Guest Post: Sir Lancelot of Siedlęcin

“Painted tower in Siedlęcin: the unique residence of an ambitious Silesian duke”¹

Ducal tower of Siedlęcin. Photo courtesy of sekulada.com

The 15th International Castellological Conference „Castrum Bene” took place at Książ Castle, in Lower Silesia, Poland, on 16th – 19th May, 2017. This year’s conference brought together, as it always does,  prominent architectural historians and castellologists from across ten European countries. There were scholars from Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Germany, Croatia, to name but a few.

The annual International Castellological Conference is a great opportunity for the experts to come together, learn from each other and exchange ideas. The participants are always treated to a series of diverse and intellectually challenging papers, some giving interesting fresh perspectives on castle exploration and preservation. The papers show considered approach to the key castellological issues and bring together a wealth of knowledge, talent and experience.

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„Castrum Bene” comes to Siedlęcin. Photo courtesy of Monika Filipińska

This year’s conference focused on castles as symbols of status. In their lectures the Polish experts discussed Henrys, the dukes of Silesia and their residences, castles and elites of the Cracow Land in the Middle Ages, motte-and-bailey castles of Lower Silesia.

18 May saw the participants taking a full-day study tour to the castles on the Piast Castles Trail. They visited, among others, Bolków, Świny and Wleń. In the Great Hall of the ducal tower of Siedlęcin they had an opportunity to listen to the lecture delivered by Dr Przemysław Nocuń, Jagiellonian University, Kraków, on the subject of the tower, its founder and unique wall paintings preserved in it.

Lancelot fighting a duel with Tarquin, the Siedlęcin set, detail. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Ducal tower of Siedlęcin displays one of the most complete and important sets of 14th century domestic wall paintings in Central Europe. The paintings are a rarity both for their mixture of secular, religious and didactic themes, and for their leading subject being the legend of Sir Lancelot of the Lake. Both the tower and paintings reflect its builder’s high ambitions. Preserved monuments and names of the Arthurian characters given to the sons of the Silesian nobility indicate that the Arthurian legends were known at the courts of medieval Poland and Silesia. However, most of the preserved monuments with Arthurian motifs date from the second half of the 14th or from the 15th century, which makes the Siedlęcin set  (created in 1320s -1340s) the earliest surviving example. Among the Piasts (Poland’s first ruling dynasty) Henryk I of Jawor (c. 1292 – 1346) is believed to be the first to commission the Arthurian paintings in one of his residences. Today Duke Henryk’s tower is the only place in the world where the medieval wall paintings depicting Sir Lancelot of the Lake have been preserved in situ. Their true subject matter was not recognised until the 1990s. Major conservation was carried out in 2006, actually saving them, for they were in very poor condition.

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Participants of the The 15th International Castellological Conference „Castrum Bene” at Książ Castle. Photo courtesy of P. Nocuń

The tower house of Siedlęcin is one of the best preserved castles of this type in Central Europe.  It was built as a ducal seat for both residential and defensive purposes (probably as a hunting „lodge”) near the River Bóbr [Bobber] crossing in the hunting territories north-east of Jelenia Góra [Hirschberg]. Initially crenelated, the tower stands 22 meters high (72 feet) with the remains of the moat still visible from the northern and eastern sides. The only siginificant alteration since the 14th  century is the addition of a roof (in the 16th century). Preserved massive tie beams are the oldest surviving wooden ceilings in Poland. Dendrochronolocial research has revealed the trees used for their construction were cut down in 1313 , 1314  and 1315 respectively. Adjacent to the tower is a manor house which dates from 18th century.

Książ Castle, the Lower Silesia, Poland. Photo courtesy of Przemysław Nocuń

The paintings have been preserved on the south wall of the tower’s finest interior space, being that of the former Great Hall on the second floor. The group includes representations of the scenes from the Vulgate Lancelot and depict Sir Lancelot of the Lake and his marvelous exploits with the focus on the beginning and ending of his brilliant career as a knight of the Round Table. There are scenes depicting the court of King Arthur, his queen Guinevere with her ladies, Guinevere’s kidnapping by Meleagant and her rescue by Lancelot. There are also representations of Lancelot and his cousin Lionel setting off for their first knightly adventure. Lancelot asleep under an apple tree and Lionel sleeping on guard, a duel between Lancelot and Tarquin and Lancelot with Arthur’s brother, Sir Kay. The unfinished portion depicts a duel between Lancelot and Sagramour and the healing of Urry de Hongre.

