The third painting in the historical series presented in New York portrays the Privilege of Jedlnia (Neminem captivabimus), of 1430.
What happened in Jedlnia in 1430 that is worth telling the world about, six centuries later? King Władysław Jagiełło had already reigned for 44 years. He regularly toured his large Polish-Lithuanian realm that covered almost a million square kilometers. In winter, the king usually visited his native Lithuania, where he could meet with Duke Witold and other representatives of his family. Zapusty, the last days before Lent, he usually spent in Jedlnia, on the edge of the Kozienice Forest. From there he moved on to Kraków, where he did not stay for long before traveling north to celebrate Palm Sunday in Sieradz. He often spent Easter in Kalisz, from there he would to go on a tour of Wielkopolska, then Kujawy, from where he went back to Małopolska via Koło, Łęczyca and Chęciny. Here, the annual political conferences were held with the most important dignitaries of the state, immediately after Saint Martin’s (November 11), at the favorite royal palace in Niepołomice. By performing these regular circuits and participating in meetings, the king got to know the needs of his subjects better, and he could convince them of his policies. But they did not want to be just subjects – they wanted to be citizens and thus they sought to convince the king of their civic rights. This had been the case in Poland at least since the mid-fourteenth century with the political gentry nation: assembled at the general Sejms (sittings of the Parliament) the gentry nation negotiated with the king and thereby obtained further privileges safeguarding their civic freedoms. The king submitted in this, for he needed the guarantee of the political nation that it would choose his heirs to succeed him. For after the end of the Piast dynasty with Kazimierz the Great in 1370, the throne in Poland became in fact elective.
King Jagiełło sired male descendants not until his fourth marriage. The first was Władysław (later called the Warneńczyk), followed by two other sons, of whom the longest to survive was Kazimierz (called the Jagiellończyk). Already in 1425 at the Sejm in Brest, immediately after the birth of his first son, Jagiełło promised to give the nobility a great privilege guaranteeing its freedom. He waited to confirm this as long as he could. In 1430, however, the union with Lithuania was imperiled by the ambitions of duke Witold, then ruling the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, to become fully independent and win a separate royal crown for himself. What was needed in this situation was the agreement between the Polish king and the Polish nobility to jointly face the crisis to the union. And such consent was obtained at the General Sejm in Jedlnia on March 4, 1430. The most important effect was the issuance of the privilege the king had promised. He reconfirmed the liberties already enumerated in earlier documents, including the old Polish flat tax, the limiting of the compulsory tax on the nobility to two cents per łan (approximately 25 hectares), as well as the privilege given in Czerwińsk in 1422 on banning the seizure of private property without a valid court sentence. The privilege of Jedlnia added a second pillar of freedom to this: “We moreover promise and swear that no landowner possessing a landed property be imprisoned for misdemeanors or faults, and We shall not issue an arrest order against him; and We shall not at all punish him, unless the court in a judicious manner has proved his guilt and if the Judges of the land wherein the landowner resides have delivered him into our hands, or those of our starosts”. This is the greatest – indeed, the monumental achievement of the Sejm in Jedlnia, one we in Poland typically refer to with the Latin phrase nemin captivabimus nisi iure victum (we will not imprison anyone unless they are convicted by law). Only the court competent for the accused can “reasonably” rule on his guilt and sentence him to imprisonment. The caprice of the king or his courtier is not enough. What had already been written down in England’s Magna Carta of 1215, but became steadily enforced in England not until 1679, with the writ of Habeas Corpus, was hammered out in Poland in 1430 in an agreement of the king with the citizens of the realm. Moreover, it was to be upheld in the Kingdom. In most European countries this was not to be achieved for centuries. For instance, in France, the royal lettres de cachet allowed any subject to be cast into the dungeon, merely on the basis of the monarch’s will. True, this Polish victory for freedom concerned only landed-gentry. But is it worth enjoying despotism in the name of equality? And this was a breach, a great breakthrough in the pagan despotism of rulers who had previously deemed themselves the owners of all the realm and everything that lived on it. Now at least several percent of the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Poland had obtained a legal guarantee of their freedom.
It is worth adding that the same privilege of Jedlnia was also a breakthrough in the treatment of Orthodox gentry as second-class citizens. For the king from that time promised “We further pledge: that all of the lands of our Kingdom of Poland, also including the lands of Ruthenia […] be rendered reduced to one duty and one law common to all the lands”. There was only exception – namely, “the contribution of oats (which until the end of our life, Ruthenia alone shall attend)”. Thus, the Ruthenian (Orthodox) nobility in the Kingdom, and therefore in the lands incorporated into the Kingdom since the time of Kazimierz the Great, achieved a privilege which their much more numerous brothers in Lithuania still did not have.
The extension of the Jedlnia privilege was a manifestation of the consent of the king and his free Polish subjects. At the time, the leader of the Polish political nation was undoubtedly the bishop of Kraków, Zbigniew Oleśnicki, depicted in the painting beside the king and receiving from his hands the Jedlnia document. To a large extent, thanks to the efforts of the bishop, the compromise of the monarchy with freedom in Jedlnia succeeded in averting the threat of Lithuania’s secession from the union with Poland. The Union survived – precisely on the foundation of civic freedom won in Jedlnia. This great power of freedom was still worth remembering in 1939. As Americans could perfectly well understand.