Grand Duchess Ona of Lithuania (painting by Kazys Šimonis)

Ona Grand Duchess of Lithuania

by Alvydas (Al) Karaša


WITHOUT DOUBT, THE MOST PROMINENT PERsonality of the 14th-15th centuries Lithuania is Vytautas the Great. He stands as the most astute and powerful ruler, who suppressed enemies and negotiated alliances beyond any his immediate predecessors or followers could manage, and led his nation to become the largest country in Europe.

We can understand his motivation and qualifications to rule in his father’s footsteps, but to gain some appreciation of the character of the man we must look to the critical personal influences in his life.

First, of course, is family. His father Kæstutis was already the respected ruler and Grand Duke of Lithuania when Vytautas was born. No doubt his early education in the exalted atmosphere of a royal court and fatherly influence encouraged the proper attitude toward rule which he was to inherit. He was educated partly by foreigners (one of whom may have been a Teutonic Order knight) which, among other things, gave him command of languages later useful in dealings with friend and foe alike. If his sense of leadership was inherited and skill of arms conveyed by nature and practice, then his spiritual strength came from his mother Birutė.

Vytautas became one of the greatest rulers in all of Europe. But could he have become such without Ona’s support? (17th century portrait by unknown artist.)
Vytautas became one of the greatest rulers in all of Europe. But could he have become such without Ona’s support? (17th century portrait by unknown artist.)

This legendary person is venerated as highly as her son and shares equal fame with Kæstutis. In view of her husband’s personal strength, hers must have been of a very high spiritual standard to sustain her in her role alongside him whether she was a pagan seer, virtual priestess, or not. History does not often show Birutė in official capacity as co-ruler with Kæstutis. She did not involve herself actively in state politics. We see her as a spiritual leader of the people, their inspiration and the guardian of their inner peace. But historians are hard pressed to separate the legend from the real person.

It hardly matters whether she was high born or a commoner, a seer, or keeper of the eternal flame. What is important is her gift to Lithuania – the national hero that was her son, Vytautas. Whatever her heritage, her strength of character was meaningful to her son’s rise to power and renown, however early in his childhood it began. But Birutė was certainly not the only woman whose influence helped mold her son’s character or impact his person later in life, a life filled with tragedy, as is the entire history of Lithuania. The year 1382 perhaps saw its deepest manifestation. Brother against brother stood in arms at the castle of Trakai to decide which, Kæstutis or his nephew Jogaila (before he became the Lithuanian King of Poland), deserved the Grand Duchy. This internal feud weakened and endangered the state. Teutonic Order’s designs of conquest were at Lithuania’s borders.

Jogaila knew he could not afford further opposition and discord after his victory. He took immediate and ruthless steps to eliminate it. He knew and feared Vytautas’ political acumen, strong family support, and ability of command. It was imperative for Jogaila to stifle any possibility of opposition from him in the future. Prussian chronicles declared Kæstutis having been strangled and Birutė murdered by drowning. Vytautas himself was imprisoned in Krėva (Krewo in presentday Belarus) awaiting his fate which could only be a life sentence or death.

His gate to freedom was opened by a woman whose influence on his person was as important as his mother’s. His wife Ona’s contribution, quite unlike his mother’s, was a far reaching cooperation with his foreign policies as well as domestic politics. She was to become an asset to her husband’s rule in many ways.

Vytautas was held in Krėva Castle with the limited comforts often extended as a point of honor to imprisoned royalty. It is not known if Vytautas had parole from his cousin Jogaila on the promise not to attempt an escape, but some leniency in his captivity is evident in most accounts. Although his wife Ona was not a coprisoner with him, she was permitted frequent stays in the castle. Needless to say, her movements were restricted and they were both held under heavy guard. Nevertheless, she contrived to arrange his escape.

Krėva Castle, as it might have looked during Vytautas and Ona’s time.
Krėva Castle, as it might have looked during Vytautas and Ona’s time.

There is some disagreement among historians as to how, exactly, he escaped. One of the oldest Lithuanian annals claims Ona convinced one of her maid servants to change clothes with her husband, whereupon the maid stayed in the castle while he walked out with his wife. If so, whoever this woman was, she deserves admiration for her courage and loyalty to her masters. But there are several other versions involving more than one woman servant.

