Treasures Lost & Found: Poland's Royal Regalia
default, Treasures Lost & Found:
Poland's Royal Regalia, Kazmierz Wielki’s crown, sceptre & orb, copies of royal insignia, 1896, part of the collection of the Wawel Cathedral, photo: Wojciech Kryński, To, center, korona-berlo-jablko-fot-w-krynski-t-prazmowski-pap_19851101_008.jpg
The story of Polish royal regalia is a tale of lost treasure. The most valuable items of this kind were stolen toward the end of the 18th century and later destroyed, giving rise to myths about their supposed whereabouts. Culture.pl takes a look at these priceless objects – from those lost back then, to those which have survived, and still others which were meticulously recreated in the early 2000s.
A chamber robbed
In the year 1794, the Kościuszko Uprising took place on Polish territory. This was an armed insurgency against Russia and Prussia, who, together with Austria, had partitioned Poland in the years 1772 and 1793. The struggle ended with a loss for Poland, and as a result, Kraków came under Prussian occupation. The city would be handed over to the Austrians in 1796.
In 1795, the Prussian King Frederick William II, probably motivated by materialistic desires, instructed his associates, General Leopold von Reuts and the governor of Kraków, Ludwig van Hoym, to steal Poland’s royal regalia, which were stored in the city. Regalia are (often very valuable) objects symbolic of monarchy, like crowns and sceptres, which could be used at official ceremonies such as coronations.
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Poland’s royal regalia were kept in a vault at the Wawel Castle, behind six heavy doors. On the night of 3rd October, the Prussians arrived at the vault – officially called the Crown Treasury - but couldn’t force the strongest, first door. Here’s how the night’s events were described by Franciszek Ksawery Kratzer, a cantor at the Wawel Cathedral located next to the castle, in his (somewhat facetious) memoirs:
They tried to open the iron door […] but all their efforts were futile, which made general Reuts impatient so that he came up with the idea to blast the door open with a cannon; but Sir Kowalski, the castle margrave, flummoxed him by saying that a cannon blast could shake the ceilings and cause great damage in the entire castle.
From the ‘Biblioteka Warszawska’ (Warsaw Library), April 1879, trans. MK
In the end, the robbers had to remove the stone threshold from beneath the door to get through. After sliding through the hole, they opened the door from the other side. The next doors weren’t as problematic, and after reaching the vault, the Prussians carried out 19 chests filled with precious items. The chests were first taken to the house of Governor van Hoym and later, through Wrocław, to Berlin.
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All that was left in the robbed chamber were the Crown Treasury inventories and two swords given to the Polish King Władysław Jageiłło by the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order Ulrich von Jungingen, before the 1410 Battle of Grunwald. In the Battle of Gunwald, the Polish forces and their Lithuanian allies defeated the Order, and later the two so-called Grunwald swords were used during Polish coronations. They were carried in front of the ascending monarch as a symbol of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Prussians left the swords behind because the ordinary-looking weapons didn’t present substantial material value.
Despite surviving the robbery, the Grunwald swords were eventually lost. They were given to a clergyman in Włostowice for safekeeping but were then discovered in 1853 by a Russian policeman. The foreign official didn’t realize they were historical artefacts and confiscated them as illegal weapons. After being taken to Zamość, the swords went missing.
From the vault in Wawel Castle, the Prussians took Poland’s most precious royal regalia. Thanks to the inventories that remained, we know exactly which ones. The most important of the stolen objects was without a doubt the Crown of Chrobry, Poland’s coronation crown first used in 1320 by Władysław Łokietek. From then on, it was used for nearly all Polish coronations, including the final one, of Stanisław August Poniatowski in 1764.
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It was a gothic crown made of pure gold, consisting of ten bound segments, topped with heraldic lilies and studded with precious gems. During the last inventory of the Crown Treasury in 1792, it was established that the crown had 474 rubies, sapphires, emeralds, pearls and other precious jewels.
From ‘Jak Prusacy Zniszczyli Polskie Insygnia Koronacyjne’ in ‘Rzeczpospolita’, trans. MK
Interestingly, the Crown of Chrobry never belonged to the monarch after whom it was named – Poland’s first king, Bolesław Chrobry (967-1025). His crown, after the fall of the reign of his son Mieszko II Lambert, was taken to Germany and lost. The Crown of Chrobry was created by Władysław Łokietek for his coronation and given a name that would communicate a continuity of power between himself and Poland’s first king.
Other important regalia taken by the Prussians included the following items. The Crown of Queens, made for Łokietek’s wife, Jadwiga Bolesławówna, which was later used by other Polish queens. This was also a pure gold, gothic crown studded with jewels. The Crown of Homage, worn by Polish monarchs accepting homage from other rulers, a pure-gold, gem-studded object. The Hungarian Crown was used for the coronation of the Hungarian-born Stefan Batory in 1576. The renaissance Swedish Crown was donated to the Crown Treasury by Poland’s King Jan II Kazimierz of the Swedish house of Vasa. There were also four royal sceptres, including Stanisław August Poniatowski’s pure gold, coronation sceptre studded with diamonds, emeralds and rubies. Also removed were five royal orbs, two reliquaries and two ceremonial swords, including the famed coronation sword Szczerbiec (this item will be discussed in more detail later).
The Prussians stored the stolen regalia in Berlin until 1809, when King Frederick William III, who was experiencing financial troubles, decided to, of all things, melt them into coins. The shocking deed of dismantling the symbols of Polish monarchy was carried out in the town of Königsberg (today’s Kaliningrad) under the supervision of a Prussian cabinet minister by the surname of von Altenstein. These facts are confirmed in official Prussian correspondence from the 1830s. In 1811, the gold and silver from the regalia was used to make coins and the gems put on sale. Such was the end of Poland’s most important royal insignia.
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Even though the destruction of Poland’s royal regalia is confirmed by documents and accepted as a fact by experts, some don’t believe it actually happened. A number of myths have arisen, telling of alternative, fictitious versions of events that supposedly led to the disappearance of the royal insignia. One of the most prominent sources of these myths is a booklet titled Kraków w Roku 1794 (Kraków in the Year 1794), published in 1894 by the clergyman Wacław Nowakowski:
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The great lover of Poland, prelate Wacław Sierakowski […] convinced his brother, Canon Sebastian, the royal custodian, to take the royal insignia out of the Crown Treasury and to send them on 25th April 1794, though the saintly father Kajetan, Custos of the Capuchins, to Bishop Cieciszowski at the Dominican monastery in Podkamień for safekeeping.
According to Nowakowski, the regalia were later transported to the city of Włodzimierz in today’s Ukraine and hidden at the local Capuchin monastery. This myth grew so strong that in 1920, a special expedition was sent by Polish authorities to the monastery to search for the regalia. Unsurprisingly, the searchers found no trace of the lost treasure.
In another version of the myth, the regalia were at some point taken from the monastery in Włodzimierz and hidden at a cemetery in the village of Witaszyce. In 1966, the local cemetery was thoroughly examined in search of the insignia, again to no avail.
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Another myth holds that the regalia were kept by the aforementioned royal custodian Sebastian Sierakowski rather than passed on by him. Therefore, searchers have looked for the insignia at the palace in Waplewo Wielkie, which used to belong to the Sierakowski family. No lost treasure, however, has ever been discovered.
An exact reconstruction
One of those who believe that the royal regalia were somehow saved by Polish patriots is Adam Orzechowski, an antiquarian from the town of Nowy Sącz. Even though he hopes the insignia will someday be recovered, in the early 2000s, together with a group of regalia enthusiasts, he recreated the Crown of Chrobry.
To properly carry out this remarkable feat, he conducted meticulous research. Orzechowski read detailed descriptions of the crown included in subsequent inventories of the Crown Treasury and compared historical paintings and drawings showing the object. After consultations with Polish regalia expert Professor Michał Rożek, Orzechowski decided to model his copy on the depictions created by the painter Krzysztof Józef Werner.
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Werner showed the Crown of Chrobry in drawings and a 1764 painting presenting Stanisław August Poniatowski in his coronation costume. Werner’s portrayal of the crown is said to be more faithful to the original, gothic form of the object, than the representation that can be found in Marcello Baciarelli’s painting of Bolesław Chrobry, created between the years 1768 and 1771. The two aforementioned paintings are the only canvases in which the Crown of Chrobry can be seen.
To create the copy, Orzechowski used, amongst other things, gold from Prussian coins made in 1811. This means that there might be some gold from the original crown in the copy. Due to financial limitations, however, the rubies in the copy are synthetic. Still, it has 88 real emeralds, sapphires and garnets as well as 80 pearls. Intriguingly, the goldsmiths and gem polishers working on the copy employed historical artisan methods from the same time period in which the original was created.
The recreated crown – says Adam Orzechowski – is an exact reconstruction, every little detail is done correctly, even the smallest gem had to match the original.
From www.replikiregaliowpl.com, trans. MK
With similar accuracy, Orzechowski recreated also one of the sceptres and one of the orbs stolen by the Prussians. His incredible copies of Polish royal regalia have been exhibited at such venues as the District Museum in Nowy Sącz and the National Museum in Gdańsk.
Symbols of Poland’s sovereignty
Fortunately, aside from Orzechowski’s copies, there are some authentic royal regalia left in Poland, which have avoided being stolen or destroyed. Amongst them is the aforementioned coronation sword, Szczerbiec, the only item that survived the Prussian robbery of 1795.
