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The end of the tainted legend of Maria Clementina Sobieska | Publication of USil historians

06.06.2023 - 08:55 update 16.06.2023 - 12:31
Editors: wc-a
Tags: history

Portret Marii Klementyny Sobieskiej

Portrait of Maria Clementina Sobieska (1702–1735) made by Martin van Meytens and then copied by E. Gill. The work is part of the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London

| Maria Sztuka |

Only a few women rest in Saint Peter’s Basilica. One of them is the granddaughter of King Jan III, Maria Clementina Sobieska, wife of James Stuart, the titular King of England, Scotland and Ireland. Although she occupied a significant place in the history of Europe, she was treated marginally and unfairly in literary accounts.

The tainted legend of Sobieska is put to an end by the monograph Maria Klementyna Sobieska, królowa i Służebnica Boża [Maria Clementina Sobieska, Queen and Servant of God] by Prof. Aleksandra Skrzypietz and Stanisław Jujeczka, PhD (University of Silesia Press, 2022). After nearly three centuries, historians restored the queen’s proper place de jure and showed her true face based solely on source materials. During the Poznań Book Fair, the monograph received a distinction in the Rev. Edward Pudełko Association of Higher Education Publishers competition. The publication aroused great interest in Oława, which resulted in another book by Prof. A. Skrzypietz Z Oławy na angielski tron? Maria Klementyna Sobieska [From Oława to the English throne? Maria Clementina Sobieska](Cum Laude Press, 2023), an abbreviated version of the monograph dedicated to the inhabitants of the city where the granddaughter of the Polish king was born.


Prof. Aleksandra Skrzypietz from the Institute of History of the University of Silesia owes her interest in the history of the Sobieski family to her master, the excellent historian late Prof. Michał Komaszyński, who conducted research on the life and reign of the Sobieskis. Almost a quarter of a century ago, the researcher managed to access materials devoted to the family of Jan III stored in the National Historical Archives in Minsk. The collections from the Sobieski archives in Oława have long been considered lost. After World War II, they were taken out of Berlin and all trace of them was lost. At the end of the previous century, it turned out that they were in Belarus. The obstacles were overcome and the documents, unavailable for over half a century, became the basis for several dozen publications by Prof. Skrzypietz, the importance of which cannot be overstated in the context of Polish history.

“In the course of this arduous but full of surprising discoveries query, I came across three thick volumes of Maria Clementina’s letters, containing her correspondence with her father. It shows that the queen also maintained constant contact with her sisters, but I have not found these letters. I believe that they are waiting to be discovered and I do not lose hope that one day I will reach them”, says the historian.

Tainted legend

Maria Clementina was born in Oława, her childhood passed in Silesia, which then belonged to the Habsburgs. She spent half of her life in Rome, through her marriage she was the titular queen of England, Scotland and Ireland. Thus, Polish, German, Italian and English historians could claim her, but the lack of reliable sources meant that she was not widely written about. Only Karol Szajnocha published the pre-marital correspondence of Maria Clementina and her fiancé James Francis Edward Stuart. Anglo-Saxon historians wrote about Sobieska as the wife of James or the mother of the last Stuarts, using the reports of Hanoverian spies.

“For obvious reasons, these were biased sources”, emphasises the researcher. “Meanwhile, the authors uncritically used them and described the situation at the Roman court of Stuart in the worst possible light. The main element of their interest was the spicy (in their opinion) moment when the queen, in conflict with her husband, left her family and moved to a convent. It was written that the cause of their dispute was her unfounded jealousy or that Sobieska had gone mad”.

Meanwhile, the Queen’s correspondence, including that kept in the Royal Archives in Kew (Stuart papers), contradicts this story. However, Maria Clementina’s letters from Anglo-Saxon collections were considered to be forgeries. A query in Minsk and London left no doubt that the Anglo-Saxon historians were wrong, and the queen’s correspondence is original. A letter found in the Vatican archives, in which the Pope consents to be entered on the list of godparents, allowed to finally determine the date of birth of the “królewnisia”, as royal granddaughters were called in Poland at the time. She was born in 1701, and not – as erroneously reported – in 1702. In Oława, not Italy.

