Armour with a wing of a Polish knight-hussar

  • The nobility was a privileged social class, usually the feudal land owners, which emerged in feudal countries in 13th - 14th century, originating from the knighthood.
  • The transformation of the knights into nobility in Poland, called "szlachta", occurred in the 14th - 15th century.
  • Polish nobility was unique in that it followed none of the laid down rules observed by the western herald. The Polish nobility emerged as a clan system before 1000 AD. Each clan had its own mark which eventually evolved into the symbols found on Polish coats of arms.
  • Membership into this elite group was attained through either "valorous deeds on the field of honour", or by adoption. In Poland only the nobility were permitted to bear a coat of arms (herb). The noble class became land owners.
  • The social class of szlachta took over the old knightly privileges. It was an exclusive class in which all members were considered equal. The King having been elected by "szlachta" for the term of his life was considered to be "the first among equals".
Polish knight's armour
Polish hussar's armour
15th - 16th century.
Polish knight's heavy armour.
17th century. Armour of a Polish knight made of iron scales fixed to elk's skin. 17th century. Armour of a Polish hussar with hinged wings fixed to the back.
  • Unlike western knights the Polish knight swore no fealty to an overlord but regarded himself rather as the defender of the Polish Commonwealth, its people and the Christendom. The Patron Saint of many Polish knights was the "Black Madonna" of Czestochowa.
  • The ennoblement was bestowed upon an individual for bravery on the field of battle. Once ennobled the coat of arms bestowed upon the knight became hereditary to all descendants, both legitimate males and lineal females (that is unmarried daughters).
  • All members of an extended family carried the exact same arms and were considered closer than brothers. The degree of actual kinship within this clan (ród) had little effect on this bond.
  • The social structure of nobility fell into four groups:
    1.  Magnates - wealthy landowners.
    2.  Middle nobility - village gentry of considerable means, owned a village or few villages and possessed serfs.
    3.  Lesser nobility - small landowners, owned part of a village or worked the land themselves, hiring the serfs.

    4.  Grey nobility - knights of little or no wealth (yeomen).

  • A Polish knight may have had vast estates and carried his sword on a jewel encrusted belt, but he was only the equal of the poor knight who had his sword tied to his waist with a piece of rope and owned a few acres.

Typical dress of Polish nobles ("szlachta")
Year 1620.

  • Szlachta run the Diet (the Parliament of Nobles), ruled the nation and formed the vanguard of the nation's army. A coat of arms was exactly what the name implied - the symbol borne on a knight's surcoat and shield in defence of the fatherland.
  • At the local Diet each nobleman had an equal speaking voice throughout the proceedings. Little regard was paid to wealth and money but bravery in battle was considered a paramount.
  • The Poles held to the belief that noble birth was the guarantee of noble character and were forbidden to marry outside of their class. Blood was the assurance that the highest values and traditions of the Commonwealth of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Litva would always be maintained.

Typical dress of Polish noblewomen ("szlachcianki")
Year 1620.

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