In early 1472, the thirteen-year-old Prince Casimir of Poland returned to his native land from a campaign in Hungary with a dispirited and malcontented army. Much of the remaining force was made up of unpaid mercenaries. Even before crossing the border they proved unruly and prone to loot the local population, but on the Polish side they let loose an uncontrollable wave of despoliation and crime that would be long remembered.
It was not supposed to turn out this way. A year earlier Prince Casimir’s father, King Casimir IV Jagiellon had scored a great diplomatic coup in getting his eldest son Ladislaus elected King of the Czech lands. To be sure, King Matthias Corvinus in the neighboring Kingdom of Hungary controlled much of Ladislaus’s new kingdom, which he regarded as rightfully his own, and war was almost instantly the result. But King Casimir thought he had a plan to deal with Matthias. Domestic discontent with his rule in Hungary was running high among factions of the powerful Hungarian nobility, led by the famously learned Archibishop of Esztergom and primate of Hungary, János Vitéz. Accusing Corvinus of tyranny, these nobles were quite willing to conclude an alliance with King Casimir, who promised to send a large army to link up with Hungarian rebels, to be headed nominally by his second son and namesake, the future St. Casimir, but entrusted in fact to the leadership of experienced and proven captains. The elective nature of the Hungarian throne and the apparently strong political support of prominent Hungarian allies offered good hopes that soon another Polish prince would be king of a neighboring country.
Yet it all proved a mirage. King Matthias, realizing the danger to his rule, deftly bought off most the rebels with concessions. By the time the Polish army arrived, it found few allies, and the leaders of the expedition lost their nerve, avoiding major battles, while their forces gradually dissolved through desertion. They returned home without honor, although Casimir’s youth meant that he was spared any direct blow to his reputation at home. Some historians have attributed Casimir’s growth in sanctity to the shock of failure and his witnessing the atrocities committed by his own army. The historian and churchman charged with the young prince’s intellectual and moral upbringing, Jan Długosz, recorded that he returned home to his native city of Cracow “not without profound sorrow and shame.”
His father and the other leading men of the kingdom were grooming young Casimir for greatness, not piety. Indeed, some thanked God that the “best and most capable” of the King’s sons had been saved by the failure of the Hungarian gambit in order that he might one day rule his native Poland, rather than becoming King of some other land. Indeed, Prince Casimir was an intelligent, prudent, hard-working, and talented youth. His love for fairness and justice boded well for a ruler who could resist the temptations of power. Yet a deeper level of spirituality and virtue seems to have already been taking root within him, traits that would blossom in the coming years.
The expectations the world had for Prince Casimir can perhaps be better understood in the context of the realities of dynastic politics of the day. His mother, a Hapsburg princess, bequeathed to him a pattern of serious piety, but also naturally enough laid on him expectations that came from the ingrained Hapsburg habit of dynastic ambition. His paternal grandfather, Ladislaus Jagiełło (Jogaila) had been the last major polytheistic ruler in northern Europe, as Grand Prince of the Lithuanians. Lithuania then was much larger than it is today, with the mainly pagan Lithuanians ruling over most of the vast Eastern Orthodox lands of what today is Belarus and Ukraine. Facing a military threat from the crusading order known as the Teutonic Knights on the Baltic coast on one hand, and the danger of complete assimilation into the Rus culture of their subjects on the other, Jagiełło accepted the offer of the regents of Poland to marry Hedwig [Jadwiga] of Anjou, the land’s young “maiden king” (she needed such a title, since Polish law made no allowance for a woman to rule.) St. Hedwig the Queen, to give her perhaps more familiar name today, accepted her fate and married Jagiełło, using the opportunity to devote herself to the conversion of the Lithuanians to Catholic Christianity, her husband having already been baptized in order to marry her. This dynastic marriage created the vast state of Poland-Lithuania, and would lead in time to the establishment of Jagiełło’s dynasty as one of the major ruling families of Europe. It also created real political difficulties, however, given the vast and varied nature of the realms of Poland and Lithuania, which were now united into one political conglomeration. These realms, which Prince Casimir stood to inherit, were thus not be easy to rule, and so required a judicious, capable, and steady hand, such as he seemed capable of providing.
