The love story of Barbara Radziwill and Sigismund Augustus has come down through history.
Sigismund Augustus, crown prince of the twin states of Poland and Lithuania, had lost his wife Elizabeth of Habsburg, and after a suitable period of mourning he was urged to take another for the sake of the kingdom. He was willing. But his choice wasn't exactly what his parents the king and queen, or the Polish parliament, had in mind.
The whole court wanted Sigismund to marry royalty. Sigismund's mother, the formidable Bona Sforza, was thinking along the lines of a Hapsburg or Bourbon. But Sigismund fell totally, madly in love with Barbara Radziwill, the daughter of a noble Lithuanian family. Who could blame him, since she was romantic, beautiful, fashionable, and the queen of every ball she attended. She was also well-educated; she could speak and write Polish, Lithuanian, and Ruthenian, an old kind of Belorussian.
Sigismund was still young and handsome, full of lust for life and used to getting his own way. He boldly announced his choice. But his parents and the whole court rose up in opposition. His mother was especially infuriated, since she considered the Radziwills upstarts. Sigismund didn't care; he and Barbara were happy together, and they carried on a torrid love affair. When they couldn't be together, Barbara sent him love letters. "I am sending Your Royal Grace my little ring as a sign of my modest service," she wrote, "which I dedicate to the kindness of my kind-hearted Master, Your Royal Grace."
Sigismund spent so much time with her that her brother Mikolay and her cousin, also Mikolay, confronted the prince, and told him he should let her alone or else make an honest woman of her.
That sounded like a good idea, so in 1547 Sigismund and Barbara secretly married. As you can imagine, a firestorm erupted, and even when his father passed away a year later, making Sigismund king of Poland, things didn't calm down. The parliament demanded that he divorce Barbara. Sigismund refused. "I wish that all people enjoyed true freedom of loving. I cannot break my marriage vows without offence to my conscience," he declared. "There are no genuine grounds for divorce."
Sigismund's first marriage had been arranged and loveless, and Barbara, a widow, had also been married to a man she didn't love. So both of them were determined to live for themselves and find some genuine happiness. They had had enough of living for others and fulfilling obligations they no longed cared about.
The Polish court make things as difficult as possible for the couple, though. Ugly rumors flew about Barbara; that she was a whore, that she had seduced the king, that she practiced black magic, that she could not provide an heir. The parliament felt that it had the right to decide who the king could marry, and were furious at not being consulted. They also felt that Barbara's being of noble birth just wasn't good enough. "It diminishes us, Your Majesty, that you should have taken as your wife a woman from such a family," one member complained bitterly.
In the end, it might have been Sigismund's mother who took matters into her own hands. Bona Sforza was from the powerful Sforza family of Milan, where poisoning one's enemies was not unheard-of. It's thought that she might have done away with Barbara. It's certain that Barbara became ill just five months after she was finally crowned queen of Poland. Sigismund obtained the best medical care possible, but to no avail. Barbara lingered for a while, grew worse and worse, and finally died at the age of 30 in May of 1551.
According to her wishes, Sigismund had her buried in Vilnius Cathedral, following her casket there. He never recovered from her loss. He wore black the rest of his life, and the room he died in years later was hung with black in her memory.
According to a legend, Sigismund was desperately lonely for Barbara, and he traveled to Niasvizh, the Radziwill castle in Belorus. There he had sorcerer Pan Twardowski summon her ghost. The sorcerer warned him not to move or make a sound when she appeared. But when he saw Barbara, Sigismund joyously flung himself at her, only to have her vanish in a puff of smoke.
Barbara may not have entirely deserted Niasvizh Castle. The castle is said to be haunted by a Black Lady who wanders there in mourning clothes, her sobs echoing through its darkened halls. Is it Barbara, searching through eternity for her beloved Sigismund?
Even if Barbara's unhappy spirit isn't still floating around her old home, she and Sigismund live on in a love story memorable enough to survive the centuries.
The Ghost of Barbara Radziwill by Wojciech Gerson, from Wikimedia Commons
Top picture from Wikimedia Commons, it shows The Death of Barbara Radziwill by Joseph Simmler