Queen Barbara of Poland’s sweeping tale is supposed to be a “love conquers all” romance—but few people know her whole, heartbreaking story. This cunning queen used her wits to gain power, had a passionate affair with a king, and feuded with a vicious mother-in-law, with all her efforts culminating in an utterly brutal end. Hold onto that crown and strap in for a wild royal ride: Queen Barbara’s life was no fairy tale.
Some time around 1520, Barbara was born to the powerful politician Jerzy Radziwill and his wife, also named Barbara, in the Duchy of Lithuania. As the baby of a wealthy family, little Barbara was an incredibly pampered girl, and wasn’t used to getting told “No.” Like, ever. As we’ll see, Barbara soon took full advantage of her lush upbringing.
People quickly started noticing Barbara, and not just because she had fancy family ties. See, when most girls were going through their awkward pubescent years, Barbara was in the full bloom of her beauty, with a narrow, feminine nose, fair skin, and large dark eyes. Except, well, those eyes soon attracted the wrong kind of attention.
In 1536, when Barbara was still in her teenage years, a strapping, well-endowed—I’m talking about his income, people—young man named Stanislovas Goštautas sought her hand in marriage. Now, you’d think Barbara’s parents would be over the moon about their daughter's good match. But there was more to this proposal than met the eye.
Before asking Barbara to marry him, Stanislovas was actually engaged…to Barbara's older sister Anna. Apparently, they either didn’t get along, or the groom-to-be was too obsessed with Barbara to ignore his feelings. Either way, this fiancé swap was a big deal, especially since it was a huge insult to marry off a younger sister before the older one got hitched. It's safe to say that family dinners at Barbara's house were super awkward.
Barbara might have been a hot commodity in 16th-century Poland, but she was a little too hot. Get this: When Stanislovas asked for her hand in marriage, Barbara was already in wedding negotiations with yet another suitor, and only took up Stanislovas when those plans fell through. Nope, this doesn’t sound like a match made in heaven to me, either.
The teen bride’s wedding to Stanislovas Goštautas was one of the high society events of the year. Taking place in the groom’s home on May 18, 1537, Barbara’s extensive dowry included 24 “fine” horses as well as trunks full of satin and damask gowns. It was what many Medieval girls grew up dreaming about, but for Barbara, the good times wouldn’t last.
After four years of marriage, Stanislovas and Barbara were still childless, which was pretty unusual considering how intensely society expected Barbara to push out heirs. Historians now have some idea why this was (more on that later), but when December 18, 1542 came along, it was probably a good thing that Barbara didn’t have any children running around.
That December, Barbara had fully settled into her life as an attentive wife—then tragedy swooped in. After a short but ravaging illness, her husband Stanislovas perished. Oh, but that wasn’t all: Since she was now a childless widow, all of Barbara’s wealth went to the King of Poland, Sigismund the Old. It sounds like rock bottom for our girl Barbara, but when one door closes, another one opens.
In October 1543, the King sent his son Prince Sigismund to Barbara’s home so he could claim the estate and rip it out of Barbara's hands. Instead, it was a date with destiny. The young heir and the beautiful widow fell passionately in love with each other on this very trip, beginning a tryst that would lead to infamy and legend. There was just one problem…
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When Prince Sigismund ignited his flame for Barbara, he was already a very married man. His wife, Elizabeth of Austria, was actually a powerhouse of her own in the European world, and she wasn’t about to give her husband away to some upstart mistress. Not that Barbara minded. She just bided her time and waited for the other shoe to drop.
In truth, Sigismund didn’t stand a chance against Barbara’s charms. He was thoroughly unattracted to his serious wife Elizabeth, who he found dour and meek on top of homely. The vivacious and beautiful Barbara, however, was just his type, and the King quickly started neglecting his duties as a husband to a terrifying degree.
