The history of the Polish royal regalia is a tale of lost treasures. The most valuable of them were stolen at the end of the 18th century and then destroyed, which later gave rise to many myths about their alleged location.
In 1794, the Kosciuszko uprising broke out on the territory of Poland – an armed uprising against Russia and Prussia, which in 1772 and 1793 together with Austria carried out the first and second partitions of Poland. The uprising ended in the defeat of the Poles. As a result, Krakow was under Prussian occupation, and in 1796 it was handed over to the Austrians.
In 1795, King Frederick Wilhelm II of Prussia, probably motivated by material considerations, persuaded his associates, General Leopold von Roits and Krakow Governor Ludwig van Hoym, to steal the Polish royal regalia kept in this city. Regalia are (usually very expensive) symbolic insignia of monarchical power, in particular crowns and sceptres, which are used during official ceremonies, including coronations.
The Polish royal regalia were kept in the Royal Treasury in the dungeons of the Wawel Castle behind six heavy doors. On the night of October 3, the Prussians tried to enter the treasury, but could not break the first, strongest door.
As a result, in order to get inside, the robbers had to move the stone threshold. Having squeezed through the gap, they opened the door from the other side. The next doors did not cause as many problems, and when they reached the treasury, the Prussians carried out 19 chests filled with precious items. First, the chests were taken to van Hoim’s house, and then transported through Wroclaw to Berlin.
In the plundered treasury, only inventory records and two swords, presented to the Polish king Vladislav Jagiello by the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order Ulrich von Jungingen, were left before the Battle of Grunwald in 1410. In the Battle of Grunwald, the Polish-Lithuanian troops defeated the Order, and subsequently two so-called “Grunwald swords” were used during the coronation of Polish kings. They were carried in front of the monarch ascending the throne as a symbol of the Polish-Lithuanian union state. The Prussians did not take swords because of their usual appearance, which did not imply high cost.
Unfortunately, later the Grunwald swords were still lost. They were handed over to a priest in Wlostowice for safekeeping, but then in 1853 they were discovered by a Prussian policeman. The foreign official did not realize that these were historical artifacts and confiscated the swords as illegal weapons. After they were taken to the city of Zamoć, the swords disappeared.
From the Wawel Castle, the Prussians took the most valuable Polish royal regalia. Thanks to the preserved inventory, we know which ones. The most valuable of all stolen items belonged to the Crown of the Brave – the Polish coronation crown, which was first used in 1320 by Vladislav II Lokotok. Since then, it has been used in almost all Polish coronations, including the last one – the coronation of Stanislaw August Poniatowski in 1764.
It is noteworthy that the Crown of the Brave never belonged to the monarch in whose honor it was named – the first king of Poland, Boleslav I the Brave (967-1025). His original crown was transported to Germany after the end of the reign of his son Mieszko II Lambert, and later it was lost. Vladislav Lokotok ordered the Crown of the Brave to be made for his own coronation. It was he who gave her a name that testified to the continuity of power between him and the first Polish king.
The Prussians also stole other important regalia. The Queen’s Crown, which Vladislav II Lokotok ordered for his wife Jadwiga Boleslavovna and which was subsequently worn by other Polish queens (it was also a Gothic crown made of pure gold, decorated with precious stones). The crown of Ommaj, which was worn by Polish monarchs when other rulers swore allegiance to them (the rite of homage), made of pure gold and decorated with precious stones. Hungarian crown, which was used during the coronation of the Hungarian-born Stephen Batory in 1576. The Renaissance Swedish crown, which was donated to the Royal Treasury by the Polish King Jan II Casimir of the Swedish Vasa dynasty. There were also four royal scepters, including the golden coronation scepter of Stanislav August Poniatowski, adorned with diamonds, emeralds and rubies. Also, five royal powers, two reliquaries and two ceremonial swords were taken out, including the famous coronation sword Shcherbets (more on that later).