The Marlburg Chronicle claims Vytautas changed clothes with his wife and walked out leaving her in his place. Another claim is that he was lowered out the castle window in a wicker basket. No one knows which, if any, of these claims is true. What is important is that Ona was instrumental in his escape. This claim never varies no matter the method of that escape or the source of this information.

There is no mention, however, of her own escape if she did, in fact, change places with her husband. Evidence points to Ona having suffered penalty for her part in his escape. Some records point to her having been subjected to a public whipping in the city square of Vilnius on the direct order from Jogaila as punishment for her actions.

So, who was this Ona? Where did she come from? And which one was she of the supposedly several wives Vytautas had?

In his Codex epistolaris Vitoldi, the Polish historian Anton Prochaska writes that Vytautas was married three times. According to him, Ona was his second wife. His third, soon after Ona’s death, was her niece Julijona, the daughter of Jonas the Duke of Alšėnai and the widow of the Duke of Karaczev.

His first wife Marija, daughter of the Duke of Lukolm, was mentioned in the act by which Vytautas established the church in Brasta (Brest in present-day Belarus). Prochaska credits Marija with copious support of this church as obligatory to her station–

Another mention of Marija as his supposedly first wife is in Narbutas’s popularized 1397 travels of Graf Kyburg to Lithuania. Here, it states that when still quite young, Vytautas married Marija, Duchess of Lukolm. After seventeen (?) years of marriage, she died giving birth to a daughter of whom nothing is known. And so, Marija remains an enigma in Vytautas’ past.

Trakai Castle is where Vytautas was born and spent much of his life. It is also where Grand Duchess Ona resided and where she died. Her body was interred next to her husband’s in Vilnius Cathedral.
Trakai Castle is where Vytautas was born and spent much of his life. It is also where Grand Duchess Ona resided and where she died. Her body was interred next to her husband’s in Vilnius Cathedral.

Other historical facts are counter to Prochaska’s claims and show no connection of Marija to the Brasta church. The very existence of Marija is questioned by Volf in his Rod Gedimina (1886). The Lithuanian historian Ignas Jonynas concurs. Other sources also indicate that before his marriage to Julijona, Ona was his only wife, who married him circa 1370.

Whatever the case, the annals of 1392 firmly establish Ona as the legally titled Grand Duchess of Lithuania – the first officially documented bearing of such high title by a woman in Lithuania’s history (others before her bore the title, but without state documentation.)

She traveled widely in her official capacity as well as for pleasure. As set down by Vytautas’ contemporary, the German chronicler Johann von Possilge, she visited Marienburg, Brandenburg, Marienwerde and Althaus. When, by the Vilnius Unity Act of 1401, Vytautas granted her a number of estates to rule in her own right, the Teutonic Order pledged protection of those rights until her death.

Her public escalation by Pope Bonifacius IX established her role in dealings with the Teutonic Order during her husband’s rule. She must have enjoyed his trust in her opinion and her political savvy. This is demonstrated in chroniclers’ repeated mention of Ona in connection with numerous affairs of state while Vytautas ruled Lithuania. There is no doubt she was a multilingual, industrious, highly motivated and astute personality who complemented her husband in many important aspects of his reign.

That she took interest in these activities is not surprising. She is known to have associated and corresponded widely with scholars and educated people in general. Her interest in, and pursuit of education is evident in her frequent visits to Prussian institutions of higher learning. Cultural awareness in Teutonic Order cities was more advanced than it was elsewhere in the region, and Ona was well aware of Vytautas’ desire to open those gates to Lithuania.

In regard to her origins historians pose various theories, some open to argument. The predominant one is that she may have been the daughter of Sviastoslav, the Duke of Smolensk. Some Polish sources also claim her heritage as White Russian. National origins had very close ties to religious identity in the 14th century. There are no conflicting statements of Ona’s religious leanings in contemporary accounts of her visit to Saint Darata’s grave in Marienwerde. Pope Bonifacius appointed a commission to collect information about Saint Darata’s life and work. One of the witnesses, the Pomeranian Domberr Johann Raiman, testified to have seen Ona and her retinue among the pilgrims to Saint Darata’s grave where the Grand Duchess donated silk fabric in the saint’s memory. He also states that he gave the Duchess two books about the life of the saint, which Ona asked for and, beholden to her general interest in self education, valued dearly even though her conversion to Christianity was very recent.

In contrast, the chronicler Christian Koslav also mentions her visit to Saint Darata’s grave and donation of silk, but says she was still a pagan, not yet a Christian (“…que non dum erat christiana.”

