Crowning Glory Long Gone: Recalling the Regalia of Polish Kings
Before World War II, Poland had lots of treasures located in its castles and palaces. Memories of the best times in the rich history of the country are well documented too. However, the regalia of Polish kings was lost a long time before that war began. It was the victim of previous wars and the need for money.
Polish royal history starts with the coronation of King Bolesław Chrobry, known as Boleslaw I the Brave (crowned in 1025). The last king was Stanisław August Poniatowski, who abdicated on January 7, 1795. The history of Polish kings lasted from the early medieval period to the end of the 18th century, but the glory of their treasures disappeared in the ashes of war. Numerous rich artifacts were lost.
The Regalia of Rulers Near the Vistula River
The history of Polish royalty begins in the 11th century. King Bolesław I the Brave, the son of Mieszko I, was the first ruler of Poland and the one who decided to baptize the country in 966. The crowning of Bolesław took place in Gniezno, Poland’s first capital. Apart from the crown, the ceremony included a replica of Saint Maurice's Spear, which became one of the first insignias of the Kingdom of Poland.
Bolesław Chrobry portrait by Jan Matejko. ( Public Domain )
The treasury of Wawel castle contained many jewels from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1633. It was kept in five chests and included the crowns of kings like Bolesław I the Brave, John II Sigismunz Zapolya, Władysław II Jagiełło, Sephe Batory, and Sigismund II Augustus. Apart from this, there were crowns of some of the queens, the Ruthenian crosses and relics, the swords of Bolesław the Bold and Sigismun I the Old, famous Teutonic Order swords which King Wladysław Jagiełlo received during the Battle of Grunwald, and the coronation sword called Szczerbiec. There were also many smaller items such as hats, jewel boxes, and the private deposit of the Vasa family.
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The Wawel Castle and Cathedral in Krakow, Poland. ( CC BY 3.0 )
Until 1320, the Polish royal jewels were stored in Wawel Cathedral. However, 40 years later, King Louis I of Hungary took all of the treasures to Hungary, where they stayed until 1412. When the Jagiellons took the throne in Wawel Castle, they decided to take the treasury to a safer place. The choice was obvious – to their castle on Wawel hill. With time, the crown jewels also traveled to Warsaw and the famous Jasna Góra Monastery, but eventually they returned to Wawel, where they remained until 1795.
Later, they were moved to Berlin by the Prussian army. Unfortunately, most of the precious items were destroyed due to Frederick William III of Prussia’s decision in 1809. The gold was used to make coins which better filled the Prussian needs. The pearls and precious stones were sold, and are now included in the jewels of many European monarchs.
Frederick William III. ( Public Domain )
Looking for the Regalia
After World War I, the Polish government tried to recover the regalia. They bought some pieces that were owned by King Augustus III and his wife Maria Josepha for $35,000. The treasure was in a deposit in Vienna and contained two crowns, two orbs, and two scepters which were created for the royal couple around 1733. Unfortunately, they were stolen by German forces and almost lost during WWII. They were rediscovered by the Soviets with the troops they took back to the USSR, and returned to Poland in 1960. Nowadays, the treasures of King Augustus III are in the museum’s collection in Warsaw.
Crown Regalia of King Augustus and Maria Josepha. ( Public Domain )
Currently, the only original piece from the rich collection of the Polish Crown Jewels related to the Piast dynasty is a ceremonial sword – Szczerbiec. Officially it is the only treasure which survived from the collection damaged by the Prussians. However, it is hard to believe that the sword is original, and researchers agree that it may not even be from the medieval period. The artifact is currently located at the Wawel Royal Castle Museum in Krakow, and is one of the most fascinating pieces in the museum.
Szczerbiec on display in the Wawel Castle treasure vault. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )