The magnates of Poland and Lithuania (Polish: magnateria) were an aristocracy of nobility (szlachta) that existed in the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland, in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and, from the 1569 Union of Lublin, in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, until the Third Partition of Poland in 1795.
The magnate social class arose around the 16th century and, over time, gained more and more control over Commonwealth politics. The most powerful magnates were known as "little kings" due to the extent of their power and independence. Their influence diminished with the Third Partition of Poland (1795), which ended the Commonwealth's independent existence, and came to an end with the Second World War and the communist-ruled People's Republic of Poland.
Famous magnate families in the territories of the Crown of Poland included the Czartoryski, Kalinowski, Koniecpolski, Ostrogski, Potocki, Tarnowski, Wi?niowiecki, Zas?awski and Zamoyski families; and in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Kie?gaj?ow, Olelkowicz, Radziwi, Pac and Sapieha families.
The magnates arose as the wealthiest and most politically powerful social class, part of the nobility (szlachta), of the Kingdom of Poland and Grand Duchy of Lithuania, around 16th century. Their powers waned after the Commonwealth loss of independence following its final partition in 1795, but they would remain a significant power in the culture, politics and economy of the Polish territories until World War II.
Magnates (or higher nobility) vied for political power with the lesser and middle nobility (Ruch egzekucyjny in the late 16th century, and the reform movement of the Great Sejm in the late 18th century) and the King. To be counted among the magnates, one should have a large estate, and political influence at least on the scale of a province, if not national. Regional differences abounded, with the estates being much larger in the east, where the wealthier magnates were also much more likely to have their own private armies. The eastern territories were more independent from the central power, and the large estates there, known as latifundia, with private cities and armies of the magnates, gave rise there to the term królewi?ta ("little kings") used for the wealthiest of them - the developing aristocracy. The magnates in the Royal Prussia had their fortunes build not around their own lands, but the royal grants (królewszczyzny). The magnates tried to avoid splitting up of their lands, and some of the wealthiest families were able to protect their lands from division through the ordynacja system. Magnate residences often became cultural and economic centers for a given region.
Social mobility was present, in a limited fashion, as while the magnates preferred to marry within their own ranks, particularly wealthy of famous lesser nobles were able to join their ranks over time; this was the case with the Koniecpolski family, Ossoli?ski family and the Zamoyski family.
From the late 16th century the influence of the magnates on Commonwealth politics rose sharply, through their participation in the administrative system (see offices of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) and their control over the lesser nobility, which allowed them to influence the parliaments (local sejmiks and the national sejm walny) of the country. From the second half of the 17th century, the magnates emerged as the victors in the struggle for power in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, leading some scholar to refer to this period as a time of the magnate oligarchy. As Norman Davies noted, at that time "political life [of Poland] was reduced to the feuds, fortunes, and the follies of a few families". Faced with the weakness of the king and parliament, the magnates were even able on occasion to start border wars (Magnate Moldavian Wars, the Dimitriads) or civil wars (Radziwi's rebellion during The Deluge, and the Sapieha's-centered Lithuanian Civil War of 1700). Some magnates were also elected as kings of the Commonwealth; namely Micha? Korybut Wi?niowiecki and Stanis?aw August Poniatowski (a relative of the Czartoryski family).
All members of the szlachta were equal under the law, therefore "magnate" (Polish: magnat) was not an official title but rather a position of social class, based on wealth. Several magnates held high feudal titles or peerage ranks such as prince or count. With few exceptions, mostly dating from the Union of Lublin, and special privileges permitting some Lithuanian magnates to use them, such titles were forbidden by law. Titles from the offices in Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth however were very popular.
Famous magnate families from the Crown of Poland territories included the Czartoryski family, Kalinowski family, Koniecpolski family, Miel?y?ski family, Ostrogski family, Potocki family, Wi?niowiecki family, Zas?awski family and the Zamoyski family, and from the Grand Duchy, the Branicki (Korczak) family, Kie?gaj?ow family, Olelkowicze family, Radziwi family, Sapieha family and the Tyszkiewicz (family).
Major magnate residences, usually in the form of dwórs or outright palaces were found in: Bir?e (Bir?ai), Kiejdany (K?dainiai), Nie?wie? (Nesvizh), S?uck (Slutsk), Kleck (Kletsk), S?onim (Slonim), Bia?ystok, Sieraków, Leszno, Rydzyna, Go?uchów, Bie?u?, Jab?onna, Siedlce, Nieborów, Otwock, Paw?owice, Iwno, Wo?czyn (Vowchyn), Bia?a, Kode?, Pu?awy, Bia?aczów, Ko?skie, Ujazd, Opole, Rytwiany, Baranów, Zamo, Krystynopol (Chervonohrad), ?a?cut, Ró?ana (Ruzhany), Przeworsk, ?ó?kiew (Zhovkva), Wi?nicz, Rzeszów, Dukla, Krasiczyn, Stanis?awów (Ivano-Frankivsk), Z?oczów (Zolochiv), Brody, Podhorce (Pidhirtsi), Wi?niowiec (Vyshnivets), O?yka (Olyka), Korzec (Korets), Ostróg (Ostroh), Zas?aw (Iziaslav), Buczacz (Buchach), Zbara? (Zbarazh), Bia?a Cerkiew (Bila Tserkva), Sieniawa, Korsu? (Korsun-Shevchenkivskyi) and Tulczyn (Tulchyn).