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Mikołaj Radziwiłł "Czarny"
(Nicholas Radziwill the Black)
Elżbieta Mielecka

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Mikołaj Radziwiłł "Czarny" (February 4, 1515-May 28, 1565) was a close friend and aide to King Zygmunt II August (1520-1572) and a major political leader in the late 16th century Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. He laid the foundations for the immense wealth of the Radziwiłł family, which until World War II was one of the richest aristocratic families in Europe. His support of the Reformation movement, first of Calvinism, and in his later years of antitrinitarian theologians, helped establish a strong Reformed Church that survives until today. It was also due to his immense wealth that the "Biblia Brzeska" (Radziwiłł Bible) was published in 1563, a monument not only to his devotion to the Protestant cause, but also to the Polish language. His eldest daughter Elżbieta Mielecka was a known Unitarian. Her subsequent conversion to Roman Catholicism was celebrated as a victory for post-Tridentine Catholicism over a divided Protestantism.

Mikołaj Radziwiłł Mikołaj Radziwiłł was born to a wealthy and influential Lithuanian magnate Jan Radziwiłł (1474-1522) and his third wife Hanna Kiszczanka (d.1533). He had two stepsisters from his father's previous marriage who were married off to influential noble families of the Illinicz and Kieżgajło, as well as a younger brother John Radzwiłł (1516-1551), later protector of Lutheranism in Lithuania. Following his father's early death, his mother remarried Stanisław Kieżgajło the castellan (kasztelan) of Troki (Trokai) and palatine (wojewoda) of Żmudź (Samogitia) with whom she had two children. Her marriage was frowned upon by Mikołaj's uncle Jerzy Radziwiłł (1480-1541) the castellan of Wilno (Vilnius). Therefore, King Zygmunt I the Old ruled that Uncle Jerzy would administer the brothers' estates while the young men themselves would be brought up at the royal court in Kraków. Even though the Jagiellonian court was celebrated for its refined Renaissance atmosphere, young Mikołaj Radziwiłł's formal education was quite rudimentary. The prince barely learned Latin so all his life he spoke and wrote in Polish. In time, he also learned Old Ruthenian, the administrative language of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. He did better with diplomatic skills, befriending "young king" Zygmunt II August, a friendship that was central the rest of his life and important for the fortunes of the Radziwiłł family.

In 1533 he left the Jagiellonian court, returned to Lithuania, took over the administration of his vast estates from his uncle, and began his political career. Mikołaj Radziwiłł supported Lithuanian separatism so he encouraged the young king, Zygmunt II August to leave Kraków and come to Wilno to reign. Once the king was there he became his close friend and confidant, especially after the young widowed Zygmunt II August began an affair with Barbara Radziwiłłówna, Black's cousin. Seeing the potential advantages from the match, he pushed the king to marry her secretly, which indeed happened in late summer of 1547. Later that year the young king sent Radziwiłł to Poland and to the court of emperor Charles V in Augsburg to enlist support for the secret marriage. In Augsburg the emperor bestowed upon Radziwiłł the Black and his cousin Mikołaj Radziwiłł "Rudy" (Rufus) (1512-1584) the hereditary titles of princes of the Holy Roman Empire with a changed coat of arms and the motto "The Lord is our counsel" (Bóg nam radzi). On his return from Germany Mikołaj married a rich Polish heiress, Elżbieta Szydłowiecka (1533-1562).

In 1548 he accompanied King Zygmunt II when he visited Poland to meet the Polish nobles who were upset by his marriage to the beautiful Barbara Radziwiłłówna. In an unprecedented and moving moment, the Diet knelt before the king beseeching him to annul such a disadvantageous match, promising to take the sin upon themselves. To this Zygmunt II responded that they could not expect him to break his word to his lawful wife, as that would render him untrustworthy in all other oaths. During the Diet, Radziwiłł forcefully defended the legality of the marriage, though it appears that he personally disliked his cousin Barbara. In the end, the Diet dissolved without conclusions, but Barbara's coronation was postponed until 1549, and by then, only 28 years old, she was dying of cancer. Her death did not end his friendship with the king who went on to appoint Radziwiłł marshal of Lithuanian (marszałek wielki litewski), 1544; chancellor of Lithuanian (kanclerz wielki litewski), 1550; and finally to the post of the palatine of Wilno, 1551.

