“He was forty-five years old, and if the throne could be conquered with beautiful posture, he would have deserved it anyway. He was of the right height, full face, regular features, an eagle’s nose, eyes full of fire, with a noble and open physiognomy – he was indeed captivating.”
This is the portrait of the Polish ruler on the day he ascended the throne, which Father Gabriel-François Coye drew with his pen in a three-volume work on the life of Jan III Sobieski, published in 1761.
Jan III Sobieski was born on August 17, 1629 in Olesko, and the election at which he was elected by the nobility as the successor of Michał Korybut Wiśniowiecki took place on May 21, 1674. During the next twenty-two years of reign, the health condition of Jan III deteriorated more and more and the symptoms of diseases intensified, which also affected the ruler’s behavior and his daily routine. Towards the end of his life, Sobieski was no longer a man with a beautiful demeanor and noble physiognomy. He was a sick man suffering from pain caused by various progressive diseases.
In the first period of his life, he was a dynamic man, often moving from place to place, and at the same time taking an active part in war campaigns. All this exposed him to all the inconveniences related to atmospheric phenomena, which could exacerbate the symptoms of existing diseases, or minor ailments just described by Sobieski, such as headache, cough, and fever, which could only be evidence of minor infections, e.g. respiratory tract infections.
Rheumatism (rheumatic diseases)
Sobieski is aware of his illness and often complains of his rheumatism in his letters to queen Maria Kazimiera. In a letter of July 25, 1665, he writes: By the grace of God, I am not too bad now; my head is aching and rheumatism is annoying. On March 8, 1668 from Warsaw, he wrote to his wife: Now, in one foot, I have an unbelievable rheumatism pain (…). It makes me numb and by no means can I stand on it for a long time.
Gout is a chronic disease involving inflammation of the joints. Its main cause is the build-up of urate crystals, which are formed from uric acid. They should be excreted in the urine, but in this disease, this regularity is disturbed and leads to the accumulation of uric acid in the joints and organs, which disrupts their normal functioning.
The most common form of gout is so-called gout in which the affected joint is the big toe (more than half of the reported cases). However, there are also other forms of gout: it is chiragra (hand joint), omagra (shoulder joint) or gonagra (knee joint).
Symptoms of gout include fever, swelling, and joint pain. Joint ailments appear especially in the morning, after waking up, and in a situation of sudden cooling. Patients suffer from a nagging pain in the joints, which are practically unable to carry out their normal movements.
Gout was called “the disease of the rich” or “the disease of kings” because in the past it primarily affected wealthy people, belonging to a privileged power elite, who could afford excessive consumption and abuse of alcohol. Gout can be genetic, but in most cases, it is an unhealthy lifestyle that is the determining factor. In the 17th century, gout was an incurable disease.
In the case of Jan III Sobieski, the development of gout could have been influenced by the diet, abundant in alcohol, fruit, and meat, as well as numerous injuries related to horse riding and the soldier’s lifestyle – the ruler’s increasing excess weight, was also not without significance. Gout attacks had a big impact on the king’s daily life, especially in the final stages of his reign.
With age and the increasing weight of Jan III Sobieski, gout attacks became more and more intense and had a greater impact on the patient’s well-being and activity. Often, the pain associated with gout was accompanied by pain caused by rheumatic ailments, which made it completely impossible for the king to move – he received guests and took part in the service while lying in bed. During the last two years of his life, he almost did not leave the palace in Wilanów, and gout attacks were undoubtedly one of the more serious reasons for this state of affairs.
Syphilis is probably the most widely known disease that Jan III Sobieski suffered from, probably because of the shameful taboo that was and to some extent are still surrounded by venereal diseases.
The future ruler most likely contracted syphilis from his wife, who in turn contracted syphilis as a result of intercourse with her first husband, Jan Zamojski.
At this point, however, it should be emphasized that this is only a highly probable supposition, but it cannot be completely ruled out that Sobieski did not contract the disease earlier. Before meeting and marrying Maria Kazimiera, Jan Sobieski was a sexually active man. Otto Forst de Battaglia mentions an episode of 1647 (Sobieski was then an eighteen-year-old boy) during his stay in Paris when the future king started an affair which resulted in his illegitimate son – the Knight de Brisacier. Later, Sobieski maintained numerous sexual relations with women from the lower class, who were kept at his expense in Jaworów, which belonged to him – in a letter to Sobieski from January 1660, Maria Kazimiera even mentions that, according to rumors, to Sobieski’s Jaworów “harem” they escaped Wołoszki and Cherkessky fleeing the unrest in Ukraine.
