24 February 2018
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Lithuania has an amazing 700-year history as an international melting pot. This has been especially evident since 1323, the year Grand Duke Gediminas founded Vilnius as Lithuania's capital city and immediately decided to invite merchants, craftsmen, bankers, farmers, and soldiers from all Europe to come to the new capital, guaranteeing all freedom of beliefs and good working conditions. Vilnius became international, though with less of German or Scandinavian influence, as one could expect, rather influenced by Italy and Mediterranean ideas – greatly different from the other two Baltic capitals where Hanseatic influence became dominant.

VilNews will in some upcoming issues publish articles about impacts of foreign nations and cultures here. We also welcome you, dear readers, to share with us information you may have about 'foreign footprints in Lithuania'.


Stephen Báthory, the Hungarian who

became Lithuania’s Grand Duke

File:Batory Jagiellonka.jpg
Stephen Báthory and his wife Anna Jagiellon were co-rulers, as the second monarch in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth with the dual title ‘King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania’.

You may remember our story about Anna Jagiellon (Lithuanian: Ona Jogailaitė, 1523–1596) daughter of Grand Duke Sigismund the Old and Italian Bona Sforza. In 1572, when the throne of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, at the time the largest and one of the most populous states in Europe, was vacated after her brother Sigismund Augustus died without heirs, she convinced the Polish and Lithuanian nobles to elect the French prince Henry of Valois as the new ruler. It was Jean Montluc, Bishop of Valence, who had offered the French prince to the electors of the commonwealth as the next King and Grand Duke. Montluc promised the electors that Henry would marry Anna, "to maintain the dynastic tradition". Unfortunately, for Anna, after Henry was elected as the first monarch in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, he withdrew his promise and they never wed.

In 1574 Henry left Poland to assume his new duties as King of France and by May of 1575 the Parliament of the Commonwealth had removed him as their monarch. By the autumn of 1575 a new candidate was offered to the electors, Stephen Báthory, Prince of Transylvania. Stephen had to agree to the condition that he would marry Anna, which he did.

On 15 December 1575, near Warsaw, Anna along with Stephen Báthory, her fiancé, was elected as co-rulers, as the second monarch in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth with the dual title of King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania. The coronation took place in Krakow 1 May 1576.

Stephen Báthory's Smocze Zęby ("Dragon's Teeth") coat-of-arms.

Stephen Báthory's position was at first extremely difficult, but some important victories in the by then ‘religious wars’ gave him a chance to devote himself to strengthening royal authority, in which he was supported by his chancellor Jan Zamoyski, who was just as skilled a politician. The two managed to win over several factions of the Lithuanian and Polish nobility, mostly by means of better taxation of crown lands and royal property leased to the nobility.

In external relations, Stephen sought peace through strong alliances. Though he remained distrustful of the Habsburgs, he entered into a defensive alliance with Maximilian's successor, Rudolf II, fostered by the papal nuncio. The difficulties with the Ottoman Empire were temporarily adjusted by a truce signed on November 5, 1577.

He ruled the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth only for slightly more than a decade but managed to leave prominent trace in the countries’ history. His rule, from 1575 to 1586, was marked by a series of important events such as the Commonwealth victory over Muscovy in the Livonian war and foundation of Vilnius University, both of which had direct repercussions for the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. 

With his three carefully planned military campaigns against Russia from 1579 to 1581, Stephen Báthory managed to force Muscovy to denounce its rights to the conquered Livonian territories and sign a peace treaty in 1582. He also established a cannon shop in Vilnius, perfected the artillery and war engineering techniques, reorganized the army and introduced uniforms. Meanwhile, to neutralize a military threat from the south he signed a peace treaty with the Ottoman Empire and the Crimean Khanate.

To bulk up his presence in Livonia Stephen Báthory's in 1579 also deployed the Commonwealth Polish troops. Yet the decisive point in the campaign against Russia was the siege of Pskov that was eventually used by him as a trading chip in his negotiations with Muscovy. The Commonwealth received all Livonian territories that fell under its rule by the Vilnius treaty of 1561, except for the northern Livonian lands under Swedish control. Meanwhile, Russia regained the lands annexed by Poland-Lithuania in 1580. The negotiations were a success. Within three years Stephen Báthory managed to turn the fortunes of the war that seemed to go all wrong for Poland and Lithuania in particular. This was also only a part of the story. The war with Muscovy appears to be only a part of the master plan: Stephen Báthory sought to turn Russia into a dependency of the Commonwealth, use joint forces in a war with the Ottoman Empire and eventually free his homeland Transylvania. 

