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Barbora Radvilaitė (1520-1551) married her beloved ruler of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Poland Sigismund Augustus. In Lithuania, their love is often compared to that of the Romeo and Juliet story.
© Dovile Zvirblyte / www.realisbeautiful.lt

Barbora Radvilaitė and Žygimantas Augustas

There are many romantic stories and legends associated with the history of Vilnius. Perhaps the most well-known is that of Barbora Radvilaitė, Grand Duchess of Lithuania and King Žygimantas Augustas of Poland from the 16th Century. A bittersweet love story with a tragic end, Barbora still lives on as the symbol of beauty in the hearts of Lithuanians.

In the 16th Century, Barbora Radvilaitė was born into one of the most famous families of Lithuanian noblemen, the Radvilas. It is said that she was one of the most beautiful women in Europe. Upon meeting Žygimantas Augustas they fell in love, and the couple dated in secret for two years. According to one legend, the King used to sneak from his royal palace to visit Barbora in her bedroom in the adjacent Radvila Palace, via a secret corridor he had built. Research has shown that such an underground corridor could have actually existed.

A marriage shrouded in scandal

When Žygimantas Augustas and Barbora Radvilaitė finally married in secret in Vilnius, it caused a major scandal because according to medieval custom, the sovereign should not marry a woman who was not from the royal family. Žygimantas Augustas' mother, Queen Bona, would not accept Barbora, moved to Krakow and broke off relations with her son. The Parliament (or the Seimas in Lithuanian) urged the King Žygimantas to divorce Barbora. While he was known as a frivolous man fond of jewellery, wine and women, the King demonstrated an extraordinary fortitude. He dissolved the Parliament and threatened to change his faith if Barbora was not recognised as the Queen of Poland. In 1550, the coronation of Barbora took place in Krakow and she became Queen of Poland.

A tragic end

Unfortunately, the young Queen fell seriously ill with cancer, and while the King did his best to nurse her to health, she died 6 months later. Some people still believe that she was in fact poisoned by the angry Queen Bona. Žygimantas Augustas escorted her remains to Vilnius, the city of their love, and interred her in the Cathedral. The story goes that for a good proportion of the journey, he followed her coffin on foot. It is also claimed that he was so distressed by the loss of his wife that he wore black almost every day for the rest of his life.

The Death of Barbara Radziwiłł by Polish painter Jozef Simmler, 1860 – National Museum in Warsaw
The Death of Barbara Radziwiłł by Polish painter Jozef Simmler, 1860 – National Museum in Warsaw

In 1931, the remains of Barbora Radvilaitė were found during repairs to the Cathedral. They were moved to the royal mausoleum under Saint Casimir’s Chapel of the Cathedral.

Barbora's legacy today
This love story has inspired many theatre plays, songs, literary works and film over the years. You can still see this for yourself around Vilnius:

  • A portrait and a bust of Barbora Radvilaitė are displayed in the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, in Vilnius.
  • Queen Barbora's statue can be found in Vokieciu Street (Old Town of Vilnius). It was created in 1982 by Vladas Vildziunas.
  • There is a street of the Old Town of Vilnius named after Barbora Radvilaitė which borders Pilies and Maironio streets.
  • In 2000, the Barbora Radvilaitė and Žygimantas Augustas Awards were established. The Barbora Radvilaite medal is awarded to women for the most important contribution to Vilnius.