Was ancient ‘Royal Curse’ behind mysterious deaths of researchers who uncovered long lost chamber of kings?
When flooding engulfed the crypt of the cathedral in Vilnius seventy years ago this month, Polish researchers working at the site scrambled to save the precious building.
However, what they discovered when they drilled their way into a secret underground chamber exceeded their wildest imaginations.
When their lamplights picked out a skull with a royal crown, they realised they had found a lost chamber of Polish kings and queens thought to have been lost to the ravages of history.
The discovery of the remains of fifteenth-century King Aleksander Jagiellończyk, and the queens of Zygmunt August, Elizabeth Habsburg and Barbara Radziwiłłówna, as well as the earlier discovery behind an altar of pewter containers holding the heart and innards of seventeenth-century Władysław IV were met with wild celebrations and dubbed the find of the century.
The joy of the sensational discovery soon turned to tragedy when many of those involved died in mysterious synchronicity, leading to speculation that a royal curse had been triggered.
On the night of 25 April 1931, the Villa River in Vilnius broke its banks disastrously after swelling by over eight metres. The water reached as far as the cathedral, flooding most of the square and, despite sandbags spread around the cathedral, it gushed into the crypts.
In the first days of May, the water began to recede and a team was set up to rescue the cathedral led by Professor Juliusz Kłos.
The first discovery was of two pewter containers holding the heart and entrails of King Władysław IV at the altar of St Kazimierz.
Numerous holes were found in them, suggesting that Muscovite troops had been hunting for valuables during the invasion in 1655.
In September later that year, the most sensational discoveries were made. Architect Jan Pekszo drilled a hole in a vault and discovered the interior of the Gothic crypt with the remaining royal discoveries.
Team member Kazimierz Wilkus recalled: “The corridor was so narrow that I walked in front to illuminate the area […] we stood in a small crypt measuring 3×4 m. An amazing sight appeared before our eyes.
“In front of the entrance, in the mud and rubble, I noticed an object in the light of the torch. At first I thought it was a helmet, but it was a crowned human skull. I turned the light to the right - in the corner of the crypt, on a stone protruding from the wall, there was a crown.”
The flooding had taken a terrible toll on the tomb. The bones of Aleksander Jagiellończyk and Queen Elisabeth Habsburg were swimming in the mud and silt. A sword lay broken and rusting.
Only the remains of Queen Barbara Radziwiłłówna survived in better condition, having been sealed in a coffin with ashes and lime.
Lithuanian hopes were raised that the remains of national hero Grand Duke Witold, Władysław Jagiełło’s cousin, would be discovered as well.
The year before, 1930, had been the 500th anniversary of the death of Witold, and huge efforts had been made to find his remains in the cathedral crypts.
The hopes were dashed when they were not among the other remains, having most probably been destroyed by the Muscovite soldiers.
Shortly after the discoveries, unexplained incidents began to affect those involved.
While work was still underway in the cathedral, Professor Juliusz Kłos died in unusual circumstances early in the morning of 5 January 1933.
He was found in a pool of blood after an apparent heart attack caused him to fall down the lift shaft of his apartment building.
Just before him, engineer August Przygodzki, who had been involved in the work in the cathedral, died.
A year earlier, Professor Ferdynand Ruszczyc, who had spent a lot of time working in the crypt, became paralysed at the age of 62 and was bedridden until his death in 1936.
In 1935, the sculptor Bolesław Bałzukiewicz, who was involved in rescuing the cathedral's crypt, died when he was bending down to untie his shoelaces.
In 1936, Ludwik Sokołowski, a professor at the university in Vilnius, died shortly after going down into the crypt.
Whether the curse really existed and whether it still has any power today is unknown. However, visitors to Vilnius Cathedral can test it for themselves as the crypt is open for viewing.