With problems in his Lithuanian realm growing, in part due to his lavishing most of his attention on Poland, King Casimir realized he had to spend extended time in the Grand Duchy. Indeed, a plot had been uncovered on the part of some lords there to assassinate both himself, and Prince Casimir, his heir apparent. During the years 1481-1482 therefore, as he got Lithuanian affairs in better order, Prince Casimir became a kind of semi-official viceroy for his father in the Kingdom of Poland. Here, the 23-year-old prince won acclaim for his justice, incorruptibility, and purity. He carefully respected the legitimate rights of all in the realm, even the mostly German Prussian estates, whose claim to autonomy he upheld, while exerting much effort to suppress banditry that was afflicting certain border regions of the kingdom. He began to evince interest in an eventual campaign against the Ottoman Turks, who were a growing threat to Christian states in Southeast Europe.
In 1483, his father sent him to Lithuania, where the prince traveled extensively, seeing to business of state for his father and lord, but he also spent much time in the capital, Vilnius. His health, however, was beginning to decline, and recurrent bouts of tuberculosis became gradually more severe. He would have only two more years to live, but he bore his sufferings patiently and without complaint, keeping himself busy. In Vilnius, he petitioned his father, and received his permission to act as under-chancellor of the crown, a relatively modest administrative position, which it was unheard-of for anyone of royal blood to hold. This involved him with some of the hard work of the nuts and bolts of administration, including managing tax proceeds. Although the saint as tax-collector may seem paradoxical, Prince Casimir showed both the earnestness with which he took learning about his duties of state, and the humility of taking a position well below his station.
It was in these last years that his piety, always strong, seems to have blossomed and come to maturity. In his declining health, he preserved his chastity, as he always had done, and refused suggestions of marriage. Such purity was an unusual trait for a high-born man of his day, especially if not destined for the clergy. The tradition of the people of Vilnius would remember his early rising and standing in the pre-dawn hours of the morning before the locked church door eager to begin his devotions with the clergy. Daily he would sing his favorite Marian hymn, attributed to St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Omni die dic Mariae, beginning suitably enough “Every day, my soul, speak to Mary,” a conductus of some 60 verses in its full form! Indeed, a parchment copy written in his own hand would be buried with him, and it illustrates best the spirit of Casimir’s own personal piety. In it, the singer alternates between exhorting himself to duly honor Mary and her role in the order of salvation, singing the praises of her virtues, and entreating her that he be conformed to the grace of her Son, so thus to be filled with an list of moral qualities that continues to grow impressively as the song continues, but with special emphasis on courage, piety, self-control, chastity, moderation, kindness, and lack of interest in worldly things. These virtues were exemplified in Casimir quite well, according to his state and role in life, especially in his impartial justice and humility.
Early in 1484, Casimir’s health took a sudden grave turn, and he died in the City of Hrodna (today in Belarus) on March 4th, the day after Ash Wednesday, aged only 25. His body was taken back to Vilnius for burial. Throughout his father’s lands his death was taken as a great blow to the hopes of the people, and he was greatly mourned. His sometime teacher in statecraft, the Italian renaissance humanist resident in Poland, Filippo Buonaccorsi, wrote a great, but somewhat despairing complement: “it would have been better had he never been born, if he would not remain forever!” Yet the people of Vilnius understood that he did remain with them forever, just as all the saints of the mystical body of Christ. It was they who had most seen his holiness first hand in those last years burdened by sickness, and it was they who began to visit his tomb and ask his intercession in their necessities. Many miracles were soon being reported at his tomb, and yet it took a couple of decades before his own family became particularly interested in his canonization, and then only after a victory over the forces of the Grand Duchy of Moscow—forerunner to today’s Russia—was attributed to his help and intercession. Final papal confirmation of his sanctity came in 1602, and his body was at that point exhumed, and found to be incorrupt. He was thereafter reburied in the present Baroque chapel of the Vilnius Cathedral, which bears his name.
Niccolò Machiavelli was born only ten years after St. Casimir. His vision of the prince, so influential on modern political thought, was that of the man who could and should bring peace by fraud, deception, murder, and force if necessary, and to think of religion and morality primarily as useful instruments that need to be kept up in appearances only, for the utility of the state. How different was the spirit and practice of St. Casimir! Although by no means weak or irresolute in enforcement of the law, his example is of the humble servant of justice and the common good. He reminds us that chastity and humility, on one hand, and power, on other, are not incompatible, any more than justice and power are. He is an exemplar for any facing serious illness, especially at an unexpectedly early age. Above all, he teaches us of the need for prayer, no matter what our station in life happens to be. He was truly a prince without reproach.