It would be difficult not to notice the majestic towers casting long shadows directly from the top of a rocky hill. That threesome of silent guards in the Holy Cross Mountains (Góry Świętokrzyskie) region belongs to the former royal residence. Only its picturesque ruins survived. The medieval stronghold in the small town of Chęciny, located on the road leading to Warsaw from Cracow (Kraków), had an opportunity to play significant roles in Poland’s history – as an inaccessible stronghold, a safe place for royal treasures or a prison for well-known inmates. After several cruel wars of the 17th century, that semi-destroyed castle was abandoned for very long time. And it was not until the renovation in the last decades which gave Chęciny`s Royal Castle an opportunity to regain its former fame.
The first king to be crowned at Wawel Cathedral in Cracow
The turn of 13th and 14th centuries is believed to be the most likely period of constructing the stronghold in Chęciny. It was under the reign of Wenceslaus II of the Přemyslid dynasty, the son of a Czech king, who was the king of Poland. The records say the castle appeared in documents from 1306, when Władysław the Short (Władysław Łokietek, the Elbow-high, more common nickname) returned from exile after the unexpected death of King of Bohemia, Duke of Cracow, and King of Poland Wenceslaus II. The greatest achievement of Władysław was gaining papal permission to be crowned King of Poland in 1320, which occurred for the first time at Wawel Cathedral in Cracow. He took Wawel over 14 years earlier, in 1306, promising to Chapter of Cracow to give back the Castrum (stronghold) of Chęciny with surrounding villages. In 1307, under the pretext of detection of a plot against the royal power, the castle returned to the king.
The clear victory over the Teutonic`s Knights
In 1305, with Hungarian help, Władysław began a war with Wenceslas II. He occupied Little Poland in 1305 and Great Poland in 1314 and also gained control of the northern areas along the Baltic Sea, including Pomerania and Gdańsk (Danzig). The Knights of the Teutonic Order, however, captured Pomerania in 1308, and, despite a good deal of maneuvering by Władysław, it remained in German hands. Having partially reunited the Polish lands, Władysław was crowned king of Poland.
Władysław became involved in further conflicts with the Knights of the Teutonic Order. In September 1331 war broke out again between Poland and the Teutonic Order, and at the Battle of Płowce on Sept. 27nd, 1331, Władysław inflicted a serious defeat on the Knights.
The Teutonic Order attempted to take Brześć Kujawski (once a royal seat of Kuyavia) after standing all day in the sun. The German army from the Teutonic Order had 7,000 men, and was opposed by a Polish army of 5,000 men. On the day of battle, one-third of the Teutonic Order’s force of knights under Dietrich von Altenburg left the blocked peasant town of Płowce. The Poles, under Władyslaw Łokietek and his son Casimir, immediately attacked in a frontal assault. They were shortly joined by Polish detachments hiding in the forest. Reportedly, during the first phase of the battle Prince Casimir was ordered to depart so as not to deprive the Polish Kingdom of the presumptive heir. Despite this, in three hours the Teutonic knights had been defeated and their leader captured. The Polish forces were victorious in this phase of the battle, took prisoner 56 knights, and freed many Polish captives.
However, upon hearing the sounds of battle from Płowce, rear elements of the German formations rushed to aid their fellow knights, and soon another third of the Teutonic Order’s forces arrived. The long and bloody battle resumed and continued until dark, with high casualties on both sides. Poland scored a clear victory, with Reuss von Plauen, commander of the German army, and another 40 knights taken prisoner by the Poles. After fleeing Płowce, the knights withdrew to Toruń (Thorn).
The stronghold in Chęciny played a significant role as a place of concentration of troops departing for war with the Teutonic Knights. After the death of king Władysław Łokietek, the newly elected king Casimir the Great extended the castle, making it one of the most powerful fortresses in Poland.
The stronghold being turned into the royal castle
King Łokietek soon made the stronghold in Chęciny the royal castle, the centre of his political and military power. In May 1331 the King organized a meeting of Lesser Poland’s and Greater Poland’s nobility, to discuss the oncoming war with the Teutonic Knights.
In 1318 the treasure of the Archdiocese of Gniezno was transferred and hidden inside the castle to prevent it from being captured by the Teutonic Knights.
At that time Chęciny became a residence of the king`s second wife Adelaide of Hesse. In following years it was also a residence of Elisabeth of Poland, Queen of Hungary, Sophia of Halshany and her son Władysław III of Varna and Bona Sforza.
King Władysław Jagiełło took advantage of its specific location, and chose it for the place for court sessions and meetings of noblemen.
