Henry of Sandomierz: prince-crusader

From Holy Land to Prussian Crusade

Since he was a child, he had dreamed of one thing: to become a knight of Christ. To achieve his desire to spread Christianity, he traveled to Jerusalem in 1154. The Polish prince Henry of Sandomierz (Henryk Sandomierski), however, died during another crusade against the pagan tribes of Prussia, in the north of Europe.


Henryk Sandomierski was the sixth son of Bolesław III, by name Bolesław the Wry-Mouthed (1086-1138), the ruler of Poland within the Piast dynasty, who, in order to avoid a feud between numerous offspring, in his testament divided the country between his sons and started the period of the so-called senioriate system.

Born around 1130, the prince was named after his grandfather, the German count Henry. After his father’s death, he was under the care of his mother Salomea or his older brother, Prince Bolesław IV the Curly. He received the Sandomierz district in 1146 after the expulsion of Władysław II (the Exile), his eldest (half) brother, from the country. At that time, Sandomierz was, along with Kraków and Wrocław, one of the most important cities in southern Poland.

Death of Bolesław III Wrymouth by Józef Peszka (public domain)

According to some sources, in 1146–1147 the teenage prince took part in the second crusade, the aim of which was to regain Edessa, lost to the Muslims. In Polish history, however, he was remembered primarily as a prince-crusader, a participant in an expedition to the Holy Land, setting off in 1154. As noted by the eminent chronicler Jan Długosz, after visiting the Tomb of Christ, “he joined the knights of King Baldwin of Jerusalem and fought with great courage and dedication against the Saracens, wishing to obtain a martyr’s wreath. But when he did not succeed in attaining this luck, having spent the whole year there and losing a considerable number of knights, who either died on the battlefield, or suffered with the air difference, he returned to his homeland in good health.”

In the middle of the 12th century, the main initiator of the crusade movement was the Cistercian monk and advisor to the popes, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, who “sanctified the craft of the knights” and ignited the idea of ​​war in defense of the faith. The ruler of Sandomierz responded to the pope’s call and traveled to Jerusalem with a “selected army” for several months. The fact that he did not find numerous followers in the country (especially among princes and rulers) and the aura of mystery surrounding the figure of the crusader made Henryk Sandomierski a “flawless knight”. This lack of enthusiasm of the knights from the Vistula and Warta rivers had rational causes: Polish knights often had to face pagan tribes that threatened the Piast principalities from the east and north. Fighting against them was also part of the idea of ​​the crusades.

Why then, did the prince, who ruled with four other brothers in Poland, decide to go to the Holy Land? Religious reasons and the desire to realize the ideals of the ideal knight played the most important role. Polish princes belonged to the European elite, among whom these ideas were very popular. The connections of the Piast dukes with the German princes also played an important role, as they were related to the imperial family.

The Siege of Jerusalem in 1099 as depicted in a medieval manuscript (public domain)

It was a relatively peaceful period when the son of Bolesław the Wrymouth came to Jerusalem – to the court of the universally respected King Baldwin III. Probably he had quite routine duties for the Crusaders of the time: protection of the local Christian population and pilgrims. The service of members of knightly orders looked similar. The prince came into contact in Jerusalem with the Templar Knights and the Hospitaller Knights. The latter were probably brought by Henryk to Poland and hosted in Zagość, where the prince gave them a church and a hospital. It is possible that he wanted to lead the anti-Prussian crusade with their help. Although knowledge about the prince’s life and achievements is quite limited, historians emphasize that the trip to the Holy Land must have left a big mark on him: he never married and after returning, he devoted himself mainly to spiritual matters. His modesty is also striking. In documents, he always referred to himself as “the son of the Polish prince Bolesław” or “the brother of the prince of Poland”.

According to Długosz, the prince-crusader was gladly welcomed by his brothers after his return. The country was relatively at peace at the time, Bolesław the Wrymouth played the role of the supreme prince. There was little indication that the division into districts would soon deepen and Poland would plunge into a crisis. In 1164, the brothers set off on an expedition against Prussia. Henryk Sandomierski was most likely in the front ranks. Pagans were formidable opponents, they often ventured into Polish lands, and even after the victorious campaign, Bolesław failed to persuade them to accept Christianity and Polish sovereignty. Several dozen years later, the Duke of Mazovia, Konrad, wishing to provide himself with support in the fight against the infidels, brought the Teutonic Order to Poland.

Wislica slab of orants with probable image of Casimir II the Just with his wife Helena and son Bolesław (photo: Felis domestica; CC BY-SA 3.0)

In 1166, the Prussians again turned against the Piast state. Prince Henryk set out to fight them. He wanted to die as a martyr for his faith in the Holy Land, but his fate was different. The medieval yearbooks contain a short information: “Prince Henryk with his army died during the war in Prussia.” The chronicler Wincenty Kadłubek described the fact that Polish troops were ambushed by Prussian knights. The battle against the pagans took place in an unspecified place near the town of Wąbrzeźno. Długosz, who idealized the ruler-knight, wrote that Henryk died of countless wounds: “he preferred to valiantly face the enemy and die than to live in shame”. His body was stripped of all signs of dignity, thrown onto a pile of corpses and drowned in a swamp.

The image of the prince is flawless – also due to the scarcity of sources from the period. Based on modest accounts from the era and the legend built after his death (including by Długosz), historians rate him positively. He was a ruler loyal to his brothers, respecting the will of his father, not intriguing against the superior prince, and faithful to the crusade ideas. He was also a generous donor, a good host, a pious man, and a brave knight. He founded monasteries and churches. Apparently, thanks to the efforts of the prince, the Templars came to Poland.

After the tragic death of the prince, the Sandomierz land was taken over by Casimir II the Righteous, the youngest son of Bolesław the Wrymouth. In 1192, this ruler, acting as the prince, set off against Prussia to, as Długosz wrote, “avenge the death of his brother Henryk I, the Duke of Sandomierz, and the defeat inflicted by the Prussians on the Polish army.”

Collegiate Basilica of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Wiślica (photo: Jakub Hałun; CC BY-SA 3.0)

Henryk Sandomierski is remembered in legends as a good host, pious ruler, generous donor and knight cultivating the best Christian ideals. Pictures of the prince-crusader have not survived. It was only in 1959 that archaeologists discovered a floor screed in the remains of a 12th-century Romanesque church in Wiślica, the lower part of which has engraved figural representations, possibly showing the image of the prince. It is believed that he was buried there.


Author: Piotr Abryszeński
Translation: Alicja Rose & Jessica Sirotin