Radziwill—Princes sans frontières

Sometimes one single prominent marriage can bring an entire family lineage back into the popular consciousness, even if the details of the who, what, where remain fuzzy. Such is the case for His Serene Highness Prince Stanisław ‘Stas’ Radziwiłł, whose celebrated marriage to Lee Bouvier in March 1959 propelled him into the limelight as part of the world of ‘Camelot’ and the American Kennedys.

Prince and Princess Stanislaus Radziwill

Although before the second World War Prince Stanisław worked for the Polish delegation to the League of Nations and for the Polish Red Cross, the question of his ‘national identity’ is an interesting one. Was he a Pole? When he was born in 1914, at the Radziwill Palace of Szpanów, in Volhynia, he was a subject of the Russian Empire. This region became part of Poland when it regained its independence, then in 1939 it was incorporated into the Soviet Union as part of the Ukrainian SSR. But it had changed times several times even before that: joined to Lithuania in the 14th century, then transferred to Poland in the 16th, and from Poland to Russia at the end of the 18th century. Today most of the grandest former Radziwill properties are in Ukraine and Belarus, but in the past the family were usually considered Polish aristocrats—yet at the very start they were a Lithuanian noble family. While the world’s media focuses this month on the volatile Russo-Ukrainian border, a look at the fascinating history of the princely Radziwill clan can help us understand some of the quite fluid history of this region of the world.

To start with Ukraine, one of the challenges in establishing a national identity in the past hundred years has been a lack of a clearly identifiable historical ruling dynasty, around which most, with few exceptions, European countries were constructed in the medieval and early modern periods. Nationalist state builders of the late 19th and early 20th centuries knew this, hence the establishment of ‘imported’ royal families on the thrones of newly independent states from Greece to Romania, and the plan to do the same for countries emerging from the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917-18, like Finland or Lithuania, and for Ukraine too: Archduke Wilhelm of Austria was briefly considered for the throne of an independent kingdom, according to the fascinating book by Timothy Snyder, The Red Prince. But centuries before, when this area of what is now Belarus and western Ukraine was part of the federated state of Poland-Lithuania, there was a saying: “There is a king in Warsaw, and a Radziwiłł in Nesvizh”.

Nesvizh, today’s Niasviž in Belarus, was for centuries the centre of a private princely estate that rivalled in size and wealth many western sovereign states. At their height, the aristocratic owners of this estate possessed 23 castles, 426 towns, 2,000 manors and 10,000 villages. They had a private army, which, by the 18th century, could muster 6,000 men. They had townhouses in most important cities in Poland and Lithuania (Warsaw, Lublin, Vilnius), and other regional centres further east (Minsk, Lviv), as well as the major European capitals, Paris, Vienna and Berlin. One of the most prominent in this last category was the Radziwill Palace in Berlin, on Wilhelmstraße near Potsdamer Platz, an 18th-century palais which was acquired by the Prussian government in 1869, and soon after became the seat of the Imperial Chancellor, and was the residence of Adolf Hitler before the building of the New Chancellery in 1939, and was mostly destroyed in World War II.

Palais Radziwill in Berlin before it became the Imperial Chancellery

The Radziwiłł family (properly spelled with two ł’s, which makes a w sound, but usually anglicised simply to Radziwill) were major landowners in what is now Ukraine, but they could never be seen as ‘Ukrainian’ princes, in part due to religion: throughout their history they were strong proponents of Catholicism or Calvinism, never Orthodoxy. Moreover, they were just one of several great princely families whose landholdings in this region were on a truly epic scale.

The lands of Radziwills (blue) and other eastern magnates

Instead, we need to see the Radziwills as representatives of an earlier, pre-nationalist, view of the world, a Lithuanian noble house who rose to power through merging its interests with the Polish monarchy (though sometimes strongly opposing it), and eventually asserting its own independent links to the other dominant powers in the region, Prussia and Russia. There are literally dozens of eminent members of this family, male and female, so this post will offer highlights, and as usual, will focus on dynastic links and built heritage—and there’s a lot of it, and much of it hidden from Western tourists for decades behind the Iron Curtain. So here we can do some virtual tourism thanks to the internet. I will start in Lithuania, then look at the two main branches of the family: the Biržai (Birże in Polish) line and the Nezvizh (Nieśwież) line. Though the latter is the senior branch, it’s the only one to continue into the present, so it makes more sense to finish with it. Across its history, the dynasty—raised to the level of princes in 1518—produced three bishops, two cardinals and one queen, plus eight grand chancellors and seven holders of the post of grand hetman (the highest military commander) of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

So let’s start with Lithuania. The Lithuanians are a Baltic people—they are not Slavs like their neighbours to the east and south. They were amongst the last group of Europeans to convert to Christianity, in the late 14th century, but in the two centuries leading up to this the threat of Orthodox Slavic principalities to the east and crusading Catholic warriors from the west forced the Lithuanian nobles to consolidate tribal rule into a unified state, a Grand Duchy. One of the greatest of these Grand Dukes was Jogaila, who not only converted to Christianity, in 1386, but also married the young female ruler of Poland, Jadwiga, joining together the two principalities into one mega-state, Poland-Lithuania, which would stick together until the partitions of these lands between Russia, Prussia and Austria in the 1790s. As part of the dynastic merger agreements of the 1380s, many of the Lithuanian noble families were admitted to the Polish system of ‘heraldic families’, in which clusters of noble houses bore the same or similar coats of arms. The Radziwills’ arms would henceforth bear three horns (‘trąby’).

Poland (red) and Lithuania (pink) joined together in 1386

Grand Duke Jogaila changed his name to the Christian name Vladislav. At the same time, his greatest Lithuanian noble supporters did the same. One of these, Astikas, took the name Christian (or Kristinas). He was said to have descended from a younger brother of one of the early Lithuanian rulers. His son bore the name Radvila (and doesn’t seem to have used his baptised name, Nicholas), which, according to legend refers to a semi-mythical Lithuanian ancestor who was raised by wolves (rado vilko), the pagan high priest Lizdeika who went on to found the city of Vilnius (in an echo of the traditional founding of Rome story by Romulus and Remus). Another idea suggests that the name derives from an ancient Slavic name Radzivon, from the old Greek word for ‘pink’, linking the family to the earlier Slavic rulers of the area, and Greek Orthodoxy. These two contrasting ideas come from Lithuanian sources or Polish sources, so, as always, nationalism plays its part in the creation of history!

