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Zofia Jagiellonka

Zofia Jagiellonka

Zofia Jagiellonka (1522-1575), Princess of Poland, was the second daughter of the Polish King Zygmunt the Old (1467-1548) and the Italian Princess Bona Sforza (1494-1557). Zofia lived in the castle on the Wawel in Cracow with her younger sisters Anna and Katarzyna for more than 30 years, during the heyday of the Polish Renaissance. The daughters received an ample education and, though they did not learn German, they did acquire Italian through the many Italians present at court and benefitted too from the stimulating intellectual atmosphere of both the court and the city.

Bona’s misguided dynastic politics are usually blamed for her failure to arrange her daughters‘ marriages during their father’s lifetime, so that the sisters were quite advanced in years when they married. After the king’s death in 1548, Bona and her daughters moved to the Masovian Palace of Ujazdów. Here, close to Warsaw, there was less intellectual variety than in Cracow, and the sisters mostly lived in the shadow of their energetic mother, as well as in conflict with their brother, King Zygmunt August. In the years from 1552 to 1556, their widowed eldest sister Isabella, Queen of Hungary, and her son also lived with the family.

The first suitor for the hand of Princess Zofia was the newly widowed Duke Albrecht of Prussia (1490-1568), but Zygmunt August feared his enlarged political influence in Poland. The king also rejected Italian noblemen as potential brothers-in-law and postponed a decision about his sisters‘ marriages. In 1555, the 66-year-old Duke Heinrich II the Younger of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel (1489-1568) began to woo the oldest princess, who at 33 was well beyond normal marriageable age. When she did marry a year later, she stopped being just one of three sisters existing in the shadow of their mother. Shortly before she left for her retirement in Italy, Bona Sforza was able to give instructions regarding the wedding, which took place by proxy in Warsaw in 1556. This was the last family gathering of the Jagiellons.

The marriage contract of 30 November 1555 awarded Zofia a dowry of 32,000 gulden and, like her sisters, she had to relinquish her rights in Poland. Duke Heinrich promised her a dower of 32,000 gulden and a ‚morning-after gift‘ of 10,000 gulden. With great pomp and bringing many valuables Zofia reached Wolfenbüttel, where the marriage ceremony took place on 24 February 1556. An inventory describes her rich dowry and, of the many people accompanying her from Poland, 27 remained in her service. The Duchess seems to have come to terms with her husband’s long-standing relationship with Eva von Trott, a union that produced ten children, while their own marriage remained childless. Inevitably, however, she was drawn into the disagreements between Duke Heinrich and Julius, his son and heir.

During her widowhood in Schöningen near Wolfenbüttel, the Duchess proved herself to be a good financial manager, despite maintaining an entourage of 90 people. She remained politically active and administrated the inheritance she had received from her mother - probably the only one of the three sisters to receive her share.

Zofia has left us a lively correspondence with more than 184 correspondents. She was fluent in Polish, Italian, Latin, and, latterly, German. She had close connections to such theologians as Jakob Andreae and converted to Lutheranism in 1570 the latest, the only member of the Jagiellon Dynasty to do so. She remodelled her residencies at Schöningen and Jerxheim into Renaissance castles surrounded by formal gardens, according to the taste of the time. She attached great importance to the accumulation of art objects and books and was able greatly to enlarge her collections with the inheritance she received from her husband and from her nephew János Zsigmond, King of Hungary (1540-71).

When her stepson attempted to curb her authority as a widow, she appealed to the Emperor Maximilian II and promised him to support Archduke Ernst’s candidacy for the Polish throne. The latter believed, as can be seen in his lively correspondence with the Emperor, that Zofia, who planned to travel to Poland for the elections in 1572, was able to exercise great influence. However, the Habsburgs, with their dynastic mentality, had overestimated the Duchess’s possibilities in the Polish Commonwealth. Her envoys‘ speeches at the election assembly mainly discussed personal issues.

After the deaths of her brother Zygmunt August in 1572 and her stepsister Jadwiga in 1573, Zofia, who anyway had the self-confidence of her lineage, was now the last representative of the Jagiellons. Her dynastic goal was now to enforce the execution of her brother’s will for her and her sisters, to arrange a marriage for her sister Anna, and to secure her mother’s vast inheritance in Italy, the so-called ‚Neapolitan sums‘. She was disappointed by the behaviour towards her of the Polish nobility, who had not even seen fit to notify her officially of her brother’s death.

Zofia died in Schöningen on 28 May 1575. Since her will of 1558 had become obsolete, she had a codicil drawn up in which she bequeathed half of her inheritance to her sisters and the other half to institutions in the Polish Commonwealth. Among other things, she decreed that marble graves should be built in Cracow Cathedral with the epitaphs of the Jagiellons, and that a marble slab engraved with the genealogy of the Jagiellons should be placed in the Chapel of the Holy Cross there. These arrangements show her conviction that, even from abroad, it was her duty to act as the head of the Jagiellon dynasty.

Her stepson, Duke Julius, claiming that there was no will to be found, had the Duchess buried unusually quickly on 27 June 1575 in the Church of St Mary (the Marienkirche) in Wolfenbüttel. Contrary to usual custom, the funeral sermon given by Lazarus Arnoldi was never printed. The sculpture on top of the grave, designed by the Leiden artist Adam Lecuir, can still be seen in the Marienkirche today. The conflicts relating to her inheritance continued for more than a hundred years after her death.

Areas of Research:

  • What was Zofia’s education in Cracow?
  • What were her on-going contacts with her siblings?
  • How involved was she in politics?
  • What Humanist influences did she bring with her from Poland?
  • What was her role in the design of palaces and gardens?
  • How involved was she in the religious life?
  • Why has Polish national cultural memory forgotten her?
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