Zero to Little Hero: The Trials of King Elbow-High
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The Trials of King Elbow-High, 'Władysław Łokietek na skałach w Ojcowie' (Władysław Łokietek in the Ojców Crags) by Wojciech Gerson, photo: Wikimedia Commons, center, wladyslaw_lokietek_in_the_ojcow_crags.jpg
One of the most brutal and wild periods in Poland’s history was tamed by an equally ruthless figure. Novelist Wojciech Zembaty tells us the story of how, after over a century of chaos, Władysław Łokietek, the so-called Elbow-High, took on his fellow Polish dukes and all of Bohemia to finally unite Poland.
A handful of armed men were retreating between limestone rocks, marking their way with red stains. Wounded, defeated and hungry, the knights and their prince hurried toward a mountain cave, their hideout. The prince’s name was Władysław. He was nicknamed Łokietek, the ‘Little Elbow’ or ‘Elbow-High’, because of his diminutive height. The enemy soldiers chasing them were slowly closing the gap. The runaways could hear their war horns. And the howls of hungry hounds baying and sniffing out their prey. After months of guerrilla fighting, the rebellious pretender to the Polish throne had finally run out of luck.
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Crowded in darkness, Łokietek’s men waited like cornered rats. Their foes started to enter the cave. And then, according to legend, a miracle happened. A spider descended from the cavern wall and immediately covered the corridor with a thick strong web. It was clearly an omen, and nobody dared pass through for a long time. The hunters stopped, shook their heads and retreated.
Why was this future ruler of Poland hiding like an outlaw? How did he become the hero of legends? Meet Łokietek, the big little king.
The grim cruelty of a splintered country
Like some of the greatest characters from movies, Łokietek was born an underdog, a black horse. A petty prince, he belonged to the numerous Piast family, Poland’s first royal line. At the end of the 13th century, this meant less than ever before.
In 1138, the strong and victorious king Bolesław Krzywousty (or Bolesław Wrymouth) had decided to divide the Kingdom of Poland among his numerous sons. Such was his last will. Before this decree, every new king was always forced to wage a war against his treacherous siblings. Bolesław sought to find a better way, a succession system that would actually last. Each heir would get a scrap of land, with the eldest most senior prince keeping the capital city of Kraków and dukedom of Lesser Poland. This elder heir was supposed to be in charge. Despite Bolesław’s noble intentions, they led, as is often the case with noble intentions, to great calamity. Instead of the usual quick war of succession followed by decades of peace, Poland slipped into almost two centuries of chaos.
This period is called Rozbicie Dzielnicowe by scholars, literally ‘Regional Splintering’. This feudal fragmentation was probably the bloodiest, messiest and most complicated period in Poland’s history. Brothers from the Piast family fought each other endlessly, their lands getting more divided with each generation.
The most striking aspect of this age was its grim cruelty. Dukes often assassinated and imprisoned each other, which rarely happened elsewhere in Polish history. One poor Piast was kept in a rusty iron cage for years that resembled full-plate armour or that infamous torture tool, the iron maiden. It only had two small holes through which food could enter… and leave. After he was liberated, he didn’t regain his health.
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Lithuanians, Old Prussians, Germans and others took advantage of this civil strife, biting off their own little scraps from the edges of the lands. This was when the rich and well developed Silesian lands first started to drift toward Germany and Bohemia. Then new and even more threatening enemies arrived, among them the Teutonic Knights and the horse archers of Kublai Khan.
A small foot in the door
One of the main questions about Łokietek – a controversial figure even now – was always about his size. Was he really a dwarf? Disabled perhaps?
Sources vary. Some say, he was ‘proportionally built’. On the other hand, in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum they keep a portrait of him suggesting he was about 130 cm tall. Mediaeval people were certainly shorter than us, but Łokietek’s height was unusual enough to spread international gossip.
We have to bear in mind that sensitivities were remarkably different from today. In the Middle Ages, dwarves, humpbacks and cripples were popular attractions, at least as popular as dancing bears. Every royal court included a collection of people who somehow stepped out of the physical norm. But such entertainment was somehow egalitarian, as various jesters entertained crowds during county fairs (the most famous jester in Polish history being Stańczyk, a figure immortalised by Jan Matejko).
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In his book about historical jesters, literature scholar M. Słowiński described, how Mediaeval societies supplied themselves with proper human material. There were special schools where a normal average child could be transformed into a dwarf to give them a more secure future, a plausible career as a jester or similar. He or she would even get a diploma certifying they were a ‘good cripple’, or ‘certificated madman’. In that sense dwarves were somehow much sought-after, even needed in society.
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But it was very different for monarchs. According to ancient beliefs, the ruler was supposed to be a physical embodiment of perfection. His body, his strength and health, were somehow a symbol for the entire realm.
Łokietek was wedded to his queen Jadwiga when she was just 10 years old, although the marriage was consummated much later. At the beginning, they were a similar height, but she kept growing and was soon bigger than her husband. Some say that Łokietek disliked appearing with Jadwiga in public due to the difference.
The young Łokietek’s personality was as attractive as his appearance. He was greedy, quarrelsome, foul-mouthed, vengeful and violent. He was an alcoholic too, but this was the norm for monarchs. In fact, the first Polish king, the famous conqueror Bolesław Chrobry (Bolesław the Brave) was well-known as a drunk. Cruelty and a passion for booze didn’t harm Łokietek’s reputation though – the problem was, again, size. Łokietek’s dukedom, Brześć in the land of Kujawy, was small and poor. He never understood trade and cities, his only passion being warfare. He was often accused of pillaging. His soldiers committed atrocities, preying on traders and villagers. In Germany, these types of lord were called raubritters, namely robber knights. Nobody would have considered him a serious pretender to the Polish throne.
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Łokietek’s older step brother Leszek Czarny (Leszek II the Black) was more serious. He was the ruler of Kraków and, nominally, the most senior. His reign was rather successful, but in its last years, Leszek faced some serious personal issues. Lacking an heir, he was publicly accused of impotence by his much younger wife, Gryfina. Humiliated, he undertook a controversial therapy – poor Leszek started to devour snakes and frogs, the Mediaeval equivalent of Viagra and, according to chronicles, was soon ‘despised by his subjects’. In spite of his chamber troubles, or perhaps because of them, Leszek was still thinking of Poland. It’s believed he organised an assembly of important Piasts to convince them about his idea of unification and the resurrection of the Kingdom of Poland.
After Leszek died in 1288, the wars between the Piasts started up again. It was around this time that Łokietek became the ally of an important lord, Prince Przemysł II from Greater Poland. Łokietek would slowly climb in importance over the next few years, supporting and using his more powerful friend. Łokietek and Przemysł backed Prince Bolesław from Mazovia and his claims to Kraków. In the meantime, the capital was taken by Prince Henryk IV from Silesia, nicknamed Probus in Latin, meaning ‘righteous’.
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Henryk IV Probus was a fine, sophisticated individual. In fact, he was everything that crooked Łokietek was not. He ruled the prosperous city of Wrocław, which was just becoming known as Breslau. The citizens of Kraków supported him because he was known as a good administrator. Some called him des milde Fürste, ‘the mild Duke’. He was famous for his troubadour poetry, his knightly tournaments, chivalry and taste. He was mentioned in the famous Codex Manesse. Today, we would call him a celebrity prince.
It’s important to mention at this point the matter of German colonisation, a crucial factor in Łokietek’s era. Throughout the 13th century, German settlers were moving to Poland, invited by local lords. They were settling ‘modern’ Mediaeval towns, organised according to German laws from Magdeburg. It was part of a broader movement called Drang nach Osten, the German expansion of Eastern Europe. At the time, ethnic Poles, both peasantry and nobles, stayed in the countryside. Meanwhile, towns were mainly inhabited by German emigrants, often very active and dynamic individuals, who expressed their feeling of cultural superiority, proud of their education, technological advancement and the like. According to some historians, Poland was very close to becoming just another German region.
