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Dux ambulans, the history of dukes and duchesses of Racibórz | Research by prof. Jerzy Sperka

17.01.2023 - 09:37 update 24.04.2023 - 14:21
Editors: wc-a
Tags: nauki humanistyczne

Prof. dr hab. Jerzy Sperka

Prof. Jerzy Sperka | Photo by Agnieszka Sikora

| Małgorzata Kłoskowicz |

How did Mieszko the Tanglefoot expand his duchy? What did John the Iron lend to Ladislaus Jagiello? What was the reason behind the issue between Nicholas V, Duke of Krnov, and Zbigniew Oleśnicki, Bishop of Kraków? These are the stories told by Prof. Jerzy Sperka, the Director of the Institute of History at the Faculty of Humanities, author of the book Książęta i księżne raciborscy (1290/1291–1521). This interesting publication takes the reader back in time to the early Middle Ages and shows what was happening then in present-day Upper Silesia.

The fragmentation of Poland refers to the period following the testament of Bolesław III Wrymouth (1138) that lasted until the coronation of Ladislaus the Short (1320), when he unified the entire kingdom. After Wrymouth’s death, the oldest of his sons—Władysław—became the High Duke of Poland and was given the district of Silesia. However, soon after, he lost the throne and went into exile. It was as late as 1163 when two of Wrymouth’s sons—Mieszko the Tanglefoot and Bolesław the Tall—returned to Silesia and were restored in their Silesia heritage by the then High Duke Bolesław the Curly.

‘The described changes were nothing extraordinary in the then patrimonial states in Europe. Such feudal fragmentations within dynastic empires were to prevent any power struggles; in fact, they led to fragmented and crumbling states with individual lands ruled by various rulers. Moreover, it frequently resulted in fratricidal warfare. So was the case of Władysław’s sons,’ says Prof. Jerzy Sperka.

During the Middle Ages, one could expand his kingdom in one of three ways; it was done by conquest, purchase agreement or as a gift, e.g. a dowry brought by a bride.

It seems that Mieszko the Tanglefoot was not too thrilled that he had to co-rule with his brother, against whom he rebelled in 1172. Consequently, a war broke out, and in the wake of a victory, he took over the castellanies of Racibórz and Cieszyn. Initially, it was a small area, yet it began to expand quite rapidly.

Seven years later, the Duke of Racibórz rebelled against his brother for the second time, and the younger one won yet again. Bolesław had no territory to cede this time as he had passed on the Duchy of Opole to his son Jarosław. However, Casimir the Just—the Duke of Kraków—cared about good relations with his neighbour and took Mieszko’s side. On the occasion of christening Mieszko’s son Casimir, he gifted him the castellanies of Bytom and Oświęcim. And thus, the western part of Kraków Land was joined to the growing stronger Duchy of Racibórz. At the beginning of the 13th century, Mieszko the Tanglefoot conquered with fire and sword the Duchy of Opole ruled by his nephew Henry the Bearded, the son of Bolesław the Tall. Thereby, the Duchy of Opole and Racibórz was created, the territory of which—later divided into numerous duchies—will be known as Upper Silesia from the 15th century onwards.

The expanding area meant an increase in the number of the duke’s troops. All landowners by knight service were obliged to serve their overlord, as explains Prof. Jerzy Sperka. It was only natural in any then duchy. Without a doubt, knights could rebel against their lord; however, they would lose their land consequently.

‘It practically never happened because participation in military campaigns was a way to make a living. It goes without saying that it involved great risk, but one could also return in glory, fame and with some loot,’ says the historian from the University of Silesia.

Pieczęć Mikołaja V raciborskiego, pana na Karniowie i Rybniku

Seal of Nicholas V, Duke of Krnov and Rybnik (16 Jan 1445) | Photo by Prof. Jerzy Sperka

In the event of concluding a land purchase-sale agreement between dukes, knights who had served their previous overlord were now obliged to serve their new owner. However, the documents were always safeguarded with proper clauses, which stipulated that in the event of a war, knights from the purchased territory were relieved from participating in expeditions against their former overlord. But not only were knights obliged to serve a duke, including military campaigns and expeditions; it was also an obligation of wójts (heads of a town) and sołtyses (village leaders). Fulfilling these duties was a way to get a promotion and gave them a chance to become a knight, points out Prof. Jerzy Sperka.

