Reformation in Poland: King Alex, a Greek doctor and the invention of science

Now, here comes one of history’s imponderables. Perhaps it was because he wasn’t bright and there was no one on hand to advise him, or perhaps having seen what the doctors were capable of he thought he’d give alternative medicine a try, of which a future Prince of Wales would approve, whatever the reason King Alexander put himself in the hands of a healer caller Balinski. Balinski was a Pole who passed himself off as a Greek, hard you might think with a name like Balinski, but people believed him and paid what he asked, which was a lot. Greek doctors had a cache. Pure snobbery? Not exactly. Since most people believed that Aristotle and the ancient Greeks knew every thing about the world that could be known or needed to be known, especially regarding medicine, Greek doctors had to be the best. It stood to reason, closest to the source, but about as reasonable as expecting an Englishman to know about English grammar. Unluckily for the Greek doctors the invention of science was about to put an end to their infallibility. Science started asking those questions that people had never bothered to think about before.

“Obviously, the earth is the centre of the universe.”


“Because it is, stupid boy!”

That seemed blindingly obvious until people could look at the planets through telescopes, all thanks to the invention of glass and lenses. And of course, it didn’t stop there. Black is black and white is white until the light changes. God is God until. Until? Let’s skip that for the moment. Let’s just say a truth is a truth until you question it and try to prove it not with statement but with argument. Which raises the question about how exams can be set on facts rather than thoughts and ideas since facts are inclined to change. The truth is not written in stone.

But science aside and back to king Alexander.

Dr. Balinski’s cure was novel, one must give him that. “Your Majesty, six hot baths a day and 10 bottles of good French wine. And here is my bill.” Which the king paid gladly. “I did.” And who is to say it didn’t help. “I felt better even though I couldn’t move.” But within a year the king was dead and Chancellor Laski had Balinski locked up. And where was King Alexander buried? You won’t find his body in the Wawel where he wanted to lie beside his father and brothers and near the naughty cardinal, though we don’t know what the king thought about him. The Lithuanian magnates, do you remember the magnets? were so cross with the king because of the laws he’d introduced to curb their behaviour, they kept his body in Wilno and stuck it in the vault of the cathedral where is was lost until 1937. Mind you, burying him in Wilno wasn’t so stupid because that’s where he died. He was fleeing from an army of invading Crimean Tartars. Happily, the last news he heard in this world was of the victory of his general Michal Glinski who, with a cunning trick, had destroyed the invaders entirely, firstly by destroying the main force then by picking off the raiding parties as they returned to their annihilated camp. Genius. A Polish success. A good end to the reign.


Reformation in Poland: King Alex has a turn


Some historians have written off King Alexander.

“Yes, I may not be the brightest but I choose my ministers well. What more can you ask of a ruler? I was a dutiful ruler even if I didn’t want to speak Polish, which annoyed the Poles. Well, its an awful language if you have to learn it in middle age. And I had more problems to deal with than most of the other kings of Europe. No one else had such a vast and unwieldy commonwealth of nations to hold together. ‘Come on gentlemen. We are all members of the same Commonwealth, you representatives of Lithuania, Ruthenia, Ducal Prussia, the Ukraine and Poland, stop your squabbling, its a great thing we have here.’ But they didn’t listen, often. And if you think that was not trouble enough, remember I had to deal with the Prussian Prussians, Germans and Russians, the Tartars and the Turks. Trouble at home and trouble abroad. I often felt that our great empire was just too much for one man to manage. But that day in June 1505 changed it all. All I can remember is that I felt strange. It began in my left hand. It wouldn’t do what I wanted it to do. Then it was my leg. Then whole of the left side of my body stopped working. I was paralyzed.

Reformation in Poland: King Alexander lays down the law and hangs a woman.


Actually, King Alexander was particularly pleased. Jan Laski’s Statutes were doing their job. Who was Jan Laski? I’ll tell you later, but his Statutes were an attempt to make Poland a peaceful and law abiding place. This was something most people wanted. Of course the magnates objected, those rich aristocrats who treated everyone else as if they didn’t matter. You know the sort of people. No names but people like the Radzwills in Lithuania. It was not easy to make them understand that they were subject to the king’s law, even them. The king was advised to make an example of a few aristos. Sticking rules up on walls never works. People learn best from examples. Anyway, how many people do you think could read in 1505?

“Barbara Rusinowska! String her up, I said. I don’t give a damn if she’s a woman, it’ll scare the men even more.” Laski agreed, which was just as well. I prefer to have the support of my ministers. Come to think of it, it might have been his idea in the first place. I can’t remember.”

