attempted to annul the marriage at any cost. The agitation was also abundant at Sigismund’s first Sejm (parliament) sitting on October 31, 1548 where the deputies threatened to renounce their allegiance unless the new king repudiated Barbara.

The nobles portrayed Barbara as an opportunistic prostitute that charmed the king for her own benefit. That perception was shared with Bona Sforza, who decisively eliminated all her rivals by any means to stay in power. The young monarch even considered abdicating.

By 1550, when Sigismund summoned his second Sejm, the nobles had begun to be in his favor; the nobility was rebuked by Marshal Piotr Kmita Sobieński, who accused them of attempting to unduly diminish the legislative prerogatives of the Polish Crown. Furthermore, Bona was removed from Wawel and sent to Mazovia where she established her own small courtly entourage.

Unlike her predecessor, Barbara was disliked by the royal court and led a more secluded life with Sigismund Augustus, who was deeply in love with her. On the other hand, she was ambitious, intelligent, perceptive and had an exemplar taste in fashion. She always wore precious pearl necklaces when sitting for portraits. The mutual admiration between Sigismund and Barbara made the relationship “one of the greatest love affairs in Polish history”. While still married to Elizabeth, Sigismund Augustus ordered the construction of a secret passage connecting the Royal Castle in Vilnius with the nearby Radziwiłł Palace so that the couple could meet frequently and discreetly.

Due to her unpopularity in Poland, Barbara often expressed her wish to reside permanently in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. To ease the situation, Sigismund Augustus provided a luxurious lifestyle and expensive gifts for his wife at Wawel Castle since her arrival in Kraków on February 13, 1549.

The monarch also granted Barbara several provinces to administer and provide income. Although ambitious and bright, she showed lack of interest in political life, but had some influence over decisions made by Sigismund. This also caused an uproar among the nobility. To avoid an armed rebellion, Sigismund was forced to form an alliance with his former father-in-law, Emperor Ferdinand I. This allowed for Barbara’s coronation as Queen of Poland on December 7, 1550 by Primate Mikołaj Dzierzgowski. Queen Bona eventually succumbed to her son’s demand and accepted the marriage.

Since the day Sigismund and Barbara met, she complained of poor health, particularly stomach and abdominal pain. After the coronation her condition deteriorated rapidly. She was tormented by strong fever, diarrhea, nausea and lack of appetite. After careful observation by hired medics, a lump was discovered on her stomach filled with pus.

Sigismund II Augustus gravely despaired and sent for doctors and even folk healers from the entire country. He personally tended to his sick wife despite her foul smell and dedicated himself when necessary; the king hoped to take Barbara to the hunting castle at Niepołomice and ordered to demolish the small city gate so her carriage could pass freely.

However, Barbara died on May 8, 1551 in Kraków after continuous pain and agony. It was her dying wish that she’d be buried in Lithuania, her homeland. The body was transported to Vilnius Cathedral, where she was finally buried on 23 June next to Elizabeth of Austria. Her death was a major blow to Sigismund; he often attended her coffin on foot while being transported to Vilnius in hot weather. Sigismund also became more serious and reserved; he avoided balls, temporarily renounced his mistresses and dressed black until death.

The cause of Barbara’s death is debatable. Her opponents and family members suggested sexually transmitted diseases due to a number of affairs she had before marrying Sigismund. There were also persistent rumors that she was poisoned by Queen Bona Sforza, who had a long history of eliminating her rivals or enemies quickly and efficiently. However, contemporary historians and experts agree on cervical or ovarian cancer.