Radziwiłł the Black continued to insist on Lithuanian independence from Poland as did the king. In 1552 as a sign of extraordinary favor, the king elevated Radziwiłł's archive in Nieśwież to equal rank with the state archive in Wilno. For the next decade he continued to be the king's most trusted advisor. In 1553 he led the delegation to King Ferdinand I Habsburg of Bohemia-Hungary, where he negotiated a third marriage for King Zygmunt II August to Ferdinand's daughter Katarzyna (1533-1572) the widowed duchess of Mantua. As a reward, some allege as a bribe, Ferdinand raised Radziwiłł's estate of Szydłowiec to a hereditary county. Radzwiłł later took part in the new Queen's formal entry into Kraków and her coronation (1553).

Castle at Nieśwież From 1554 to 1561 Radziwiłł the Black worked to incorporate Inflanty, today's Latvia and Estonia into Lithuania. At that time, Inflanty was ruled by an ineffective Roman Catholic Military Order, the Livonian Knights. Russia, Poland-Lithuania, Sweden, and Denmark were growing stronger and showing increased interest in the region while the Livonian Knights were getting weaker, undermined by the spread of Lutheranism. Radziwiłł was instrumental in forcing the Order to pay homage to Zygmunt II as the Grand Duke of Lithuania (1559). Pressured by the Russians, the Order sought closer cooperation. Radziwiłł negotiated a complicated settlement (Cautio Radivillana) in 1561 that secularised the Order, handed part of the land to the king, and established a new and separate duchy of Kurland (which existed till 1795) under the now turned Lutheran, Grand Master. As a declared Protestant, Radziwiłł ensured that the rights of the Lutherans in Inflanty were guaranteed. The act was less than successful for a number of reasons; the Livonians were fearful that Lithuania alone could not defend them from both Sweden and Russia, and they insisted on being incorporated into Poland, rather than the Grand Duchy. Radziwiłł resisted that demand, feeling it would force Lithuania into a permanent union with Poland. He did not even change his mind when Russia resumed war in 1562, defeating the Lithuanian army and capturing Połock.

In the last years of his life Mikołaj Radziwiłł and the king drifted apart, mainly over the question of a permanent union between Poland and Lithuania. Though the two countries had shared monarchs since 1386 (with short exceptions), kings in Poland were elected by the nobles, while kings in Lithuania were selected from the Jagiellon dynasty through inhereitance. By 1562 it became obvious to almost everyone that Zygmunt II August would die without an heir, thereby raising the question of succession in both countries. Radziwiłł worked to maintain the status quo: Lithuania as an independent entity whose hereditary Grand Dukes would also be elected by the Poles as their King of Poland. Some accused him of hoping to be Lithuania's next Grand Duke, but there is little evidence for that. His efforts to retain some separation between Poland and Lithuania was supported by other magnate families but opposed by lesser Lithuanian nobility who hoped to gain some of the rights enjoyed by Poles. In addition, the growing threat from Turkey and Russia had convinced King Zygmunt II that Lithuania would be unable to defend itself, making union unavoidable. When Radziwiłł broke up unification talks between the Polish Diet and the Lithuanians in 1563-4, it opened a rift between him and the king. The king convinced the Lithuanian nobles of the necessity for union with Poland at the Lithuanian Diet held at Bielsko in 1564 but Radziwiłł managed to stall the negotiations that followed. This completed his break with the king. Radziwiłł's political influence dwindled during the last years of life as he continued his opposition to the king. Poland and Lithuania united but not until after his death at Lublin in 1569.

Thanks to the king's favor, as well as inheritance (his brother and step-siblings all died childless, leaving him their heir) Radziwiłł's already significant family holdings grew to become some of the most extensive in Lithuania. His main estate was the castle in Nieśwież (today in Belarus). It would remain a symbol of the Radziwiłł family's power until 1939. Radziwiłł's estates were enlarged by his marriage to Elżbieta Szydłowiecka, and her family castle Szydłowiec in Poland became their primary Polish residence. He also enlarged the Brześć castle (now Brest Litowsk in Belarus) and began building another Radziwiłł residence in Ołyka (now Ukraine).

Szydłowiec Castle Raised Roman Catholic at the tolerant court of the Jagiellons in Kraków, Radziwiłł took an early interest in the Reformation movement. He was suspected of Lutheran sympathies as early as 1550. He openly embraced Lutheranism in 1553 establishing a church in Brześć Litewski. Over the next few years, he switched from Lutheranism to Calvinism, expelled Roman Catholic and Orthodox priests from his estates, and replaced them with Reformed preachers. In 1557 he established the first Reformed Church in Wilno, first in his residence łukiszki and later at his palace in the city center (1562). In addition to the church, he helped establish a school. Due to his influence, the Lithuanian Reformed Church adopted Polish as its language of instruction and liturgy. However, Radziwiłł also funded attempts to publish religious tracts in Lithuaninan, Samogitian, and Belarussian. In Brześć and later in Nieśwież, he helped to establish Protestant printing presses, which published numerous religious tracts and polemics.

