His extreme impecuniosity made him from the first subservient to the Polish senate and nobles (szlachta), who deprived him of the control of the mint - then one of the most lucrative sources of revenue of the Polish kings - curtailed his prerogative, and generally endeavoured to reduce him to a subordinate position.
Still spoke of the reunion of Lithuania with Poland under constitutional forms. But the project lapsed because already then any measure of self-government by extending the power of the Polish" szlachta "(land-owning noble class) in Lithuania menaced Russia's influence in that country which strategically rounded off her north-western frontier.
External pressure, here as elsewhere, created a patriotic military caste, and the subsequent partitional period, when every little prince had his own separate court, still further established the growing influence of the szlachta, or gentry, who were not backward in claiming and obtaining special privileges in return for their services.
Suffice it here to say that it was both antimonarchical and anti-democratic, tending, as it did, to place all political authority in the hands of the szlachta, or gentry.
Matters improved somewhat in 1527, when the szlachta, by a special act, placed the mightiest magnates on the same level as the humblest squire as regards military service, and proposed at the same time a more general assessment for the purpose, the control of the money so realized to be placed in the hands of the king.
But though the treasury was thus temporarily replenished and the army increased, the gentry who had been so generous at the expense of their richer neighbours would hear of no additional burdens being laid on themselves, and the king only obtained what he wanted by sacrificing his principles to his necessities, and helping the szlachta to pull down the magnates.
All the .more disquieting was the internal condition of the country, due mainly to the invasion of Poland by the Reformation, and the coincidence of this invasion with an internal revolution of a quasi-democratic character, which aimed at substituting the rule of the szlachta for the rule of the senate.
Any opponent of the established clergy was the natural ally of the szlachta, and the scandalous state of the Church herself provided them with a most formidable weapon against her.
Finally the poorer clergy, neglected by their bishops, and excluded from all preferment, took part with the szlachta against their own spiritual rulers and eagerly devoured and imparted to their flocks, in their own language, the contents of the religious tracts which reached them by divers ways from Goldberg and Konigsberg.
This at once led to an explosion, and at the diet of Piotrkow, 1J52, the szlachta accepted a proposition of the king, by way of compromise, that the jurisdiction of the clerical courts should be suspended for twelve months, on condition that the gentry continued to pay tithes as heretofore.
At the diet of Piotrkow, 1558-1559, the onslaught of the szlachta on the clergy was fiercer than ever, and they even demanded the exclusion of the bishops from the senate.
The king, however, perceiving a danger to the constitution in the violence of the szlachta, not only supported the bishops, but quashed a subsequent reiterated demand for a national synod.
At the diet of Piotrkow in 1562, indeed, the king's sore need of subsidies induced him, at the demand of the szlachta, to abolish altogether the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts in cases of heresy; but, on the other hand, at the diet of 1564 he accepted from Commendone the Tridentine decrees and issued an edict banishing all foreign, and especially Anti-trinitarian, heretics from the land.
The great obstacle in the way of this, the only true solution of the difficulty, was the opposition of the Lithuanian magnates, who feared to lose the absolute dominancy they possessed in the grand-duchy if they were merged in the szlachta of the kingdom.
The privileges conferred upon the magnates of which these councils were composed, especially upon the magnates of Little Poland, who brought the Jagiellos to the throne, directed their policy, and grew rich upon their liberality, revolted the less favoured szlachta, or gentry, who, towards the end of the 14th century, combined for mutual defence in their sejmiki, or local diets, of which originally there were five, three in Great Poland, one in Little Poland and one in Posen-Kalisz.'
Thus at the diet of Brzesc Kujawski, in 1425, the szlachta obtained its first habeas corpus act in return for acknowledging the right of the infant krolewicz Wladislaus to his father's throne.
The great opportunity of the szlachta was, of course, the election of a new king, especially the election of a minor, an event always accompanied and succeeded by disorders.
Were freely exploited by the szlachta, who granted that ever impecunious monarch as little as possible, but got full value for every penny they grudgingly gave.
But to this the magnates and the szlachta were equally opposed, the former because they feared the rivalry of a national assembly, the latter because they were of more importance in their local diets than they could possibly hope to be in a I The Red Russian sejmik was of later origin, c. 1433.
Thus one statute permitted the szlachta henceforth to export and import goods duty free, to the great detriment of the towns and the treasury.
