Prince Janusz (1346-1429) is an outstanding figure in the history of Czersk. It is to him that we owe the building of the Gothic brick castle, whose towers and walls still tower over the Vistula valley.
Residence in decline?
By 1350 Czersk was still an important residence, but its economic role in this part of Mazovia was on the wane. Trade routes were changing and river transport was hindered by the ever-changing Vistula. The better situated Warsaw started to grow rapidly. The town charter Prince Siemowit III granted Czersk helped only marginally. The town and the castle were in decline. The new young Prince Janusz I, faced a difficult decision: abandon his efforts to build a new base for himself in Czersk and focus on Warsaw's development, or restore the castle to its former glory. He chose a halfway house ─ and one for which we should be grateful.
In 1386, he granted Czersk a town charter under Cumerland Law (Chełmno). Two years later he caused consternation among the townspeople by releasing them from the obligation to keep the wooden fortifications in a good state of repair. Was Czersk to fall into oblivion? But Prince Janusz had a bright new vision to rejuvenate his beloved Czersk. He was already using it as his main residence when touring his estates in this part of Mazovia. Moreover, he placed Czersk very highly among his titles ─ an obvious sign of attachment.
Raise the walls!
And so it was that at the end of the thirteen hundreds he began constructing a brick castle in Czersk. Sources show that architects and builders were removed from the construction site of St John's Church in Warsaw in the years 1398-1406. We believe that these teams were reassigned to Prince Janusz’s general castle-building campaign across Mazovia. One of the builders who took part in the construction of the castle was called Niklos. Qualified workers were even brought in from the Teutonic Knights' stronghold of Malbork, even though war with the Order was hanging in the air and the Mazovian ruler was a loyal fief of King Władysław Jagiełło.
The works on Castle Hill in Czersk were well-planned. The area was cleared of all previous walls and structures, and raised 5 metres. It was extended to the west and the slope there made much steeper. A solid embankment was made as a base for the Gate Tower. Massive stone foundations were sunk into the former earth fortifications as footings for the three towers. The first step was probably to finish the Gate Tower, a square brick building a few storeys high which was designed for both living quarters and defence purposes. It became the seat of the castellan (castle governor), who, on the orders of the Prince, coordinated the construction on site.
They were in a hurry, because the times were turbulent. The eastern part of the castle was the first to be completed ─ the courtyard was closed with a high brick wall and the South Tower, which provided protection from the Vistula River side. A few years later, the hill was closed to the north and the West Tower was completed. And it was only when the military defences were in place that the Great Hall, Prince Janusz’s Gothic style residence, began to go up. The castle was something the ruler could be truly proud of: a modern, pioneering curtain wall castle on a hill, replete with towers to dominate the area. And the square-shaped gate tower was a sparkling architectural novelty in itself. The castle was built in record time, as it was probably ready before July 1410, when Prince Janusz accompanied King Władysław Jagiello at the Battle of Grunwald, where Polish-Lithuanian forces smashed the Teutonic Knights.
His favourite country pile
While it is evident that Warsaw was becoming very much the capital city, Prince Janusz was a regular visitor to Czersk. Many of his documents were issued in Czersk, he repeatedly visited including during the most important church holidays. He was undoubtedly accompanied by his wife, Danute, daughter of the Grand Duke of Lithuania, Kestutis. She is mentioned in the sources of the time, and was also commemorated in Henryk Sienkiewicz's classic work of Polish literature "Crusaders". The marriage of Danute and Prince Janusz, some 56 years, was the longest in the whole Piast dynasty.
The Prince's visits greatly boosted Czersk’s prestige. However, the Prince was under no illusions: although the castle was impressive and comfortable, Czersk did not have the makings of a capital city. On 8 December 1429 Prince Janusz died in his beloved castle of Czersk at the grand old age of 83. In accordance with his wishes, he was buried in Warsaw. The long-lived Janusz outlived his three sons and was succeeded by his grandson Boleslaw IV.
In the thirteen hundreds most important towns were granted a charter, setting out their status, privileges, tax and judicial obligations, as well as organizing their residential space.
In a document of Prince Siemowit III from 1350, Czersk was already called civitas. There is no prior information about the granting of a town charter, which does not change the fact that Czersk was the most important centre in the region.
In 1386, Prince Janusz I the Elder granted the town Chełmno Law rights to show his care for the people and to help the town prosper. The medieval town was founded around the market square, where fairs could take place. And gradually it grew. The townsmen must have looked favourably on the construction of the new brick castle, as it enhanced local prospects.
