Who are those mysterious regal faces on Poland’s banknotes? If you’d like to know a thing or two about these 'specimens' of greatness, all of whom were highly important for rather different reasons, and about the bills themselves, then read on.
Poland’s ordinary banknotes (the ones in everyday circulation, not collector editions) are all part of a series called Polish Rulers that went into use in 1995. It consists of five bills, each of which has an image of a particular monarch vital to the country’s history.
The series was designed by noted graphic artist Andrzej Heidrich, who has been collaborating with the National Bank of Poland, the issuer of Polish banknotes, for over half a century. Apart from having created numerous bills, including the earlier series Great Poles that went out of circulation in 1996, Heidrich has also designed books and illustrations as well as state medals, such as the Military Cross.
Polish Rulers, which consists of five denominations, 10, 20, 50, 100 and 200 zlotys, is chronologically ordered: the 10 zloty bill shows the first historical ruler of Poland, Prince Mieszko I, while the 20 zloty one has an image of a later monarch, and so on.
Unusually, the beginning of 2017 will see a brand-new addition to the series, the precious 500 zloty banknote, also designed by Heidrich.
10 zloty: Mieszko I
The duke Mieszko I, whose reign started around 960, is depicted on the first banknote because of his unique role as the founding father of Poland. The first historically-confirmed Polish head of state, he carved out a country of his own from the map and decided to be christened. His baptism resulted in not only him but also all his subjects becoming Christian. This 966 event brought Poland into the Western cultural milieu and is considered the symbolic founding date of the Polish state.
20 zloty: Bolesław Chrobry
The first official Polish King (his father Mieszko I technically wasn’t one, but a prince). Both were members of the House of Piast, a dynasty whose beginnings are uncertain. According to tradition, it dates back to a half-legendary ancestor named, as you might have guessed, Piast. After the beginning of his reign in 992, Bolesław conquered many territories, earning the sobriquet Chrobry (pronounced: Hro-bryyh) which means ‘valiant’. Toward the end of his life, he was powerful enough to become king and was crowned as such in 1024 or 1025.
50 zloty: Kazimierz III Wielki
During his reign, Kazimierz almost tripled Poland’s territory, founded many cities, built numerous castles and strongholds, introduced sensible laws and also founded the country’s first university, Jagiellonian University – an institution that is still running today and is one of the oldest teaching institutions in the world. So, all in all, it’s no surprise that the old saying about him says he ‘found Poland made of wood but left it built of stone’. He ruled as king from 1333 for nearly 40 years and was the last Piast on the Polish throne. His sobriquet ‘Wielki’ translates into ‘the Great’.
100 zloty: Władysław II Jagiełło
A Lithuanian Prince by birth, Jagiełło was elected to the throne of Poland in 1386 by Polish noblemen. This was the de facto beginning of the union of Poland and Lithuania which lasted, apart from a short interim, until the third partition of Poland in 1795. Jagiełło is commonly associated with his great military triumph – defeating the Teutonic Knights in the famous 1410 battle of Grunwald. But during his very long reign (48 years) he also, among other things, made his kingdom flourish economically and reopened the Jagiellonian University after it had temporarily ceased to exist after its founder’s death.
200 zloty: Zygmunt I Stary
Jagiełło founded a dynasty that became one of the most powerful royal families in Europe. Members of the House of Jagiełło ruled over Poland, Lithuania, Czechia and Hungary. Zygmunt I, who became King of Poland and Grand Prince of Lithuania in 1506 was an important member of it. As a monarch, he balanced the state finances, wisely revised laws and customs rates, and gained the respect of his subjects through his kindness. He is credited for bringing Poland into its 16th-century golden age, when, together with Lithuania, it formed a mighty, rich and huge political organism that spanned around 1 million square kilometres.
500 zloty: Jan III Sobieski
Coming to your ATM in 2017, the warrior king Jan III Sobieski is best remembered for his great military victories, of which he had quite a few. At the age of 21, he fought bravely in the 1651 Battle of Beresteczko, a huge clash in which Polish forces defeated Cossack insurgents. He was later commander of the army that defeated the Turks in the key 1673 Battle of Chocim, which led to him being elected as king a year later. Probably his biggest triumph was the 1683 Relief of Vienna, during which he led an allied Polish-Austrian-German army to victory against a massive Turkish force that had besieged the Austrian city, famously riding into battle himself in a cavalry charge.
Author: Marek Kępa, Oct 2016