Poland's castles and royal palaces, built by the best European architects, were repeatedly ruined, burnt, and plundered. Nevertheless, these buildings continue to impress people even today. What events did they witness? Who lived there? Here are the stories of six Polish royal residences that you should know.
Wawel Royal Castle in Kraków is one of the finest residences in Europe and the most famous castle in Poland. Often called the heart of Poland’s statehood, the castle was the seat of Polish kings since the 11th century. In the times of King Kasimir I the Restorer, priceless relics were stored in Wawel Hill, among them the Holy Lance (which reputedly pierced Jesus’ side as he hung on the cross) and later the royal insignia were kept there as well.
One of the best known historical treasures in Wawel is the collection of Flemish tapestries brought to Poland by King Sigismund II Augustus. The masterpieces are not only artistically valuable, but also historically – the collection circulated between countries for many years, and was stolen and removed by different rulers or hidden by the castle’s occupants. From the original number of 157 tapestries, in 1966 only 136 returned to Wawel.
The Royal Castle in Warsaw
Kings and queens lived in many locations in Warsaw – in Ujazdów Castle, the now vanished Saxon Palace, and Wilanów Palace. However, their central residency was the Royal Castle, whose story starts with a keep built of wood and earth in the 13th century. The first brick building here was a tower (1350), considered to be the nucleus of today’s castle. The first Gothic building was finished at the beginning of the 15th century, changing the character of the place. It wasn’t a castle anymore, but a court which developed into a royal residency in the 16th century.
The castle was historically the residency of Queen Bona Sforza, King Sigismund III Vasa, and Emperor Peter the Great. It was also host to the most important events in the history of Poland. In 1791, the Great Sejm adopted the Constitution of 3rd May in the castle itself and in 1807 Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte decided there to establish the Duchy of Warsaw. From 1926, the Royal Castle was the residency of the Polish president. Today it is a museum.
King Jan III’s Palace Museum at Wilanów is one of the most precious historical Polish baroque treasures. It was built at the end of the 17th century and at first was a quiet manor. It was expanded from 1677 to 1696 and it became a representative royal residency, known as the ‘Polish Versailles’. The palace is a combination of a traditional Polish noble manor, an Italian villa with its garden, and a French suburban residency. The building was called villa nuova, what later gave its name to the Warsaw district of Wilanów.
Besides numerous artworks, like paintings and sculptures, the letters King Jan III Sobieski wrote to Queen Marysieńka are also in the palace’s collection. They are considered a pearl of the epistolography of that time. On polskaniezwykla.pl site can read:
However, not everybody knows that before marriage, the lovers had a lively correspondence. Because their relationship was a secret, they used a specific code: they switched the word ‘oranges’ with the word ‘love’, they also used the word ‘jam’ to describe those letters in which Maria was always called Aurora.
The Royal Łazienki Museum has one of the biggest classicist gardens in Europe; from 1764 it was the summer residency of the last Polish king Stanisław August Poniatowski, to whom the garden owes its final shape. A politician, reformer and crowned philosopher, he aimed to transform Poland into a modern country. After the Third Partition of Poland he was politically defeated, but his vision of a ‘republic of dreams’ is symbolized by Warsaw’s Łazienki gardens.
The name of the place comes from its relaxation pavilion – a bathroom (łazienka) designed by Tylman from Gameren at the order of its former owner, the Great Marshall of the Crown, Stanisław Herakliusz Lubomirski. King Stanisław August, a connoisseur of art, designed his future residency accompanied by a group of architects (Dominik Merlini, Krystian Kamsetzer), painters (Marceli Bacciarelli, Jan Bogumił Plersch), and decorators and sculptors (André Le Brun, Franciszek Pinck). The former menagerie was transformed into a sculpture park and Lubomirski’s bathroom into the Palace on the Water (today the Palace on the Island). It is here that the famous ‘Thursday Dinners’ were held.
From 1926, a monument to Fryderyk Chopin is situated on Łazienki’s grounds. It was sculpted by Wacław Szymanowski, but during the war it was melted down by the Germans, and reconstructed afterwards.
This Gothic royal castle from the half of 14th century, later rebuilt in the renaissance style, is called the Second Wawel. It was built on orders from King Casimir the Great. Today it is the only royal residency in Poland which anyone can stay inside – it now houses a hotel.
The kings picked this place because of the closeness of the trade route to Hungary and the primeval Niepołomice Forest, which was beloved by Polish kings as a hunting ground, including Casimir the Great, Władysław Jagiełło, Sigismund the Old with his wife Queen Bona, Sigismund II Augustus, Stefan Batory, Jan III Sobieski, and Augustus II the Strong.
Royal Castle in Poznań
The Royal Castle in Poznań, whose contemporary version is very controversial, was built in the 13th century on the initiative of Przemysł II. Przemysł is the one who first used the symbol of the white eagle as the state’s emblem, in 1295 at his coronation. The most precious historical treasure of literature was most likely written in this castle – the first preserved secular poem in Old Polish, About Behaviour at the Table (O zachowaniu się przy stole), written by Przecław Słota.
The castle hosted the most important Polish rulers: Casimir the Great, Władysław Jagiełło, Casimir Jagiellon, and Jan Olbracht. The latter accepted a feudal allegiance with the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order Hans von Tieffen in the Poznań tower, and a daughter of Sigismund the Old was also born here. The story of the murder of Przemysł’s wife Ludgarda is also connected to Poznań Castle. According to Jan Długosz, Lugarda was garrotted by or at the behest of her husband in 1283.
Sources: wawel.krakow.pl, zamek-krolewski.pl, wilanow-palac.pl, polskaniezwykla.pl, lazienki-krolewskie.pl, zamek-krolewski.poznan.pl, muzeum.niepolomice.pl, written by Agnieszka Sural, 10 Nov 2016, translated by BR, 17 Nov 2016