Founding Stories and How Warsaw became the Capital of Poland

Every old city will always be filled with founding legends. Stories the include mythological tales and semi god-like events. Warsaw is no exception being itself an old city many centuries old.

The legend of Warsaw begins like this.

King Kazimierz Odnowiciel (Casimir I the Restorer) was travelling up the Vistula to go from the old capital of Krakow to the city of Gniezno. Midway through his trip he got board of the food on his royal ship and got off the boat where he saw a small house and the aroma of amazing tasting food from the chimney.

The Vistula River

The hostess welcomed the King warmly and when her husband Piotr Rybak returned with fish from his expedition they prepared it and shared it with the king. During the meal, Piotr told the king about his newborn twins who needed to be baptised, but would not be baptised till a priest arrived from the city once every few months. The king wanted to pay for the meal but the hosts insisted that he not pay, so he requested a meal on his return from Gniezo with priests for the christening of the fisherman’s two children. The king returned after two months with a priest who baptised the twisn Warz (the boy) and Sawa (the girl). He then made the fisherman a noble and changed his name to Piotr Warsz and gave him the land around him to become a settlement named after him.

Casimir I the Restorer of Poland, named thus because he was able to unify the whole of Poland (Source)

The other story talks about a pair of mermaids who used to live in the Baltic sea.

You didn’t know what she was saying, you were just looking at here weren’t you 😉 you dog you!

Beautiful though the sea was, the sisters soon got bored and decided to explore. One sister swam up north to Copenhagen and became The Little Mermaid of Copenhagen. The other sister swam to Gdansk and then went down the Vistula River until she came to the small town. This mermaid was also called Sawa (surprise, surprise!). Being a mermaid in a town full of fisherman she would set free the nets of the fisherman and let their haul of fish swim away. Angered the fisherman tried to find the culprit and punish him. When they found her and her siren song they instead gave in to her and vowed never to harm her, she became the resident bard of the town and would sing for the townsfolk every night. One day, a wily individual decided to kidnap the mermaid and make a fortune by parading her down the cities on the Vistula. He kidnapped her and almost succeeded but she was saved by another young fisherman called Warz, who fell in love with her ad brought her back to what is today Warsaw.

Out of gratitude, she promised to defend the city for the rest of eternity and her statue can be found in the city square of the old town of Warsaw today.

She is also emblazoned on the coat of arms of the city.

Coat of Arms of Warsaw (Source)

Although with the amount of tragic history the city has befallen, her defense doesn’t have seemed to work for the city (she was kidnapped and had to be rescued #justsayin), but that is a story for another time.

The truth of Warsaw’s founding is somewhat less interesting, it was established in the 1300s by a Prince of the Duchy of Masovia and became the capital of the Duchy until the line of dukes went extinct after which it became a part of the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland. Warsaw trudged along as a small city, focusing on trade and crafts until the union and creation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was basically two nations coming together under one monarch, think of present day United Kingdom for an idea. In the case of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth this was the Kingdom of Poland the the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, it’s formation made the Commonwealth of the largest, and strongest countries in Europe. The union was not as traumatic as the Kalmar Union because the two countries were in a de facto union by the same monarch for over a century, beginning with the Polish Queen Hedwig and her husband the Lithuanian Grand Duke Jogaila (later WƂadysƂaw II JagieƂƂo of Poland) before a formal act over a century later (the Union of Lublin) joined the two countries together officially.

A Map of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth at its maximum extent superimposed on modern borders (Source)

The Commonwealth was a precursor to modern democracy, with among others strong checks and balances on the monarchy, a freedom of religion act in 1573, a parliament made up of an upper and lower chamber and an elective monarchy (rather than a hereditary one). It’s political philosophy was one that would not be out of place in the constitutional monarchies of today: The king reigns and does not govern (Jan Zamoyski).

There were two capitals in this Commonwealth – Krakow and Vilnius, but since they became one country, a new parliament (General Sejm) was formed and, Warsaw was decided upon as the site of the new parliament because it was in between both royal capitals, it was the capital of the commonwealth but not the nations.

In 1587, co-ruler King Stephen Bathory passed away and his wife co-ruler Queen Anne Jagiellon instead of taking the throne herself promoted the election of her nephew, Sigismund from Sweden to take over.

Sigismund III Vasa (Source)

Sigismund was elected, and bore the name Sigismund III Vasa. Wanting to be closer to the action of the General Sejm he decided to move the Polish Court from Krakow to Warsaw (in 1596) an act did not endear him to the people of Krakow. In fact before the decision was taken Sigismund III’s palace in Krakow was partially burned down in a fire, so it was a convenient time to select a new capital.

The new capital was chosen and a monument to Sigismund III Vasa was build in the centre of the Old Town of Warsaw. Unsurprisingly no new monuments were built to Sigismund in Krakow.

Sigismunds Column at the centre of Warsaw old town

Sigismund even tried to create a new personal Union between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Sweden, a move that if successful would have created one of the largest superpowers of the day. That union however lasted less then 7 years after which the Swedes rioted and kicked Sigismund III off the Swedish throne. No matter though, since Sigismund reign coincided with the Polish Golden Age.

This was a time when the economic strength, military might and cultural influence of the Commonwealth was at its peak. This was the time when academic lights such as Nicolaus Copernicus, Josephus Struthius, Maciej Miechowita, Andrzej Frycz Modrewski  was born into.

When Polish literature, music, art and science lit the known world.

Since Sigismunds decision, Warsaw has remained the capital of Poland through the last 400 years of the existence of the Polish people (much to the consternation of Krakovians), and has preserved through wars and invasions.

Sawa would be proud.


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