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The White Eagle
by Mr. Jan Rękawek

The White Eagle is the oldest of Poland's national symbols. It is its emblem, its coat of arms. Its origins are both legendary and historical.

Well over a thousand years ago, the three legendary brothers: Lech, Czech and Ru¶, leaders of their Slavic tribes, were wandering in Central Europe looking for a place for permanent settlement. Czech became the founder of the nation and state of the Czechs. Ru¶ went east and became the founder of the nation and state of the Ruthenians.

Lech went further north. One day, he and his tribe stopped for a rest at the edge of a great forest. Looking around Lech spotted a large white bird, majestically circling overhead.

The bird landed on a nest in a large oak tree. Lech took the presence of the white eagle and its nest to be a good omen. He turned to his Lechitians and said: "Here will be the place of our permanent settlement which we shall call Gniezno (the old Polish word for nest) and the White Eagle shall be our symbol." The declaration was enthusiastically acclaimed and accepted by all the Lechitians.

The name is significant for Gniezno, today a town of over 70,000 inhabitants some 30 miles east of Poznań, is generally credited with having been Poland's first capital.

Historically, the employment of the White Eagle as a symbol goes back to the formative period of Polish statehood.

The first crude effigy of the White Eagle, the emblem of the Piast dynasty, is to be found on the silver denarius of Bolesław Chrobry, the first crowned King of Poland. He was the son of Mieszko I, the first historical ruler of the Piast dynasty, who, in 966, had accepted Christianity on behalf of his subjects. The coronation of Bolesław Chrobry in 1025 gave recognition to the Polish state and raised his personal prestige.

The next 200 years was a period during which Poland became divided into various provinces, each ruled individually by dukes of the Piast line. However, the White Eagle, that ancient sign of strength, power, majesty and royalty, was retained by most of them, including the dukes ruling Kraków, as their personal coat of arms. This fact played an important role in the reunification of the divided nation. Also, it was during this period that the White Eagle became refined into the heraldic form we are familiar with today.

An important date in the history of Poland and its White Eagle emblem was June 26, 1295. On that date, Przemysł II, duke of Wielkopolska, assumed the crown of Poland in Gniezno, thus bringing about the reunification of the country. On the day of his coronation, he acquired the seal of majesty. The obverse of the seal shows an image of the King sitting on the throne with the crown upon his head and a globe and a scepter in his hands.

The reverse of the seal bears the Latin inscription, "REDDIDIT IPSE DEUS VICTRICIA SIGNA POLONIS," that is, "God Himself Restored Polish Signs of Victory," and a shield with a crowned Eagle on it. The fact that the Eagle is crowned is significant, for up to that time the Piast dynasty Eagles had been uncrowned.

The coronation of King Przemysł II in 1295 not only restored the dignity of the Polish monarchy, but also raised the White Eagle, the King's personal emblem, to the rank of the Official Coat of Arms of the Kingdom of Poland and dignified it with a golden crown, golden beak, and golden claws. Though this is not evident on the wax seal, we have reason to believe that the Eagle appeared on a field of red. It has retained these characteristics to this day.

The last two Kings of the Piast dynasty, Władysław Łokietek and his son, Kazimierz Wielki, both contributed immensely not only to the rebuilding of the reunified Polish Kingdom, but also to the enrichment of the kingdom's coat of arms.

In the Royal Castle on the Wawel Hill in Kraków one can see the coronation sword of the Polish Kings, the so called Szczerbiec, first used during Władysław Łokietek's coronation in 1320. At the top of the blade, just below the handle is affixed a plaquette showing the eagle in a red field, a coat of arms almost identical to that of Przemysł II.

In 1386 a great event occurred in the history of Poland. Władysław Jagiełło, the Grand Duke of Lithuania, accepted Christianity with his people, married Jadwiga, the Queen of Poland, and thereupon was crowned King of Poland. As such he used the White Eagle symbol. A magnificent version of it can be seen in the work of Wit Stwosz, the great artist who sculpted it on the side of the King's tomb in the Wawel cathedral.

Though King of Poland, Jagiełło remained also Grand Duke of Lithuania and as such he joined the Grand Duchy to Poland by a personal union. This is reflected in the federated country's coat of arms which Jagiełło quartered placing on it the coats of arms of both nations, repeating each for symmetry. Lithuania's coat of arms was the Pogoń which is translated into English as "the Pursuit." It portrays a rider, sword in hand, mounted on a horse. In time the twin nations came to be called Rzeczpospolita Dwóch Narodów, or the Commonwealth of the Two Nations -.

The quartered coat of arms continued to be used by succeeding Kings of the Jagiellonian dynasty. Thereafter Poland's Kings were elected, but they continued to use the same quartered coat of arms, superimposing in the center of it their personal or family emblem. The White Eagle did not cease to be the symbol of the Kingdom of Poland, but was used chiefly in Poland proper.

Towards the end of the 18th century, Poland lost its independence when it was partitioned in three stages (1772, 1793 and 1795) by Russia, Prussia and Austria. The use of both the White Eagle and the Pursuit was forbidden and these symbols were replaced by the coats of arms of the partitioning monarchs.

However, both national symbols were revived during the insurrections of 1830 and 1863. Also, the White Eagle was the emblem of the Polish Legions, be it in Italy, Hungary or Turkey, that is wherever Poles fought for "Your Freedom and Ours."

When Poland regained its independence after the First World War, the Sejm, or parliament, in 1919 re instituted the crowned White Eagle as the official state symbol. In 1927, it approved a new version of the design, the one which continues to be in use to this day.

During World War II, the portrayal and use of White Eagle symbol was forbidden by both the German and Russian occupants of Poland. Thus again it became the symbol of the nation's struggle for independence. It was used by the Polish Underground Army and by the Polish Government and Armed Forces in Exile.

Poland did not regain full sovereignty at the end of World War II. The Soviet Union imposed a Communist Regime on the nation and injudiciously removed the crown from the restored White Eagle emblem, an action that angered the Polish nation and underscored the country's loss of true sovereignty.

When in 1989, the Solidarity movement caused the downfall of the Communist regime, one of the first acts of the democratically elected Sejm was restoration of the White Eagle's crown.

The White Eagle, once an emblem the of the absolute power of Kings, over the centuries, changed into a powerful patriotic symbol uniting the citizens of all social classes. Today, the White Eagle appears on the seals of all government agencies, be it national or local, on the buildings that house their offices, in classrooms, on Poland's currency and coins, on miliary and official banners, on soldiers' caps and uniform buttons.



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