Wawel Cathedral, Kraków, Poland

The long and complication history of Wawel Hill is the history of Kraków and to some extent the whole of Poland. The Castle and Cathedral here have played a pivotal role in the history of this country since the 7th and 8th Centuries when Krakus and Princess Wanda, the founders of the City, are said to have lived here.

The Cathedral Basilica of St. Stanisław and St. Wacław dates back to at least the year 1000 when the Diocese first ordained a Cathedral amongst the early fortifications on the Wawel Rock. However, it took 18 years for construction work to begin due to a conflict with the Holy Roman Empire. A few remains of this first Cathedral have been found, but not enough to get an idea of what the Cathedral would have been like.

This first Cathedral was destroyed by fire either during the invasion of Bretislaus I of Bohemia in 1040 or by an accidental fire in the 1080s. By the end of the 11th Century work had begun on building a second Cathedral which was completed in 1142. A number of sections of this Cathedral still survive including the entirety of St. Leonard’s Crypt.

In either 1305 or 1306 another fire did extensive damage to the Cathedral, but enough had been repaired by 1320 to allow for the coronation of Wladysław I the Elbow-High. In that same year work began on building a new Cathedral which was consecrated in 1364 and forms most of the basic structure of today’s Cathedral.

Wladyslaw I was the first Polish King to be buried at the Cathedral. During the subsequent years most of the important Polish monarchs left their mark on Wawel including Casimir III the Great, Jadwiga of Poland and Sigismund I the Old. The last of these sponsored a massive restructuring of the Cathedral. Two Italian architects were brought in to design the rebuilding, hence the very Italian appearance of some of the domes and towers of today’s Cathedral.

In 1517 Sigismund’s own Chapel was added, where he is now interred. In 1595 a fire destroyed large parts of the Castle and damaged the Cathedral. Sigismund III Vasa decided to rebuild. However, Sigismund dealt Wawel a blow it took centuries to recover from. He moved his capital to Warsaw.

The 16th Century was a bad time for Kraków. The Swedish were here in the 1650s and inflicted much damage, they came back again in 1702 for another round of damage. In 1794 it was the Prussians who arrived and they stole the Royal Insignia which has never been returned. The Cathedral remained the place of coronation and burial for the Polish Kings until the Third Partition of Poland when the Austro-Hungarians took over.

For the next hundred years or so it was the Polish who attacked their own Royal Castle and by the early 1800s it was no longer Polish Royalty that were buried in the Cathedral, but Polish military heroes. In 1905 the Austrians finally left Wawel and restoration works were begun. In 1921 Wawel Hill became the official residence of the President of Poland and during the Communist post-War period Wawel Castle became a state Museum. However, a number of precious monuments were removed from the Cathedral both during the War and immediately afterwards and most have not found their way back again.

In 1946 the future Pope John Paul II said he first mass in the crypt of the Cathedral, was Bishop here before becoming Pope, and even considered asking to be buried here, but ended up in St. Peter’s as is traditional. He returned as Pope nine times to Poland and seven times to hold mass at the Cathedral once again. He also canonised Queen Jadwiga whose memorial is one of the most serene inside the Cathedral. In 2008 a monument to Kraków’s favourite son was unveiled outside the Cathedral he loved so much.

Photo - Andrew J. Müller

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