Gniezno was the first capital city of the region called Polan. According to popular legend, Lech and
his two brothers, Rus and Cech were hunting one day when they separated in different directions.
Lech accidentally came across an eagle's nest and was awestruck by the sight of the great raptor
spreading its massive wings as she tried to protect her eaglets. The stunning contrast of the white eagle
against the red of the evening sky inspired Lech, that he established a settlement in that area which he
named Gniezno (in Polish it means "nest"). Since then the image of the eagle has been part of the Gniezno
coat-of-arms and the white and red colors of the Polish flags.
The town of Gniezno was built around 940 AD on Lech Hill (which was also called Royal Hill). It is located in
the central-western region of Poland approximately 50 kilometers east from Poznan. Gniezno became an
important pagan cult center. The early Polish tribes were polytheistic pagans, that is, they worshipped a
pantheon of gods and goddesses, such as Perun, god of thunder and lightning (akin to that of Jupiter and
Zeus of Roman and Greek mythology); Triglav, the three-headed god; Marzanna, goddess of the death and
rebirth of nature; and Kapala, goddess of fertility, among many others.
Jan Dlugosz, a Polish priest who lived in 14th century Poland, wrote about the pagans in a detailed chronicle
entitled, " Annales seu cronicae incliti Regni Poloniae" (Annals or Chronicles of the Famous Polish
Kingdom) written circa 1495. The following are excerpts taken from the pages of his manuscript.
“This too is known about the Poles that from the beginning of
their people they were idolaters and believed and honored gods
and goddesses, namely Jupiter, Mars, Venus [Greek Aphrodite],
Pluto, Diana [Greek Artemis] and Ceres [Greek Demeter], having
fallen into the errors of other nations and tribes. Jupiter they
called in their language Jessa, believing that from him, as the
highest of the Gods, they receive all the earthly blessings and
all occurrences the unfortunate ones but so also the
serendipitous. To him, therefore, more than to the other Gods
did they give the greatest praise and the most frequent offerings...."
"Thus it was that for these Gods and Goddesses the Poles
built temples and statues, ordained priests, dedicated sacred
groves in appropriate and beautiful places so as to honor
these [Gods and Goddesses] and bow before them. There men
and women came together with children and gave sacrifices and
burned domestic flocks and cattle and other animals, and on
occasion people prisoners from battle. They also had a
superstitious rite of making offerings to placate their native
Gods and, on certain days and times of year they had great
festivals, for which people of both sexes were called to towns
from villages. These festivals they celebrated with debauched
singing and dancing, sometimes clapping, lewd twisting and
other debauchery in songs, games and salacious deeds...."
The first ruler of the Polans was Mieszko I, son of Siemomysl (960 - 992 AD) (The Polans were descendants
of the West Slavic tribe which inhabited the area of Greater Poland circa 8th century. In the 9th century, the
Polans united several Slavic tribes, which led to the creation of the Piast dynasty, from which the Kingdom of
Poland came into being. The Piast dynasty was founded by a succession of Polish dukes whose lineage
was chronicled in the Gallus Anonymus, a comprehensive list compiled in Latin in 1115. The title of this
document was Gesta principum Polonorum (Deeds of the Princes of the Poles), and is considered to be one
of the oldest historical documents on Poland. The document, divided into three books, recorded details
of the life of Duke Bolesław III Wrymouth, his ancestors, and his reign over the principalities of Lesser Poland,
Silesia, and Sandomierz. It also traced the life of Boleslaw, and the stories of wars waged by Boleslaw and
the Poles against the Pomeranians, the German Emperor, the Bohemians, and the Baltic Prussians.
Mieszko I was part of the Piast dynasty and was credited with having established the Polish state, and
expanded its territory through numerous military conquests, and alliances. Gniezno was one of the
fortresses under his command; the others were located at Giecz, Kruszwica, Poznań, Kalisz, Łęczyca,
Ostrów Lednicki,. These fortresses, or gords, were built in many different designs, and sizes, and ranged
from small to that of massive proportions, some covering an area of 25 hectares (61 acres). They were
typically constructed near lakes, riverbanks, and hills. They also included ditches, walls, palisades and
embankments, as a means for defense from invading marauders.
|Ancient Gord of Giecz, Piast Dynasty
(copyright of photo) Author: Jan Jerszynski
|Artists conception of what Gniezno fortress might have looked liked
|Mieszko I - ruler of Polan
|Gesta principum Polonorum
In 965 AD, Mieszko I married the Czech princess Dobrawa, and a year later he was baptised into the Christian
faith. With this conversion, Gniezno became an important religious and cultural center. But most importantly,
Polan joined the nations of the western Latin Rite states, that is, Roman Catholic states. It was expected to
provide some degree of political protection from (and deter) neighboring Catholic countries from invading Poland
for the purpose of Catholicization of its people. The assumption was that by becoming a Roman Catholic state,
Poland would ensure its right to equal and just treatment just as other Catholic states.
Mieszko I rebuilt the temple in Gniezno, structuring it on a cruciform plan, and re-designed the existing
nave oratory. Though the exact date is unknown, it is thought to have been rebuilt near the end of the 10th
century - in 977 his wife Duchess Dabrowka passed away, and Mieszko buried her in the cathedral. Her
remains were placed in a simple stone sarcophagus, marked with the sign of the cross.
