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Royal Prussia: the homeland of Nicolaus Copernicus

Nicolaus Copernicus was a son of Royal Prussia (Prusy Królewskie), from the part of the former Teutonic state placed under the suzerainty of the King of Poland under the Treaty of Toruń (Thorn) of 19 October 1466 (ending a war which had lasted for nearly thirty years). Royal Prussia comprised that part of Pomerania including the city of Gdańsk (Pomorze Gdańskie) and the outlet of the Vistula, the right-bank of the Vistula (Powiśle) with Malbork (Marienburg) and Elbląg (Elbing), as well as ziemia chełmińska (Culmerland) and the bishopric of Warmia (Ermland - some 23,900 km2 in total). The area still remaining under the control of the Teutonic Order adopted the name of Teutonic Prussia (Prusy Krzyżackie - ca. 32,000 km2), but after their secularization in 1525 it became Ducal Prussia (Prusy Książęce) and remained a vassal of the Kingdom of Poland until 1657.

A province with a population of 375,000 (as recorded at the beginning of the 16th c.), Royal Prussia was made up of three voivodeships (Chełmińskie, Malborskie and Pomorskie) including districts known as powiats, administrative and judicial units formed under Polish law. Royal Prussia was among the most economically and culturally advanced of the provinces within the multinational Kingdom of Poland which covered an area of some 1,115,000 km2 with a population of more than seven million.

Around one-third of the population was concentrated in cities and towns among which the most important were Gdańsk /Danzig (with a population of 35,000), Toruń/Thorn (with 10-12,000) and Elbląg/Elbing (remaining under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Bishop of Warmia with nearly 10,000). Alongside Kraków, Lviv/Lemberg and Poznań/Posen, these cities were among the largest urban centres in the Kingdom of Poland. Enjoying the lavish privileges granted by King Casimir Jagiellon (Kazimierz Jagiellończyk) at the beginning of the Thirteen Years War and acting as intermediaries in trade relations between Poland and Western Europe, they secured for themselves a leading social and economic position within Royal Prussia.

Dominated by the economically powerful German population that had settled there when the Teutonic Order was implementing its intensive immigration policy, the towns and cities of Royal Prussia (Prusy Królewskie) were the biggest cultural centres in the area. However, the Polish population exceeded 50% of the total, while the surviving descendants of the native inhabitants - the original Balto-Slavic ‘Prussians’ - formed only a very small ethnic group.

Regardless of ethnic differences, social background or language used, the inhabitants called themselves ‘Prussians’ and were aware of the individuality of their ‘state’ within the Polish Kingdom. The concept of a ‘home country’ or ‘fatherland’ (patria) at that time was a far cry from the idea of an individual nation; it was more an awareness of the existence of a uniform geographical, socio-economic, judicial and political entity, in other words of a community consolidated by a common tradition and historical awareness.

This ‘Prussian’ society displayed a deep local ‘patriotism’ as manifested in their struggle to defend the existing privileges and freedoms which were confirmed by the Act of Incorporation of Royal Prussia signed by Casimir Jagiellon (Kazimierz Jagiellończyk) in 1454. According to this act, the native population or in other words those inhabitants who enjoyed full civic rights, had access to local offices and high positions, while the social ‘estates’ forming the privileged strata of Prussian society (‘Prussian estates’) could exert direct influence on its government, in which the Polish King had a share too. Royal Prussia had its own coat-of-arms and a treasury managed by a treasurer appointed by, and answerable to, the king. It was ruled by the gentry and the ‘mercantile patriciate’ from the cities whose representatives constituted the main political body, the Prussian Council (Rada Pruska), which as a rule convened when summoned by the king. However, if the need to adopt an important resolution arose, an assembly of representatives of all social strata in Royal Prussia was convened, which from 1526 was called a sejmik.

Teresa Borawska
Nicolaus Copernicus University
Timeline   Toruń - the hometown of Copernicus
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Mikołaj Kopernik
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