Radziwiłł was instrumental in converting his cousin prince Mikołaj Radziwiłł "Rudy" (1512-1584) to Calvinism along with many other magnate families including hundreds of Lithuanian nobles. It's also very likely he converted his cousin Anna Kiszczyna (d.1600). By the time of his death, Lithuanian senators were overwhelmingly Protestant; the Protestant Church was second largest after the Orthodox; and Protestants outnumbered Roman Catholics. Radziwiłł the Black was viewed as a leader of the Protestant Church in Poland, thanks to his friendship with the reformer John Łaski (1499-1560) and for the Reformed churches he established on his Polish estates. In 1560, distressed by the slow progress toward a Polish translation of the Bible, Radziwiłł provided 3,000 Polish zlotys to finish the work. This was a staggering amount for the time. On September 4, 1563 the Bible was published in Brześć with a dedication to King Zygmunt II August. This edition, is known as the "Brześć" or "Radziwiłł Bible" (Biblia Brzeska, Biblia Radziwiłłowska) and is considered the best translation in the 16th century, surpassing others not only in the quality of print but also in the beauty of the Polish language used therein. Radziwiłł's court was a center of Polish Protestant culture where theologians, musicians and poets flourished. Calvin, Bullinger, Linsman, Discordia and other theologians dedicated works to him.

The last years of Radziwiłł's life were tarnished by religious controversy. The young Polish Reformed Church was divided over the Trinity and Radziwiłł initially supported the Trinitarian side. He expelled Szymon Budny when the Calvinist synod found him guilty of denying the Trinity. However, with time and under the influence of Laelius Socinus and George Biandrata, Radziwiłł altered his position. He tried to defend the latter before Calvin, but when the Swiss reformer answered in an angry letter, Radziwiłł was alienated. He was also strengthened in his growing Unitarian inclinations by his close friendship with John Sigismund Zapoyla, prince of Transylvania and nephew of Zygmunt II August. Thus, in June 1563 Radziwiłł sponsored a synod of Arian clergy in Mordy on his Lithuanian estates, and starting the next year, he began replacing Calvinist ministers with Arian ones. The printing press in Nieśwież was also in the hands of Arians, and it was at Nieśwież that Budny published his Arian Bible in Polish in 1574. Despite repeated attempts by papal nuncios to convert him to Catholicism, Radziwiłł remained a staunch Protestant until his death.

Since the formal schism between the two churches did not occur until 1565, the year Mikołaj Radziwiłł died, both Calvinists and the Polish Brethren claim him as their own. Even though he supported the Arians, Radziwiłł hoped Arians and Calvinists would join together and form a broad non-dogmatic Protestant church. Perhaps, had he lived longer he would have swayed the Lithuanian nobility to follow him to the Unitarian fold. That Radziwiłł rejected the Trinitarian Christianity is certain from his will--instead of invoking the Trinity which was customary at his time, he begins with a simple: "May it happen in God's name." He wished to be buried in the Wilno Reformed Church that he had established. Mikołaj Radziwiłł died while undergoing a treatment that included being massaged with lead. Hearing of his death the papal nuncio wrote: "Thus died the most influential man in this land, without whose consent nothing could come to pass."

The Family of Mikołaj Radziwiłł
In 1548 Radziwiłł married Elżbieta Szydłowiecka (1533-1562) a rich heiress from Poland. The marriage was very happy, and Radziwiłł later stated that his wife never gave him a single cause to grief. Under the influence of her husband, Elżbieta converted to Calvinism and became an example of Protestant piety. Though the Roman Catholics at the time hinted that her conversion might have been coerced, on her deathbed Elżbieta dismissed these rumors and insisted that she became Protestant of her own free will after carefully reading the Bible. She died prematurely and was buried in the Wilno Reformed Church established by her husband.

The lives of the children of Prince Mikołaj and Princess Elżbieta Radziwiłł are a poignant illustration of the fortunes of the Polish Reformation and the success of the Counter Reformation in early 17th century Poland-Lithuania. The couple had ten children, one of which died young.

