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A Pole Meets Queen Elizabeth

The most famous Polish visit in Elizabethan England was that of Olbracht Łaski in 1583. The voivod of Sieradz was received like a royal. No other Pole had experienced such a warm welcome before.

Łaski (1536-1605) was one of the most gifted noblemen of King Batory’s Poland. He had the brains, he had the style, he had the class that generations of the Łaski family had always been famous for. Well-mannered and smooth-talking, he impressed people. He spoke several languages and had the kind of charisma that gained him respect wherever he went. At the same time, Olbracht is still considered a mysterious figure. He was known for his arrogance, cheek and overblown ambition. The original reason for Łaski’s trip to England is unknown. A popular theory is that the English court planned to turn him into a royal spy against Poland. The choice seemed right–his legendary greed combined with hatred for King Batory made him an ideal candidate. When Olbracht Łaski arrived in London in May 1583, the reception he got was surprisingly cordial. The ceremonious welcome may have been caused by Lord Cobham’s opinion that the nobleman was a strong claimant to the Polish throne. In any case, the Pole met Queen Elizabeth twice in one day, which was unprecedented! A few weeks later, in early June, Łaski was received by Earl Leicester in Oxford. The aristocrat introduced him to the most prominent city councillors and university professors. To celebrate the noble guest, they prepared a lavish banquet that cost 227 pounds, a fortune in those times. His four-day stay in Oxford was crowned with a philosophical dispute chaired by Giordano Bruno. The famous Italian scholar defended Copernicus’ heliocentric theory and Łaski keenly supported his own views. It was also during his stay in England that the Polish nobleman met the renowned mathematician and alchemist John Dee (1527-1608) and his infamous medium Edward Kelley. The two charlatans told Łaski his fortune. And the fortune was–no surprise– very bright. Dee and Kelley “confirmed” Łaski’s supposed English aristocratic origin (his name deriving from Lacy) and told the man he would soon become the next King of Poland as well as Europe’s saviour from infidel hands. Olbracht spent four months in England. Obviously, such a long stay meant costs. Offered financial support by the Queen, he was too proud to accept it and borrowed money instead. Then he secretly fled England, running from increasing debt. He took Dee and Kelley with him, hoping they would use their “magic” to produce gold and help him get the throne. They did not. After a brief stay in Poland and realizing that Łaski’s material status failed to meet their expectations, the two Englishmen left for Prague to try their luck on Rudolph II’s court. Interestingly, Łaski did not feel guilty after leaving England in such a stealthy way. In fact, he even wrote to Queen Elizabeth’s minister Welsingham, offering further service to the monarch. In the eyes of the English people, for long years to come, the image of a Polish nobleman was synonymous with the flamboyant figure of Olbracht Łaski.

Aleksandra Sołtan-Lipska


Translated by Jerzy Chyb

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voivod wojewoda
nobleman szlachcic
cheek tu: bezczelność
greed chciwość
claimant pretendent
unprecedented bezprecedensowe
councillor radny, rajca
lavish wystawny
infamous złej sławy
infidel niewierny
flee, fled, fled uciekać
stealthy podstępny, potajemny
flamboyant barwny, z fantazją
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