You can learn more about the tower and its marvellous paintings on Ducal Tower of Siedlęcin Official Website

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Footnote: ¹From an article by by Dr P. Nocuń.

Article by Kasia Ogrodnik of Henry The Young King.

Photos courtesy of The Ducal Tower of Siedlęcin Association and sekulada.com.

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©2017 Kasia Ogrodnik-Fujcik & Sharon Bennett Connolly

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Sharon’s book, Heroines of the Medieval World, looking into the lives of some of the most fascinating women from medieval history, will be published by Amberley on 15th September, 2017. It is now available for pre-order in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

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In Search of Sir Lancelot

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The Great Hall and Round Table in Winchester

I have always had a soft spot for the Arthurian Romances. I love the legend of King Arthur and really hope that there was a historical Arthur who inspired the original tales. His Knights of the Round Table are held up as models of chivalry throughout Europe.

And the recent discovery of some wonderful wall paintings of Lancelot du Lac in a Ducal Tower in Siedlęcin in Poland is simply incredible.

Rodengo, Schmalkalden and Siedlęcin: Where Did the Knights of the Round Table Go?

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Castel Rodengo

King Arthur is mortally wounded and taken to the isle of Avalon, the cream of the crop – his best knights dead. With their passing the age of chivalric deeds and marvelous exploits is over.

Is it really? After all, what the king and his knights have left behind is an extensive body of literature and next to Arthur himself, each of the knights has his own story to be told and retold. And their stories have been retold many times in several versions in different languages.

Some of Arthur’s knights were so celebrated that their fame spread from the literary world to the world of art, music and architecture.

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Rodengo murals (detail)

Today I am going to focus on the two of these knights, both very popular and with an enormous impact on the literary world. Yvain and Lancelot, for they are the ones, became the main characters of Chretien de Troyes’ romances and many other poets and writers that followed and based their versions on Chretien’s.

A few groups of the wall paintings, for example, presenting their deeds and exploits survive scattered across Europe. The most famous murals are certainly those painted by Sir Lancelot himself in the Prose Lancelot, but let me take a closer look at those painted on the walls of medieval castles, towers and houses.

Yvain was beside himself. everything he heard upset him, and everything he saw tormented him. He wished he were far away in a land so wild that no one would know where to look for him…
(from Yvain ou le Chevalier au lion)

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Hessenhof in Schmalkalden in the Middle Ages

One look at Castel Rodengo mounted on a hilltop covered with thick verdure is enough to give the impression that Yvain’s wish has come true, fortunately the surrounding land is not as wild as it may seem and everyone has a chance to visit and admire the wall paintings preserved inside the former castle chapel, dedicated to St Nicholas. Dating back to the 1220s, the cycle depicts the story of Ivain as told by Chretien de Troyes and Hartmann von Aue and is an “extraordinary document without known precedent: the oldest surviving representation in the monumental arts of the High Middle Ages of a profane narrative subject in the context of profane architecture”. Little wonder that the discovery of the murals in 1973 caused a great sensation.

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Schmalkalden wall paintings (detail)

The castle itself was built c.1140 near Bressanone, in the South Tirol, and is known variously as Schloss Rodenegg or Rodeneck after its first owner’s surname: Federico I di Rodank. From the late 16th century to the 1970s, the paintings remained hidden under cover of vaulting and flooring. Eleven Yvain scenes represent the episodes from the first half of the epic, with the end of the story not depicted which led to speculations that the paintings were created before Hartmann completed his poem.

In further search for Ivain we move from the north-east of Italy to the central Germany, where in the small town of Schmalkalden, Thuringia, one more fine example of the remarkable wall paintings survive in the basement of the 13th-century Hessenhof house. This cycle is more extensive than the one at Rodengo, the surviving 26 scenes having been probably created between 1220 and 1230. The knightly adventure presented in them is shown as a game and courtly leisure. The Schmalkalden murals are the oldest surviving secular wall paintings in Germany.

