A stripe of pale moonlight fell across the floor of a dark hall. The Niasvizh castle was quiet. Its majestic building loomed over the shore of a lake. The castle tower was mirrored in the lake’s calm waters.
Old parquetry creaked under someone’s foot.
“Hush! What do you think you’re doing?!” someone whispered. “You don’t want to scare away the ghost!”
“There’s no way it’ll be more scared than I am!” another voice answered.
Two shadows, each no taller than a child’s, hid behind a large Dutchware fireplace. The eyes of this strange couple shined under the moon like four silver coins.
“It’s almost midnight. The Black Lady may show up any moment”, a boy’s voice said.
“She better not, for I’m already frightened to death”, his companion, likely a girl, squeaked.
To her utter disappointment and horror, a dark human shape appeared in one of the doorways. The children were petrified with fear. The figure seemed to hesitate a bit; then, after a long moment of silence, it sighed and made its way towards the small adventurers.
“Run!” the boy screamed, seizing the speechless girl by her hand. They dashed down the nearby staircase, leaving the ghostly creature behind. In a minute, the ghost hunters crawled out of a window and, panting, hurried across the castle’s courtyard.
“We’re safe now. Wasn’t this great?” the boy asked when the couple made its way through a pitch-dark park.
“I’ve had the time of my life!” the girl replied sarcastically. “But you were scared too!” she smiled vaguely.
“Not even for a second” the boy said proudly. “What a story we have to tell tomorrow to the class!”
The boy and a girl were neighbours, who went to the same school and lived across the lake. There is hardly anyone in the small town of Niasvizh who hasn’t heard the legend about the Black Lady, the ghost of a woman in dark mourning clothes who is wandering around the castle in the night. Like so many people before them, the friends decided to sneak into the castle and see the ghost with their own eyes. The recent hectic renovation of Niasvizh castle only made their task easier, with the castle yard being full of debris, many windows empty and its walls gaping with holes. After all, these local kids always know all ins and outs much better than any archeologist or construction worker.
Niasvizh is a small town in the western part of Belarus, which boasts the most remarkable castle in the country. For many centuries, it has been the unofficial capital of the Radziwill family, once one of the most powerful aristocratic dynasties of this land. The castle was founded in 1533, the same year Yan Radziwill took the possession of Niasvizh.
The masters of Niasvizh were mighty rulers, who rivalled kings in their treasures and power. No wonder the castle is surrounded by numerous mysteries and legends. One of the most famous of them is the legend of the Black Lady, the ghost of Barbara Radziwil. Dressed in dark mourning clothes, she haunts the castle, filling it with sighs and weeping.
The love story between Barbara Radziwil and Zhygimont August, the heir to the throne of the King of Poland, developed into a truly Shakespearean tragedy. At that time, the Polish Kingdom and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania formed a union, which helped them to resist foreign threats. However, the relationship between Polish Kings and powerful aristocratic families of the Grand Duchy were never easy.
In the 1540’s, young prince Zhygimont August, son of the Polish King Zhygimont Stary (‘the Elder’) was the principal regent of Vilnius. He was a handsome man of open character and humanistic views.
The personal life of the prince was falling apart. His mother, Queen Bona Sforza, Italian by birth, and his aging father were worried about the future of their dynasty. The wife of young Zhygimont, Elizabeth of Habsburg, was neither pretty nor able to have children. She was said to suffer from epilepsy and died barely two years after the marriage, allegedly due to horse-riding accident. Rumours, however, had it that Elizabeth’s mother-in-law had her hand in her death.
The sole heir of the Jagellonian dynasty had to remarry. To the utter surprise of his mother, who began actively searching for a good match, Zhygimont had already found a wife for himself. He was dazzled by the beauty and charms of Barbara Radziwill, a member of a prominent aristocratic family of the Grand Duchy.
However, the royal parents, the whole Polish court and senators were much less inclined to fall for nice looks. This news was to cause uproar.
Barbara Radziwill was the daughter of Great Hetman Yury Radziwill, one of the richest people of the Grand Duchy. When Barbara turned 17, she married Stanislau Hashtold, the governor of the Navahradak province.