In realitly, Sigismund was no prince charming—at least not to his lawfully wedded wife. When he found out that his wife Elizabeth of Austria was suffering from epilepsy, he showed almost no empathy for her condition. In fact, it only made him more disgusted with her. In time, Sigismund's coldness would have disturbing consequences.
Barbara sure knew how to pick them: When Sigismund heard that his wife’s epilepsy was worsening, he committed a heartless act. The Prince all but abandoned the poor woman and travelled to Krakow in Poland…to collect her dowry. After all, he had to make sure he got his sick wife's money before she left this Earth. Well, he got his wish.
On June 15, 1545, two years after Sigismund and Barbara met, Elizabeth of Austria experienced her worst fit of epileptic seizures yet. Alone, nearly friendless, and with her husband out gallivanting with his mistress, Elizabeth passed when she was just 18 years old. It was a colossal tragedy…and cunning Barbara used it to her advantage.
Any decent illicit couple would wait a smidgen of time to go public after a misfortune like that, but Barbara and Sigismund sure didn’t. They started flaunting their love, and they started flaunting it big time. Sure, nothing was official, but everyone at court began to hear of their not-so-secret meetings and parties. Eventually, Sigismund went to unhinged lengths to see his lover.
Sigismund had it bad for the beautiful Barbara—so bad that some said he moved the earth to be with her. Rumor around the Polish palaces was that the Crown Prince built a secret tunnel between his residence and Radziwill Palace, where Barbara was staying with her mother, so that he could see her whenever he wanted. And that wasn’t all.
Barbara and her Sigismund apparently loved hunting together but, like everything else, they took that hobby way too far. When historians looked at the Polish court records, they were astonished to find that in 1546 alone, Prince Sigismund spent an incredible 223 days “hunting.” Hint, hint: Hunting wasn’t the only thing he was doing.
Barbara came by her cunning honestly. Intelligent and savvy, she wasn’t necessarily ambitious—but her family certainly was. Her two relatives, Mikolaj “The Black” and Mikolaj “The Red,” were movers and shakers in the Polish court, and helped propel Barbara to her fame. Then again, they also helped spell her ultimate doom.
As Barbara’s hold over Sigismund grew rampant, she earned herself a powerful enemy. Sigismund’s mother Queen Bona Sforza despised the match, and she just so happened to be one of the most influential members of court. The queen dowager thought Barbara was just a conniving, upstart hussy, and she set about destroying the union.
Barbara’s expensive tastes didn’t cool down one bit while she warmed up Prince Sigismund’s bedchamber. The Crown Prince showered her with expensive gifts to keep her happy, and whenever Barbara sat for portraits, she always insisted on wearing enormous necklaces, usually made out of precious pearls. You know, for posterity.
Queen Bona was the smartest rival Barbara had ever encountered, and she knew how to hit the girl where it hurt. Gathering her allies around her, Bona successfully convinced other influential Polish nobles that Barbara was little more than a peasant who used witchcraft to capture the Crown Prince's heart. With her army in place, Bona was ready to strike.
Queen Bona was a monster-in-law for the ages. In addition to saying that Barbara was A) promiscuous B) low class and C) an actual witch, Bona rounded out her barrage of insults with a Medieval Classic. She spread a rumor that claimed Barbara's first husband didn't die of natural causes. Instead, Bona claimed that Babs poisoned him.
The first phase of Bona’s plan was almost a knockout. Since Sigismund’s royal parents already didn’t think Barbara was “queen material,” they started searching for a new bride they thought could fulfil these duties, pulling from a long list of powerful European princesses. It was enough to make a girl go crazy…which, uh, Barbara did.
With the royal family actively trying to break them up, Barbara and Prince Sigismund walked to very the edge of reason. It wasn’t long before they did something supremely rash: Around the summer of 1547, the passionate lovebirds wed in a ceremony so secret that no one even knows exactly when or where it happened. But that was far from the day’s only intrigue.
