Stephen Báthory Becomes King of Poland

Stephen Báthory was one of the most eminent kings of Poland. He established new tribunal systems, reformed the taxes and army, led three victorious military operations against Muscovy, regained Polotsk, and strengthened Polish rule over Livonia.

Summary of Event

In 1575, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth[Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth] found itself in a difficult situation. For several months, the first elected king of Poland, Henry of Valois, was absent from Poland. He had fled in June of 1574, having learned about the death of his brother, Charles IX, king of France. Henry decided to claim the French crown. Perhaps he planned to secure both crowns, but he did not intend to stay in Poland. After a long dispute, the Polish gentry proclaimed an interregnum. Another election was organized. The Convocation Seym was assigned on October 3, 1575, in Warsaw. The election was to take place on November 7. Báthory, Stephen
Báthory, Anna
Ivan the Terrible
Zamoyski, Jan
Zborowski, Samuel
Henry III (king of France)
Maximilian II (Holy Roman Emperor)
John III (king of Sweden)
Anna (queen of Poland)
Ivan the Terrible;Poland
Zamoyski, Jan
Zborowski, Samuel
Podkova, Ivan
Stephen Báthory

The most important candidates were the emperor Maximilian II Habsburg, a rather indefinite Piast proposed by the gentry, and John III, king of Sweden (r. 1568-1592). The candidacy of Stephen Báthory, the voivode (prince) of Transylvania, was at first condemned. The pro-Habsburg party—mostly the senators, with the support of the primate—had proclaimed the emperor Maximilian king of Poland. Three days later the anti-Habsburg gentry elected the princess Anna and assigned Báthory as her husband. Both parties considered their choices the only valid ones. Báthory managed to reach Krakōw sooner. On May 1, 1576, he married Anna (then fifty-three years old; the marriage was a ceremonial and political union) and was crowned both king of Poland and great duke of Lithuania. The emperor Maximilian died the same year, in October. Báthory then became the only elected king.

Before Maximilian’s death, the inhabitants of Danzig had already refused to be subordinated to Báthory. The king therefore undertook a war, and soon he defeated the city’s divisions at the Vistual River port of Tczew (1577). Despite his military superiority, Báthory did not subordinate the town absolutely. He obtained the contributions necessary for the planned Muscovite war, but the town retained some autonomy. Báthory was forced to agree to a truce by the gentry, who were afraid of his energy and foresaw an absolute regime. In fact, the king was seeking to strengthen his power. He was trying to balance both the gentry and the magnates but was often in conflict with both. “Sum rex vester non fictus neque pictus” (“I am your vested king, not a fictitious or painted one”), he said at the Diet in Torun in 1576.

As he had been confirmed by oath (the pacta conventa) before his coronation, Stephen decided to regain Livonia, which was held by Ivan the Terrible. Intending to gain the support of the gentry, he relinquished part of his judicial power and established the Supreme Court of Appeals in 1578 for the Crown and in 1581 for Lithuania. Such a move set a precedent in Europe. Báthory could now create elite peasant infantry troops (the so-called Piechota Wybraniecka), reform the cavalry and secure tax revenues for his army, which as a result obtained better weapons, including firearms. Having formed an army of almost fifty thousand men, Stephen started his campaign.

In the summer of 1579, the military operation began. The first expedition of the Polish-Lithuanian army retook the Russian-held principality of Polotsk, which had been lost during Sigismund August’s reign. To retake Livonia, Báthory again had to secure tax revenues. The next year, after a ten-day siege, he took the Russian fortress of Wielkie Luki. With Ivan still refusing to return Livonia, Báthory in 1580 led a third expedition and reached Pskov. Despite the several months’ siege, Báthory managed merely to damage the walls, but the stronghold, perhaps the most powerful one in all the Grand Duchy of Muscovy, remained unconquered. However, Báthory’s forces were prevailing and the king managed to impose a truce. Concluded at Yam Zapolski in 1582, this peace directed that Russia return Livonia to Poland. Báthory’s forces were to withdraw from the captured Russian lands.

During the war with Muscovy, Jan Zamoyski—who in 1578 had been appointed grand chancellor of the Crown and thus one of the greatest dignitaries of the realm—was a distinguished strategist. In 1581, he became grand hetman (the supreme military commander). Keeping close to Báthory, he multiplied his fortune, rising from a representative of the middle gentry to become a great magnate. As a Humanist and lawyer educated in Paris, Rome, and Padua, he was responsible for the majority of Báthory’s decisions. Today historians argue about his role, sometimes accusing him of political errors, especially of a too concessive policy against Danzig. The fact is that he was Báthory’s most important policy adviser both at home and abroad and one of the most eminent statesmen of his time.