Mieszko's son, Prince Boleslaw I the Brave rebuilt the temple in a rectangular plan, and eventually developed
it to the rank of a cathedral. The Royal Gniezno Cathedral is also called The Cathedral Basilica of the
Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Adalbert. The magnificent structure has survived over
1,000 years and is today the oldest and most sacred church in Poland.
|Medieval Plan of
Churches were erected at many key towns such as Gniezno, Poznan, Ostrow, Lednicki, and others. But
most importantly, the rise of Christianity affirmed the political integrity of the Polish nation, that is, its national
identity, and political independence. However, the process of converting the towns people to Christianity was
indeed a long and arduous process, and was not accomplished during Mieszko's lifetime. (Recall that
Mieszko was a pagan when he married Dobrawa.) Needless to say, he had to deal with many power conflicts
from the former pagan leaders. According to historical accounts, there were numerous uprisings since the
baptism of Mieszko I. The peasants were opposed to the spread of Christianity as much as they rebelled
against the landowners and feudal lords. These uprisings occurred in 1034, 1037, 1038, and 1039. The
cumulative effects of these uprisings, and invasions were devastating and destabilizing to the town of
Gniezno, and to Greater Poland. Apparently there was no ruler in Poland from 1034 to 1040. Historians
referred to this period as one of "dynastic struggle"
Regardless of Mieszko's efforts to transform Polan, these pagan beliefs and customs continued and thrived
well into the 16th century. Miesko I died on 25 May 992 (and was succeeded by his son Boleslaw I the Brave
who, in 1025, became the first crowned King of Poland.
On March 11, 1000 AD, the Congress of Gniezno convened, at which Boleslaw I the Brave, Duke of
Poland amicably received the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III. It was to commemorate the establishment
of a Polish ecclesiastical province in Gniezno, and that of newly established bishoprics in Kolobrzeg for
Pomerania; Wroclaw for Silesia; Krakow for Lesser Poland, and for Poznnan for western Greater Poland..
This confirmed Gniezno as the ecclesiastical center of Poland.
Otto III bestowed Boleslaw I with the supreme titles of "frater et cooperator Imperii" (Brother and Partner
of the Empire) and "populi Romani amicus et socius" (Friend and ally of Rome.) Otto III presented
Boleslaw I with a replica of his Holy Lance (the Holy Lance was part of the Imperial Regalia) and in return
Bolesław presented the Emperor with a sacred relic, an arm of Saint Adalbert. Their religious and political
alliance was officially forged with their agreement that Boleslaw I son, Mieszko II Lambert was betrothed to the
Emperor's niece Richeza of Lotharingia.
|Painting of Coronation of Boleslaw I The Brave - artist: Jan Matejk
Leaf from Catalogue of Archbishops of Gniezno
c. 1530 - artist: Stanislaw Samostrzelnik
Otto III visited the Gniezno Cathedral to pray before the Blessed Saint Adalbert, where the martyred
remains had been laid to rest in a silver coffin. Saint Adalbert was the Catholic bishop of Prague, and
canonized two years later. Historical records indicate that King Boleslaw I paid for the return of Adalberts
remains, with its weight in gold. The Cathedral is famous for its bronze double-doors dated from 1175, upon
which the life and death of Saint Adalbert was depicted in each of Its eighteen panels in bas-relief. They
were made during the reign of Mieszko III the Old.
Several Royal coronations took place at the Gniezno Cathedral: on April 18, 1025 for Boleslaw I the Brave;
on December 25, 2015 for Mieszko II Lambert (and his wife Richensa of Lotharingia); on December
25, 1076 for Boleslaw II the Bold (and his wife Wyszesława of Kiev); on June 26, 1295 for Przemysł II
(and his wife Margaret of Brandenburgia); and finally in 1300 for Wenceslaus II of Bohemia
|Silver coffin of Saint Adalbert
|Saint Adalbert on the Seal of the Chapter of Gniezno Cathedral
In 1038 the cities Gniezno and Poznan were invaded, plundered and utterly destroyed by the Bohemian
Duke Bretislav I. Consequently, the Polish rulers decided to relocate the Polish capital to Krakow. The
cathedral was reconstructed by the next ruler, Boleslaw II the Generous, crowned king in 1076.
In the centuries that followed, Gniezno gradually became the regional center of the eastern part of Greater
Poland. Through an edict of the Duke Wladyslaw Odonic in 1238, Gniezno was granted municipal autonomy
and was once again the site of coronations in 1295 and 1300.
Gniezno was invaded and destroyed by the Teutonic Knights during the Polish-Teutonic War in the period
from 1326 to 1332. The town was destroyed by fires in 1515, and again in 1613. Then during the 17th and
18th centuries, Gniezno was completely destroyed by Swedish invaders, and by the plague in 1708 to 1710.
Despite the ravages of war and epidemics, the city was revived during the 18th century. And in 1768
the Gniezno Voivodeship was instituted.