Establishment of Vilnius University in 1579 is another prominent event associated with the rule of Stephen Báthory. While the Grand Duchy was ready to feature its own university already for some time, his decision to found a higher education establishment in Vilnius had clear political undertones. He sought to strengthen the rule of the monarchy in regards to the strong caste of noblemen. To do that he often reverted for help to the Catholic Church, a natural ally against protestant nobles.

The appearance of Vilnius University was in fact a well-planned step in a clever political campaign. It was essential for the Catholic Church to establish an educational establishment before the Reformats would do so. Thus already in 1569, Waleryan Protasewicz, the Bishop of Vilnius, invited Jesuit monks to the city of Vilnius and allocated funds to establish a Jesuit academy. The academy was opened in 1970 with an aim to become a university in the near future. The Jesuits appear to have grand plans for their school in Vilnius that went far and beyond the confines of the Lithuania. The university was to serve as a beacon of Catholicism not only in Grand Duchy but also in the neighbouring states and as far as China.

However the final steps in founding the university appeared to be far from easy. In 1577 Pope Gregory XIII issued a bull that supported the establishment of Vilnius University. Now the Bishop of Vilnius had to secure the support of the Grand Duke. Stephen Báthory granted his privilege in 1578 but that was only a part of the story. For the document to become official it had to bear the stamp of Grand Duchy of Lithuania which was in the possession of Radvila the Brown, the Chancellor of the State and a zealous protestant. The Chancellor did not grant the stamp, so the same procedure was repeated next year. This time King Stephan issued a privilege in Vilnius which was stamped by the minor state stamp of Grand Duchy of Lithuania in possession of the Vice-Chancellor. Once again, he failed to claim the support of Chancellor Radvila the Brown and had the Vice-Chancellor, also a reformist, stamp the document only after threats to take punitive measures. To make the matters complete, on 29 October 1579 the Pope issued another bull that confirmed existence of Academia et Universitas Vilnensis Societatis Iesu. Finally, Vilnius had its own university.    

The rule of Stephen Báthory, however brief, undoubtedly left positive marks in the Commonwealth and Grand Duchy history. In a relatively short time he managed to solve imminent external problems of the state and strengthen its internal structures. He acknowledged Grand Duchy of Lithuania as an equal partner in the Commonwealth of two nations and heavily contributed to its further cultural development.  According to contemporary panegyrics Stephen Báthory's deeds surpassed previous monarchs and can be compared only to Lithuania’s famous Grand Duke Vytautas.

His death was followed by an interregnum of one year. The Emperor's brother Archduke Maximilian, was elected King but was contested by Anna’s nephew, Swedish Sigismund III Vasa, who defeated Maximilian at the Byczyna and succeeded as ruler of the Commonwealth.

Sigismund III Vasa was King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania from 1587 to 1632, and King of Sweden (where he is known simply as Sigismund) from 1592 until he was deposed in 1599. He was the son of King John III of Sweden and his first wife, Catherine Jagiellon, sister of Anna.

Anna died during her nephew Sigismund's reign, on 9 September 1596. She was the last member of the Jagiellon Dynasty that had started with Grand Duke Gediminas 300 years earlier. With her, Lithuania’s time of glory had come to an end…


Békés Hill in Vilnius

File:Bekesh Hill.jpg
Remains of Bekes Hill at River Vilnia before it was washed away in the 1800s. 

This was a hill next to the Hill of Three Crosses in Vilnius, named after Gáspár de Kornyath Bekes (1520 - 1580), a Hungarian noble who was buried on the hill which later became known as the Bekes Hill. His grave was marked by an octagonal tower, 20 meters (66 ft) high and 6 meters (20 ft) in diameter.

The river Vilnia, flowing at the foot of the hill, was eroding it until in 1838 five walls of the monument fell, and other walls went down in 1841. A small cemetery is thought to have been here in the 17-18th century, and at the beginning of the 20th century paths leading from the Botanical and Bernardine Gardens to the hill top were designed.

Bekes was treasurer for John II Sigismund Zápolya, King of Hungary (died 1571). Bekes gained considerable power and favor with the King. In his testament Zápolya, who did not have a legal heir, designated Bekes as Voivode of Transylvania. However, Hungarian nobles did not honour the will and elected Stephen Báthory as their voivode while Bekes was away on a diplomatic mission in the court of Maximilian II, Holy Roman Emperor. Supported by Maximilian, who rivaled Báthory for the throne of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, Bekes gathered his army and organized a rebellion against Báthory, but was defeated. Bekes lost all of his possessions and was forced to seek asylum with Maximilian in Vienna.

