Plan of the elective camp of Polish Kings in Wola near Warsaw.
Election of Stanisław August Poniatowski (Stanisław II Augustus) in 1764.
The tradition of electing the ruler of the country, which occurred either when there was no clear heir to the throne, or to confirm the heir's appointment, dates to the very beginning of Polish statehood. Legends survive of the 9th-century election of the legendary founder of the first Polish royal family, Piast the Wheelwright of the Piast dynasty, and of a similar election of his son, Siemowit (that would place a Polish ruler's election a century before the earliest Icelandic ones by the Althing), but sources for that time are very sparse, and it is hard to estimate to whether those elections were more than a formality. The election privilege, exercised during the gatherings known as wiec, was usually limited to the most powerful nobles (magnates) or officials, and was heavily influenced by local traditions and strength of the ruler.
Traditions diverged in different regions of Poland during the period of fragmentation of Poland. In the Duchy of Masovia, the hereditary principle dominated, but in the Seniorate Province, elections became increasingly important. In the other provinces both elements mixed together. By the 12th or 13th centuries, the wiec institution limited participation to high-ranking nobles and officials. The nationwide wiec gatherings of officials in 1306 and 1310 can be seen as a precursor of the general sejm (Polish parliament).
The elections reinforced the empowerment of the electorate (the nobility), as the contender to the throne would increasingly consider issuing promises that he undertook to fulfil in the event of a successful election. Wenceslaus II of Bohemia made the first of such undertakings (the
Litomyšl Privilege) in 1291. Nonetheless, for most of the Piast dynasty, electors customarily endorsed rulers from that dynasty, in accordance with hereditary descent. The Piast dynasty came to an end with the death without an heir of the last of the Polish Piasts of the main line, Casimir III the Great, in 1370.
In a milestone for the process of the free elections, Casimir's nephew, Louis I of Hungary, became king after the agreement between him, Casimir III the Great and the Polish nobility (Privilege of Buda). Louis had no sons, which created another dilemma for the succession of the Polish throne. In an attempt to secure the throne of Poland for his line, he gathered the nobles and sought their approval to have one of his daughters retained as the queen regnant of Poland in exchange for the Privilege of Koszyce (1374).
The next election of a Polish king had occurred in 1386, with the selection of Władysław II Jagiełło (Jogaila), Grand Duke of Lithuania, as the first king of Poland's second dynasty. The electors chose Władysław II Jagiełło as king, and he married a daughter of Louis I, Jadwiga of Poland, but had no promise that his dynasty would continue on the throne. He would need to issue more privileges to the nobility to secure the guarantee that upon his death, one of his sons would inherit. The royal council chose the candidates, and the delegates of nobility and towns confirmed them during the sejm. The principle of election continued in effect throughout the nearly two centuries of the Jagiellon Dynasty, but just as in Piast times, it actually amounted to mere confirmation of the incoming heir.
One could describe the monarchy of Poland at that time as "the hereditary monarchy with a[n] elective legislature." A major reason was the desire on the part of Polish nobility to retain the Polish-Lithuanian union, and the Jagiellon dynasty were the hereditary rulers of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Nonetheless, the pretense of having a choice by elections remained important for the nobility, and when in 1530 Sigismund I the Old attempted to secure the hereditary throne for his 10-year-old son, there was a political crisis, and the Polish parliament, the sejm, ruled that a new king could be chosen during the life of his predecessor (that became known in the Polish politics as the vivente rege).
In 1572, Poland's Jagiellon dynasty became extinct upon the death, without a successor, of King Sigismund II Augustus. During the ensuing interregnum, anxiety for the safety of the Commonwealth eventually led to agreements among the political classes that pending election of a new king, the Roman Catholic Primate of Poland would exercise supreme authority, acting as interrex (from the Latin); and that special "hooded" confederations (Polish: konfederacje kapturowe, named after the hoods traditionally worn by their members) of nobility would assume power in each the country's regions. Most importantly, however, the Poles decided that they would choose the next king by election, and they finally established the terms of such election at a convocation sejm (sejm konwokacyjny) in 1573. On the initiative of nobles frim Southern Poland, supported by the future Great Crown Chancellor and hetman Jan Zamoyski, all male szlachta (nobles) who assembled for the purpose would become electors. Any Catholic nobleman could stand for election, but in practice, only rich and powerful members of foreign dynasties or Commonwealth magnates had a serious chance for consideration. With the election of the first king of the "free election" period, the elections assumed their final form, which would remain stable for the next two centuries.
Particularly in the late 17th and 18th centuries, the political instability from the elections led numerous political writers to suggest major changes to the system: most notably, to restrict the elections to Polish candidates only (that became known as the "election of a Piast"). None of the projects came into force, however. The Constitution of May 3, 1791 eliminated the practice of electing individuals to the monarchy.