However, it was a mercenary marriage, with no love on either side. When her husband died five years later, Barbara did not mourn him too long. She often received merry companies of guests in Heraniony, an estate of her late husband. Her numerous male visitors openly flirted with the lovely widow. Rumours about Barbara’s frivolous behaviour inevitably began to spread.
When the traditional period of mourning was over, Barbara began to appear in society again. Zhygimont August met Barbara during a ball in Vilnius. The prince immediately fell in love with her. Alas, he was still married to Elizabeth of Habsburg. The couple had to resort to cunning. Since Stanislau Hashtold, the husband of Barbara, died childless, his estate was to be passed on to the state. Thus, in 1544, Zhygimont inspected the estate in Heraniony as its future heir. However, his stay turned out to be much longer than needed. The lovers have been discreetly meeting each other till the death of Zhygimont’s wife in 1545. While some insisted that she was poisoned by Bona Sforza, others claimed it was Barbara who inspired the death.
In any case, Zhygimont did not mourn long. Balls and masquerades recommenced in Vilnius. It was not enough for Zhygimount August to meet his mistress – he wanted to be with her all the time. He ordered to build a gallery between his palace and the mansion of Radziwills, where Barbara and her mother resided. In this gallery, Zhygimont and Barbara could meet without undue interference from others. Barbara’s mother encouraged these rendezvous. It was her dream to see her daughter wearing a queen’s crown some day. Allegedly, she even used dark magic to ensure the loyalty of Zhygimont to Barbara. Perhaps, it was not really necessary, for Zhygimont- de facto King of Poland - was head over heels in love.
Mikalay Radziwill Rudy (‘the Red-Haired’), Barbara’s brother, and Mikalay Radziwill Chorny (‘the Black’), her second cousin, were fully aware of the monarch’s relationship with Barbara. They asked him to stop dishonouring their house by visiting her without any obvious intention to marry.
Mikalay Chorny, the leading figure of the Radziwill clan, was playing his own game. He was the governor of Vilnius as well as the Chancellor of the Great Duchy. Mikalay craved for more independence of his land from the Polish Kingdom. His intention was to bring Protestantism to the Grand Duchy. This would challenge the spiritual power of the Roman Church, thus making the Duchy more independent from the rigorously Catholic Poland. In addition, Mikalay Chorny established printing houses in Brest and Niasvizh, where books in the Old Belarusian language were produced, which was another way of resisting the Polish influence.
The romance between Zhygimont and Barbara was a unique chance to strengthen the influence of the Grand Duchy aristocracy in Krakow, the capital of the Polish Kingdom.
Zhygimont August knew that by marrying Barbara he would cause a major scandal on a national scale. His powerful royal mother especially disliked the Radziwils, scoffing at them and calling them parvenus. He promised the relatives of Barbara to stop their relationship. Mikalay Chorny and Mikalay Rudy pretended to leave Vilnius, but never did. They suspected, not unfoundedly, that Zhygimont would not resist the temptation to visit Barbara once again.
Caught red-handed, Zhygimont had to promise that Barbara would become his wife. The same night the chaplain of the Radziwill family married the couple.
The rumours about the discreet marriage eventually reached the royal court in Krakow. Young Zhygimont was immediately summoned to the capital. He was forced to confess to his father, who was very much displeased with the marriage. The mother was bathing in bitter tears. Being a King in the aristocratic republic of Rzechpospolita had many peculiarities. For instance, the King could not marry without the approval of his bride by senators.
Barbara spent the first months of her second marriage in a faraway estate of Dubinki. The mystery of her union with Zhygimont eventually slipped into the public. The royal court, the polish aristocracy, and the whole family of Zhygimont hated her. Barbara could not see her husband, and could only exchange letters with him. The anonymous ill-wishers accused her of lechery, black magic and even of being a mistress of her own second cousin, Radziwill Chorny. By all counts, it was too much. She miscarried and almost died when a floor in one of the rooms suddenly collapsed – either by accident or not. Barbara began to fear for her life.