Radvila, a 19th-century imagined portrait

In any case, Radvila’s son, Nicholas (Mikalojus in Lithuanian or Mikołaj in Polish) adopted the name Radvilaitisas a surname, later polonised to Radziwiłł. All three of these founders were great landowners in the area of central Lithuania, including Musninkai, to the northwest of the Grand Ducal capital, Vilnius. In 1447, the Grand Duke Casimir granted Radvila the much larger town and estates of Kėdainiai (Kiejdany in Polish), further to the northwest, in a separate region of Lithuania known as Samogitia. This town would remain one of the main bases of the family in the centuries to come. They developed it into a commercial hub, with good water links to the Baltic Sea and to the Hanseatic League, and built one of the first Calvinist (ie, Evangelical Reformed) churches in the region at Kėdainiai, which still retains a family mausoleum.

The Evangelical Church in Kedainiai
The Radziwill palace at Kedainiai in the 19th century

But this extraordinary Protestant activity—one of the most interesting aspects of the Radziwill story—in mostly Catholic Lithuania is in the future. For now, Radvila and his son Mikalojus built up their dynastic power in the region by service to the Grand Duke: the father was Marshal of the Court from 1440, governor of Trakai (one of Lithuania’s former capitals), then castellan of Vilnius, in 1475; he served also as an envoy to the neighbouring Teutonic Order (Germans) and to the Golden Horde (Mongols). The son was also castellan of Trakai, governor of Vilnius, and rose to the post of Grand Chancellor of Lithuania (the top official after the Grand Duke) in 1492. The family would be governors (vaivada) of Vilnius for over 150 years, and one of their major urban palaces still stands in that city, whose history they dominated for so long. Originally a wooden house, then replaced with a baroque structure in the 1630s, Radvilas Palace was mostly unloved in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today it houses an art museum, and although when I visited a couple years ago it looked quite dilapidated, it is undergoing major renovations and has big plans for the future.

Vilnius Palace, my photo of the renovated and unrenovated wings

Mikalojus ‘the Old’ (d. 1509) had four sons, Mikalojus II, Vaitiekus, Jonas (John) and Jergis (George), and a daughter, Anna, who married a Polish prince (from a junior line of the former ruling house), showing how far the family had advanced in just a few generations. Of these sons, the second became Bishop of Vilnius (taking the name Albert), while the others each founded a branch of the family. The eldest son was given lands confiscated by a Lithuanian rebel, Prince Glinski, in 1509, notably Goniądz in the historic region of Podlachia or Podlasie in eastern Poland. Nothing remains of the castle here, but its name became prominent briefly in 1518 as part of the princely title created for Mikalojus II by the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I, as recognition for his part in the King-Grand Duke Sigismund I’s visit to Vienna a few years before. He also still owned the family’s dynastic patrimony in central Lithuania, and acquired another property through marriage, Medilas, to the east (Medele in Polish, now Miadziel in Belarus). He took over his father’s post as Grand Chancellor of Lithuania in 1510, and was a key proponent of forging tighter political links between Poland and Lithuania (and was thus given the nickname ‘Amor Poloniae’).

Mikalojus, first Prince Radziwill

The title ‘Prince Radziwill of Goniądz and Medilas’ did not survive very long, however, as Mikalojus and his three sons were all dead by the 1540s. One son, Jonas, the 2nd Prince Radziwill, was ducal governor of the Duchy of Samogitia, while the other was the Bishop of Samogitia—a pretty good monopoly on local power, secular and sacred. Jonas had three daughters, who took with them the lands of the senior branch into other noble houses—each of these sons-in-law was a voivode or governor of one of the key provinces of Lithuania’s great eastern expansion (done mostly in the 14th and 15th centuries, but a source of enduring tension with Muscovy): Polotsk, Vitebsk and Ruthenia. These lands form today the nation known as Belarus, so it is here where we will ultimately shift our attention for the second branch (Nesvizh). But it’s also worth noting that at least one of these three daughters, Anna (d. 1600), converted to Calvinism, and later Unitarianism, and became known as a religious writer and supporter of the Polish Brethren.

Princess Anna Radziwillowna

Although Anna and her cousins in both the second and third branches of the Radziwill family initially joined the evangelical reform movement sweeping across Europe in the 1530s-40s, only the third branch, Biržai, retained it. This branch, at first known for its earlier seat of Dubingiai (Dubinki in Polish), was founded by Jurgis (Jerzy, or George), known as ‘Hercules’ for his great prowess in battle against the traditional enemies of the Grand Duchy to the east: Muscovy, the Cossacks and the Tatars. He was at various points governor of the Kiev province, as well as castellan of Trakai and Vilnius, and in 1531 was named Grand Hetman of Lithuania. The term ‘hetman’ is a curious title used in various states of Eastern Europe to denote a military commander; it was also used by the Cossacks to denote the leader of the tribes. It seems to come either from German Hauptmann, ‘captain’, or Turkic ataman, ‘father of men’. As leader of the Polish-Lithuanian armies, and in conjunction with the rising political power of his son Mikolaj the Red and his nephew Mikolaj the Black, the Radziwills dominated the Grand Duchy in almost every aspect.

Mikolaj ‘the Red’

Mikolaj II ‘the Red’ forged an alliance with his cousin Mikolaj ‘the Black’ (see below). Both were strong proponents of greater autonomy for Lithuania, within the dual Polish-Lithuanian monarchy, though the family itself was increasingly Polish in language and customs (and I’ll switch to Polish spellings for their names from here on). When the senior princely line of the family became extinct in 1542, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, extended this great honour by making both cousins princes of the Empire, in 1547 (confirmed by the Polish king in 1549).