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The cultural adaptation processes were slow and it was as late as the 16th century when the German city folk finally ‘polonised’, but that’s a different story. Archbishop Jakub Świnka protested against German monasteries excluding Poles from their ranks and demanded every candidate priest speak Polish. He called Germans ‘pig heads’, probably because they ate pork. But for some Piasts, such as Probus, German expansion meant sophistication and progress. For others, such as Łokietek, the Germans were a flood that had to be stopped.
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In 1289, Łokietek took part in a victorious battle pitting Mazovian Piasts against a coalition of Silesian lords backing Probus. The Battle of Siewierz was an interesting one. According to some sources, Łokietek, who wasn’t even in charge, personally ordered soldiers to execute the captured Silesian duke Przemko.
It was a very strange move. Aristocrats were seldom killed after battles, since ransom money provided such great profit. Plus, Przemko wasn’t Łokietek’s personal enemy. As result, the victorious Mazovian army left Lesser Poland and headed back north, perhaps afraid of retaliation from Probus. But Łokietek wasn’t afraid. He and his tiny force headed even deeper south, and quickly took the Probus-controlled capital city of Kraków by surprise.
Butchered by butchers
The citizens of Kraków didn’t like him. Old Slavic Kraków had been utterly destroyed by the Mongol Horde a few decades earlier. Now it was a brand new town with mainly German citizens. It must have looked like the Klondike or Deadwood, with the sounds of hammers and axes reverberating all around, and the smell of fresh cut trees and tar in the air. The settlers loved their celebrity prince Probus. But Łokietek was a backwater redneck, who couldn’t even speak German. Things got even worse for Łokietek when Probus’s reinforcements started to besiege the city.
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The situation was dire. But Łokietek didn’t care, probably drunk on his recent luck, the first luck he had ever had. It would be a dangerous moment for anybody, but if you’re a despised alcoholic dwarf full of complexes… you had better watch out even more. Soon one night, Łokietek’s small army was butchered. The expression here is quit apt, as the culprits of this massacre were, indeed, butchers. They were members of the strong Butchers’ Guild, well equipped with axes and cleavers. They murdered Łokietek’s guards in their sleep and opened the gates, letting Probus’s men in. Everything was lost for the Little King. He tried to hide amongst the general population of the city… a bad idea.
The monastery of the Church of St. Francis of Assisi was one of a few places in Kraków run by Poles. They let Łokietek in. Of course, he still had enemies after him, but the friars had an idea. A curious system of ropes and baskets connected to the monastery hoisted their dirty clothes across the city walls directly to some peasant wench, who washed them in the River Wisła. This time, the poor woman nearly had a heart attack – the basket that slid down the city walls was full not with filthy rags, but with a filthy-mouthed would-be monarch.
It’s purely licencia poetica, but I’d like to believe that this was the moment when Łokietek’s weakness and vice became his real advantage. You see, these baskets were probably small. And I seriously doubt that monks were careful about hygiene. What would they wash anyway? Their sackcloths?
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My point is that the average-sized male wouldn’t have fit. But our man Łokietek was a different story. He slipped into that laundry basket with grace and the monks said an ‘Amen’. Of course, they must have felt it ordained that this rascal would one day be their king. And he slid down from the city walls, staring into the night sky, like baby Moses in his little boat made of reeds. He lost everything… but it seems God had smiled upon him.
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Clearly, one of the greatest virtues of Łokietek was his endurance. His persistence. He was a true survivor. All around him, the prominent Piast lords were dying like flies. First, Henryk IV Probus was poisoned in 1290, allegedly by his own medic. Some say the culprit was the brother of a lawyer Probus had mistreated, and that the poison had worked slowly, perfectly imitating natural causes. In his last will and testament, Probus made Przemysł II his successor, a surprising move. Perhaps he felt times were dire and that someone had to unite the kingdom before it was too late.
Przemysł II was crowned king of Poland in 1295, but he had ceded Kraków and Lesser Poland to the powerful king of Bohemia, Wenceslaus II. Bohemia was in its golden era, and Wenceslaus’s position was strong. When Przemysł was murdered – probably by old enemies from Brandenburg, although some accused Łokietek – Wenceslaus II was ready to seize the Polish crown.
