Not Only Warsaw: All of Poland’s Capitals
#travel in poland
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All of Poland’s Capitals, Royal Castle in Warsaw, photo: Franciszek Mazur / AG, center, #000000, zamek_krolewski_w_warszawie_ag.jpg
It’s a well-known fact that Warsaw is the capital of Poland. But in the country’s long and tumultuous history, a number of other cities served as the capital, including some that may come as a surprise! Culture.pl takes a look at each one, explaining when and why they enjoyed this unique status.
Before we dive in, it’s worth noting that our present-day notion of what a capital city is doesn’t really apply to the early Middle Ages, when Poland was just becoming a country (the year 966, Christianization of Poland, is considered to be the founding date of the Polish state). Here’s the difference as explained by Professor Bronisław Nowacki of the Institute of History of the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań:
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When discussing the early mediaeval period it’s hard to say that a particular city was a capital. In the early Middle Ages, there were a few places in Poland where you could find the residencies of rulers. Back then ‘capitalness’ had a different character – it didn’t mean that a given town had, like today, central headquarters. At the time a city was considered a capital when it was an important political centre, one where decisions were made.
From the 2007 article ‘Poznań Był Stolicą Polski’ in the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper, trans. MK
Keeping Prof Nowacki’s explanation in mind, let’s take a look at Gniezno, which is considered to have been the first capital of Poland. Gniezno is a town in central-western Poland which was among the earliest Polish settlements. Alongside places like Poznań and Ostrów Lednicki, it was one of the primary places of residence of Poland’s first historical ruler, Mieszko I, who lived in the 10th century (his birthdate is unknown, but he passed away in the year 992).
In 991, Mieszko I created what is believed to be the first ever Polish document, written in Latin and titled Dagome Iudex (Judge Dagome). In this document, he asks the pope to look after and care for his land, which Mieszko describes as the ‘Gniezno State’. This is a very clear clue as to which of his settlements Mieszko I considered to be the most important. His son, Bolesław Chrobry, who became the first king of Poland (Mieszko I was only a duke), minted a coin with a sign in Latin, saying ‘Gniezno State’, which also points to the importance of Gniezno at the time.
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Historians believe that Bolesław Chrobry’s 1025 coronation took place at the Gniezno cathedral (this isn’t entirely certain but highly probable). This, again, suggests that in the earliest stages of Poland’s statehood the capital was in Gniezno. All in all, Poles accept that Gniezno was the capital of Poland from the country’s creation in 966 until the year 1039.
Bolesław Chrobry’s grandson, Duke Kazimierz I, became the ruler of Poland in 1034. He wanted to increase his influence over the gentry which ended with rebellion. The duke was forced to flee from his own country, first to Hungary and later to Germany. As if that wasn’t enough, in 1038, the duke of Bohemia Bretislav I attacked Poland and razed Gniezno and Poznań.
In the year 1039, Kazimierz I could finally return to Poland thanks to the support of German troops sent by his mother, Queen Rycheza, who came from German aristocracy. But there was no point in going back to Gniezno or Poznań, which were in ruins. Therefore, Kazimierz I decided to make Kraków, which hadn’t been damaged as badly in the war, his main place of residence:
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Earlier, his mother had spent many years in this town, overseeing its development. In his youth, Kazimierz accompanied her there. According to historians, what also influenced the choice of Kraków as the capital was the town’s location on trade routes and its proximity to Bohemia. This proximity made it easier to react to a possible Bohemian attack.
From ’Nie Przenoście Nam Stolicy do Krakowa’ (Don’t Move Our Capital to Kraków), opoka.org.pl, 2019, trans. MK
Kraków was the capital of Poland from 1039 until 1079. But (spoiler alert!), this wasn’t the only time Kraków served this purpose.
