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450th Anniversary of the Union of Lublin

In 2019 we celebrate the 450th anniversary of the Union of Lublin. The Union Sejm in Lublin, which sat from January to August 1569, took the decisions to form Commonwealth of Two Peoples (Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) and shaped the geopolitical structure of Central-Eastern Europe for a whole epoch to come. This outcome was the fruit of several important initiatives passed at the state level. First and foremost, on 1 July 1569 the Polish-Lithuanian union was established, creating a new state – the Commonwealth of Two Peoples – without abolishing the existing Crown of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The newly established structure was a federation with a common elective monarch, common Sejm and common foreign policy. Both constituent parts, however, retained their own territories, offices, treasuries, official languages and judiciaries. Apart from the constituting entities, the new state included other areas with a certain degree of autonomy. The royal charters of 26 May and 6 June 1569 established the framework for the functioning of the Volhynia Province and the Duchy of Kiev, both detached from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and annexed to (“returned to” as the official nomenclature of the epoch would have it) to the Polish Crown. Both territories were granted identical rights to maintain separate judicial systems and their own official language (Ruthenian), both were guaranteed the privileged status of the Orthodox Church and an exemption from the reclamation of land belonging to the royal domain. This sowed a seed for the Commonwealth of three, not only two, nations, comprising the Poles, Lithuanians and Ruthenians. Another territory which was annexed to the Polish Crown while allowed to retain many regional particularities was Royal Prussia. The relevant royal decree was issued on 16 March 1569. Subregions of this province were to participate in the common Sejm of the Commonwealth but Prussia retained its autonomous judiciary system, a separate system of provincial legislature bodies (sejmiks) allowing in town representatives as members and German as an official language used in parallel to Polish. Moreover, the act of Sejm on the Livonia Province regulated the separate status of this territory, subjugating it to the Polish Crown and to Lithuania, which later on paved the way for specific solutions establishing there a similar kind of autonomy as the one enjoyed by Prussia.

King Sigismund-Augustus had a significant impact on the achievements of the Sejm in Lublin but the decisions concerning the union resulted primarily from the agreement reached between partners with diverse interests and worldviews. Polish nobility sought closer integration, Lithuanian nobility strived for broader independence, as Ruthenian and Prussian representatives protected their regional interests. However, they managed to negotiate compromise solutions which lay foundations for a functioning of an important state stabilizing the situation in Central-Eastern Europe. Its existence halted the expansion of the Grand Duchy of Moscow for another 200 years and incorporated a large area in this part of Europe into a state with a citizen and parliamentary culture, drawing its legitimacy from the idea of freedoms.

Henryk Litwin