Wawel Castle – the Residency of Polish Kings
Wawel Hill, where the Royal Castle and Cathedral are located, was the centre of secular and ecclesiastical power in Poland for centuries. In the year 1000 the Kraków bishopric was created, and soon after the first cathedral was erected on the hill.
The castle built on Wawel Hill served Poland’s rulers as residency from the second half of the 11th century to the beginning of the 17th century. Since the coronation of Władysław I the Elbow-high in 1320, all Polish kings except for Stanisław Leszczyński and Stanisław August Poniatowski were crowned in Wawel Castle.
The Gothic Royal Arch-cathedral Basilica of Saints Stanislaus and Wenceslaus, erected in the years 1320-1364, was the third successive temple to be built in the Hill. The archcathedral has three naves, three towers (Sigismund Tower, Clock Tower, and Silver Bell Tower), and is surrounded by several chapels that had been rebuilt during the subsequent centuries.
In the cathedral, by the sarcophagus of St. Stanislaus, also called ‘The Altar of the Homeland’ and considered a place that is sacred for every Pole, Polish kings would lay war trophies. King Władysław II Jagiełło hung the banners of the Teutonic Knights he triumphantly seized during the Battle of Grunwlad (1410), and John III Sobieski – the Turkish banner seized after the victorious Battle of Vienna (1683).
In the Cathedral and its crypts rest Polish saints, rulers, and the most eminent leaders and poets, including Władysław I the Elbow-high, Casimir III the Great, Władysław II Jagiełło, Casimir IV Jagiellon, Queen Jadwiga of Poland, Sigismund I the Old, Sigismund II Augustus, and Sigismund III Vasa. Except for the monarchs, Marshal Józef Piłsudski, general Władysław Sikorski, and president Lech Kaczyński together with his spouse are buried there. The bodies of the poets Adam Mickiewicz and Juliusz Słowacki, the national hero Tadeusz Kościuszko, and soil from the grave of Cyprian Kamil Norwid also rest in the crypts.
Wawel Cathedral was of vital importance to the initiator of World Youth Day, John Paul II. After his ordination, he officiated his first mass on 2nd November 1946 in St. Leonard’s Crypt. On 28th September 1958, the bishopric consecration of priest Karol Wojtyła (this was John Paul II’s birth name) took place in the presbytery of the Cathedral, and on July 9th 1967 – the ceremony of Wojtyła's promotion to the Sacred College of Cardinals. John Paul II visited the Wawel Cathedral every time he stayed in Kraków. He was there in the years 1979, 1983, 1987, 1991, 1997, 1999, and 2002.
Till this day, by the entrance to the sacristy there is a confessional where Karol Wojtyła went to confess on September 1st 1939, right after having received the information that World War II had broken out. On the square where the entrance to the Cathedral is located, there is a monument to John Paul II. During its consecration in 2008 the Archbishop of Kraków, Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, said that the monument of John Paul II will call for national unity.
Wawel Castle is one of the most impressive examples of Renaissance architecture in Europe. The construction contains Romanesque and Gothic fragments, but it gained its current shape in the first half of the 16th century, during the reign of Alexander Jagiellon and Sigismund I the Old. After the third partition of Poland in 1795, the castle was turned into barracks of the Austrian army and served this function also in the 19th century. The army left Wawel only in 1905. In 1930, a museum was established in the castle.
During World War II, the occupational authorities of the General Government had their headquarters in Wawel Castle. Hans Frank resided there. After liberation, the museum was restored almost immediately.
In the interiors of the Castle, visitors can admire painted friezes, wooden ceilings, and sculpted gates. In the Deputies Chamber the ceiling is decorated with wooden sculptures of human heads, sometimes called the ‘Wawel heads’. The castle also holds a rich collection of tapestries.
Wawel Hill is located 238 metres above sea level. It used to be surrounded by marshes and swamps. The first Polish kings, Bolesław I the Brave and Mieszko II Lambert, chose the castle built on the hill as their residency. From this time on, Wawel became the headquarters of Polish kings, up until the capital of Poland was moved to Warsaw in 1569. The walls that currently surround Wawel were erected after the medieval fortifications were demolished in the 19th century.
It’s possible to get to Wawel using the Royal Route which goes from Kraków Barbican via Floriańska Street, the Main Square and Grodzka Street. The walkways of Planty Park, surrounding the Old Town, also lead to the castle.
Wawel Royal Castle in Kraków
Lesser Poland Voivodeship
Phone: (+48 12) 422 51 55
Fax: (+48 12) 422 19 50
Sources: PAP, written by MŚ, March 2016, translated by NS, November 2016