Pope John Paul II’s first papal trip to Poland in 1971 was a monumental event in the 20th century Polish history. His presence petrified communist authorities, who had run anti-religious campaigns for decades and during this imperative visit, the Pope made a special trip to the Wawel Cathedral in Krakow. The historic castle is the resting place of a number of important Polish historical figures—Casimir III the Great, Tadeusz Kościuszko, Józef Pilsudski—but instead, John Paul II chose to return to his most cherished praying spots: the Christ Crucified Alter of Jadwiga’s tomb.
Centuries before, the young Jadwiga was crowned the King of Poland in the same building at just 10-11 years old. The only woman to hold that title, she transformed her country into a European powerhouse and became one of the nation’s most celebrated monarchs.
Journey to the Throne
During his thirty year reign, King Casimir III the Great doubled Poland’s borders, gave a safe haven for Jews fleeing persecution, and transformed the country from a fractured kingdom weakened by warfare to a unified, strong state. But one thing he could not do was father a legitimate son. Because the ancient laws required the right of succession could only be passed to a male, King Casimir passed the throne to his nephew Louis of Anjou’s eventual future sons.
However, Louis only fathered daughters himself and in 1374, he convened the King’s Council at Kosice hoping to convince them to allow women inherit the throne. They originally refused but after reaching a compromise (to their benefit), they granted women the right of succession.
Louis originally chose his oldest daughter Catherine as heir but after a horse riding accident killed her and her unborn child, he turned to his second daughter Mary. This arrangement was never realized, however, because she was already crowned King of Hungary and betrothed to a man the nobles did not particularly. Thus, they chose his youngest daughter Jadwiga to crown as King.
After Jadwiga’s coronation, the nobles focused their attention on finding a suitable husband to co-rule with. She had been arranged to marry Wilhelm von Habsburg of Austria since infancy but they had different plans. Poland’s eastern neighbor Lithuania was at the height of its development, with territory spanning from the Baltic Sea to the north, modern day Moscow to the east, and the Black Sea to the South. It was also a pagan state of Europe open to converting to Christianity. A marriage between Jadwiga and Lithuanian Grand Duke Jagiello would unite their kingdoms, spread Catholicism further East, and create a powerful enough entity to counteract German and Russian expansion.
Jadwiga was however hesitant about the arrangement at first because she was in love with the German prince, not Jagiello. But after many nights of prayer she chose to marry the Lithuanian Grand Duke and her sacrifice built a union that lasted for centuries.
Despite coming from a time when women did not rule, King Jadwiga continued to have a hand in politics even after her marriage. She led two campaigns to reclaim lost Polish territory and opened diplomatic negotiations with the Teutonic Knights.
She was also well known for her extensive philanthropy work. During her reign, she funded the arts, backed a number of artists and writers, and donated much of her wealth to hospitals.
However, one of her most memorable causes was her advocacy for education, particularly her efforts in restoring Krakow University. King Casimir originally created the institution decades earlier after seeing a need for an education class but it closed after his death due to lack of funding. To revive it, Jadwiga bought buildings along the central street for the University, asked the Pope to allow a theology department, and even requested for her jewelry to be sold to fund the project in her last will. Her efforts helped reopen the academy’s doors and years later, it changed its name to Jagiellonian University in honor of her and her husband. The university has educated a number of important Polish figures, including Nicholas Copernicus, Jan II Sobieski, Stanislaw Lem, Pope John Paul II, and the current Polish president Andrzej Duda.
After reigning for thirteen years, Jadwiga passed away from complications due to childbirth in 1399. She was buried in the Wawel Cathedral, where John Paul II would pray at her tomb during his first papacy trip to Poland.
Because of her contributions to the nation’s religion, culture, and politics, she has been hailed as one of the greatest leaders in Polish history. The Polish people worshiped her as a local saint in Poland for centuries until John Paul II officially canonized into the Catholic church in 1997, where she is the patron saint of queens and a unified Europe.
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Lonnie R. Johnson, “Central Europe: Enemies, Neighbors, and Friends.”