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History of Olsztyn Castle near Częstochowa

Out of all the strongholds on the Trail of the Eagle's Nests, the oldest history of Olsztyn Castle is probably the best explored. By the Upper Palaeolithic, i.e. 40,000 years ago, the castle hill had already been inhabited by people as indicated by archaeological excavations. According to the first written records, a wooden town had already existed here by the 11th century. During the 13th century a stone watchtower was built in its place, it served a defensive and residential role. The building was to defend merchants who roamed a trade route from Lviv, through Cracow, to Wrocław.

However, the construction of Olsztyn Castle is strictly connected with the reign of Casimir the Great, who funded a whole range of defences on the Polish-Czech border. It is said that the Castle was built between 1349 and 1359. Although the construction of Olsztyn Castle is commonly ascribed to an initiative of King Casimir the Great, some historians argue that a brick stronghold, which belonged to the bishop of Cracow Jan Muskata, stood there earlier. It is believed that it was named Przymiłowice, and in the 1330s or 1340s the name was changed into Olsztyn. Bishop Muskata, head of Cracow Cathedral, was a sworn enemy of King Władysław the Short and his son Casimir. As a supporter of the Czech House of Přemyslid and the House of Luxembourg on the Polish throne, he made diplomatic efforts to help them take power in Poland to the end. The name "Olsztyn", originally "Olsten", is derived from the German "Hohlstein", which means "a hollow rock". This is connected with a cave system under the castle hill.

The oldest surviving record of this royal stronghold dates from 1349 and mentions the first known administrator, Zdziśko, the Burgrave of Olsten. The main function of the stronghold was to defend Poland’s south-western border against an invasion by Silesia and the Czech Republic. Since it was one of the first places of this kind and the most fortified place on the Highland, it greatly aroused the monarch's interest. The king stayed here at least five times, the last time in 1369, when he granted the so-called Środa Rights for nearby Przyrów. In addition to the function of a huge border watchtower, Olsztyn Castle was also used as a prison for the gentry. There is a well-known story of a nobleman. When King Casimir introduced an administrative reform in Wielkopolska, dividing it into two starosties, he met with discontent among the residents. Since frictions grew up, he annulled the reform, which caused that a starost organised a confederacy against the monarch. This plotter was the owner of Koźmina, Maciej Borkowic. Reprimanded by the monarch and banished, he humbled himself and swore an oath of allegiance to the king. Interestingly, the term "Republic of Poland" was used for the first time in the oath formula. Unfortunately, the oath was broken and Maćko continued to plot. The king sentenced him to death by starvation in Olsztyn Castle, where Maćko was put in 1360. This event was immortalised by the master painter Matejko in the painting that has been mentioned earlier.

When the last member of the Piast dynasty died, Hungarian monarch Louis of the House of Anjou ascended the Polish throne under the law of succession. The new ruler gave the land of Wieluń as well as Olsztyn and other strongholds to Duke Vladislaus of Opole as a fee. This was a gift for the support given by the Silesian steward for Louis’s dynastic plans, and to be more precise, plans to put one of Louis’s daughters on the Polish throne.

The new owner established the court office and the starost’s office in Olsztyn Castle. He was a good host, but unfortunately he was drawn to dealings with the Teutonic Knights with whom he plotted against Poland, and he did not shun plunders. In this situation, the next ruler, Władysław Jagiełło, set off with his forces into the territories of the Silesian duke and took his estates, both the family ones and the ones that were held in fee or on lease. Olsztyn Castle was under siege for entire three days. When the king captured the Castle, its position changed. Olsztyn Castle was leased to the starost who each time was appointed by the monarch for life. Only a member of a mighty family that rendered service to the Republic of Poland could become the starost of Olsztyn. The first starost who leased the stronghold was Jan of Szczekociny, of Odrowąż Coat of Arms, followed by his successors: his son Paweł and his grandson Piotr. This conferment showed the king’s strategic idea. Jan of Szczekociny did not set off to the famous Battle of Grunwald, instead he stayed in his manor to protect the south border of Poland if the Czech King Sigismund of Luxembourg had attacked. Therefore in 1406, 1411 and 1417 Jagiełło gave the sum of 1200 grzywnas of silver to modernise the Castle. At that time a Cracow grzywna weighed between 197 and 210 g, so the payment was around 250 kilograms of silver. Although the building served a defensive role, during the 15th century Olsztyn was constantly invaded by Silesian rulers. Olsztyn had to repel these attacks between 1442 and 1457, when they were the most numerous. For that reason, Olsztyn Castle was systematically changed. E.g. the main defensive tower was heightened. At that time the starost was Mikołaj of Przyrów. He "turned the Castle, which had been similar to Pluto's dark cave, into a charming seat".

