Columns of Gediminas, symbol of the House of Gediminas
Medieval Coat of Arms of Lithuania was inherited by oldest families
Medieval Coat of Arms of Lithuania was inherited by oldest families
Crossed arrows motive indicates the oldest type of heraldry in Lithuania after formal Christianization, like Kościesza coat of arms
Crossed arrows motive indicates the oldest type of heraldry in Lithuania after formal Christianization, like Kościesza coat of arms

The Lithuanian nobility or Lithuanian szlachta (Lithuanian: bajorija, šlėkta, Polish: szlachta litewska) was historically a legally privileged hereditary elite class in the Kingdom of Lithuania and Grand Duchy of Lithuania (including during period of foreign rule 1795–1918) consisting of Lithuanians from Lithuania Proper; Samogitians from Duchy of Samogitia; following Lithuania's eastward expansion into what is now Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, many ethnically Ruthenian noble families (boyars); and, later on, predominantly Baltic German families from the Duchy of Livonia and Inflanty Voivodeship.[1] It traced its origins via Palemonids to Polemon II of Pontus.[citation needed]

Families of the nobility were responsible for military mobilization and enjoyed Golden Liberty; some were rewarded with additional privileges for success on the battlefield. In the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, ducal titles were mostly inherited by descendants of old dynasties while the relatively few hereditary noble titles in the Kingdom of Poland were bestowed by foreign monarchs. The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth had one of the largest percentages of nobility in Europe, with szlachta (nobility) constituting close to 10% of the population, but in some constituent regions, like Duchy of Samogitia, it was closer to 12%. However, the high nobility was extremely limited in number, consisting of the magnates and later, within the Russian Empire, of princes.

Lithuanian nobility is not formally recognized by the Republic of Lithuania and does not carry special status, but the Lithuanian Royal Union of Nobility (founded 1928, closed in 1940, reestablished in 1994) unites in excess of 4,000 members from 600 families.

Lithuania before formal Christianization

Prior to the baptism (and quick repudiation) by Mindaugas, lesser members of the nobility were called bajorai (singular - bajoras) and greater nobles, kunigai (singular - kunigas), related to the Old German: kunig, meaning "king", or Lithuanian: kunigaikštis, usually translated as duke, Latin: dux. These positions evolved from tribal leaders and were chiefly responsible for waging wars and organizing raids operations into enemy territories. Following the establishment of a unified state, they gradually became subordinates to greater Dukes, and later to the King of Lithuania. After Mindaugas' death, all Lithuanian rulers held the title Grand Duke (Lithuanian: Didysis kunigaikštis), or king, which was the title sometimes used by Gediminas and several others.

Ethnic Lithuanian nobility had different names than common people, as their names consisted of two stems. Greater noble families generally used their predecessor's Lithuanian pagan given names as their family names; this was the case with Goštautai, Radvilos, Astikai, Kęsgailos and others. Those families acquired great wealth, eventually becoming magnates. Their representatives are respectively Jonas Goštautas, Radvila Astikas, Kristinas Astikas and Mykolas Kęsgaila. The aforementioned families were granted corresponding Polish coats of arms under the Union of Horodlo in 1413.

While at the beginning the nobility was almost all Lithuanian or Samogitian, with territorial expansion more Ruthenian families joined the nobility. As early as the 16th century, several Ruthenian noble families began to call themselves gente Ruthenus, natione Lithuanus.[2] A good example is the Chodkiewicz family, which attributed its ancestry to the House of Gediminas.

Grand Duchy of Lithuania before the Union of Lublin (1386-1569)

Formation of the noble estate

The term boyar, boiarstvo (bajorai) originally denoted all those who fought. Over the course of the 15th century, it changed its meaning to refer to the masses of ordinary nobility who could stand up to fight when called upon. There were also social groups that were personally free but had no military commitments. Such a group were, for example, putnie boyars, who served as grand-ducal envoys and were in charge of road maintenance.[3] A significant group of boyars were service boyars who did not own allodial land, but only service estates, which they received and owned only by the grace of the Grand Duke. As the role and wealth of the great magnates increased, the service boyars put themselves at the service of the lords and princes in exchange for tenures.[4] Despite the fact that they performed military functions, their servile status called their nobility into question. For quite a long time social mobility remained open and anyone could become ennobled as a reward for services to the Grand Duke. In time, the influence of lesser nobles decreased while greater nobles acquired increasingly more power.

