This year, in order to celebrate St. Valentine’s Day, I decided to treat you with something horribly romantic. Accordingly, my little essay will have it all: doomed love, arranged marriages, love matches, unfaithful lovers, cursed inheritance, greed, worthless friends, illegitimate offspring, unlawful murders, ghosts and two Polish noblewomen plagued by bad luck. Doesn’t it sound sweet? Like a cross between Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet – only better because almost completely true ;p.
My first heroine, Beata Kościelecka, was born in 1515, officially being the only daughter of Andrzej Kościelecki i Katarzyna Telniczanka. Still there were rumours that her real father was the Polish king, Sigismundus I the Old. Let’s face it, they most probably were true. Katarzyna, a woman who could be described only as a highly successful courtesan, was Sigismundus’s lover before he ascended the throne; she was also the acknowledged mother of his three illegitimate children. In 1509, when her royal protector got bored of her (or, alternatively, when he found out she was pregnant again; or he found out he was being cheated on again) he made her marry Andrzej Kościelecki, the rich and influential marshal of the court. It was a kind of a scandal but the marriage proved to be rather happy. Still it was rumoured that even after the nuptials Katarzyna kept visiting the royal bedroom when the King felt lonely… and other bedrooms as well. Anyway Katarzyna gave Andrzej a son who died in his infancy and a daughter who was born several weeks after his death and was given his surname.
A royal bastard or not, Beata was a pretty, intelligent girl with an education and a dowry worth a princess. She was a lady-in-waiting of Queen Bona Sforza, the Italian wife of Sigismundus, and, wonder of wonders, also one of her favourites. In 1539, when she reached the quite advanced age of 24, she married one of the most eligible and richest bachelors around, knyaz (Russian for prince) Ilya (Eliyah) Alexander Ostrogski. It was allegedly a love match and the ceremony took place in Wawel, the official seat of Polish kings, one day after the wedding of Isabella Jagiełło, the eldest Royal Princess, and Hungarian King John Zápolya. A coincidence? I don’t think so. Nobody would honour a daughter of a marshal of the court and a courtesan in such a way; a love child of the King was quite another matter.
Beata and Ilya were very happy but the happiness of the young couple didn’t last long. The wedding was lavish and included tournaments. Illya dueled with Sigismund II Augustus himself, the heir apparent of the Polish throne, and was thrown off his horse and “beat that badly, that for half of the year was complaining”. Maybe his complaints weren’t so totally groundless, they might have become the reason of his death on August 15, 1539; still plenty of people believed he was poisoned by his own half- brother, Vasyl who coveted Illya’s wealth and position. If Vasyl was indeed behind the death of his brother he didn’t get what he wanted. Beata was already pregnant with Ilya’s daughter, Princess Elizaveta Ostrogska (Ostrozka in English) also called Halshka and that little girl inherited the great fortune of her father. As you can imagine it made her a very appealing potential bride. She is going to be the second heroine of my essay.
It is not easy to be the mother of one of the richest heiresses in the kingdom. Beata had to protect her daughter all her life; maybe because of that fact she became rather overbearing, psychically subduing the younger and weaker girl. Mind you the hand of Halshka was sought after by different shadowy characters since her birth; her future husband was the matter of interest even of the Polish parliament (called Seym) and in 1551 a special motion was voted through that “the widow (meaning Beata) cannot give the daughter away into a marriage without the permission of close relatives.” Ha. It was a disaster waiting to happen.
The first part of the drama took place when Halshka was barely 14 (other sources claim she was even younger). One of her legal guardians decided to marry her behind the Seym’s back to prince Dimitr Sagnushko, starost of Kaniv, Cherkasy and Zhytomyr – for a fee.
