Wrocław – castle on Ostrów Tumski


   In the early Middle Ages, on the island called Ostrów Tumski, the earth and timber stronghold was established, as the seat of the first Piasts Polish rulers, and then the princes of the Silesian Piasts. It protected the ferry over the Odra River, which was part of a large trade and communication route. It consisted of a ducal seat and outer bailey on which was erected in 1000 cathedral. Next to it was a brick bishop’s mansion, and wooden buildings, from the 12th century successively exchanged on brick buildings. In the years 1163-1201, on the initiative of prince Bolesław the High, a Romanesque palace was built and located near the court chapel. His successor, Henry the Bearded, probably did not run any major construction activity at the castle, rather residing near the town he organized, in the court on the left bank of the Oder. The Mongol invasion of 1241, despite the fact that it destroyed the settlement on the left bank of the river, did not cause any major damages to Ostrów, and especially to the castle, surrounded by strong ramparts.
In the years 1242-1266 on the initiative of prince Henry III old fortyfications were replaced on the brick walls. In the years 1270-1290, Henry IV Probus carried out a Gothic reconstruction of the castle. In place of the older court’s chapel, built a new Gothic chapel and another burial chapel, associated with the Cistercian monastery. The princely palace was also expanded and the walls were fortified with towers.
At the end of the 13th century, the role of the clergy was growing in Ostrów Tumski. When Henry IV erected collegiate church of Holy Cross, the island was divided into the western part – ducals, and eastern – bishops. After the death of Henry IV, the castle was used less and less frequently. In the years 1329-1335 the area of the castle was lent to chapter of the collegiate church for residential purposes, and soon divided by fences into seven lots. In 1382 Waclaw IV considered the expansion of the castle, but he soon abandoned it. In 1439 the chapter acquired the property and managed it for secularisation in 1810.


   An early medieval stronghold was erected on the western tip of the island, right next to the Odra crossing, which consisted of several bridges built over branching river beds. From this route, next to the river harbor, the entry led to the outer ward and ran through the stronghold area, bounded by two gates, enabling full control of the trade, because the ring of ramparts tightly blocked the narrow part of the island. Formed in the tenth century, the castle had the outline of a 3-sided oval with a size of 2000 m2, which was enlarged at least twice: for the first time to the south (10-11th century), and for the second time to the east (11th century) eventually reaching an area of ​​around 4,200 m2. The castle’s rampart was about 12.5 meters wide, had the trapezoidal cross section and the top in the form of a palisade or wooden battlement. The gates were reinforced by low, tower-shaped structures. In the courtyard, wooden buildings were erected: the castellan’s residence, crews and servants houses, warehouses, etc. In the western part of the enlarged stronghold an abbey with a chapel of St. Martin was erected, before 1149 already bricked.
   The Romanesque castle from the late twelfth to the mid-thirteenth century consisted of a three-sided wood and earth ramparts in which numerous buildings stood, with the most important ones grouped in the northern part of the courtyard. They were: a Romanesque palace – keep, an eighteen-sided court chapel next to it, and a Benedictine, later Premnstratensian abbey situated in the eastern corner. Due to the location of the gates on the west and south-eastern sides, and the road running through the castle, it can be assumed that the remaining part of the courtyard served economic functions, subject to residential and representative buildings in the north.


   The palas, built at the end of the 12th century, took the form of a Romanesque keep of 14×15 meters, probably topped with a gable roof. It was located next to the rampart on the northern side. Originally it was two or three-storey. Like the others of this period, it could have two or three vaulted rooms in the ground floor, and further upper rooms with flat ceilings, lit by biforas on the floors. According to the mention from 1239, in the palats there was at least one chamber warmed by a fireplace. During the times of Henry IV Probus, the building was enlarged by a two-span vaulted bay located on the north side and extended by an economic wing extending towards the north-west. There was probably a kitchen and baths nearby. In the built-up northern part, located closest to the river, there probably were toilets and sewage disposal.
   To the palas (keep) from the east side, a court chapel was added, erected on an eighteen-side plan with an external diameter of 19.5 meters and brick walls, thick at 1.1 meters. The facades at the external and internal corners were reinforced by the pilaster strips. In the middle of the interior, on a massive, circular foundation, there was a brick pillar supporting the wooden ceiling. On the eastern side there was a small semicircular niche, probably containing an altar. As the chapel was connected with the interior of the keep, it was situated with a minimal deviation, so that the pillar did not cover the view of the altar from the princely lodge. The walls of the chapel probably contained narrow and elongated windows, and the whole was covered with a conical roof covered with shingles.