The process of the formation of the noble estate in Lithuania accelerated after the union with Poland when there arose a desire to equalize the legal system of both countries. Nobility, or szlachta, in Poland was already a well-established estate, its legal position was consolidated in the 14th century.[5] At this point, it was basically impossible to enter the noble status otherwise than by birth. The development of the idea of corona regni aroused among the nobility a notion of being the main unifying force of the kingdom and responsible for its rule.[6] Lithuanian nobles aspired to this position. Privileges of 1387 and 1413 gave legal security of tenure to holders of allodial land and recognized in law the rights of landowners to pass on their estates.[7] Although allodial land ownership was previously known in the Grand Duchy, its prevalence increased significantly in the following period. Similarly, the new law of inheritance led to a decline in the importance, outside Kaunas district and Samogitia, of clan kinships, in favour of more nuclear families.[8]

This led to a rapid change in the structure of land ownership. While in 1386 80% of the population lived in the lands directly under the Grand Duke's rule, by 1528 this figure had fallen to 30%. It is estimated that 5% of the land was owned by the Church, while as much as 65% of the land was then in the hands of 13 thousand of noble families (6 thousand of them were of Lithuanian origin). Most of it was owned by a small group of several dozen families of lords, which constituted the political elite of the country.[9]

New terms emerged for all those of noble birth: shliakhta (from Polish: szlachta; Lithuanian: šlėkta) in Ruthenian and nobiles in Latin. The term zemianin [pl] (Lithuanian: ziemionys) began to denote the nobles who possessed land.[10] Szlachta itself was stratified into several categories.

As the privileges and political importance of the nobility grew and the burdens and freedoms of the peasantry were reduced, these linguistic differences began to gain importance. Around the beginning of the 16th century, groups of boyars spared no effort to prove their noble status. The grand ducal council resolved that nobility had to be attested by the testimony of two neighbours, of undoubtedly noble lineage, saying that the applicant's family had been "boyars and shliakhta through the ages".[11] Another opportunity to prove nobility were the military musterings, the first one organised in 1528, where a register of those capable to fight was prepared. Listening in such a register was legal proof of nobility.[11]

Emergence of a magnate elite

Initially, a group distinguished by prestige were the princely families, which members bore the title of knyaz. These were mostly, at least according to tradition, the descendants of the dynasties who accepted the authority of Gediminids. However, only those who owned land in Lithuania proper, who was of Lithuanian origin and who had accepted Catholicism in 1386, had any influence on central state policy. The Ruthenian princes had influence only on the local situation in their lands.[12] They varied considerably in terms of wealth and importance, some of them wielding huge estates, while others possessed their land on service tenure from the grand duke or another prince (so-called 'service princes' - князя слчжбовiе).[13] The most powerful princes retained almost total power in their lands, recognising the supremacy of the grand dukes. Vytautas began a policy of limiting the power of the princes and incorporating their appanages into the domain. Many princes died in civil wars after his death. Many appanages, lying in the east, were lost to Moscow in the course of wars in the 15th and 16th centuries. Some families became extinct, and with the restriction of the circle of inheritance, their estates were incorporated into the grand-ducal domain.[14] In 1499 Alexander regulated the legal system of the few remaining appanages, the magnates ruling them were given the full ius ducale. This was of little political significance since the princes as a political class were of little importance.[15]

Regarding Lithuania proper, not counting descendants of Gediminas seven princely families are known: Borowski, Dowgowd, Giedraitis/Giedrojć, Jamontowicz, Holshansky, Sudemund, Świrski.[16] They also used the title knyaz, which is probably a rendering of the Lithuanian kunigas, which in pagan times probably belonged to every person of noble status. It is not clear whether they owed their princely dignity to their former status as sovereigns or to their connection and affinity with the ruling family established in the 14th century (this is confirmed at least for the Gedraitis and Holshanskys).[17]

