Stanisław August Poniatowski (born January 17th, 1732, died February 12th, 1798), the last King of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, has, till the present day been considered a controversial figure by historians – both colourful and tragic. He came to the throne in a country which was in decline, surrounded by three hostile powers, Russia, Prussia and Austria. From the very beginning of his reign (1764) the King had to face not only the external powers aiming at making Poland a vassal state, but also, and perhaps more importantly, powerful magnate parties and part of the country's nobility.
Stanisław August was a very well educated man. In his youth he traveled a great deal inWestern Europe. His stay inGreat Britain(1753), where he became acquainted with a well-functioning, modern parliamentary system, had a significant influence on him. However, the greatest mark in his life was made by his time inSaint Petersburg, where he arrived in 1755 as the secretary to the British Ambassador, Charles Hanbury Williams, later British Ambassador at the court inWarsaw. It was in Saint Petersburg where he, Stanisław August, met and started, with far reaching consequences, a romance with the German princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst, the future Empress of Russia, Catherine II. From that moment till the tragic end – the Third Partition of Poland in 1795 and the erasing of the country from the map ofEurope, the fate of Stanisław August and the entireRepublicofPolandwere under the overwhelming influence of the Russian ruler.
Catherine II saw Stanisław August as a faithful tool to implement her imperial ambitions concerningPoland. Her words, clearly stating this policy are well known.
On September 7th, 1764, Stanisław August was elected the King of Poland by the Election Sejm. On November 25th, 1764, on the day of St. Catherine, the names day of the Russian Empress, he was crowned King inSt. John's Collegiate Church inWarsaw. The young King, filled with an honest will to aidPoland, began his reforms actively. He had ambitious plans and good intentions, but at the same time, he was naïve enough to believe in the friendliness of the Empress Catherine II.
On March 15th, 1765 he brought into existence the Knights' School, an elite military school, the forge of future statesmen, which he generously equipped using his own money, and lent hisKazimierzowskiPalace for use of. In the same year he established the Commissions of Public Order, the aim of which was to improve management in cities and regulate cases of ownership.
The King also initiated a monetary reform, and, in 1766, he led the way to the opening of the National Mint. In the field of education, the great merit of Stanisław August was the establishment of the National Education Commission (1773) – the first Ministry of Education in the world.
The reforms by Stanisław August were crowned with the Constitution approved on May 3rd, 1791. It was the second only to the American Constitution, and the first in Europe. The King was one of its authors.
The Constitution transformed the political system in Poland into a constitutional monarchy. However, the activities of Stanisław August aimed at the modernisation and strengthening of Poland was to bring conflict with Russia which saw the development of Poland as its vassal quite differently. The actions of the King aimed at obtaining more independence and influence on political events also clashed with the influential magnate families, in particular with the Czartoryski family (the so called Familia). This hostility was used by Catherine's envoy in Poland, Prince Nicholas Repnin, who, skillfully manipulating the King's opponents, provoking and inciting, successfully promoted Russian interests. The inevitable period of mounting political tension, factions, brought with it the demise of the country as an independent state. This path was marked by the following events, tragic in their consequences: the Bar Confederation (1768), the First Partition of Poland (1772) and the Tragowica Confederation (1792), which resulted in the Polish-Russian war (1792), the Second Partition of Poland (1793), the Kościuszko Uprising (1794) in defense of the country's independence, and finally, ultimate defeat, which was brought about by the Third Partition of Poland. This took place in 1795 and marked the end of the reign of Stanisław August. The King left for Grodno, where he abdicated on November 25th, 1795, after a reign of 31 years. He died in Saint Petersburg on February 12th, 1798.
In the memory of future generations he remained the King who was the enlightened patron of culture and art. He eagerly surrounded himself with writers, artists and scientists, for whom he threw the famous, ‘Thursday dinners’, in his summer residence in the Royal Łazienki. It was thanks to him that the National Theatre inWarsaw, led by Wojciech Bogusławski, was established.
The King focused his interest on architecture and art, on the modernisation of the park and the architectural complex known as the Royal Łazienki, and its adaptation to a new role as summer residence. He left his personal stamp on the architecture of the buildings, shaping them in the Classical style, which was predominant at that time.