Soldier:” And that’s what we did, the moment we caught her. We strung her up. It was a damned shame. Barbara Rusinowska. A fine looking woman, spirited, a lady. Dressed like a man, in breeches and boots and spurs, armed to the teeth. More of a man than a woman and had the muscles to go with it. We hanged her and her band of bandits beside her, those that didn’t get away. That should please the king.”

The king had every reason to be pleased.

Reformation in Poland: Warsaw resists King Alex

“But I’ve had my own successes despite the senate. You probably don’t remember Conrad III the Red, prince of Mazovia? He died in 1503, the same year as the cardinal. He left two young sons from his third wife and a young widow. So while his widow was weeping, I sent men up to Warsaw to see if there was anything she needed. I just wanted to be helpful, not make a grab for Warsaw as some people said I was doing, but why shouldn’t I if Mazovia might fall into other, less friendly hands like the Teutonic knights? My ministers thought it was a good idea. What happened? As soon as the good people of Warsaw saw my men on the horizon they bolted the city gates and went up onto the walls to defend themselves, yes, against the king’s men. Once my men were within ear shot of the city the people on the ramparts started hurling abuse at them and at me, their king. No respect for authority. One of my brighter men shouted back, “Are we not all Poles? Aren’t you, you and you sir, all Poles? Aren’t I and him and him? Why don’t you open the gates?” I am sure you’ll agree that this was a perfectly reasonable question. I was king of all Poland. But reasoning has never been our strong point when heated emotion gets in the way, which it so often does. The question went over the heads of the Poles on the walls. They wouldn’t open the gates and I was advised not to call off my men. An impasse. My men were left outside and the citizens of Warsaw were stuck inside. One of my knights claimed that he had a bucket full of human effluent thrown over him when he was relieving himself under the walls. He is inclined to exaggerate but it may be true.

A woman’s thinking resolved the problem. The boys’ mum was Anna Radzwill, a member of the powerful clan from Wilno. I knew them well from my time as Grand Duke. She sent me thirty thousand ducats to call my men back to Cracow with a reminder that her family could be awkward if they wanted to be, as if I needed reminding. I took her advice and was 30 thousand the richer for only a small dent to the king’s authority. A success, I call it. At least I had some money of my own.

Reformation: King Alexander

And here is a good moment to introduce Alexander, the last of the Jagellonian kings not to like speaking Polish.

“Well, I did not expect to become king of Poland. I was perfectly happy as Grand Duke of Lithuenia. But when my brother King John died, what was I supposed to do? The family. I went to Krakow and was crowned. I stuck to Lithuanean. Why should I change? Anyway, the Poles never liked me. They thought I was stupid, though they never said it to my face. Typical.

And please don’t think the Poles were easy to govern. The problem was money, surprise, surprise.

They expected me to defend their borders from the Teutonic Knights, who, despite the myth, my great ancestor did not finish off at Grunwald. Arrogant bastards. And then there were the Russians and the Tartars, chipping away at our eastern borders. And dont talk to me about Moldavia! ‘Give me money,’ I cried. But the Senate and the szlachta were always trying to diminish my prerogatives just as our enemies were chipping at our lands. ‘Oh, we have to control the king otherwise he might get above himself. No money, for him…at least, not enough of it to do anything.’

Thank God for Pope Julius II is all I can say. He kept me going. Yes, the Pope in Rome. He gave me the money our own people wouldn’t. Peter’s Pence, they called it, to keep the Teutonic Knights at bay. He didn’t like them either. ‘Why didn’t your ancestor finish them when he could?’

“He thought he’d won, that’s why.”

Excerpt from my novel about the Reformation in Poland

They say His Eminence died of the French disease. Serve him right, I say putting his wick where it should never go. He got it from a pilgrim. A pilgrim? No, he didn’t get it from a boy. A woman. Lice I’ve caught many a time from sharing a bed with woman but the clap from a pilgrim. A first. And it was a first. The first time anyone in this lovely country of ours had ever admitted to dying of the clap, syphilis. She brought it back fresh from Rome, that whorehouse of the true faith. She brought it to the court like the Italian queen Bona brought the potato, the tomato, the onion and pragmatic diplomacy. How did we survive without these bare necessities? Bare necessities! I like that. Sorry, you still don’t know who I’m talking about. I mean His Eminence Cardinal Frederick Jagiellonczyk. Dead at 35 but not forgotten. He is in the Wawel cathedral in a brass tomb just in front of the altar. The place, Cracow, capital of Poland. The year of our Lord 1503. And believe me, the cardinal is the tip of the iceberg. You should see the rest of the court.