War of the Polish Succession, (1733–1738)

Painting of Polish soldiers by J. Ch. Mock, “Kampament wojsk polskich i saskich pod Wilanowem w 1732 r.”, Muzeum Wojska Polskiego w Warszawie.

Europe after the 1738 Treaty of Vienna, which concluded the war.

PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Stanislaus I Leszczynski (backed by France, Spain, and Sardinia) vs. Augustus III (backed by Russia and Austria)

PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): Poland, Rhineland, Italy, and Austria

DECLARATION: October 10, 1733

MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: Succession to the Polish throne following the death of Augustus II

OUTCOME: After an Austrian victory in the decisive Battle of Bitonio, the supporters of Stanislaus yielded to the supporters of Augustus III, who became king of Poland. In addition, the war led to a redistribution of Italian territories and inflated Russia’s influence over Poland.

APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS: In Poland-pro-Hapsburg forces: 30,000 Russians, 10,000 Saxons; pro-Stanislaus forces: large but unknown number of Poles and a small French reinforcement of 1,950. In the Rhineland-no estimates for the large French invasion force or the overall Hapsburg resistance. In Italy-40,000 Spanish and 30,000 French-Sardinian troops; 50,000-60,000 Hapsburg forces. CASUALTIES: At least 50,000 Frenchmen killed or wounded overall and more than 30,000 Austrians. Overall figures for other belligerents were not tabulated, although the Spanish lost 3,000 men at Bitonto alone. TREATIES: Treaty of Vienna, November 18, 1738.

On 1 February 1733 Augustus II died of alcohol poisoning in Warsaw. His last words were: ‘My whole life has been one un—interrupted sin. God have mercy on me.’ He had hoped to ensure the succession of his son Augustus to the Polish throne, but this seemed unlikely since Stanisław Leszczyński, whose daughter had married Louis XV of France, was expected to stand for election and to win easily. Russia, Prussia and Austria signed an agreement to throw their combined strength behind the young Saxon, who had already promised to cede Livonia to Russia if elected.

The 13,000 who assembled for the election voted unanimously for Leszczyński, who had travelled to Warsaw incognito. In Paris Voltaire composed an ode of joy, but Russian troops were already on the move. On 5 October 20,000 of them assembled 1,000 szlachta outside Warsaw and forced them to elect Augustus of Saxony. Five days later France declared war on Austria and started the War of the Polish Succession. King Stanisław’s supporters gathered in confederations all over the country and the city of Gdańsk raised a sizeable army on his behalf. Two years of sporadic fighting ensued, but France made peace, having got what she wanted from Austria in Italy. Stanisław was given the Duchy of Lorraine as a consolation prize by his son-in-law, and Augustus III ascended the Polish throne.

The Commonwealth had effectively ceased being a sovereign state in 1718 with the imposition of the Russian ‘protectorate’. It had also virtually ceased to function as a political organism. The Sejm was not summoned between 1703 and 1710, the years of the Northern War, which meant that no legislation was passed and no state taxes could be levied. When the Sejm did sit again, it was hardly more effective. Of the eighteen sessions called under Augustus II, ten were broken up by the use of the veto. The King had tried to impose stronger government, but his policies were poorly thought out. He had an unfortunate conviction that a show of strength by the Saxon army was a necessary prelude to any change, and this had the effect of provoking resistance even in those who would otherwise have agreed with him. In the last years of his reign he did manage to gain the support of a group of magnates and szlachta, but their programme for reform was cut short by his death in 1733.

His son Augustus, Poland’s new monarch, was obese and indolent: he would spend his days cutting out bits of paper with a pair of scissors or else sitting by the window taking potshots at stray dogs with a pistol. He also drank like a fish. Augustus III reigned for thirty years. He spent only twenty-four months of that time in Poland, feeling more at home in Saxony. Yet he was not as unpopular with the szlachta as might have been expected—he never made the slightest attempt to curtail their prerogatives and increase his own. Only one Sejm completed its session under his rule, the army dwindled to half its theoretical size, and all visible signs of nationwide administration disappeared.


When Poland’s King Augustus II (1670-1733) died on February 1, 1733, Austria and Russia supported the succession of his son Frederick Augustus (1696-1763), elector of Saxony, to the throne. Most Poles, and certainly the major Polish nobles, preferred Stanislaus I Leszczynski (1677-1766), who, as the father-in-law of Louis XV (1710-74), had the backing of both France and Spain. In fact, Stanislaus had been the Poles’ king once already for a brief five years after the Swedes, back in 1704, helped to depose Augustus in the Second (or Great) NORTHERN WAR-temporarily as it turned out. In any case, the Polish sejm (Diet, or parliament), consisting of some 12,000 delegates, on September 12 elected Stanislaus king.

This the Hapsburgs’ ally, Russia, could not abide, and quickly dispatched an army 30,000 strong toward Warsaw. With the approach of the Russians, both Stanislaus and most of the Diet’s delegates fled, the king, pursued by Russian and Saxon troops, to Danzig. Meanwhile, the Russians occupied the city and forced a rump parliament of some 3,000 to declare Frederick Augustus as Poland’s new king, Augustus III, on October 5, 1733.

