Saint Adalbert: Martyr and patron Saint of Poland

The 1026th anniversary of Saint Adalbert’s death

Born Vojtěch of Slavník, St Adalbert served as bishop of Prague until he came to Poland from the court of Emperor Otto III as a missionary, and eventual martyr. On 23 April 997, this first Slavic saint was killed during the conversion of the Prussians to the Christian faith.

by Piotr Bejrowski

He was born around 956 in Libice, Bohemia (current day Czech Republic). He was a Slavník – a powerful and wealthy family which competed with the ruling dynasty, the Přemyslids. One legend says, that when little Adalbert became seriously ill, his parents swore that when he recovered, they would encourage him to join the clergy. He recovered and, at the age of twenty-five, he was ordained a priest. In Magdeburg, under the protection of Archbishop Adalbert, he attended one of the best schools in the Holy Roman Empire. He returned to the Czech lands in 983 and despite his young age, was appointed bishop of Prague.

St. Adalbert of Prague (public domain)

The life of Saint Adalbert, Bishop and Martyr mentions this period as follows:

“[…] the virtuous Bishop, devoted to God and his little lambs, made superhuman efforts to bring this stray nation to good sense and repentance. He himself set a good example: he fasted, mortified his innocent body, he spent all his free time praying fervently, payed visits to prisoners and the sick, gave passionate sermons, distributed all his income among the poor, while he himself ate little and wore miserable and poor clothes […].

After the conflict with the Catholics in his own country, he had to resign as bishop. He went to Italy, where he stayed, among other places, in the Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino. Eventually, Adalbert returned to his homeland and undertook an evangelistic mission in pagan Hungary. During this time, in addition to leading a virtuous life, he also became famous for opposing the sale of Slavic slaves to Islamic countries. Apparently, Jesus Christ would appear in his dream and ask: “Here I am sold again, and you are sleeping?” This scene was presented on the famous Gniezno church door from the 12th century, one of the most valuable monuments of Romanesque art in Poland.

The Holy Roman Emperor Otton III (public domain)

In the last decade of the 10th Century, a dispute was growing between the bishop and his family and the Bohemian prince Boleslaus II, which culminated in the slaughter of the Slavníks and the burning down of Libice in 995. After this event, Adalbert could no longer continue his pastoral duties. With the consent of Pope Gregory V, he went to the court of young Emperor Otto III, with whom he supposedly made friends.

In 996, he came to Poland, where his eldest brother Soběslav was in the service of Bolesław I the Brave. The next goal of Adalbert was the Christianization of Prussia. First, he carried out a mass baptism in Gdansk, and then reached the lands located near today’s Elbląg. Unfortunately, however, his missionary activity was not well received. In April 997, in the company of his step-brother Radim Gaudentius, he spoke at a rally and attempted to explain the principles of the Christian religion. The congregation, however, ordered the missionaries to leave the territory inhabited by Prussians. A few days later, near the border (now the village of Święty Gaj), they were attacked by a group led by a pagan priest named Sicco. Adalbert – hit by an ax and a spear – died on the spot, his body was decapitated, and his companions sent to Poland.

Death of Saint Adalbert of Prague, Gniezno Doors ca. 1170 (picture by Maciej Szczepańczyk; CC BY-SA 4.0)

The news of the bishop’s martyrdom spread widely throughout Europe. Bolesław I the Brave negotiated, and paid, for the successful return of St Adalbert’s body and began a campaign for canonization, which happened very quickly, as early as in 999. The corpse of the saint was placed in a reliquary in Gniezno. The attitude of the Polish prince was highly lauded because the active Christianization of the pagan tribes had hitherto been carried out only by the emperor. Otto III himself was very much moved by the death of Adalbert, and this confirmed in him the belief that the renewal of a Roman Empire based on the Christian faith should be continued. The idea – presented in March 1000 in Gniezno, during the emperor’s pilgrimage to the grave of the martyr – assumed that next to the lands belonging to the empire, there would also be found “Sclavinia” (Western Slavic), that is, young countries that had only recently received Christianity.

The importance of the mission and the death of Saint Adalbert for Poland ruled by Bolesław I the Brave was incalculable. The creation of an independent archbishopric was announced during the congress in Gniezno and Radim Gaudentius became the first metropolitan of Gniezno. Otton III left the land of the Piasts with a relic of the holy arm, which was then placed in Aachen and Rome. The cult of Adalbert quickly spread among many European countries. The first Slavic saint and martyr is currently, next to the Mother of God, Queen of Poland and Saint Stanislaus, the main patron saint of Poland, he is also called the “patron saint of the spiritual unity of Europe”. The Catholic Church celebrates the day of Saint Adalbert on the anniversary of his martyrdom – 23 April. In iconography, he is most often presented in the clothes of a bishop, in a pallium, with a crozier.

Author: Piotr Bejrowski
Translation: Alicja Rose & Jessica Sirotin