Among them, only the Holshansky played a significant role on the side of the grand dukes, starting from Jogaila and Vytautas, being in the strict power elite. Apart from them, these were the families descended from Gediminas family: Olelkovich, Belsky, Kobryński and Zasławski.[18] The princes of ethnically Ruthenian origin were excluded from the strict power elite and found their place in it only at the end of the 15th century. Then the representatives of powerful Volhynian families: Sanguszko, Czartoryski, Ostrogski and Zasławski found their place in the power elite.[19]

Since the reign of Vytautas, documents began to distinguish a group of great lords, calling them in Latin baro (pl. barones), dominus (pl. domini) or, in Ruthenian texts, "great boyars" (боярe великie). Soon, the borrowed from Polish term "pan" (plural "pany", пан;[8] ponai or didikai), literally meaning "lord" gained popularity.[8] This new elite was only partly descended from the old princely families that ruled Lithuania in pagan times. To a large extent, these were new families that appeared during the reigns of Jogaila and Vytautas and whose representatives were among the signatories of the Union of Horodło (1413).[20] They owed their position to the generosity of the grand dukes, who rewarded them with offices and land granted in allodium.[21]

In the Union of Horodło (1413) forty-five Polish families adopted forty-seven Lithuanian Catholic families, lending them their coats of arms. It is assumed that the representatives of Lithuanian nobility gathered in Horodło constituted the elite of that time on which Vytautas based his authority.[22] The adoption of Polish coats of arms, an important marker of nobility with a well-established tradition in Western Europe, elevated this narrow group above other privileged population groups.[23] Despite the fact that some of them abandoned the Horodło coats of arms and replaced them with others, the political significance of this gesture did not lose its significance. In the system built by Vytautas, central offices were restricted to Catholics only, which excluded nobles of Ruthenian origin. The basis of the Grand Duke's power was the lands of Lithuania proper, basically the provinces of Trakai and Vilnius. Nobles from this region constituted the ruling elite.[24] The situation began to change in the 1430s when nobility privileges began to be extended to the Ruthenian nobility.

The cementing of the new elite was strengthened by the emergence of the institution of the council. Initially, it had no institutionalized form but gathered the ruler's closest associates. However, from 1430 onwards, it began to take shape as a permanent institution, to which one automatically became a member by virtue of holding the relevant office.[25] Possession of the princely title gave the right to participate in wider councils, called Sejm (сеймь, сoймь) a term borrowed from Polish.[25] Their position grew especially during the period when the Grand Duke was also King of Poland and was away from the country for long periods. Crucial to this was the privilege of 1492, which gave the council enormous influence over the politics of the Grand Duchy. Practically giving it full control over the actions of the ruler. While in Poland at that time the limitation of royal power was associated with an increase in the role of the ordinary nobility, in the Grand Duchy, where nobility assemblies (sejmiks) did not exist, full power passed into the hands of the great lords.[26] Grand Duchy of Lithuania offices were held almost exclusively by magnates.

Potent Radziwiłł family (Radvila) received the title of the prince (German: Reichsfürst; Polish: książę) from the Holy Roman Emperor in 1518, similarly some other families received titles of counts (Goštautai/Gasztołd in 1529/30; Ilinicz in 1553; Chodkiewicz in 1568; possibly Kęsgailos/Kieżgajło in 1547) from the Emperor.[27] The elevation of the Radziwiłł family resulted in the abandonment of the title of "knyaz" by those Ruthenian families that still retained significant power, wealth and often appanages (for example Wiśniowiecki, Ostrogski, Zbaraski). They adopted instead the Polish title "książę", which in Ruthenian texts was translated as "knyazhe".[28] As a result, the poorer prince families that still used the title of knyaz fell completely into insignificance, and the Lithuanian magnate elite consisted of "princes and lords" (Polish: "książąt i panów").[28][29]


Following his distribution of state land, the Grand Duke became dependent on powerful landowners, who began demanding greater liberties and privileges. The nobles were granted administrative and judicial power in their domains and increasing rights in state politics. The legal status of the nobility was based on several privileges, granted by the Grand Dukes:

Most of the nobility rights were retained even after the third partition of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1795.