In response to the mobilization of the Russian army, France had formed anti-Hapsburg alliances with Sardinia on September 26 and Spain on November 7. They declared war on Austria on October 10. With some dispatch, Don Carlos (1716-88), the Spanish infante (heir apparent), led a Spanish army of 40,000 across Tuscany and the Papal States to Naples, defeated the Austrians at Bitonto on May 25, 1734, conquered Sicily, and was crowned king of Naples and Sicily (25 years later, he would become Spain’s Charles III). The French war, however, did not proceed so smoothly. After overrunning Lorraine when they invaded the Rhineland, the French were effectively checked in southern Germany by the Hapsburg forces; the French-Sardinian forces invading Lombardy could not manage to take Mantua, and the small French contingent sent by sea to relieve the Russian siege of Danzig failed miserably.

Danzig fell in June 1734, but by then Stanislaus had escaped to Prussia. Although the Poles organized the Confederation of Dzikow in November 1734 to support his cause, they were no match for the Russians and Augustus. Worse for the Poles, the Spaniards and the Sardinians fell to bickering, fracturing the Italian campaign of 1735. Worried that the British and the Dutch might join the fighting as Hapsburg allies, the French made a hasty, halfbaked peace with Austria on October 3, 1735, which was followed by the definitive Treaty of Vienna on November 18, 1738. Don Carlos was allowed to retain Naples and Sicily but he had to give the Hapsburgs both Parma and Piacenza, which he had inherited in 1731, and to renounce his claims to Tuscany. Stanislaus renounced the Polish throne and was compensated for this with the dukedom of Lorraine. Augustus III was recognized as the rightful Polish king.

Siege of Danzig (1734)

The Siege of Danzig was the Russian encirclement (February 22 – June 30, 1734) and capture of the Polish city of Danzig (Gdańsk) during the War of Polish Succession. This was the first time that France and Russia had met as foes in the field.

The Polish king Stanislas Leszczynski had fled after the Russian capture of Warsaw, and after failing to find support in Poland. Stanisław entrenched with his partisans (including the Primate and the French and Swedish ministers) to await the relief that had been promised by France. On February 22, 1734, a Russian army of 20,000 under Peter Lacy, after proclaiming August III the Saxon at Warsaw, proceeded to besiege Danzig.

On March 17, 1734, Marshal Münnich superseded Peter Lacy, and on May 20 the long-expected French fleet appeared, consisting of three ships of the line and two frigates, including the 60-gun Fleuron and the 46-gun Gloire. The fleet went on to disembark 2,400 men on Westerplatte. A week later, this force attempted to storm the Russian entrenchments, but failing to do so, and following the arrival of a Russian fleet under admiral Thomas Gordon on June 1, was finally compelled to surrender. The Russian fleet, consisting of the 100-gun ship Peter I and II and the 32-gun frigates Russia and Mitau had had a previous encounter with the French ships, in which the Mitau was captured. Danzig capitulated unconditionally on June 30, after sustaining a siege of 135 days, which cost the Russians 8,000 men. Danzig had suffered considerable damage and had to pay reparations.

Disguised as a peasant, Stanisław had contrived to escape two days before. He reappeared at Königsberg, whence he issued a manifesto to his partisans which resulted in the formation of a confederation on his behalf, and the dispatch of a Polish envoy to Paris to urge France to invade Saxony with at least 40,000 men. In the Ukraine, Count Nicholas Potocki hoped to support Stanisław by joining up with a force of some 50,000 guerillas operating in the countryside around Danzig. However they were ultimately scattered by the Russians.

Russian Navy

While Russian seafarers had been discovering new lands, Russia’s seamen had been asserting the power of Russian ships of the line in the Baltic. In 1734 the fleet assisted Russian land forces in the siege of Danzig, where a claimant to the Polish throne, Stanislav Leshchinsky, supported by King Louis XV of France, had been in hiding. In opposition to the French, Russian Empress Anna ordered that August III be made King of Poland. The French delayed arming their fleet and were able to dispatch only three ships of the line and two frigates. In May of 1734 a total of eighteen hundred French soldiers disembarked near Danzig while their ships lay at anchor nearby, awaiting reinforcements.

The Russian fleet left Kronstadt on May 15 under Admiral Thomas Gordon, who had his flag on the 100-gun ship Peter I and II. For reconnaissance the admiral sent out the 32-gun frigates Russia and Mitau. Ten days later the frigate Mitau, commanded by Captain Pyotr Defremery, was taken unawares by the French 60-gun Fleuron and 46-gun Gloire. At the insistence of the French, Cap-tain Defremery came on board the Fleuron and was then arrested. The Russian frigate Mitau, left without its captain, was seized. Admiral Gordon, meanwhile, arrived at Danzig with the fleet on 1 June. Having failed to repulse the reinforcements, the French surrendered on 13 June. Leshchinsky escaped from Danzig, the town was occupied by Russian troops and the French gave up their frigate the Brilliant. The dispute over the Polish throne ended in favour of August III.

Further reading: Norman Davies, God’s Playground: A History of Poland, 2 vols. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982); O. Halecki (with additional material by A. Polonsky and Thaddeus V. Grommada), A History of Poland, new ed. (New York: Dorset Press, 1992); W. F. Reddaway, et al., eds., The Cambridge History of Poland, 2 vols. (reprint, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1971).

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