On June 26, 1295, the White Eagle was added to the Polish coat of arms when the Piast Duke Przemysł II was crowned King of Poland.
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.
In 1025, shortly before his death, Mieszko’s son Bolesław the Brave of Poland succeeded in obtaining the papal permission to crown himself, and thus became the first King of Poland.
But the 12th century brought fundamental changes to the structure of Polish society and its political system. The resulting internal division eroded the initial Piast monarchical structure and Poland entered a period of feudal fragmentation during which Poland was once again ruled by High Dukes.
But by the end of the 13th century, after a long line of Polish High Dukes and two nominal kings, Przemysł II was the first to once more obtain the hereditary title of King.
He was crowned King in June 1295 and thus returned Poland to the rank of Kingdom. But oOnly nine months later, Przemysł II was murdered during a failed kidnapping attempt made by men of the Margraves of Brandenburg.
Where does the White Eagle come from?
While the symbol of an eagle had appeared on coins since the reign of Bolesław I, it was added to the Polish coat of arms during the reign of Przemysł II, probably to emphasize his procedence from the historic Piast dynasty.
Legend indeed has it that the original founder of Poland, Lech, was off hunting with his brothers Czech, who headed to the west, and Rus, who headed east. Heading north, Lech came across a white eagle who spread its wings while the red of the setting sun made its wings glow gold. Lech decided to settle at this spot and named this small outpost Gniezno, which would become the very first capital of Poland.
Over the centuries, the white eagle evolved to become a patriotic symbol, notably after the 18th century partition or during World War II. When the communists took over, the white eagle even lost the golden crown that it had worn for centuries, the bare-headed white eagle representing a Poland subservient to the ruling Soviet regime.
After communism fell, the Polish eagle regained its crown and was adopted as Poland’s official symbol, remaining so to this day. It now appears on everything associated with Poland, from official government seals and military flag to T-shirts, caps, flags and shot glasses.
But the issue on which conditions it should be exposed and how it should be interpreted is the topic of numerous debates in Poland.
For instance, the act that protects the emblem makes the use of the logo for artistic interpretation difficult and confusing. As a result, the government ordered that the Polish Eagle be removed from the shirts of the Polish National Football team in 2010. But after overwhelming public pressure, the football shirts were redesigned with the eagle reinstated in the centre of the shirt in 2011.
Find out more about Central European history in our new On this Day series.