The wonderfully named Stanisław II August Poniatowski (born Count Stanisław Antoni Poniatowski) was the last King and Grand Duke of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1764-95). His official title was, memorably, Stanisław August, by the grace of God and the will of the people King of Poland, Grand Duke of Lithuania and Duke of Ruthenia, Prussia, Masovia, Samogitia, Kiev, Volhynia, Podolia, Podlasie, Livonia, Smolensk, Severia and Chernihiv. Born in Wolcyn (which today is in Belarus) in 1732, Poniatowski first rose to prominence as an orator in the nascent Polish parliament, the Sejm. Appointed ambassador of Saxony to the court of Catherine the Great in St. Petersburg in 1755, the tall, dashing Poniatowski quickly became a regular lover of the insatiable Russian Empress. When the Polish King August II died in 1763, it was with Russian support that Poniatowski was elected king, at the age of 32.
Opposed from the start by large numbers of the Polish nobility, on first appearances Poniatowski’s three decades on the throne do not look all that impressive. He was powerless to prevent the first partition of the Commonwealth in 1772 and relied heavily for much of his reign on Russian patronage. Yet he is remembered most for his championing of the 1791 Polish-Lithuanian Constitution: Europe’s first and the world’s second (the United States had enacted the first, in 1788) codified constitution. It greatly reduced the power of the nobility, and introduced the idea of equality amongst all citizens of the Commonwealth: noblemen, townsfolk and peasants. Alas, the Commonwealth was about to crumble, and the constitution came far too late to save it. Appalled, the Polish nobility, under the flag of the Targowica Federation and allied with Russian nobles keen to prevent similar ideas of equality infiltrating into Russia, launched a full scale war (known, somewhat incorrectly, as the Polish-Russian War of 1791-2) on Poniatowski. Betrayed by Prussia (which had until then been a keen ally), Poniatowski was defeated in 1792 and the constitution expunged from the statute book. The status quo antebellum was restored, and Poniatowski managed to cling on as King until 1795 when the final partition of the Commonwealth forced him to abdicate. He fled to St. Petersburg, where he lived at the grace of Catherine until he died in 1798. He was first buried at the Catholic Church of St. Catherine in St. Petersburg, with his remains being transferred to a church at Wołczyn in 1938. In 1995, in belated recognition of his role in creating the 1791 constitution, he was formally reburied at St. John’s Cathedral in Warsaw.