Lithuanian nobility

Medieval Coat of Arms of Lithuania was adopted by influential families
Coat of arms with crossed arrows come from ancient times, like Kościesza coat of arms

The Lithuanian nobility was historically a legally privileged class in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania consisting of Lithuanians, from the historical regions of Lithuania Proper and Samogitia, and, following Lithuania's eastern expansion, many Ruthenian noble families (boyars).[1] Families were primarily granted privileges for their military service to the Grand Duchy. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had one of the largest percentages of nobility in Europe, close to 10% of the population, in some regions, like Samogitia, it was closer to 12%.

In the Grand Duchy of Lithuania

Prior to the creation of the Lithuanian state by Mindaugas, lesser members of the nobility were called bajorai (singular - bajoras) and greater nobles, kunigai (singular - kunigas), from 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 (rex which was used in Gediminas' title).

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, with territorial expansion more Ruthenian families joined Lithuanian 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.

According to the military census of 1528, ethnic Lithuanian lands had 5730 horsemen, whereas the army of the Ruthenian lands of the Grand Duchy consisted of 5372.[3]


In the late 14th century Grand Dukes Jogaila and Skirgaila began forming professional forces. Instead of calling all men to war, a class of professional warriors – bajorai (future nobles) – was formed. In the early 15th century, Vytautas the Great reformed the army of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania further: as there were not enough warriors, Vytautas relieved soldiers from taxes and labour on the land by granting them veldamai status, a class of dependent peasants.[4] At first the land was given to the serving men until death (benefice), but during the 14th and 15th centuries most of it became patrimony, granted by grace of the monarch. Whilst throughout the 14th century the Grand Duke possessed ownership of about ⅔ of the Duchy's land, the expanse of his direct ownership decreased to ⅓ by 1569.

In the 15th century, the noble social class was already formed and in full effect throughout Lithuania; 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, especially during the interregnum fights following Vytautas' death.

Wealthier families were distinct from other nobles due to latifundia in different lands including Lithuanian, Ruthenian and even Polish. In the 15th century, the biggest landowners began to call themselves "lords" (ponai or didikai), and the Lithuanian Council of Lords was established to represent their interests. In time, most of them received titles such as dukes and counts, borrowed from the Holy Roman Empire. Grand Duchy of Lithuania offices were held almost exclusively by magnates.

In the 16th century, Lithuanian nobility stopped calling themselves bajorai; they adopted Polish term szlachta (Lithuanian: šlėkta) instead. Landlords called themselves ziemionys or ziemiane.[5]


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.

Ties to the Kingdom of Poland

Following the Union of Horodło (1413), Lithuanian nobility acquired the same rights as the ruling class of the Kingdom of Poland (szlachta). During the following centuries Lithuanian nobility began to merge with Polish nobility. The process accelerated after the Union of Lublin (1569), resulting in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Lithuanian nobility self-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.[6][7] In 1595 Mikalojus Daukša addressed Lithuanian nobility calling for the Lithuanian language to play a more important role in state life. However, the usage of Lithuanian declined, and the Polish language became the rule in the offices of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the late 17th century.

At first only Lithuanian magnate families were affected by Polonization, 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 wider population, and for the most part Lithuanian nobility became part of both nations’ szlachta.

Nonetheless the Lithuanian nobles did preserve their national awareness as members of the Grand Duchy, 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

The lesser Lithuanian nobility, still partially preserving the Lithuanian language,[8] 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 tzar 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 of 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 or land ownership.[9] They did not lose personal freedom, but were assigned as one steaders 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 Christianity" and banned press in the Lithuanian language and started the Program of Restoration of Russian Beginnings.

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 the Lithuania Proper and former Samogitian Eldership.[10] 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.[11][12] This number was even higher in Kovno Governorate, where 36.6% of nobility identified the Lithuanian language as their mother language.[11]

The processes of Polonization and Russification were partially reversed with the Lithuanian National Revival, which also began around that time. Despite origins from mostly the non-noble classes, a number of nobles re-embraced their Lithuanian roots.

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 the 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.


The most ancient heraldry has motive of crossed arrows. According to the Union of Horodło of 1413, 47 Lithuanian noble families adopted Polish nobility coat of arms. Later more families adopted more coat of arms.

Influential Lithuanian families

Families from ethnic Lithuania

Families from Ruthenia

Families from Livonia

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. Jerzy Ochmański, Dawna Litwa, Wydawnictwo Pojerzierze. Olsztyn, 1986.
  4. Kiaupa, Zigmantas; Jūratė Kiaupienė; Albinas Kunevičius (2000) [1995]. The History of Lithuania Before 1795 (English ed.). Vilnius: Lithuanian Institute of History. pp. 172–174. ISBN 9986-810-13-2.
  5. Jučas, M. (1995). "Gyvi istorijos puslapiai". Lietuvos bajoras (in Lithuanian). Danielius. 1: 10–13. ISSN 1392-1304. Tikruosius bajorus - luomą su pilietinėmis teisėmis - imta vadinti iš lenkų perimtu žodžiu „šlėktomis“, arba ziemionimis (ziemiane, szlachta). ... Istoriškai neturėtume vadinti Lietuvos kilmingųjų žemvaldžių bajorais, nes jie nuo XVI a. vidurio taip savęs niekur nebevadino.
  6. 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.
  7. unlikely, especially because the Romans had very little hold, if any, in the lands so far north) (see also sarmatism
  8. ALEKSANDRAVIČIUS E., KULAKAUSKAS A. Carų valdžioje: XIX amžiaus Lietuva. Vilnius, 1996.
  9. Aleksandravičius, p.207
  10. Russia saved Lithuanian nation from becoming Polonised
  11. 1 2 Aleksandravičius, Egidijus; Antanas Kulakauskas (1996). Carų valdžioje. Vilnius: Baltos lankos. pp. 232–233. ISBN 9986-403-69-3.
  12. Vėbra, Rimantas (1990). Llietuvių visuomenė XIXa. antrojoje pusėje. Mokslas. p. 152. ISBN 9986-403-69-3.
  13. Jonynas, Ignas (1933). "Alšėniškiai". In Vaclovas Biržiška. Lietuviškoji enciklopedija (in Lithuanian). I. Kaunas: Spaudos Fondas. pp. 347–359.
  14. Jonas Zinkus; et al., eds. (1985). "Alšėnų kunigaikščiai". Tarybų Lietuvos enciklopedija (in Lithuanian). I. Vilnius, Lithuania: Vyriausioji enciklopedijų redakcija. p. 52.

Further reading

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