Following their mother's death, the daughters (ages 2, 10 and 11) were sent by the widowed Mikołaj Radziwiłł to her relatives for an upbringing suitable to their rank. Princess Zofia Radziwiłłówna (1552-1608) married the Lutheran Achacy Czema (d.1576), palatine of Pomerania in 1570. On the same day, her sister princess Anna (1553-1590) married the Calvinist Mikołaj Buczacki-Tworowski (d. 1595). Both sisters remained devout Calvinists all their lives. In 1578 the youngest princess, Krystyna Radziwiłłówna (1560-1580) married the Catholic convert, chancellor Jan Zamoyski (1545-1605) under whose influence she converted to Roman Catholicism in 1579.

The eldest son, prince Mikołaj Krzysztof Radziwiłł "Sierotka" (1549-1616) was carefully brought up by his father as a Protestant. He held Polish Reformer Jan Łaski (1499-1560) in great esteem, and it was said that he regarded him as a second father. However, during his stay abroad at Tubingen and Lausanne, he became discouraged by the quarrels among the Protestants. Influenced by his tutors, he moved toward Roman Catholicism formally converting during a visit to Rome in 1566. From then on he was an ardent leader of the Counter Reformation.

Following his return to Poland, he dismissed all Arian ministers from his Polish estates. In his Lithuanian estates, the change was more gradual since his brothers were still formally Protestant and the estates were administered by his Calvinist Uncle Radziwiłł "Rudy." Thus, the Arian printing press was only removed from Nieśwież in 1574. By that time, under his pressure, his younger brothers: Albrecht (1558-1592) and Stanisław (1559-1599) converted to Roman Catholicism also, expelling from their estates all Protestant clergy. As a sign of atonement for his Protestant past, Mikołaj Krzysztof demolished the wooden Arian church in Nieśwież and erected in its place a stunning Baroque stone church dedicated to the Holy Eucharist (Corpus Christi Church). Corpus Christi Church He and his wife (who also converted from Calvinism) were buried there and it remained the family's mausoleum until 1939. Prince Mikołaj Krzysztof Radziwiłł had more problems with the bodies of his Protestant parents. They were interred in the Wilno Reformed Church, which was located in a private palace of the Radziwiłł's. In 1574 the congregation moved to a new location but Black's tomb stayed behind. "Sierotka" tried to have it moved to a Catholic chapel but the pope refused such a posthumous conversion. So, the coffins stayed in the old palace until 1627 when after pleas by their grandchildren, they were moved to the Dubinki (Dubinikai) Reformed Church by the Calvinist prince Krzysztof II Radziwiłł (1585-1640). The Dubinki church and the coffins of the Radziwiłłs disappeared in the 18th century. The ruins of the Dubinki church and the coffins of the Radziwiłł couple were rediscovered by archeologists, and buried again in 2009 in the presence of his descendants, as well as Polish and Lithuanian Reformed clergy.

The second son of Prince Mikołaj Radziwiłł "Czarny", Prince Jerzy Radziwiłł (1556-1600) converted to Catholicism in 1570 under pressure from his elder brother. Jerzy was encouraged by his brother to follow a career in the Church even though he felt no calling. Nevertheless, he advanced swiftly becoming the assistant bishop of Wilno, 1574; bishop of Wilno, 1580; cardinal, 1584; and then King Zugmunt III Waza appointed him the prince-archbishop of Kraków, 1593. Throughout his life he was known as a fierce enemy of all Protestants. He devoted considerable time and money buying up the "Brześć Bibles" his father once had printed, and which he burned at stake in Wilno. He was very successful so less than 30 copies are known to have survived. Cardinal Jerzy Radziwiłł died in Rome and was buried there in the Jesuit Church "Il Jesu."

The conversion of the sons of Mikołaj Radziwiłł "Czarny" was a decisive factor in reversing the tide of Reformation in Poland-Lithuania. Once converted they became pillars of the Counter Reformation, and their influence could not be matched by the Calvinist descendants of prince Mikołaj Radziwiłł "Rudy."

Elżbieta Mielecka (1550-1591)
The Unitarian leanings of Mikołaj Radziwiłł "Czarny" were continued for a few years by his eldest daughter, Princess Elżbieta Radziwiłłówna (1550-1591). In 1566 she was married to a tepid Calvinist Mikołaj Mielecki (d.1585), the palatine of Podole and the Great Field Commander of the Crown (hetman wielki koronny). She was said to have avid religious and theological inclinations, and according to later sources, she became "first a Calvinist, then an Arian, and later a Jewess, and she knew the Bible by heart." Her conversion to Judaism seems improbable, but she might have been inclined to those Polish Brethren who rejected the invocation of Christ in prayers, and like Szymon Budny, tried to revert as much as possible to Judaism. Either way, her court became famous for religious debates in which she excelled. She took particular pride disputing Roman Catholic and Calvinist clergy.