‘When it comes to the number of troops, the exact records from 1414 have been preserved. These are the times of King Ladislaus Jagiello’s expedition against the Teutonic Order. Jagiello had excellent relations with the Dukes of Silesia, although they were vassals to the King of Bohemia. He achieved that thanks to his matrimonial policy. Namely, he was marrying off his kinswomen to Silesian dukes in order to create political bonds,’ explains the scientist. ‘Of course, the dukes benefited from it as well because they had good relations with the King of Poland,’ he adds.

Hence, in 1414, most of the Silesian dukes joined Jagiello and marched off for an expedition against the Teutonic Order. According to the so-called letters of declaration drafted for the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, 360 knights departed from the small Duchy of Racibórz to aid the King, each with a retinue of 3 to 5 people. They set out from Racibórz to Chełmno Land, covering a distance of 20-25 km per day. It is worth mentioning that a medieval monarch was constantly on the move travelling throughout his kingdom. Historians have dubbed them as travelling rulers; in our case, such a ruler might be called a dux ambulans, i.e. a travelling duke. He had ‘various places to be’ not only to fight but also to perform his other duties. He supervised his estates, resolved disputes as the ultimate judge, granted privileges, etc.

Nevertheless, good relations with the King of Poland were not merely about supporting him during wars. It also included way more enjoyable events. For instance, in 1424, the Duke of Racibórz John the Iron was invited to Jagiello’s fourth wedding with Sophia of Halshany. The Duke arrived at the Kraków court with his wife, Helena, Jagiello’s niece (obviously!). ‘Once again, we can learn fascinating facts from the preserved documents. Well, John the Iron brought with him tableware for the feast. Not as a gift, however, but rather as a neighbourly favour. All these golden, silver and copper bowls, goblets and plates had to be listed and dispatched by carts to Silesia, to Racibórz after the ceremony,’ says the scientist.

In the book by Prof. Jerzy Sperka, you can read not only about the relationships between the Dukes of Racibórz with Jagiello but also with other kings of Poland, Bohemia, Hungary, and Germany. The Piast dynasty ruled over the Duchy of Racibórz until 1336. The last two dukes were Przemysław, the son of Vladislaus I of Opole, and Leszek, the son of Przemysław. However, Leszek died childless; thus, John of Luxembourg, the then King of Bohemia and Poland, as the liege lord had ruled that the Duchy was to be given to Leszek’s brother-in-law Nicholas II, the Duke of Opava. And so the Duchy of Racibórz was under the protection of the Přemyslid dynasty.

‘Here, it is worth mentioning the rivalry between the Piast dynasty and the Přemyslid dynasty. John of Luxembourg did not waive his rights to the Kingdom of Poland, hence his title. It was so until the successor of Ladislaus the Short, King Casimir the Great, purchased the right to the Polish throne from the House of Luxembourg for 20,000 threescores of Prague groschen,’ says the scientist.

Over 200 years of the history of dukes and duchesses of Racibórz described and encapsulated in one book includes some vibrant biographies as well. The favourite figure of Prof. Jerzy Sperka is Nicholas, one of John the Iron’s two sons. He and his brother divided their inheritance after their late father in 1437; Nicholas received Rybnik, Żory, Pszczyna, Mikołów and areas reaching today’s Katowice, as well as Karniów and Bruntal. Interestingly, he was fighting against Zbigniew Oleśnicki, a bishop of Kraków, over Siewierz, which the bishop bought from the dukes of Cieszyn. Nicholas had certain doubts about this transaction, and before Oleśnicki’s men reached Siewierz, the castle had been taken by Nicholas’s knights. The war lasted two years until they eventually reached a settlement.

It is worth mentioning that the son of John the Iron married a noblewoman Margaret of Ligota, the widow of a knight Hunusz Klem of Ligota. ‘Margaret did not belong to any dynasty. What were the benefits of marrying a knight’s widow? Neither political nor economical. The duke must have fallen head over heels in love, and Margaret must have been an exceptional woman. She gave him two children; unfortunately, she died not long afterwards,’ says the historian.

Then, Nicholas met Barbara Rockenberg, a wealthy townswoman of Kraków and owner of several tenements at Kraków market square and a lead mine in Olkusz. Once again, she did not belong to any dynasty, but the duke married her nonetheless.

Such histories can be listened to for hours, all the more reason to reach for the book by Prof. Jerzy Sperka. It hides many more intriguing stories from the times of dukes and duchesses of Racibórz.

The article Dux ambulans, czyli historia książąt i księżnych raciborskich was published in December issue of University of Silesia Magazine No 3 (303).

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