Subsidised by the National Centre for Culture under the programme Kultura w sieci
Delivered by the Cultural Centre in Góra Kalwaria
Looking at the impressive ruins of the Gothic fortress, it is hard to imagine that Castle Hill would have looked different in the past. In actual fact, in ancient times it was almost 5 metres lower, gently inclined towards the west and bounded by steep slopes and marshes to the south-east, with the Vistula flowing at the foot of the hill.
Around the 1st century BC people viewed by archaeologists as belonging to the Pomeranian culture were buried on the hill. These people cremated the dead on funeral pyres, then meticulously selected bones and remains of articles of value of the deceased. The skeletal remains were placed in a burial urn in anatomical order, the foot bones in the bottom and the skull bones on top. Burials of this type were found on Czersk hill. Human bones and ashes were placed in the burial pit together with accompanying vessels (containing gifts for the deceased).
Also of note is the existence at the foot of Castle Hill—on an island that once existed there—of a settlement of the Lusatian culture, dating back three thousand years. On the same spot, but many centuries later—2nd century BC to the 3rd century AD—there was an extensive cemetery of the Przeworsk culture.
In the eleven hundreds Poland fell into anarchy and bloodshed, with royal brothers fighting for power. ‘Senior Prince’ Władysław II, whose mother was from Kiev, turned to Russian troops to support him in his fight against his brother Boleslaw Kedzierzawy, who ruled Mazovia. It is written in the medieval Russian chronicle the Laurentian Codex that Prince Władysław met with his allies near Czersk in late 1142, early 1143. The castle was most probably destroyed at that time.
The first mention of Czersk. Fittingly, it is in a source started under Vladimir Monomakh, Grand Prince of Kiev and brother-in-law of the Anglo-Saxon Magnus, buried at Czersk.
Czersk next appears almost a hundred years later, in the documents of Prince Konrad Mazowiecki. Czersk, as a place where princely documents are issued, regularly appears from 1245 onwards. The Castle Chancellery issued numerous official documents, while Czersk officials are mentioned as witnesses of statutes, grants, privileges and changes in law.
Slavic settlement began in the Czersk hills back in the 7th century AD. Initially, pit houses (houses part-sunk into the ground) were scattered haphazardly on all the hills nearby, forming a spread-out open settlement. In the centuries that followed, settlement concentrated on what is now Castle Hill.
A settlement was established here in the 9th century, but it was abandoned in the mid-10th century.
In the 11th century, the next inhabitants started to build solid post houses here, and then log houses, some with latticed wood flooring. Probably sometime in the mid-11th century the whole surface of the hill was levelled, reorganised and partly-fortified. However, it is impossible to determine the exact development of these first fortifications due to the intervening centuries and the numerous transformations of the hill. All we know is that the houses were located in a designated, organised space, with the layout remaining unchanged even if one building collapsed. Some of the houses featured stone ovens and wooden floors, and some passageways had wooden paving.
Czersk’s first fortified settlement was soon destroyed, probably due to fire. Events of this nature forced the inhabitants to change the way in which they organized the area within the ramparts. After every fire, the area was reorganised and shape of the hill evolved once again.
New fortifications and decline
The 12th century saw another building campaign, the hill being fortified with high earth embankments topped with a wooden stockade. In the eastern part of the castle courtyard, a stone Romanesque church, probably dedicated to St. Peter, was built from trimmed limestone. Leading people from the community were buried in and around the church.
This castle, too, was also destroyed, but this time we know who and when. There was a concentration of troops of Prince Władysław II the Exile and his Russian allies in the area in late 1142 / early 1143. At that time Czersk castle belonged to his brother and rival, the Prince of Mazovia, Bolesław IV Kędzierzawy. From a strategic point of view, it was impossible to leave the enemy a fortified stronghold, so the castle had to be destroyed.
After the downfall of the fortress, Castle Hill took on a decidedly cemetery role, with residential dwellings moving to its periphery and the neighbouring hills, as well as to the lower ground in the area.
Originally the dead were buried only by St Peter’s, the castle church. Prince Magnus, son of the Anglo-Saxon King Harold of England was buried, we believe, inside the church. Miraculously, his grave was relatively undamaged, unlike many other ancient tombs. Intriguingly, he was buried in a partly pagan style, termed a “Danish burial” together with grave goods such as his spear. After the destruction of the castle in the eleven hundreds, the whole top of the hill became a cemetery. In the course of 80-100 years at least 1,200 people were buried there, and archaeologists have uncovered about 800 whole skeletons. The deceased were buried directly in the ground, sometimes with a wooden cover, sometimes in coffins of varying quality.