(1 53 o - 1 54 8) the political influence of the szlachta grew rapidly at the expense of the executive, and the gentry in diet assembled succeeded in curtailing the functions of all the great officers of state.
In Poland proper the szlachta were fiercely opposed to the magnates; and the Protestants seemed bent upon still further castigating the clergy.
The primate, on hearing of the demise of the Crown, at once invited all the senators of Great Poland to a conference at Lowicz, but passed over the szlachta altogether.
In Poland the bishops and most of the Catholic magnates were for an Austrian archduke, while the strongly anti-German szlachta were inclined to accept almost any candidate but a German, so long as he came with a gift in his hand and was not a Muscovite.
Well provided with funds, he speedily bought over many of the leading magnates, and his popularity reached its height when he strenuously advocated the adoption of the mode of election by the gentry en masse (which the szlachta proposed to revive), as opposed to the usual and more orderly "secret election" by a congress of senators and deputies, sitting with closed doors.
He was not to lead the militia across the border except with the consent of the szlachta, and then only for three months at a time.
Eighteen months later (Dec. 14, 1575), mainly through the influence of Jan Zamoyski, Stephen Bathory, prince of Transylvania, was elected king of Poland by the szlachta in opposition to the emperor Maximilian, who had been elected two days previously by the senate, after disturbances which would have rent any other state but Poland to pieces.
When we turn to the szlachta who absolutely controlled the diet, we find not the slightest trace, I will not say of political foresight - that they never possessed - but of common patriotism, or ordinary public spirit.
This champion of freedom was very eloquent as to the wrongs of the szlachta, and proposed that the assembly should proceed in a body to Warsaw and there formally renounce their allegiance.
The upshot of his oratory was the summoning of a rokosz, or national insurrection, to Sandomir, which was speedily joined by the majority of the szlachta all over the country, who openly proclaimed their intention of dethroning the king and chastising the senate, and sent Stadnicki to Transylvania to obtain the armed assistance of Stephen Bocskay.
Civil war seemed inevitable, when the szlachta of Red Russia and Sieradz suddenly rallied to the king, who at once ordered his army to advance, and after defeating the insurrectionists at Janowiec (in October), granted them a full pardon, on the sole condition that they should refrain from all such acts of rebellion in future.
And his son Sigismund Augustus, Tarnowski took the royal side during the so-called Kokosza wojna, or Poultry War, of 1537 and also in 1548 when the turbulent szlachta tried to annul by force the marriage of Sigismund Augustus with Barbara Radziwill.
Then he conceived the idea of using the Cossacks, who were deeply attached to him, as a means of chastising the szlachta, and at the same time forcing a war with Turkey, which would make his military genius indispensable to the republic, and enable him if successful to carry out domestic reforms by force of arms. His chief confidant in this still mysterious affair was the veteran grand hetman of the crown, Stanislaw Koniecpolski, who understood the Cossacks better than any man then living, but differed from the king in preferring the conquest of the Crimea to an open war with Turkey.
Thus, at his last diet, held at Piotrkow, in 1547, Lupa Podlodowski, the champion of the szlachta, o p enly threatened him with rebellion.
As a man of education and refinement, fond of music, the fine arts, and polite literature, he was unintelligible to the szlachta, who regarded all artists and poets as either mechanics or adventurers.
At the very beginning of his reign he came into collision with the turbulent szlachta or gentry, who had already begun to oust the great families from power.
He saw the invasion of Poland by the Reformation, and the democratic upheaval which placed all political power in the hands of the szlachta; he saw the collapse of the ancient order of the Knights of the Sword in the north (which led to the acquisition of Livonia by the republic) and the consolidation of the Turkish power in the south.
The loss of revenue consequent upon the secession of Lithuania placed John Albert at the mercy of the Polish Sejmiki or local diets, where the szlachta, or country gentry, made their subsidies dependent upon the king's subservience.
The insubordination of the szlachta seems to have been one cause of this disgraceful collapse, for John Albert confiscated hundreds of their estates after his return; in spite of which, to the end of his life he retained his extraordinary popularity.
He promised never to declare war or levy troops without the consent of the sejm, undertook to fill all vacancies within a certain time, and released the szlachta from the payment of income-tax, their one remaining fiscal obligation.
We have already seen how the ambition of the oligarchs and the lawlessness of the szlachta had reduced the executive to impotence, and rendered anything like rational government impossible.
To do them justice, the szlachta at first were not only free from the taint of official corruption, but endeavoured to fight against it.