The History of the Royal Palace

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.

The History of the Royal Palace

The beginnings of the residence of Poland’s rulers on Wawel hill hark back to an early Romanesque stone building from mid-11th century, called the palatium, whose remains are located in the northern wing of the present-day castle.

Over time the residence on the hill was expanded eastwards. Together with the cathedral, it comprised the Upper Castle, while the Lower Castle encompassed the houses of the courtiers and clergy, as well as several churches.

In the 14th century the castle was considerably expanded by King Ladislaus I the Short (r. 1306–1333) and his son Casimir III the Great (r. 1333–1370), who built an imposing Gothic residence consisting of several buildings grouped around an irregular courtyard in the eastern part of the hill. During the reign of Ladislaus II Jagiello (r. 1386–1434), at the turn of the 14th century, a Gothic pavilion, called the Danish Tower, was added to the castle. No further changes were made to the complex until the fire of 1499.

Around 1504, King Alexander I (r. 1501–1506) commissioned the German architect Eberhard Rosenberger of Koblenz and the Italian sculptor and architect Francesco Fiorentino to rebuild the residence in the Renaissance style. Sigismund I the Old (r. 1506–1548) continued this enterprise from 1507. By the time of his death in 1516, Master Francesco, the author of the decorative stone bay window in the western wing, had erected the eastern wing of the castle and had begun the construction of the arcaded galleries. The work was continued by Master Benedict and then by the celebrated Bartholomeo Berrecci (the builder of the Sigismund Chapel at Wawel Cathedral). Following Berrecci’s death in 1537, Niccolò Castiglione and Matteo the Italian continued the work of building the royal residence. The interior decorations were created by sculptors and wood carvers including Sebastian Tauerbach and Hans the Wood-Carver, who built the wooden ceilings, and painters, who decorated the walls with friezes and painted royal portraits. The castle’s halls and chambers became even more resplendent when Sigismund II Augustus (r. 1548–1572) acquired a collection of magnificent Flemish tapestries.

The Renaissance palace with its beautiful arcaded courtyard has survived to the present day. With its impressive monumental layout, spacious, brightly lit interiors, and magnificent use of architectural forms derived from ancient art, which were employed here for the first time in Poland, the building represented a breakthrough in the development of Polish architecture. In the 16th century the castle was the primary site of the sessions of both the sejm (lower house of parliament) and senate (upper house).

After the fire of 1595, a part of the castle’s northern wing was rebuilt in the early Baroque style by Sigismund III Vasa (1587–1632) who employed two Italian artists, the architect Giovanni Trevano and the painter Tommaso Dolabella. From the time the royal court permanently relocated to Warsaw in about 1610, the Polish monarchs resided at Wawel only occasionally, for lavish weddings, coronations, and funerals. In 1702, another destructive fire consumed part of the castle. Although it was later restored, the castle never again attained its original splendor.

At the end of the 18th century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was partitioned by Austria, Prussia, and Russia, finally ceasing to exist as a state in 1796. The Austrians took over the castle and turned it into an army garrison. In the early 19th century, as part of the adaptation work, the arcaded galleries were bricked over. A lengthy restoration project was embarked upon after the Austrian army had quit the castle in 1911 and it had reverted to Polish control. The restoration lasted half a century and returned the castle nearly to its original condition. The restoration project was led by first the architect Zygmunt Hendel then by Adolf Szyszko-Bohusz, also an architect, who was in charge from 1916 until World War II. Resumed after the war, the restoration was overseen primarily by the architect and monuments conservator Alfred Majewski. The next major restoration project was carried out in the 1990s.

Wawel Royal Castle’s museum collection was initiated in 1882 with history painter Jan Matejko’s gift of his monumental canvas The Prussian Homage (now on deposit to the National Museum in Cracow). Over the years, the collection of the museum being developed in the castle chambers was cultivated through gifts, bequests, and purchases, as well as the restitution of looted works of art. The core collection – the Flemish tapestries of Sigismund II Augustus looted by Russia in the 18th century – was restituted after 1921 on the power of the Treaty of Riga. Shortly after the outbreak of World War II, the Poles succeeded in evacuating the most valuable objects, including the tapestries and the coronation sword “Szczerbiec,” to Canada from whence they returned in 1959–1961. With their return, four permanent exhibitions were installed and continue to be systematically enlarged through new acquisitions. In 1994, the Wawel museum received a significant collection of Italian Renaissance paintings from Karolina Lanckorońska.