Allegedly Dimitr loved young Halshka very much but Beata, her mother, opposed their union. There were rumours that the almost forty-year-old widow fancied young, handsome knight for herself. What’s more important also Sigismundus II Augustus, the Polish King at that time and an official guardian of the Princess, didn’t agree to that marriage because it didn’t further his interests. Still Dimitr, a seasoned warrior, decided to act like a real romantic hero. With the support of Vasyl, the uncle and another of Halshka’s official guardians, he attacked the castle of Ostrog where the girl was living with her mother. He captured the castle but only after breaking heavy resistance, killing many people and losing some of his soldiers. Then he imprisoned Beata in a room and married her daughter. Imagine such a scene: young Halshka, still not being able to shake off the horrors of the siege, is led to the chapel by her uncle and her mother is banging on the door and yelling ‘I do not agree to the marriage! I do not agree!” The chronicles told that the girl was so paralyzed with terror during the ceremony that she couldn’t utter a single word; her answers were given by Vasyl.
Furious Beata somehow managed to alert the Polish King and Dimitr, proclaimed an infamis (outlaw), had to flee taking his young bride with him. He managed to cross the Polish border and foolishly he thought he was safe. Still he underestimated the greed and resourcefulness of Polish magnats. His little party was followed by units of soldiers led by several noblemen, border or no border, and he was finally captured by Marcin Zborowski in the Jaroměř; allegedly it was in the morning, after a late wedding feast the prince threw at an inn for his young bride. Dimitr, as an outlaw, was killed after being tortured whole night and his horribly mauled body was left on a pile of manure for everybody to see. Of course that act had nothing to do with justice; in fact it was completely illegal because they were out of the jurisdiction of the Polish monarch. Imagine what influence the execution (or rather murder) might have on the young girl who, it is reported, begged for Dimitr’s life till the very end. Halshka was returned to her mother; still it didn’t mean the end of her plight.
In 1555 Sigismundus Augustus decided to end that husband-searching drama. He handpicked Łukasz Górka (Lucas Hill in English ;p), one of his most trusted people, the voivode of Poznań, Kalisz, Łęczyca and Brześć Kujawski. Łukasz was also one of the men who followed and participated in the murder of Dimitr. Halshka was tricked into marrying him while her mother was being held up in…the royal privy. The King showed her a ring taken by force from her mother’s finger claiming Beata agreed to the marriage. As you can imagine that choice and the way the marriage was performed didn’t meet with the approval of Beata – at that time she wanted her daughter to marry Siemion Olelkowicz, Prince of Slutsk. As Górka was busy fighting a war for his king, both mother and daughter managed to flee to Lviv and hid in the Dominican church. Prince Siemon slipped in, dressed like a beggar, and secretly married Halshka. The King however didn’t recognize it and ordered Prince Siemon to give his wife back to Górka. The church was besieged by Łukasz who brought a small army with cannons. After the monks lost their access to the source of fresh water mother and daughter were forced to surrender and accept the King’s will.
Still Beata Kościelecka had a spirit of a seasoned warrior; for many years she tried legally to cancel her daughter’s marriage with Łukasz, filing lawsuits and asking favours wherever she could. She must have hated the man and the fact that her will was so blatantly ignored. Unfortunately her son-in-law proved to be too powerful an opponent for a lonely widow, even a wealthy one. She knew she had to find at least one strong ally, a champion of her cause, an energetic, influential and knowledgeable nobleman who wouldn’t be afraid of the Górkas and their supporters. And for some time she thought she managed to do that.
In 1564 she married for the second time – some say because she also fell in love, some claim it was the last-ditch effort to make sure Łukasz Górka never saw one single thaler of her money. She chose Olbracht (Albert) Łaski, the ambitious voivode of Sieradz, an adventurer who was constantly broke but seemed more than capable of pushing her cause forward. Well, money was one thing Beata didn’t lack. Olbracht was also allegedly quite handsome, 20 years younger than his bride. He charmed the older woman and tricked her into believing he was really in love with her.