The secret royal marriage between Barbara and Sigismund may have had some unsavory ulterior motives. There’s no doubt that Sigismund was head over heels for Barbara, but a rumor claimed that Barbara’s scheming relatives had blackmailed him into making it official after catching the couple in the “act.” Then again, there’s one more possibility …
There is some evidence that on the day of her fairy tale wedding, Barbara was pregnant with Sigismund’s child. If that’s true, Prince Sigismund may have stepped up to the altar in order to legitimize his true love’s child, plus it also explains the haste and secrecy of the nuptials. Whatever the truth, the couple were in for one rude awakening.
When Barbara and Sigismund finally told the royal family about their wedding, their world came crashing down around them. Not only was Queen Bona beside herself with rage, the entire Polish parliament erupted into furious chaos. You see, Sigismund was supposed to ask their permission to marry, too. It was pandemonium…and Barbara had problems closer to home.
Just after they married, Sigismund sent Barbara to lay low in a small town in Lithuania. It was supposed to a time of rest and relaxation—until immense tragedy struck. According to the attendant with Barbara, she suffered a miscarriage along the way, bleeding through her clothes. However, the truth may be much more complicated.
Barbara had always had a string of stomach ailments, and some historians suggest that instead of a miscarriage, the bleeding she experienced on the road to Lithuania may have actually been a gruesome ruptured abscess in her stomach. It was an unsettling sign that all was not right with the new Polish princess, and boy oh boy, things would only get worse.
For months, poor, ailing Barbara was Public Enemy Number One in Poland, and the nobility used some down and dirty methods to drag her name through the mud. They spread vicious rumors that she was a promiscuous courtesan, and at the same time, cruel pamphlets mocking Barbara made their way through the streets. The poor girl didn’t know what she was in for.
On April 1, 1548, Sigismund’s father passed, making him the new King of Poland and Barbara the presumptive Queen Consort. It should have been a happy moment—but Barbara’s elation quickly turned to terror. Now that she was actually set to be queen, the Polish parliament threatened to start a full-blown revolt so that Barbara couldn't take the throne. Suddenly Sigismund had to make a heavy decision.
Within a matter of months, the entire kingdom of Poland devolved into an utter circus, but the newly-minted King Sigismund’s first act was a gesture of undying devotion to his love. Instead of even thinking of giving Barbara up, Sigismund considered relinquishing the throne and abdicating instead. And then he doubled the heck down.
At their wit’s end and afraid of losing their king, the Polish nobles suggested a compromise: Barbara could remain Sigismund’s royal wife, but she’d never receive an official coronation or be called Queen of Poland. If that sounds reasonable to you, it certainly didn’t to Barbara and Sigismund, who turned down the offer point-blank. Our girl was going to get that crown—by any means necessary.
During this time, a second tragedy struck Barbara. Although it may have been just another intrigue from her scheming relatives, some correspondence states that she had yet another brief pregnancy around this time, followed by an equally painful miscarriage. To add insult to injury, she also continually complained of “internal stones” and stomach pains. C’mon girl, get to a doctor…
Prince Sigismund had already gone to extreme lengths to crown Barbara as queen—but then he took it to the next level. For a solid year, Barbara’s husband bribed, threatened, and cajoled any noble he could into supporting his royal marriage. As a sign that he was serious, the prince even banished his own mother Queen Bona to a faraway castle so she wouldn’t get in his way.
In the summer of 1550, three years after the lovers had first wed in secret, the parliament’s uproar subsided, and all Sigismund’s efforts were finally successful. That December, an Archbishop officially crowned plain old Barbara Radziwill as Queen Barbara of Poland in the spectacular Wawel Cathedral. At long last, the illicit lovers were a bona fide royal couple.
Barbara made darn sure she arrived to her coronation in style. Her magnificent court portrait depicts her wearing gauzy robes weighed down by massive precious jewels, including an ornate headdress set with hundreds of her signature pearls. She looked every bit the part of a queen…but she had very little time to enjoy her station.