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Schmalkalden in Thuringia today

My lady, it’s not fitting to speak of this, but take pity on him, for he loves you more than himself; God help me, when he came I knew nothing of his thoughts except that he was afraid of being recognized, and he never revealed anything else to me. (from The Prose Lancelot)

Henry I of Jawor was the 3rd son of Bolko I The Strict and Beatrice of Brandenburg, he was born in the early 1290s. His father died while Henry was still a child and it was not until 1312 that Henry assumed control of his Duchy of Jawor. Situated in Lower Silesia, it was only Henry’s political acumen that kept Jawor independent from its larger neighbour, Bohemia, despite other Silesian Dukes were swearing fealty to Bohemia’s king, John the Blind.

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Ducal tower of Siedlęcin (sekulada.com)

After joining a coalition against King John Henry married Agnes of Bohemia, only daughter of the late king Wenceslaus II of Bohemia by his 2nd wife, Elizabeth of Poland. Although the marriage proved childless it did make Henry a rival claimant to Agnes’s half-brother, King John, for the Bohemian throne.

The Ducal Tower at Siedlecin was built by Henry shortly after he assumed control of Jawor. One of the most important medieval residences in Central Europe, the Medieval mural paintings are in the great hall, on the 2nd floor of the keep. Commissioned in 1345 by Duke Henry, they remained unfinished following the Duke’s death in 1346.

Arthurian legends were very popular in the courts of Medieval Poland and Silesia,, but these paintings are the earliest surviving examples. Sir Lancelot managed to hide unidentified in the ducal tower of Siedlęcin for almost 700 years.

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Siedlęcin wall paintings

Fortunately his true identity was revealed, for today the Siedlęcin is the only place in the world where Lancelot wall paintings have been preserved in situ. The true subject matter of these remarkable 14th-century murals was not recognised until 1990s.

Their major conservation was carried out in 2006, actually saving them, for they were in a very poor condition – they had been almost lost due to perfunctory conservation process carried out in the 1930s. The Siedlęcin group includes representations of the scenes from the Vulgate Lancelot, which were to be the main source of Sir Thomas Malory’s romances in the 15th century…….

There are 4 scenes depicting the court of Camelot. The 1st shows Arthur’s queen Guinevere with her ladies, followed by Guinevere’s kidnapping by Meleagant and her rescue by Arthur’s champion, Lancelot. Below these are representations of Lancelot and his cousin, Lionel;  Lancelot asleep under an apple tree and Lionel sleeping on guard. Then we see a duel between Lancelot and Tarquin and Lancelot with Arthur’s brother, Sir Kay.

The unfinished portion depicts a duel between Lancelot and Sagramour and the healing of Urry de Hongre…..

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Siedlęcin murals

Today Siedlęcin really is the only place in the world where you can still admire the Lancelot paintings preserved in situ.

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For more details on the Ducal Tower at Siedlecin, just click here.

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Photos courtesy of: Winchester – Wikipedia, Castel Rodengo – Valle Isarco, Rodengo murals – sentres.com, Schmalkalden – romoe.com, Hessenhof and the wall paintings – schmalkalden.com, Ducal tower od Siedlęcin – sekulada.com, Siedlęcin murals – L.Bartosik (Go Lower Silesia), Siedlęcin murals – Wojciech Pudło
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Sources: Le Gof, Jacques. The Medieval Imagination. The University of Chicago, 1992; Allaire, Gloria. The Arthur of the Italians: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval Literature and Culture. University of Wales Press, 2014; Lacy, Norris. The New Arthurian Encyclopedia; Lacy, Norris. A Companion to Chrétien de Troyes, D.S. Brewer, 2005; Witkowski, Jacek Szlachetna a wielce zalosna opowiecs o Panu Lancelocie z Jeziora; Wierssing, Johannes. Schmalkalden. Eine kleine stadt mit grosser Geschichte. 2013; Lupack, Alan. Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend. Oxford University Press, 2007; The Norton Anthology of English Literature (Norton Topics Online); Ducal tower of Siedlęcin

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©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly