The Third of May Remembered

Mid-morning on 3rd May, a carnival of colour will stream through the Market Square. All the key groups will be there: merchants decked out in Renaissance finery, a military band in Napoleonic garb, monks, nuns, politicians of every stripe, and a dignified yet now shrinking cluster of World War II veterans. Trumpets and drums will belt out jolly tunes, and across Poland patriotic hymns will be sung. Not least, the whole country gets a day off – a sure-fire winner with spring getting into gear.

All this is because of a constitution that was declared on 3rd May 1791 – “the noblest benefit received by any nation at any time,” according to British philosopher Edmund Burke. But although the third of May was first proclaimed a holiday back in 1791, for nigh on 200 of the last 227 years, its celebration was banned outright. Why?

To piece together this Polish puzzle, The Krakow Post has slipped into the shoes of those eighteenth century gents who championed the constitutional cause. And so, with our wig immaculately powdered and a decent dose of snuff at hand, it’s time to set off to Old Sarmatia…

The Saxon Night

All countries have times that they would prefer to forget. And to work out why Poland so needed a new constitution in 1791, a glance at the decades that led up to the big day proves helpful. Indeed, if Monty Python was to hook up for another historical epic, 18th century Poland would present a goldmine of flabbergasting material. Excess was the order of the day. The debauchery was spearheaded by a dastardly royal duo – Augustus the Strong and Augustus the Fat. This father and son team, scions of the Saxon House of Wettin, presided over what’s been aptly dubbed “the Saxon Night” (1697-1763). Augustus Senior was an epic drinker whose favourite party trick was snapping horseshoes with his bare hands. He sired 365 bastards and declared on his deathbed that ?my entire life has been one uninterrupted sin.? Augustus Junior shared his father?s love of the bottle, and he liked nothing more than taking pot shots at flying bison that were catapulted into the air for his entertainment. Za krola Sasa, jedz, pij i popuszczaj pasa! (“Under the Saxon King, eat, drink and loosen your belt!”) was the rallying cry of the day. One grandee tried to liven up his shoots by importing parakeets to the Polish forest. Another staved off boredom by dividing up his private army and declaring war on his own men.

The age is not short of entertaining anecdotes. But for a portion of the Polish elite back then, it all made for highly depressing stuff. Poles could look back on a Golden Age during the Renaissance when learning was prized, religious tolerance practised and one of the world’s most ambitious democracies was a functioning reality. (For in an age when kings wielded absolute power, the Poles had created an elective monarchy with 10% of the population getting the vote). However, the seventeenth century saw a series of wars from which Poland never quite recovered. To make matters worse, parliament was regularly stalled by corrupt deputies – by law a single voice could annul an entire session. When the eighteenth century dawned, Poland was still the largest country in Europe, but it was also the most shambolic.

That said, a group of enlightened nobles ? the so-called ?Family? ? had made it their mission to bring Poland back from the brink. The key moment came with the election of Stanislaw Poniatowski to the throne in 1763. His election may have been pushed through by Russian troops – like the two previous ones – but at least he was one of the ?Family?s? men. Famously, he had also been a lover of Grand Duchess Catherine, who now – as Empress of all the Russias – shoehorned him into power.

The Enlightened Day

In many ways the new king seemed an ideal person to do Catherine?s bidding. He was a gentleman with the emphasis on gentle. A soulful chap, he spoke half a dozen languages, knew his French philosophers inside out, had travelled widely and was blessed with a bounty of personal charm. He was happiest in the company of painters, poets, architects and, not least, women. The King was something of a ladies man, and his amorous adventures were the source of much haughty gossip by later historians. Unlike his peers, he hardly touched the bottle, but he had a weakness for sweets, snuff and art. He wasn’t too good with his accounting, and he was never cut out to ride a horse into battle. But he was a committed reformer, and on this the Russian Empress – herself only just on the throne – had miscalculated.

A backward Poland suited her neighbours, but a reformed one was an alarming prospect. And barely had Poniatowski picked up his crown when a wave of reforms was pushed through. Catherine was appalled. Three years later all the new laws were repealed under the iron hand of the Russian ambassador. This pretty much set the tone for the next three decades. Bursts of reform were followed by Russian interventions, with Poles taking various sides. The king was no fool, and he knew that from henceforth compromise was unavoidable. But pleasing both Russians and Poles was an impossible path. He would be bashed for being too conciliatory to Catherine, but also for his progressive ideas of reform.

As it was, there were always plenty of larger than life characters that could be counted on to throw a spanner in the works. Prince Karol Radziwill was the richest man in Poland, and an alcoholic by the age of twelve. He was taught to read as a teenager by firing shots at metal letters that were hung from a tree. A huge man who had a habit of shooting dinner guests after he?d drunk one too many, he was nevertheless hugely popular with the earthier members of the gentry, who were suspicious of the reforming camp with their foppish clothes and French tastes. (Radziwill’s chums preferred the closely cropped scalps and epic moustaches of Old Polish tradition).