In a time where people didn’t take even semi-regular baths, Barbara was an anomaly. She wasn’t just deeply interested in the latest fashions, she also paid attention to the beauty trends, including face powders and perfumes. Were those face powders and perfumes toxic? I mean yes, almost certainly, and they probably didn't help with Babs's other health issues.
Finally, Queen Barbara had it all: Her man, her crown, her country. Yet she was doomed to a heartbreaking end. Practically the minute the Archbishop placed the crown on her head, Barbara’s always-frail health took a turn for the worse. Her stomach pains became searing, she developed a fever, and she lost all her appetite. But before long, it got much worse than that.
One of the most chilling symptoms of Barbara’s sickness happened where almost no one could see. Confined to her bed, attendants discovered that a lump was slowly growing on the soft skin of the queen’s stomach, and that the monstrosity was filled with pus. It was the first true sign that the end was coming, and that it wasn’t going to be pretty.
Through it all, Sigismund was beside himself trying to cure his beloved wife, who he had only just made his own in the eyes of his people. To the bitter end, he never forsook her. Sigismund tended to Barbara even when her bowels loosened—and even, reports say, when she smelled of the mysterious pus that was slowly ravaging her. As it turned out, his most desperate act was yet to come.
As long as Barbara was breathing, Sigismund couldn’t accept her fate, and he was desperate to take her down south to the Polish town of Niepolomice, where the temperature was milder. There was just one big problem: Barbara was so close to death’s door that she couldn’t even get up out of bed. So Sigismund had to get creative.
Unwilling to back down or admit defeat, King Sigismund’s denial turned tragic. First, he commissioned a special wagon that would be able to take Barbara out of the castle lying down. Then, when he discovered that one of the gates was too narrow for the custom wagon to fit through, he simply demolished it. Sadly, none of it was any use. Barbara never made it.
Right at the very end, Barbara won the most important victory of her life. In March 1551, she received a letter from her mother-in-law Bona Sforza. Its contents were heartbreaking. In the message, Bona told her that she would officially recognize Barbara’s marriage to her son, as well as her title of Queen of Poland. People called it Barbara's final triumph.
On May 8, 1551, just five months after her coronation, Barbara succumbed to her mysterious illness and passed at the tender age of 30. King Sigismund was more than just beside himself; the mourning lover followed Barbara’s coffin on foot the entire journey to her final resting place. But Barbara still had secrets to give up.
Like everything else she did in life, Barbara left the world in opulence. Sigismund made sure that his wife took some priceless artefacts with her to the grave, including a silver crown and sceptre as well as a golden orb. Barbara also wore a gold necklace and a ring inset with rubies and emeralds, which Sigismund gave her during their time together.
Even in her own time, people speculated wildly about what ailed the beautiful Polish queen. At one point, an Italian cardinal stuck his nose in and proclaimed that Barbara died because she didn’t use her contraception properly. In fact, even Barbara's own family members whispered that a nasty STD had done the deed. The truth, however, was much more complicated.
Strangers and relatives alike thought Barbara’s illness had something to do with her reproductive organs, and they weren’t that far off from reality. Modern historians now believe that Barbara likely passed from cervical or ovarian cancer. People didn't understand these diseases well at the time, but they could explain Barbara's painful miscarriages.
Today, people see Barbara and Sigismund’s romance as a love story for the ages, but unearthed letters tell a much darker story. Sigismund actually domineered Barbara from the very first, dictating who she could send messages to and banning her from writing letters even to her own brother, who she had to contact in secret. But their correspondence with each other is even more unsettling.
King Sigismund’s control extended to the couple's own love letters, too. In surviving messages, the great Barbara of Poland positions herself submissively as Sigismund’s “most humble and smallest servant,” while another missive has Sigismund lecturing his bumpkin mistress that she should use the proper royal “we” when writing to him. Fairy tale, meet reality.
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