Launderers, lion tamers and other craftsmen in the Grand Dukes’ court

During the 16th–the first half of the 17th century the importance of residential court of the Ruler of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania increased. It became the most significant centre of political, cultural an economic life. During that epoch such a centre reflected the symbolic image of the state, or, according to Norbert Elias “the society of the court reached farthest by making marks with its seal.” In the architectural sense the court meant a site with a residential castle or palace. But the court also had an institutional significance. The court consisted of people divided into subdivisions necessary to the Ruler and the State. From the middle of the 16th century, almost in the course of an entire century, especially during the years of Grand Duke of Lithuania Sigismund Augustus’ reign (1544–1572), Vilnius was a privileged centre not only in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania but also in the Kingdom of Poland. This was the “golden age” of Vilnius court. At that time one of the largest residences of the Ruler was created. When the Ruler arrived to reside there an abundant estate functioned in Vilnius until the middle of the 17th century.

Blacksmiths, carpenters, and gardeners were appreciated most

Not belonging to the organisation of the guilds they were constantly in the environment of the Ruler’s court. For example, blacksmiths and joiners had separate workshops in the territory of the Lower Castle. They received a salary every quarter. They were given money allowance for food, and fabric for clothes. Gardeners were “settled” craftsmen. Their work was especially valued during the time of Sigismund Augustus’ residence in Vilnius when older gardens were put in order and the new ones were created. Foreigners were hired to do this work: in 1546, the gardener from Italy John, supervisor of canals Petrus Bohemus started work, the German John worked in Viršupys and others. 

The second group consisted of the Ruler’s craftsmen hired to do individual work or for permanent supervision of the court. They performed construction and repair works specified in the contracts for an annual salary or privileges. Blacksmiths, locksmiths, carpenters, joiners, bricklayers and stove-makers maintained the buildings of Vilnius Palace of the Dukes, put them in order and repaired them. There were foreigners among them who sometimes stayed in the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania for a longer time. In 1554, the painter Marcin Ostrowski from Bochnia, together with other masters from Krakow, worked in the Place of the Dukes. In 1556, they purchased a house there for 200 threescore grosz. There were masters who fulfilled occasional orders. In 1544–1547, Jan Czygan decorated the cannons. 

Local craftsmen hired to do specific work belonged to the third group. They belonged to different workshops of Vilnius. For example, in 1561 the Ruler’s goldsmith Stanisław Rachnewicz was exempt from obeying the Castle and town law, the goldsmith shop and other privileges. He, as the Ruler’s craftsman, was obligated to work for the Ruler. 

A range of professions: from a laundress to a lion tamer

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Representatives of exotic professions are met among the abundance of craftsmen in the court of Sigismund Augustus (the 16th century): masters of feather compositions, a lion tamer Bernard who came to Vilnius in 1546 together with the lion.

Different craftsmen most probably worked in the court of Casimir Jagiellon already. The Ruler’s tailors, blacksmiths who handled the lock and the key to Casimir’s bedroom were among them. Fixed payments to the tailors, shoemakers and blacksmiths show that they belonged to the court of Alexander Jagiellon in Vilnius at the end of the 15th–the beginning of the 16th century. The first goldsmiths also started serving this Ruler.

The largest number of craftsmen worked in the court of Sigismund Augustus.

At least 65 craftsmen of the court served the last Jagiellon. They were representatives of traditional crafts: goldsmiths, tailors and embroiderers, shoemakers, tent-makers, blacksmiths and locksmiths, cuirassiers, gunsmiths, sword-makers, shield-makers, founders, carpenters and joiners, furniture-makers, cobblers, saddle-makers, harness-makers, furriers, watchmakers, and a painter. Gardeners (market-gardeners) and laundresses (there were also men who did that job), an architect, a chimney-sweeper, a master of canals, and a ditcher. A separate house was built for laundress Oleksina near the Ruler’s palace. Masters of feather arrangements, the lion tamer Bernard who came to Vilnius in 1546 together with a lion can be attributed to exotic professions. The tamer of animals died there in 1548. 

At one time from 13 to 28 craftsmen served in the Ruler’s court. There were many local craftsmen (laundress Oleksina, shoemaker Vasiliji) were among them. However, there were Italians, Czechs, Hungarians, Germans, Poles and even a Dutchman in the group. There weren’t so many craftsmen in the courts of the later Rulers. The first full list of the craftsmen of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which did not reach the Grand Duke of Lithuania and the King of Poland Henry Valois in 1574 contains representatives of 21 professions: a master of feather compositions, a harness-maker, a tent-maker, a stoker, a laundress, tailors, a gun-maker, a gun decorator, a sword-maker, a master of belts and ropes, a cooper, a saddle-maker, a furrier, a snaffle-maker, and goldsmiths. 

Stephen Báthory reduced the group of craftsmen of the ruler’s court considerably. At the end of his reign there were representatives of only 4 professions among the craftsmen who worked permanently in the court. Many of them were transferred to the newly established subdivisions – coach houses, stables and other services. Later the variety of professions of the court craftsmen never reached the number of professions of Sigismund Augustus’ period. There were representatives of 13 professions among Vasa craftsmen. A similar number remained in the times of Władysław Vasa. During the time of Vasas’ reign craftsmen – supervisors of the palace were more important in Vilnius.

Literature: R. Ragauskienė, Amatininkai, Lietuvos didžiųjų kunigaikščių rezidencija Vilniuje, sud. V. Urbanavičius, Vilnius, 2010, p. 212–215.

Raimonda Ragauskienė