At the start of a recent episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, British comedian and presenter Sue Perkins meets with her long-time sparring partner Mel Giedroyc, and shares hopes that she would discover in the programme that one of her ancestors originated from Lithuania, as it would be an amazing thing for them to share, knowing that Mel’s own ancestors also came from there. Nothing further is said about Mel’s Giedroyc ancestry, and the show moves on to focus on Perkins’ interesting journey.
Not only does Mel Giedroyc’s family come from Lithuania, and indeed from a town named for them, Giedraičiai, but her family were princes, with dynastic roots stretching back into the late 13th century. And like their kin, the Radziwill princes discussed in a recent post here, their history is intertwined with the stories of not just Lithuania, but Poland and Russia too. They split into so many different branches that by the 20th century there were Polish branches, Russian branches and those in France, England and America. This post will, as usual, focus on the origins and development of the family and on the residences they lived in, but, as a nod to Mel Giedroyc—my favourite comedian, whose morning show helped welcome me to Britain so many years ago—will highlight in particular the strong role played by several women of the family.
Like many grand aristocratic families, a certain amount of mystery shrouds the origins of the Giedroyć family—this is the Polish spelling, with a mark on the c to make it a ‘ts’. The traditional story is that there was a Prince Giedrius, brother of a Grand Duke of Lithuania from the dynasty that ruled this area before the reign of the Gediminids (the 14th to 16th century). Giedrius built a castle at Giedraičiai, about 45 km north of Vilnius, on estates acquired from the Livonian Order of knights in about 1340, and gave the surname Giedraitis to his descendants. There is no castle there now, but there is a fine old tower on the Church of St Bartholomew, built in 1410 and rebuilt four hundred years later by one of the family bishops, Józef Giedroyć (Juozapas Giedraitis in Lithuanian).
Prince Giedrius’ son, Ginwill, was a candidate for the throne of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the next generation, but after that the family drifted further away from the direct seat of power, and by the end of the 15th century, had split firmly into two lines, that of Prince Alexander and that of Prince Bartholomew. Earlier in the century, they had begun to use the symbol of the centaur (or ‘hippocentaur’) for their coat of arms, as one of the noble families adopted into the Polish system of heraldry following the Union of Hrodło (1413), drawing together the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland. At other times they also used the Poraj coat of arms, the five-pointed rose. I’m not exactly sure why they used both.
The only other major figure to emerge from the 15th century is the family saint (or nearly): Blessed Michael (Mykolas in Lithuanian), a hermit renowned for prophecy and miracles, who died in 1485. He was born unable to walk unaided, became an Augustinian canon in a convent in Bystryca (which is now just over the border in Belarus), then moved to the capital of the Polish Kingdom, Krakow, where he was allowed to live in a simple hut attached to the Church of St Mark where he served as a sacristan. He lived as a recluse, eating little and self-flagellating, but people came to seek him out for his gift of prophecy. After his death, his cult spread across Poland and Lithuania and there were unsuccessful attempts to make him a saint, but he was beatified (a step towards canonisation) only in 2018.
Meanwhile the family were expanding, and acquired an estate a bit further to the north, Videniškiai, supposedly named for Prince Vidas, a grandson of Giedrius. This became the family seat in the 16th century, and where they built a monastery of the Canons Regular of Penance of the Blessed Martyrs (the religious order to which their ‘house saint’ Michael, had belonged). Its chapel became the family burial place after the 1620s. The church, dedicated to St Lawrence, remains, though the monastery was closed by the Russians in 1832.
Just a short distance outside the village of Videniškiai was the castle Baltadvaris. It was built in the mid-16th century by Prince Matas or his son Prince Marcin, from the line of Prince Bartholomew (see below), with a particular role to guard the strategic road that passed through this district on the way between Vilnius to Riga. Baltadvaris means ‘white manor’, but was built of red brick, so presumably was painted. Very little remains today but earthworks and an archaeological site that is covered by a wooden structure. It had lost its strategic value in the 17th century, was sold off by the family, and fell into ruins.
Of the senior line, that of Prince Alexander, there is less of a story to tell. Some members did become Calvinist like many grand nobles of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in this era, but most did not. Generation after generation were landowners and governors of local towns and fortifications on behalf of the Crown. The right to a princely title was confirmed by the 1569 Act of Union between the crowns of Poland and Lithuania, but for the next two centuries, they don’t emerge as major actors on the stage of Polish-Lithuanian history.