Mikołaj Szydłowiecki, starost between 1508 and 1532, contributed greatly to the extension and modernisation of this royal stronghold, and so did his successors: Piotr Opaliński and Jan and Joachim Ocieski, who transformed the Gothic mass in the spirit of popular Renaissance. The building was extended by three floors added to the main residential house and strengthened by adding a huge north-eastern tower which used a vast rock cave as a basement. In 1540 Piotr Opaliński surrounded the outer castle with a defensive wall, between the Starost’s Tower and the upper bailey. We must also mention that the Castle towered over the settlement of Olsztyn which received municipal rights from King Casimir Jagiellon in 1488. An inspection conducted in 1564 showed that the town developed badly as it was far from roads and trade routes. The sandy lands on which the town was situated contributed to that. The privilege received in 1552 to establish a fair and a market did not change the situation. At that time there were 24 residents, and the condition of the Castle was not good because the calcareous rocks lowered and cracked.

The defensive assets of Olsztyn Castle were tested in 1587 when the forces of Archduke Maximilian of the House of Habsburg, who aspired to the Polish crown, approached the Castle. The stronghold passed the test, but losses made by the Austrians were heavy. During the siege they put Kacper Karliński in the front line as a human shield; the underage son of the commander of the garrison in Olsztyn was captured from an estate in Karlino, near Kromołów. The commander did not yield to the power of these gloomy arguments and ordered to defend the Castle. This cost him his son’s life. Karliński’s heroism and tragedy were extolled later by Władysław Syrokomla and Aleksander Fredro in their works.

The attack of the forces of Archduke Maximilian was the beginning of the end for the stronghold. From that moment Olsztyn Castle began to fall into decline. But during its golden age, i.e. from the mid-15th century through the 16th century, the complex consisted of five main parts: two outer castles and the lower, middle and upper baileys. The entrance was via the gatehouse on the south-eastern part of the hill. A drawbridge over a moat led to the gatehouse. The gatehouse was a tower connected to defensive walls. The first extended outer castle, which housed utility buildings, was behind the gate. It was separated from the lower bailey by a wall with a gate. Here were another utility buildings and a residential house known as Kamieniec. Another gate led into the middle bailey which could be found at the foot of the round tower. In this place there was another moat with a drawbridge that led to the upper bailey which housed royal chambers, kitchens, bedrooms, dining rooms and a courtroom.

As military techniques developed and were improved, simultaneously minimising the significance of the defensive buildings that towered over the surroundings, Olsztyn Castle began to lose its position. When the Castle passed into the hands of Joachim Ocielski after the storming by the Habsburg forces, it was still in quite a good condition. It is known that the castle chapel, where Holy Masses were regularly celebrated, was open at that time. This situation changed after 1613, when the owner died. Negligence and the lack of investments caused that the Castle began to fall into ruin. The rocks collapsed, and Masses were not celebrated in the chapel anymore. When the starost changed and Mikołaj Wolski was appointed, that did not improve the situation. The bad condition of the Castle is confirmed by an inventory made after Wolski's death in 1631. In the inventory we find that:

"... that chapel, in the tower, near the keep, was made from brick, and a door frame from hewn white stone led to the chapel. A brick altar, a wooden vault from planks, painted but already damaged, and a similarly damaged floor, which was dangerous to walk on, were inside. The thatch over the chapel completely degraded and collapsed."

Most of the buildings were in a similar condition. Despite that the Castle still served its defensive role for another two decades. In 1655 Poland was invaded by the Swedish forces. The cause of the war was claims made by King John Casimir for the Swedish throne, on which his cousin Charles Gustav sat. In 1656 the Swedes arrived in Olsztyn. The neglected castle quickly surrendered to the invaders. The army robbed Olsztyn Castle of its valuable furnishings and abandoned it, causing heavy damage.

Later attempts to rebuild the stronghold did not restore it to its former magnificence and splendour, and its fate was sealed by an occurrence in the town of Olsztyn. In 1722 the town was affected by a fire. The Gothic church dated from the 15th century was completely burnt. Starost Jerzy Lubomirski funded a new Baroque church. When he saw the castle estate that had been falling into ruin, he agreed to use the stone from the Castle’s walls to build the church. Between 1722 and 1726 the new church was constructed, but it sealed the death of the old stronghold. Although the starosty in Olsztyn survived until the late 18th century, it was only nominal because the seat of the starost’s office barely existed. By the early 19th century the Castle was completely abandoned and became a complete ruin, even though it was picturesque. In 1870 Olsztyn lost its municipal rights, and a large migration of people who earlier worked in offices took place.

Although no actions were taken, the ruins survived until the present day.

During the 1990s, every year firework displays were held on the castle hill.

In 2002 thanks to the efforts of the Common Land in Olsztyn, conservation works were conducted in the west wing of the old stronghold. The arch over the biggest window was extended, window sills were added, and the losses in the walls were filled in. Thanks to a new layer of walls the Castle became higher by about 80 centimetres. In 2003 a viewing terrace for tourists was added on the Starost’s Tower.a