On April 18, 1025, shortly before his death, Duke Bolesław the Brave of Poland succeeded in obtaining the papal permission to crown himself, and thus became the first King of Poland.
The development of Polish statehood
Throughout the 10th century, the West Slavic tribes, united under the Piast dukes, who regarded themselves as descendants of the semi-legendary Piast the Wheelwright (Piast Kołodziej), went through a period of accelerated building of fortified settlements and territorial expansion. This gave rise to developed regions along the upper Vistula, the coast of the Baltic Sea and in Greater Poland.
Under Mieszko I, the expanded territory was converted to Christianity in 966, when the Piast duke married Princess Doubravka of Bohemia. Known as the “Baptism of Poland”, the event laid the basis for the development of a Polish state and its integration into the prevailing European culture. In fact, its date is often used to mark the symbolic beginning of Polish statehood.
The viability of the Mieszko’s emerging state was assured by the persistent territorial expansion of the Piast lords, which lasted throughout most of the 10th century and resulted in a territory approximating that of present-day Poland. At the turn of the millenium, Mieszko had transformed Poland into one of the strongest powers in Central Europe.
Mieszko had initially intended to divide his land among his sons and his second wife, Oda of Haldensleben. But following his death in 992, his first son, Bolesław, expelled his stepmother and half-brothers from Poland to become the sole ruler of the new state. Consistent with the intrigues he pursued at the start of his reign to secure his throne, Bolesław “the Brave” proved himself to be a man of high ambition and strong personality.
The rise of Bolesław “the Brave”
One of the most important concerns of Bolesław’s early reign was building up the Polish church. He established the Archbishopric of Gniezno and supported Christianization missions to neighboring lands, which included the mission of Saint Adalbert, who was martyred in his efforts to convert the Old Prussians. As such, under Bolesław’s reign, Poland won recognition as a proper European state, from both the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire.
But when Emperor Otto III died in 1002, Bolesław’s relationship with his successor Henry II turned out to be much more difficult and resulted in a series of wars over the control of Lusatia, Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia. The conflicts ended in 1018 on favorable terms for Bolesław, whose territorial gains were later confirmed by his marriage with German noblewoman, Oda of Meissen.
Henry II did not renew his campaigns against Bolesław and even supported his expedition to Kyiv, during which the Polish ruler took over the western part of Red Ruthenia and, according to legend, chipped his sword when striking Kiev’s Golden Gate. In honor of this legend, a sword called Szczerbiec (“Jagged Sword”) would later become the coronation sword of Poland’s kings.
Bolesław was a remarkable politician, strategist, and statesman. He not only turned Poland into a country comparable to older western monarchies, but he raised it to the front rank of European states. And in 1025, shortly before his death, Bolesław finally succeeded in obtaining the papal permission to crown himself, and thus became the first King of Poland.
The first king of Poland
Throughout his reign, Bolesław conducted successful military campaigns in the west, south and east. He consolidated Polish lands and conquered territories outside the borders of modern-day Poland, including Slovakia, Moravia, Red Ruthenia, Lusatia, and Bohemia.
But Bolesław’s expansive rule overstretched the resources of the early Polish state, and the short-lived Piast monarchy collapsed with the death of his son, Mieszko II Lambert, in 1034.
The 12th century brought further changes to the structure of Polish society and its political system. Upon the death of Duke Bolesław III Wrymouth in 1138, Poland was divided among his sons. The resulting internal division eroded the initial Piast monarchical structure and Poland entered a period of feudal fragmentation which lasted about 200 years.
Poland, as a unified political entity, would not be re-established until the 14th century and the reign of Casimir III the Great, the last ruler of the Piast dynasty.
Find out more about Central European history in our On this Day series.