This 13th-century sword originally belonged to the Mazovian Duke Bolesław. It had a notch in the blade so that it could replace the famously notched sword of Bolesław Chrobry, which went missing around 1310. Chrobry is believed to have notched his sword after capturing Kiev in 1018, by swinging the weapon against the city’s Golden Gate. Before it was lost, Chrobry’s sword became an important Polish coronation insignia. Władysław Łokietek substituted it for his coronation with the weapon of the Mazovian duke.
A steel blade, a golden handle with niello decoration […]. In the year 1320, Szczerbiec was used at the Wawel Cathedral as the coronation sword of Władysław Łokietek […]. One of the most valuable mediaeval ceremonial swords in Europe, it is amongst the most important symbols of Poland’s sovereignty.
From wawel.krakow.pl/militaria, trans. MK
After being stolen from the Crown Treasury, Szczerbiec came into the possession of the Russian aristocrat Dmitri Lobanov-Rostovsky – under unknown circumstances, but most probably in the early 1800s. In 1884, the sword became part of the collection of the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. From there, the weapon was returned to the Crown Treasury in an exchange in 1924. Before World War II, together with other important items from the treasury, it was evacuated to Canada, where it waited for the conflict to end. Today, it’s exhibited at the Wawel Royal Castle.
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Another important royal insignia linked to Bolesław Chrobry is the spear of St Maurice, which serves as the oldest symbol of Polish monarchy. The spear was given by the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III to Bolesław Chrobry in the year 1000 in Gniezno, as a symbol of the Polish ruler’s growing importance. According to legend, the spear contains a nail from the Holy Cross. The insignia is now stored at the Wawel Cathedral. One ought to add though, that the spear received by Chrobry is actually a copy of the original spear of St Maurice, which can be found in Vienna.
In Warsaw, at the National Museum, the coronation insignia of Augustus III of Poland are kept. His royal regalia were created as substitutes for the original ones, which were unavailable at the time of his coronation in 1734. Back then, the Crown of Chrobry and the insignia related to it had been stolen and hidden by supporters of Augustus’ rival for the throne of Poland, Stanisław Leszczyński. The original regalia were restored to the Crown Treasury only a after few years. The regalia of Augustus III are the only preserved royal insignia (apart from Szczerbiec) to have been used at a Polish coronation.
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An interesting story is linked to one of the lesser Polish regalia – the helmet crown of Kazimierz Wielki. It was accidentally discovered in April 1910 by Ignacy Strugacki, a gardener doing digging work at the garden of St Michael’s Church in the town of Sandomierz. The find went on to be hailed an archaeological sensation.
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At first, the item was considered a mediaeval homage crown of unknown provenance. But after World War I, it was established that the crown bears close semblance to the burial crown of the Polish King Kazimierz Wielki and was most probably created during his lifetime (1310-1370). This led art historians to the conclusion that the object discovered by Strugacki actually served as Kazimierz Wielki’s helmet crown, or a crown the monarch fastened to his helmet during travels. The king could’ve donated it to the cathedral in Sandomierz, from where it found its way to St Michael’s Church. Today, it’s stored at the Wawel Cathedral Museum.
The aforementioned burial crown of Kazimierz Wielki is one of a number of Polish burial regalia that have made it to our times. It’s located in the monarch’s tomb in the Wawel Cathedral and cannot be seen. However, after a scientific exploration of the grave that took place in the 19th century, a precise copy of the burial crown was made. This copy is exhibited at the cathedral. Also on display at the cathedral are the original burial insignia (an orb and a sceptre) of Poland’s Queen Jadwiga, who lived in the 14th century and enjoys the status of a Catholic saint.
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A well-preserved royal sceptre and orb made from gilded wood were found […] in Jadwiga’s tomb. Jadwiga’s insignia were made in Kraków, probably in a hasty manner, after her death on 17th July 1399, but before her burial, which took place two days later. They recreate the shape of the insignia used at Poland’s royal court in the 14th century.
From www.wirtualnakatedra.pl, trans. MK
In a country deprived of its most important royal insignia, burial regalia and their copies play a significant role as existent artefacts of Poland’s monarchical history.
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Recently, the burial crown of Kazimierz Wielki served as a source of inspiration for the comedy film Volta by Juliusz Machulski. In this fictitious, commercial film from the year 2017, the crown goes missing in historical times and resurfaces in 21st century Poland, stirring up quite a bit of commotion. Kazimierz Wielki’s insignia at the centre of a popular contemporary film shows that Poland’s regalia, despite being ancient, are still a timely source of intrigue.
Crown of Chrobry
franciszek ksawery kratzer
battle of grunwald
stanisław august poniatowski
Jadwiga of Poland
Jan II Kazimierz
Frederick William II
Frederick William III
Krzysztof Józef Werner
spear of St Maurice
Augustus III of Poland
Wawel Cathedral Museum
Written by Marek Kępa, Apr 2020