Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski, the uncrowned King of Poland

  • Themes: History

Adam Jerzy Czartoryski, a major, if neglected, figure of 19th-century European politics, kept the Polish Question alive.

Etching of Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski.
Etching of Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski. Credit: INTERFOTO / Alamy Stock Photo

A descendant of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, who founded the Jagiellon dynasty that ruled Poland and much of Central Europe between 1386 and 1572, Adam Jerzy Czartoryski was destined for great things.

In the 18th century the Czartoryski family fought to reform the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, whose idealistic constitution, abused by factionalism and foreign interference, had led to paralysis of the state. They aimed to place one of their own on the elective throne in the hope of initiating a dynastic constitutional monarchy capable of restoring the state to its former power and wealth. Originally groomed for the job, Adam Jerzy’s father stepped aside in favour of his cousin, Stanisław Poniatowski, who was crowned Stanisław II Augustus in 1764.

Although he had declined the throne for himself, he spared no effort to bring up and educate Adam Jerzy for the highest position. This was the more curious in that he was not in fact the boy’s father; in the context of a happy open marriage, the boy had been sired by the Russian empress Catherine’s ambassador in Warsaw, Prince Nikolai Repnin, an outstanding soldier and able diplomat cast in the ugly role of her satrap in Poland.

Adam Jerzy’s early upbringing was taken in hand by his mother, Princess Izabela, along the lines of Rousseau’s Émile, while his father hired distinguished professors from all over Europe and supervised his education. The boy was conscious of the hopes invested in him and applied himself to his studies. Aged 17, he was sent abroad, first to Weimar, where he met the poet Christian Martin Wieland and the philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder, both of them correspondents of his father. He was invited by Goethe to a small gathering to which he read the work he had just finished, Iphigenia in Tauris. In Paris, where he went next, ‘he was regarded as a prodigy for his vast and deep knowledge of everything, by the Duke de La Rochefoucauld, Marmontel, Condorcet, and all the men of great talent to whom I introduced him’, Jefferson’s friend Philip Mazzei wrote to James Madison. In 1790 he accompanied his mother to England, where he studied the constitution with the Lord Chancellor, the Marquess of Lansdowne, attended a criminal trial and the impeachment of Warren Hastings, the former governor of Bengal, and then toured England and Scotland, visiting shipyards, factories and coalmines, as well as the grandest country houses.

Back in Poland, he was swept up in the enthusiasm attendant on the Great Sejm, the parliament which, on 3 May 1791, passed the first written constitution in Europe, and joined the army that was preparing to defend it; Catherine II could not accept such a development on her doorstep and sent in her troops. He distinguished himself in battle and was decorated for it, but when the king surrendered, along with his cousin Prince Józef Poniatowski, Tadeusz Kościuszko and others, he resigned his commission and returned to England to pursue his studies.

He was arrested by the Austrian authorities when he attempted to travel back to Poland to join the Insurrection of 1794 against the Russian occupiers. Its failure entailed the confiscation of all his parents’ property, as Catherine was convinced that they had instigated it. The confiscation was only partly lifted after they agreed to send Adam Jerzy and his younger brother Konstanty to St Petersburg as hostages.

The humiliation of having to bend the knee before Catherine and kiss her hand was assuaged when her grandson, Grand Duke Alexander, befriended him. Brought up in the spirit of the French Enlightenment by his tutor, Frédéric-César de la Harpe, the future Tsar Alexander I hated the political system of the Russian Empire and found a soul-mate in Czartoryski. Together, they formulated plans for the reform of Russia – Alexander even asked him to draw up the manifesto to be published on his accession. With Alexander’s approval, he became the lover of his wife, and when their child was born, Catherine’s successor Tsar Paul I, on seeing unmistakably whose it was, threatened to send Czartoryski to Siberia before relenting and dispatching him as Russia’s minister to the court of the displaced King of Sardinia.

