By Monte, Richard
History Today , Vol. 52, No. 4
IN THE MIDDLE OF THE sixteenth century Poland was a wealthy country governed by the Jagiellon Kings, whose riches had been built upon a monopoly of the Baltic Sea trade around Gdansk. By the end of the eighteenth century, Russia, Prussia and Austria had divided the country between them and Poland was wiped off the map for 123 years. How could such a prosperous and powerful country disappear so easily? The answer appears to lie within the Polish system of government itself. The weakened Royal Republic with its emphasis on freedom and liberty, which was established when the Jagiellon dynasty ended, ironically led to its own downfall.
The abolition of the hereditary monarchy placed the election of the king in the hands of the nobles. If no Polish heir to the throne was available, foreigners were eligible to stand. The land-hungry Swedes to the north eyed the wealthy republic greedily. In the tradition of the Vikings they set out to pillage and loot and bring back this wealth for themselves. After suffering several devastating defeats at the hands of the Swedes, including a period of five years, 1655-60, known as `the Deluge', Poland was severely weakened and could offer little resistance to the combined power of Russia, Prussia and Austria.
The current exhibition at the Warsaw Royal Castle examines Poland's relations with Sweden between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, and in particular looks at the treasures which were stolen from the Poles and taken to Sweden, where they have remained for over 300 years. Many of the objects on display have never been back to Poland until now. The title of the exhibition -- `The Eagle and Three Crowns' -- is taken from the eagle that appears upon the Polish coat of arms and the three crowns that appear on the Swedish one. On display are around 400 objects (over a hundred from Swedish collections), including the equestrian portrait of Zygmunt III by the workshop of Rubens (1624), `Gustavus II Adolphus in Polish Dress', by Matthaus Merian the Elder, a suit of armour for horse and man from the Nuremberg workshop of Kunz Lochner, made in the 1550s from steel and covered in white and black enamel, the Royal Banner of Zygmunt III and the Stockholm Roll, a painting over fifteen metres long, by an unknown painter, which depicts Zygmunt III's entry into Krakow in 1605. Also on show are many examples of firearms, drawings, engravings and medals, documenting relations with Sweden over 200 years. Most of the objects come from the Swedish collections of the Gripsholm Castle, the Royal Armoury, Uppsala University and Skokloster Castle.
The exhibition examines how the small but proficient and well-equipped Swedish army -- strengthened under the leadership of Gustavus Adolphus and inspired by a desire that war ought to make Sweden rich, as well as victorious -- easily overcame the disorganised, poorly armed and weak-spirited Polish army. With the use of paid mercenaries from Germany, Finland and Scotland, and a strong fleet, the Swedes were able to conduct raids and escape quickly with their loot. …