Racibórz – castle and St Thomas’ chapel


   The medieval castle was built on the relics of the timber stronghold, probably built in the 11th century, on an island called Ostrog, surrounded by the arms of the Oder, Old Oder and Młynówka. The stronghold served as a watchtower defending the crossing of the river on the former trade route connecting Wrocław, Nysa and Kraków, and was also a center of the ducal administration. In the eleventh century this important border center temporarily belonged to the Bohemia and it was only prince Bolesław III Wrymouth who joined it to Poland. As a result of Silesia’s district divisions, stronghold became the second most important prince’s seat in the region next to Opole. In the years 1177 – 1211 it was the main stronghold of prince Mieszko Tanglefoot, who issued numerous documents in Racibórz. It was also the seat of the castellan, served as an administrative and judicial center, with the first castellan of Racibórz appearing in a document from 1222. In the first half of the 13th century, the stronghold became only a military building and the seat of the ruler, while the craft and trade center moved to the other bank of the Oder, where the city of Racibórz was formed. Only the servant settlement called Ostrog remained at the stronghold.
   In the third quarter of the 13th century, the wood and earth stronghold was rebuilt into a brick castle. During this period, by the will of prince Władysław of Opole from 1281, the castellany of Racibórz was given to Przemysł I, which initiated the creation of an independent principality of Racibórz. Perhaps it was this event that initiated the rebuilding of the old stronghold to the castle form.
   During the great dispute over investiture between the bishop of Wrocław Thomas II and the prince of Wrocław Henry IV Probus, prince Przemysł gave shelter to the bishop at the Racibórz castle. In 1287, the church hierarch led a long defense here against Henry IV’s troops, which ended in negotiations and settlement. Around 1290, in remembrance of this reconciliation, a chapel was built in the castle with the significant dedication of Saint Thomas of Canterbury (martyr in the fight between church and secular authority). Just before his death in 1292, the bishop, in gratitude for his help in the war, also founded a canonical collegiate near the chapel, which he endowed with episcopal income. In 1519, during the reign of prince Valentine, a fire broke out in the chapel, as a result of which the southern wall and the vault collapsed. The reconstruction carried out shortly thereafter led to a fairly faithful restoration of the original appearance of the building.
   The Piast princes ruled the castle until 1336. Later it became the property of the princes of the Opava line, as a result of the feudal tribute of 1327 to the Czech king by the last prince of Racibórz, Leszek. Instead of handing it over to its rightful owners, i.e. the Opole princes, the king gave it to the Opavian princes from the Přemyslid dynasty. Under their rule, the castle became only the seat of the prince’s burgraves and mayors. Princes visits were very rare in the 15th and 16th centuries, the importance of the castle was decreasing, and probably because of it in 1416 the collegiate chapter was moved from the chapel of St. Thomas to the city parish church.

After the death of prince John II Good in 1532, the duchy and castle became a pledge under the reign of George Hohenzollern, who founded a brewery in the castle. In the years 1603-1636 domain manager George Opersdorff commissioned the renovation and expansion of the already weakened fortress. Unfortunately, in 1637, just after the renovation, the castle burned down. A few years later the ruined building was bought by the Opersdorff family, whose in hands remained until 1712. In the 19th century, the malting and brewery was expanded, which significantly distorted castle’s original appearance. In 1945, during the war, the building was burned down.


   The castle was founded on the right bank of the Oder, in the immediate vicinity of the river flowing on its southern side and circling a bend a little further from the west and north. It was situated on the site of an older timber stronghold, in a swampy area through which the only road led through the dyke from the east, where it connected with the former trade route.
   The shape of the brick walls of the castle was presumably the circumference of the earlier wooden-earthed ramparts of the hillfort. In south-east corner was a cylindrical tower, slightly protruding from the line of walls. It was erected from bricks in the monk bond and its diameter at the base was 16 meters. Initially, the gatehouse was half as short as the present one and was at the height of the first line of walls. Later it was extended and connected to the external defensive circuit. In the immediate vicinity of the gate there was a chapel of St. Thomas, and north of it the main castle buildings, which were added to the defensive wall. The castle was originally defended by a moat connected to the river waters.
   St. Thomas of Canterbury chapel was placed at the peripheral wall. Its original layout was two-storey and half a bay longer than the current one. The lower floor had a height of 3,5 meters and a three-bay vault. Perhaps it was originally a burial chamber, above which there was a proper chapel with an extremely bright and clean architectural form. The gallery was built into the western bay of the upper storey, and the internal facades were very rich and sophisticated. The network of divisions was marked by the rib – canopy system of vaults supported on the ancillary columns, flowing down to the very floor, following the classic French cathedrals. The stone capitals were decorated with leaves of many plants, one can recognize the leaves of oak, maple, ivy and grapevine, and even marguerites. Type of cornice ran around the walls in the middle of the walls heights, made of connecting window sills, which filled the entire second storey of the upper part of the chapel with the exception of the matroneum. Under the cornice ran a series of arcaded niches, performing the function of sedilies, divided into segments of three. In the thickness of each of the shorter walls, there were staircases, from which the eastern one provided a connection between the floors, and the western one led to the matroneum. The only, atypically placed entrance to the chapel, led from the second floor to the porch on the 
defensive walls.
The chapel had certainly a courtly character, as evidenced by its availability only from the castle’s floor. Most probably, the upper part was intended for the prince and his court, while the lower part was for the canons. The prototypes for buildings of this kind should be sought in France in the Sainte Chapelle in Paris, and closer in the chapel of Saint Hedwig in Trzebnica, which was twenty years earlier or the Czech chapels at the castles in Zvikov or Bezděz.

Current state

   The gothic and renaissance style of the castle has been largely obliterated. At present, its most valuable element is the castle chapel, due to its high artistic level called the pearl of Silesian gothic. Fortunately, the reconstructions from the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries did not manage to change its Gothic interior, and the 19th-century matroneum placed on the site of the medieval one, neatly imitates the likely appearance of the original. The gables, western entrance portal and vault in the western bay of the chapel have also been transformed. Next to it is the palace wing. Recently renovated it is a place of cultural and entertainment events and a small museum. Prices and opening hours are on the official website here.

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Grzybkowski A., Gotycka architektura murowana w Polsce, Warszawa 2016.
Kutzner M., Racibórz, Warszawa 1965.

Leksykon zamków w Polsce, red. L.Kajzer, Warszawa 2003.
Walczak M., Kościoły gotyckie w Polsce, Kraków 2015.