According to historical documents dated 1507, Gniezno had one of the largest Jewish communities in the
region of Greater Poland By 1565, Jewish citizens lived in 27 of the houses in town, and in 1582 a
synagogue was built. The Jews were active members of both Christian and Jewish guilds specializing in
crafts and commerce. The annual Gniezno fair held in April attracted many visitors, including Jewish
merchants,who were particularly interested in its horses.
In a series of three partitions (in 1771, 1793, and 1795), the powers of Prussia, Russia and Austria
invaded the nascent Polish Nation. In the Second Partition of Poland, the Kingdom of Prussia annexed
Gniezno, making it a part of the province of South Prussia and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was
In the Kosciuszko Uprising that ensued, General Jan Henryk Dabrowski led the Polish Army to Gniezno on
August 22 1794, and defeated the Prussians north of the town on September 29, 1794. But on December 7,
1794, the Prussians retook Gniezno.
Another Uprising occurred against the Prussian occupation, during the Napoleonic Wars. Under the
command of General Jan Henryk Dabrowski, the French Army entered Gniezno in November 1806 and
rallied all the towns and cities for recruits for the Polish forces. Initially there were 60 recruits from Gniezno
who fought in the battles of 1806-07. When Russia defeated Napoleon in 1812, Gniezno was occupied by
the Russian army which handed control back to Prussia in the 1815 Congress of Vienna. Gniezno was ruled
by Kreis Gnesen, a county situated in the Grand Duchy of Posen, Prussia. ( note: Gnesen, and Posen were
the German names given to the towns of Gniezno and Poznan.)
Jan Henryk Dabrowski was a Polish national hero, and hero of the Kosciuszko Uprising. He fought for
Poland's freedom and independence, was the founder of the Polish Legions in Italy and participated in the
Greater Poland Uprising of 1806. Among his major battles, he also participated in the French invasion of
Russia until 1813, when Napoleon was defeated. After the war, Dabrowski accepted a senatorial position in
the Russian-backed Congress of Poland.
Dabrowski is praised in the Polish national anthem entitled "Poland Is Not Yet Lost". It was written between
July 16 and 19, 1797 by Jozef Wybicki in Reggio Emilia, in Northern Italy. The anthem was intended to
raise the morale of the soldiers in Dabrowski's Polish Legions. Essentially, the lyrics profess that as long as
the Polish people live and fight, Poland has not disappeared.
|General Jan Henryk Dabrowski
After the Greater Polish Uprising in 1918-1919, and the Treaty of Versailles, Gniezno became part of the
Second Polish Republic. After 123 years of oblivion, Poland regained its sovereignty and independence.
But the citizens of the new Polish state soon had to arm themselves to fight the Bolsheviks during the
Polish-Soviet War (1919-1921).
The war ended with a decisive Polish victory in the Battle of Warsaw. Marshal Pilsudski's troops
counter-attacked and decimated the Red Army in what historians would refer to as "Miracle on the
Vistula" The Russians were utterly humiliated in this defeat. Polish armies gained several more military
victories against the invaders, until the Treaty of Riga (or Peace of Riga) was signed on March 18, 1921.
This put an end to the Polish-Soviet War, that is, until the start of the World War Two.
|Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, Stanlislaw Wojciechowski
and Jozef Dowbor-Musnicki - Gniezno 1919
World War Two boke out on September 1, 1939 when German troops invaded Poland. On the 11th
day the invaders occupied Gniezno, and on October 26, 1939 annexed the town into Nazi Germany.
On the 17th day of September 1939, the Russian Red Army invaded Poland from the east. The two-
pronged attack against Poland had been planned according to a secret Soviet-German agreement,
called the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. This was the Fourth Partition of Poland.
On January 21, 1945, the Soviet Red Army (so-called) "liberated" Poland from the Nazis,
|GNIEZNO: CRADLE OF POLAND
|Otto III Holy Roman Emperor
Gniezno was at the heart of Poland's Christianization in the Middle Ages, as well as the
foundation of the Polish State. Pope John Paul II, in his first visit to Gniezno on June 3, 1979
uttered these words,
"Let Your Spirit descend, and renew the face of the earth; of this land!”
He visited the famous Gniezno Cathedral and commemorated the martyred remains of Saint
In his address to the faithful the Pontiff appealed to their spirit, and reminded them of the
Baptism of Poland 1000 years ago, and the early history of Gniezno. He urged his fellow Poles
to remember to look back to the past, but not to forget to move forward towards the future.
Faith, not fate, changed the course of Poland towards freedom and independence. It could not
have happened without the intervention of Blessed Mary's most beloved messenger,
Pope John Paul II visited Gniezno a second time, in May 1997, as well as countless Polish cities,
and town throughout his papacy. He is truly missed. May his soul rest in eternal peace.
Pope John Paul II, a Slav, a son of the Polish nation, feels how deeply fixed in the ground of
history are the roots of his origin, how many centuries stand behind the word of the Holy
Spirit proclaimed by him from Saint Peter's Vatican Hill, and here at Gniezno, from the hill of
Lech, and at Krakow, from the heights of Wawel.
(excerpt from the Homily of Pope John Paul II, June 3,1979 )