Hürrem Sultan- From slave to queen

Born Aleksandra Ruslana Lisowska around 1502, little Nastia as she was known would never have dreamed she would rise to become a queen.  She was born in the town of Rohatyn in Polish Ruthenia, which is now in Western Ukraine.   Legend has it her father was an Orthodox priest.  Some time in the 1520’s, Nastia’s world turned upside down when she was captured by the Crimean Tartars at the tender age of 12.  Raids by the Tartars into this region were not uncommon, and Nastia was soon taken to the slave markets of Kaffa.  From there she went on to Istanbul, where she was selected for the sultan’s harem.  The sultan of the Ottoman Empire at this time was Süleyman the Magnificent.  He had just recently ascended the throne as the tenth Ottoman Sultan at a relatively young twenty-six.  He was described by Venetian envoy Bartolomeo Contari as “tall and slender but tough, with a thin and bony face. Facial hair is evident but only barely. The sultan appears friendly and in good humor. Rumor has it that Suleiman is aptly named, enjoys reading, is knowledgeable and shows good judgment.”

Young Nastia was sent to the Old Palace to be trained in palace etiquette.  There she was given the name Hürrem, which means “the smiling one” in Persian for her cheerful disposition.  From the moment Süleyman laid eyes on her, he was smitten.  Hürrem became his most prominent consort next to his two previous favorites, Gülfen and Mahidevran.  Mahidevran especially did not take to kindly to this, and Hürrem had rivals.  Mahidevran was the second ranking concubine in the hareem, and mother of the heir designate.  I’m sure she thought she could get rid of this young upstart in no time.  Mahidevran picked a fight with Hürrem and beat her badly, probably thinking that was that.  She did not count on Süleyman’s devotion.  Mahidevran and her son Mustafa were banished to the provincial capital of Manisa.  It was ostensibly to train the heir designate, but in reality it was to rid Hürrem of a rival.  Soon Hürrem was the favorite.  Nine months later, Hürrem and Süleyman’s first son, Mehmed, which gave her the title of Haseki, or mother of a prince.

Hürrem devoted herself to Süleyman and her new country.  She asked for instruction in the Islamic religion and eventually converted.  On her conversion day, he freed her and Hürrem was no longer a slave.  French historian Fontenelle tells this story, and if it is true this woman was brilliant.  Shortly after her conversion ceremony, Hürrem told Süleyman sadly that she was unable to have sexual relations with a man she was not married to according to her new religion.  He didn’t want her to sin, did he?  Süleyman certainly did not want to lead his beloved into sin and tried to abstain.  He lasted three days.  After that, he married Hürrem in a sumptuous formal ceremony that shocked the empire.  There was a 200 year old custom of the Ottoman imperial house that sultans did not marry their concubines.  They weren’t done busting traditions.  Usually to keep a woman from gaining too much power over the sultan and prevent feuds between blood brothers, a concubine was allowed to have only one son.  Hürrem and Süleyman had six children.  Traditionally, a concubine went with her son when he was old enough to a province.  Hürrem  stayed with Süleyman for the duration of her life, moving into his quarters in the Topkapi as the first woman to do so.  She was given the unprecedented title of Haseki Sultan, which put her on the same level as empresses consort in Europe.

Her new position gave her more access to greater education opportunities, and she began learning Ottoman language, mathematics, astronomy, geography, diplomacy, literature, and history.  She also had a great interest in alchemy and chemistry.  In fact, in the excavation of Edirne Palace, her laboratory and tools for perfume making was discovered.  This coupled with her great influence over Süleyman, sent rumors flying that she was a witch.  Anyone caught repeating these slanders were punished harshly.  However, this was a court of intrigues.   Hürrem wanted her children on the throne not Mustafa the son of her old rival.  After Süleyman had been on the throne 46 years, there were rumblings that Mustafa was going to take power.  Rumor had it Hürrem encouraged Süleyman to take Mustafa out.  Whether or not she did, Mustafa was executed and it was Hürrem’s son who eventually took the throne.  However, she did not flinch when her younger son Beyazid stirred up a riot against his father and was eventually executed.  The Ottoman Empire was a tough room.