Emperor Charles V grants the princely title and arms to the Radziwills

This was a good move on the Emperor’s part and would secure a Habsburg ally—as we shall see—within Poland-Lithuania for years to come. The title of ‘imperial prince’ given to nobles who resided outside of the Empire was purely honorary and brought with it no legal rights within the Empire, such as a vote in the Imperial Diet. To mark their honour, both new princes were permitted to place their three-horned trąby arms onto a black eagle symbolising the Holy Roman Empire; the modern Radziwill coat-of-arms was born.

The full princely arms of the Radziwills

But another key element that propelled the Radziwills into the category of European princes was the fact that by 1547, Mikolaj’s sister Barbara was secretly married to a royal prince, who succeeded his father as King Sigismund II August of Poland (and Grand Duke of Lithuania) the next year, making Barbara Radziwillówna a queen. There was great opposition amongst the Polish nobility to allow her to be formally recognised, and some accused her of seducing the King or worse of bewitching him with spells or poisons. But through the great power of the two Radziwill cousins, Red and Black, she was crowned in Krakow in December 1550. She died only five months later, and her story soon evolved into one of true love and devotion triumphing over diversity, revived especially in the Romantic 19th century, as the subject of paintings, plays and novels, and again today (there have been two recent musicals based on her story).

Queen Barbara Radziwillowna

By this point Barbara’s brother Mikolaj the Red was the virtual ruler of Lithuania, second only to the King, as Grand Chancellor from 1566. After King Sigismund II died in 1572, the last of the House of Jagiello, the Radziwill princes demonstrated their loyalty to the Habsburgs by supporting a Habsburg candidate in the royal elections that followed (from 1573 onwards the Polish throne was elective, all the way into the 18th century). But the Radziwill-Habsburg alliance was unusual given that both of the new imperial princes had embraced the Evangelical Reform movement (the branch of Protestantism started by John Calvin) in the 1560s, and actively built Protestant schools and churches in their estates and towns. Mikolaj the Red was based at Dubingiai, in the forested area just north of Vilnius. The castle there had been built by the Lithuanian grand dukes in the early 15th century, and was rebuilt by the Radziwills in the early 16th. At its height it was the largest castle in Lithuania, and became an important centre for Calvinism. The family moved to Biržai early in the 17th century (below), and Dubingiai fell into ruin, but many of the members of this branch were buried in the Reformed church there, whose remains have recently been excavated.

the ruins of Dubingiai in the 19th century

The two sons of Mikolaj the Red (d. 1584) were Prince Mikolaj III (d. 1589) and Prince Krzysztof (d. 1603)—both are called ‘prince’ since the title ‘prince of the Empire’ extends to all sons and daughters (and all subsequent male descendants) of the original bearer, not just the eldest son. The elder brother, Mikolaj, followed his father’s footsteps and supported the establishment of Calvinist schools and churches in Lithuania, as well as the Habsburg candidates for the Polish throne (unsuccessfully). His son, Jerzy (d. 1613), castellan of Trakai, did much the same, but began to see his family’s influence decline as their clear lack of support for the new royal family, the Vasas, brought them increasingly into disfavour at court in Krakow. Krzysztof, on the other hand, made a great name for himself as one of the most celebrated military commanders of the era, in seemingly endless wars against Muscovy to the east and Sweden to the north, earning him the nickname ‘Piorun’, Polish for ‘thunderbolt’. Like his father and grandfather, he was also Grand Hetman of Lithuania.

Thunderbolt’s sons continued this military tradition, but also continued the Radziwill family’s trend to establish its own foreign policy, at the expense of its relationship with the ruling house of Poland. Prince Janusz (d. 1620) was part of a rebellion against King Sigismund III Vasa in 1606, which was badly defeated. He also grew the family’s reputation as ‘princely’ not merely noble, through two marriages: first to the heiress of one of the ancient Russian principalities, Slutsk (or Słuck in Polish); and second to a daughter of the Elector of Brandenburg. Religiously, these were interesting marriages, since Zofia Olelkowicz of Slutsk was Orthodox (and would be canonised by the Belarusian Orthodox Church in 1983) and Elisabeth Sophie von Hohenzollern was Calvinist. Slutsk brought with it 7 castles and 32 villages, now in south-central Belarus. Like the other Radziwill properties, it became a major centre for Calvinism, but also attracted large amounts of Jewish settlers (50% of the population by the late 19th century). The marriage with the Elector’s daughter brought with it closer ties to the emerging Duchy of Prussia, the secularised properties of the Teutonic Order (in 1525), wedged in between Poland and Lithuania.

The religious situation in Poland-Lithuania, 1573, with Calvinists in purple and Orthodox in green (and this map helpfully locates Nesvizh, Slutsk, Kletsk, Olyka and Kėdainiai (NB: Kijow is Polish for Kyiv)

Janusz’s brother, Prince Krzysztof II (d. 1640), also established his name fighting against the Russians and the Swedes, and like others in his family, became increasingly opposed to the rule of King Sigismund III. Alienated from the court, he established himself at this branch’s new seat, Biržai (Birże in Polish—both accent marks indicate a ‘zh’ sound), located in the northern regions of Lithuania. His residence was a new building, from the 1580s, in Renaissance style, with an artificial lake. Krzysztof renovated it again in the 1630s, along Italianate lines, and filled it with treasures and curiosities from all over the world. He developed his stables into one of the largest and most famous in Europe. Unfortunately Biržai was almost completely destroyed by Swedish armies in 1704, but it was reconstructed from the ruins in the 1980s and today houses a regional history museum.

The fortress of Birzai and its town in the 17th century
The ruins of Birzai in 1926
reconstructed Birzai today

The sons of Janusz and Krzysztof, Prince Bogusław and Prince Janusz II, took the family’s international reputation to new heights, very nearly achieved sovereignty of a sort, but then came crashing down again, and this branch itself became extinct by the end of the century. After studies in Leiden and stints as ambassador to Holland and England, the older (but junior) cousin, Janusz, rose to prominence first, as Chamberlain of Lithuania (1633), then Field Hetman (1646), Voivode of Vilnius (1653) and finally Grand Hetman (1654). His first marriage was to a prominent Polish noblewoman, but his second marriage, to the daughter of the Hospodar (‘prince’) of Moldavia, signified that he had higher ambitions. He assumed his family’s now traditional position as protector of Protestants throughout the Commonwealth, which may have led him towards closer association with the traditional enemy, Lutheran Sweden. In one of the episodes of the Northern Wars, Sweden defeated and occupied much of Lithuania, and in August 1655, Janusz signed a peace treaty with Sweden—unsanctioned by his sovereign the Grand Duke of Lithuania (King John II Casimir)—at his family’s residence at Kedainiai. This was followed by the ‘Union of Kedainiai’ in October, which proposed to create a semi-sovereign Radziwill duchy within the Swedish Empire. But the ink was barely dry before Janusz, already seriously ill, died and the Swedes were chased out of Lithuania. The Prince was regarded by the rest of the Polish and Lithuanian nobility as the grandest traitor that had ever been seen.

