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‘A Coronation That Did Not Happen: Grand Duke Vytautas, Insignia, and Diplomacy’: Sergey Polekhov at ‘The Symbolic Middle Ages’ Seminar

A report by Anastasiya Ermolaeva

On 14 November 2018, Sergey Polekhov (Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Russian History, Russian Academy of Sciences) presented a paper entitled ‘A Coronation That Did Not Happen: Grand Duke Vytautas, Insignia, and Diplomacy’ at the Centre for Medieval History’s seminar ‘The Symbolic Middle Ages’.

In his paper, Polekhov first focused on the events of 1386 when Jadwiga (aged 12), a daughter of Polish King Louis the Great, married Jogaila, Grand Duke of Lithuania. Jogaila was baptised according to the Catholic rite (he took the name Wladislaw) and obtained the right to the Polish throne. Concentrating on the Kingdom of Poland, Jogaila confirmed his cousin Vytautas’ claim to his ‘patrimony’ – the Duchy of Trakai – in 1392. Within a few years, Vytautas in fact reclaimed the title and rights of the Grand Duke of Lithuania, which was soon acknowledged by Jogaila. The political independence of Vytautas only continued to grow; for example, in 1422 he concluded the Treaty of Melno with the Teutonic Order, while simultaneously improving his relations with Sigismund of Luxemburg, the King of the Romans and Hungary. Vytautas’ influence was also growing in the Russian lands. After the death of Basil I in 1425 he acted as the guarantor of Basil II’s rights to the throne, since he added his two seals to Basil I’s will. Also, in 1426 and 1428, he led military expeditions against Pskov and Novgorod.

In spite of reaching the summit of his glory in the 1420s, Vytautas formally remained Jogaila’s vassal, since, according to the Union of Horodło in 1413, Lithuania was subjugated to the Crown of Poland. At that time, Jogaila’s position in Poland was very weak: his wife Jadwiga had died in 1399 and after that the Polish nobility only reluctantly accepted Jogaila’s rights to the Polish throne (which he received as a result of his marriage to Jadwiga). In the 1420s, after the birth of Jogaila’s sons from his fourth marriage, the Polish nobility was also reluctant to acknowledge their right to inherit the Polish throne.

In 1429, the Congress of European monarchs, initiated by Sigismund of Luxemburg, took place in Lutsk. The Congress was supposed to discuss various political and economic issues, but the central event was Sigismund’s proposal to crown Vytautas as the King of Poland. Vytautas’s coronation would have given Sigismund a powerful ally against the Turks and the Hussites. Initially, Jogaila agreed to Vytautas’ coronation, but later the Polish aristocracy forced him to change his decision, which led to the deterioration of the relations between Jogaila and Vytautas. In nineteenth-century Polish historiography the period after the Congress of Lutsk was called ‘the coronation tempest’.

The key object in the coronation rite was the crown itself. In spite of that, the fate of the crowns, designated for Vytautas and his wife Uliana, remained obscure and has barely been studied. It is known that approximately six months after the Congress Sigismund wrote to Vytautas to let him know that the crowns were ready and would soon be sent to Lithuania. A document, related to the upcoming coronation, mentions that one of the crowns belonged to Emperor Henry IV (it is possible that there is an error in the manuscript and, in fact, the crown belonged to Henry VII), and the other, less significant and probably designated for Uliana, – to King Rupert. Also, from the financial documents preserved in Nuremberg, it is known that one of the crowns (most probably, the one that belonged to Henry) was richly decorated with gemstones (50 rubies, 56 sapphires, emeralds and pearls). At the same time, the Order’s envoy at Sigismund’s court mentioned two crowns, worth 50, 000 guilders. In spite of that detailed description of the crown’s gemstones, it is rather difficult to imagine how it looked like, since there is no documentation of its appearance, size or shape.

During the whole process of the preparations for the coronation, there was an ongoing argument about the legitimacy of Vytautas’ right to the crown. For example, the Polish envoys at the Diet of Nuremberg in 1430 were trying to prove that Sigismund did not have the right to crown Vytautas, while Sigismund insisted that the coronation was possible even without the pope’s sanction.

According to several sources, in the summer of 1430, not long before the planned coronation ceremony, two diplomatic missions were sent to Poland: the first mission being to bring the documents related to the upcoming coronation and confirming Vytautas’ rights to the crown, the second – the crowns themselves. The missions were supposed to travel through the New March, held by the Teutonic Order. But the Order’s Grand Master Paul von Rusdorf, contrary to Vytautas’ (exaggerated) expectations, did not provide a secure passage. The first mission was stopped by the knights from Greater Poland (most probably, sent by Jogaila himself), who seized all the documents and then sent the envoys to Prussia, whence they set out for Lithuania, empty-handed. The second mission, after learning the fate of the first one, stopped and later returned to Nuremberg. It is likely that Sigismund preferred to use that dangerous route because it was quicker than a safer but longer route via Moldavia, which confirms his wish to crown Vytautas as soon as possible.

Vytautas only learned at the coronation congress itself that the coronation was not going to happen. He sent a letter to Sigismund, but the latter did not have time to reply, because on 27 October 1430 Vytautas died, aged 80, after falling from a horse. Švitrigaila became the Grand Duke and, without understanding the delicacy of the moment, dispatched what were almost demands for the Polish crown to Sigismund. But Sigismund, without rejecting his request openly, never granted the crown to Vytautas’ successor. It is known that the King of the Romans, who desperately needed money, pawned the crown several times. The subsequent fate of the crown remains unknown.

Anastasiya Ermolaeva