There is widespread evidence of pagan burial practices, despite formal adherence to Christianity. Grave goods were found – gifts to help in the Afterlife, even though they were strictly banned by the Church. These took the shape of food, everyday objects, weapons and amulets such as Slavic crescent moon pendants ─ lucky charms for the next life.
As in life, so in death ─ richer people were adorned with expensive imported goods. Some women wore expensive beads made of glass and semi-precious stones, Slavic temple ring headdresses, metal pendants, bracelets and rings ─ some made of glass. One of the deceased was dressed in cloth interwoven with gold thread, imported from Constantinople or the Middle East. Found in both male and female burials were knives, craft and household tools ─ needles, a miniature sickle, a weight, combs, spindle whorls (important in spinning wheels), keys, a whetstone, skates and flints. Some were warriors ─ footmen were given arrowheads, horsemen a spur, and in the rich burial of Magnus a sword, a spear and bowls of food.
In time, the cemetery role of the hill was abandoned and Prince Konrad Mazowiecki began preparations to build a new fortress. The area was levelled, the cemetery covered and the hill widened, with a steep slope on the western side. Many graves were destroyed. After that time, burials within the walls were for the elite only and were made inside the church.
Early medieval burials were also found on other hills nearby ─ on Mid Hill (where the parish church now stands), the northern hill called Church Hill (now an orchard), and also in the town, just south of the square. From the Middle Ages right through to the 18th century, the dead were buried on Church Hill, though scattered burials on Castle Hill were dated as belonging to the times of the disastrous Swedish invasion of the 1650s.
1066 ─ English refugees
In the aftermath of the Norman Conquest many Anglo-Norse warriors became refugees. A saga talks of 1600 ships going to Constantinople to serve in the Varangian Guard of the Eastern Roman Emperor. King Harold’s widow Edith Swan-Neck went to her royal kin in Denmark, with her children Magnus and Gytha. The daughter married Vladimir II Monomakh and her son Yuri Longarm founded Moscow. Magnus came to Poland to serve King Bolesław II the Generous and became a great lord. He died sometime after 1109.
Danish style burial
During excavations on Castle Hill in 1966 an intriguing grave was discovered. Archaeologists labelled it grave 609. An older, undoubtedly wealthy man was buried right next to the foundations of the castle church. Pride of place. Anthropologists determined that, in life, he was a tall, powerful man – about 180 cm / 6 ft. After his death due to natural causes at around age 60, he was placed in an iron-covered wooden coffin. He was buried in what is termed “Danish style” – with pagan elements. To help him in the Afterlife, he was very richly equipped with an iron sword, a spear (only the tip remained), a chain, a gold ring, two brown bowls and an ornamentally coopered wooden bucket. The bucket seems to have been a common attribute of mounted warriors who had to water and feed their steed during campaigns. All of the numerous injuries left on the skeleton had healed completely during his lifetime ─ the man had fought and won battles.
Fact and fable
Who was the mysterious warrior from the cemetery in Czersk? Could it be Magnus? It’s a tantalising prospect. Especially as King Harold’s grave is disputed ─ possibly the headless burial found in Bosham, Sussex in 1954, to which the Church denies access. Gallus Anonymus mentions Magnus in his early 12th century chronicle. The case for identifying grave 609 as an Anglo-Saxon prince is also supported by another tantalising fact. A wyvern ─ a winged, two-legged dragon ─ appears in the coat of arms of Czersk. This is alien to Polish heraldry, but was strikingly the symbol of the House of Wessex, the House of King Harold. Moreover, the conflict with the invading Anglo-Saxons is told in a famous Welsh fairy tale about the fight between the red and the white dragon. This entered into legends told about the historic, unnamed ‘High King’ of the Welsh, better known to us as King Arthur. No-one really knows where history stops and fables begin.
Recent anthropological research has neither confirmed nor denied that the man from grave 609 was a foreigner. His teeth did not yield DNA. However, it was established that he spent his childhood in a different place than his adult years. In life he did not suffer from a lack of food; on the contrary, his diet was varied and rich in saltwater and migratory fish. He undoubtedly belonged to the socio-political elite.
Dragons, Wyverns and King Arthur
And then there is the dragon. In medieval tales and legends dragons only have negative associations: they carry out bloody deeds and slayings, breathe fire, engage in plotting and deceit, and fight with heroes and saints. Only in British Arthurian legends are they put in a positive light. The legendary King Arthur himself was identified with a dragon, his father being Uther Pendragon (head dragon, but figuratively chief warrior). It seems that this meaning, i.e. the ruler identifying himself with the hero and the dragon, was what led the Princes at Czersk to take the wyvern as their emblem. Moreover, British and Slavic mythology agreed that dragons lived under hills. The winged, two-legged wyvern appeared on the seals of Mazovian Princes Troyden I, Siemowit III and Kazimierz I.