Prince Janusz, 1634

Prince Boguslaw (d. 1669) had supported his cousin’s ambitions, led a Swedish-backed army against the royalist forces of Poland-Lithuania, and shared his cousin’s downfall and shame in 1655. He retreated to the Prussian capital of his cousin, the Elector of Brandenburg. He set up residence in Königsberg, and was soon named Governor of Prussia (1657).

Prince Bogulaw

Before he left Lithuania, he had renovated yet another major palace in the region, this time in Poland (east-central): Starawieś, acquired by marriage in the 16th century. Boguslaw added towers and cupolas before he sold it in 1664. The palace passed through many noble hands before it was re-purchased by a Radziwill in 1912 (having been renovated again in the 1840s in neo-gothic style). Starawieś Palace was nationalised in 1945, and used as a school and a summer camp, before being bought and renovated by the National Bank of Poland in the 1960s, and used today as a training centre.

Starawies Palace

In 1665, Boguslaw married his cousin’s daughter and heir, Princess Maria Anna, to keep all the other titles and estates in the family. By now they were using the titles Prince of Slutsk and Duke of Biržai and Dubingiai. These were passed to his only child, Princess Ludowika Karolina, who spent most of her short life (1667-95) in Königsberg and Berlin, but took an active interest in maintaining ‘her’ Calvinists back in Lithuania and Slutsk.

Princess Ludowika Karolina
Slutsk Calvinist church

Princess Ludowika Karolina married two times, first to a younger son of the Elector of Brandenburg (Prince Ludwig), and then in 1688, to Karl Philipp, Count Palatine of Neuburg, who would later succeed to the title Elector Palatine. She had a daughter from this latter marriage, and the succession would be contested between different Polish families (supported by the Polish Crown), and the Neuburg family for many years. Princess Ludowika Karolina’s much later descendant, the Duke of Urach, used this link to advance his candidacy as king of an independent Lithuania in 1918 (see my blog on Teck and Urach). Much of the Neuburg succession, notably the Lithuanian lands of Biržai and Dubingiai, was re-acquired by the Nesvizh line of the Radziwills in the mid-18th century, but was later seized by the Russian authorities in 1811and sold to another noble family. This brings the story of the Biržai and Dubingiai branch to an end, and links us to the other main branch, that of Nesvizh, and the descendants of Prince Mikolaj the Black.

Nesvizh Castle is, by western European standards, a princely palace on an epic scale. But it is only one of the many stately homes built by the Radziwills in the 16th century in what is now southern Belarus (Polotsk) and northwest Ukraine (Volhynia). Nesvizh (Nieśwież in Polish, Niasviž in Belarusian, Nesvyžiaus in Lithuanian) was a large estate owned by Mikolaj the Black from 1533. Its importance was recognised in 1551 when it became one of the repositories for the state archives of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. This region had been known in the middle ages as the Principality of Polotsk, a vassal state of the princes of Rus’ in Kiev, but annexed by the Lithuanian dukes in the 13th century. By the 16th century, with these territories being so far from the royal court in Krakow, it was important to have powerful loyal families stationed here, particularly to defend the frontier in frequent wars with the rising power of Muscovy to the east. The castle of Nesvizh was largely rebuilt in the 1580s, on an immense scale, with an entire town attached. It was sacked by the Swedes in 1706, then refurbished and enlarged, with three separate buildings joined together around a courtyard. In 1792, it was seized by the Russians, its precious archive taken to St Petersburg and its massive art collection dispersed. It was abandoned by the family until a renewed interest in the late 19th century (and given an English style park). It became part of Poland again in 1920, then part of Soviet Union in 1939 and the family were expelled.

Nesvizh, central courtyard
Nesvizh from the lake

Back in the 16th century, the owner of Nesvizh, Mikolaj the Black, was not entirely subservient to the policies of the ruling Jagiellonian dynasty. As we have seen above, he and his cousin, Mikolaj the Red were elevated to the rank of imperial princes in 1547, and were also amongst the most prominent converts to Calvinism in this region. Prince Mikolaj the Black notably provided funds for the printing of the first complete translation of the Bible into Polish in 1563, and founded a Reformed church and college in Vilnius. He increased the power of the grand dukes of Lithuania (remember, these are also the kings of Poland) in the Baltic by acting as chief negotiator with the Grand Master of the Livonian Order to oversee its dissolution and transformation into a vassal state (Courland, now Latvia) in 1562. And he was one of the chief proponents of the increased polonisation of the area, in culture and language (it is noted that by now the family spoke Polish, not Lithuanian, or Ruthenian, the language of the elites in the Grand Duchy). He was a strong supporter of the Crown as Grand Marshal of Lithuania (1544), Grand Chancellor (1550), and Voivode of Vilnius (1551). But he was also a leader of the movement to strengthen the position of Lithuania relative to Poland within the dual monarchy.

Mikolaj ‘the Black’ (a mid-18th-century portrait)

Nevertheless, this branch of the family diverged from the Biržai branch, in returning to a mostly loyal position towards the Polish Crown, and indeed to a firm loyalty to the Catholic Church. Mikolaj the Black had four sons. Three of them became in turn Grand Marshal of Lithuania. A fourth, Jerzy (d. 1600), renounced Protestantism in 1572, studied abroad with the Jesuits, and became bishop of Vilnius (1580), cardinal (1584), and bishop of Krakow (1593). As one of the strong proponents of the Catholic Reformation, he created a seminary in Vilnius and helped gain university status for the Jesuit academy in that city (today’s Vilnius University, the oldest in the Baltics). As bishop of Krakow, he became one of the key advisors to King Sigismund III. He was even considered at one point as a candidate to become pope.