In 1548 the old King died, and Zhygimont August became the new head of state. Only then he dared to present his wife to the Pany-Rada, the senate of the Grand Duchy. The aristocracy of the Grand Duchy accepted their marriage as a fact. Polish noblemen, however, were furious. Some asserted that Barbara’s coming to Krakow would be worse than the Turkish military occupation; others claimed that Barbara was an illegitimate daughter of their late king Zhygimont Stary, therefore his son is committing a horrible sin by uniting with his own sister. Eventually, voices calling for the decrowning of Zhygimont were raised. Barbara risked to be lynched by drowning in the Wisla River, if she showed up in the capital. Was it a mere hatred, or was it the fear of the Grand Duchy’s nobility increasing its influence in Poland?
In 1548, a session of the Polish Sejm turned into a real battle between the young King and the noblemen. As a result, the nobility failed to make Zhygimont August leave Barbara; the King, on his part, failed to persuade the parliament to allow her crowning as a Queen. Zhygimont August was ready to throw away his crown and remain “without my last shirt, but with my wife”. His allies barely managed to make their King abandon this idea.
Bona Sforza fought the battle in her own way. She gave up all hope to change her son’s mind, and therefore decided to hound his wife to death. She ordered to bring a famous witch Agazina from the southern Belarusian swamp region of Palesse. The plot failed. Agazina was captured by the King’s people, put into a cage and brought to Brest. Agazina was just about to be burnt, when Zhygimont August pardoned her.
After three years of wrangles, the Zhygimont finally pushed through the coronation of his bride. He even brought Barbara to Krakow. The young King’s mother Bona Sforza demonstratively left the city. The people of Krakow, however, streamed to the cities eager to see their new Queen, which was rumoured about so much.
After all, it seems that the worries of Polish nobility about Barbara henpecking her husband were not fully unfounded. As a new mistress of the royal palace, she acted by her own rules. The King had effectively abandoned his duties and spent all of his time with his wife. Royal dignitaries, arrogant aristocrats and even the King himself had to wait hours till the Queen showed up for official receptions.
However, this did not last long. Just five months later, Barbara was stricken by a terrible illness. The rumours circulated that Queen Bona had been up to her poisonous tricks again. While Barbara battled her illness, Zhygimont managed to win over the majority in the Sejm with the help of Mikalay Radziwill Chorny. Barbara was finally acknowledged and crowned as Queen. Even Bona Sforza sent a messenger with a note, in which she wished Barbara quick recovery and called her “daughter and beloved daughter-in-law”.
Barbara Radziwill died when she was 30. For three years she has been the Great Duchess of Lithuanua, and for one year the Queen of Poland.
The King set off on a long journey to Vilnius with the cortege of his late wife. He followed it on his horse and dismounted it every time the cortege passed a village or a town. He wore black clothes for the rest of his life and retired to the remote castle of Knyszyn.
Once, the King went to visit Mikalay Radziwill Chorny in Niasvizh castle. There he attempted to conjure the ghost of his bride with the help of a sorcerer. One of the conditions of seeing Barbara again was that Zhygimont would remain silent and without movement. However, the very moment he saw the image of Barbara, he flung himself to her with a cry of admiration. There was an explosion, and the ghost disappeared. Since then, the spirit of Barbara settled in Niasvizh castle in the form of the Black Lady. There she roams the hallways of the castle, while Zhygimont is said to haunt the Krakow palace.
The Ghost of Barbara Appears before Zhygimont August. V. Gerson, 1886
The ghost of the Black Lady started after the kids, but soon tripped over some piece of old dust-covered furniture and almost went sprawling on the floor. Its acting was not truly ghostly, not less so its use of words:
“Darn! The battery must be dead.”
The “ghost” stood up and flicked a switcher on its pocket flashlight a couple of times – to no avail. “Kids will be kids” the nigh watchman sighed and continued his round about the castle under the moonlight. He was too old to believe in ghosts, let alone to be scared of them. In a couple of minutes he returned to his small room, turned on an old TV-set and poured tea in his glass. The castle corridors were quiet, and only the wind was sighing in flues. Or was it really a wind?
By Ales Kudrytski for the ODB