Stephen Báthory, Prince of Transylvania & elected King of Poland. 1576-1586
Stephen Báthory was born in Somlyo as the son of Stephen Báthory (d. 1534). His father was a partisan of John Zapolya, who claimed the crown of Hungary in opposition to the Habsburg claimant Ferdinand I, and had been appointed Voivode of Transylvania.
Stephen Báthory the son won renown as a valiant lord-marcher, and as a skilful diplomat at the imperial court. His advocacy for the rights of Zapolya's son John Sigismund incurred the animosity of the Emperor Maximilian II, who kept him in prison for two years.
The Habsburgs and Zapolya courts finally reached an agreement in 1570 and John Sigismund contented himself with Transylvania. After his death in 1571, the Transylvanian estates elected Stephen Báthory Voivod of Transylvania - against the provisions of the late Prince, who had appointed Gáspár Békés his successor. Supported by the Habsburgs, Bekesy insisted on his claims but in a civil war Báthory ultimately drove his rival out of the country.
In 1572, the throne of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, at the time the largest and one of the most populous states in Europe, was vacated when King Sigismund II of Poland died without heirs. In April 1573, his sister Anna, the sole heir to the crown, convinced the Sejm to elect the French prince Henry of Valois as ruler. A marriage with Henry was to further legitimize Henry's rule but less than a year after his coronation, Henry fled Poland to succeed his brother as King of France.
On December 12, 1575, after a interregnum of roughly one and a half years, the Sejm, persuaded by the Papal nuncio, elected the Emperor Maximilian as the new monarch. However, after three days the nobility threatened the senate with civil war and demanded a Piast king, a Polish King. After a heated discussion, it was decided that Anna should be elected King of Poland and marry Stephen Báthory. Representatives of Lithuania left the Sejm and did not participate in this election. Among the strongest supporters of his candidacy were the Protestants and Socinians, who feared a Habsburg ruler could introduce Counter-Reformation in Poland, whereas Stephen's Transylvania was known for freedom of religion.
On December 13, 1575 Anna Jagiellon was elected in Warsaw King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania and on May 1, 1576 Stephen married Anna and was crowned King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania.
This coronation almost made the Union of Lublin obsolete, as the representatives of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania who were not present at this election seriously considered to elect Emperor Maximilian. After some negotiations and assurance of Lithuania's full federal rights within the Commonwealth, Stephen Báthory was recognized as Grand Duke of Lithuania, Duke of Ruthenia and Samogitia. As a token of his recognition he established Almae Academia et Universitas Vilnensis.
Stephen Báthory's position was at first extremely difficult. The country was badly damaged by the troubles of the interregnum. Emperor Maximilian, insisting on his earlier election, fostered internal opposition and in league with Tsardom of Russia prepared to enforce his claim by military action. However, Maximilian's sudden death completely reversed the situation.
All armed opposition collapsed when the prolonged Siege of Danzig (1577) by Batory's forces was lifted as an agreement was reached. The Hanseatic League city, encouraged by its immense wealth and almost impregnable fortifications, as well as by the secret support of Denmark and Emperor Maximilian, had supported the latter's election and shut her gates against Stephen. After a siege of six months, the Danzig army of 5,000 mercenaries was utterly defeated in a field battle on December 16, 1577. However, since Stephen's armies were unable to take the city by force, a compromise was reached: Stephen Báthory confirmed the city's special status and her Danzig law privileges granted by earlier Polish kings. The city recognised him as ruler of Poland and paid the enormous sum of 200,000 guldens in gold as payoff ("apology"). Danzig later remained loyal to the Kingdom during wars with Sweden and Tsardom of Russia, providing help when requested.
This victory gave Stephen 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. Stephen completely reorganized the Polish Army. Among his genuine inventions was the piechota wybraniecka semi-professional infantry formation, composed of peasants trained in both infantry warfare and engineering. Stephen also reorganised the judiciary by formation of legal tribunals. He also founded the Academy of Vilna, the third university in the Commonwealth and a predecessor of the modern Vilnius University. Stephen also ordered the execution of Samuel Zborowski, whose death sentence for treason and murder had been pending for roughly a decade.
In external relations, Stephen sought peace through strong alliances. Though Stephen 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. The Sejm gathered in Warsaw was persuaded to grant Stephen subsidies for the inevitable war against Muscovy. Two campaigns of wearing marches, and still more exhausting sieges ensued, in which Stephen Báthory, although repeatedly hampered by the parsimony of the Sejm, was uniformly successful, his skilful diplomacy at the same time allaying the suspicions of the Ottomans and the emperor.
Stephen, together with his chancellor Zamoyski, led the army of the Commonwealth in a brilliant decisive campaign during the Livonian War (which formed part of the Muscovite wars between Poland-Lithuania and Muscovy). Ivan the Terrible had invaded Livonia and took Dorpat, Duchy of Courland, which a few years earlier had become a vassal of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth army routed the Russian force at Velikiye Luki. In 1581 Stephen penetrated to the very heart of Russia and, on August 22, laid siege to the city of Pskov, whose vast size and imposing fortifications filled the little Commonwealth army with dismay. But the king, despite the murmurs of his own officers, and the protestations of the papal nuncio Possevino, whom the curia had sent to mediate between the Tsar and the king of Poland to arrange a church union, closely besieged the city throughout a winter of Arctic severity, till, on the December 13, 1581, Ivan the Terrible, alarmed for the safety of the third city in his empire, concluded the Peace of Jam Zapolski (January 15, 1582), thereby ceding Polatsk and the whole of Livonia back to the Commonwealth.
With the eastern borders secure, Stephen planned a Christian alliance with Tsardom of Russia against the Ottoman Empire. However, Russia's lapse into the Time of Troubles left him without a Russian partner, while the proposal of a personal union with Muscovy was rendered moot by his own sudden death, on December 12, 1586 in Old Hrodna Castle. (His autopsy there was the first to take place in Eastern Europe; Báthory was originally interred also in Hrodna.)
His death was followed by an interregnum of one year. The Emperor's brother Archduke Maximilian, was elected King but was contested by the Swedish Sigismund III Vasa, who defeated Maximilian at the Byczyna and succeeded as ruler of the Commonwealth. According to contemporary panegyrics Stephen Báthory's deeds surpassed previous monarchs and can be compared only to Vytautas.