Cardinal Radziwill

Cardinal Radziwill’s ally in the importation of the Jesuit Order into Lithuania was his older brother, Mikolaj Sierotka (or ‘the Orphan’, so called by King Sigismund August who found him ‘abandoned’ and crying as a child and tried to hush him). He founded a printing press for the Jesuits in Vilnius, and built a large Jesuit church in Nesvizh, which became the family mausoleum for the next 250 years. He decided to make Nesvizh his permanent base, and built roads, hospitals and schools there. He also created what was called an ‘ordinat’ (ordynacja in Polish), or entail, in 1586, a legal framework adopted by many magnate families that ensured their estates would stay together and pass from generation to generation, rather than be divided amongst all the sons as was tradition. From this point, the head of the ordinat would usually use the title ‘duke’, with the princely qualifiers of ‘illustrious’ and even Dei gratia (‘by the grace of God’), something usually reserved only for sovereigns. Like others of his family, Mikolaj Sierotka had a semi-independent foreign policy, supporting the Habsburgs in several royal elections in Poland-Lithuania, and pressing the King to forge ahead with his plans to reunify the Catholic and Orthodox churches—resulting in the Union of Brest, 1596, which created the ‘Uniate Ruthenian Church’, whose members survive today as Belarusian Greek Catholics and Ukrainian Greek Catholics. These are churches that are still Orthodox in theology and ritual, but are in full communion with Rome.

Mikolaij ‘Sierotka’

Mikolaj Sierotka was also a scholar and a traveller: he had taken a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and Egypt in 1583-84, and converted in Rome on the journey. He then published a travel narrative in Latin in 1601. He was also a keen supporter of the emerging field of cartography and imported designers and architects to redesign his palace in Nesvizh in the 1580s, but also the nearby palace of Mir, about 18 miles to the northwest. The Radziwills had acquired this palace from the Ilyinich family in 1568, and Mikolaj transformed the old castle into a magnificent Renaissance palace. Famous for its five towers, it is (along with Nesvizh) a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Mir Palace

Ordinats were also created in 1586 for Sierotka’s younger brothers, one at Kletsk for Albrycht, and one at Olyka for Stanislaw. Mikolaj the Black had created a Calvinist church in Kletsk, but his son handed it back to the Catholic Church and founded a number of convents in his estates. The castle there was destroyed by the Russians in 1660, and again by Swedes in 1706, and never rebuilt. The Radziwills are remembered visually, however, in the coat of arms of the town, which still bears a curved black horn.

the arms of the town of of Kletsk today
Kletsk in the 17th century

Olyka was located further to the south, in the province of Volhynia, now in Ukraine. Like Polotsk, Volhynia had been an independent principality in the Middle Ages, then annexed by Lithuania in the 1300s. The town and castle of Olyka became Radziwill property in the 1560s, and Mikolaj the Black built a grand new palace there. It became one of the largest aristocratic residences in Ukraine. As a centre of revived Catholicism, a Collegiate Church was added later in the century, a replica of the Gesú church in Rome.

Olyka Castle
Olyka in the 19th century

The lines of Kletsk and Olyka both continued into the 17th century, but were both extinct by 1690, meaning their estates passed back to the main branch. Although the main line was based mostly in Nesvizh, they also naturally established bases further west in Poland, as they were frequently needed in Krakow or Warsaw to participate in assemblies of the nobles or elections of kings. The castle of Szydłowiec, a short distance southeast of Warsaw (which became the royal capital in the early 17th century with the permanent transferral of the royal court from Krakow), served as one of these. Brought in to the family by marriage in 1548, it was redeveloped as a baroque palace in the 1620s. It also became a key economic centre for the family’s interests, attracting numerous Jewish settlers in the 18th century, before passing out of Radziwill hands in the 19th. Disused until the 1960s, today Szydłowiec Castle houses a cultural centre and a museum of folk musical instruments.

Szydłowiec Castle

Not too far away from Szydłowiec was Biała Podlaska. Acquired in the 1560s, the castle here was rebuilt in the 1620s by Sierotka’s son Prince Aleksander Ludwik (d. 1654). This prince, a contemporary of the great hero/traitors Janusz and Boguslaw, stayed mostly out of politics. He developed Biała Podlaska (or ‘white town in Podlasie’) in part to stay safe when his eastern estates were under threat from Russian or Cossack invasions. He built an academy there—one of the oldest high schools in Poland still in existence—alongside hospitals and almshouses for the poor. A grand white tower was added in 1720. Most of this was pulled down in the 1880s and it became a Russian garrison.

Biała Podlaska Castle and Radziwill Square

Aleksander Ludwik’s son, Prince Michal Kazimierz (d. 1680), also brought this branch of the family into closer contact with the Polish court and the growing royal city of Warsaw. He married a sister of the King, Jan III Sobieski, and acquired a huge palace right in the centre of town, on the ‘Royal Avenue’ (aka Krawkowskie Przedmieście, or ‘Krakow Suburb’). This magnificent residence, built in the 1640s in Italian baroque style, was purchased from the Lubomirski family in 1674. A century later it was at the centre of Polish politics hosting meetings for a group that drew up Poland’s revolutionary constitution in May 1791. This branch became extinct in 1813, as we shall see, and by 1818 the building was confiscated by the new Russian rulers of Poland, and a viceroy was installed in the former Radziwill Palace. It was rebuilt in a Classical style (burned then restored in the 1850s), and became the seat of the Polish Prime Minister when independence was restored in 1918. Since 1994 it has been the seat of the President of Poland. It is fascinating to consider that between 1918 and 1939, the heads of government of both Germany and Poland resided in former Radziwill palaces!