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease caused by pale spirochetes (Latin treponema pallidum), a parasitic bacterium that spreads through blood vessels. Infection can occur through sexual intercourse or by infecting the fetus in the womb because the spirochetes need a little damage to the epidermis or tissue to pass through to the next organism.
Syphilis appeared on the European continent at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries. The problem of the exact origin of this disease remains unresolved. Two hypotheses gained the most popularity. The first one assumes a close connection between the syphilis epidemic and the expedition of Christopher Columbus and the penetration of the American continent. According to the supporters of this thesis, the focus of the disease was the sailors, participants of the expedition, who contracted syphilis from the natives. From Spain, syphilis was said to have spread to Italy, where the wars fought by French King Charles VIII and the debauchery of his soldiers were to be a decisive factor in the further expansion of syphilis. The second thesis assumes the existence of syphilis in Europe before the epoch of great geographical discoveries. According to her, a combination of many causes resulted in the outbreak of the epidemic at the end of the 15th century.
Regardless of the true origin of this disease, it wreaked havoc on Europeans in the 16th century. The course of the disease can be divided into several stages. The first symptom was the appearance of lumps followed by a thick, often purulent rash. Very often, pustules appeared on the genitals and reproductive organs of infected people. The dermatological changes were accompanied by headaches, joint pains, and high fever. The next stage was the formation of crabs, i.e. other types of tumors that attacked bones and muscles, and as a result, permanently disfiguring the sick with scarring and cartilage degradation – which often led to impairment of the nasal septum, and thus also to speech.
Before penicillin, the most popular method of fighting syphilis was treating the sick person with mercury. The dangers of using mercury-based drugs were recognized, but at the same time considered the most effective method that worked even in the advanced stages of the disease. As I mentioned earlier, there were mainly two mercury treatment techniques used: the first was the so-called dusting, i.e. inhaling mercury sulphide vapors, and the other so-called smearing, i.e. rubbing the ointment made on the basis of this substance into the infected areas. Both terms were introduced into the Polish language by the outstanding Renaissance physician Wojciech Oczko, already mentioned in this work. Other methods included the consumption of mercury-containing preparations and the creation of the so-called a mercury patch. Mercury did kill pale spirochetes, but at the same time the effects of such treatment often devastated the body through mercury poisoning.
In a letter of May 11 of the same year, Sobieski describes symptoms that can be attributed to syphilis: (…) Constant fever day and night, pimples on the body, and fumes in the head so that it hardly decays, especially starting in spring.
The first symptoms of mercury poisioning are excessive sweating, burning, and itching of the metal contact area, parasthesia (a tingling sensation), neuropathy, tachycardia and increased salivation. In addition, exposing the body to lower doses of mercury over a longer period of time may manifest itself in psychosomatic disorders: increased irritation, sleep disturbances and even depression.
Mercury poisoning can lead to serious problems with the work of the brain, kidneys and lungs. In Sobieski’s case, the mercury treatment damaged his kidneys and weakened his entire body.
The death of the king
King Jan III Sobieski died on June 17, 1696 in Wilanów, at the age of 67. The death of the ruler was not a big surprise for anyone. Andrzej Chryzostom Załuski, the bishop of Płock, at the beginning of June sent a letter to Bernard O’Connor, who was staying in London, in which he informed the physician about the king’s state of health:
Description of the health of the king of Poland: the feet, legs and thighs, as well as the lower abdomen of his Royal Highness, were severely swollen for a long time. The swelling has been increasing daily since it appeared last summer, despite the most effective medications – both internal and external – used to prevent its progression and follow up consultations. When pressed with a finger, the bumps do not burst as they are almost as hard as iron and as heavy as lead. As His Majesty walks, he feels as though heavy weights are attached to his legs. It is impossible to make the bumps softer. However, when the swollen parts are gently rubbed with a hot cloth, the lumps appear to shrink immediately and disappear, but soon return to their previous state. The swelling is not pale, it is reddish in color, slightly close to purple.
On June 17 in the morning, the king was carried around the Wilanów garden on a chair, because at the end of his life he was almost unable to move independently, which can be attributed to both rheumatic diseases and syphilitic changes, as well as edema caused by sick kidneys. In the afternoon, Sobieski listened to the mass celebrated by Father Vota, was able to eat a meal and talked to his courtiers (with Bishop Załuski and the French ambassador) and Maria Kazimiera.
The situation changed drastically around 4 p.m., when Sobieski suddenly lost consciousness. Bishop Załuski, who was with him, granted the ruler a forgiveness of sins. Doctors called by the ambassador came to the chamber.
Sobieski regained consciousness in the evening, around 7 p.m. It seems that at that moment people were aware of the seriousness of the situation, because the king was confessing to Fr. Skopowski, and once again there was a forgiveness of sins.
The king died between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m.