The Last King of Poland and the Empress Who Loved Him

Stanisław Antoni Poniatowski was born on 17 January 1732, the fifth child and second son of a Polish aristocrat in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (now part of Belarus). He would, against all expectation, become the Grand Duke of Lithuania and the last King of Poland.

Stanisław_Poniatowski age 14

He was also one of Catherine the Great’s lovers. The Empress had considerably fewer bedmates than the world generally thinks, and almost all of them were important to her emotionally as well as physically, but Poniatowski was particularly important to her, and fathered one of her four children.

When he arrived in Saint Petersburg in 1755, Empress Elizabeth was alive and well, and the 26 year old Catherine was only an insignificant foreign bride married to Elizabeth’s heir, the Grand Duke Peter. Deeply unhappy in her marriage, Catherine had taken an experienced libertine named Sergei Saltykov, and had her heart broken as a result. The sweetly sky Poniatowski was the perfect balm for her wounds.

Thanks to historical adherence to the cult toxic masculinity, the gentle Poniatowski has often been mocked. In 1920, Edgar Saltus wrote that “Saltykov was a ladies’ man. Poniatowski was a lady.” This is unfair. The Polish nobleman’s “ladylike” behavior was affable, sophisticated, educated in the Enlightenment principles Catherine also embraced, spoke six languages, and was probably still a virgin. Catherine, who had the good sense to know masculinity could also be kind, loved Poniatowski, and in return he was whole-heartedly devoted to the grand duchess.

Catherine became pregnant with Poniatowski’s baby in 1757, and when she started showing she stopped her public appearances as convention dictated. This vexed her husband, who preferred that Catherine deal with social occasions. With a complete lack of discretion, the annoyed grand duke grumbled, “God knows where my wife gets her pregnancies. I have no idea whether this child is mine and whether I ought to take responsibility for it” (Massie, 2011). However, Peter was unwilling to swear that he never had sex with his wife during the time of conception and so he was officially credited as the father. When Catherine gave birth to Poniatowski’s daughter, whom she named Anna, on 9 December 1757. Neither Catherine or Poniatowski got to see their little girl, since the Empress Elizabeth took the infant away to keep for herself, as she had done with Catherine’s son in 1754.

Alas for Catherine and Poniatowski, baby Anna died when she was only 15 months old, on 8 March 1759. Catherine was inconsolable. Some historians take the fact that she would never mention her daughter’s name again as a sign she didn’t care for the little girl, but it could have just as easily been a manifestation of grief too painful to ever allow to be spoken of aloud. 

It was not long after her daughter’s death that Catherine formally asked Elizabeth permission to leave the Russian court and return to Prussia permanently. Many historians believe that Catherine was bluffing. Nonetheless, I wonder if she weren’t just sick and tired of Elizabeth’s kidnappings and mind games. Perhaps she hoped to make an informal marriage with Poniatowski, whom she loved.

Catherine the Great as Grand Duchess

Living with Poniatowski was certainly an appealing option, especially since Catherine’s marriage had gone from bad to hellish. Peter, who had fallen in love with his new mistress, Elizaveta Romanovna Vorontsova, had started treating his wife horribly. Vorontsova egged the grand duke on in this behavior, and the other maids of honor had become rude and insubordinate toward Catherine as well. Peter’s clear preference and elevation of Vorontsova was also a blow to Catherine’s pride, since Vorontsova had a “broad, puffy, pock-marked face and fat, squat, shapeless figure” and was considered “ugly, common, and stupid” (Massie, 2011).

Empress Elizabeth, obviously, did not wait to see if Catherine was bluffing and took steps to soothe her niece-in-law’s feelings. Peter saw that his aunt favored Catherine and followed suit in healing the breech between himself and his wife. Being Peter he did if oddly. He would hold intimate suppers for himself, Catherine, Vorontsova, and Poniatowski and would then leave with his mistress after encouraging his wife and her lover to enjoy themselves alone (Massie, 2011). This made Catherine unhappy because she knew there would be serious sociopolitical fallout from Peter’s behavior. It was one thing to turn a discrete blind eye; it was quite another to host your wife and the man cuckholding you to dinner. When word of the private suppers got around, Elizabeth could see that her nephew was making himself a laughingstock. There was nothing else for it – Poniatowski had to leave court for good in 1758.