There is evidence Hürrem used her great influence with her husband in state matters.  In a previous post, we discussed how her relationship with the wife of Sigismund I of Poland may have saved her old homeland from invasion (Please see this post for more information:  http://www.historynaked.com/bona-sforza/ )  It is also believed she may have influenced Süleyman to exert greater control on Crimean Tartar slave raiding.  Known in Europe as Roxelana, or the The Ruthenian One, ambassadors knew she had her husband’s ear.  Like her husband, Hürrem was a prolific builder and commissioned two Koranic schools, fountains, several mosques, a soup kitchen and a women’s hospital.  Her bath, the Haseki Hürrem Sultan Hamam, is still in use today.

The türbe (mausoleum) of Hürrem Sultan in Süleymaniye Mosque at Fatih, Istanbul.

Hürrem passed from an unknown illness on April 15, 1558.  Süleyman was devastated and she was buried in a domed mausoleum adjacent to his own.  In honor of her cheerful nature, her mausoleum depicts the garden of paradise.  After her death, Süleyman wrote poetry bemoaning his loss and loneliness.

My resident of solitude, my everything, my beloved, my shining moon
My friend, my privacy, my everything, my shah of beautifuls, my sultan
My life, my existence, my lifetime, my wine of youngness, my heaven
My spring, my joy, my day, my beloved, my laughing rose.
My plant, my sugar, my treasure, my delicate in world
My saint, my Joseph, my everything, my Khan of my heart´s Egypt.
My Istanbul, My Karaman, my land of Rum
My Bedehşan, my Kıpchak, my Bagdad, my Horosan
My long-haired, my bow like eyebrow, my eye full of discord, my patient
My blood is on your hands if I die, mercy o my non-Muslim
I am a flatterer near your door, I always praise you
Heart is full of sorrow, eye is full of tears, I am Muhibbi and I am happy.

Süleyman followed her less than ten years later and was succeeded by their third son, Selim II, as his two older brothers predeceased him.  


Bona Sforza

Bona in 1517

One would generally think the Queen of Poland would be….well….Polish.  In this case, she was not.  Bona Sforza, as her name would indicate, was Italian.  However, as the wife of King Sigismund I she exercised great power over the country.

A member of the powerful Sforza family of Milan, Bona was born on February 2, 1494 the second child of Gian Galeazzo Sforza, sixth Duke of Milan and his wife Isabella of Naples.  Fun fact, Isabella is thought be some to be the inspiration for the Mona Lisa.  Raised in Bari and Milan, she was educated by the imminent Italian humanists Antonio de Ferraris and Crisotomo Colonna.  From them she learned mathematics, history, classical literature, Latin, , law, theology, geography, natural science, and how to play several instruments.  Bona was also raised on stories of the dangers of the Ottoman Empire and the great explorers of the day.  In short, she was a perfect Renaissance princess.  Sadly, Bona was the only one of her four siblings to live to adulthood.

As part of a powerful family, Bona was expected to make a good marriage.  One problem.  Her great uncle  Ludovico Sforza was constantly at odds with everyone.  He was in a feud with both France and the Pope, so options in France, Italy or Spain were extremely limited.  So the family turned east, and with the help of the House of Hapsburg secured a match for Bona with the widowed Sigismund I of Poland.  The prospect must not have been that exciting for a young girl as her future husband was called “Sigismund the Old”.  Bona was no spring chicken herself, being unwed and 24, but Sigismund was twenty-seven years older than her and quite rough around the edges to the polished Italian lady.  Despite all this, the two were married on April 18,1518 and Bona was crowned Queen of Poland.