Czartoryski was in Rome, when, on the night of 23 March 1801, Paul I was assassinated, and six days later he received a letter from Alexander summoning him to St Petersburg. The new tsar formed a secret committee consisting of Czartoryski and three like-minded men, Pavel Stroganov, Nikolai Novosiltsev and Viktor Kochubey, to work on the transformation of Russia into a modern constitutional monarchy. In 1803 he put Czartoryski in charge of Russia’s foreign affairs, which made him Russia’s first foreign minister, hoping to change her traditional policy of aggression into one of pacifism. Czartoryski based Russia’s policy on close alliance with Great Britain and Austria, and hoped the aims of the incipient Third Coalition could be extended beyond just the defeat of Napoleonic France to a comprehensive reorganisation of Europe. He drew up a blueprint for a new order based on liberal principles and ‘the sacred rights of humanity’, including the self-determination of nations. He identified Prussia not only as an unreliable partner, which had made opportunistic alliances with France and was now hedging its bets as to whether to join the Coalition, but also as an essentially aggressive state, whose ultimate interests conflicted with those of Russia. As a result, Prussia was to be given an ultimatum and, if it did not join the coalition Russia and Austria would implement their mordplan, and essentially ‘murder’ the Prussian state.

Alexander dreamed of leading troops into battle and, against Czartoryski’s urgent entreaties, set off with his troops. Along the way, he allowed himself to be persuaded to visit King Frederick William in Berlin, and there, succumbing to the charms of the beautiful queen Louise, he relented, to the despair of most of his advisers and his Austrian allies. He marched on to face Napoleon, who had prepared his ground near the village of Austerlitz and, against the advice of his senior general, Kutuzov, and Czartoryski, resolved to give battle. The result was one of the greatest humiliations of his life. His army was routed and he had to flee the field of battle on horseback.

Back in St Petersburg the popular desire for scapegoats focused on his Polish adviser (though his Russian parentage was no secret at court). Czartoryski was accused of having engineered the disaster to avenge Russia’s subjugation of Poland. Along with other members of the secret committee he handed in his resignation, accompanied by a long letter of withering criticism of the tsar’s behaviour. Alexander would not release him, keeping him on as a councillor of state but ignoring his advice to avoid meeting Napoleon in person at Tilsit and entering into alliance with France.

The events of the following years left Czartoryski in an untenable position. Napoleon had created a small Polish state, the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, but Czartoryski could play no part in it, as he was still in the service of the tsar, despite repeated pleas to be relieved of his office. When Austria attacked France and invaded its ally, the Grand Duchy, he could not rally to the Polish cause. As tensions mounted between Napoleon and Alexander, the tsar requested Czartoryski investigate the possibility of subverting the Grand Duchy from the orbit of France, with the result that when Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812 with the support of a Polish army of over 90,000 men – in which his brother Konstanty held the rank of general – Czartoryski was made to feel like a traitor to both sides.

His position did not improve when, following Napoleon’s disastrous retreat from Moscow, Alexander led his army onto Polish territory and summoned Czartoryski to help decide the future of his country. Having had his advice repeatedly ignored and disillusioned by what he saw as Alexander’s weakness, he was loath to serve him. He had also been slighted by him at the personal level. To repay Napoleon’s foreign minister Talleyrand for spying for him, Alexander promised to arrange a financially advantageous marriage for his penniless nephew and heir. He blackmailed the Duchess of Courland into forcing her fabulously rich daughter, the future Duchess of Dino, to break off her engagement to Czartoryski and marry Talleyrand’s nephew instead.

Alexander still clung to his conviction that he should at least in some measure undo what he saw as the injustice of the partitions and re-create a Polish state. This was anathema to his Russian subjects and the only way he could hope to bring it about was by establishing a Kingdom of Poland with himself as monarch. His allies, Austria, Prussia and Great Britain, saw in this an unacceptable westward extension of Russian power, so, when Czartoryski joined the tsar at the allies’ headquarters at Chaumont at the beginning of 1814, he was not welcomed by Austria’s Prince Metternich or Prussia’s Baron Hardenberg, and the British Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh urged him to leave. Nor was he popular with Alexander’s Russian acting foreign minister, Count Nesselrode.