Radziwill Palace in Warsaw in the 1760s
The Presidential Palace today

Prince Michal Kazimierz, duke of Nesvizh, was succeeded by his sons Prince Jerzy (d. 1689), then Prince Karol Stanislaw (d. 1719), who became yet another Radziwill Grand Chancellor of Lithuania. He had two sons, Michal Kazimierz ‘Rybenko’ and Hieronim Florian, who continued to amass an ever greater fortune for the dynasty. Rybenko (‘fish’, a term he liked to call people as a term of endearment, like ‘pet’, so it became his nickname) was not a great general or politician, but was known as a courtier, a great supporter of the new Saxon dynasty ruling Poland-Lithuania from the early 18th century. The younger brother, Prince Hieronim (d. 1760), managed to reacquire by mid-century the great lost succession of the Biržai-Dubingiai line, located mostly in Lithuania proper, but also including the principality of Slutsk in Belarus. Here he opened a factory to mass produce the famous ‘Slutsk sash’, by now the must-have element of a nobleman’s traditional attire and the symbol of the Polish, Lithuanian and Ruthenian nobilities.

A Slutsk sash from the 18th century

Hieronim is remembered as an eccentric, creating a large private army and a cadet school to train it, a ballet school, an Italian theatre, but also, supposedly, cruel torture chambers at Biała, and a prison for a mentally ill cousin. He has an amazing portrait, and you can see why there was a rumour that he was Peter the Great’s illegitimate son.

Prince Hieronim–maybe a monster, but had great style

When Prince Hieronim died his properties passed to his nephew Karol Stanislaw II (d. 1790), who became the richest magnate in Poland-Lithuania, and indeed possibly in Europe. He was known as ‘Panie Kochanku’ or ‘Beloved Sir’, apparently due to his reputation as a true gentleman of the old school, a noble patriot ready to defend Poland’s honour. Though he was a leader of the opposition to reform in the 1770s-80s (and thus against King Stanislas Poniatowski), he was also an ardent opponent of partition, and had to leave the country for a spell after several of his estates in the east became subject to Russia at the First Partition in 1772 and he refused to swear loyalty to Catherine the Great. His palace in Warsaw was ever a hub of political activity, and as a cosmopolitan prince, he also maintained a residence in Paris, the centre of the civilised world, on a street not too far from the Louvre, today called rue Radziwill.

Panie Kochanku

Both Panie Kochanku and his brother Hieronim Wincenty died before the partitions could really make their full impact and destroy the independence of Poland-Lithuania for the next century. The latter’s son, Dominik Hieronim, was very young when the Second and Third Partitions happened (1793, 1795), making most of Lithuania, Polotsk and Volhynia part of the Russian Empire. Properties closer to Warsaw, notably Biała, became part of the Austrian Empire. Prince Dominik (b. 1786), the 11th ‘ordinat’ or ‘duke’ of Nesvizh and Olyka, and the 8th lord of Biała, prince of Slutsk, count of Szydłowiec, etc, at first embraced the new situation, re-established himself in Nesvizh, and became a chamberlain in the household of Tsar Alexander in 1804. But by 1807 he became disaffected and returned to Warsaw where he joined the movement allied with Napoleon to push for restored Polish independence. He joined the French-Polish army in 1810, his estates were confiscated by the Tsar in 1811, and he took part in the invasion of Russia of 1812, as part of the Polish Regiment in the Imperial Guard. He was wounded the next year in battle near Hanau in Germany, and died.

Dominik Hieronim

Dominik left behind a contested succession. His son, Alexander, was born in the midst of a divorce from his first wife and before the marriage to his second wife took place. He was thus excluded from the succession, which fell entirely to his daughter (born after the second marriage) Stefania. Alexander was recognised as a prince and heir to the Radziwill properties by the Austrian Emperor, but not by the Tsar. There is much less biographical information on Alexander’s descendants, who lived in Austria and the now Austrian parts of Poland—the newly formed Kingdom of Galicia. They established themselves at a castle near Krakow called Grójec. The last, Princess Maria Maximiliana, was forcibly evicted from there in 1945, and died in 1981.

Grojec Palace

Princess Stefania, though barred from inheriting much of the estates by the terms of the entail, was nevertheless still heiress of over a million hectares, mostly in Lithuania and Ruthenia. She was married by the Tsar in 1828 to a German princeling who was also a Russian general, Ludwig of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg, but the lawsuits dragged on and on, and were not finally resolved until they belonged to her daughter, married to the Prince of Hohenlohe. By this point the family resided in Germany, where Hohenlohe was a rising politician (he would later become Chancellor of the Empire), and as non-nationals they were declared unable to possess property in Russia, and forced to sell it in 1893.

Princess Stefania

With the passing of the main line of the Nesvizh Branch in 1813, leadership of the family fell to a cadet line founded in the late 17th century by Prince Dominik Mikolaj, another Radziwill who served as Grand Chancellor of Lithuania (1690-97). This branch was based in Kletsk, one of the three ordinats set up in 1586. Dominik was succeeded by Prince Jan (d. 1729) then Prince Marcin (d. 1782) who was, like his cousin Hieronim Florian, quite the eccentric, and in the end was the one referred to above as being imprisoned by Hieronim due to his mental instability. The stories about his behaviour range quite widely, including imprisoning his wife and sons for many years, creating a harem for slave girls, acting as a local highway robber and arsonist, and getting involved in cultish study of the more mystical parts of Judaism.

Prince Marcin

Marcin’s son Prince Mikolaj Jozef of Kletsk (d. 1813) weathered the storms of the three partitions of Poland. Finding his lands now in the Russian Empire, he began to focus his line’s activities instead in a new estate acquired by the family in the 18th century, Przygodzice, in ‘Great Poland’ in the southwest near the border with Silesia and the city of Breslau (Wrocław). The real leader of the family at this time however was his youngest brother (and ultimate successor), Michal Hieronim (d. 1831), who was the last ever voivode of Vilnius—a title which became defunct after the third partition, 1795.

Prince Michal Hieronim

But he cannot be seen as a victim here—indications as early as the 1770s were that he was seen as a ‘reliable’ ally for Russian interests in the Polish Sejm (parliament), and is accused of receiving large sums from them in 1773 with which he acquired a major new estate, Nieborów, to the west of Warsaw. Nieborów was a baroque palace built in the 1690s by the Archbishop of Gniezno, with a French-style park. It had passed through several aristocratic hands in the 18th century, before being purchased by Michal Hieronim Radziwill. He and his wife, Helena, filled it with vast art collections, and built a much-admired garden feature, ‘Arkadia’. These passed to various family members in the 19th and 20th centuries, until taken over by the state in 1945. Today Nieborów Palace houses a museum of interior design and 18th-century furniture.

