Energetic, highly educated and with great organizational skills, in 1518 the fabulously wealthy Italian princess Bona Sforza d'Aragon (1494-1557) became the wife of the Polish King Sigismund I the Old. As a rich, powerful and above all foreign woman, the Queen was the subject of intense jealousy and hostile gossip. And she loved Czersk.
How Mazovia became a Crown territory
The male line of the ancient Piast dynasty died out very suddenly in 1526. First Prince Stanislaw died in 1524 in mysterious circumstances. Then in 1526 Janusz III, the last of the Mazovian princes died. Rumour had it that Queen Bona had Janusz III poisoned so the Crown could take over Mazovia. Italy was famous for poisonings after all. Two local women were accused of the crime and burnt at the stake. The King summoned a commission which, predictably, found the deaths to be natural, with no foul play. Local reaction is not recorded, but one can only imagine what they thought. Damningly for some, as an insurance policy for when the old king died, the Czersk area was allocated to Bona along with extensive lands elsewhere. In time, Queen Bona took direct power of Mazovia and she made sure it was profitable and supremely well-organised.
Queen Bona, as owner of Czersk castle, commissioned an audit of her estate. Her officer visited Czersk and made a detailed report on the condition of the castle, drawing attention to the size and condition of the residential and functional buildings, and to the works and repairs made, highlighting the poor state of the church. He also noted that the expensive dressed stone blocks previously stored in the castle had been stolen and that suspicion had fallen on the local nobles who managed the royal estate.
She managed her estate in a modern way: she opened workshops, cultivated virgin land, and modernized stud farms, gardens, fish ponds and mills. One popular story has it that, at the sight of the fertile soil and the sunny slopes of Castle Hill, she immediately decided to plant a vineyard. According to legend, it was Bona who planted the first vines here with her own hands. Sources from the time mention that Czersk was famous for its fruit-growing because of the local micro-climate. And Czersk’s high quality produce certainly kept the royal residence in Warsaw well-stocked. While there are earlier references to the cultivation of vines on the sunny hills of Czersk, it was the vineyards of Queen Bona that became famous and outshone her predecessors.
Expansion of Czersk Castle
Following the death of her husband King Sigismund 1548, Bona fell into conflict with her son, King Sigismund Augustus. She moved out of Krakow and spent her last 8 years in Poland with her daughters in Mazovia, in various residences. She is credited with expanding Czersk Castle, but it seems that the defences were more for show than for fighting. New residential buildings went up in the courtyard, perhaps upgrades on what was there before. The Queen was a generous patron of the castle chapel of St. Peter.
Ghost Story: The White Lady
Troubles in Poland and in her hometown of Bari led Queen Bona to leave for southern Italy in 1556, never to return. It was huge upheaval, not least because she had extensive estates in Poland. Although she renounced her land and buildings in favour of her son, she had to pack up and transport the wealth she had accumulated over four decades, stored in several residences. She took costumes bedecked with pearls, diamonds, and gold, along with clocks, works of art, jewels and precious books on dozens of "treasure wagons".
When Bona was taking her valuables from Czersk a magnificent necklace broke, scattering pearls across the floor of the chamber. It was entirely the Queen's fault. Bona, in a hurry, did not allow her servants to pick them up. Now, every full moon she haunts the courtyard of the castle in the form of the White Lady to laboriously pick up the pearls one by one, sparkling in the moonlight. As soon as she picks up the last one, the string breaks again, the pearls scatter and she starts once more ... for the whole of eternity. This is how the vanity of the Queen was punished.
But what in reality was Queen Bona’s legacy for Czersk? A thriving workshop that produced woollen carpets and tapestries, which for years adorned the seats of the mighty in the whole of Poland. Fruit orchards at the foot of Castle Hill, which have flourished to this day. The White Lady continues to intrigue and delight tourists, castle hobbyists and academics.
Queen Bona returned to her native Bari in 1556 and was poisoned a year later by her own courtier, Giovanni Lorenzo Pappacoda. There is a lesson for us all here: she was a victim of her own immense wealth. King Philip II of Spain was behind it all. A magnificent King of Spain and Ireland and the husband of Queen (Bloody) Mary of England, he was desperate for cash. A close adviser of the King of Spain, the Duke of Alba, took a huge loan of 430 000 ducats from Bona and then poisoned her, using his agent Pappacoda. Moreover, Pappacoda falsified her will. When Bloody Mary died in 1558, Philip lost his claim to the English throne, proposed to Queen Elizabeth … and then when that failed he launched the Spanish Armada to seize England by force. Her 57 million euros’ worth of gold paid for many ships. The loan, termed Neopolitan Sums, came to mean empty promises in the Polish language.
Presumed appearance of the castle in the mid-16th century, after the remodelling by Queen Bona.
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