A map from 1712 shows the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. / © Public domain
Luxembourg is the last remaining grand duchy in the world, but historically the designation was more common. Behind the title lie some fascinating stories.
As the only remaining grand duchy in the world, Luxembourg is a contemporary peculiarity.
The designation means that it is a sovereign state ruled by a grand duke, a hereditary title held by the head of state of a grand duchy. The title of grand duke is typically held by a member of a royal family, as is the case with Luxembourg.
Historically, though, the form of government was more common, particularly in periods of European history that were characterised by conflict and division, leading to a proliferation of smaller states. Here are five examples of grand duchies from Europe's past, with some captivating tales to tell!
The Grand Duchy that defeated the Mongols
A Russian Orthodox medieval painting / © Public domain
The Grand Duchy of Moscow was a medieval principality founded in 1283 by Daniel I of Moscow, and eventually transformed into the Tsardom of Russia. The Grand Duchy gained prominence after defeating the Mongol army at the Battle of Kulikovo in 1380, leading to the decline of the Mongol Empire.
A later Grand Duke, Ivan III expanded the territory and consolidated power, marrying the niece of the last Byzantine emperor. His grandson, Ivan IV (Ivan 'the Terrible'), crowned himself Tsar in 1547, marking the end of the Grand Duchy and the beginning of the Tsardom of Russia. The Grand Duchy of Moscow played a crucial role in centralising Russian power, resisting Mongol rule, and setting the foundation for Russia's future as a global power.
The Grand Duchy that supercharged the Renaissance
The famous dome of Florence Cathedral
The Grand Duchy of Tuscany was founded in 1569 by Cosimo de Medici of the famous Medici family, who was granted the title of Grand Duke by Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II. The Medici family ruled the Grand Duchy until 1737, when the last male heir died. The Grand Duchy was then inherited by the House of Habsburg-Lorraine, who ruled it until 1859 when it was rolled into the nascent Kingdom of Italy.
Cosimo de Medici was a prominent patron of the arts and supporter of the Renaissance. He commissioned and supported numerous artworks and architectural projects throughout Florence. He employed renowned figures such as Donatello (the artist, not the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle) and Filippo Brunelleschi, who contributed to the creation of some of Florence's most iconic landmarks, including the bronze doors of the Baptistery and the construction of the famous dome of the Florence Cathedral (Duomo).
Napoleon's Grand Duchy
Detail from Granting of the Constitution of the Duchy of Warsaw by Napoleon, 22 VII 1807 / Granting of the Constitution of the Duchy of Warsaw by Napoleon, 22 VII 1807 Mathiasrex
Not content with crowning himself Emperor of the French, Napoleon created a grand duchy in Warsaw in 1807, during the Napoleonic Wars. It covered the central and southeastern parts of present-day Poland.
The duchy was granted to Napoleon's ally, Frederick Augustus I of Saxony, who became the Grand Duke of Warsaw. Following Napoleon's failed invasion of Russia, the duchy was occupied by Prussian and Russian troops until 1815, when it was formally divided between the two countries at the Congress of Vienna.
The Grand Duchy of Warsaw was a short-lived state, but it had a lasting impact on Poland. It helped to revive Polish nationalism, and it provided a model for a future Polish state.
The longest-lasting Grand Duchy
Detail from The Battle of Grunwald by Jan Matejko / © Public domain
The Grand Duchy of Lithuania existed from the 13th century to 1795.
As a key part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Duchy was one of the largest states in Europe at its peak, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. It was home to a diverse population of Lithuanians, Poles, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Jews, and others.
The Grand Duchy played an important role in European history, and it was a centre of culture, trade, and learning. The University of Vilnius, founded in 1579, is one of the oldest on the continent.
The Duchy was also a major player in European power politics. In 1410 Lithuanian and Polish forces defeated the Teutonic Knights at Grunwald, in what was one of the largest battles in European history.
The battle is commemorated to this day in the lyrics of Lithuania's national anthem.
The best-named Grand Duchy
German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe called Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach his home. / © Pixabay
The Grand Duchy of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach was a state in central Germany which existed from 1809 to 1918.
It got its name because it was a union of the even-catchier named duchies of Saxe-Weimar and Saxe-Eisenach, which had actually been ruled by the same family for hundreds of years.
While small in stature, it punched way above its weight in cultural terms. It was home to leading figures such as the writer Goethe, the poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller, and the composer Franz Liszt.
It was also home to the world's first kindergarten (literally child garden), founded by Friedrich Fröbel in 1837. Fröbel believed that children should be nurtured and nourished "like plants in a garden", hence the name.
If your interest is piqued by this article, delve more into the history of Luxembourg as a Grand Duchy here.