A Woman Who Ruled Like a King
One of the most fascinating figures in Polish history is Bona Sforza, as one might tell, not a Polish lady but an Italian one who by marriage became Queen of Poland and Grand Duchess of Lithuania, and a consort that had quite an impact. When Bona was 24 years old, she left her country and became the second wife of Sigismund I the Old (Zygmunt Stary), the king of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania. She started her long travel to Cracow, to a country with a colder climate and completely different mentality.
Polish nobles considered her a dangerous woman who had a surprising amount of power over her husband. Their wedding started a new chapter in the history of Poland, but Bona Sforza was never a favourite queen of her subjects.
Born into a powerful Italian family, she was a champion of strong royal rule and an able assistant to her Polish king, which predestined her to play a leading role in the politics of the Polish court. Towards the end of the King’s life, when he began to lose interest in matters of state, she practically took the role of governing Poland.
If the Poles believed that the young and beautiful lady would be content as just the mother of the king’s children and stay far away from politics, they would have been totally wrong. Bona started to be active politically from the moment she became the queen. She didn’t understand the social norms in Poland, which was a far less civilized country than the kingdoms of Italy, France, or Spain at the time. Poland’s political position was strong, however, society there still needed to advance.
Bona, much like many important women of her times, was accused by some people to have been a witch. Numerous bishops and nobles were obsessed with the fight against witchcraft. When Bona started to reform the country, allowing herself to be the richest landowner, criticism of her actions increased. The Poles never liked the changes, and Bona supported the advancement of many ideas. Apart from being a protector of scientists and artists, she tried to influence the law as well.
Bona built her own base of support, winning allies among the powerful Polish nobility and gaining favourable clerical appointments from the Medici Pope Leo X. Her position was also strengthened in 1524, when her mother died, as Bona became Princess of Rossano and Duchess of Bari in her own right as well as the holder of the Brienne claim to the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. She was also kept fairly busy in the bedroom and gave the King six children. One son and four daughters survived. All of them went on to illustrious titles when they grew up: Queen Isabella of Hungary, King Sigismund II Augustus of Poland, Duchess Sophia of Brunswick-Lüneberg, Queen Anna I of Poland and Queen Catherine of Sweden, Duchess of Finland. As Queen of Poland Bona sought to support her husband who, like most Polish monarchs, was constantly having to fight to maintain his position. Frugal by nature, the rise of her own family in Italy had taught her that power comes from independence and independence comes from wealth. With that in mind she set herself to expanding the fortune of the Jagiellon dynasty as much as she could.
The first months of her stay in Poland were very difficult for Bona also because the Italian princess was used to a diet full of fresh fruits, vegetables, and olive oil. Unfortunately the Poles ate a lot of meat, which made her sick. Polish cuisine was based on meat, beans, and some strongly-spiced foods. After a few months, she started to grow her own vegetables in the garden near Wawel castle.
At first the Polish nobles did not understand Bona’s diet, but with time, vegetables started to be more popular among the Polish people. Nowadays, a basic bunch of vegetables that includes celery, carrot, parsley, and leek is called ‘‘włoszczyzna’’ (Włochy = Italy, włoszczyzna = something coming from Italy).
Therefore today, Bona is probably best remembered in the kitchen. Her love of fruits and vegetables changed not only the Polish palate, but left a lasting influence on the language as well. Coming from sunny Italy she brought her own cooks, gardeners and horticulturalists. She introduced many foods, especially vegetables. The Polish language reflects this in the many terms for vegetables that it has assimilated from Italian.
In coming to Poland, Bona opened the door wide to Italian artists. Besides her courtiers, she brought with her builders, architects, artisans and painters to make her new country as beautiful as the one she left. With these many Italian influences in art and architecture, no wonder that Polish architectural vocabulary bears the stamp of the Italian innovators. Queen Bona also influenced fashion. Polish women began imitating their queen. They wore many jewels, gold chains, and beaded coifs. The fabrics that come into vogue were lush velvets, silks, satins, brocades and gold cloth. In 1533, Bona brought from Bruges the first 14 Flemish tapestries that the King had ordered for the Wawel Castle. You can still admire them while visiting Cracow`s castle.
Bona stopped in the castle in Chęciny on her way back to Bari. She departed Poland in 1556.
The local cottages built of bricks from the royal castle walls
Later the royal castle in Chęciny was used for many years as a state prison. Among imprisoned there were Michael Küchmeister von Sternberg future Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights, Andrzej Wingold, Jogaila`s half-brother and Warcisław of Gotartowice.
In the second half of the 16th century, the castle began to decline. In 1588 the parliament ordered to transfer the castle’s inventories to the Chęciny Church and in 1607, during the Zebrzydowski Rebellion the fortifications and buildings were partially destroyed and burned. The castle briefly regained its former glory due to reconstruction initiated by Stanisław Branicki, the starost of Chęciny, but in 1655-1657 it was almost completely destroyed by Swedish-Brandenburgian and Transylvanian troops. The destruction was completed in 1707 during another Swedish occupation. Then, the last residents left the castle. Over the next century the medieval walls become a source of building material for local villagers.
