Polish Nobility and Their Coat of Arms
Written and researched by Margaret Odrowaz-Sypniewski© 1998.

The word nobility comes from the Latin nobilis. Nobilis oblige meant "noble obligation." While nobles in the United Kingdom are called peerage, because they are the peers (or equals) of the royalty. Nobles were traditionally thought to have exalted moral excellence, a person of noble birth and fiber. Poles of noble birth were called magnanimous, meaning generous, high minded, and noble, in church records or magnifico, meaning a person of high rank or importence. They were thought to be generous in mind and soul.

In Poland, where the noble tribe, meaning an aggregate of people united in common ancestry. intermarriage, or allegience; was the essential unit of society, the old tribal symbols were adapted to fit the heraldic shield. One shield of arms were used by the entire tribe.

The origins of the Polish Nobility are clouded in mystery. Most noblemen, in Poland and Lithuania, claimed only to belong to the szlachta odwieczna, meaning that knowledge of their origin had been lost, through time, wars, and travel to other lands (Davis, 207).

Medal of the Order of the White Eagle

The Polish White Eagle has been borne on seals since the reign of Boleslaw V (1227-1279). The white eagle is the most famous and enduring symbol in Europe. In 1386, the neighboring states of Poland and Lithuania were joined through the marriage of the daughter of the last Polish King of the Piast dynasty to Grand Duke Jagiellon of Lithuania. The Polish arms (a white eagle on a red field) were afterwards quartered with Lithuania's charging knight.

Szlachta (shlįkh-ta) comes from the Old German slahta that is now schlagen ("to strike, fight, cleave, breed") and Geschlecht ("sex, species, family race"). It came from the Polish language via a Czech word slehta (nobility). In fact, many Polish words came from Czech words. The szlachta were a blend of "high birth" and "military prowess" (Davis, 207). Szlachta was the highest estate of the gentry. They were obligated to perform military service, but they were independent magistrates over their own land.

Titles such as count or baron were forbidden to Poles. Only after the partition of Poland, by its neighbors, in the 18th and 19th centuries, did Poland take foreign titles.

Moravian Coat of Arms

The Prussian Coat of Arms

By the 1500's the szlachta included Lithuanian and Ruthenian boyars, Prussian and Baltic gentry of German origin, as well as Tartars (Tatars) and some Moldavians, Armenians, Italians, Magyars, and Bohemians (Zamoyski, 92).

Castellans (Kasztelan) had power over royal castles. They exercised judical, administrative and military authority on the king's behalf. Hundreds of Castellans were established, in Poland, by 1250. Later on they were superseded by the ministers of the individual dukes called Palatines or wojewodas.

The szlachta had to provide troops to fight various Polish wars. In the 1500's twenty percent of the entire revenue of states was spent on armament and warfare. Nobles in the 1500's, were barred from indulging in trade, because of the lobby of the merchant class. In 1578, the Polish Seym took the power to ennoble, or elevate in rank, dignity, or worth, from the king to their own ranks. The king could still grant arms for prowess meaning valor or great skill, on the battlefield. In 1611, lower classes were not allowed to buy landed estates. However, this law was difficult to inforce.

Nobles were often not happy with their burden of armies. It was costly, so they saw to it that they and they alone had voting rights on these matters. Maintaining private armies was one reason nobles became impoverished, made indigent, poor, or needy. The other was the old practice of dividing their lands equally between their sons and daughters. Those with large families has their money go fast. Later on, they adopted the European habit of leaving their wealth to their first born son only. The other sons and daughters would then have to make their own way in the world by entering the monkhood or nunneries or becoming career soldiers.

More than any other nation, Poland has maintained a heraldic "apartness."

In the fifteenth century, there were 139 clans. In 1584, there were 107 clans, and today there are several hundred* (209). Original Polish heraldry had been cut out of metal, so most charges are gold or silver. The fields of most shields are mostly red or blue. Green and purple are virtually unknown. No heraldic furs were used in archaic Polish shields.

*Statistics can often times be confusing: On the whole, Polish Heraldry may seem simple and relatively poor in its design. Its rules were much less rigid than the rules developed in Western Europe. Without the maintenance of an institution of heralds, which disappeared during the 15th century, without heraldic visitations (conformations or structure), and the disintegration (falling apart) of the clan system in the 16th century it [The Polish Heraldry System] degenerated. The old Polish terminology was eventually forgotten and foreign influences were introduced without control.

As a result of the tribal system, which influenced all the countries of the Polish Commonwealth, the nobility, now consists of more than forty thousand families who use about seven thousand different arms, including those [coat of arms] of Western origin. A second result of this system was that homonymous families, with surnames derived from estates with identical names, bear different arms depending upon the clan to which they belong(Klec-Pilewski, 17).

In the beginning, members of the same clan were neighbors and fought together in battle. As people moved around, of course, the clans were located in all parts of Poland.

These clan banners were simple devices. Some think they might relate to the occult or Alchemical symbols or even Viking runes See the first two articles by Prof. Rafal Prinke on this subject, an interesting read. Each clan had one motto, which is an expression of one's guiding principles, (or "War cry") and one coat-of-arms that stayed much the same throughout the centuries. Blazoning, marshalling, quartering, and cadency were virtually unknown in ancient Polish coat of arms. However, as European influences took hold, modern coat of arms have evolved to include these. This change being a product of the mixing of the nations, each with their own set of heraldry rules. Only the purist, in modern times, would argue this concept of inevitable changes through multi-ethnicity.

There are many Polish, German, Lithuanian, and Russian armorials (and public records) that can help descendents discover their place in nobility. This requires an apt sense of how to do your genealogy, which is an all-consuming passion with most.

Related Links:

Back to Renobilization at Olesnica Castle, Poland Alchemy ..... Polish Nobility


Barnhart (editor), C.L. The American College Dictionary. New York: Random House, 1962.

Davies, Norman. God's Playground: A Hisotry of Poland. Volume I. New York: Columbua University Press, 1982.

Klec-Pilewski, Dr. Bernard J. A European Armorial. Pinches & Woods.

Zamoyski, Adam. The Polish Way. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1987.


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Last updated on August 2, 2006

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