Right after the marriage the couple went to Slovakia where Łaski wined and dined Beata, even arranging for her the first documented tourist excursion to the Tatra mountains which, by the way, enchanted her instantly. Everything was fine until she transferred all her property to him. After that Łaski changed overnight from a devoted husband into a despot and Beata turned from a pampered wife into a prisoner, bricked up in a suite of rooms of the Kieżmark castle with just two maids as companions. Her meals were delivered through a hole in the ceiling and she had one window through which she could admire the view of the Tatras – because that mountain excursion of hers was also the official reason or her ‘punishment’. Łaski started to claim Beata went without his consent. It was clearly a lie as the documents from that era state clearly he accompanied his wife. No matter.
Anyway Beata was left to live in horrible conditions, being for eight years completely isolated from the outside world. She and her ladies wore tatters and never bathed. It is said she wrote desperate letters on scraps torn from her prayer book, using soot diluted with water instead of ink and a wooden stick. She sent them to the Ferdinand I Habsburg, the Polish King, his sister, Princess Anne, and every single magnat she could think of; still nobody even thought about an intervention. It seemed when she needed them the most, she had no longer any friends left.
Only in 1573 the Emperor ordered the starost (so the head) of Upper Hungary district to conduct an investigation, mainly due to the fact that Łaski finally went over the top. The blasted gent married for the second time while Beata was still alive, by all intends and purposes committing bigamy. At that point desperate Beata begged just for her freedom, promising to drop any claims to her personal wealth. However the bad luck plagued her to the very end. 1573 was also the year of interregnum in Poland as Sigismundus II Augustus died without producing any offspring, ending the Jagiellon dynasty. The magnats were looking for another monarch and Łaski, a consummate politician, became very useful to the Emperor. As a result he was able to keep his wife under key even though, after his second marriage, he lost any rights to her money. In 1576 Beata was finally moved to Koszyce by the friendly starost; mind you it was still done against the will of Łaski. I don’t doubt the woman appreciated the change of scenery but she was kept under guard, as if she was a very dangerous thug who committed a serious crime. Well, protecting her daughter, loving the mountains and wanting a bit of romance in her life were her only crimes. She died the same year, never regaining her freedom and never seeing her daughter again. The fate of Halshka was, unfortunately, very similar.
Married to a man 35 years her senior for political and monetary reasons, abandoned, virtually imprisoned in the castle of Szamotuły, without any anchor in her life, Halshka was slowly slipping into insanity (which most likely was just deep depression). She was never a woman with a good brain or a strong character; after witnessing so many horrible deeds, devoid of the firm guidance of Beata she became completely helpless. Her incredible wealth brought her only sorrow; she turned into a plaything of powerful men who never thought or cared about her well-being. She managed to outlive Łukasz Górka, her third and most unwanted husband who died suddenly in January 1573. Then she was visited by Vasyl who stayed as long as it was needed to persuade Halshka to give him and his son a part of her fortune. He invited the widow to Dubno where Halshka died in 1582 (the precise date is unknown), unhappy, alone and, allegedly completely insane. Still she continues to live in people’s collective memory.
There is a legend about one of Szamotuły castle towers, knows as the Tower of Halshka. People say that it used to be the prison of the Black Princess, whose face was hidden behind an iron mask by her jealous, elderly husband. After dark the ghost of the Princess wanders the corridors which join the Tower and the castle chapel, wailing and lamenting her fate. However, if you are thinking of going to Szamotuły for a bit of ghost-hunting hold your horses. First of all it is a historically proven fact that Halshka died somewhere else. Apart from that it is difficult to tell what the role of Łukasz Górka was and whether he really made the life of his young wife unbearable by putting an ugly iron mask on her face -that little tidbit looks like something invented by creative local guides to make the castle more ‘picturesque’ and ‘gothic’. There are several documents saying that Halshka attended different religious ceremonies outside along with her third husband – if she showed up with an ugly ‘mask’ it would be something widely commented on. Finally during her tenure at Szamotuly the castle was under construction so everybody who lived there was simply forced to stay in the tower.