Secrets of Wrocław's Coat of Arms

What can be shortly said about Wrocław's coat of arms? Two St. Johns, an eagle, a lion, and a letter "W". The symbol is visible in many places: the city hall, of course, but also on manhole covers or lamp posts. What do its components symbolize, where did they come from, and what is their meaning?

"Our coat of arms can be talked about for hours. It is one of the few, or maybe the only one in this part of Europe that had been changing its image so often. There are cities, which haven' t changed their coat of arms at all. It used to be the symbol of local authorities, and it's no rulers' business to be messing up with it" said Prof. Rościsław Żerelik, a medievalist from the University of Wrocław (Uniwersytet Wrocławski), adding that changes in symbolic might confuse even the specialists. Each epoch, ruler or generation of burghers added and changed something.

It all started from a 13th-century seal

The very first symbol that may be considered a city emblem appeared during the reign of prince Henry III The White, on a seal used in years 1261-1262; it was a double-headed eagle. A document with this seal survived to the day in Dresden. What is interesting, after WW II Prof. Karol Maleczyński, a renowned Wrocław medievalist stated that these are two halves of an eagle, and in 1948 a coat of arms was created, which included a half of a Polish white eagle, and a half of a black, Silesian, Piast dynasty eagle. It was to symbolize the return of Piast Wrocław to the fatherland. According to other historians, though, it was a mistake, as the 13th c. eagle did not comprise of two half-eagles; it was one eagle with two heads. But then such a two-headed eagle would be associated with coats of arms of countries, which participated in the partitions of Poland.

The first coat of arms

However, soon a double-headed eagle disappears from city seals and a single-headed eagle appears, the symbol of the Silesian dynasty of Piasts, which will from now on remain one of Wrocław's symbols. The Piast eagle was used by the municipal tribunal and the vogt; since the beginning of 14th c. the then emerging local government bore on its seal the image of St. John the Baptist under a gate. (There was no problem with the choice of an image, as St. John the Baptist was the patron saint of Wrocław's cathedral and bishopric). With time the city seals bore only the head of St. John the Baptist on a platter.

At the same time, in 1345 a chapel was founded in the city hall, of St. John the Evangelist, who then became the patron saint of the city's authorities, and St. John the Baptist - the patron saint of the city itself. The city's emblem then included the two saints and an eagle. In 15th century a letter "W" was added. It is assumed that it comes from the city's founder, prince Wratislav. Letter "W" was used by city officials responsible for defence (the letter was put on shields), as well as city servants at arms, who were in charge of law&order. In mid-14 century the duchy of Wrocław fell under Czech rule, and it is from Bohemia that we got the double-tailed lion.

St. John for St. Dorothy and a herd of over 200 horses

Initially, the Czechs turn their attention to the main patron saint of the city, and their own lion. The first 14th-century coat of arms of Wrocław was most probably established at the court of emperor Charles IV. Two alternate fields are occupied by the head of St. John the Baptist, and the other two by the Czech lion in a crown. It is visible in the only place in the world - the Knights' Hall of the Castle of Lauf, near Nuremberg.

In 1526 Silesia, together with the Kingdom of Bohemia, fell into Habsburg possession.

"It was then devised to create a coat of arms worthy of such a big city as was Wrocław. A five-field emblem was prepared, with two saints, Piast eagle,a lion and the letter "W"" enumerated Prof. Rościsław Żerelik.

One mistake was made, though. In a text describing the coat of arms, St. John the Evangelist was replaced by St. Dorothy.

"Where did it come from? Maybe because an old magistrate scribe was replaced by a young and inexperienced one, and the town hall hosted a reliquary with relics of St. Dorothy - said Prof. Rościsław Żerelik.

What could be done? The professor said that the city councillors had got very angry, took some money and had gone to Augsburg, to the vice-chancellor of emperor Charles V, to pay for the correction. One thing is certain: in 1530 this mistake cost the councillors a fortune, worth a herd of over 200 horses.

From 1530 to 1938 the coat of arms remains the same

During that period the emblem is used in many places in the city. It is forged and carved on communal buildings. It is placed on seals and printed in books. With the passage of time the city symbol changes. At the end of 19th c. Otto Hupp, a renowned German expert in heraldry was requested by Wrocław authorities to unify the crest of the coat of arms.

"However, in 1920s and 1930s the emblem was experimented on, due to the influence of various modernisms. Sometimes you can see these odd, modern coats of arms" smiles Prof. Rościsław Żerelik.

Too many saints for the Nazis

In 1938 the Germans stated that the coat of arms included too many Slavic elements and Christian saints. They were annoyed by the Czech lion, as it symbolized a state that was virtually non-existent. The only thing they had nothing against was the Piast eagle; they treated Piasts as their own, the Germans, as since the times of Henry the Bearded some Piasts spoke German.

The new, Nazi coat of arms of Wrocław had two fields. In the top part a Silesian Piast eagle was placed, in a stretched version, and in the bottom part the Iron Cross, established in Wrocław in 1813, during the liberation war with Napoleon. The emblem's designer was a renowned Nazi German propagandist, Hans Herbert Schweitzer-Mjölnir, hence its structure resembled the one of the Third Reich, an eagle holding a swastika.

Return to tradition

What is interesting, right after the war the Nazi coat of arms was re-established, changing only the name Breslau to Wrocław [it was a one-time quirk of a Krakow designer, and was never repeated in Wrocław]. The traditional, five-field coat of arms returned to Wrocław still in 1945. However, the communist were bothered by the saints and the Czech lion, and so in 1948 the symbol was again changed. Until 1990 our coat of arms included two half-eagles - the Polish white, and the Silesian, black.

Earlier Wrocław sent to Warsaw a five-field coat of arms, in which the Czech lion was replaced by a Polish eagle. At the notion of one of the councillors the bird symbol was made very communist in look, and didn't have much in common with the state symbol. However, this proposal was not approved by the capital" explains the Professor.

In 1989 even before the elections, a Wrocław Heraldic Committee was established, which was to develop a new coat of arms for the city. The new city symbol was established by the new City Council in June 1990. At first St. John the Baptist was straight (en face). In 1995 this emblem was changed, and now we have a profile of the saint's head (some say this is the so called Tartar's head).

Is it easy now to tamper with coats of arms, if e.g. the residents of Wrocław wanted to add or change something?

"There is no reason to change the coat of arms. The changes are proposed by the City Council, and they need to be approved by a special committee at the Ministry of Administration. It is not easy, though, as the committee is quite strict and extremely rarely approves any changes" pointed out Prof. Rościsław Żerelik.

Jarek Ratajczak