Emilia Plater was Poland’s Joan of Arc

Emilia Plater was Poland’s Joan of Arc

Donna Patricia Ward - May 31, 2017

Poland did not exist in 1830. In the late 17th century, Poland was the largest state in Europe. By the late 18th century, it was wiped off of the map of Europe and no longer existed. Throughout its long history, the nobility of Poland trained to become excellent warriors, raising fearful armies that were often victorious. As Poland increased in size from such victories, enemies were made. These enemies, Prussia, Austria, and Russia would gain their revenge by taking advantage of the tendency of the Poles to focus inward, ignoring the political climate around them until forced to by either outside invaders or rebellious uprisings.

Poles take enormous pride in their collective history. The Polish state was founded in 966 CE (common era) when Mieszko I converted to Christianity through the Baptisim of Poland. Within a few centuries, the majority of Poles had converted from their Pagan traditions to Christianity, making the state predominately Catholic. In 1025 the Kingdom of Poland was founded. The most revered King of Poland was Casimir III, who reigned from 1333 to 1370.

Casimir III introduced numerous reforms to his kingdom. A great leader and fighter, he also understood the importance of trade. He improved infrastructure that would make it easier to transport goods from the southern regions of Poland north to the Baltic Sea. He built shipping ports that linked Poland with other European states via the Atlantic Ocean, North Sea, and Baltic Sea.

As his Kingdom grew in importance, Casimir wanted to build a university where men could train to be lawyers who could then ensure the integrity of Poland’s political climate. The university would provide training for teachers to ensure that future generations would know about Poland’s history. Finally, the university would be a place where statesmen could receive training as government officials. Pope Urban V gave the ruler approval to build the University of Krakow, one of Europe’s oldest seats of learning.

Emilia Plater was Poland’s Joan of Arc
Emilia Plater in a skirmish at Szawle. Public Domain

Perhaps one of Casimir the Great’s most controversial and later detrimental acts was to extend royal protections to Jews. In 1095, Pope Urban II called all Christians to extend the faith through military action by supporting the Byzantine state. As the Crusades began, Jews, once again, were persecuted for their faith. They were blamed for virtually everything that was bad went wrong such as drought, famine, pestilence, and disease. Casimir encouraged Jews to migrate to Poland, proclaiming that they would not find harsh treatment at the hands of his Kingdom.

In 1569, the Kingdom of Poland cemented its political relations with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. At the signing of the Union of Lublin, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was created. With the merging of these two states, they created one of the largest and most populated countries in 16th and 17th century Europe. On May 3, 1791, the Commonwealth finally published its long-anticipated constitution. The May 3rd Constitution created Europe’s first democratic constitutional monarchy that declared all peasants were protected by the government and not simply left at the mercy of the nobility. The May 3rd Constitution became a rallying point during the tumultuous years that followed.

Emilia Plater was Poland’s Joan of Arc
Emilia Plater, etching. Public Domain

Emilia Plater was born on November 13, 1806. At the time of her birth, Poland had been partitioned three times by the Russian Empire, Habsburg Austria, and the Kingdom of Prussia (later Germany). Poland had simply been wiped off the map of Europe in 1795. Poles had essentially two choices: become loyal citizens to their new rulers or flee. Of those that fled, many went to France, where they played significant roles in the many phases of the French Revolution.

Born into a noble Polish-Lithuanian family, Emilia’s parents divorced when she was just nine years old. She was sent to the home of a distant relative where she was raised. It seems as if she remained in contact with her mother, but her father never saw her again. As with most of the nobility, Emilia was educated on the traditions of Poland, its history, and culture. Counter to many acceptable behaviors of refined ladies, Emilia openly demonstrated her skills as an equestrian and marksman.

When Emilia was 17 years old, her cousin was inscripted (forced) into the Imperial Russian Army as punishment for participating in the annual May 3rd Constitution celebrations. Life under Imperial Russia was not easy for people who were used to a heritage of democracy. All Polish institutions that the Poles valued and had pride in were shut down. Celebrating their history or culture was illegal and viewed as acts of treason against the Tsar.

When Poland was partitioned for the final time in 1795, the timing was curious. In the late-18th century, movements of nationalism, democracy, self-government, and liberty were major themes spreading throughout the world. The Americans had successfully ousted British rule and France was in the early stages of its soon-to-be violent revolution. European states were appalled at the actions of the three great Empires, yet they failed to do anything to prevent the eradication of Poland from the map. The common view for Poles was that it was up to them alone to fight for their homeland and to get Poland back on the map. The Poles would have to go it alone.

Since the last partition, Poles had been committing acts of violence in defiance of their new leaders. Most of the acts were small skirmishes that ended in defeat. On November 29, 1830, an assassination attempt against Grand Duke Constantine failed. With the assassination attempt, an uprising had begun. Commoners and nobility alike took up arms against the much more powerful and better-equipped Imperial Russian Army. The uprising would last over a year.

Emilia Plater was Poland’s Joan of Arc
Statement by Emilia Plater dated March 25, 1831, on joining the November Uprising. Public Domain

For Emilia Plater, the November Uprising was a chance to fight for her country. In her March 25, 1831, statement, she declared that she had hoped for the chance to fight for Poland for her entire life and that she willing did so of her own accord. As a noblewoman, few men could force her to stand down; as a revolutionary, she was in demand to recruit others. Emilia cut off her hair, as the story goes, and created a uniform for herself, then she raised a small unit of fighters. She led them through several fighting engagements as part of the November Uprising. Due to her ability to lead and recruit, she was awarded the rank of Captain.

As the November Uprising continued, Emilia became critical of decisions made by the insurgent leadership. The plan was to invade Prussia, sit, and wait for an opportune time to take Poland back. In defiance of orders, Emilia, and two others, left the insurgent Polish Army and attempted to take Warsaw and continue the fight. Unfortunately for Emilia, she took ill and died on December 23, 1831. Perhaps she viewed the Uprising as a success upon her death. The November Uprising was a failure and Emilia Plater’s estate was confiscated by Imperial Russia.

Emilia Plater is viewed as a Polish hero. It remains unclear if Emilia actually fought or received the rank of Capitan. What is clear is how she was used as a symbol of national pride. During a time when Poland was not recognized and its citizens were forced to adhere to cultural traditions of Russians, Austrians, or Prussians, Emilia Plater’s story came to symbolize the fight for nationalism. If a noblewoman could fight for Poland, then so could everyone else.

Emilia Plater was Poland’s Joan of Arc
Monument of Emilia Plater in Kapciamiestis, Lithuania. Wikipedia

The story of Emilia Plater continues to inspire, even if it is not 100% true. Called the Polish Joan of Arc, despite not being burned at the stake, Emilia’s tale was a spot of hope during the turmoil of the 19th and 20th centuries. She has come to symbolize the sacrifices Poles were willing to make in the name of Poland, its history, and culture. During the Second World War, a Polish support unit was given the name Emilia Plater 1st Independent Women’s Battalion. Numerous streets in Poland are named for her. In 1959, a Polish merchant bulk carrier was named in her honor, the MS Emilia Plater.

At the site of her burial in Kapciamiestis, Lithuania, there is a monument honoring her sacrifice. The monument acts as a rallying cry for Poles to fight for the nation that they love and its history they value. Emilia Plater has become the subject of many literary works, paintings, and sculptures. She had just turned 25 years old when she died. Yet, in her death, she has come to represent the essence of prideful Poles who value their nation above all else.