After the Union of Lublin

The nobility was particularly numerous in the ethnically Lithuanian lands and is estimated to have constituted about 10-11%, while in the Ruthenian lands of the Grand Duchy only about 3-4%. The nobility in Samogitia was particularly numerous, but usually, it was a poor nobility living in gentry villages. In the right-bank part of Kaunas county the nobility accounted for as much as 25% of the hearths in the late 18th century.[30] In 1777 there were 16,534 noble houses registered (5.2% of the total) in the whole Grand Duchy. In 1790 the register showed 100 palaces, 9,331 manors, 494 noblemen's houses in towns, and 13,890 houses of noblemen without subjects.[30]

Linguistic Polonization did not always mean full Polonization in the state or ethnic sense. The Lithuanian nobility felt united with the Polish nobility as part of one political nation of the Commonwealth, enjoying privileges, freedom and equality.[31] In this sense, they often referred to themselves as "Polish nobility" or outright "Poles". At the same time, separatism and the defense of Lithuanian national separateness within the federation state were very strong. The Lithuanian nobility was warmly attached to the laws, traditions and symbols of the Grand Duchy.[31] Moreover, the Lithuanian separateness was also defended by the members of ethnically Polish families settling in Lithuania.[31]

Ties to the Kingdom of Poland

Following the Union of Horodło (1413), the Lithuanian nobility's rights were equalized with those of the ruling class of the Kingdom of Poland (szlachta). During the following centuries, the Lithuanian nobility began to merge with the Polish nobility[citation needed]. The process accelerated after the Union of Lublin (1569), resulting in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Lithuanian nobility polonised, replacing Lithuanian and Ruthenian languages with Polish although the process took centuries. In the 16th century, a newly established theory amongst Lithuanian nobility was popular, claiming that Lithuanian nobility was of Roman extraction, and the Lithuanian language was just a morphed Latin language.[32][33] By that time, the upper nobility and the ducal court already used Polish as their first language.[34] The last Grand Duke known to have spoken Lithuanian was Casimir IV Jagiellon (1440-1492).[35] In 1595 Mikalojus Daukša addressed Lithuanian nobility calling for the Lithuanian language to play a more important role in state life.[35][34] The usage of Lithuanian declined, and the Polish language became the predominant administrative language in the 16th century,[36] eventually replacing Ruthenian as the official language of the Grand Duchy in 1697.[37] Nonetheless, spoken Lithuanian was still common in the Grand Duchy courts during the 17th century.[35]

At first, only Lithuanian magnate families were affected by Polonization,[35] although many of them like the Radziwiłłs remained loyal to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and safeguarded its sovereignty vis-à-vis the Kingdom of Poland. Gradually Polonization spread to a broader population, and for the most part, the Lithuanian nobility became part of both nations’ szlachta.

The middle nobility adopted the Polish language in the 17th century, while the minor rural nobles remained bilingual up to the period when the question of language related-nationality appeared.[36]

The Lithuanian nobles did preserve their national awareness as members of the Grand Duchy,[34] and in most cases recognition of their Lithuanian family roots; their leaders would continue to represent the interests of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the General sejm and in the royal court.

Lithuanian language was used during Kościuszko Uprising in the proclamations calling to rise up For our freedom and yours. And Lithuanian nobles did rise to fight for the independence of their nation.

After partitions of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth

In Lithuania proper, the Polonization of the nobility, gentry and townspeople was practically complete by the early 19th century, relegating the Lithuanian language to the status of a peasant's tongue.[35][38] The processes of Polonization and russification were partially reversed with the Lithuanian National Revival. Despite origins from mostly the non-noble classes, a number of nobles re-embraced their Lithuanian roots.