When the great time of trial for the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth came about, the period of the three partitions between 1772 and 1795, several members of this branch were in prominent positions to either combat it or support it. Like the English or American civil wars, many aristocratic families were split in this period, either willing to die in the defence of Polish-Lithuanian independence, or considering that absorption within the powerful Russian Empire was the best chance to preserve stability and order. Prince Krzysztof Giedroyć, owner of the estates at Giedraičiai, and his four brothers faced this question from their positions within the government or military. His brother Jan Stefan, Bishop of Samogitia from 1778, was active in the Sejm (or parliament), first advocating independence, then an alliance with Russia.
Their cousin, Prince Romuald Tadeusz, was also a deputy at the Sejm, but took a more active stance against Russia, serving in the Polish-Lithuanian army in the 1790s, and becoming a general of Lithuanian troops that joined the French Grande Armée that pushed into Russia in 1812. His brother, Piotr Kacper, a priest, also tried to preserve the independence of their homeland, serving as a Secretary of State in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in its last years, 1790-95. Once most of Lithuania was absorbed into the Russian Empire, however, Prince Romuald was reconciled (it appears) with the new government, and retired as a Lieutenant-General in the army of the new client state, a reformed ‘Kingdom of Poland’. His son, Józef Stefan, however, was not: he too had served in the Grande Armée, and continued to serve in Napoleon’s armies, promoted to Brigadier-General on the fields of Waterloo in 1815. He remained in France after the war, was naturalised in 1835, and died there in 1855.
It is in Prince Romuald’s daughters that we find the first women of great interest in this story. Both were known as writers and supporters of the Polish cause for liberty. The elder, Kunegunda, had served briefly as a lady-in-waiting to the Empress Elisabeth (the wife of Alexander I) in Russia, then transferred to Empress Josephine in France. She spent the rest of her long life in Paris, publishing books, but also pamphlets in support of, for example, the November Uprising of 1830. Her sister, Princess Lucia (or Łucja), moved to France a bit later, in 1836, and also became known for her novels, but returned to Poland in the 1840s, and became known as a travel writer. Both were part of the great fascination seen in Western Europe, and France in particular, for Polish music, art and fashion.
In Lithuania, the family of Prince Romuald had lived at a prominent estate, Bobcin (or Bobtyna), in a village now known as Žemaitkiemis, near Lithuania’s second capital, Kaunas. Originally a 16th-century manor house, it was acquired and aggrandised by the Giedraitis / Giedroyć family in the late eighteenth century, then sold once they were mostly living in exile in the 1830s.
But not all members of this branch were in exile: the youngest son of Prince Romuald, Alexander, became a chamberlain at the Imperial court in Russia. His son, and other cousins living in the Russian Empire, had their princely rank and titles formally confirmed by the Tsar in 1866. This main line became extinct in 1899.
One cousin, Prince Szymon Tadeusz, from a junior line, continued the family tradition of serving as Bishop of Samogitia (north-western Lithuania), from 1838 to 1844. His branch of the family ended up emigrating to Belgium after the Russian Revolution of 1917 and took the form of the name ‘Guédroïtz’. Prince Alexis was a prominent professor of Russian literature in Brussels and published translations of most of the great Russian classic plays, from Pushkin to Chekhov to Dostoevsky. His daughter Ania Guédroïtz (b. 1949) is a Belgian theatre actress.
The next line of this branch were also mostly in Russian service, but not entirely. Two cousins, Witold and Mikołaj, took part in a Polish anti-Russian conspiracy in 1863, and thus were excluded from the general confirmation of princely titles in 1866; the latter, who had been governor of the Vilnius region, was sent to prison. A century later, several members of this branch were deported to prisons in the Soviet Union in the 1940s and from there emigrated to the UK or Canada where many of them currently reside.
A final member of this senior branch (that of Prince Alexander) worth noting before moving on to the junior branch, is Jerzy Giedroyć (1906-2000) who had been a journalist and political activist in Poland before the Second World War, then emigrated to Paris where he founded a literary salon and a journal, Kultura, for Polish émigrés. His political ideas were to encourage exiled Poles, and the emerging European Union more generally, to accept the post-war boundaries of Poland and to foster reconciliation amongst all the states of Eastern Europe with an ultimate goal of coaxing an independent Belarus and Ukraine out of the Soviet Union. These ideas suddenly feel quite topical again. There is a Jerzy Giedroyć Square in Warsaw, located near the Łazienki Palace.
