King Stanislaus II Augustus of Poland, born Stanislaw August Poniatowski, (1732 - 1798), the son of Stanislaw Poniatowski, palatine of Cracow, (the friend and companion of Charles XII of Sweden) reigned from 1764 to the end of the independent Polish kingdom in 1795.
Born in 1732, Poniatowski owed his career path to the influence of his uncles, the powerful Czartoryscy, who sent him to Saint Petersburg in the suite of the English ambassador Hanbury Williams. Subsequently, through the influence of the Russian chancellor, Bestuzhev-Ryumin, he gained accreditation to the Russian court as the ambassador of Saxony. Through Williams he met to the grand duchess Catherine, who was irresistibly attracted to the handsome and brilliant young nobleman, for whom she abandoned all her other lovers. Poniatowski was concerned in the mysterious and disreputable conspiracy which sought to set aside the succession of the grand duke Peter and his son Paul in favour of Catherine, a conspiracy frustrated by the unexpected recovery of the empress Elizabeth and the consequent arrest of the conspirators.
Stanislaus returned to Warsaw much discredited, but nevertheless won election ( 7 September 1764) as king of Poland through the overwhelming influence of Catherine (she had promised him the crown. as early as October 1763). The coronation took place on 25 November, to the disgust of his uncles, who would have preferred another nephew, Prince Adam Casimir Czartoryscy, as king, but had to submit to the dictation of the Russian court.
The best that can be said for Stanislaus as king of Poland is that with all his romantic ideas and excellent intentions he remained from first to last the creature of circumstances. He had climbed to the throne by very slippery ways, he depended for a considerable part of his enormous income on the woman who had compensated him with a crown for the loss of her affections, the nobility detested him as a base-born upstart and yet had to put up with him. Thus in every way his position proved most difficult; yet he tried to do his duty. In the beginning of his reign he broke away from the leading-strings of his uncles and inaugurated some useful economic reforms. After the first partition in 1772 (as a result of which, by the way, his debts amounting to 7 million guldens were paid by the Diet and his civil list was raised to 2,6,000 guldens per annum) he entered enthusiastically into the attempts of the patriots to restore the power and prosperity of their country, while the eloquent oration which he delivered before the Diet on taking the oath to defend the constitution of 3 May 1791, moved the susceptible deputies tc tears. But when the confederation of Targowica, with the secret support of Russia, formed against the constitution, he was one of the first to accede to it, thus completely paralysing the action of the army which, under his younger brother Prince Joseph and Thaddeus Kosciuszko, was performing prodigies. In fact, by the end of his life, Stanislaus had become an expert in the art of "acceding“ and “hedging“.
Of resolute and independent action he was quite incapable; in fact, his whole career is little more than a record of humiliations. Thus in 1782 when he waited upon Catherine at Kaniow during her triumphal progress to the Crimea, she kept her ancient, greyhaired lover waiting for weeks, and while half-contemptuously promising to respect the integrity of Poland, she curtly declined to be present at a supper which he had prepared for her at great cost.
A few years later he was forcibly abducted by the Confederates of Bar, who did not know what to do with their captive, and allowed him to return to his court in a confused, bedraggled condition.
On the outbreak of the insurrection of 1794 he had to sue for his very life to Kosciuszko, and suffered the indignity of seeing his effigy expunged from the coinage a year before he was obliged to abdicate his throne in 1795. The last years of his life were employed in his sumptuous prison at Saint Petersburg (where he died in 1798) in writing his memoirs.
Of his innumerable mistresses the most notable was Mme Lullié, the widow of an upholsterer, on whom he lavished a fortune. He also contracted a secret marriage with the countess Grabowska. Yet he was capable of the most romantic friendships, as witness his correspondence with Mme Geoffrin, whom he invited to Warsaw, where on. her arrival she found rooms provided for her exactly like those she had left at Paris - the same size, the same kind of carpets, the same furniture, down even to the very book which she had been reading the evening before her departure, placed exactly as she had left it with a marker at the very place where she had left off.
Stanislaus had indeed a generous heart, frequently paid the debts of his friends or of deserving scholars whose cases came to his notice, and showed exceeding kindness to the poor. He also encouraged the arts and sciences, and his Wednesday literary suppers formed for some time the most brilliant social functions of the Polish capital.
A fine description. of Stanislaus comes from the Swedish minister Engestrom, presented to him early in 1788. “The king of Poland,“ he says, “has the finest head I ever saw, but an expression of deep melancholy detracts from the beauty of his countenance. . . . He is broad-shouldered, deep-chested, and of such lofty stature that his legs seem disproportionately short. . . . He has all the dazzling qualities necessary to sustain his dignity in public. He speaks the Polish, Latin, German, Italian, French and English tongues perfectly . . . and his conversation fills strangers with admiration. . . . As a grand-master of the ceremonies he would have done the honours most brilliantly. . . . Moral courage he altogether lacks and allows himself to be completely led by his entourage, which for the most part consists of women."
Friedrich August II, Elector of Saxony
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- Lars von Engestrom, Minnen och Anteckningar, Vo1. i. (Stockholm, 1876)
- Correspondance inédite de Stanislas Poniatowski avec Madame Geoffrin (Paris, 1875)
- Jan Kibinski, Recollections of the Times of Stanislaw Augustus (in Polish) Cracow, 1899)
- Mémoires secrets et inédits de Stanislas Auguste (Leipzig, 1862)
- Stanislaw and Prince Joseph Poniatowski in the Light of their Private Correspondence, in French, edited in Polish by Bronislaw Dembinski (Lemberg, 1904)
- R. N. Bain, The Last King of Poland and his Contemporaries (1909).
Original text from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica