On Gifts and Friendship: Polish-Lithuanian Ambassadors and Gift Exchanges in Istanbul and Iași

Michal Wasiucionek Wasiucionek, Nicolae Iorga Institute of History

In October 1622, the inhabitants of the Moldavian capital of Iașiwere able to witness an uncommonly lavish and solemn event, as the Polish-Lithuanian grand embassy, led by Prince Krzysztof Zbaraski, passed through the town and was received by the incumbent voyvode, Ștefan Tomșa II (r. 1611–15, 1621–3). Iași was not the final destination for the envoy, whose main task was to secure a new ‘ahd name from the sultan, following the full-scale war that had taken place the previous year.1Although merely a waypoint en route to Istanbul, Zbaraski’s stay in Iaşi was nonetheless important; sandwiched between the two East European great powers, the Moldavian principality was a contested territory between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Sublime Porte, both of which claimed suzerain rights over the local ruler.

Moreover, there was no love lost between Ștefan Tomșa II and Poland-Lithuania: throughout his reign in the principality, the voyvode gained notoriety as a sworn enemy of the Commonwealth, cracking down on pro-Polish members of the Moldavian elite, aligning himself with ‘hawks’ within the Ottoman establishment and assisting Tatar raiders in predatory expeditions in the borderlands. In fact, one of the priorities for Zbaraski was to secure the voyvode’s removal from the throne and his replacement with a more amiable candidate. Thus, it was to be expected that tensions would flare up and the ceremonies would transform into a contest of one-upmanship between the ambassador and the voyvode. According to a later account by Miron Costin, the quarrel culminated with Tomşa calling the departing Zbaraski a ‘Polish dog’; returning from his mission in Istanbul, the latter would not tempt fate and took a longer route across Transylvania.

This was by no means the only controversy in which Zbaraski was involved during his mission. The Porte’s officials were taken aback both by the size of the ambassador’s entourage, which some allegedly joked was too large for an embassy, but to small an army to conquer the city, as well as the haughty behaviour of the ambassador and his challenges to the norms of Ottoman court ceremonial. Most notoriously, Zbaraski caused an uproar by galloping his horse through the first two courtyards of the Topkapı Palace before being forced to dismount next to the Divan chamber. While accounts of the diplomat’s clashes with his hosts abound, the prince was by no means unique in this respect; reports from other embassies in the course of the seventeenth century similarly include moments of high drama, where the honour and dignity of the ambassador and –by extension, the Polish crown –was at stake. Even though none of the Polish-Lithuanian envoys did cause a scandal by punching an imperial kapıcı,as French ambassador Charles de Ferriol would do in January 1700, the issue of honour, prestige and diplomatic status were ever present on the minds of Polish-Lithuanian ambassadors to the Sublime Porte, both in Istanbul and in Iași. The frequently dramatic and emotionally charged episodes that proliferated throughout the seventeenth century were by no means incidental; instead, they bear witness to the importance and complexity of Polish-Ottoman and Polish-Moldavian relations in this period. For the Commonwealth, the relations with the Sublime Porte were of utmost importance, given the military might of the empire and a number of contentious issues, such as Cossack and Tatar raiding in the borderlands, suzerainty over Moldavia, as well as the broader geopolitical context of the period. Despite its self-definition as antemurale christianitatis, the Commonwealth’s elite was not particularly eager to follow calls to arms against the Ottomans and preferred to maintain amicable relations with its more powerful neighbour. On its part, the Sublime Porte was generally reluctant to engage Poland-Lithuania on the battlefield in the course of the sixteenth century, trying to keep the Commonwealth out of the Habsburg camp. As early as 1533, Sultan Süleyman granted King Sigismund I an ‘eternal peace,’ while his successors applied considerable diplomatic pressure to prevent the election of a Habsburg to the Polish-Lithuanian throne in the last quarter of the sixteenth century. In the course of the seventeenth century, these amicable relations deteriorated and nearly a third of the following century would be consumed by prolonged and ultimately inconclusive military conflicts. Thus, even from the point of view of the geopolitical context, the sheer scale of the issues and controversies meant that the task expected from Polish-Lithuanian ambassadors to the Porte was a difficult one.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.36253/cromohs-13683

Read Full Text: https://oajournals.fupress.net/index.php/cromohs/article/view/13683

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