The second major branch of the family, that of Prince Bartholomew (Baltramiejus in Lithuanian) was at first more prominent than the senior branch. Bartholomew’s son, Matas (or Mathias) was sent as an envoy to Muscovy to make peace with Tsar Ivan the Terrible in 1551, then took up important posts as Governor of Vilnius and Marshal of the Court of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. When he died in 1562, his sons were all well placed: the eldest, Kaspar was a signatory of the Act of Union between Poland and Lithuania in 1569, and a Chamberlain of the court; Merhelis (of Melchior) was Bishop of Samogitia from 1576; and Marcin was Voivode (or governor) of the sensitive frontier province of Mstislav (now eastern Belarus) and a commander in the ongoing wars against Muscovy. Of these brothers, Merhelis left the most enduring historical legacy, as a champion of Lithuanian language and culture, sponsoring some of the first books printed in that language (religious and historical), and in supporting the reforms of the Catholic Church following the Council of Trent—building new seminaries, schools, etc.
The line continued through descendants of Prince Kaspar. This branch, like the senior branch, then split into many, many sub-lineages. The main line, who resided at the manor of Aviliai in northern Lithuania (Owile in Polish), but became Polonised over the centuries and were more based in Warsaw. In the early 20th century, the head of this branch, Prince Franciszek Ignacy, became a celebrated historian of medicine, professor at the University of Warsaw from 1920, and was instrumental in setting up the new public health service in a newly independent Republic of Poland after 1918.
In a parallel branch at about the same time, Princess Vera Gedroits made a name for herself as well in medicine, but in Imperial Russia. The daughter of Prince Ignacy who had moved to Russia following the failed Polish uprising of 1863 (and had his princely title confirmed by the Tsar in 1878), Vera (or Wiera) wrote later that she had been inspired to study medicine by her brother Sergei’s early death as a child (and in fact used her brother’s name sometimes as her pen name). She led a truly fascinating life: it is fairly well established that she was a lesbian and arranged a marriage of convenience with a family friend to enable her to study abroad, which she did, in Lausanne. Back in Russia, she gained experience as a surgeon in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, and received high honours, then was invited to work as a surgeon in the hospital at the Imperial residence at Tsarskoe Selo in 1909. When the First World War broke out, Princess Vera helped the Empress Alexandra establish her role as a nurse (and it is said, tried to speak reason to her to mitigate the damage being done by her blind faith in the faith-healer/conjurer Rasputin). After the war she became professor of medicine at the Kiev Medical Institute, where she was known as a pioneer in the area of abdominal surgery, and (so notes her online biography), lived fairly openly as part of a married couple with Countess Maria Nirod, a former maid of honour of the Empress and one of the nurses she had trained back at the Imperial court. She died in 1932 in Kiev (Kyiv).
Many other members of this Russian branch served in the Imperial armies and then emigrated during the Revolution. One, Prince Nikolai, moved to China and became an advisor to Chiang Kai-shek, head of the Nationalist Government. Another settled in Gdansk in Poland and another in Leeds in the UK. Still another moved to New Jersey in the early 20th century, and it is I believe (but can’t seem to confirm) this branch that produced the American actor from 1990s TV shows, Jason Gedrick, born in 1965 in Chicago.
Returning to the Aviliai (Owile) branch, the line of Prince Jerzy (b. 1742) stayed in Poland and Lithuania in the nineteenth century. One of his descendants was Prince Tadeusz, born in Aviliai (then in the Russian Empire), and later owner of the Łobzów estate and manor house (now Labzova in western Belarus), which he inherited in the 1920s from aristocratic Polish relatives. After training with the Imperial army, after the First World War he helped establish border relations for the new Polish Republic and its neighbours in Ukraine and Lithuania. In the 1930s, Tadeusz worked in various administrative posts in the region of Łobzów which was by then eastern Poland, and in 1938 became a Senator of the Republic. Following the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland in 1939, he was arrested, imprisoned and tortured, and eventually executed in June 1941. His wife Anna and their three children were held in a Gulag in Western Siberia for two years until they escaped to Persia in 1942, and then made their way to the United Kingdom in 1947.
The youngest of these three children was Michal Jan Giedroyć, or Michael, who was 18 at the time of this dramatic escape in 1947. He went on to study in a British university then became an aircraft engineer and designer. Later in life he re-ignited his interest in family history and the history of medieval Lithuania, and after the re-emergence of Lithuania as an independent state in the 1990s, Michael worked to help reconstruct some of its historical monuments, including some of the Giedraitis churches and manors, notably the monastery at Videniškiai and the archaeological remains of Baltadvaris Castle. He and his English wife had four children, including one son, Michael, and three daughters: Kasia, a children’s book author and wife of former UK ambassador to the UN Philip Parham; Coky, a director of loads of British television shows (and now married to a baronet, so technically Lady Bowyer-Smyth); and Mel, the comedian and presenter with whom this post began. For a woman who is often presented as quintessentially English, she has a lot of fascinating non-English family history behind her.
(images mostly Wikimedia Commons)