In 1768, a confused but patriotic rebellion broke out in the Podolian town of Bar. It took four years for Russian forces to quell the uprising, which was known as the Bar Confederation. The following year, the first partition of Poland was sealed, with Russia, Austria and Prussia all taking a slice of the Polish cake. But the seeds of progress had already been sown. Over the next twenty years, the King and the reformers set about cultivating their aims through all means open to them. A new system of National Education was created, and money was lavished on all aspects of culture. Warsaw, the capital of what remained of the kingdom, became one of the most sophisticated cities in Europe. A new generation, groomed in the spirit of the Enlightenment, was set to champ against the Russian bit.

The vultures may already have been circling over Poland, but reform was now a question of national pride. The Constitution of the Third of May 1791 was the culmination of decades of rejuvenation. Several of the nobility?s ancient privileges were stripped, religious tolerance was reaffirmed, the emerging bourgeoisie was granted key rights, the central government was strengthened, and the peasantry was placed under the protection of the national law and government, a first step towards the end of serfdom. Some of the most notorious aspects of the old system were scrapped – parliament could no longer be paralysed by the veto of a single deputy.

There was elation in Warsaw. And enlightened thinkers from foreign shores fell over themselves to toast Poland and her king. Even Karl Marx, writing many years later, proclaimed, ?The history of the world knows no other example of such noble behaviour by the nobility themselves.?

King Frederick the Great of Prussia had been fond of calling the Poles “that multitude of imbeciles whose names end in ski”. But now the top Prussian minister Herzberg was quaking in his boots. “The Poles have delivered the coup de grace to the Prussian kingdom by voting a much better constitution than the English,” he declared. “How can we defend our state against such a numerous and well-governed nation?”

Finis Poloniae

With the French Revolution rocking Europe?s old school boat, this blast of Polish progress was too much for some. In April 1792, a clique of reactionary Polish aristocrats travelled to St. Petersburg to protest against the Constitution. The Empress, who had just made peace with Turkey, was already furious with the reforming Poles and was only too happy to help out. 97,000 Russian troops crossed the border the following month.

Given that Russia had forbidden Poland to maintain a standing army for the last eighty years, the Poles weren’t in with much of a chance. That said, they weren’t going to go down without a fight. The Poles won a pair of battles – mainly with untried recruits – but it was a doomed confrontation. The King himself abandoned the cause in an effort to allay the damage. The Constitution was repealed and Russia and Prussia took another slice of Poland (1793).

The King’s reputation had taken a battering. But the most dramatic phase was still to come. Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a seasoned commander who was already a hero of the American Wars of Independence, was fomenting a full-scale national rising. Having crossed swords with the Russians the previous year, he was determined to take things up a gear. On March 24th, 1794, he swore an oath on Krakow’s Market Square before thousands of his compatriots. The next month he won a fabled victory at Raclawice against a far superior Russian force. (Many of his own men were untrained peasants armed only with scythes). But in May, Prussian forces marched into the melee, and the clock began to tick for Polish independence. The Poles fought on for five more months, clashing with the enemies on several fronts. A regrouped Russian force finally took Warsaw on November 5th after massacring 20,000 civilians. This time it really was the end. The King was forced to abdicate; the ringleaders of the rebellion were rounded up. Estates were confiscated and thousands of peasants were taken as prizes by incoming Russian landowners. Austria, Prussia and Russia signed the final stroke, wiping Poland from the map. In the conquerors words, the plan was “to abolish everything which could revive the memory of the existence of the Kingdom of Poland,” down to the very name itself, “which shall remain suppressed as from the present and forever”.

A lively exploration of the reign of King Stanislaw Poniatowski can be enjoyed in Adam Zamoyski’s spellbinding book “The Last King of Poland”, which was ruthlessly plundered in this article.


In spite of the dramatic fall of Poland, the Constitution of the Third of May lived on as an inspiration to future generations. It was “the last will and testament of the expiring fatherland,” to quote two of its authors. When Poland was reborn after the First World War, the date was revived as a national holiday. It continued to be celebrated until 1939, and was often cited as an inspiration during the war years.

During the Communist era, the Third of May holiday was banned once more. This led to a yearly farce as the anniversary rubbed shoulders with the biggest day in the Soviet Bloc ? International Workers Day (May 1st). So as not to make a terrible blunder with Party bigwigs, all state bureaucrats had to make a frantic lunge to remove all celebratory Polish flags from buildings as soon as Labour Day had elapsed. Woe betide any poor bugger whose flag was still flying come May 3rd.

That said, the Catholic Church – which trod a tricky line throughout the era – always held masses for Poland on May 3rd, which was the holiday of Our Lady Queen of Poland. During the Martial Law period (1981-83) heavy street fights with the communist militia forces broke out on the banned holiday.

The Third of May was officially restored as a national holiday in April 1990, just after the fall of Communism. Here in Krakow, the two-hundred year old Czartoryski Museum (ul. Jana 19) has an evocative room devoted to the Constitution of the Third of May, replete with portraits of all the main players and some priceless relics relating to the great day.

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