In the year 1079, Kazimierz I’s son, Duke Władysław Herman, became the ruler of Poland. Władysław Herman’s primary place of residence was Płock, an important town in the region of Mazovia. Therefore, the town became the capital of Poland:
When in the year 1079 Duke Władysław Herman came to power, Płock, where he resided, became the de facto capital of Poland, concentrating the political life of the entire country. The duke’s chancellery was frequented by dignitaries and foreign envoys, and young aristocrats studied at the court school, preparing themselves to take state offices. Tournaments took place here as did other important events, such as the knighting of Bolesław Krzywousty.
From ‘Z Dziejów Płocka’ (The History of Płock), malachowianka.plock.org.pl, trans. MK
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Władysław Herman passed away in 1102. After his passing, his two sons, Bolesław Krzywousty and Zbigniew, fought for succession. Eventually, the first jailed and blinded the latter, which ended the struggle (in a rather cruel way). Bolesław Krzywousty became the duke of Poland in 1107 and Płock served as the capital of the country until his death in 1138.
Kraków once more
Following Bolesław Krzywousty’s death, Poland entered a period of feudal division that lasted until the year 1320, when Władysław Łokietek reunited the country and was crowned king of Poland. In this era, Poland split up into a number of separate principalities governed by different rulers. However, one of these principalities – which stretched from Kraków, through Gniezno, to Gdańsk on the Baltic coast – was considered the ‘senior one’. It was the most important Polish principality, ruled by the ‘senior duke’ who would preside over all the other Polish rulers. Kraków served as the seat of the senior duke and therefore it’s accepted that, beginning from the year 1138, the city once more enjoyed the status of the capital of Poland.
The ‘capitalness’ of Kraków was confirmed when Władysław Łokietek decided that his coronation would take place there. In the years to come, Kraków saw plenty of other coronations of Polish monarchs, and the city’s famous Wawel Castle became the main royal residence. Kraków would serve as the capital of Poland until the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries:
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Kraków became the capital of a monarchy that extended over natively Polish lands as well as vast Lithuanian-Ruthenian areas. The royal court played an important part in the shaping of cultural and artistic life. (…) The Wawel Castle became a pearl of Renaissance architecture; (…) it proudly served as the residence of the rulers of a modern and strong state. At the end of the 16th century the capital was moved to Warsaw, Kraków lost its importance, retaining only its representative role as the city of royal coronations and funerals.
From ‘Historia Krakowa’ (Kraków’s History), www.krakow.pl, trans. MK
It’s worth mentioning that during Kraków’s second tenure as capital there was a short interim. For a brief period in the 1290s Poland’s capital was the city of Poznań.
In the year 1290, Przemysł II became the Duke of Kraków. But his reign over the city was very short-lived. That same year, he was forced to leave Kraków because the Bohemian King Wenceslaus II, who had a big military advantage over Przemysł II, decided to take control of the city. Przemysł II took Poland’s royal insignia from Kraków, deposited them in Poznań, and then relocated there. Some argue that it was then that Poznań actualy became the capital of Poland.
In 1295, Przemysł II was crowned king of Poland in the Gniezno cathedral. Even though the coronation took place in Gniezno, it was Poznań that played a more important role. Professor Bronisław Nowacki explains:
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The royal insignia in Poznań were of high importance. (…) Przemysł II spent most of his time in Poznań. All the documents and writings say that he stayed in Poznań almost 70 times, in Kalisz – about 30 times, and in Gniezno – only 20 times. So you can see the disproportion in the importance of these centres: Poznań dominated.
From ‘Poznań Był Stolicą Polski’ (Poznań was the Polish Capital), trans. MK
Sadly, in 1296 Przemysł II was assassinated in circumstances that remain largely shrouded in mystery. Following that event the capital of Poland returned to Kraków.
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The Sejm in Warsaw or the lower house of Poland’s parliament, photo: Wojciech Kryński / Forum
As we mentioned before, the capital of Poland moved from Kraków to Warsaw at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries. This occurred due to a number of circumstances. In 1587, Sweden’s Zygmunt III Waza was elected king of Poland by the nobility. Eight years later, his residence at Kraków’s Wawel Castle was badly damaged by a fire. Some history aficionados believe the fire may have been caused by an alchemy experiment gone wrong! Apparently, the king dabbled in alchemy and he may have hosted the famous Polish alchemist Michał Śedziwój (a.k.a. Sendivogius) at the castle.
