Historical story

The final chapter of a great legend. The death of Barbara Radziwiłłówna

Last updated:2022-07-25

In the last months of her life, she did everything to regain a little dignity and peace. Despite this, she left her scorned and misunderstood. A moment before her death, she begged for her body to be returned to Lithuania. She did not want to rest in Poland where she met only hatred.

Barbara walked to the altar, head bowed. She knelt, kissed the archbishop's ring reverently, then lay down on the cross. Meanwhile, all gathered as one man began to recite the words of the prayer. In the voice of hundreds of throats came: Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison, Kyrie Eleison

The celebrant solemnly recalled the names of the most important women of the Old Testament:Sarah, Rebecca, Judith and Esther. Now Radziwiłłówna was compared to them, the wives and daughters of the wise men. And not to the slave Alexander the Great married by a strange twist of fate. This was followed by the anointing and the coronation.

Coronation portrait of Barbara Radziwiłłówna. There is no sign of disease on the queen's face. However, this is the last happy moment in her life.

Barbara, the symbol of supreme power at her temples, an apple in her left hand and a scepter in her right, stood up, then turned slowly toward the gathered crowd. It was December 7, 1550.

The Queen's Smile

That day she looked more beautiful than ever. In the endlessly reproduced coronation painting, her face does not bear any traces of the disease. She is young, dignified and delicate. Truly royal. On the head you can see a precious, closed crown. Underneath it - a garment decorated with hundreds of pearls, tightly hugging the face, and a silk veil flowing down the shoulders.

But the eyes and the corners of the mouth speak the most. Barbara smiles - both at today's observers of her portrait and at all the dignitaries gathered before her just after her coronation.

Barbara accompanied by her husband and the court shortly after the coronation. Illustration by Jan Matejko.

Many historians might say that it is a smile that shows powerfully the pride of a great aristocrat. There are many opinions that Barbara, like her brothers, husband and mother-in-law, was completely saturated with political lust. Even in the last days of her life, all she wanted was power. However, such a translation is hard to believe. Barbara looks rather relieved.

If, despite her critical state of health, she survived several days of fasting, processions, speeches and endless celebrations, it was not because she wanted to rule. After all, she must have been fully aware that she would not be able to enjoy the reign, and that she would probably only shorten her life through the exhausting ceremony. Barbara needed the coronation for a completely different reason.

The bitter charm of power

Only the crown could make him lose the weight of all the insults he had heard over the years. She knew that as the uncrowned consort of the king, she would be perceived to be a witch and a harlot.

She was a flesh and blood man. And like everyone else in her place, she was unable to endure the sea of ​​vomit without harm in which her public image was constantly drowned .

She knew one way to regain a little dignity and peace before she died. No wonder she clung to it like medicine to cure any disease.

It is possible that Barbara also half-consciously dreamed about such a medicine. In the modern era of coronation, supernatural significance was still attached. It wasn't just a political symbol. The royal sacra, like no other earthly act, brought man closer to God as his mortal representative on earth.

Zygmunt August and Barbara Radziwiłłówna in short moments of happiness. If there were any at all…

About Sigismund Augustus it is known from his letters that he sincerely believed that English kings had the power to heal diseases. So maybe Barbara also deluded that the holy oils would postpone her death sentence. If that was the case, she quickly gave up all hope.

Immediately after the coronation, the writer of the Krakow chapter made a wish in the chronicles that the ceremony would be successful for both the queen and the entire kingdom. A few weeks later, no one predicted that the queen would be written for any good fortune. Anyway, Barbara herself was to say with resignation shortly after the celebrations:"The Heavenly Lord will call me to another crown".

She had a hard on her side for a long time

The disease, hidden for years, began to progress at an alarming rate. Julian Bartoszewicz, one of the first historians to study Radziwiłłówna's death, explained that: "Barbara had a certain hardness on her side for a long time, which began to grow and swell so quickly that it soon turned into a large ulcer." Witold Ziembicki, a researcher of the history of medicine, added that it was not an ulcer but an abscess.

Zygmunt August was ready to squander the rest of his fortune to find a doctor who would save his beloved wife. A total of eight medics were summoned to Barbara's bedside. Everyone spread their hands helplessly. The sores, meanwhile, spread, exuding pus and a repulsive odor. The entire abdomen of the patient was hardened, her legs were swollen and her body was consumed by a high fever.

Now no one from the servants wanted to stay with the sick woman. She herself asked not to allow anyone to come to her. Even in the company of doctors, she resisted, strenuously defending her right to dignity. And to a peaceful death.

Right to a peaceful death

The king was not going to let that happen, however. He himself spent every day and night with Barbara who was dying. In the last few weeks of her life, he began to give out alms violently, counting on God's appeasement. When that did not help - he asked the Radziwiłłs to send from Lithuania the most powerful witch they could find.

For a moment, it even seemed as if the efforts were working. Doctors from the beginning suggested that the ulcer should be cut, but at the same time they were afraid to perform the procedure, knowing that the queen might not survive it. Unexpectedly, the largest abscess ruptured by itself. The medics saw this as a sign of improved health.

The overjoyed king even sent envoys to the Radziwiłłs, informing about saving his wife. To his brother-in-law, Mikołaj the Red, he wrote: "The ulcer flows very well and the entire left side and the hardness, which was again, died on the right side" .

Barbara Radziwiłłówna. One of the versions of the coronation portrait.

He was so convinced that the situation would improve that he even ordered a witch sent from Lithuania to be dismissed. "These women are not needed here anymore" - he explained. Maciejowski also wrote that "there is a good hope that her Majesty deigns to get out of danger". The bystanders, however, had a completely different opinion.

The agent of the Hohenzollerns, Stanisław Bojanowski, said:" There is no one who would believe that she can live . And yet he does not stop pinking his faces to deceive us until his last breath. It quickly turned out that he was right.

I don't want to die in Krakow

Although one tumor had disappeared and even the swelling had disappeared from her legs, new lumps soon appeared on Barbara's abdomen. The tumors were bursting, and with the reddish pus pouring out of them, fever, vomiting, and nausea also returned. Barbara was at the end of her tether. She still managed to ask her husband for two favors:to transfer her to Niepołomice before his death and to bury her body in Vilnius.

Barbara's last moments in the famous painting by Józef Simmler.

She did not want to die amid the reluctant stares and whispers of the courtiers. The more so, she did not want to rest in a country from which the inhabitants could not even count on a kind word. She only associated Poland with pain and humiliation.

Zygmunt August immediately made preparations for his wife's last departure. A special, powerful litter was made, which housed the entire king's bed. In order to move Barbara outside the city, the king even planned to demolish the walls of the Florian's Gate. The luxury vehicle was too big to leave Krakow otherwise. However, the demolition of the medieval gate did not take place.

"To Your Love, we announce that yesterday the pus which, as Your Love, you know, was constantly flowing from this ulcer, at the end all of Her Loves inflamed the insides" - wrote Zygmunt August to Nicholas the Black. Barbara died on May 8, 1551 between noon and two in the afternoon. On a beautiful spring afternoon.


You can learn more about the confusing history of the Jagiellonian family in Kamil Janicki's book Ladies of the golden age (Horizon Label 2014). The article is based on the literature and materials collected by the author during the work on the book.