When Poland–Lithuania elected Henry of Valois as its monarch, Maximilian and Báthory ceased hostilities. Bekes unsuccessfully traveled to the Ottoman Empire seeking allies. His hopes were revived again when in 1574 Henry of Valois abdicated the Polish throne and Maximilian–Báthory rivalry resumed. Bekes, supported by Székelys, started another rebellion, but his forces were defeated in the Battle of Sinpaul in 1575. Supporters of Bekes were brutally suppressed and privileges for Székelys were suspended.

Maximilian died in 1576, and Bekes lost any hopes of reclaiming Transylvania. Instead he decided to reconcile with Báthory and became his loyal ally and close adviser despite differences in their religions. During the Danzig rebellion Bekes commanded Hungarian troops, sent to assist Báthory in establishing his control over the Commonwealth, and gained special recognition for his defense of Elbląg (Ebling). During the Livonian War against Ivan IV of Russia Bekes joined the expedition to re-conquer Polatsk (1579).

Coat of arms of Bekes

Portrait of Bekes


For his service Báthory assigned him Lanckorona (a village in Poland, near Kraków, today famous for its well preserved 19th century wooden houses) and other lands.

On his way to Hrodna, Poland in 1580, Bekes caught a cold, fell ill, and died later in Hrodna. His body was transported to Vilnius for burial, but none of the city's Christian cemeteries agreed to accept him because of his Arian faith. Therefore he was buried on a hill, which later became known as the Bekes Hill. His grave was marked by an octagonal tower, 20 meters (66 ft) in height and 6 meters (20 ft) in diameter. The hill and his grave were washed away by the Vilnia River in mid 19th century. The former hill territory is now within the Kalnai Park.


Royal stud of horses

in Birštonas

Hungarians started showing interest for the area of Birštonas already in the 16th century, even being rendered the rights of the district for 40 years. In these times a royal stud of Hungarian horses thrived here where River Nemunas makes its amazing loop


Panemunė Castle near Jurbarkas

Over the years 1604 - 1610 the Hungarian nobleman Janusz Eperjes
built the Panemunė Castle right here at the Nemunas River,
not far away from the town Jurbarkas.

Over the years 1604 - 1610 the Hungarian nobleman Janusz Eperjes built the Panemunė Castle on a hilltop at the Nemunas River, not far away from the town Jurbarkas (above today’s highway between Kaunas and Jurbarkas). The castle was probably built in connection with the river driving and transport of timber on the Nemunas River that started flourishing by the middle of the 16th century.

It is supposed that the name of the castle comes from the Panemunė manor, and that Petras Nonhartas, architect for the reconstruction of the Lower Vilnius Castle at that time, was the author of the castle project and the first construction supervisor. He was a friend of the Eperjes’ family.

The Panemunė castle was not built as a defense fortress; it was just a typical feudal castle with defensive equipment typical for the 17th century. The original castle was built in Renaissance style, with some Late Gothic elements. It is today considered one of the most beautiful Renaissance Epoch buildings in Lithuania. The castle was surrounded by five ponds with four water mills and some farm buildings, remaining from the old manor. A wonderful castle park with five cascade pools and a hilly relief leaves also today’s visitors with an unforgettable impression.

By the middle of the 17th century Janusz Eperjes son Christopher reconstructed the castle, introducing several baroque elements. . At the end of the 18th century the castle was reconstructed in classical style, and some of the old buildings demolished. 

In 1925 the Lithuanian government made the castle a national possession and in 1935 the Panemunė Castle and its surroundings were taken under responsibility of the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture. In 1961 it was included into the list of national culturally valuable monuments. In 1995 – 1997 the castle was partially reconstructed.

Nowadays Panemunė Castle has two remaining corpuses – the western wing that includes two towers – and a southern wing. Panemunė Castle belongs to the Vilnius Art Academy, responsible for restoration and maintenance, as well as fitting it to science, education and tourism purposes. During the summer season the Vilnius Art Academy arranges expositions of art here.

Visitors are also let to climb up the towers and watch the spectacular view of the Nemunas River and the landscapes around.  The nearby park is a part of the whole structure of the castle. It is a perfect example of a landscaped park that strengthens the overall impression of the Panemunė Castle on its beautiful hilltop location.

Category : Featured black / The world in Lithuania

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