Regardless of its cause, the fire and the damage it did are said to have prompted the king to move to Warsaw, at the time an important town in the Mazovia region. Zygmunt III Waza began to relocate his court in the year 1596, and in 1611, he made Warsaw’s Royal Castle his main residence. The city in question was chosen to be the capital because it lay in a more central area of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth than Kraków:
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According to some historians, moving the capital was a consequence of the fact that the commonwealth’s borders kept expanding after the signing of the union with Lithuania. After Poland and Lithuania truly united in 1569, Kraków found itself on the outskirts of our country. Kraków lay over a thousand kilometres away from the eastern borders of Ukraine or the northern frontier of Lithuania, so Warsaw, located more centrally, was more suited to serve as the capital. The king is also said to have had personal reasons to move the capital – Warsaw lay closer to his native Sweden.
From ’Nie Przenoście Nam Stolicy do Krakowa’, trans. MK
Ever since Zygmunt III Waza moved to Warsaw, the city has served as the capital of Poland (with one exception which we’ll address later). However, and this may come as a surprise, it wasn’t until 1952 that this was confirmed by law! It was only the 1952 Constitution of the Polish People's Republic that officially declared Warsaw Poland’s capital. Earlier, the city enjoyed its special status unofficially. Warsaw was re-declared the capital of Poland in the 1997 Constitution of Poland. Today the city is home to the seats of all of Poland’s most important state institutions: the Parliament, the President and the Supreme Court of Poland.
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Warsaw’s long tenure as capital was interrupted in 1795, by the third partition of Poland, which stripped the country of its independence for 123 years. Poland formally did not exist and therefore had no capital. After many struggles, the country regained its independence in 1918. As Poland reappeared, so did its government – it was created on 6th November in Lublin, not Warsaw. Therefore, some argue that Lublin – as the seat of the government – served as the capital of Poland. In this version of events the city enjoyed its special status only for a very brief period:
On the night of 6th and 7th November 1918, the Temporary People’s Government was created in Lublin. Ignacy Daszyński became its leader. The Lublin government didn’t last long – on 12th November it turned over its power to Commander-in-Chief Józef Pisłudski. But for those few days we [Lublin] were the capital of Poland, which had regained its independence after over a century of servitude.
From ‘Przez Kilka Dni Byliśmy Stolicą Polski. Właśnie Mija Rocznica’, lublin.wyborcza.pl, trans. MK
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After Lublin’s stint as capital, Warsaw began to serve that role once more and remained Poland’s capital throughout the Interwar period.
During World War II, Poland yet again disappeared from the map – this time only for a few years. Interestingly, some would argue that toward the end of the war Lublin once again became Poland’s capital. From August 1944 to January 1945. the then-emerging communist regime had its headquarters in Lublin. However, it remains debatable whether the communist regime, imposed by the Soviet Union, was actually a Polish government. This puts into question whether Lublin was the capital during that period.
After World War II, despite having been 85% destroyed, Warsaw re-emerged as the capital of Poland. Since then, the city has enjoyed the title without interruption.
Wrocław, Sandomierz & a few others
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Old Town in Sandomierz, photo: Paweł Małecki / AG
Some people would also throw Wrocław and Sandomierz into the mix. In the 12th-century chronicle of Polish history Gesta Principum Polonorum, these two cities are mentioned alongside Kraków as ‘the main capitals of the kingdom’. According to the chronicle, Wrocław and Sandomierz served as capitals at the turn of the 11th and 12th centuries.
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However, it’s unclear whether these two cities were indeed important enough to really consider them capitals of Poland. They were capitals of Polish principalities but not of Poland as a whole. There are a few other places, like Łowicz for example, which for various reasons, history aficionados would consider capitals of Poland. However, the arguments that back these claims are so intricate they seem a little too far-fetched to be included in this list.
capital of poland
history of Poland
Written by Marek Kępa, October 2020