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The saint who was accused of treason

A detail from the Murder of St Stanislaus by the Polish painter Jan Matejko

St Stanislaus of Szczepanów was born in a village in Lesser Poland (Małopolska). He was educated at the cathedral school in Gniezno, Poland’s capital at the time. He was eventually ordained by Lambert II Suła, Bishop of Kraków.

Following the bishop’s death in 1072, Stanislaus took his place, becoming one of the earliest native Polish bishops. During his time in office he managed to ensure the reestablishment of the metropolitan see in Gniezno which which was a precondition for Duke Bolesław’s coronation as king. After he was enthroned in 1076, Stanislaus managed to persuade King Bolesław to establish Benedictine monasteries for the evangelisation of Poland.

King Bolesław and Stanislaus fell into conflict when Poland experienced a prolonged war with Ruthenia. The bishop criticised the king for punishing soldiers’ faithless wives very cruelly. Although the root cause of the falling out is still debated, Bishop Stanislaus excommunicated the king and was subsequently accused of treason and sentenced to death.

Although Bolesław sent his men to execute the bishop without trial, they felt too afraid and so the king killed Stanislaus himself. It is said that he killed Stanislaus while he was celebrating Mass in the Church of St Michael the Archangel, known as the Skałka, though it is also said he was actually killed in Wawel Castle.

The bishop’s body was then hacked to pieces and thrown into a pool. Some sources say his death occurred on April 11 1079 and others say May 8 of the same year.

Pope Innocent IV canonised Stanislaus on September 17 1253 and Pope Clement VIII later named his feast day for May 7, which was moved to April 11 by the Church in 1969, when it was decided this was the accurate date of his death.

Stanislaus is a patron saint of both Kraków and Poland. Every year, the Archbishop of Kraków leads a procession from Wawel to the Skałka
in honour of St Stanislaus. Wawel Cathedral holds the saint’s relics and is a national shrine for Poles.

One of Stanislaus’s greatest devotees was the soon-to-be-saint John Paul II, who in 1979 devoted his first apostolic letter, Rutilans Agmen, to St Stanislaus. The letter expressed his wonder that John Paul II, a successor of Stanislaus in the see of Kraków, should, “by the inscrutable designs of God”, have been elected pope within the 900th anniversary year of his predecessor’s martyrdom.