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Mikołaj Siennicki

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Mikołaj Siennicki (ca. 1520-1581) was an outstanding politician and orator who played an instrumental role in the passage of Poland's 1573 religious toleration law. Elected to almost every Diet (Sejm) during his lifetime he was elected Speaker of the House (Marszałek Sejmu) nine times, a record unsurpassed in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (Rzeczpospolita Obojga Narodów).

Siennicki was born near Chełm, into the noble family of Polish Chamberlain (podkomorzy bełzki) Stanisław Siennicki (d.1546) and his wife Barbara Róża-Boryszewska. In the 16th century the Chełm area was colonized by Polish nobles and peasants from Mazowsze, as well as by Ruthenian peasants from the south. His father's brother was a canon of Kraków, while his mother came from a senatorial family; one of her uncles was the archbishop of Gniezno and primate of Poland, the highest ranking ecclesiastical office in Poland. He had two brothers and two sisters that survived to adulthood.

Mikolaj SiennickiSennicki studied at the University of Kraków, but returned to the family estates following his father's death. Dividing the estates with his siblings, he chose the village of Bończa as his seat. He married Barbara Słupecka, daughter of a large, wealthy family from the Lublin area in the mid 1550s. Mikołaj Siennicki quickly embraced Protestantism, possibly under the influence of his wife and her family. In 1555 Siennicki visited the Italian Protestant leader Celio Secondo Curione in Basel, and asked him for advice on the organization of the young Polish Protestant Church. His wife's family was active in politics providing him with numerous political allies. Most of them joined the Reformation movement and became Protestants.

The first record of Sennicki serving in the Diet was in 1550 when he was chosen speaker of the House of Deputies (Izba Poselska), but it's possible he was elected as early as 1546. His career began with a notable speech in which he accused the senators of not supporting the king thereby forcing him to carry the burden of government without their counsel. Siennicki was one of the leaders of the Ruch egzekucyjny, a movement of the middle rich, mainly Protestant nobles who demanded reforms in the system of government in Poland, a curtailment of the growing power of magnates, and a national Protestant church independent of Rome. He was very popular, not only with the local nobles in Chełm who returned him as a deputy to 22 of the 25 Diets held before 1578, but also with fellow deputies who elected him Speaker nine times between 1550 and 1575, a record unsurpassed by anyone in the history of Poland. Sennicki was one of two Unitarians to hold the post.

During a fiery debate in the Diet of 1555, Siennicki called on King Zygmunt II August to enact reforms, call a national synod for the reformation of the Polish Church, and to expel the ecclesiastical senators from the house. The king encouraged the Diet (Sejm) to legislate the necessary taxes for war with Russia, but he delayed taking action on the religious and constitutional questions. Refusing to budge, the parliament was dissolved without any conclusions. Attempting to bypass it, the angry king appealed to the regional noble assemblies (Sejmiki ziemskie) to vote the necessary taxes and to punish the deputies of the former Diet by not electing them again. The king also issued an anti-Reformation edict (Edykt Parczowski) forbidding any alterations to the religious status quo, until an ecumenical or national synod could deal with the matter. The king's actions angered the nobles and in fact backfired against him and the magnate senators. The local diets refused to pass new taxes and elected, almost to a man, the same deputies to the new Diet in 1556-57. Once again elected speaker, Mikołaj Siennicki argued against the king's anti-Protestant edict, claiming that only the Diet had that power. Pressured by the deputies, King Zygmunt II August promised to proceed with the reform (egzekucja praw) during the next Diet, but refused to revoke his anti-Reformation edict. It appeared that the nobles had won the day so during the next Diet, Siennicki greeted the king warmly on behalf of the deputies and guided through a proposal for the election of a new King (Zygmunt II August was childless, and it was clear that he would not produce an heir, leaving the question of succession open). When the king didn't implement the promised reforms, Siennicki was instrumental in getting the lower chamber to annul the already approved new taxes. Infuriated, the king prorogued the parliament, left for Lithuania, and attempted to govern on his own.

Siennicki spent the next few years quietly at his estate in Bończa, where he turned the church into a Calvinist church. This violated the king's 1555 edict but it was standard practice of Protestant nobles at that time. Following the 1562 split in the Polish Reformed Church, he became a member of the Polish Brethren, though his wife and two sons stayed Calvinist. Mikołaj Siennicki was not very active in religious affairs, but is known to have attended the disputation between the Calvinists and Unitarians during the 1565 Diet, and sat as a "judge" on the side of the latter. He also attended the Unitarian synod in Bełżyce in 1569.

With the return of the king to Poland, and the convocation of another Diet, Siennicki reentered politics and was elected as deputy in the Reform Diet (Sejm Egzekucyjny) of 1562-63, though he was not chosen to be speaker. The king had realized that ruling Poland without the nobles was impossible, and decided to accommodate some of their reforms. The next six Diets were the most constructive and fruitful of Siennicki's life. Fundamental reforms such as abolishing the duty of the secular authorities to enforce the decrees of ecclesiastical courts were enacted due to Siennicki's insistence. During the 1565 Diet he delivered a tirade against the Roman Catholic clergy demanding that they contribute to military defense and he called on the king to convene a national synod.

His reformation ideas however, received only partial recognition; the king was dissuaded from issuing an anti-Arian edict, but in 1564 he did accept the decrees of the Roman Catholic Council of Trent. Work during the Diet so exhausted Siennicki, that he was unable to deliver the farewell address from the deputies to the king. During the 1565 Diet, the king rewarded Siennicki with the lease of Tarnogóra, a royal city and three villages. His only promotion was to the office of Chamberlain of Chełm (podkomorzy chełmski) in 1567. During the 1569 Diet he was one of the architects of the Polish Lithuanian Union of Lublin, but to the surprise of many, he was not rewarded with any gift, perhaps due to his strong criticism of the King Zygmunt II August, who felt personally insulted.