Alexander kept him at his side when he visited London, where Czartoryski met with much sympathy for the Polish cause among British friends and public opinion, and at the Congress of Vienna in the autumn of 1814. Czartoryski bore the brunt of the hostility towards Alexander’s plans and found the proceedings at the congress distasteful. He was disgusted by the horse-trading between the Great Powers and his strict sense of honour was offended by the flagrant immorality, political as well as sexual, displayed by most of those present, including Alexander. It did not help that his erstwhile lover, Alexander’s estranged wife, the Empress Elizabeth, turned up, rekindling a passion he had long thought dead. He tried to persuade Alexander to divorce so they could marry, without success.

The one positive thing that did come out of the congress as far as Czartoryski was concerned was that a territorially modest Kingdom of Poland was created. Yet, although he had tasked him with writing its constitution, the most liberal in Europe at the time, Alexander passed him over when naming his lieutenant in the kingdom, a post everyone had assumed would be his. Their relationship never recovered from this betrayal, the more so as, from 1815 onwards, the tsar abandoned his youthful ideals and soon began abrogating that constitution.

While he remained a member of the senate, Czartoryski gradually withdrew from active politics. He married, travelled and devoted much time to the curatorship of Polish educational establishments left in western Russia, such as the Polish university of Wilno (Vilnius). When Alexander was succeeded by the autocratic Nicholas I in 1825, censorship of Polish culture joined political repression. Paranoid investigation of student associations and surveillance of society in general created a febrile atmosphere, which was heightened by news of the 1830 July revolution in Paris and its August aftershock in Belgium.

A revolt by army subalterns on the night of 29 November sparked off a revolution in Warsaw, which Czartoryski and others managed to contain, but the intransigence of Nicholas ruled out any hope of negotiation. Russian armies moved to quell the revolt, which turned into a national uprising. The Polish parliament, the Sejm, deposed Nicholas, and Czartoryski was appointed head of the government. He revived his diplomatic contacts to persuade Britain and Austria to mediate a settlement that would result in an independent neutral Poland with one of the British royal dukes or an Austrian archduke as king. But Metternich would not condone what he saw as part of a worldwide conspiracy against the existing order, the new King of the French, Louis-Philippe, was sympathetic but feared getting involved, and Britain was loath to engage in Europe. Gradually marginalised as radical elements gained power in Warsaw, Czartoryski joined one of the army corps operating against the Russian forces.

Early Polish victories were not exploited due to poor political and military leadership, and the insurrection was extinguished in October 1831. Czartoryski took refuge in Austrian Poland and Metternich supplied him with a passport under an assumed name with which he travelled to London. He hoped to settle there and use his contacts to continue to trumpet the cause of Poland, but as all his property had been confiscated he could not afford to, so he moved to Paris. His mother-in-law had managed to save much from the catastrophe and had settled there with his wife and children. Condemned to death in absentia by Nicholas I in 1834, Czartoryski took up the challenge and set up a network of agents, with offices in London and other European capitals, with the aim of lobbying for the Polish cause at the diplomatic level and engaging public opinion.

By 1843 the family’s finances had been rebuilt enough to permit him to buy an extensive, if dilapidated, property, the Hôtel Lambert, which became the centre of Polish émigré life, cultural as well as political, and the nerve-centre of his activity. This involved introducing a Polish interest into every significant movement aimed against either of the three powers that had partitioned Poland, often by providing military support. In 1846, when it appeared that Prussia’s Polish province might achieve independence, he travelled to Posen (Poznań), where he was greeted as the natural leader of the nation. In 1848, his agency supported liberation movements in Germany, with Polish military contingents in Italy and Hungary, and in the Crimean War of 1855 he mobilised a division of Polish cavalry. The Hôtel Lambert actively supported the Polish insurrection against Russia of January 1863, but Czartoryski’s death two years earlier curtailed further political activity.

While not all Polish émigrés supported him, and there was an active Democratic Society in Paris, Czartoryski was widely regarded by his countrymen as well as European statesmen as the uncrowned king of Poland – a group of émigrés even struck a medal representing him as Adam I. Yet his ancestry and circumstances condemned him to an ambivalent position between Poland and Russia, which denied him the opportunity to fulfil his potential. He was nevertheless a major figure in European politics of his age, not just for keeping the Polish Question alive. His Essai sur la diplomatie, published in 1830 and again in 1864, was influential in its day and remarkably prescient, while his other writings, unpublished outside Poland, remain notable for their pan-European perspective.


Adam Zamoyski