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King Casimir III The Great – between history and legend

In the Polish history, king Casimir III (born on 30 April 1310, deceased on 5 November 1370) called the Great is a significant, intriguing and distinct personage. Perhaps no other Polish ruler was referred to with so many surnames and subject of such numerous legends. How is the King perceived from the perspective of the town of Kazimierz Dolny? It is fitting to start with the title “Great”, first noted no sooner than in 1496. Undoubtedly, the monarch gained the title “Great” thanks to his success in internal policy of the Kingdom of Poland, reborn only half a century before his reign. The development of the state followed then by means of creating and strengthening of estate monarchy in the 14th century based upon 3 estates: the clergy, which separated as the first one and grew strong during the fragmentation of state; the knighthood, which consolidated during Casimir’s reign; and the townspeople, who owed their significance to autonomous self-government of towns and to the peasantry, which constituted the lowest level of the social scale. King Casimir strived after centralization of power and its consolidation. To achieve that he reigned with a will and delegated tasks to efficient clerks – starosts, who combined the power of the judicature, the troops and the police authority with the administration over cities and the royal property. This approach quickly brought the intended effects and increased the authority of the sovereign. However, the centralization of power based largely on townspeople and the middle estate of knighthood often led to clashes between the king on the one hand and the magnates and clergy on the other.

Some fundamental merits of the monarch include the codification of laws in Piotrków-Wiślica Statutes from 1346-1347, which removed the legislative chaos that until then prevailed in the country. According to the spirit of the era, the law gave the knighthood significant privileges, but, in turn, the personal freedom of countrymen was severely limited. This casts a shadow of doubt over the by-name of the monarch: “the king of peasants”, which should be associated more with creative writing of the 19th century historical writers than with historical truth. From the perspective of the settlement at the Grodarz stream, the most significant merit of Casimir III the Great’s monarchy was his policy consisting in “colonization of empty areas”, i.e. intensive foundation of tens of new towns and villages. Janko of Czarnków, a chronicler from the time of the last king from the Piast dynasty, writes: “Such a great number of towns and villages were founded in forests, groves and oak woods in the days of this King that were never established in any other time in the Kingdom of Poland.” Quick development of towns and townspeople is perhaps the most characteristic feature of Poland in the times of king Casimir. The number of Polish towns almost doubled during the reigns of this monarch – 93 new towns were settled, including 47 towns founded by the King. One of the latter was also the town of Kazimierz. The original incorporation charter has not been preserved, and yet, to believe the record of Jan Długosz, it is Casimir III the Great who should be associated with the foundation of the town. The newest knowledge shows that this was the only incorporation privilege this own ever received.

The change of priorities in the foreign policy of Poland of that time was also of significance for Kazimierz Dolny. Implemented diplomatic measures allowed king Casimir III the Great to give up the reign over Silesia and Pomerania – at least temporarily – and to direct expansion towards Ruthenia, which became important for trade. As a result, Halych Ruthenia was seized in 1344-1349. The location of the settlement upon Grodarz on an important communication and commercial route must have attracted the attention of the monarch, which resulted in the foundation of the town. Combined with reorganisation of state armed forces based on obligatory military service, the so-called “Pospolite ruszenie” and a system of banners and creation of an internal defence system that modernised 13th century fortresses and led to the construction of new ones, the settlement in Kazimierz Dolny entirely changed its form and organisation. As Jan Długosz describes it, the King, who “found Poland made of clay, wood and untidy, left it decorated, wonderful and made of stone”, not only founded the town and “erected a castle for its protection”, but also awarded its inhabitants privileges “which freed the inhabitants of Kazimierz from paying the toll, both on water and on land, as such privileges are made to please the King”. Moreover, he granted the merchants of Toruń the privilege with preference for the road via Kazimierz and Wąwolnica on the way to the Ruthenian city of Vladimir. Thus, the period of medieval prosperity of the city commenced. There is no doubt that this was the result of the reign of the son of king Władysław I the Elbow-high, although no written records mention Casimir III the Great ever visiting the town, but only indicate his father, who stayed in the town at the Octave of St. Bartholomew in 1328 and issued a privilege for Sieciechów.

In the consideration of further development of the townspeople of Kazimierz Dolny, it is worth commenting here on Casimir’s policy of supporting Jews and awarding the Jewish diaspora privileges that increased homogeneity and significance of this minority in the Polish society, as it is often characterised in historian’s works. Was it really the case? Could Jews from Kazimierz Dolny refer to themselves as “the King’s Jews”? Perhaps the grounds for such a name came from the tradition, but historical facts indicate that Casimir III the Great solely created proper conditions for a dynamic development of townspeople, in which “those who worship Yahweh” have always been particularly active. The King was not specifically innovative in his social policy. In 1334 and 1364 he confirmed the General Charter of Jewish Liberties, also known as the Statute of Kalisz, which stopped the rule of Magdeburg rights over Jews and placed them under the jurisdiction of royal courts. This validated the rights granted to Jews by Duke of Greater Poland Boleslaus the Pious in 1264.

No doubt, the fact that king Casimir III the Great’s rule is often referred to as a propitious time for Jews is connected to Jan Długosz’ story from 1356, which mentions the sovereign’s affair with Esterka, a beautiful Jewish girl and granddaughter of a merchant and doctor from Opoczno, with whom the King had two sons: Niemerz and Pelka. It was supposedly Esterka’s influence that can be viewed as the reason for the King’s favourable policy towards Jews.

The legend about king Casimir and Esterka has become inherently tied to the town upon Vistula. It tells a story about their deep love that originated from their meeting at a spring, a royal feast in praise of the King’s beloved, the maids-of-honour envy of the “David’s daughter”, the erection of a castle in Bochotnica for Esterka and its connection to the fortress in Kazimierz Dolny with underground passages, which the loving King persistently crossed. However, it should be remembered that the story about a beautiful Jewish girl and her royal lover is connected to numerous towns and cities of Poland, for instance with Niepołomice, Czchów, Opoczno, Przedborze, Radom, Rzeszów, Sandomierz, Skawina or Wiślica, as well as with Łobzów with Esterka’s mound or the House of Esterka in the Cracow district of Kazimierz.

More legends connected to the last king from the Piast dynasty have been created in Kazimierz Dolny. Another legend indicated that the town upon Grodarz, the dungeons of the barrel-shaped tower dominating the town, to be precise, were the place where Maćko Borkowic died of starvation, sentenced to such cruel torments by Casimir III the Great. Maciej (or Maćko) Borkowic is undoubtedly a historic person, the starost of Poznań and one of the leaders of a confederation of magnates from Greater Poland against the King. Maćko was prisoned in a castle in Kalisz in 1358 and sentenced there by the King personally. He starved to death on 9 February 1360, but historical sources indicate that his place of decease was the tower of Olsztyn castle near Częstochowa.

Another legend picturing Casimir III the Great as connected to the town of Kazimierz Dolny describes a story in which the King hunted a large deer in the woods nearby. Allegedly, its antlers decorate the so-called “melusina” chandelier in the parish church in Kazimierz Dolny. Experts have dated the multi-element “melusina” for the first half of the 17th century, but the figure of Virgin Mary encircled by flames placed at the top of the chandelier may origin even from the first half of the 15th century. Combined with a remark from a 1509 inventory of furniture and equipment of the castle in Kazimierz Dolny that lists “a table and a chandelier made of deer antlers”, one may wonder that perhaps each legend contains a grain of truth.

“So let the tale be a tale – since what could be more marvellous than telling tales...?” Bożena Gałuszewska, Agnieszka Stachyra-Świderska

King Casimir III The Great – between history and legend

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