A royal affair: the inside story behind Poland’s crown jewels
With the world’s eyes focused on London this weekend for the coronation of Charles III, the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom will be front and centre with much commentary about the divine mystery of the orb, sceptre and regal crown.
For any country with a long history of monarchy, its crown jewels are among its most treasured relics and as such they are carefully guarded and emerge only rarely for the public to gaze over them.
However, anyone wishing to see the Poland’s own crown jewels will be left sorely disappointed. This is because Poland’s crowns were looted and destroyed by the Prussians shortly after Poland ceased to exist in 1795.
“I open [the chest], none of the king's insignia: neither crown, nor sceptre, nor orbs do I find,” exclaimed the custodian of the jewels, Sebastian Sierakowski.
Later, in 1811, the Prussians melted the Polish crowns into coins at the behest of the Prussian ruler Frederick Wilhelm III, who sold the precious stones.
In fact, Poland is one of only a very small number of states with a long history of statehood and monarchy to have irrevocably lost its coronation insignia.
The history of these precious objects goes back as far as the year 1000, when Holy Roman Emperor Otto III at the historic Congress of Gniezno placed his own crown on the head of Bolesław the Brave whilst stating he should be crowned king of the Polish lands. This became official 25-years later when Bolesław became the first king of Poland.
However, what was kept in the crown treasury over the centuries and known as the Crown of Bolesław the Brave was actually the crown made for Władysław the Elbow-high, who was crowned in 1320.
Of the items then offered to Bolesław by Otto III, only the spearhead of St. Maurice’s Spear has survived, which has been kept in the Wawel Cathedral Treasury since the 12th century.
Another crown jewel was made for the coronation of Boleslaw the Bold. The insignia of royal power waited for nearly 200-years for the next monarch in Wawel Cathedral. These insignia were crowned in Gniezno: Przemysł II in 1295 and Wenceslas III in 1300.
After the coronation, Wenceslas took the insignia to Prague, where all word of them disappeared forever.
New insignia were made for the coronation of Władysław the Elbow-high. All subsequent kings up to Stanislaw August Poniatowski were also crowned with them.
When the Prussians took control of Wawel Hill in 1794 just before the third and final partition of Poland, they were keen to get their hands on the regalia that had been collected over 800 years, but their exact location in the castle eluded them.
Eventually, a certain Wawel employee named Zubrzycki came forward and offered to reveal the location of the regalia in exchange for a cushy job and a large apartment.
Zubrzycki revealed that the treasury was located on the first floor, in the northeast corner of the castle, in a tower known as the Chicken Foot and in the neighbouring Danish Tower.
On the night of October 3rd, 1795, three weeks before the signing of the treaty enacting the third partition – which brought an end to the existence of the Polish state – a group of Prussian soldiers broke into the crown treasury.
This was just the beginning, though. Access to the regalia was guarded by six iron doors equipped with powerful locks. Previously, the keys had been kept by six senators – the castellans of Krakow, Vilnius, Poznań, Sandomierz, Kalisz and Troki – and the doors could only be opened by an act of parliament.
The last time this happened was in April 1792, when an inventory of the treasury was conducted in conjunction with an exhibition of jewels at Wawel Castle. Since then, no one had opened it.
The treasures themselves were locked in two huge iron chests, which held a total of nineteen caskets who in turn were protected by double locks and seven padlocks.
The most valuable items, the coronation jewels of Polish kings and queens, were additionally sealed in a separate container featuring with three locks.
The Prussians sawed off the hinges of the largest chests and carried the rest out without opening them. The treasures were then taken via Breslau to Berlin, where they lay for over ten years.
Polish appeals to regain them were made to Napoleon, who had defeated the Prussians, but fell on deaf ears.
Tsars Alexander I and Nicholas I also tried to get hold of the crown of Bolesłąw the Brave so they could wear it during their own coronations as Kings of Poland.
What they did not realise was that the Prussians had already destroyed the regalia.
With his coffers almost empty, Frederick Wilhelm III had ordered the jewels to be melted. The gold obtained was turned into mint coins in 1811 and the jewels were sold.
The most precious of the crown jewels, the Szczerbiec sword, was also taken by the Prussians. In circumstances that remain unexplained to this day, it found its way to the Russian aristocrat Dmitry Lobanov-Rostovsky, and in 1928 it returned under the Treaty of Riga to Wawel Castle, where it can be seen today.