Polish Heraldry and Nobility: An Introduction
Polish heraldry is unique in that it follows none of the laid down rules observed by the western herald. The bend , bar, pale, etc 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 honour". 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 honour" - 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. "Grey Nobility". (Knights of 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 defense 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 Empress Helena.
Within the Polish nobility ennoblement was bestowed upon an individual for bravery on the field of battle. Once ennobled the coat of arms bestowed upon the knight became hereditary to all descendents, both legitimate males and lineal females (that is unmarried daughters). Polish arms were seldom quartered or labelled with marks of cadency as all members of an extended family carried the exact same arms and were considered closer than brothers. The degree of actual kinship within this clan (rod) had little effect on this bond. A Polish nobleman carried a "linked" surname, that is, he carried a surname hyphenated with a coat of arms name. In my own case, SUBRITZKY-KUSZA, (Subritzky is my surname and Kusza is my coat of arms name). The coat of arms name was either the name of the actual charge on the shield, or the family's battle cry. In heraldry, coats of arms such as these are referred to as "proclamatio" arms (the old Latin word for battle cry).
As regards titles, the ancient Polish code of chivalry prevented the introduction of orders or the bearing of titles which would have created an organisation 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 principals of equality amongst peers. In olden times actual nobility was reflected in the suffix tagged to the end of the 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 12 August, 1683 King Sobieski rode to 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 in the 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 foot hole in Europe beginning to crumble. Kara Mustapha, the visor who had commanded the Turks was summoned to Constantinople by Prince Mahomet IV. As was the custom with defeated Muslim commanders he was strangled with a silken cord. His head was 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 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 veto) 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 20th century the torch light of Polish nobility is kept aflame by the efforts of the Polish Nobility Association which has been established since the uprisings of the 1830's. The Polish Nobility Association is under the Hetmanship of the Princes Chylinski-Polubinski, Poland's most ancient Princely family. And as well by the very many Polish noble families spread throughout the world who have stayed in touch with their roots and proudly retained an awareness of the esteemed class from which they have descended and an identity with their aristocratic forebears through the retention of a noble surname and linked coat of arms.
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 Zginela, poki my zyjemy"...Poland is not yet lost as long as we are alive !
For more information on the Polish Nobility Association, please feel free to contact the author at: firstname.lastname@example.org
About the author: Captain Michael Subritzky-Count Kusza, a descendent of Jan Sobieski is a noted New Zealand author who has written on a wide variety of subjects involving Polish history and New Zealand history. A retired professional soldier he has been decorated by the people of four different countries. Very recently he received the American Vietnam Veterans Distinguished Service medal for his book "The Vietnam Scrapbook" and was made an Honourary member of the American Vietnam Veterans Association. He is a member of the Old Polish nobility and is the New Zealand Ambassador for the following organisations:
The Polish Nobility Association
The Lithuanian Royal Nobility Association
The Barons of Lithuania
The Russian College of Heraldry
The Order of Saint Stanislas
The Imperial House of von Hohenstaufen
The Princes Chylinski-Polubinski
Copyright © 1997 Michael Subritzky-Kusza. All rights reserved. Used by permission.