The regalia stolen by the Prussians were kept in Berlin until 1809, when King Frederick Wilhelm III, experiencing financial difficulties, decided to melt them into coins. The shocking destruction of the symbols of the Polish monarchy took place in the city of Königsberg (present-day Kaliningrad) under the control of a Prussian minister by the name of von Altenstein. These facts are confirmed in the official Prussian correspondence of the 1830s. In 1811, gold and silver obtained by melting jewelry was used to cast coins, and precious stones were put up for sale. This was the end of the main Polish royal regalia.
Despite the fact that the destruction of the Polish royal regalia is confirmed by documents and recognized by experts, many refuse to believe that it actually happened. Many myths are known that offer an alternative, fictional version of events, as a result of which the regalia allegedly disappeared. One of the main sources of such myths is a brochure entitled “Kraków w Roku 1794” (“Krakow in 1794”), published in 1894 by the priest Wenceslas Nowakowski:
Prelate Wenceslas Serakowski, who loved Poland dearly […] persuaded his brother, Canon Sebastian, the caretaker, to take the royal regalia from the Royal Treasury and send them on April 25, 1794 through Father Cajetan from the Capuchin Order to Bishop Ceciszowski for safekeeping in the Dominican monastery in Podkamen.
According to Novakovsky, the regalia were later transported to the city of Wlodzimierz (Volodymyr-Volynsky in the territory of modern Ukraine) and hidden in the local Capuchin monastery. This myth was so ingrained that in 1920 the Polish authorities sent a special expedition to the monastery to find the regalia. As you might expect, no treasure was found.
According to another version of the myth, the regalia at some point were taken from the monastery in Vladimir-Volynsky and hidden in the cemetery in the village of Vitashitsa. In 1966, the local cemetery was thoroughly examined, but no traces of treasures were found.
According to another myth, the already mentioned royal caretaker Sebastian Serakovsky did not transfer his regalia to anyone, but left them with himself. The palace in Waplevo-Wielka, which previously belonged to the Serakovsky family, was also searched, but they were not found here either.
Adam Ozhechowski, an antique dealer from Nowy Sacz, is one of those who believe that Polish patriots somehow saved the royal regalia. He hopes that one day the regalia will be found, but despite this, in the early 2000s, together with a group of enthusiasts, he created an exact copy of the Crown of the Brave.
Before embarking on this grand vision, he did a thorough research. Ozhekhovsky studied the detailed descriptions of the crown contained in the inventories from the Royal Treasury and compared paintings and drawings to the depiction of the subject. After consulting with an expert on Polish royal regalia, Professor Michal Rozhek, Ozhechowski decided to focus on the works of the artist Krzysztof Jozef Werner.
Werner depicted the Brave’s crown in drawings and a painting from 1764, representing King Stanislaw August Poniatowski in his coronation attire. It is believed that Werner’s image of the crown is more consistent with the original, Gothic shape of the object than the image that can be seen in the portrait of Boleslav the Brave Pen by Marcello Bacciarelli, created between 1768 and 1771. The two paintings mentioned are the only canvases on which you can see the Crown of the Brave.
To create a copy of the crown, Ozhechowski used, among other things, gold obtained from Prussian coins of 1811. Thus, the copy could contain gold from the original crown. However, due to financial constraints, the rubies in the replica crown are artificial. However, it is encrusted with 88 real emeralds, sapphires and garnets, as well as 80 pearls. It is noteworthy that the jewelers and stone polishers who worked on the copy used the artisan methods of the period when the original objects were created.
“The recreated crown,” says Adam Ozhekhovsky, “is an accurate reconstruction, the smallest details are done correctly, even the smallest stones had to match the original.
With the same scrupulousness, Ozhekhovsky recreated one of the sceptres and one of the powers stolen by the Prussians. His incredible copies of the Polish royal regalia have been exhibited in museums such as the District Museum in Nowy Sacz and the National Museum in Gdańsk.
Symbols of Poland’s independence
Fortunately, in addition to the copies of Ozhechowski, several original royal regalia have survived in Poland, which were not stolen or destroyed. Among them is the already mentioned coronation sword Scherbets, the only item not exported by the Prussians in 1795.