Siennicki's relations with King Zygmunt II August are difficult to assess. He was opposed to the king's separation from his third wife Queen Catherine because he feared, correctly, that this would be the end of the dynasty. This, together with his occasional criticisms did little to endear him to Zygmunt II August. On the other hand, he was very fond of the monarch as a symbol of the continuity and stability of the state, and during the 1566 Diet almost promised the Polish crown to any possible heir. The king's lack of sympathy for Siennicki was evident, however; he was not rewarded with lands and estates like other noble leaders.

On July 7, 1572 King Zygmunt II August died without any heirs, the last of his dynasty, leaving the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth without a monarch, and in the midst of a war with Russia. Siennicki immediately called the local diet of Chełm to consult on the situation and elect officials for the interregnum. Other provinces followed suit, and after a series of consultations a Diet was called in January of 1573 which Siennicki, naturally, attended. There he protested (albeit in vain) against the Roman Catholic primate assuming the title of interrex (between-king). To counter the growing forces of magnates, he was one of the drafters of the Confederation of Warsaw, a law that guaranteed religious peace and freedom to all Christians, one of the first acts of its kind in Europe. This law was passed despite the opposition of Roman Catholic bishops, only one of whom signed it. Siennicki was also instrumental in adding its provisions to the Articuli Henriciani, which the new king was supposed to swear before his coronation. During the election he supported Henry de Valois, a brother of the king of France. Valois was elected, with the provision that he swear these Acts, with special emphasis on the clauses dealing with religious freedom. This was no vain precaution; Henry was rumored to be responsible for the slaughter of French Huguenots during the Saint Bartholomew's Massacre a year earlier. Articuli Henriciani, including the religious toleration clauses, was affirmed by all newly elected Polish kings until Poland's disappearance in 1795.

During the brief reign of Henry de Valois (later King Henry III of France), Mikołaj Siennicki seemed to have retired from politics, perhaps due to exhaustion. However, when the king fled to France and the nobles declared the throne vacant, he returned to politics as a fierce enemy of the Habsburg candidate, who was backed by most of the magnates. Elected speaker of the Election Diet in 1575 he tried in vain to find a compromise candidate. Most senators backed the emperor Maximilian II Habsburg, and they convinced the primate and interrex to declare him King of Poland on December 12, 1575. Dishearted, the nobles started to leave the election field, thinking the thing done. It was then that Siennicki, backed by Jan Zamoyski (1542-1605) stepped in. Two days later Siennicki declared the spinster-sister of the deceased king Anna Jagiellonka (1523-1596) as the "King of Poland," and the Prince of Transylvania Stefan Batory (1533-1586) as her co-ruler, on the condition that they marry. Following the announcement, he knelt down and led the assembly in prayer, saying together the Lord's Prayer in Polish, not in liturgical Latin, a poignant symbol of his Unitarian and Protestant faith. It was the first and last time that the Speaker of the Lower House declared the election of a King of Poland.

Despite being instrumental in the election of the new king, Siennicki's relationship with Stefan Batory was sour from the beginning. The reasons are not clear; perhaps Batory resented Siennicki's criticisms of the monarchy, or his Unitarian beliefs, or his insistance that Batory should marry the elderly and unattractive Anna Jagiellonka before receiving the Polish crown. Batory who followed John Zygmunt Zapoyla as Prince of Transylvania had been a tolerant but devout Roman Catholic who was known not to have shown the Transylvanian Unitarians any special favors.

Either way, Siennicki who had secured the Polish crown for the new king never received any favors. He spent his last days at his estate in Bończa, where he died in the summer of 1581.

The church in Bończa was held by the Calvinists until the 1620s when they were forced to return it to the Roman Catholics (this church still exists). Mikołaj's granddaughter and her husband built a new Reformed edifice which survived until the 1730s. One of his grandsons moved to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, where the Siennicki family continued to be devout members and supporters of the Reformed Church until their extinction in the 1750s.

After his death, Mikołaj Siennicki, one of Poland's most influential politicians and a renown orator (he was referred to as the "Polish Demosthenes") quickly fell into obscurity. As the Counter Reformation gained ground, Roman Catholics dismissed the achievements and erased the memory of former Protestant and Unitarian leaders. In 1641 the Diet debated if it was legal for a non-Roman Catholic to be speaker of the House of Deputies, two decades later the Polish Brethren were expelled from Poland, and in 1717 the so-called Numb Diet (Sejm Niemy) barred Protestants from even serving as Deputies. Though some historical interest in him surfaced in the 19th and mid 20th century, like most Polish Protestants, Siennicki still awaits an historian who will do him justice.

There are only two biographical entries on Mikołaj Siennicki: one by Stanisław Grzybowski "Mikołaj Siennicki - Demostenes sejmów polskich" in Odrodzenie i Reformacja w Polsce, vol. II (1957). The other by Anna Sucheni-Grabowska is in the Polish Biographical Dictionary (PSB) vol. 37, with extensive bibliography. The PSB volume also contains entries on other members of the Siennicki family. Mikołaj Siennicki is mentioned on the website of the
Polish Chamber of Deputies (Sejm), albeit with the wrong date of death.

Article by Kazimierz Bem - posted 14 May 2011

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