In the late 1570s her husband came under the increasing influence of Jesuit priest Benedict Herbst, formally converting to Roman Catholicism in 1577. Elżbieta Mielecka persisted in her non-adorant Unitarianism, but in Herbst she found a match equal to herself, and she became increasingly uncertain of her Unitarianism. According to legend, knowing that the priest was coming with the Eucharist for her husband, she arranged to have the castle bridge collapse under him. Miraculously, the Jesuit rode over the bridge unharmed, convincing Elżbieta of the divine nature of the Eucharist and causing her to convert in 1581. For the rest of her life, she and her husband were devout Roman Catholics, raising their two daughters Zofia (1567-1619) and Katarzyna (1569-c.1600) to be the same.

Elżbieta Mielecka's religious odyssey was representative of the time. While the Protestants were divided and fighting among themselves, the constant teachings of the Roman Catholic church triumphed. Her conversion was a cause célèbre quoted in major works on the Jesuits as late as 1909. Perhaps all the religious commotion took Elżbieta's attention away from her daughters, and she either forgot or did not care about their education: Zofia Mielecka's letters to her second husband reveal that she did not know Latin, and could barely spell in Polish.

The Radziwiłł papers are in the Radziwiłł Archive, probably the most extensive private archive in the world. It was kept in Nieśwież until 1838/1871 when due to family succession part of it was split up, but later partially returned to Nieśwież. There it was kept until 1915 after which it was partially transferred to Mińsk and later Warsaw. It survived with minor, albeit important, damage during World War II and the Warsaw Rising and is now available at the Warsaw Archives (Archiwum Akt Dawnych--Archiwum Radziwiłłowskie). The Nieśwież castle was the seat of the Radziwiłł family until the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939 when the last owners were arrested and deported. In the USSR it was turned into a hospital and became seriously dilapidated. It is now being renovated but is not open to public viewing (as of 2011). After 1990 the Nieśwież Corpus Christi Church was returned to the Roman Catholic community and is once again a church. The Szydłowiec castle is a local art museum.

Mikołaj Radziwiłł "Czarny" has an entry in the Polish Biographical Dictionary (PSB) vol. 30 (1987) by Henryk Lulewicz but other than that he lacks a biographer. That entry contains a list of solid bibliography for further reading. The PSB also has extensive biographical entries on all his sons. Mikołaj Radziwiłł's will together with a short biographical entry was published with an explanation by U. Augustyniak, Testamenty ewangelików reformowanych w Wielkim Księstwie Litewskim w XVI - XVIII wieku, Warszawa 1992. Some information on Mikołaj Radziwiłł "Czarny" may also be found in the recent biography of his son T. Kempa, Mikołaj Krzysztof Radziwiłł Sierotka 1549-1616, Warsaw 2000, though some of the points (including the subject of the denomination of Radziwiłł Czarny's daughters) the author was trying to make were contested by prof. Augustyniak in "Odrodzenie i Reformacja w Polsce." (vol. 45 (2001)).

Some information on Elżbieta Mielecka née pss. Radziwiłł may be found in the recently published biography of her husband, R. Przybyliński, Hetman Wielki Koronny Mikołaj Mielecki (ok.1540-1585), Toruń, Poland (2005) and seems to be quite accurate despite the author's rather abysmal knowledge of Reformed or Unitarian theology.

Radziwiłł and his daughter Elżbieta Mielecka are also mentioned in Stanislas Kot, Socinianism in Poland (1957) and Earl Morse Wilbur, A History of Unitarianism: Socinianism and Its Antecedents (1945), as well as S. Lubieniecki, History of the Polish Reformation and Nine Related documents: Translated and interpreted by George Huntston Williams (1999) where Elżbieta is confused with her aunt Anna Kiszczyna (d.1600) née pss. Radziwiłł. The spread of the Reformation in Lithuania was described by S. Kot, La reforme dans le Grand-duché de Lituanie, Bruxelles 1953. A short history of the fascinating fate of the Radziwiłłs was published by Peter Paul Bajer "Een korte geschiedenis van de familie-Radziwill: Rijkdom, invloed en prestige" in: "Oost-Europa Verkeningen", Amsterdam, Holland, 2000.

The Brześć Bible may be found in some Polish Museums (AGAD in Warsaw and Ossolineum in Wrocław), as well as in some Calvinist and Lutheran churches (Warsaw, Wrocław). Copies differ in their state, and only a handful of them are in very good condition. In 2003 the Calvin Institute published a revised transcript of the Brześć Bible.


Article by Kazimierz Bem posted 9 Mar 2011

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