Although the two records differ in their assessment of Ona’s religion at the time, they both make it clear she was a pagan first. This establishes her nationality as Lithuanian, not White Russian. Her rejection of Russian Orthodoxy speaks to that as well. Some Russian chronicles reinforce this by citing her as a heretic.

Her paganism, and Lithuanian origins, are farther shown in her reputed knowledge of useful spells which she employed to advise her husband. Affectivity of these is supposedly demonstrated by his bad luck after her death. That she was, indeed, Lithuanian by birth is evident in chronicles citing Sudimantas as brother-in-law to Vytautas who was from the place called Eišiškės (or Vėžiškės): “Sudimant war Witouds Schwager und Fuerst von Weisisken.” This was an important castle on the river Neris near Vilnius. Vytautas visited his in-laws often, and after Sudimantas’ death took over the administration of the castle and its estates. There is no doubt that she was Ona Sudimantaitė of Eišiškės, a Lithuanian by birth, with no connection to Smolensk or any other foreign faction.

The Teutonic Order was well informed about Lithuania’s relationship with Poland’s King Jogaila, and extended a welcome to Vytautas. The Order’s leadership was appreciative and respectful of Grand Duchess Ona’s role in Lithuanian politics. She was often invited to visit Teutonic Order cities and entertained there in regal splendor. The Order even went as far as to suggest protection for her in the event of her husband’s death. Perhaps the gifts and recognition heaped upon her was a stratagem to influence Grand Duke Vytautas’ dealings with the Order. Ulrich von Jungingen, the Grand Master, sent her expensive gifts including the latest invention called a clavichord, and other fine musical instruments. (Does this indicate her love of music, and yet another point of her intellect?)

The kind of respect and admiration which Ona garnered from foreign dignitaries was not commonplace. They must be viewed as specifically directed at her for exceptional reasons. Her death in 1418 signaled concern in Teutonic Order ranks about dealings with Vytautas in the future. To pacify Lithuanian leadership, the Grand Master ordered all churches to hold masses and devotions for her soul. She died in Trakai and is buried in Vilnius Cathedral where her husband was later laid to rest at her side.

Poland’s King Jogaila was also appreciative of Ona’s place and importance in Lithuanian politics. To garner her favor he personally ordered a Kraków supplier to send her especially made candies and confections. Other gifts, in addition to three gemladen gold rings, were also sent. There is no record of her immediate reaction to Jogaila’s generosity – it was probably too little, too late. There is, however, indication that Jogaila’s attempts to gain her favor soon ceased. Aware of worsening LithuanianPolish relations, she had been against the 1385 Krėva accords (annexation of certain lands to Poland), which may have cooled the king’s intentions. She chose to ignore the king’s overtures and turned down invitations to visit Poland. She knew what was important and what could be set aside for a change of priorities in the future if necessary.

She later went well beyond these slights of Jogaila’s advances. An active participant in her husband’s 1398 talks with the Teutonic Order, she sought the Order’s support against Poland should the need ever arise. That she was able to maintain her relationship with potential enemies with such skill and good timing speaks volumes for her loyalty to her husband’s policies and points to her high cultural and academic level, and her political acumen. When, in the same year, Vytautas was declared (uncrowned) King of Lithuania, Ona was his Queen. Due, in some degree, to her overt mistrust and dislike of Poland as well as still being at loggerheads with his cousin, Jogaila never acknowledged their royal titles.

Vytautas was known for his hospitality and generosity to occasionally pompous levels. Ona was always present at state affairs and her contribution was often noted by guests at their residential castle in Trakai. Although no portrait of Ona survives, we know sable furs, diamonds, pearls, and silk dominated her wardrobe. She was hailed as one of the best dressed and fashionable women in Europe. Although of similarly extravagant tastes, Julijona, her successor in marriage to Vytautas, never approached the grandeur Ona projected at formal court gatherings at home and abroad.

In view of the general status of women in 14th century public eye, and especially in pagan Lithuania, Grand Duchess Ona was held in very high regard as ally and inspiration to Vytautas. Their only daughter Sofija, who was given in marriage to the Grand Duke Vasily I of Muscovy for purely political reasons, also played an important role in Lithuania’s foreign policy. She is reputed to have been a strong, proud, ambitious personality, but never achieved her mother’s fame.