The marble mining that brought the city instant fame
The town of Chęciny lies among the hills of western Holy Cross Mountains (Góry Świętokrzyskie), and is an important centre of building materials, where the so-called Chęciny Marble is excavated. In the 14th century the town was an important economic centre, due to huge deposits of metals such as: silver, copper and lead. Many royal priviliges contributed to the development of local mining. The mining was in full bloom in the 15th and 16th century. Its marble was famous across the Kingdom of Poland and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
At that time the biggest mines were situated at the top of several local hills. Unfortunately in the second half of the 16th century those huge deposits began to run out so the mining turned out to be unprofitable. That is why the locals began to put emphasis on the marble mining. This brought the city instant fame. Local marbles were used for decorating palaces in Kielce, and royal palaces: in Cracow – Wawel and in Warsaw – the Royal Castle.
The great development of craft and trade
But Chęciny is first mentioned in historical documents from 1275. It obtained its city charter in 1325. Chęciny became city due to king Władysław Łokietek. Most likely it happened in the early 14th century. The town was burned in a great fire, the same happened again in 1507.
The 16th century was the period of the great development of craft and trade. At the time Chęciny was the centre of religious Reformation. All churches were in Calvinists and Arians hands.
The fall of the city happened in the 17th century. Chęciny was partially destroyed in the Zebrzydowski Rebellion, but real destruction came during the Swedish invasion in 1655 – 1660. On April 1st, 1657 the town was completely destroyed by the Transilvanians of George II Rakoczi. In 1660 there were only 48 houses, out of 341 in 1655. The King Stanislaw Poniatowski and Polish statesman Stanislaw Staszic made attempts to resolve the problem. Unfortunately all these attempts were a failure. In 1764 Chęciny was designated as legal centre for northern Lesser Poland, for Radom, Chęciny and Opoczno counties. In 1795 the town was annexed by the Austrian Empire, and next year, the seat of the county was moved to Kielce.
The small town with large Jewish community
During wartime period Chęciny was a place of Nazi activity and guerilla warfare. The main market was a place of mass extermination of Polish men – members of local partisan movement. To commemorate that event the market was renamed after the war and since holds the name of July 2nd square.
From the early 16th century Chęciny was inhabited by Jews. Most of this time, they were not permitted to live in Kielce, and had to find dwellings in nearby towns. By 1827 the (1740) Jews were 70% of the population. 70 years later they were 4,361, still 70%. A series of fires and recessions caused the Jewish population to dwindle to 61% in 1905, with 3,414 Jewish residents. By the end of WWI only 512 homes stood erect, and by 1921 there were only 2,825 Jewish residents, a mere 51%, living along the main road and around the town centre.
At the end of 1939, after the invasion of Poland, a Judenrat and the Jewish Ghetto Police was established by the Nazi German occupiers. In the spring of 1940 several dozen Jews from the new ghetto were murdered in a forest on the outskirts of town. In June 1940 there were approximately 2,800 local Jews and another 1,000 refugees remaining in the ghetto. In January 1941 the Germans planned to move 5,000 Jews from the Kielce Ghetto to Chęciny in exchange for 2,500 Polish forced-labourers, but due to a typhus epidemic in the town, this plan was postponed. On July 5th, 1941 the order was given to establish the ghetto and by July 22nd it was resettled during the Jewish “3 weeks of mourning”. The ghetto had no walls, due to a shortage in materials. Some 500 Jews mostly from poor families, were chosen by the Judenrat, under German orders and sent to the HASAG labour camp in April 1942. In June another 105 Jews were rounded up to be sent to the HASAG camps, but vanished, and were probably shot.
Under the orders of Gerulf Mayer, the local Gendarme commander, the ghetto was liquidated on September 12th. The Jews were chased to the market square and marched to the Wolice train station 7 km (4 mi) away, where they were sent to the Treblinka death camp. More Jews were killed at Treblinka than at any other Nazi extermination camp apart from Auschwitz.
Dozens were shot on the way during the assembly and march. 40 Jews “unfit for travel” remained in the ghetto and were shot on the 14th, two days later. A second group of 30 Jews from the Judenrat and other officials was left to search for valuables and bring them to the remaining synagogue. Some of these Jews escaped, the rest were killed in December by the Gendarmes.
Both the town of Chęciny and the royal castle played significant role in Polish and universal history. Trips around this beautiful town is a chance to see many interesting monuments and to do an exceptional history lesson. And despite painful history, Chęciny is now a great city, and the atmosphere there can charm everyone.
Hopefully to see you there!
By Agata Szostkowska
Photos: Michał Stanisławski
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