The History of Wawel Hill

Wawel Hill is a Jurassic limestone outcropping that formed about 150 million years ago and which, at nearly 228 meters above sea level, is a dominant feature in the Cracow landscape.
Situated on the bank of the Vistula river and surrounded by its waters and marshes, the hill had provided a safe haven for people since the Paleolithic Period. From the 7th century A.D. onwards Slavic peoples inhabited the hill. Early medieval legends tell of a fearsome dragon that lived in a cave beneath Wawel Hill, of Prince Krak the dragon slayer, and of his daughter Wanda, who drowned herself in the Vistula rather than marry a German knight.

Towards the end of the first millennium, Wawel began to be a center of political power and by the 9th century it was the principal fortified settlement of the Vistulan tribe. The first historical ruler of Poland, Mieszko I (r. ca. 965–992) of the Piast dynasty chose Wawel Hill as one of his residences, as did his successors, Boleslaus the Brave (r. 992–1025) and Mieszko II (1025–1034). During that period, Wawel became one of the principal centers of Christianity in Poland. Wawel Hill was the site of the first early-Romanesque and Romanesque sacral buildings, among them a stone cathedral erected when the bishopric of Cracow was established in the year 1000.

During the reign of Casimir the Restorer (r. 1034–1058), Wawel became a significant political and administrative center for the Polish State. Casimir’s son, Boleslaus the Generous (r. 1058–1079) began the construction of a second Romanesque cathedral, which was finished by Boleslaus the Wrymouth (r. 1102–1138). In his last will of 1138, this ruler divided Poland into districts designating Cracow as the seat of the senior prince. In 1291, along with the city of Cracow, Wawel Hill briefly fell under Bohemian rule and Wenceslas II of the Premyslid dynasty was crowned king of Poland in Gniezno Cathedral.

In 1306, the Duke of Kuyavia Ladislaus the Short (r. 1306–1333) entered Wawel and was crowned King of Poland in Wawel Cathedral in 1320. His was the first historically recorded coronation of a Polish ruler on Wawel Hill. Ladislaus I the Short embarked on the construction of a Gothic cathedral, the third in a succession of churches built on the site. His reign also saw the expansion of the castle and the replacement of the old earth and wood ramparts with masonry fortifications. Ladislaus I was also the first king to be buried in Wawel Cathedral, establishing it as the necropolis of the rulers of Poland in Cracow. The last ruler of the Piast dynasty, King Casimir III the Great (r. 1333–1370) elevated Wawel to a state of unprecedented splendor. In 1364, the expanded Gothic castle witnessed the marriage of Casimir’s granddaughter Elizabeth to Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. The wedding was accompanied by a congress of kings and princes, who were subsequently entertained by the wealthy burgher Wierzynek.

The accession to the throne in 1385 of Jadwiga (r. 1384–1399) of the Hungarian branch of the House of Anjou and her marriage to Grand Duke Jogaila of Lithuania who converted to Christianity and was crowned Ladislaus II Jagiello (r. 1386–1434), ushered in another era of prosperity for Wawel. Alongside local and Western European artists, the royal court employed painters from Rus’. During the reign of Casimir IV the Jagiellonian (r. 1447–1492) the Wawel skyline was augmented by three high brick towers: the Thieves’ Tower, the Sandomierska Tower, and the Senators’ Tower. Poland’s first humanist scholars, the Polish historian Jan Długosz and the Italian poet and diplomat Filippo Buonaccorsi (called Callimachus) were active at court and were tutors to the king’s sons.

The Italian Renaissance arrived at Wawel in the early 16th century. King Alexander (r. 1501–1506) and his brother Sigismund I the Old (r. 1506–1548) commissioned the construction of a new palace in place of the Gothic residence. The new building with a large, imposing courtyard with arcaded galleries was completed in about 1540. Sigismund I’s patronage also left an indelible mark in the cathedral, where a family chapel designed by the Florentine architect Bartolommeo Berrecci was erected (known today as the Sigismund Chapel) and through various foundations, one of which was a large bell, called the Sigismund Bell after the king. The already close artistic and cultural ties to Italy were reinforced in 1518 by Sigismund I’s marriage to Princess Bona of the Milanese House of Sforza. Alongside Italian artists, German architects, wood workers, painters, and metal smiths worked for the king. The last scion of the Jagiellon dynasty, Sigismund II Augustus (r. 1548–1572), endowed the castle’s interiors with a magnificent collection of tapestries woven in Brussels. During the “Golden Age” of Polish culture, Wawel became one of the leading centers of humanism in Europe.

The reign of Sigismund III Vasa (1587–1632) was also a significant period in Wawel’s history. After a fire in the castle in 1595, the king had the wing rebuilt in the early Baroque style. He also moved the royal court to Warsaw, which brought about the slow, but nevertheless steady, decline of Wawel Castle. The monarchs visited Cracow only occasionally. Restorations of the castle were undertaken during the reigns of John III Sobieski, the Wettin kings, and Stanislaus Augustus.

When Poland lost its independence in 1795, the troops of the three nations – Russia, Prussia, and Austria – that partitioned the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth successively occupied Wawel. When the Austrians took possession, they converted the castle and a few other secular buildings into a military hospital, but demolished others, including several churches. Following the period of the Free City of Cracow (1815–1846), Wawel was once again held by the Austrian army and transformed into a military fortress dominating the city. In an effort to extricate Wawel from the grip of the army, in 1880 the regional assembly of Galicia passed a resolution to turn the castle over to Emperor Franz Josef I as an imperial residence, thus restoring it to its former function. Austrian troops finally left the hill between 1905 and 1911. In the early 20th century, the cathedral underwent a thorough restoration, and shortly afterwards the decades-long process of restoring the royal castle was initiated.

When Poland regained its independence in 1918, the castle served as an official residence of the Head of State and as a museum of historic interiors. During World War II Hans Frank, the governor general of Nazi German-occupied Poland, made the castle his residence. After the war, three institutions shared stewardship of Wawel Hill: the State Art Collection at Wawel (since 1994 the Wawel Royal Castle – State Art Collection), the Board for the Restoration of Wawel Castle (which existed until 1985), and the Metropolitan Basilica Board on Wawel Hill.