Nieborow Palace
Arkadia in the 19th century

Whatever the truth of his Russian secret connections, Prince Michal Hieronim did vote in favour of the 2nd Partition of 1793, and signed the document making it legal, as a representative of Lithuania. After 1813, he not only succeeded to his branch’s ordinat of Kletsk, but also managed to acquire the two ordinats of the main branch, Nesvizh and Olyka, all now situated in the Russian Empire. This huge windfall was granted by the Tsar not just due to his past loyalty to Russian, but also in part due to his second son’s increased favour with the Prussian royal family.

In 1796, Prince Antoni Henryk (d. 1833) had married Princess Luise of Prussia, daughter of Prince Ferdinand (younger brother of Frederick the Great) and thus first cousin of the King of Prussia (Frederick William III). The Radziwill lands in the west of Poland, notably Przygodzice, were now part of Prussia, and so Antoni founded the more ‘German’ branch of the Radziwill family.

Prince Antoni and Louise of Prussia

His elder brother, Ludwik, in contrast, moved further into Russian orbit, and based himself in Kletsk and the other territories in what was increasingly being called ‘White Russia’ (hence today’s Belarus, from ‘biela’ or ‘white’). Ludwik’s son in particular, Prince Leon (or Lev) (d. 1885) became a Russian diplomat and cavalry general, and was close to Tsar Nicolas I in particular, as his wife, Princess Sofia, was rumoured to be the Tsar’s mistress. As a Russian military commander, Leon helped put down the ‘November Uprising’ of 1830-31, in which Poles attempted to free themselves of Russian rule.

Prince Leon in the 1860s

In stark contrast, his uncle, the youngest brother of Ludwik and Antoni, Prince Michal Gedeon (d. 1850), was the commander-in-chief of the November Uprising. He had earned his stripes earlier in his career as a commander in the Polish army assembled by Napoleon in his fight against Russia. For his part in the Uprising he was imprisoned for five years in Russia, then retired from active service.

Prince Michal Gedeon

Michal Gedeon had acquired yet another new residence, through marriage in 1815: Szpanów, in Volhynia (today’s Shpaniv in Ukraine). This estate, near the town of Rivne (formerly Rovno), was not far from the family’s major estate of Olyka, and like it, was one of the grandest aristocratic estates in Volhynia. The Radziwills rebuilt it in the 19th century, and developed its park and gardens. It became part of Poland again after the First World War, then the estate was taken over by the Soviet army during the Second World War, and nothing remains of the buildings.

Returning to Prince Antoni Henryk, his Prussian connections were encouraged. He was appointed in 1815 as the first and only Statthalter (autonomous governor) of the Grand Duchy of Poznań (Posen in German), the new Prussian province acquired in the Third Partition of Poland and erected as a Grand Duchy after the Congress of Vienna. Fifteen years later he removed from this position when the Grand Duchy lost its autonomy after the November Uprising (which many of the Poles in Poznań had supported). Shifting his interests to Berlin, Antoni’s palace there became a major centre of art and culture, a representative space for Polishness within the Prussian capital. Himself a talented musician and composer, he entertained many prominent musicians here, like Beethoven and Mendelssohn, and had several compositions dedicated to him, notably by Polish composer Fryderyk Chopin, who also gave lessons to his daughter, Princess Wanda.

Chopin performs for the Radziwills

Chopin also stayed at Prince Antoni’s new country residence near the family estates at Przygodzice, a small hunting lodge made of wood, built in 1822-24 and named after its builder: Antonin. This would be the home base for this branch of the family into the mid-20th century, and still today hosts one of the major Chopin festivals in Poland.


The Prussian connections remained in the next generation: Antoni’s other daughter, Princess Elisa, was ardently desired in marriage by the Crown Prince (the future Kaiser Wilhelm I), but was deemed of insufficient rank. Elisa’s two brothers, Wilhelm and Boguslas, were both Prussian generals, sat in the Prussian House of Lords, and tried to oppose as best they could Bismarck’s anti-Catholic and anti-Polish policies in the 1860s-70s. The successive princes of this branch continued to act as representatives of Poles within the German Empire, but also maintained the presence of the family in Russia—Nesvizh remained the preferred burial site well into the 20th century. Many were quick to support the re-emergence of an independent Polish state in 1918, though they were mostly advocates of the more conservative approach to re-forming a government, perhaps preferring a monarchy (and in fact their names were even suggested as potential kings of either Poland or Lithuania).

Nesvizh once again became an outpost in the eastern borderlands of Polish politics, particularly under Prince Antoni Albrecht, known as ‘Aba’ (d. 1935) who re-established it as his base. The Prince had social connections with the West, and in 1910 married an Anglo-American socialite, Dorothy Deacon, the sister of the scandalous Gladys, Duchess of Marlborough (the marriage ended soon after). He also maintained a residence in Warsaw. His uncle, Stanisław, pushed for Polish independence from the other side, as an officer of the Russian army and a founder of the ‘National and Preservation Party’ in 1917 in St Petersburg, and an early ally of Marshal Piłsudski, one of the founders of the newly independent Polish state in 1918.

Prince Antoni Albrecht
Dorothy, Princess Radziwill, 1913

In 1922, Prince Antoni Albrecht still owned about 80,000 hectares, while his brother Karol owned over 150,000 in the eastern reaches of Poland (now a borderland with the new Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic). The youngest brother, Prince Leon Władisław, was the last ordinat of Nesvizh (the 17th) and also of Kletsk (the 14th). When this part of Poland was annexed by Belarus in 1939, he moved abroad. His last male descendant, the lineal head of the House of Radziwill, Prince Jerzy, died in 2007.