A fairytale beginning

She was the daughter of Prince Jakub, son of King Jan III Sobieski, cousin of the Emperor and Queen of Spain, niece of the Empress Dowager and Palatine of the Rhine, Duchess of Parma and several bishops of the Reich. As Aleksandra Skrzypietz explains, inherited from Jan III, she had only a quarter of Polish blood, the same amount of French blood from her grandmother Maria Kazimiera, and she was half German – from her mother Jadwiga Elżbieta von Pfalz-Neuburg. Excellent family connections and a large dowry, which she was expected to receive, placed Maria Clementina among the most attractive young ladies in Europe. The Oława court accepted the marriage offer made by James, the son of the deposed King James II of England. This decision, however, alarmed the then King George I of Great Britain, who feared that the male heir born of this union might seek a return to the throne. Together with Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor, they tried to prevent the marriage. Maria Clementina, who was going to Italy to meet her fiancé, was imprisoned by the emperor in Innsbruck, but half a year later, Irish officers in James’s service stole the princess and took her to Bologna, where her wedding ceremony took place by proxy. Her fiancé was in Spain at the time. The wedding ceremony was repeated with his participation on 3 September 1719 in Montefiascone. Soon the spouses went to Rome, taking advantage of the invitation of Pope Clement XI, who titled them the rulers of England, Scotland and Ireland. Soon their sons were born: in 1720, Charles Edward, and five years later, Henry Benedict. However, the marital idyll did not last long due to the dispute over the upbringing of the sons – James limited Maria’s contact with the children and suddenly, and certainly too early, entrusted the upbringing of his elder son to male guardians. This situation, the growing tension within the court and the intrigues of her husband’s advisers led the queen to an outburst. In the autumn of 1725, Maria Clementina, as a sign of protest, moved to the Benedictine monastery of St. Cecilia in Trastevere. Less than two years later, she returned to her husband, but, although she took up royal and marital duties, she devoted herself primarily to prayer, asceticism and charity. She died in 1735 at the age of only 33.

Path to the altars

The funeral of Maria Clementina was a grand event in Rome. The procession left the Basilica of the Holy Twelve Apostles to the Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican. Crowds bid farewell to the queen during the final ceremony. As the Dominican Father Pietro Cangiassi, the queen’s confessor, recalled: “Everyone on the street kept saying she was a saint.” The place of her burial is still commemorated by a monument commissioned by the pope.

James Stuart considered canonising his father James II, but ultimately decided that it would be more supportive for his sons’ return to their inheritance in the British Isles if their mother could be canonised instead. Stanisław Jujeczka, PhD, the co-author of Maria Clementina’s biography, Assistant Professor at the Historical Institute of the University of Wrocław, found sources (over 1,500 pages) in Rome’s Archivio di Stato that related the testimonies of witnesses in the preparation of Maria Clementina’s beatification process. In the eighteenth century, many years had to pass between death and beatification. Meanwhile, after the defeat of Charles Edward in his bid for the throne in 1745, the Stuart cause began to fade. For unknown reasons, the younger son of the queen, Henry Benedict, did not seek to have his mother elevated to the altars, although as a cardinal he probably had opportunities to do so.

Benedictine work

Aleksandra Skrzypietz remembers reading Sobieska’s letters with a smile, although she admits that reading them was almost painful. From a careful, clear handwriting, Maria Clementina would move on to blurred, indistinct and wobbly letters, numerous deletions and inkblots. For an astute and sensitive researcher, they are evidence of deep emotions, not a lack of diligence. There are few remarks about the life of the author herself in these letters – the author of the monograph emphasises – which makes her almost disembodied. The most common language the queen used for correspondence was French, she also wrote in Italian and English. She did not know the Polish language.

In her research work, Prof. A. Skrzypietz focuses on reaching the humanity of the described characters, as she believes that only a thorough reading of their joys, desires, and doubts that tormented them allows us to understand their successes and failures. Maria Clementina’s letters reveal the dramatic situation at the Stuart court in Rome. Loved by people, adored by those she helped, respected by the dignitaries of the Church, Sobieska did not find understanding in those who were closest to her – her father and her husband.

Article ‘The end of the tainted legend of Maria Clementina Sobieska’ was published in the May issue of University of Silesia Magazine No. 8 (308).

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