The Polish Nobility


The four men who held the title of Ordynat of Lancut. Left to right are Count Alfred Wojciech Potocki, Count Alfred Jozef Potocki, Count Roman Graf Potocki and the third Count Alfred Potocki (shown about the time he inherited his estates and titles during the First World War). The last Count Alfred was reputed to be the wealthiest man in Europe.


Szlachta, Karmazyni and Ordinati

The inherited noble class of Poland (the Slzachta) formed during the Middle Ages and was different from the aristocracy in most of Europe. A high percentage of the Polish population (just over one in ten) was considered to be noble (just over one in ten). The Polish nobility also enjoyed numerous rights and immunities that were not common in other countries, including the power to meet and elect the Polish king.

Polish kings and sometimes the Sejm (the legislative body) could reward a distinguished szlachcic (an individual nobleman) by granting him ownership of a large tract of land, giving him near-total control over this estate, villages within the domain and any serfs, peasants or townspeople who might live there. Lancut was such an estate, granted to Otto Pilecki (pronounced as "Piletski" in English) in the mid-14th century.

There are numerous web sources with information on the owners of Lancut, most of them related to the well-known castle, now an important tourist destination. The estate passed from the Pilecki family (Otto Pilecki's daughter, Elzbieta, was the subject of scandal and gossip when she unexpectedly married King Wladyslaw Jagiello) to the Stadnickis in 1551 (best remembered for Stanislaw "Devil" Stadnicki, who raided the estates of his neighbors and political enemies, tortured peasants and left the estate in ruins before his eventual capture and beheading) to the Lubomirskis in 1588 (founders of the famous distilleries at Lancut and the family which transformed what had been a fortress into the famous palace and surrounding park-like grounds).

These local lords founded Zolynia and other villages which formed satellite communities to their main estate. They owned the forrests and hunting grounds and as industry developed, they owned or invested in most of it. A large proportion of employment and commerce in Zolynia and nearby villages revolved around the Lancut nobility.

By the late 16th century, a small percentage of the one million Szlachta, perhaps 200 or 300, accumulated enough wealth and real estate to be considered Karmazyni or "Magnates." Polish kings won the support of powerful Magnate families such as the Lubomirskis, Radziwills and Potockis by granting them title to ordynacja estates. The rules of ordynacja prohibited the division, sale or mortgage of the main estate, allowing only the eldest male son to inherit title in full; if there was no male son, the closest male cousin would inherit. This allowed Magnate families to preserve and accumulate their wealth and power; some controlled vast tracts of land and could hire their own army. This system was continued and even strengthened under the Austrians, who stripped all but the wealthiest Szlachta of their noble status. Lancut estate took on ordynacja status in 1821, and Count Alfred Wojciech Potocki took the title of Ordynat (Owner).

This first Ordynat Count Alfred was born in 1785, grandson of Princess Izabela Lubomirska. Count Alfred was the first of the Potocki clan to actually live at Lancut and manage the estate. He would himself marry a Polish princess. He was a soldier (he fought with Napolean against the Russians), involved in Galicia and Austrian politics and a heavy investor in sugar processing and textile factories throughout the province. When he died in 1862, his son, Alfred Jozef Potocki, became Ordynat. A close confidant of the Emperor, he would serve as Austria's Minister of Agriculture, Minister of Defense, Prime Minister and Governor of Galicia. In 1889, the estate was inherited by Alfred's son, Roman Graf Potocki. He married Elizabeth, the daughter of Prince Antoine Radziwill, who family lines ran through the royal houses of Austria, France, England and Prussia. Roman's son, Alfred Antonio William Potocki, inherited Lancut in 1915 at the age of 29.

Descendent of William the Conqueror, godson to Kaiser Wilhelm II, this final Count Alfred was related to virtually all the royalty of Europe. Though land and legal reforms in the 1920s stripped him of some of his inherited properties and noble priviledges, Count Alfred was believed by some to be the wealthiest man in pre-Second World War Europe. Educated at Oxford and Vienna, Alfred traveled the world visiting royalty, hunting on safari, collecting impressive works of art to add to his palace collection and tending to his many properties throughout the continent. In the years before World War II, royalty and the super-wealthy dined, hunted and vacationed at Count Potocki's palace and his several impressive lodge houses throughout the area.

The story of Zolynia and the lives of its residents is closely tied to the local nobility.


The four men who held the title of Ordynat of Lancut. Left to right are Count Alfred Wojciech Potocki, Count Alfred Jozef Potocki, Count Roman Graf Potocki and the third Count Alfred Potocki (shown about the time he inherited his estates and titles during the First World War). The last Count Alfred was reputed to be the wealthiest man in Europe.



Potocki at Beit Haam

Count Alfred (center, in hat) at the opening of the Beit Ha-am at Lancut in December 1930. The Beit Ha-am was a Jewish community and cultural center serving the entire area, with facilities for lectures, classes and meetings. The Count personally financed the construction of the roof.


More Information

In the mid-17th century, the Polish nobility was granted exclusive rights to produce and sell vodka, giving them a significant source of income. Princess Lubomirska's distillery at Lancut became very well-known for its vodkas and liqueurs. Count Potocki was allowed to operate his award-winning distillery almost throughout the German occupation. Today, the distillery operates as Polmos Lancut and the company is heavily involved in promoting the history of Lancut, its palace and its former owners. Their vodkas are available throughout the United States and Europe under several names, including Lancut, Biala Dama and Polonaise.

At the time the last Alfred Count Potocki inherited the Lancut Ordynat in 1915, it included the main palace complex, which was well over 5,000 acres, and thousands of acres of surrounding farms, forests, pastures and village properties. Connected to the Ordynat were "depending lands" in and around Lezajsk, Laka, Krasne, Matysowka and Zwieczyca, and a palace at Lvov. Alfred also inherited industrial properties throughout Galicia, including mills, mines and a brick factory.

In 1936, Count Alfred claimed an income from his estates and properties equal to 3.7 million United States dollars in 2007.

Among the existing remnants of the Potocki family's reign are a farmhouse and gamekeeper's cottage at Smolarzyny, dating from the 1920s and an alcohol distillery at Brzoza Stadnicka dating from the 1840s.


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