 Marcello_Bacciarelli,_Portret of Stanisław Poniatowski 

Catherine, although understanding what had to be, was crushed by his departure. She wrote that on the day he left, “I was more distressed than I can tell you. I don’t think I ever cried so much in my life” (Massie, 2011). She continued to love Poniatowski even after she overthrew her husband and became sole ruler of Russia. As the Empress, she did everything she could to aid her former lover’s career in his home country. On August 2, 1762 she wrote to tell him that she was “sending Count Keyserling off immediately as ambassador to Poland to make you king.”

Catherine, as usual, met her goals. When Poland’s King Augustus III died in October 1763, Empress of Russia backed Poniatowski to the hilt, spending nearly 2.5m rubles toward the election of the new king. She also sent an army to stand just outside the boarder of the commenwealth, making a tactit threat that she would crown her love by force if needs be. It is not surprising that Poniatowski was elected king,at the convocation sejm on 7 September 1764.

Poniatowski as king

The new King of Poland did his best to be a good ruler, including creating Europe’s first ministry of education in the hopes of providing universal schooling for all Poles. However, many people – including his past love Empress Catherine – soon began to see him as TOO liberal and embracing TOO many reforms.

In 1752 a civil war broke out between Poniatowski’s supporters in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Targowica Confederation, a cabal of conservative Polish-Lithuanian nobility opposed to Poniatowski’s Constitution of 3 May 1791.  This civil war quickly became and international one when Empress Catherine jumped in to back up the Targowica Confederation. Catherine firmly believed an Enlightened autocrat was the best form of government, and she had a zero tolerance policy for the radical American and French notions of liberty and democracy that Poniatowski was espousing.  From her point of view, Poniatowski had betrayed her.

Sadly for Poniatowski and the reformers, they “could field only a 37,000-man army, many of them untested recruits.” However, these troops were astonishingly effective in repulsing the Russians. “Under the command of the King’s nephew Józef Poniatowski and Tadeusz Kościuszko, managed to defeat the Russians or fight them to a draw on several occasions.”  Nonetheless, there was simply no way for the small army to hold off the Russian Empire indefinitely, especially with the Confederation traitors fighting them from within their own boarders.

Poniatowski’s attempts at negotiations with Russia proved futile. In July 1792, when Warsaw was threatened with siege by the Russians, the king came to believe that surrender was the only alternative to total defeat. Having received assurances from Russian ambassador Yakov Bulgakov that no territorial changes would occur, a cabinet of ministers called the Guard of Laws (or Guardians of Law, Polish: Straż Praw) voted eight to four in favor of surrender … Poniatowski had not saved the Commonwealth, however … Neither were the Targowica Confederates victorious. To their surprise, there ensued the Second Partition of Poland … On 23 November 1793, [Russia]annulled all acts of the Great Sejm, including the Constitution.

The Poles did not accept their Russian overlords quietly. Generals Józef Poniatowski and Tadeusz Kościuszko started a short-lived revolt, known as the Kościuszko Uprising on 24 March 1794. Poniatowkski felt he had no other honorable choice but to join the rebels, even though it meant he now had zero chance of sweet-talking Catherine into leaving SOME of Poland at least a shred of independence, or to leave any of the sociopolitical reforms in place.

Badly outnumbered, the Polish rebellion was crushed by 16 November. In her vexation, Catherine the Great literally (not figuratively) wiped the nation of Poland off the map, ordering the Third Partition of Poland, in which Austria, Russia and Prussia annexed what was left of the country. Poniatowski had no choice but to abdicate.

Stanislaw Poniatowski after abdication

Even in her anger, Catherine did not forget that she had once loved Poniatowski and born their daughter. She gave the dethroned king a pension, and although he was imprisoned in in St. Petersburg’s Marble Palace, he was well treated – more guest than captive. He continued to live there even after Catherine the Great died, now a ‘guest’ of her son, Paul I of Russia.

On 12 February 1798, Poniatowski passed away in St Petersburg following a stroke, and was given a royal state funeral by Emperor Paul. The elderly Pole was interred in the Catholic Church of St. Catherine, but – like Poland – Russia would not hold him forever. His body was eventually transferred to St. John’s Cathedral in Warsaw, where he was reburied on 14 February 1995. The last King of Poland had come home.

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