by Michael Subritzky- Kusza Ct, PNA, pp.
Polish heraldry is unique in that it follows none of
the laid down rules observed by the western herald. The bend , bar, pale,
etc were almost unknown in Polish heraldry. However, Polish arms often
bore ancient "ciphers" as charges which are said to trace their
origins back into the mists of time, to the tribal clans of old.
Knighthood in Western Europe was a development of the
feudal system and as a general rule followed the code of knightly conduct
known as chivalry. This system of fealty came into being around the time
of Charlemagne and was spread by Frankish conquest to Northern Italy,
Spain and Germany, and later, in 1066, it was taken to England by the
victorious Norman warlords of William the Conqueror. By the time feudal
knighthood reached Poland in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth
century Poland had long since implemented her own system of both heraldry
Poland possessed no "fountain of honour". The
nobility was an exclusive class in which all members were considered equal.
Membership into this elite group was attained through either "valorous
deeds on the field of honour" - or by adoption. In Poland only the
nobility were permitted to bear a coat of arms, (Herb Polski).
The King of Poland had no power to award letters patent,
this privilege could only be granted ny the "Diet" (Parliment
of Nobles). The social structure of the nobility fell into four groups:
1. Magnates (wealthy landowners, "Krolewieta").
2. Village gentry of modest means. (Owned a village).
3. Small landowners. (Owned part of a village).
4. "Grey Nobility". (Knights of little or no wealth).
In Polish nobility all knights (szlachta) were equal,
all nobles were knights, and all knights were noble. The King having been
elected for the term of his life was considered to be "The first
among equals". The nobility ran parliment, ruled the nation and formed
the vanguard of the nation's army. A coat of arms was exactly what the
name implied - the symbol borne on a knight's surcoat and shield in defence
of the fatherland.
A Polish knight may have had vast estates and carried
his sword on a jewel encrusted belt, but he was only the equal of the
poor knight who had his sword tied to his waist with a piece of rope and
owned a few acres. At the "Diet" each nobleman had an equal
speaking voice throughout the proceedings. Little regard was paid to wealth
and money but bravery in battle was considered a paramount. The Poles
held to the belief that noble birth was the guarantee of noble character
and were forbidden to marry outside of their class. Blood was the assurance
that the brave would produce the brave, the valient would produce the
valient and therefore the highest aristocratic values and traditions of
the Commonwealth of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania
would always be maintained.
Unlike western knights the Polish knight swore no fealty
to an overlord but regarded himself rather as the defender of the Commonwealth,
its people, and also Christendom. The Patron Saint of many Polish knights
was the Madonna of Czestochowa, a sacred painting housed in a monastery
on Jasna Gora (Bright Mountain). It was thought at one time to have been
painted in Nazareth by Saint Luke and later taken from Jerusalem to Byzantium
by Empress Helena.
Within the Polish nobility ennoblement was bestowed upon
an individual for bravery on the field of battle. Once ennobled the coat
of arms bestowed upon the knight became hereditary to all descendents,
both legitimate males and lineal females (that is unmarried daughters).
Polish arms were seldom quartered or labelled with marks of cadency as
all members of an extended family carried the exact same arms and were
considered closer than brothers. The degree of actual kinship within this
clan (rod) had little effect on this bond. A Polish nobleman carried a
"linked" surname, that is, he carried a surname hyphenated with
a coat of arms name. In my own case, SUBRITZKY-KUSZA, (Subritzky is my
surname and Kusza is my coat of arms name). The coat of arms name was
either the name of the actual charge on the shield, or the family's battle
cry. In heraldry, coats of arms such as these are referred to as "proclamatio"
arms (the old Latin word for battle cry).
As regards titles, the ancient Polish code of chivalry
prevented the introduction of orders or the bearing of titles which would
have created an organisation of precedence among the aristocracy. The
majority of Polish titles, such as Prince, Duke, Marquis and Baron are
foreign in origin, being either German, Russian, Maltese or Papal - the
old nobility zealously guarded the principals of equality amongst peers.
In olden times actual nobility was reflected in the suffix tagged to the
end of the surname: cki or ski, which equated to the Germanic von, the
French de, and the English "of", denoting ownership of that
particular village, farm or homestead. In more recent times members of
the old nobility have adopted the usage of the title Chevalier (Knight)
or Count (King's Companion) as an indication of membership into this ancient
and elite caste.
The most famous of all Polish knights must surely be
King Jan III Sobieski, 1629-1696. Sobieski was an elected King, (Polish
kings were elected from amongst the nobility after the extinction of the
Jagellonian dynasty in 1572). During Sobieski's reign Poland became a
European Superpower stretching the borders of its Commonwealth from "The
Baltic to the Black Sea". The hour of Polands greatest triumph was
the battle for the relief of Vienna, when on the 12 August, 1683 King
Sobieski rode to the head of a rag tag army of 70,000 Poles against the
Muslim forces of Kara Mustapha. The body count for the battle of Vienna
was enormous and the muslim army lost more than 10,000 men. They lay in
heaps in the dust for miles around. Polish losses were put as low as several
hundred but the more accepted figure was approximately 2,000. The great
army of Islam, having been soundly defeated, found their foothole in Europe
beginning to crumble. Kara Mustapha, the viser who had commanded the Turks
was summoned to Constantinople by Prince Mahomet IV. As was the custom
with defeated Muslim commanders he was strangled with a silken cord. His
head was removed and stuck on a spike at the gates of the Seraglio. King
Sobieski's lifetime reflected the most romantic period in the history
of Polish nobility, "The Golden Age". After his death the Polish
Commonwealth was gradually broken up and destroyed via a series of partitions,
which were to see the removal of Poland from the map of Europe for 123
years (1795-1918). The weakening of the Polish Commonwealth was to a certain
extent due to the "liberum veto" (the free veto) in which any
single Polish knight had it within his power to dissolve the proceedings
of the Polish parliment. By the time the system of liberum veto had been
amended enough to give the upper house of the Polish Senate more power
it was too late for Poland, and history ran its foreordained destiny.
In the 20th century the torch light of Polish nobility
is kept aflame by the efforts of the Polish Nobility Association which
has been established since the uprisings of the 1830's. The Polish Nobility
Association is under the Hetmanship of the Princes Chylinski-Polubinski,
Poland's most ancient Princely family. And as well by the very many Polish
noble families spread throughout the world who have stayed in touch with
their roots and proudly retained an awareness of the esteemed class from
which they have descended and an identity with their aristocratic forebears
through the retention of a noble surname and linked coat of arms.
Perhaps a fitting way to end this paper on Polish heraldry
and nobility is to quote the first line of a verse from the old Polish
Legions which was later to become the national anthem of the Polish nation,
"Jeszcze Polska nie Zginela, poki my zyjemy"...Poland is not
yet lost as long as we are alive !
For more information on the Polish Nobility Association,
please feel free to contact the author at: firstname.lastname@example.org
About the author: Captain Michael Subritzky-Count Kusza,
a descendent of Jan Sobieski is a noted New Zealand author who has written
on a wide variety of subjects involving Polish history and New Zealand
history. A retired professional soldier he has been decorated by the people
of four different countries. Very recently he received the American Vietnam
Veterans Distingushed Service medal for his book "The Vietnam Scrapbook"
and was made an Honourary member of the American Vietnam Veterans Association.
He is a member of the Old Polish nobility and is the New Zealand Ambassador
for the following organisations:
The Polish Nobility Association
The Lithuanian Royal Nobility Association
The Barons of Lithuania
The Russian College of Heraldry
The Order of Saint Stanislas
The Imperial House of von Hohenstaufen
The Princes Chylinski-Polubinski