The junior line of this branch, the branch of Przygodzice (a fourth ordinat, created formally in 1873)—or we might call them the ‘Prussian branch’—also took over one of the more ancient ordinats, that of Olyka. Prince Ferdynand (d. 1926) was the 12th ordinat of Olyka, and owned about 43,000 hectares in Western Poland and Volhynia in 1922. As a former long-term member of the Prussian Parliament, his reputation as an elder statesman was drawn on to help set up the new Polish Parliament in 1919. His eldest son Michal ‘the Red’ (d. 1955) was not so revered: his vocally pro-German views led even to him offering his residence of Antonin to Hitler as a form of appeasement; while his scandalous personal life led him to be ostracised by society and most of his family. Instead of thanked, Prince Michal’s ordinat of Przygodzice was nationalised by the Germans, and he ended up leaving very little to his heir, his nephew, also called Michal (d. 1974), whose grandson Marcin (b. 1965) is since 2007 the lineal head of the Radziwill family, though keeps a very low profile in the world of modern princes.

One ordinat remained, Olyka, which was given to the third son of Prince Ferdynand, Prince Janusz (d. 1967). He also owned Nieborów and Szpanów and a palace in Warsaw—these given by a cousin from another branch who had no heir (this Radziwill Palace, on Bielańska street, is now the Museum of Independence), and, unlike his older brother Michal, became one of the leading politicians of the new Polish republic in the 1920s, in particular as a leader of the aristocratic conservative movement, which considered possibly restoring a monarchy of some sort (perhaps even with himself as monarch). In the very early days of Polish independence, he acted as director of the new State Department, creating a revived diplomatic service.

Prince Janusz

In 1939, Prince Janusz attempted to use his international connections to soften the German occupation, but he was imprisoned by the Nazis in 1944, then briefly imprisoned by the Soviets in 1945. Olyka and his other estates in Volhynia (including Szpanów) had been transferred to the Soviet Union in 1939 and thus nationalised, as was Nieborów in Poland, in 1945. Janusz’s elder son, Edmund (d. 1971), was also imprisoned in Russia, for two years (1945-47), while his younger son was Stanisłas (d. 1976), with whom we began this post—in later life he resided in London where he set up a school for Polish refugees and a centre for Polish historical research.

There are in fact many more junior branches, following literally an explosion of Radziwill princes and princesses in the 18th and 19th centuries. One of these was called the line of Szydłowiec, named for the property the family had held south of Warsaw since the mid-16th century, though it was mostly administered from afar, until its own branch was formed in the early 18th century. Prince Maciej (d. 1800) was the last Grand Chancellor of Lithuania (from 1786) and the last Castellan of Vilnius under the old Polish-Lithuanian union (1790-95). He was part of the group trying to save Polish independence through the creation of a modern constitution, and was a hero of the military action against partition in 1792. Partition occurred nevertheless, and he found that his estates now were part of Austria, and their new province of Galicia. When he died, due to serious financial difficulties, much of the inheritance that should have passed to his underage son, including Szydłowiec, was instead auctioned by the Austrian government and purchased by another magnate family, the Sapieha.

Prince Maciej

The many descendants of this underage son Konstanty Mikołaj (d. 1863) can thus be considered the ‘Austrian branch’, and they maintained their main sphere of interest in Krakow, the capital of Galicia after 1849. In the 1880s, his 5th son, Prince Dominik, purchased Balice Palace, on the outskirts of Krakow, which became one of the main residences of this branch until it was nationalised in 1945—it is now part of the Jagiellonian University of Krakow.

Balice Palace

They also held Sichów Palace, to the northeast of the city. None are very prominent in the history of Austria or Galicia, though one, Prince Dominik’s son Hieronim, married into the Imperial family itself in 1909, the Archduchess Renata, a cousin of the Emperor. Their son, another Dominik, married in 1938 Princess Eugénie of Greece (a cousin of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh), but the family’s fortunes came to a halt when Hieronim was sent to a gulag in Russia where he died in 1945, and Dominik and his family moved abroad.

Prince Hieronim and Archduchess Renata

In contrast, another member of this family embraced the new communist regime in Poland: Prince Krzysztof (d. 1986), known as ‘The Red Prince’ who had been in a German concentration camp during the war, and later served as a member of Parliament in the Polish People’s Republic. His daughter, Dr Anna Radziwiłł (d. 2009), was not so convinced, and as a specialist in the teaching of history, published textbooks in an ‘underground library’ to try to ensure that Polish children learned about truth, not propaganda. In the new regime following the fall of Communism, she twice served as under-secretary of state in the Ministry of Education, 1989-92 and 2004-05.

Radziwills still operate in the government of Poland: Dr Konstanty Radziwiłł (b. 1958), a physician, was a senator, and Minister of Health, 2015-18, and currently is a Voivode of the Province of Masovia; his cousin Dr Artur Radziwiłł (b. 1974), an economist, was under-secretary of state in the Ministry of Finance, 2014-15, and tasked with introducing the Euro to Poland (which did not succeed), and for advancing financial reforms in Ukraine, emphasizing once more the ongoing Radziwill ties between Poland and the lands to the east—Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine—and thus a fitting place to end this piece.

List of castles ‘visited’ in this post:

in Lithuania:

  • Kėdainiai
  • Dubingiai
  • Biržai

in Poland:

  • Goniądz
  • Starawieś
  • Szydłowiec
  • Biała Podlaska
  • Grójec
  • Przygodzice
  • Nieborów
  • Antonin
  • Balice

in Belarus:

  • Miadziel (Medilas, Medele)
  • Slutsk (Słuck)
  • Niasviž or Nesvizh (Nieśwież, Nesvyžiaus)
  • Mir
  • Kletsk (Kleck)

in Ukraine:

  • Olyka (Ołyka)
  • Shpaniv (Szpanów)

Special thanks to Dr Anna Kalinowska for reading through this very long and complicated post! Historical errors and opinions of course remain my own!

(images from Wikimedia Commons)

Published by Jonathan Spangler

I am a historian of monarchy and the high aristocracy of Europe. I focus primarily as an academic on the early modern period and France, but my interests range from early medieval Ireland to 20th-century Russia. I teach history at Manchester Metropolitan University in Manchester, England, and am the senior editor of The Court Historian, the journal of the Society for Court Studies. I am also a musician and an avid traveler. I love heraldry and genealogy. My ancestors came from Germany to the American colonies in the 18th century and I am a proud Virginian.

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