What did the Nobles Go to the City for?

Both professional historians and the average person who are not familiar with the history of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania often imagine that nobles lived in the countryside and earned the majority of their income from agriculture, i.e. from the work done by peasants. This image has a basis, as most small and middle-class nobles (and aristocrats) lived in rural areas. However, a part of the nobles had laid their roots in cities, living their either permanently or on a partial basis.

The Royal retinue and its “satellites”

The royal court resided in Vilnius for a very long time. When the king of Poland and grand duke of Lithuania came to Vilnius, the life of the capital changed completely. It wasn’t only the courtiers of the royal court that collected around the king, but also the nobles, for whom it was politically useful to be close. It is probably for this reason that the noble class would build their residencies near that of the grand duke. One example is the palace of the Mantvydas clan famous in the 15th century that was near the Lower Castle, and Radziwiłł Palace that went up next to it in the 16th century.

Legends say that there was a tunnel between the ruler’s residence and the Radziwiłł for the meetings of Barbara Radziwiłł and Sigismund Augustus.

After the Union of Lublin and the death of the Gediminid dynasty, kings would visit Vilnius together with their retinue, take part in convocations (separate from Poland’s Sejm sessions), receive guests, and sign agreements. They were also accompanied by a large entourage. Even after the Deluge in the middle of the 17th century when the palace of the Lower Castle was destroyed and unsuitable to live in anymore, kings still came to Vilnius sometimes. For example, it was Slushko Palace in Vilnius that was the site of negotiations between Augustus II and Peter I regarding further military action against Sweden. When Vilnius lost many of the attributes that gave it its status as a capital, Lithuanian and Polish nobles were attracted by another GDL city – Grodno, which was the place of the Commonwealth Sejms, including the very last one in 1793.

Nobles in the city – a headache to burghers

The local noble elite would regularly go to the local Sejms in Vilnius. Professor Georg Forster, a German who taught at Vilnius University at the end of the 18th century (at the time called the Principle School of Lithuania), said in 1786 that during the eight days that the local Sejm took place, no one had the courage to go out into the streets. It wasn’t just the nobles of Vilnius that gathered to decide on parliamentary issues in the GDL capital, but also delegates from all over the GDL that thronged the streets during military and political conflicts who came to approve and join in on confederation acts (and there were a number of confederations in the 18th century).

Many nobles came to the capital looking to clarify their grievances and solve conflicts in the local castle and land courts of Vilnius.

The biggest flood of nobles came once the sessions of the Lithuanian Supreme Tribunal began.

The city’s inhabitants had great concerns as to how to house such a number of visitors together with their families and servants. Some city inhabitants took to getting documents exempting them from the obligation to allow visiting nobles to be accommodated in their homes. The tribunal took place not only in Vilnius, but also in Minsk.  Many nobles would throng the streets of the largest cities during religious and secular celebrations. Upon the death of prominent nobles, the elite would gather from all over the country for their funerals.

But not all nobles needed a special event or reason to go to the GDL capital or another larger city. Some of them lived there on a more permanent basis. The palaces of nobles like the Tyszkiewicz, Oginski, Radziwiłł, Kossakowski, Kirdej, Zawisza, Tyzenhauz, and many others were located in Vilnius, and some of them have survived to the present day. The nobles gradually pushed out the city dwellers. In Kaunas, a conflict between these two classes reached the royal court of assessors in the second half of the 18th century, with the court adopting a favourable decision for the city inhabitants, specifying that the plots of land that belonged to the city inhabitants that had been occupied were to be returned. As the sources note, both the city inhabitants and the nobles regularly bought and sold their plots of land to each other, most often living without any large conflict. Sometimes the lesser nobles served the wealthier representatives of their social class, spiritual leaders, and even city inhabitants.

The eyes and ears of the magnates in the city

Sometimes the nobles went to Vilnius to carry out the tasks of their patrons. It was in the larger cities (especially in Vilnius) that negotiations and meetings took place. For example, the GDL’s Evangelical Reformed church members (both secular nobles and spiritual leaders) would go to meet with influential Evangelical Reformed figures, or Catholic figures or Catholic nobles that looked favourably upon the Evangelical Reformed Church. The clients of nobles would report to them about the political events in and outside of the country and provided them with news. Clients would always emphasize in their letters that they were serving the interests of their masters.

Even if they had high posts, the nobles would emphasise that they were concerned above all about the interests of their patron.

For example, in 1727 Mstislavl Castellan Krzysztof Dominik Puzyna informed Polish Grand Marshal Michał Jerzy Wandalin Mniszech by letter that as the Lithuanian Supreme Tribunal Marshal, he first of all served his interests. Nobles that were equal to one another would write about service in a similar manner to each other, apparently showing their true or supposed benevolence and helpfulness. Sometimes nobles would come to meet not with local political figures, but those from abroad. For example, in 1727 GDL General of Artillery Lew Sapieha mentioned in a letter to Princess Ludwika Karolina Radziwiłł, that he went to Vilnius to meet with the field marshal of Russia, who was travelling through Vilnius from Riga.

To the city to break the law and carry out punishments

Nobles would also go to the city with bad intentions, wanting to commit crimes, i.e. imprison their enemies in the castle prison. For example, Starodub powiat Cup-Bearer Jerzy Niewierowicz, his servant noble Andrzej Kauza and former peasant Michal Moskenczuk fter a conflict with Nur district Treasurer Daniel Sventozecki as well as Kazimierz Szadurski were privately imprisoned in Šešuoliai bakery, and afterwards bound and chained and transported to the guardhouse of the Vilnius Castle garrison.

Do You Know?

Nobles that came to the sessions of the Lithuanian Supreme Tribunal would raise many concerns for city inhabitants, because they had to provide accommodation for them as well as their families and servants in their own homes. Some city inhabitants would procure documents that released them from the obligation of giving their houses to visiting nobles for a period of time.

Sometimes nobles went to Vilnius for buying provisions. For example, Mychal Szczurkowski went to Vilnius to buy honey in 1761, but a Jew named Shimka and a noble named Kazimierz Korf attacked him in a tavern on the Buzeliškiai-Veršupis road. They beat Szczurkowski, and stole a whip, textile, iron, money, and a horse with a wagon from him, which cost 6 groszy.

Sometimes nobles came to the city to carry out sentences. For example, the court sentenced Telšiai Elderman Stanisław Kalinowski to be imprisoned in the prison of the Vilnius Castle tower. Upon arrival, a court official saw Kalinowski ill and weak on a stretcher. He requested that his prison sentence be postponed until he recovered. A few months later, Kalinowski came and served his sentence in the prison of the Vilnius Castle Tower.

Domininkas Burba