Łokietek waited. Slowly increasing in power, the little prince kept inheriting lands from dead relatives. Importantly, he didn’t plead loyalty to Wenceslaus, which resulted in his defeat and imprisonment. Eventually in 1300, the year Wenceslaus II officially took the crown, Łokietek escaped from Poland. He left his wife Jadwiga under the protection of a trusted merchant, pretending to be a common woman.
Some say Łokietek visited Rome to ask for the Pope’s support. If that’s true, he would have gone there around the same time Rome visited by another persistent and hard necked individual: William Wallace, the Scottish freedom fighter, who had fled there from Scotland, betrayed and defeated at the battle of Falkirk. I like to imagine that these men met, while waiting for an audience with the Pope. There is no proof of that of course, but I can just see them hanging around together, drinking and arguing about guerrilla tactics and capturing enemy forts, getting on like a house on fire. For sure, they would have had a lot to discuss.
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Giewont, seen from the south, a mountain associated with legends of sleeping knights, photo: Wikimedia Commons
Łokietek’s move against Wenceslaus II was supported by neighbouring Hungary. This was when the long-lasting friendship between these two nation started, when Łokietek’s daughter Elżbieta married the Hungarian king. With his small army, Łokietek was a constant irritation for the Bohemian forces. Most of the well-known folk legends about him come from this period.
One says he still lays asleep in the Tatra Mountains, hidden in a secret cave with his faithful knights. And, just like Charlemagne or Britain’s Arthur, he will wake up and arise when times are dire for Poland. The previously-mentioned spider legend has many versions too. In all these folk stories, Łokietek is often associated with underground shelters – perhaps because of his dwarfish looks?
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As with many legends, we shouldn’t arrogantly dismiss them as mere ‘myths’. In recent years, archaeologists examining caves in Ojców National Park confirmed that they had been used as bases and hideouts by soldiers from Łokietek’s era.
With the support of Hungarian troops, Łokietek captured the town of Wiślica in 1304. But guerrilla warfare wouldn’t end up giving him the crown. His luck would.
That year, Wenceslaus II died of tuberculosis. He was just 33 years old, so many suspected he had been poisoned. His son Wenceslaus III swiftly followed him, assassinated in 1306. It seemed that competing with Łokietek wasn’t good for any king’s longevity…
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In 1309, the Pomeranian city of Gdańsk was threatened by Germans from Brandenburg. Łokietek was busy fighting opponents in Greater Poland – the dukedom had rebelled because of atrocities and rapes committed by Łokietek’s soldiers. Desperate, he called the Teutonic Knights for help. That wasn’t a well thought-out decision. The forces of the Teutonic Order slaughtered the Slavic inhabitants of the city ruthlessly, starting the history of the German Danzig. Łokietek was too weak to oppose them, his country exhausted after decades of conflict
In 1311, Albert, the German vogt of Kraków, head of its civil administration, rebelled against Łokietek. The reasons for his rebellion were probably economical. Łokietek’s rule limited Kraków’s trade, since he was in conflict with the Teutonic Order who had captured Gdańsk and its seaport. As a result, being under Łokietek meant Kraków was cut out of international trade. The rebels were probably expecting the Bohemians to take the city. Later, they invited another Piast lord, one from Opole, to seize power. But Łokietek managed to bribe him and get him to yield. That was when he started repressions.
Łokietek’s vengeance on Kraków was bloody. He confiscated the estates of the rebel leaders from the city council before they were ‘dragged by horses through the city streets’. Their corpses were then hanged and left to rot until their limbs fell off at the joints. The leader of the rebellion, poor Albert, was betrayed and imprisoned by the retreating duke from Opole. Albert’s life was immortalised in a popular song about the sudden twists of Fortune and Fate.
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One infamous chronicle claims that when Łokietek’s soldiers entered Kraków, they asked people to pass a gruesome Polish test. They had to repeat the words ‘Soczewica, koło, miele, młyn’, meaning ‘lentil, wheel, he grinds, mill’. Seemingly, it was rather difficult for the Germans. If their articulation was wrong, they were immediately murdered where they stood. One can only wonder what happened to Poles with regional dialects? Or cants?