Báthory often confirmed his intention not to be a “painted” king, or king in name only. The case of Samuel Zborowski may be called in evidence. This man, who had mortally wounded a Polish noble, was banished by Poland’s previous king Henry of Valois; the incident had taken place during Henry’s coronation. Zborowski, hoping for the protection of his magnate family, soon returned from Transylvania, where he had been active as Báthory’s partisan. He had participated in the Muscovite war and then returned to Poland. There, with all his family, he took some steps against Báthory, provoking him with intrigues and threats. Finally Báthory, invoking the saying “A rabid dog, once killed, does not bite more,” permitted Zamoyski to capture and execute Zborowski. The decapitation of Zborowski took place in on May 26, 1584. This case—like the beheading in 1578 of Ivan Podkova, the hospodar-imposter of Moldavia—provoked several protests from the gentry, who called Báthory “the Hungarian tyrant.”

The most important of Báthory’s political campaigns was a planned war against Ottoman Turkey, which held sway over a part of the Hungarian state. Báthory’s homeland, Transylvania, was also subject to Turkish power. Báthory tried to persuade the gentry to secure new taxes for this campaign and strove to form an anti-Turkish league. Taxation;Poland Simultaneously, he planned a new expedition against Muscovy. However, the disappointment of the gentry with Báthory’s domestic policy was growing steadily, and discord in the Seym increased. The exasperated king’s health declined. Hoping for a recovery, he left for his beloved Grodno (now in Belarus), where he had commenced rebuilding the castle. There, he died on December 12, 1586. His sudden death caused several rumors about whether he had been poisoned. However, Báthory’s death was the result of uremia.


The ten years of Báthory’s rule were spent mostly in wars and military plans. Despite the panegyrics of Reinhold Heidenstein, the king’s biographer and chronicler of the Muscovite war, several historians have revealed weaknesses in Heidenstein’s account. Certainly Báthory, busy with wars, did not accomplish internal reforms and rather ignored the gentry, who defended their “golden liberty.” On the other hand, the king was an excellent commander and strategist to whom the Polish army owed its modern shape. His military campaigns also led to economic progress and improvements in the nation’s infrastructure: The king ordered the building of pontoon bridges, mints, and military hospitals.

Báthory’s wars demonstrated the military power of the Commonwealth. In the opinion of some historians, this power was almost exclusively Báthory’s achievement, and the Commonwealth, orphaned by him, plunged again into political chaos. The rule of Báthory, who supported the Counter-Reformation but at the same time respected religious toleration, was contrasted by the posterity with that of his successor.

Certainly Báthory’s legend was remembered best after the third partition of Poland in 1795, especially under Russian rule, when Báthory’s fight with Muscovy was particularly admired. The monumental painting by Jan Matejko (1838-1893) titled “Báthory at Pskov” is evidence of that latter-day veneration.

Further Reading

  • Butterwick, Richard, ed. The Polish-Lithuanian Monarchy in European Context, c. 1500-1795. New York: Palgrave, 2001. A collection of essays by various historians and scholars that together cast light on the phenomenon of the Polish-Lithuanian state. The essay by Jerzy Lukowski, “The Szlachta and the Monarchy: Reflections on the Struggle inter maiestatem ac libertatem,” is especially instructive as to the tensions between the gentry and Báthory.
  • Halecki, Oscar. Borderlands of Western Civilization: A History of Central-Western Europe. Edited by Andrew L. Simon. New York: Ronald Press, 1953. Examines the history of the Jagiellonian state from a political perspective in a large cultural and international context. The reader is guided through a labyrinth of sociopolitical dependencies and complications.
  • Jasienica, Paweł. The Commonwealth of Both Nations: The Silver Age. Translated by Alexander T. Jordan. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1987. Vivid historical narrative enriched with numerous anecdotes showing the great Polish-Lithuanian state under the rule of the elective kings.
  • Köpeczi, Béla, ed. History of Transylvania. Translated by Péter Szaffkó et al. Translation edited by Bennett Kovrig. 3 vols. Boulder, Colo.: Social Science Monographs, 2001-2002. Volume 1, “From the Beginnings to 1606,” provides excellent coverage of Báthory’s early career. Includes bibliographical references and indexes.
  • Payne, Robert, and Nikita Romanoff. Ivan the Terrible. New York: Crowell, 1975. Based on the source biography of the first czar of Russia, who was Báthory’s military enemy. The author relates the amazing facts of his life and career, including crimes and massacres with which he was associated. The minimal historical analysis in deference to biography makes this lengthy (five-hundred-page) work well suited to nonspecialists.

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