In 1754 Stanisław Poniatowski, a Polish noble in his early twenties, visited England for several months, to learn more about English politics and culture. A ‘Grand Tour’ was common at the time, though for Poniatowski this was no trip to the ruins of Rome or Greece, as was more typical. This was to be a trip for the young noble to learn more about British politics, and to be introduced to the great and good of English society.
The visit followed a trip to Warsaw, a few years prior, by Charles Hanbury Williams, an English diplomat who would greatly influence Poniatowski’s life. This influence was especially important when the young noble was Williams’s secretary, at the British Mission in St Petersburg, though those events must be a story for another article. Over time, Poniatowski is said to have come to view Williams as a second father, further prompting his growing interest in Britain.
While in London, Poniatowski had a number of enviable experiences, including: being received by King George II; being greeted on behalf of the House of Lords, while watching a debate to learn more of British politics; and attending a Shakespeare performance, perhaps the basis of his future interest in the Bard’s works. He would make a lasting friendship with the Lord Chancellor’s son, among other notable Englishmen, relationships which would prove valuable when he became King of Poland. We can see the influence of this visit in William Coxe’s account of the ‘extraordinary’ knowledge which Poniatowski possessed about British politics, culture, and indeed Shakespeare, during Coxe’s visit to Poland in the 1770s. It is worth noting that Poniatowski had Scottish blood, with his great-grandmother being of the Gordon family, giving him blood ties to Britain as well as intellectual ties.
Having himself been involved in the British Mission to St Petersburg, Stanisław August (as his name became as king) oversaw the creation of a permanent diplomatic presence for his own kingdom, in Britain; the Polish Mission, which opened in 1770 . There was a practical consideration, in the decision to create a permanent presence, due to the need for international support for the Commonwealth, with Prussian and Russian hostility becoming increasingly clear. The opening of the Mission took place against the backdrop of civil conflict in the Commonwealth, as the Bar Confederates fought to depose the king. The Polish envoys in this Mission would be key to orchestrating British opposition to the conflict, and to the partitions of Poland, which overshadowed the final decades of Stanisław August’s reign. In addition to these efforts, they also had the 3rd May Constitution swiftly published in English, promoting the idea of an enlightened and forward looking Poland. Much political capital was expended upon the public opposition to the claims of the partitioning powers. Despite Russian attempts to threaten or blackmail the envoys, their dedicated support of the Polish cause continued. The kidnapping of Stanisław August, by the Bar confederates, provided a useful means of gaining sympathy for the king. The Mission was important both in allowing the Poles some control over how they were perceived in Britain, and also in keeping the king’s English friends and allies informed of events in the Commonwealth.
While ultimately unable to prevent the partition and dissolution of the Commonwealth, the work of the Mission proved very valuable in gaining support for, and providing a positive impression of, Poland even after the state ceased to exist.
The Mayor of London began fundraising for the Polish cause, with elites and workers alike donating to his ‘Society of Friends of Poland’ during the second partition, or rather the conflict which led to it. The British ‘Establishment’ and commoners alike were united in their dismay over this dismemberment of one of Europe’s great states. Edmund Burke pointed out the greater importance of the event, in comparison to the French Revolution, in terms of its impact on European geo-politics and the shockwaves to be felt in all of Europe’s capitals. Horace Walpole even suggested that the fall of this great defender of Christendom must show the hand of the devil, a strong claim in a world where, despite the Enlightenment, religion was still a powerful influencer. Stanisław August’s English friends were not deserting the embattled monarch.
Numerous prints were created, to express criticism of the partitions, as well as the undaunted bravery of the Poles. British newspapers attacked the ‘atrocious violations’ of the partitioning powers. It was said that everyone in England was ‘stirred up’ to action in the face of the partitions, largely thanks to the work of Bukaty, the dedicated Polish Envoy. There were even a number of offers from British military officers, who approached Bukaty, to fight for the survival of the Commonwealth. In a final display of support the last head of the British Mission in Warsaw, and close friend of Stanisław August, William Gardiner opened the Mission to Polish refugees and refused to leave Warsaw for several years after the official dissolution of the state, despite pressure from the partitioning powers.
By Callum Wall
Callum Wall is the owner of White Eagle, providing online services with an aim to promote interest in Polish history throughout the English-speaking world. Read more at whiteeagleonline.com.
Painting: Stanisław August Poniatowski by Marcello Bacciarelli