While the origins of the wyvern as the heraldic symbol of Mazovia are shrouded in mystery, the Princes knew and admired the European courtly literature of the time and understood the symbolism that underpinned it.
More about the symbolism of the dragon in medieval Poland: Wojciech Górczyk, Echoes of Arthurian legends in the heraldry of the Czersk Piasts and Polish chronicles, available online (in Polish):
For 170 years Poland was torn apart by rival princes from the Piast dynasty fighting for control. This is called the Dismemberment (1138-1306). A house divided against itself cannot stand. Neighbouring powers ruthlessly exploited the anarchy. Mazovia was plagued by invasions: Russians and Lithuanians from the east, Baltic tribes ravaging from the north (Old Prussians).
Into this turmoil entered the young Prince Konrad, from 1200 the ruler of Mazovia and Kuyavia. He faced border unrest and internal struggle. Ambitious, he claimed the right to rule the capital city of Cracow and sought to capture the province of Lesser Poland through force of arms.
To give him a clear field to seize Cracow, he had to ensure that Mazovia was internally at peace and safe from external attack.
Initially, he thought he could calm the aggressive Old Prussians by converting them to Christianity ─ to this end, he dispatched Cistercian missionaries, but they made little impact on a pagan culture that was thousands of years old. Then Prince Konrad made a fateful error of judgement. In 1226 he invited the Teutonic Knights to establish a base in Culmerland (Chelmno). This Crusading German order was tasked with defending the northern border against the pagans. This seemed logical at the time and came with the Pope’s blessing. What could go wrong? However, in time, the Teutonic Knights would become a deadly threat to the whole country, one that lasted for centuries to come … eventually mutating into East Prussia and a pretext for launching World War Two.
As for the Russians and Lithuanians, cunning Konrad took a wholly different approach ─ they were hired as mercenaries in military campaigns to take Lesser Poland. Konrad never gave up the fight for Cracow, but ultimately it was all in vain.
Ambitious prince and his wife
Konrad I Mazowiecki was a typical man of his time. Proud and thrusting, he treated every objection as treason and fought ruthlessly for power. The meek would not inherit his part of the Earth. But he was up against the odds: he was imprisoned by rival princes in these anarchic times of the Dismemberment. First Prince Henry the Bearded imprisoned Konrad in Czersk in 1229, and then the 7 year-old Prince Boleslaw the Chaste imprisoned him again in 1233.
Undaunted, Prince Konrad countered with bold projects that combined political imagination and acts of extraordinary courage bordering on bravado. And behind every great man, there has to be a great woman. In his case, his wife Agafia. This Russian princess from the Ruryk dynasty was central to his cause and was as bold as her husband, repeatedly proving herself a true descendant of brave princes. Moreover, she bore Prince Konrad at least nine children, although some claim as many as seventeen.
Czersk New Castle
When Konrad took power, Castle Hill was one big cemetery and the neighbouring hills probably open settlements. Czersk was in a sorry state. To restore its status, Konrad decided to build a fortified settlement or burgh. To this end, the whole top of the hill was thoroughly levelled. Soil was also brought in to finish the job. This partially destroyed the Christian graves there. Earth, mixed with human remains and limestone debris from the demolished chapel, was scattered over the entire hill, which was extended to the west by bringing in large quantities of yellow clay. Konrad showed great determination. He created a rectangular settlement around a central square, and wood-paved pathways separated compact, standard size housing in the form of log huts. We can only guess at the nature of the ramparts, as later extensions and castle building effectively removed all trace of them.
At the court of Konrad
The princely residence had administrative and representative functions. But to be worthy of the ambitious Konrad, it also had to have holy offices. So, to boost his own status, the Prince relocated important clerics from Grojec, founding a church for a college of canons in the grounds of the castle. Consecrated in 1245, it took the form of a collegiate church – one step below a cathedral.
Documents issued in Konrad's lands showed the ruler had numerous advisors, whom he himself styled “consilio baronum nostrorum” ─ Council of Our Barons. Serving the court were: a bailiff and chamberlain, a treasurer, judge, cup-bearer (chief butler), pantler, master of the hunt, master of the horse (all with deputies) and a tutor for the prince's sons. Czersk position as capital of the principality is evidenced by the fact that Konrad retained strict personal control of the Czersk area when in 1236 he gave his eldest sons lands to govern in his name.
After Konrad's death in 1247 his third son, Siemowit I (1215-1262), assumed power over the Czersk region, and a year later, after the death of his brother Bolesław, over the whole of Mazovia. Siemowit’s rule saw endless battles with his brothers and repeated Lithuanian invasions. Konrad’s heavy investment in castle building proved to be a very wise move for those times.