This sword of the 13th century originally belonged to Prince Boleslav II of Mazovia. He had a notch made on the blade so that it could become a replacement for the famous sword of Boleslav the Brave with a notch, which disappeared around 1310. It is believed that the notch (chisel, hence the name of the sword) on the Brave’s sword appeared after the campaign against Kiev in 1018, when Boleslav the Brave brandished his weapon at the Golden Gate. Even before its loss, the sword of the Brave had become an important Polish coronation regalia. Vladislav I Lokotok replaced him for his coronation with the weapon of the Mazovian prince.
After the robbery of the Royal Treasury, Shcherbets came into the possession of the Russian aristocrat Dmitry Lobanov-Rostovsky – under unknown circumstances, but most likely in the early 1800s. In 1884, the sword became part of the collection of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. From there, as a result of an exchange in 1924, the weapons were returned to the Royal Treasury. Before the outbreak of World War II, along with other important items from the treasury, the sword was evacuated to Canada, where it awaited the end of the conflict. Today the sword is on display at the Wawel Royal Castle.
Another important royal regalia associated with Boleslaw the Brave is the Spear of St. Mauritius – the oldest symbol of the Polish monarchy. The spear was presented to Boleslav the Brave by the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III in 1000 in Gniezno as a symbol of the growing power of the Polish ruler. According to legend, a nail from the Cross of the Lord is inserted into the spear. Today the regalia is kept in the Wawel Cathedral. True, it should be added that actually Boleslav the Brave received as a gift a copy of the original spear of St. Maurice, which can be seen in Vienna.
The National Museum of Warsaw houses the coronation insignia of the Polish King August III of Saxon. His royal regalia were created to replace the original, which at the time of his coronation in 1734 were inaccessible: the crown of the Brave and the regalia associated with it were stolen and hidden by the supporters of Stanislav Leszczynski, a rival of August III in the struggle for the Polish throne. The original regalia did not return to the Royal Treasury until a few years later. Regalia of Augustus III – the only surviving royal insignia (besides the sword Scherbets), which were used during the coronations of the Polish monarch.
An interesting story is connected with one of the minor Polish regalia – Casimir the Great’s helmet crown. It was accidentally discovered in April 1910 by Ignacy Strugatsky, a gardener who was digging something in the garden of the Church of St. Michael in the city of Sandomierz. The find turned out to be an archaeological sensation.
The item was initially thought to be a medieval homage crown of unknown origin. But after World War I, it was found that the crown bears a strong resemblance to the funeral crown of the Polish king Casimir the Great and was most likely created during his lifetime (1310-1370). This led art critics to believe that the object discovered by Strugatsky served Casimir the Great as a helmet crown, that is, a crown that the monarch attached to his helmet during his campaigns. The king could have presented it to the Cathedral in Sandomierz, from where it came to the Church of St. Michael. Today, the found crown is kept in the museum of the Wawel Cathedral.
The already mentioned funeral crown of Casimir the Great is one of several Polish funeral regalia that have survived to this day. She is in the tomb of the monarch in the Wawel Cathedral and cannot be seen. However, after a scientific examination of the grave at the end of the 19th century, an exact copy of the crown was made. Today it is on display in the cathedral. In addition, the exposition of the cathedral museum presents the original funeral regalia (scepter and orb) of the Polish queen Jadwiga, who lived in the 14th century and was awarded the status of a Catholic saint.
A well-preserved royal scepter and orb, made of gilded wood, were discovered […] in the tomb of Jadwiga. Insignia Jadwigi were made in Krakow, most likely in a hurry, after her death on July 17, 1399, but before her funeral two days later. They repeated the shape of the regalia that were used in the Polish royal court in the 14th century.
In a country that has lost most of its main royal regalia, funeral regalia and their copies play an important role as genuine artifacts of Polish monarchical history.
In 2017, Casimir the Great’s funeral crown was the inspiration for the comedy film Volta, directed by Juliusz Machulski. According to the plot, the crown disappears in ancient times and resurfaces in Poland in the XXI century, causing a serious commotion. The fact that Casimir the Great’s regalia has become the focus of a popular contemporary film proves that Polish royal regalia, despite its considerable age, still conceal many mysteries.