As can be expected, the first few months were difficult.  Bona was coming into a culture and climate that was vastly different than the sunny Italy of her youth.  Even the food was different as the diet was heavy on meat and missing the vegetables she was used to.  Bona became known as the Culinary Queen, as she introduced  “włoszczyzna”, literally Italian vegetables, to the area.  She planted a garden near Wawel castle complete with celery, carrots, parsley and leeks.  These vegetables made their way into the Polish and Lithuanian diets along with the words for these vegetables.  She also introduced Italian artists to Poland, including her court favorite Bartolommeo Berrecci.  HIs masterpiece is the Sigismund Chapel at Wawel Castle Cathedral in Kraków.  It is considered “the most beautiful example of the Tuscan Renaissance north of the Alps”.

Bona and Sigismund had six children, however, if the Polish court thought Bona was only going to be a mother of heirs, they were sadly mistaken.  Raised in the centers of power in Italy, Bona began building her own base of support from the Polish nobility.  She was also able to leverage her relationship to the Medici Pope Leo X to influence clerical appointments in her favor.  Despite her upbringing and the help of the Habsburgs in securing her marriage, Bona came down on the side of the Ottoman Empire against the Habsburgs.  Her correspondence with Hurrem Sultan, the legal wife of Suleiman the Magnificent, is thought to have been critical in saving Poland from attempted invasion by the Ottoman Empire.  This correspondence has been lost to time, however, Hurrem sent personal gifts to both Sigismund and his son.  Hurrem was originally from Poland, and all signs point to them having a close relationship.  

Of her children, one son and four daughters survived to adulthood.  Her daughters went on to become powerful in their own rite:  Queen Isabella of Hungary, Duchess Sophia of Brunswick-Lüneberg, Queen Anna I of Poland and Queen Catherine of Sweden, Duchess of Finland.  However, her son and heir became her greatest disappointment.  Sigismund II August succeeded his father after his death in 1548.  However, Sigismund August did not inherit the ruling ability of either his father or his mother.  He concentrated on romance and art rather than running the kingdom.  His first wife was the choice of his father and Bona bitterly opposed it.  Elizabeth of Austria was a Hapsburg, and was in frail health.  The journey from Austria to Poland exacerbated her epilepsy and she began having daily seizures.  Her father-in-law was sympathetic, but Bona was openly hostile.  Sigismund August was indifferent.  He found his new wife unattractive and busied himself with affairs.  Elizabeth made the mistake of calling Bona by her title “the Old Queen”, which Bona detested.  Not a great way to get in good with your mother-in-law.  The poor girl died two years into the marriage.

At this point Sigismund August was on the marriage market again, and Bona expected to get him a more suitable wife this time.  However, that was not on Sigismund August’s mind and he married his outstandingly beautiful mistress Barbara Radziwiłłówna.  Not only was she not Bona’s choice, but she was a Lithuanian Calvinist from an ambitious family.  Bona had worked diligently to keep Protestantism from taking root in Poland, even though she allowed Protestant views to be discussed.  Having one as Queen?  Not happening.  Bona was livid and was not quiet about it.  She headed the campaign to annul the marriage, which included slut shaming Barbara, accusing her of poisoning her first husband and witchcraft to seduce the young king.  The marriage was recognized despite Bona’s efforts and Barbara was crowned Queen of Poland on December 7, 1550.  Bona was removed from court and moved to Mazovia, and was supposedly content with her farms and orchards.  However, when beautiful Barbara died mysteriously in May 8,1551, rumors went round that she had been poisoned on Bona’s orders.  Then rumors went round that this was not the first time Bona had removed a distasteful daughter-in-law.  Remember poor sickly Elizabeth.  Bona was Italian.  They did those things, you know.

Eventually the rumors got to be too much and Bona returned to the Bari of her childhood eight years after the death of her husband.  Her son had married another Hapsburg, this time Catherine of Austria, and she wasn’t going to fall into the line of suspicion if another daughter-in-law got sick.  However, Bona herself was the one who became ill and died under mysterious circumstances.  It is believed that at the instigation of her old enemies the Habsburgs, she was poisoned by her trusted officer, Gian Lorenzo Pappacoda.  Apparently, Philip II owed Bona quite a little bit of money.  Pappacoda forged the will the day before to forgive the debt.  He was rewarded with a title and an annual salary.

