The woman that was known as King – on this day, Poland’s last female monarch was crowned

Anna Jagiellon was only the second and final woman to rule Poland as monarch and the last of the Jagiellonian dynasty. Public domain

Anna Jagiellon was only the second and final woman to rule Poland as monarch and the last of the great Jagiellonian dynasty. On 13 December 1575, she was hailed King of Poland and the Grand Duchess of Lithuania in the Old Town Square in Warsaw, replacing on the throne Henry Valois, who had fled the country and returned to France.

Six months later, she would marry the Duke of Transylvania Stephen Báthory and formally they would reign together on an equal footing.

After her husband’s death in 1586, Anna withdrew from court life, but she schemed to ensure the election of her nephew Zygmunt III Waza as King of Poland.

History has recorded that Anna was not very pretty and she certainly had no luck in love – no other Polish princess suffered so many abandonments, humiliations and disappointments.

Painted in 1553 by Lucas Cranach the Younger, from an early age Anna had to work hard to gain the attention of her mother.  Public domain

However, when her brother King Zygmunt August died without an heir, Anna’s stock raced up in value. With her death, the period of power of the Jagiellonian state ended.

Anna Jagiellon was born on 18 October 1523 as a daughter of King Zygmunt the Old and his wife Bona Sforza, the Italian credited with bringing over soup vegetables such as carrots and cauliflower (still referred to as włoszczyzna) to Poland.

She was raised at Wawel Castle in Kraków and became acquainted with the secrets of court politics from an early age, all the while observing the reign of her father Zygmunt the Old and events such as the coronation of her brother Zygmunt August.

At first-hand she witnessed Bona’s intrigues and was well aware that women, just like men, could effectively conduct politics.

Anna learned to embroider as a child and one of her works is still proudly kept by the Jagiellonian University in Kraków.Public domain

Her upbringing and education were supervised by Bona Sforza, who was considered a strict and demanding mother. Anna and her two sisters, Zofia and Katarzyna, had to work hard to seek their mother’s attention from an early age, as she clearly favoured the older siblings Izabela and Zygmunt.

Anna spoke Italian fluently, knew Latin, and could sew, weave and embroider beautifully. Everything pointed to a suitable matrimonial match for the young princess, but it never happened.

Her parents put all their efforts into finding matches for their older children while the younger princesses remained on the side-lines for years.

Anna harboured hopes of marrying handsome French prince Henry Valois.Public domain

Shortly afterwards, in April 1548, Zygmunt the Old died. During the king’s funeral, the first serious competitor for the hand of the already 25-year-old Anna appeared in the form of 26-year-old Albrecht Alcybiades, Margrave of Kulmbach. Bona, though, did not like him, and he was a Protestant. His offer was rejected.

Eventually, Anna’s sister Zofia was married to Henry II, Duke of Brunswick, and Katarzyna was married to John Vasa, Duke of Finland and later King of Sweden.

Another hope of a dignified marriage appeared after the death of her aunt, the wife of Emperor Ferdinand I Habsburg. However, plunged into mourning and despair after the loss of his wife, he refused another wife called Anna who was also a Jagiellonian.

In 1576 she married the Duke of Transylvania, Stephan Báthory, but the marriage was doomed.Public domain

She had several more suitors, but they were not serious candidates. She was in her fifties and slowly began to lose hope of getting married. It looked like she would shrivel away into spinsterhood and a life of prayer.

Her fortunes took a dramatic turn when Zygmunt August died without his own heir. As the only heiress of the family, Anna Jagiellon suddenly turned from a neglected and forgotten old maiden into one of the most in-demand brides in Europe from suitors who saw her as a route to the Polish throne.

Tsar Ivan IV the Terrible, the brother of the King of France Henry Valois and the son of Emperor Ernest Habsburg all lodged their interest.

Ill-fated from the start, Bathory never learned Polish and only communicated with his wife through an interpreter.Public domain

Anna’s favour went to the handsome French prince Henry Valois, whose election as King of Poland in 1573 she supported, and she harboured hopes of marrying the good-looking Frenchman.

Polish nobles attached to the Jagiellonian dynasty obliged Henry to marry her. However, he did not keep his promise and in 1574 he fled Poland to claim the throne of France, and perhaps as well because he was terrified at the prospect of marriage to a woman thirty years older than him.

After the disappointment of Henry Valois, the Polish nobility took the unusual step of putting Anna herself forward in the new election in December 1575. The only other time Poland had had female king was when Jadwiga was crowned in Kraków in 1384.

A view of Warsaw as it would have appeared during Anna’s life – the Sigismund Augustus Bridge in the foreground was finished on her behest after the death of Sigismund.Public domain

Anna was voted to be the new monarch and the nobility approached her with offers of matrimony from a pro-Habsburg candidate, as well as the Duke of Transylvania Stephan Báthory.

On 1 May 1576, she married the latter at Wawel Castle and was crowned with him in Wawel Cathedral.

Formally, as the King of Poland, her position was equal to that of Stephen Báthory. She even tried to gain an advantage over him by requiring ambassadors to first submit their credentials to her.

Formally a monarch until her death in 1596, she is remembered for her virtues and her profound religiousness.Public domain

The marriage was unsuccessful. Báthory avoided his wife, who was ten years older than him and, having never learned to speak Polish, communicated with her through an interpreter for the rest of his life.

At the time of the wedding, Anna was fifty-three and considered to be a person who could not arouse interest, both because of her negative character traits and her appearance. In the opinion of her contemporaries, she was a boring old maiden and was considered ugly.

Despite the equal position of the spouses, Anna was isolated by Báthory from state affairs as her husband gradually manoeuvred her away from power.

Anna vigorously opposed the Reformation in Mazovia and supported Jesuit counter-reformists.Public domain

Alone in Warsaw and seeing her husband only rarely, she became prone to intrigue and met secretly with her husband’s enemies.      

The breakdown of marital life and the resulting loneliness increased her religiosity. She vigorously opposed the Reformation in Mazovia and supported Jesuit counter-reformists.

In 1586 Báthory died. Although officially monarch, Anna relinquished her rights to the crown and her reign lasted until August 19, 1587.

She was buried in Wawel Cathedral in the Zygmunt Chapel, whose construction she completed in 1584, at the side of her father and brother.Public domain

After the death of her sister, Queen Catherine of Sweden in 1583, Anna considered herself the only guardian of Zygmunt, the nephew she had never seen, and poured her motherly feelings onto him. After Báthory’s death, bringing Zygmunt to the throne was her main goal, and this she achieved in 1587.

Formally a monarch until her death on 9 September 1596, she is remembered for her virtues and her profound religiousness.

The influential Jesuit preacher Piotr Skarga at her funeral said that her life was a beautiful end and closing to the Jagiellonian dynasty. She was buried in Wawel Cathedral in the Zygmunt Chapel, whose construction she completed in 1584, at the side of her father and brother.