France and England Didn’t Own Chivalry: Have You Heard of the Polish Knight Zawisza Czarny?
Due to the popularity of the King Arthur legends, knights and chivalry are often associated with England and France. Yet one of the knights that best embodied knightly virtue is a Polish man named Zawisza Czarny. A local noble from Garbow in modern-day southeast Poland, Zawisza was a valiant soldier, an honorable diplomat, and a man brave enough to stand his ground in the face of certain defeat. Little is known about Zawisza, but researchers from the Institute of History, Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin have embarked on a project to uncover more about the famed Polish knight.
Zawisza Family Records
Zawisza Czarny was popularly referred to as Zawisza the Black because of his thick, black hair. He apparently enjoyed the moniker because he had a suit of black armor custom built. Today, this can still be seen in Częstochowa, Poland at the Jasna Góra Monastery, which is better known for its famed shrine of the Virgin Mary. Zawisza was probably born around 1379 into a family that bore the Sulima coat of arms of the Szlachta (a Polish caste of legally privileged nobles). Records show that in 1397 (at the age of 18) Zawisza married Barbara, a woman from a noble family that bore the Piława coat of arms, another branch of the Szlachta. Together, they had four sons.
Sulima coat of arms. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 ) It is said Zawisza Czarny’s family bore this coat of arms.
Barbara is well remembered because some believe that it is through her connections that Zawisza gained the attention of the Royal Court. Barbara was the niece of Piotr Wysz Radoliński, Bishop of Krakow. Piotr worked in the court of Queen Jadwiga, better known in Western Europe as Queen Hedwig. Crowned in 1384, Hedwig was the first female monarch of the Kingdom of Poland, a post that she held until her death in 1399 due to complications from childbirth. Hedwig married the Grand Duke of Lithuania Jogaila in 1386 after he converted to Roman Catholicism. Jogaila thus became King Władysław II Jagiełło.
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He served as a co-ruler with Hedwig, although he spent a good deal of time converting Lithuania to Christianity and stamping out the trouble caused by the Teutonic Knights, who felt that the King’s conversion was a sham and kept trying to conquer Lithuania with the intention of killing all of the still-pagan Lithuanians. Upon Hedwig’s death in 1399, King Władysław II Jagiełło became sovereign of Poland and commander of Poland-Lithuania until his death in 1434 of a bad cold.
King Władysław II Jagiełło, detail of the Triptych of Our Lady of Sorrows in the Wawel Cathedral. ( Public Domain )
Zawisza Czarny at the Battle of Grunwald
During this time, Zawisza Czarny was presumably training as a knight and fighting in tournaments, at which he won much acclaim. The next time Zawisza’s name appears in the historical records is at the Battle of Grunwald between Poland-Lituania and the Teutonic Knights. It was one of the largest battles in Medieval Europe and was memorialized by the artist Jan Matejko in his 1878 painting, Battle of Grunwald . It is the image of Zawisza in this painting that is most widely used to depict him.
Zawisza served with distinction during the battle, which was a resounding success for King Władysław II Jagiełło. Zawisza was made a part of the delegation that negotiated a peace deal with Sigismund of Luxemburg, King of Hungary-Bohemia, perhaps because of this distinction or his reputation as a superb knight, or his family connections. The deal would become known as the Treaty of Lubowla.
The Battle of Grunwald. ( Public Domain ) This painting has the most famous depiction of Zawisza Czarny. (See the top image of this article for the detail of the painting showing Zawisza.)
Zawisza Czarny, The Champion
In 1412, Zawisza cemented his place of honor in the eyes of the two monarchs at a tournament held by Władysław II and Sigismund. In all, there were about 1,500 knights there from all over Europe. It was Zawisza who won the tournament. Today, we know him better as the Black Knight who defeated Sir John II of Aragon at the tournament in Perpignan in modern-day southwest France. Zawisza continued to fight in tournaments and to serve as a diplomat for the King of Poland for many years. It is “through victories in numerous European tournaments, at the turn of the fourteenth and fifteenth century that he gained the fame which today the biggest stars of sport and pop culture enjoy” (Klapa, 2016).