Sigismund August died without an heir, so all of Bona’s consternation about his bride was for not.  His sister Anna and her husband Stefan Batory took the throne and ruled as King and Queen.


Nazi Gold Train – Fact or Fiction?

14925413_363037487371673_7064672069941363090_nIt’s well known that during WWII, agents from the Third Reich acting on behalf of the ruling Nazi Party of Germany plundered many cities. Most notably by military units known as the Kunstschutz. In addition to gold, silver and currency, cultural items of great significance were stolen, including paintings, ceramics, books, and religious treasures. Most of these items were recovered by agents of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program (MFAA)(Monuments Men), on behalf of the Allies. Thousands of items remain missing. One of the most popular legends where the treasures ended up are The Nazi Gold Trains.

If the legends are true, it would be one of the greatest modern treasure finds of the century. But is there any truth to the legend of the Nazi Gold Train?

The train or trains are believed to be near the Polish city of Wałbrzych, which until 1945 was the German city of Waldenburg. According to local legend, the train or trains left Breslau (now Wrocław) laden with gold and other treasures. They were driven into a system of tunnels under the Owl Mountains that were part of an unfinished Nazi secret Project Riese near Wałbrzych. There they were buried in a series of tunnels and mines created by the Nazis. The trains are rumoured to hold up to 300 tons of gold, jewels, weapons and masterpieces.

The estimated value of the treasure would be priceless. If you had to put a value some historians believe the train could hold up to $30 billion in missing treasures, including gold bars, missing masterpieces, and silverware that was stolen from Jewish people.

Recently, two men came forward claiming to have a deathbed confession from someone who knew the location of the trains. After months of searching their claims came up empty. The legend lives on in the town of Wałbrzych. They have seen a 44% increase in tourism with people hoping to find the treasure. We many never know what happened to the missing treasures or if the trains ever existed.


Stanisław Warszycki and the Faustian Bargain

Ruins of Ogrodzieniec Castle
Ruins of Ogrodzieniec Castle

Loyal castellian, able military commander and patriot. These are all things that have been said about Stanisław Warszycki. However, a few others have been attributed to him as well- heretic, sadist and murderer. Where does the truth lie? Let us examine Warszycki’s life and see if we can find a glimmer of it.

Born around 1600, Stanisław Warszycki was from a noble family and was educated at the University of Padua. In 1632, he married Helena Wiśniowiecka, and the couple had one son and two daughters. Warszycki kept his estates in good order and he encouraged the immigration of foreign craftsmen to his estates, which had cloth, pottery and brick factories. During the reign of Sigismund III, he was a senator or voivode and the provincial governor of Mazowieckie. All pretty usual stuff for a noble of that time.

Warszycki was also held in high regard for his loyalty to the Polish kingdom. He did not throw his loyalty to Sweden, like many other powerful nobles, during the Swedish invasion and occupation during the Second Northern War. This was called the Swedish Deluge in popular history. He retook the castle of Pilica from the Swedish commander, Lidorn. His battlements were so innovative, they were adopted by architects all over Poland. He also fortified his estates at Danków significantly to withstand the Swedish assault and forced a retreat from Krzepice and Ogrodzieniec. He even sent men, provisions and cannon to help defend Jasna Góra Monastery, which was being besieged by the Swedes in their attack on Częstochowa. After the war, he spent his fortune rebuilding and was active as a mediator in the politics of Poland. Sounds like a pretty stand up guy, right? Well, here is where things get iffy.

After Warszycki’s death in 1680, stories began to go around about just exactly what kind of guy he was. Some name him as the “Slavic Dracula”. Legends that he kept caves full of treasures he greedily amassed or made deals with the devil for. At Ogrodzieniec castle, he was accused of keeping a “cave of tortures”, where he sadistically enjoyed the systematic torture of peasants and any insubordinate subjects. Even his family was supposedly not immune from his cruelty. Also at Ogrodzieniec castle, his wife received a male guest and Warszycki was eaten up with jealousy, so he blew up the portion of the castle where they were. This was after whipping his wife on multiple occasions, according to legend. According to legend, he also promised his daughter, Barbara, a good dowry, but when the marriage was to be celebrated gave her nothing out of spite.

The most popular tale was how the fortifications of Danków were built so quickly. Supposedly, the Swedes were coming too fast and all though he was whipping the peasants as hard as he could, the defenses would not be ready. To get the work done, Warszycki supposedly made a deal with the Devil. The price for this was Warszycki’s soul, which was damned to either hell or to walk the Earth for the rest of his days. Legends say Warszycki did not die of natural causes, but was kidnapped by devils and taken to hell while he was still alive.

HIs ghost is said to haunt Ogrodzieniec Castle in the form of a black dog. It’s bigger than an ordinary dog with glowing yellow eyes. Witnesses have said they have seen the dog roaming the castle’s battlements and grounds at night, dragging a heavy chain behind him. Strangely, Warszycki is also supposed to haunt another one of his castles as a headless rider. Either way, nothing you’d want to meet on a dark night.

There has been speculation that the blackening of Warszycki’s character was from his enemies. During the Swedish wars, he made enemies of other magnates who backed the Swedes. However, for a man who was cruel it would make sense that the stories didn’t seep out until after his death for fear of retribution. We will leave it to your judgement whether he really made a deal with the devil.


Sources available on request

Princess Wanda

Death of princess Wanda by Maksymilian Piotrowski, 1859.
Death of princess Wanda by Maksymilian Piotrowski, 1859.

Wanda lived in 8th century Poland and was the daughter of Krakus, legendary founder of Kraków. Krakus had three children, two sons and a daughter. His eldest son was killed by his younger brother, who wanted the power for himself. This act of evil greatly angered the people Krakow and they banished the murderer from their country forever.
So the beautiful Wanda became the ruler of the country. She ruled wisely and justly over the people who looked upon her with the greatest of love and respect. Many princes sought to marry her, but she would not accept any of them. She had not yet found someone who was pleasing and help her rule wisely and well over her beloved country. She waged war against anyone who tried to invade her home, she would even lead her soldiers into battle.
Her name spread far and wide, and even a German prince, named Rytigier, heard of her beauty, her valor and, what was even more attractive to him, he heard that the lands of Poland were fruitful and rich. He sent messengers with a letter to Wanda. The messengers were received at Wanda’s court with courtesy and hospitality, as was always the custom in Poland. They presented Wanda the prince’s letter, all the while surveying their surroundings with greedy eyes.

Queen Wanda's bust in the Krasiński's Palace, Ursynów.
Queen Wanda’s bust in the Krasiński’s Palace, Ursynów.

Wanda read the letter and turned deathly pale. The contents were clear enough; Rytigier asked her for her hand in marriage, stipulating that as her dowry she should bring him the lands of Poland, and threatening war in the event of a refusal. Rytigier had a very powerful army, famed all over Europe as the strongest and best equipped of any prince. Wanda’s army had lost many in recent wars. If she accepted Rytigier’s proposal of marriage she would not subject her country to German rule. To wage war might be fatal with the armies so ill-matched. Defeat at the hands of the Germans would certainly bring terrible vengeance. But, in a firm voice, Wanda made her answer. She refused to surrender herself and her country to the Germans. She had made her decision. Wanda would sacrifice her life for Poland.
She retired to her room and prayed to the gods that they would grant Poland freedom from the Germans in return for her sacrificing her life. Her prayer was granted, and Wanda threw herself into the Vistula. When her body was recovered, she was buried with all honors. Tradition has it that she is buried in the large Wanda Mound next to her father.

Side Note:
The legend of Wanda is believed to originate in the 12th century by Polish bishop and historian, Wincenty Kadłubek, possibly based on Slavic myths and legends, although some historians see the legend rooted in Scandinavian or Ancient Roman traditions. The Kadłubek version has the German prince, not princess Wanda, committing suicide: according to Kadłubek, the princess lived a long and happy life, forever remaining a virgin. It was only in the 14th century Wielkopolska Chronicle that the variant with Wanda committing suicide was popularized by historian, Jan Długosz.


Wand Mound
Wand Mound