Polish Heraldry and Nobility
A Brief Introduction
by Michael Subritzky-KuszaThe Grand Castellan
of the Order of Saint Stanislas

Polish heraldry is unique in that it follows none of the laid down rules observed by the western herald. The bend, bar, pale, etcetera were almost unknown in Polish heraldry. However, Polish arms often bore ancient "ciphers" as charges which are said to trace their origins back into the mists of time, to the tribal clans of old.

Knighthood in Western Europe was a development of the feudal system and as a general rule followed the code of knightly conduct known as chivalry. This system of fealty came into being around the time of Charlemagne and was spread by Frankish conquest to Northern Italy, Spain and Germany, and later in 1066, it was taken to England by the victorious Norman warlords of William the Conqueror. By the time feudal knighthood reached Poland in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century Poland had long since implemented her own system of both heraldry and nobility.

Poland possessed no "fountain of honor". The nobility was an exclusive class in which all members were considered equal. Membership into this elite group was attained through either "valorous deeds on the field of honor" - or by adoption. In Poland only the nobility were permitted to bear a coat of arms, )Herb Polski).

The King of Poland had no power to award letters patent, this privilege could only be granted by the "Diet" (Parliament of Nobles). The social structure of the nobility fell into four groups:

1. Magnates (wealthy landowners, "Krolewieta").
2. Village gentry of modest means. (Owned a village).
3. Small landowners. (Owned part of a village).
4. "Gray nobility". (Knights with little or no wealth).

In Polish nobility all knights (szlachta) were equal, all nobles were knights, and all knights were noble. The king having been elected for the term of his life was considered to be "The first among equals". The nobility ran parliament, ruled the nation and formed the vanguard of the nation's army. A coat of arms was exactly what the name implied - the symbol borne on a knight's surcoat and shield in defence of the fatherland.

A Polish knight may have had vast estates and carried his sword on a jewel encrusted belt, but he was only the equal of the poor knight who had his sword tied to his waist with a piece of rope and owned a few acres. At the "Diet" each nobleman had an equal speaking voice throughout the proceedings. Little regard was paid to wealth and money but bravery in battle was considered a paramount. The Poles held to the belief that noble birth was the guarantee of noble character and were forbidden to marry outside of their class. Blood was the assurance that the brave would produce the brave, the valiant would produce the valiant and therefore the highest aristocratic values and traditions of the Commonwealth of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania would always be maintained.

Unlike western knights the Polish knight swore no fealty to an overlord but regarded himself rather as the defender of the Commonwealth, its people, and also Christendom. The Patron Saint of many Polish knights was the Madonna of Czestochowa, a sacred painting housed in a monastery on Jasna Gora (Bright Mountain). It was thought at one time to have been painted in Nazareth by Saint Luke and later taken from Jerusalem to Byzantium by the Empress Helena.

In regard to titles, the ancient Polish code of chivalry prevented the introduction of orders or the bearing of titles which would have created an organization of precedence among the aristocracy. The majority of Polish titles, such as Prince, Duke, Marquis and Baron, are foreign in origin, being either German, Russian, Maltese or Papal - the old nobility zealously guarded the principles of equality amongst peers. In olden times actual nobility was reflected in the suffix tagged to the end of a surname: cki or ski, which equated to the Germanic von, the French de, and the English "of", denoting ownership of that particular village, farm or homestead. In more recent times members of the old nobility have adopted the usage of the title Chevalier (Knight) or Count (King's Companion) as an indication of membership into this ancient and elite caste.

The most famous of all Polish knights must surely be King Jan III Sobieski, 1629-1696. Sobieski was an elected king, (Polish kings were elected from amongst the nobility after the extinction of the Jagellonian dynasty in 1572). During Sobieski's reign Poland became a European superpower stretching the borders of its Commonwealth from "The Baltic to the Black Sea". The hour of Poland's greatest triumph was the battle for the relief of Vienna, when on the 12th August, 1683 King Sobieski rode at the head of a rag-tag army of 70,000 Poles against the Muslim forces of Kara Mustapha. The body count for the battle of Vienna was enormous and the Muslim army lost more than 10,000 men. They lay in heaps of dust for miles around. Polish losses were put as low as several hundred but the more accepted figure was approximately 2,000. The great army of Islam, having been soundly defeated, found their foothold in Europe beginning to crumble. Kara Mustapha, the viser who had commanded the Turks, was summoned to Constantinople by Prince Mahomet IV. As was the custom for defeated Muslim commanders he was strangled with a silken cord. His head was then removed and stuck on a spike at the gates of the Seraglio.

King Sobieski's lifetime reflected the most romantic period in the history of the Polish nobility, "The Golden Age". After his death the Polish Commonwealth was gradually broken up and destroyed via a series of partitions, which were to see the removal of Poland from the map of Europe for 123 years (1795-1918). The weakening of the Polish Commonwealth was to a certain extent due to the "liberum veto" (the free vote) in which any single Polish knight had it within his power to dissolve the proceedings of the Polish parliament. By the time the system of liberum veto had been amended enough to give the upper house of the Polish Senate more power it was too late, for Poland and history ran its foreordained destiny.

In the 1990's the torch light of Polish nobility is kept aflame by the efforts of the Polish Nobility Association (currently based in the United States), and by many Polish noble families spread throughout the world who have stayed in touch with their roots and proudly retained awareness of the esteemed class from which they have descended and an identity with their aristocratic forbears through the retention of a noble surname and linked coat of arms.

In regard to the Order of Saint Eugene and Polish chivalry, there is much a common bond of kinship over many generations. Those of the Polish noble surname Lascarinski and Lascarisow are in actuality direct descendants of Princess Eudoxia Lascorz, of the senior female line of the Imperial House of Lascaris.

Demetrius, (son of Erasmus I Lascaris and his wife Maria Lanti) married into the powerful Polish-Lithuanian family of Jagellon, his wife being Kasimira Jagellon. Two descendants of this family were to become Grand Masters of the famous Order of Malta.

Yet another branch of the Lascaris family became notable in Polish history. Albert George Lascaris married Victoria, the Countess of San Martini, and settled in Poland in the eighteenth century. Jerzy Lascaris was a famous Polish poet who took part in the struggles for Poland and was prominent in the revolution of 1863. History records that this branch of the ancient and illustrious family of Lascaris-Commenus was exterminated by the Bolshevik army at Lonza.

Perhaps a fitting way to end this paper on Polish heraldry and nobility is to quote the first line of a verse from the old Polish Legions which was later to become the national anthem of the Polish nation, "Jeszcze Polska nie zgineta, poki my zyjemy"…Poland is not yet lost as long as we are alive!

Sources: History of Poland - J. Topolski
Polish Knighthood - Chev. F. Leski-Holewinski, KM, KGCHS
Heraldry of the World - C. von Volborth
The Subritzky Legend - M. Subritzky-Kusza Ct.

The Grand Castellan of the Order of Saint Stanislas|">New Zealand Grand Priory

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