The lesser Lithuanian nobility, still partially preserving the Lithuanian language,[39] subsequent to the partitions of the Commonwealth left most of the former Grand Duchy under control of the Russian Empire. The situation worsened during the years of tsar Nicholas I of Russia's rule. After the November uprising imperial officials wanted to minimize the social base for another potential uprising and thus decided to reduce the noble class. During the period 1833–1860, 25,692 people in Vilna Governorate and 17,032 people in Kovno Governorate lost their noble status. They could not prove their status with monarchs' privileges[clarification needed] or land ownership.[40] They did not lose personal freedom, but were assigned as one steaders[clarification needed] Russian: однодворцы in rural areas and as citizens in towns.

In view of the January Uprising, imperial officials announced that "Lithuanians are Russians seduced by Poles and Catholicism" and banned press in the Lithuanian language and started the Program of Restoration of Russian Beginnings.

Over the course of time, the Lithuanian nobility increasingly developed a sense of belonging to the Polish nation.[41] During the 19th century, a self-designation, often represented using a Latin formula gente Lithuanus, natione Polonus (Lithuanian by birth, Polish by nationality) was common in Lithuania Proper and the former Samogitian Eldership.[42] With Polish culture developing into one of the primary centers of resistance to the Russian Empire, Polonization in some regions actually strengthened in response to official policies of Russification. An even larger percentage of Lithuanian nobility was Polonised and adopted Polish identity by the late 19th century. A Russian census in 1897 showed that 27.7% of nobility living within modern Lithuania's borders recognized Lithuanian as the mother language.[43][44] This number was even higher in Kovno Governorate, where 36.6% of nobility identified the Lithuanian language as their mother language.[43]

Most descendants of the Lithuanian nobility remained ill-disposed to the modern national movements of Lithuania and Belarus and fought for Poland in 1918-1920.[41] The landowning nobles in the new Lithuanian state saw themselves predominately as Poles of Lithuanian background.[45] During the interbellum years the government of Lithuania issued land reform limiting manors with 150 hectares of land while confiscating land from those nobles who were fighting alongside the Polish in Polish-Lithuanian War. Many members of the Lithuanian nobility during the interbellum and after World War II emigrated to Poland, many were deported to Siberia during the years 1945–53 of Soviet occupation, many manors were destroyed. The Association of Lithuanian Nobility was established in 1994.[46]


Lithuanian and Samogitian families possessed heraldry predating formal Christianization. The most archaic type of post-1413 heraldry has a motive of crossed arrows. According to the Union of Horodło of 1413, 47 Lithuanian and Samogitian noble houses adopted Polish nobility coat of arms. As the nobility expanded during the following centuries more coats of arms were created.

