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History of the Wawel Castle

People sought shelter in the calcareous caves of Wawel hill since time immemorial, but the first hillfort of the Vistulans, a West Slavic tribe, appeared in the 9th-10th century. It was the foundation of the future Wawel Castle. By tradition, the duke's city was at the top of the hill, while the lowest steep part was inhabited by the plebs from Słoboda (a settlement). By the end of the 13th century, by order of King Wenceslaus III, the obsolete wooden fortifications were turned into stone walls that protected both the Castle and the buildings located in the lower part of the hill.

In 1320 Władysław the Short was crowned in Wawel Cathedral; afterwards Cracow was the capital of Poland for several centuries. King Casimir III, Władysław's son, was given the nickname "Great" for a reason: during his reign Poland was not only transformed but it also flourished. During the time of Casimir III, a majestic Gothic castle was built on Wawel hill; it was equal to the residences of monarchs of other European superpowers. Unfortunately, a huge fire which broke out in 1500 severely damaged and somehow contributed to a considerable rebuilding of the Castle. Afterwards the main part of the buildings was in the Renaissance style.

Generally, the 16th century was known as Cracow's «golden age» and Wawel Castle reached its apogee. At that time the Jagiellonians, members of one of the most powerful European dynasties, dwelt in the Castle. Rulers often came from this dynasty and sat on three thrones simultaneously: Polish, Czech and Hungarian, so Wawel fortress was a place where honourable guests were received, celebrations and royal ceremonies were held and important alliances were joined. No wonder that the old royal castle was replaced by the huge palace on which the best Italian builders, sculptors and painters worked for several decades. The talented architect Bartolomeo Berecci was invited by Bona Sforza's husband, King Sigismund I the Old, a huge enthusiast of art and a generous patron. As a result of his work, architect Berecci added even the saved Gothic facilities to the architectural complex of the new palace. King Sigismund’s Chapel, created by Berecci between 1517 and 1533 – later a family tomb of next Jagiellonian monarchs – is a magnificent example of Renaissance architecture.

After the Treaty of Lublin between Lithuania and Poland was signed in 1569, Cracow gradually began to lose its popularity among the ruling monarchs. At that time they focused their attention on Warsaw. This situation got even worse due to the fire that broke out in 1595 during the rule of Sigismund III Vasa. At first the monarch intended to renovate the palace, he even ordered the court architect Giovanni Trevano to rebuild some rooms into the Baroque style, but in 1609 he decided to move his residence to Warsaw. Cracow, however, remained the official capital almost until the Third Partition of Poland in 1795.

When the royal court changed its location, Wawel Castle was abandoned as it no longer attracted so much royal attention. One of the few kings who cared for the Castle were John III Sobieski and Stanisław August Poniatowski. A tower was named after John III. The fruit of Stanisław August Poniatowski’s reign was the Silver Room, furnished in the classical style by the court architecture Dominik Merlini.

By the end of the 18th century Wawel was taken by the Austrian forces which very quickly turned the old fortress into barracks, hospital and storehouses. Many old facilities located on the outer courtyard were destroyed, and the Austrians turned the courtyard into a square. In Wawel Cathedral, the conquerors wanted to establish a garrison church and move the sarcophagi and the royal tombs to St. Peter’s Church. Luckily, the castle was given to Emperor Francis Joseph and therefore saved from destruction under a resolution adopted by the Galician Sejm in 1880. In 1905 Polish social activists launched a campaign aimed to collect money to buy the old fortress back from the Austrian authorities. Over several years a huge sum was collected, it exceeded 3.5 million Austrian krone coins. Several thousand Poles also made a contribution so their names were engraved on the small bricks of the castle walls.

Reborn in 1918, the stronghold not only became the residence of the head of the government, but also was opened to the public as a museum of historical treasures. During World War II, Nazi general-governor Hans Frank lived in the castle; he made a number of «changes» in Wawel’s appearance. He turned the royal chambers into a beer cellar, adapted the Audience Hall so that movies could be displayed there; a swimming pool was built on the garden terraces.

When Poland became free, the royal stronghold was again opened to the public. Valuable exhibit items, a rich collection of Gobelins, coronation relics of Polish kings and the sword Szczerbiec were once moved to Canada to save them, but they returned into Wawel Castle in 1959. By the end of the 20th century large-scale renovation work started to prepare the Castle for the celebration of the 1000th anniversary of Cracow Bishopric.