Stanisław Leszczyński

(1677 - 1766)

In the center of the historic region of Lorraine is its former ducal capital Nancy. In the center of Nancy lies one of the most beautiful squares in the world (and it is in fact “square”). In the center of the square stands a bronze man, whose name the square bears. The inscription on the front of the pedestal under the bronze man says:  À Stanislas le Bienfaisant, la Lorraine Reconnaissante  (To Stanislas the Beneficent, Grateful Lorraine). There is a clarification on the rear face of the pedestal: Stanislas Leszczynski, Roi de Pologne, Duc de Lorraine et de Bar, 1737–1766 (Stanislas Leszczyński, King of Poland, Duke of Lorraine and Bar, 1737–1766). This man was a king and a duke, though not simultaneously. Some people get married more than once. Some even get married more than once to the same person. This man was the king of the same country twice. Not surprisingly, that country was Poland. (His main rival for the Polish throne also sat on it twice, but he is not the hero of this story.) 


Even the great hero and savior of Europe from the Ottoman domination Jan III Sobieski could not make the Polish crown inheritable, and on his death Augustus the Strong of Saxony was elected the next king of Poland. In 1704 Karl XII of Sweden defeated Augustus, the country split between him and Stanisław, but by 1706, Augustus lost the civil war and yielded the throne. The reign of Leszczyński did not last long: in 1709 Karl XII lost the famous Battle of Poltava to Peter the Great ending Sweden’s budding empire and with it the first stint of our hero as the king of Rzeczpospolita. Augustus was reunited with his Polish crown, while Stanisław began his long and circuitous journey to becoming Stanislas.


Ten years of wanderings followed: Sweden, Turkey, Crimea (talking with the khan about help reclaiming Poland), a small German principality of Zweibrücken. In 1719 he landed in Alsace. A few years later he pulled a winning lottery ticket. In 1725, his daughter Maria, not beautiful, but lovely in every way, after being considered for marriage to various minor royals, became a compromise choice to wed the teenage Louis XV. Part of the attraction for the political operators was her lack of geopolitical encumbrances, while young Louis was genuinely in love. She became Marie la Reine de France and the lucky beau-père got a generous allowance and posh digs at the Château de Chambord.


In 1833 – another thunderbolt of fate: Augustus the Strong dies. Leszczyński is now popular in Poland and to the cheers of the French and the Spanish Bourbons is elected king by the Sejm for the second time. Russia, Austria and Saxony, the home of another Augustus, the son of Augustus the Strong, however, don’t cheer, and another dynastic conflict, the War of the Polish Succession begins. By 1736 the second stint on the Polish throne is over. The following year, Stanislas is installed, as a result of complicated multinational horse trading, as the duke of Lorraine (and Bar). Thus commences the reign of Stanislas le Bienfaisant.


Among his projects: schools, hospitals, libraries, social support institutions. He writes essays in the spirit of Enlightenment (in both French and Polish), in which he discusses liberty, separation of powers and religious tolerance. He founds the Académie de Stanislas, a learned society still in existence, among whose members was Montesquieu. Last but certainly not least, he sponsors the creation of urban ensembles that make Nancy an architectural gem.


And that’s how I met him first, as a bronze man in the center of that gem. Two years later I was in Warsaw to present at a computer conference. The Royal Castle (Zamek Królewski), completely destroyed in WWII, had been painstakingly restored and became a museum and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Those were ominous days at the beginning of May 2005. Putin, then still a non-rogue member of the international order, was presiding over a grand fest of the 60th anniversary of the Soviet victory in WWII. In his speech on the Red Square he omitted Poland as a major contributor to the victory, but listed France, whose involvement was much weaker. The Poles were understandably pissed off and boycotted the Bolshoi tour then in Warsaw. Yet much more importantly, a few days earlier Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” We know now how far from joking he was. The Royal Castle, however, featured a big exhibit on the story three centuries old, that of the third from the last king of Poland. The Leszczyński story, sketched above, was presented in texts, paintings and photographs, among them an amazing transformation of Stanisław, a bewhiskered Sarmatian in a kontusz, into Stanislas, a Versailles-worthy grandee in shining armor and a powdered wig.


The next day I went to Krakow with its Schindler’s factory and a side trip to Auschwitz and Wadowice, the native town of the just deceased Polish pope. The late train back to Warsaw was almost empty, but across from me in my compartment was sitting a Pani, clearly very busy marking something in multiple notebooks, which she would pick up and then put aside one after another. I was guessing she was a teacher. An hour into a three-hour train ride she was finished and a conversation developed. To my delight, she was not fluent in English, thus I got to practice my Polish the rest of the way. But she was indeed a teacher! Her business card said: “dr Malgorzata Leszczyńska (!!!), Dziekan Wydziału Informatiki Stosowanej” (Dean of the Department of Applied Informatics, at one of Warsaw’s colleges). No, she said, she was not a scion of one of the major clans of Polish magnates. Although Leszczyński’s descendants included kings, queens, emperors and grand dukes of numerous European countries, from Portugal to Bulgaria, they all stemmed from Marie, the Bourbon queen. Still, there’s something in a name, isn’t there, Shakespeare be damned!

Duc de Lorraine et de Bar
Place Stanislas, Nancy
Roi - Duc
Exhibit in the Royal Castle, Warsaw
A 21st century Leszczyńska