   Perhaps during the lifetime of prince Bolesław the High, or soon after his death in 1201, next to the old Romanesque chapel of St. Martin, a new brick abbey was erected. It was a two-room, one-storey building with dimensions of 14.3 x 30 meters and relatively thin (0.8 meters) brick walls. In the center of the larger room was a stove. In the later, but still Romanesque phase of the development of the abbey, a small building with buttresses on the rectangular plan, consisting of two rooms, was added on the north-east side. It is not certain whether this building belonged to the abbey.
   In the thirties of the thirteenth century, in the western part of the castle, the construction of a late-Romanesque chapel on a cruciform plan was begun, built of bricks in the opus emplectum technique. It had massive walls 1.4 meters thick in the nave, 1.2 meters in the chancel and 1.7 meters in the apses. The nave had a spread of about 15.5 meters and sides were alternately shorter and longer. Three quadrilateral apses adjoined to the short sides, and from the north-east a square chancel, also closed with an apse. The interior vault was supported by four pillars forming a circular aisle surrounding the elevated and certainly illuminated from above central nave. The architecture of the chapel is unique in Poland, and the nearest stylistically castles chapel in Legnica has a less complex form, although a richer sculptural decor.

   From the middle of the thirteenth century, the castle was surrounded by brick defensive walls, thick at 1.75-1.95 meters (on the north side). In the years 1270-1290, the Gothic reconstruction of Henry IV Probus also led to the rebuilding of the eighteen-sided chapel with a new, octagonal, Gothic one. It had an oblong chancel and probably three storeys. Ground floor was buried in the ground on the 1.2 meter and covered with a multi-span vault on the pillars. It was intended for service, crew and for economic purposes. The first floor of the chapel in the eighteen-side form with a niche on the west side and the eastern chancel was connected with the second floor in the form of a circular gallery. This gallery and external walls were supported by the powerful buttresses, and the main vault of the central nave on four pillars. The main level of the chapel on the first floor was connected with the prince’s palace, and probably had on the southern side an additional entrance from the side of the courtyard, up the stairs between the buttresses. The internal connection of the chapel floor with its gallery led along the round stairs in the thickness of the northern wall. The chapel was adjacent from the east side to a new building, probably a premonstratensian abbey. In this way, a buildings line of about 120 meters long was created on the north side of the castle.
   In the eighties of the thirteenth century, Henry IV began the construction of the burial St. Mary chapel, later renamed to St. Martin (described in a separate place here) and the founding of the Cistercian monastery, intended for a family mausoleum. The church consisted of an elongated chancel and an octagonal nave adjoining it from the west. Originally it was a three-level structure, with vertical buttresses with recesses in the lower part and gallery windows in the upper part. Construction works on it and the monastery were stopped in 1278.
   In the 13th-14th century, the entire north side of the area was limited by a residential building and a chapel. On the other sides, the castle area was surrounded by a brick wall about 8-9 meters high. It surrounded an inner, main irregular courtyard of about 30 x 50 meters, adjoining the abbey from the east, from the west adjoining to the second courtyard with an economic function, and from the south to an area with a garden and buildings of the castle crew or auxiliary buildings. There were two gates in the walls: Water Gate from the west and Castle Gate leading to the eastern remaining part of Ostrów Island. In addition, there was a southern and western towers. The first one was extended beyond the perimeter of the wall, four-sided with dimensions 4.7 x 4.3 meters, with walls thick at 1.38 meters. Its tight interior in the ground floor could only serve as a guard room, additionally reduced in the upper floors by stairs. Originally, it was probably a half tower, open from the side of the courtyard and not rising above the level of the perimeter walls.

Current state

   At present, the most visible remains of the castle are the heavily rebuilt church or the chapel of St. Martin. The walls of the main body of the former Gothic palas have survived to the height of the first and partly second floor as the basement and the ground floor of the present building of St. Martin 12 street. The foundations, perhaps never completed, of the Cistercian abbey in the castle are also visible.

show St Martin’s church on map

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Chorowska M., Rezydencje średniowieczne na Śląsku, Wrocław 2003.

Leksykon zamków w Polsce, red. L.Kajzer, Warszawa 2003.
Małachowicz E., Wrocławski zamek książęcy i kolegiata św. Krzyża na Ostrowie, Wrocław 1994.
Świechowski Z., Architektura romańska w Polsce, Warszawa 2000.