The Congress of Gniezno: The first Polish-German summit

In March 1000, an extraordinary event took place. The Holy Roman Emperor Otton III visited Gniezno, the then capital of the Polish state. The official aim of the visit to the state ruled by Bolesław Chrobry, was a pilgrimage to the grave of Saint Adalbert.

by Piotr Bejrowski


In the mid 10th century, under the rule of Duke Mieszko I, Polish tribes were united, there were major internal reforms and Christianity was adopted, in consequence, Poland entered the Western European Latin world. His son, Bolesław, continued the policies of his father and cemented his achievements, working for the strengthening of the state and conducting an active foreign policy. Christianising missions in Prussia also fell under this policy, carried out in neighbouring states to the North-East.

St. Adalbert of Prague (public domain)

At the time, due to the internal conflicts in the Czech state, Bishop Adalbert of Prague, from the house of Sławinkowic, fled the country and found shelter in the court of the Duke of Poland. He arrived in Poland from the court of the Emperor, and afterwards set off to the North, where, amongst others, he carried out a mass baptism in Gdańsk. From there, together with his brother Radzim-Gaudenty and an escort of Polish warriors, he set off for the territory of pagan Prussia. The Bishop’s mission received a hostile reception from the local population. After one of the masses carried out in the holy grove in the year 997, he was insidiously attacked and murdered by a group of Prussians, who were led by a pagan priest by the name of Sicco.

The martyr’s death of the bishop resonated widely in the whole of Europe. Bolesław Chrobry didn’t spare any costs to buy back Adalbert’s body and to begin the proceedings towards his canonisation, which happened very quickly, already in 999. The Bishop’s remains were placed in a reliquary in Gniezno. The stance taken by the Polish Duke was met with the great respect of Western courts, indeed up until then, only the Roman Emperor had led an active Christianising policy towards pagan tribes.

Bolesław I Chrobry (painting by Jan Matejko; public domain)

Adalbert’s death also made a huge impression on Emperor Otton III himself. It affirmed the young ruler in the conviction that he should develop a concept for the renewal of a universal Roman Empire based on the Christian faith. He assumed, that alongside the old kingdoms which comprised the Empire – Galia, Italia and Germania, there should also be “Sclavinia” (Western Slavic Lands) – young states, which had only recently adopted Christianity. At the helm of each of the kingdoms, was meant to be a King, obedient to the Emperor.

On the 7th March 1000, Otton III arrived on a pilgrimage to the grave of St. Adalbert. Apart from religious motivations, the Emperor was also motivated by issues of a political nature – he wanted to gain the support of the Polish Duke for the idea of a universal Empire. Bolesław prepared himself well for the unprecedented visit of his important guest. Even the German chronicler, Bishop Thietmar from Merseburg, who was unfavourable to Poland, was greatly impressed by the reception given to the Emperor by the Polish ruler. He wrote:

In what way was the Emperor by him then received and by his country, as far as Gniezno taken, a thing hard to believe and all but impossible to describe. Seeing from afar the desired city, he went there piously with bare feet, and greeted with extreme reverence by Bishop Unger, he was led into the church, awash with tears, he implored the intercession of the holy martyr to grant him the grace of Christ. And, without delay he raised the city to the rank of an archbishopric.

The Holy Roman Emperor Otton III (public domain)

The Congress of Gniezno, sometimes known as the Gniezno synod, introduced important political decisions. The most important of these was the consent of the Emperor for establishing Gniezno as an archbishopric, independent of the Emperor and solely answerable to the Pope. It was proof of recognition for the Polish ruler’s engagement in Christianising missions, and at the same time, the creation of a solid institutional foundation for future activities of Christianization. The brother of Saint Adalbert, Radzim Gaudenty, became the first metropolitan bishop. Three bishoprics were also established in Kraków, Kołobrzeg and Wrocław, which were governed by the archbishopric of Gniezno. For comparison, we should add that the Czechs, at whose hands the Piast dynasty received its baptism, only gained an independent church hierarchy in the 16th century.

Otton III gave to Duke Bolesław Chrobry, a faithful copy of the spear of Saint Maurice – the most important imperial and ceremonial insignia of the Otton dynasty. In the spear gifted to the Polish Duke, a fragment of the reliquary of the nail was placed, with which, according to tradition, Christ was nailed to the cross.

Alongside generous gifts, Emperor Otton placed an imperial diadem on the Duke’s head. This fact still ignites heated debates today. Some researchers saw in this gesture, the moment of the King’s coronation, however others, merely the consent for a future coronation. There is no shortage of proponents of this concept, in which the Polish ruler was seen as being, in this way, symbolically anointed as one of the successors of the imperial throne. Perhaps this gesture also signified consent for the investiture of the bishops.

Silver relic coffin of St. Adalbert at Gniezno Cathedral (picture by I, Ludek; CC BY-SA 3.0)

Otton III was supposed to also name Bolesław as a brother and colleague of the Emperor. It was an emphasis of his rank and independence, but also a kind of commitment: in political, religious and military alliance based on the continuation of Christianization, as well as the defence of the eastern borders of the Empire against pagans. On the same occasion, the Emperor also revoked the tax which Chrobry had to pay German rulers, which meant that Poland became independent from the Reich. The Emperor received from Bolesław a reliquary of the shoulder of Saint Adalbert, as well as a huge division of 300 armoured warriors. In an impressive and numerous retinue, he walked him back as far as Magdeburg, where both jointly celebrated Palm Sunday.

Unfortunately Otton III died in 1002, having lived only 22 years. With his death, was buried the opportunity to build a universal Empire, also the chance for peaceful German-Polish cooperation. In the same year, war broke out, resulting from the probable assassination order on Bolesław Chrobry made by the King of Germany Henry II. Therein began a time of long and destructive armed conflicts. Bolesław Chrobry only received the royal crown a few months before his death in 1025.

Author: Piotr Bejrowski
Translation: Blanka Konopka