Some historians claim that Łokietek was a proto-nationalist who hated Germans with a passion, and this was essentially a massacre, even a pogrom. It was thought he held a grudge due to his earlier troubles with Kraków. According to others, this whole language test story is doubtful, as it comes from just one, less credible source. Importantly, it’s on record that German traders did still keep offices in Kraków long after the rebellion ended.
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Władysław Łokietek was finally crowned king in 1320. He was 60 years old, the oldest person ever to claim the Polish throne. In spite of this achievement, Łokietek’s last years were tragic and bitter. Gdańsk was now officially Danzig and Łokietek couldn’t bear it even though he lacked the means to regain the city. In 1331, the old king started a hopeless war against the Teutonic Order. He was 72 years old, far older than most people could even dream of living to back then. Even so, Łokietek personally commanded his war forces. Perhaps, he really was one of those sturdy grudge-holding dwarves that Tolkien’s novels like to depict so much.
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In the bloody Battle of Płowce, Łokietek attacked the rear guard of the larger Teutonic army. Thanks to this surprise, he managed to inflict serious casualties. Many Teutonic leaders and important knights were killed, and they lost their banner too. But later on, the remaining German forces entered the fray in two waves. In the later stage of battle, which lasted until nightfall, Łokietek forced his son Prince Kazimierz to hide. He knew that without a successor his life’s work would be lost.
According to legend, one Polish knight, Florian Szary (Florian the Grey), protected the king with his own body and was stabbed with three different lances.
After the battle, Łokietek politely asked Florian if his wounds hurt. Florian, holding own intestines in his hands, answered: ‘Yes, my king, but they hurt less than my evil neighbour’s do.’ As a reward, he was gifted with lands, and the word for ‘intestines’ – Jelita – became the new heraldic name of his family, along with three lances as part of its crest. Unsurprisingly, many noble families claim Florian was their ancestor, especially the Zamoyskis.
The battle was supremely bloody, with thousands of casualties on both sides, over a quarter of the participating soldiers. Both sides were killing rather than taking prisoners. Judging by sheer numbers, Łokietek won, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. Either way, the confrontation had a great psychological impact on Poles, increasing their confidence and sense of national unity. The Teutonic Order was one of the era’s super powers, while Łokietek’s Poland had been considered weak. Until now. Still, it was Poland who ended up losing lands in this war, including parts of Łokietek’s homeland, his first dukedom of Kujawy. That must have been rather painful for him.
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Władysław I Łokietek
Łokietek died two years later in 1333. His only son, Kazimierz III, became a successful monarch and has since overshadowed his father somehow. Kazimierz – or Casimir – is the only Polish king that holds the cognomen ‘the Great’. One might perhaps wonder whether he invented this modest nickname himself, as a way to distance himself from the dwarfish legacy of his father.
In my personal opinion, Łokietek deserved this epithet even more. His era was so much more demanding and cruel. In foreign politics, Łokietek was far tougher than his son, never giving an inch to the enemy. Meanwhile, Kazimierz preferred to parlay and negotiate. He excelled in diplomacy and public relations, increasing Poland’s status through ‘soft power’, not wars. But he lacked backbone sometimes. Instead of regaining Silesia from Bohemia – which Łokietek at least attempted – he picked easier targets in modern Ukraine. He ended up involving Poland in our tragic colonial adventure to the east.
Today Kazimierz is remembered because he founded the first Polish university, today one of the oldest in the world. He had plenty of mistresses, Esther being a particularly famous one, but sired no legitimate heir. He introduced good laws, helped Poland’s Jews, and he supported trade much better than his father. He brought prosperity and peace, when Łokietek’s era was just an endless war. He built important castles. According to a popular saying, Kazimierz found Poland wooden, and left it brick and stone.
But simply none of this, as I hope I've shown here, would have been possible without the struggles of Władysław I Łokietek, his troublesome, quarrelling and warring father.
Written by Wojciech Zembaty, March 2020
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