Historical story

A Polish diplomat who rocked Elizabeth I and London

The Polish MP caused a diplomatic scandal that almost cost him his life. A few sentences were enough for the powerful Queen Elizabeth to feel sincere hatred for the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. And traces of this conflict can be found even in the most important play by William Shakespeare.

16th-century England, ruled by Tudors, was one of the world's political powers. While pursuing an extensive policy, it had to come into contact with the interests of another European power, but on the other side of the continent - the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Queen in shock

In 1597, England, at war with Spain, imposed a naval blockade on this country, announcing a ban on the import of weapons and anything that could have served the war to Spanish ports. including food. This ban severely hit the merchants from Gdańsk who traded with the Iberian Peninsula in a lively grain trade. Not only were their ships denied access to the Spanish shores, they were also attacked, looted and seized by privateers acting under the authority of the English Queen.

Gdansk. One of the busiest ports in the Baltic Sea. The painting is from the 17th century (source:public domain).

Faced with the oppression and the cut off of such an important sales market, the merchants turned to King Sigismund III Vasa for help. The ruler stood up for his subjects and demanded that Queen Elizabeth I Tudor restore the freedom of the seas and cover the losses suffered by the inhabitants of Gdańsk.

As the first intervention had no effect, the monarch sent his envoy to England, 37-year-old castellan of Dobrzyn, Paweł Działyński, a member of the magnate family and one of his secretaries.

Działyński - previously a messenger to the Netherlands - went to England and was received by the Queen in a public audience on August 4, 1597 at the palace in Greenwich, surrounded by the court and the orchestra. Dressed in Polish attire, the MP delivered a speech in Latin in which he strongly demanded the lifting of the naval blockade, the restoration of trade freedom for Gdańsk merchants, the return of the seized goods and payment of compensation to those who suffered losses.

Działyński argued that the sea route, in accordance with public law and the law of nature, should be accessible to everyone. He added that the blockade affected the interests of the Polish nobility, whose almost all income comes from the export of agricultural produce.

One sentence too far

The expressed demands were accompanied by two threats. The first was that in the event of failure to meet the Polish postulates, King Zygmunt would be forced to take steps by which he would find redress while the other reminded Elizabeth of the Jagiellonian and Habsburg connections (Zygmunt's wife was Anna Habsburżanka) and clearly threatened with a Polish-Austrian-Spanish alliance that was dangerous for England.

There was silence in the hall. Działyński's speech made an electrifying impression on those present. As we read in the accounts of witnesses, the queen was furious with indignation, fell angrily on the throne and almost broke off the audience. Then she said to the envoy in Latin: Oh, how disappointed I have been ... Never in my entire life, neither I nor my people, have heard such a speech ... I admire such audacity! .

Sigismund III Vasa, in a dispute with the English queen, did not hesitate to resort to open threats. His MP almost paid for it with his life (source:public domain).

In the passionately delivered tirade, she insulted King Sigismund, reminding him of his young age and ruling not by hereditary law, but by choice. She also did not spare Działyński himself, whom she accused of not understanding what was going on between the rulers.

Finally, she showed a good knowledge of political events in Poland, recalling that the Polish-Habsburg alliance is not so strong, because until recently one of the members of the Austrian house wanted to take the kingdom from Zygmunt ... . After all her regrets had expired, she ran to the second chamber.

Poison the envoy!

The news of the scandal at the court with the participation of the Polish envoy quickly spread throughout London, the more so that the queen's statement from the audience was immediately written down and made public. The people decided that Elizabeth was insulted and ... riots broke out in the city. They demanded a punishment for insulting the majesty, and they wanted to attack Działyński, beat him, and allegedly poison him.

Queen Elizabeth I was shocked by the audacity of the Polish envoy (source:public domain).

The owner of the inn where the MP was staying suddenly demanded a weekly payment of all fees, and none of the hitherto sympathetic English aristocrats dared to invite him to his place until the day of departure.

All the people are touched when the Queen…

Działyński was provided with Elizabeth's official reply to King Sigismund and was advised to leave England as soon as possible. In the report of the visit, written after his return to Poland, we can read the advice given to the castellan by a representative of the English authorities:

I am admonishing you, as a friend of a friend, not to stay in England any longer because of the tumult. You see (this is what is in absolute monarchy) all the people are offended when the Queen is offended. Beware that some excuse is not invented to insult or harm you .

Four days after the audience, a second scandal broke out - this time on the stage of one of the theaters near London. It featured the play "The Isle of Dogs" ("The Isle of Dogs", an islet at the mouth of the River Thames, close to the royal palace in Greenwich), in which King Sigismund III Vasa was satirically portrayed.

We do not know if Działyński intervened in this matter, but the performance was taken off the stage, its author was arrested and placed in the Tower, and all public theaters were closed for several months (!).

Even Shakespeare felt offended?

There are two points to this story:political and literary. As it soon turned out, Działyński's unfortunate legation was fully successful. For in January the next, 1598, Elzbieta I confirmed the privileges of Gdańsk merchants in England, and in the summer her MP George Cawer was sent to Poland to agree to the free transport of Polish grain to Spain and explain the last year's party of Działyński in London ...

Polonius painted by Jehan Georges Vibert (source:public domain).

The literary punch line is this:a few years later, the full version of William Shakespeare's Hamlet was published in England. The figure of Polonius, an unpleasant, overly service-minded official, appeared in it for the first time.

Meanwhile, in the first edition of the play, several months earlier (1603), the character was called Corambis. As noted by Dr. Teresa Bałuk-Ulewiczowa from the Jagiellonian University, the association of the name of Polonius ( Polonius in Latin it meant Polish) with Poland and Działyński's legation is obvious ...