Influential Lithuanian families

Families from ethnic Lithuania

Families from Ruthenia

Muscovite and later Russian princely and noble families originating in Lithuania

Families from Livonia

Families from the Republic of Venice

Families from Republic of Lucca

Families from Ferrara and/or Modena

See also


  1. ^ Timothy Snyder, The Reconstruction of Nations, p. 22, 2003 New Haven & London, Yale University Press, ISBN 978-0-300-10586-5
  2. ^ Bumblauskas, Alfredas (1995). "About the Lithuanian Baroque in a Baroque Manner". Lituanus. 41 (3). ISSN 0024-5089. Retrieved 2007-09-22. gente Ruthenus, natione Lithuanus
  3. ^ Frost 2015, p. 306-307.
  4. ^ Frost 2015, p. 304-307.
  5. ^ Frost 2015, p. 64.
  6. ^ Frost 2015, p. 64-66.
  7. ^ Frost 2015, p. 297.
  8. ^ a b c Frost 2015, p. 298.
  9. ^ Frost 2015, p. 300.
  10. ^ Frost 2015, p. 306.
  11. ^ a b Frost 2015, p. 308.
  12. ^ Kiaupa, Kiaupienė & Kuncevičius 2000, p. 168.
  13. ^ Frost 2015, p. 292.
  14. ^ Frost 2015, p. 292-293.
  15. ^ Frost 2015, p. 296.
  16. ^ Wolff 1895, p. XXII.
  17. ^ Łowmiański 1932, p. 298-302.
  18. ^ Suchocki 1983, p. 39.
  19. ^ Suchocki 1983, p. 40-41.
  20. ^ Frost 2015, p. 299.
  21. ^ Frost 2015, p. 299-300.
  22. ^ Frost 2015, p. 115-116.
  23. ^ Kiaupa, Kiaupienė & Kuncevičius 2000, p. 155.
  24. ^ Frost 2015, p. 116.
  25. ^ a b Frost 2015, p. 303.
  26. ^ Frost 2015, p. 304-306.
  27. ^ Kowalski 2013, p. 89-92.
  28. ^ a b Wolff 1895, p. XX.
  29. ^ Kowalski 2013, p. 86-88.
  30. ^ a b Rachuba 2010, p. 31.
  31. ^ a b c Rachuba 2010, p. 34.
  32. ^ Gudmantas, Kęstutis (2004). "Vėlyvųjų Lietuvos metraščių veikėjai ir jų prototipai: "Romėnai" (The personages of the Lithuanian chronicles and their prototypes: The "Romans")". Ancient Lithuanian Literature. XVII: 113–139.
  33. ^ unlikely, especially because the Romans had very little hold, if any, in the lands so far north) (see also sarmatism
  34. ^ a b c Stone, Daniel (2001). The Polish-Lithuanian State, 1386-1795. University of Washington Press. p. 63.
  35. ^ a b c d e Sužiedėlis, Saulius (1981). "Language and Social Class in Southwestern Lithuania before 1864". Lituanus. Lituanus Foundation. 27 (3): 36–37.
  36. ^ a b Žukas, Saulius (1999). Lithuania: Past, culture, present. Baltos lankos. p. 77.
  37. ^ Kołodziejczyk, Dariusz (2011). The Crimean Khanate and Poland-Lithuania: International Diplomacy on the European Periphery (15th-18th Century). A Study of Peace Treaties Followed by Annotated Documents. BRILL. p. 241. ISBN 9789004191907.
  38. ^ Butterwick, Richard (2012). The Polish Revolution and the Catholic Church, 1788-1792: A Political History. Oxford University Press. p. 5. ISBN 978-0-19-925033-2.
  39. ^ ALEKSANDRAVIČIUS E., KULAKAUSKAS A. Carų valdžioje: XIX amžiaus Lietuva. Vilnius, 1996.
  40. ^ Aleksandravičius, p.207
  41. ^ a b Kotljarchuk, Andrej (2006). In the Shadows of Poland and Russia: The Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Sweden in the European Crisis of the Mid-17th Century. Stockholm University. pp. 282–283.
  42. ^ Russia saved Lithuanian nation from becoming Polonised [1]
  43. ^ a b Aleksandravičius, Egidijus; Antanas Kulakauskas (1996). Carų valdžioje. Vilnius: Baltos lankos. pp. 232–233. ISBN 9986-403-69-3.
  44. ^ Vėbra, Rimantas (1990). Llietuvių visuomenė XIXa. antrojoje pusėje. Mokslas. p. 152. ISBN 9986-403-69-3.
  45. ^ Liekis, Šarūnas (2010). 1939: The Year that Changed Everything in Lithuania's History. Rodopi. p. 28.
  46. ^ "Lietuvos bajorų karališkoji sąjunga - Home". Retrieved 3 November 2017.
  47. ^ Jonynas, Ignas (1933). "Alšėniškiai". In Vaclovas Biržiška (ed.). Lietuviškoji enciklopedija (in Lithuanian). Vol. I. Kaunas: Spaudos Fondas. pp. 347–359.
  48. ^ Jonas Zinkus; et al., eds. (1985). "Alšėnų kunigaikščiai". Tarybų Lietuvos enciklopedija (in Lithuanian). Vol. I. Vilnius, Lithuania: Vyriausioji enciklopedijų redakcija. p. 52.


Further reading