Although the original documents granting town rights and other privileges have not survived, later confirmations have: e.g. from the Chancellery of King Sigismund August (1566), King John III Sobieski (1690) and King Stanislaw August (1772). Czersk lost its town charter in 1869 by order of the Tsar of Russia, at a time when Poland did not exist as a country.
The medieval town layout has been preserved in Czersk until the present day. It enjoys legal protection and is entered in the register of monuments under the number A-1601 of 15.09.1999.
The last hundred years of Piast rule in Mazovia were ruled by descendants of Prince Janusz. Some of them visited Czersk only rarely, for others it was their favourite seat.
Bolesław IV Varsovian
Since Prince Janusz the Elder outlived his three sons, the throne passed to his young grandson Boleslaw IV (1421-1454), with his mother Anna Holszańska ruling as regent for him in the early years. Although Prince Boleslaw visited Czersk far less frequently than his grandfather, spending only a dozen or so days a year there, Czersk still featured highly in his titles ─ in second place after Warsaw.
Brothers ruling together
Bolesław had eight sons, four of whom died in early childhood. When he died at the age of 33, his oldest living son Konrad III (1448-1503) was only 6 years old and needed a regent ─ first his grandmother, then his mother. Konrad’s majority was declared at the age of 14 and from that time he formally ruled together with his brothers. The lands were not to be divided. However, when Konrad’s three brothers reached their majority in 1471, it was decided to divide Mazovia into districts. Konrad, as the oldest, had first pick and chose the Czersk and Livonian lands.
Prince Konrad III Rufus of Czersk
Czersk became the headquarters of the young prince and sparkled, as things often do near the end of an era. It was here that Konrad III organised meetings of his brothers at which common Mazovian policy was discussed. When, in time, they died without heirs, he became the ruler of all of Mazovia. Although he had to perform his duties in Płock, Warsaw and Zakroczym, he did not allow the role of his favourite fortress to diminish. Prince Konrad III decided that one of the first sittings of his parliament would take place in Czersk (1496), gathering the great and the good from the whole of Mazovia.
He also came here for hunting with his family and the court. The hunting lodge in nearby Osieck played an important role then. And when the Prince received guests at the castle, delicious wine was served from his vineyard on the southern slopes of Castle Hill, or equally delicious wine from the Warka winery. Although the planting of vines at the foot of Castle Hill is usually attributed to Queen Bona Sforza, it is known that the local wines already enjoyed a good reputation during the Konrad era. Doubtless, the enterprising Italian Queen had more refined tastes and access to better varieties of vine though.
Last of the Mazovian Piasts
Prince Konrad III spent his last days in the hunting lodge in Osieck, near Czersk, where he died in 1503. His sons with Lithuanian noble woman Anna Radziwiłł were very young: Stanisław was 3 and Janusz III was only one. Princess Anna ruled as regent for them, mainly from Warsaw, the capital city of Mazovia, but she also spent time at Czersk castle.
Princes Stanislaw (1500-1524) and Janusz III (1502-1526) assumed independent rule as brother princes in Mazovia in 1518. It was in Czersk that they convened the Parliament of Mazovia in August 1522, just one of probably many visits. In 1518 they participated in the wedding ceremony of King Sigismund the Old with the Italian princess Bona Sforza.
But tragedy was to strike: the untimely deaths of Prince Stanisław in 1524 and of Janusz III in 1526 put an end to the entire Mazovian Piast line. Foul play was suspected but never proved. There had been an infamous Czersk-related poisoning before: Henry, son of Siemowit III, who featured in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Two women were accused of poisoning the princes and were burnt at the stake. Rumours of Queen Bona's alleged involvement led King Sigismund to order an investigation, which determined that the princes had died a natural death.
And so Mazovia’s long, illustrious history as a separate principality came to an end. Together with the Czersk region, it was incorporated into the Crown and they became lands of the King of Poland.
Presumed appearance of the Gothic castle, built by Prince Janusz I the Elder of the Mazovian Piast dynasty in the late 14th early 15th centuries on the site of an earlier castle.
All models are based on available scientific studies, archaeological results, preserved images and available sources from the era and illustrate the current state of knowledge about the history of Czersk.
Subsidised by the National Centre for Culture under the programme Kultura w sieci
Delivered by the Cultural Centre in Góra Kalwaria