Medieval and early modern queenship is a fascinating area of historical research. In European history, it focuses on such famous queens as Eleanor of Aquitaine (of France and later of England), Catherine de’ Medici of France, or Elizabeth I of England. Indeed, western European queens seemed to have enjoyed a degree of freedom (by the standards of the era in which they lived) that their eastern European counterparts could only dream about.
Women’s role in countries like Poland and Lithuania was very limited outside the home. Even if they were nobles or royals, their duties centered on bearing children, playing hostess at feasts, and supervising the domestic staff. They were not expected to remain at the table after a certain hour or speak to men to whom they were not related.
When Bona Sforza (1494-1557), the heiress to the Duchies of Milan and Bari, married Poland’s King Zygmunt (the Old) of the Jagiellon dynasty in 1518, she had brought with her not only new fashions and foods previously unknown in the north, but also different customs and manners. She and her ladies talked and laughed at the table, rode on horseback, and hunted with the best of them. Some courtiers enjoyed it, but many were scandalized.
Bona’s unorthodox approach to her role went beyond eschewing social conventions. She was highly educated (contemporary sources claimed that she could recite the works of Petrarch by heart), well-versed in history, classical studies, and politics. When she became wife to a king who was not only past his prime (he was 51, old by the standards of the time), but well-known for his indecisive nature and avoidance of conflict, she quickly moved to assert a role as his informal advisor and co-ruler.
She was keenly interested in the economic situation of the kingdom (especially its backwards agricultural practices, which she set out to reform) as well as in foreign policy. A staunch supporter of an alliance with France, she was fiercely anti-Habsburg, working to strengthen Poland against the Austro-German dynasty’s influence and expand Poland’s strategic access to the Baltic coast. In subsequent centuries, this would prove to have been a correct and farsighted approach, but at the time it earned Bona a great deal of criticism. One of her biggest detractors was Grand Chancellor Krzysztof Szydlowiecki, who promoted a pro-Habsburg policy and had a significant sway with King Zygmunt. There is good evidence that Szydlowiecki may have been on the emperor’s payroll.
Queen Bona received dower lands from her husband upon arriving in Poland, and made a lot of money through their wise management that included far-reaching reforms that increased crop yields. With the profits she bought more lands, over time increasing the Jagiellonian fortune and adding much-needed revenue to state coffers. Yet, despite her efforts and successes she was reviled by the aristocracy that saw her activities as unnatural for a woman, and her gains illegitimate for a foreigner.
When her son and heir to the throne Zygmunt August married Barbara Radziwill, who came from a minor noble family and had a colorful past, Bona came out strongly against the new daughter-in-law. She had dreamed about a French princess for her son, which would have been the right move from the political standpoint. Not long after the wedding, Barbara began ailing and died at the age of thirty. The cause of her death was most likely cancer (or possibly a veneral disease), but rumors were rampant that Bona had poisoned Barbara. Most historians consider that to be untrue.
The marriage had estranged the queen from her son, a break that deepened after the old king’s death. By the 1550s, Bona, increasingly alone, took to investing her massive fortune in a series of more or less successful projects all over Europe. She also loaned an exorbitant sum of 430,000 ducats to King Philip II of Spain. Notoriously in debt and duplicitous by nature, the king had no intention of paying the dowager queen back. Instead, he bribed her servant Gian Lorenzo Pappacoda to poison Bona in the fall of 1557.
King Zygmunt August was Bona’s only son, and he died in 1572 without an heir. The Jagiellon dynasty was coming to an end. The surviving children of Bona and Zygmunt Stary were daughters, including Anna. She and her husband Stephan Bathory became co-rulers, and after Bathory’s death in 1586 Anna had the opportunity to become queen regnant. However, she decided not to do pursue it and promoted her nephew Zygmunt III Vasa, son of her sister Katarzyna and the king of Sweden, instead. How ironic that she had given up a role that her mother would likely have taken up in a heartbeat, and with relish.
Was the decision to step aside the result of Anna’s more conservative Polish upbringing? We will never know for sure. The fact remains that Bona stands as a rare example of an ambitious, assertive, independent, and uncompromising queen in Poland’s history. It was a trait that had earned her great wealth and influence, but it also blackened her reputation and ultimately cost her life.
My historical mystery Silent Water, set at Queen Bona’s court in Cracow in 1520, is available on Amazon.