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The bishop hacked to death by his own king

The tomb of St Stanislaus in Wawel Cathedral, Kraków

Stanislaus (1030-1079), the patron saint of Poland, was killed by King Bolesław II after using his position as bishop of Kraków to denounce that monarch. 

His story has parallels with that of St Thomas Becket, whose murder was authorised by King Henry II almost a century later. Both saints have inspired admiration in some and scepticism in others.

One of Stanislaus’s greatest devotees was John Paul II, who in 1979 devoted his first Apostolic Letter, Rutilans Agmen, to the saint. The letter expressed his wonder that he, a successor of Stanislaus in the see of Kraków, should, “by the inscrutable designs of God”, have been elected Pope in the 900th anniversary year of his predecessor’s martyrdom. In truth, very little is known of Stanislaus. No contemporary biography has survived; and the earliest account of his life was produced by a Dominican monk at the time of Stanislaus’s canonisation, 174 years after his death.

We learn that the saint was born into a noble family at Szczepanow, some 50 miles east of Kraków, and educated at Gniezno, possibly also in Paris. Ordained a priest, he won such a reputation for eloquence and sanctity that the Bishop of Kraków offered to resign in his favour. 

Stanislaus refused this invitation but after the bishop’s death was acclaimed as his successor by popular choice. When he showed signs of demurring Pope Alexander II ordered him to accept.

For seven years Stanislaus proved a model bishop, and the only man in Poland who dared to confront King Bolesław II. According to taste this monarch has been dubbed the Generous, the Bold, or the Cruel.

Certainly Bolesław was a formidable warrior; in addition he has been credited with the foundation of many churches and monasteries throughout Poland.

Nevertheless, Stanislaus chastised him for his wicked and immoral life, in particular for abducting a nobleman’s wife to his palace. Some historians, however, have suggested that the bishop had allowed himself to be inveigled into taking part in a plot against the king.

At all events, when Bolesław showed no disposition to repent, Stanislaus excommunicated him. The infuriated monarch made his way to the chapel outside Kraków where the bishop was hiding, and ordered his guards to kill him.

Unlike the knights who murdered Thomas Becket, Bolesław’s henchmen had no stomach for the task. Furious, the king himself entered the church and slew Stanislaus, in some versions as he was celebrating Mass. The body was then hacked to pieces and thrown into a pool, wherein (we are told) it miraculously

Bolesław II was obliged to flee to Hungary, where he was assassinated four years later.

In 1245 Stanislaus’s remains were re-housed in Wawel Cathedral, Kraków. His sarcophagus became a national shrine, before which almost every Polish king was crowned.