Piast Duke Bolesław Chrobry the Brave was crowned in Gniezno, becoming the first King of Poland

18 April 1025, the Piast Duke Bolesław Chrobry, the Brave, was crowned in Gniezno, becoming the first King of Poland.

“In this Great Poland political life among the Northwestern Slavs began in the second half of the ninth century. About the middle of the tenth, Mechislav (Mieczislaw), the ruler, received Christianity, and the modest title of Count of the German Empire. Boleslav the Brave, his son and successor, extended his territory to the upper Elbe, from which region its boundary line passed through or near Berlin, whence it followed the Oder to the sea. Before his death, in 1025, Boleslav wished to be anointed king by the Pope. The ceremony was denied him, therefore he had it performed by bishops at home.“ (Henryk Sienkiewicz, “Fire and Sword”)

The remarkable Polish history painter Jan Matjeko’s (1838 – 1893) imagination of the “Coronation of the first king A.D. 1001.“, admittedly, the controversial one during the “Congress of Gniezno” with a wraithlike Otto III standing next to kneeling, robust Bolesław Chrobry receiving the crown from the hands of Archbishop Radim Gaudentius and half-brother of St Adalbert of Prague.

Getting baptised in 966, marrying into the up-and-coming Přemyslid dynasty and, first and foremost, taking care that Poland’s first bishopric in Poznań would report directly to the Pope and not to the Holy Roman Emperor was a statesmanlike masterstroke of Mieszko, Duke of the Polans. For decades, the Polans, settling in the Warta River basin in what is now central Polands since the 8th century, had time do develop without getting noticed by the Holy Roman Empire or the Scandinavians who began to settle the shores of the Baltic Sea as well as the Dniepr valley and the Přemyslids in Bohemia and Silesia. It was a warrior society with a fighting elite at its core, living by selling slaves to the south rather than by agriculture and since they could hardly sell their own people endlessly, they were bound to conquer other areas and clashed with their mighty neighbours since the 950s. Duke Mieszko, first of the Piast dynasty, and his warriors got a bloody nose more often than not from the better equipped and organised Franks. Diplomacy and a prudent alliance policy was the way out and as a Christian prince, Mieszko now had the full support of gushingly religious Emperor Otto III when the Duke of the Polans began to Christianise pagan Slavic tribes along the river Elbe. With fire and sword, goes without saying. Duke Mieszko and the Polans had become a part of the Concert of European Christian Princes. It was Poland’s hour of birth.

Master of the Reichenau School: Otto III in all his (imagined) Imperial glory

Emperor Otto III dreamed of a universal Christian empire on the four pillars of Gallia, Germania, Rome and now the Sclavinia, by and large the Poland of Mieszko’s son and successor Bolesław. And while the enthusiastic emperor’s grip on reality dangerously slipped under the apocalyptic visions of the expected Second Coming of the year 1000 and the Last Days, Otto pilgrimaged to Gniezno, might or might not have elevated pious Bolesław to the rank of King, went to Aachen, exhumed his predecessor Charlemagne to get him canonised in Rome, disappeared for a while to live as a hermit and awoke without an apocalypse and a bit of a religious hangover on 1 January 1001. Whether or not Bolesław was made king under the auspices of the Congress of Gniezno already in the year 1000 was never fully cleared up. However, neither the pope nor Otto’s successor, his relative Henry II, ratified Bolesław’s appointment. Gniezno as a new archdiocese, however, was like Poznan under direct control of the pope, a fact that kept Medieval Poland out of the claim of power of the Holy Roman Empire altogether. And Bolesław and Henry were soon at daggers drawn. The Piast Duke had supported the claim of his neighbour Margrave Eckard of Meissen, Henry’s rival during the election of the new king of East Francia, occupied Přemyslid Prague and confounded Henry’s entire plans for the regions beyond the Elbe and in Bohemia and threatened him with a Danish invasion by his brother-in-law Sweyn Forkbeard. In short, King and later Holy Roman Emperor Henry II was rather miffed, especially since he could not bring the unruly Polish Duke under his heel after several unsuccessful campaigns. With an expansion east into the dominion of the Kievan Rus and the capture of Kiev itself and ruling Bohemia as well, Duke Bolesław was, for a couple of years, the most powerful ruler in Central and Eastern Europe, ousting even the emperor, who, naturally fought in Italy. However, Pope Benedict VIII did not dare to ratify Bolesław’s kingship until after Henry’s death in 1024. And while the pope already had died in Rome on April 9th, Bolesław was finally crowned as first King of Poland, probably in Gniezno, as culmination of his turbulent life. The king died in June of the same year.

And more about Bolesław Chrobry on