Construction of the brick defensive walls in Warsaw began probably around 1280-1300 during the reign of the duke of Mazovia Konrad II. Gradually, it began to replace the older wooden and earth fortifications. The earliest mention of the walls dates from 1326. They were also mentioned in 1339 during the acceptance by the papal legates of Warsaw, as the place of conducting the Polish-Teutonic process. Warsaw, according to the proceedings, is a “safe place, surrounded by walls”. Another important source acts are the privileges issued by prince Janusz I in 1379 and 1384. It refer about freeing bourgeois from taxes in exchange for work on the construction of specific sections of the walls and about additional privileges allowing the completion of fortifications after financial losses caused by the town’s fire.
The Newtown Gate and the Cracow Gate were the first masonry fragments of fortyfications. After 1379 construction started of walls near river Vistula in the northern part of the town. The prerogative of prince Janusz I, issued that year, obliged the inhabitants to surround the town with a wall, in such a way that the town was enclosed in their ring. Already in the second half of the fifteenth century the fortifications seemed insufficient, so began to build a second line of walls from the castle to the Marshal Tower, adapted for the use of firearms. In 1548, as the last element of the walls, a barbican was established at the Newtown Gate.
Both King Sigismund I and Sigismund August repeatedly allocated appropriate funds for the maintenance, repair and expansion of the walls. Also, it was not allowed to build at the inner under-wall street, so that the owner of the plot on the corner of the market square and Celna Street, wanting to erect the back of the house in the first half of the 16th century, had to build it on an arcade over the street.
Due to the rapidly evolving military arts, the Old Town defense system has become increasingly outdated. This was confirmed by the struggles of the Swedish Deluge when the walls were badly damaged. After this period, it were not repaired and their successive demolition began. Part of the fortifications was used as a wall of newly built buildings. In 1936 it was decided to reconstruct the monument. For this purpose, some of the buildings that stood directly next to the walls, were demolished. Works interrupted during the war period, were resumed in the fifties and continued until the end of the twentieth century. The last stage of conservation works was the excavation of the brick bridge over the moat of the Castle Square, leading to the former Kraków Gate.
Fortifications circuit was about 1200 meters long and covered an area of about 8.5 hectares. The wall was about 8.5 meters high (including battlements) and 1.2 meters thick. The width of the upper sidewalk was 0.72 meters. This sidewalk was too narrow for a free passage and defense activities, which is why it was widened with a timber porch, as indicated by openings for fastening the beams, preserved in the upper part of the wall.
In the second half of the 15th century, the second, lower line of the walls was added in the southern and western sections of the fortifications. The difference between the height of the second line and the firing lines in the first line was about 4 meters and the distance between the walls was 9 to 14 meters, which fully enabled simultaneous defensive actions. The thickness of the outer wall was about 1.70 meters, and the depth of the moat in front of the wall was 5 meters in relation to the ground level.
The ring of walls was reinforced with 12 or 13 towers, among others: Knights, White, Dung, Marshal, Castle, Court, Powder and Crane. All had a rectangular shape, except for the polygonal White Tower and the cylindrical Marshal Tower. Most of them were open from the inside. Towers had height of about 14 meters and in the later period probably were topped with conical roofs. The towers were not evenly spaced around the perimeter. From the west side they were placed at a distance of about 50 meters from each other, while from the safer eastern side the distances were much larger. Also, the western external wall was provided with semi-cylindrical towers with a wall thickness of 1.95 meters and an internal diameter of 3.62 meters. The towers had two floors: the lower one on the escarpment and the vaulted upper one. It were arranged at intervals of about 36 meters.
There were two gates leading to the town: Kraków Gate (also called Bourgeoisie Gate), preceded by a gothic bridge and a foregate from the second half of the 15th century, and Newtowns Gate (Baths Gate) with a foregate from the second half of the 15th century and barbican, built around the mid-sixteenth century. The foregate was extended in the foreground, outside the line of external walls up to 32 meters. The barbican had a semi-circular, two-storey form in front of the moat. On its bridge pillars, on both sides of its spans, semicircular towers were erected. Barbican was equipped with large artillery embrasures in the lower storey, in order to protect the moat and in the ground level for the fire of the foreground. In the upper part there were embrasures for small-caliber firearms, available from the inner gallery. The barbican was also shielded by flanking fire from cannons placed on both sides of the entrance to the town in the external wall below the level of the pavement. In the 16th century, for the convenience of residents, additional smaller gates were pierced within the walls: Dung and White in 1560.
The outer fortification was a moat about 4 meters deep. On the eastern side, the steep slope on the Vistula was an additional protection. Before 1578, a gate tower on the rectangular plan with corners cut to the octagonal form, was erected at the bridgehead near the Vistula bridge, put into service five years earlier. It had three floors and an ogival gate passage, it was still built in the gothic construction tradition. It was probably the only defensive structure functioning in Mazovia related to the bridge crossing. In addition to defending the bridgehead, its task was to accommodate the customs chamber and guard post.
Currently reconstructed defensive walls can be seen on quite large, southern and western sections. The most distinctive elements are the Knight’s Tower and the barbican of the former Newtown Gate. In the interiors of the barbican is presented a permanent exhibition depicting its transformation and the entire town walls history over the centuries. Another important monument is the gothic bridge leading up to the former Kraków Gate.
Architektura gotycka w Polsce, red. T. Mroczko i M. Arszyński, Warszawa 1995.
Kunkel R.M., Architektura gotycka na Mazowszu, Warszawa 2005.
Pela W., Mury obronne Starej Warszawy, Warszawa 2008.
Zachwatowicz J., Mury i Barbakan Starej Warszawy, “Ochrona Zabytków”, tom 6, nr 2-3, Warszawa 1953.