Leszek the White

Leszek the White

19th century portrait by Jan Matejko.
High Duke of Poland
Reign 1194–1198
Predecessor Casimir II the Just
Successor Władysław III Spindleshanks
Duke of Sandomierz
Reign 1194–1227
Predecessor Casimir II the Just
Successor Władysław III Spindleshanks
Duke of Masovia
Reign 1194–1200
Predecessor Casimir II the Just
Successor Konrad I
Born c. 1184/85
Died 24 November 1227 (age c. 42–43)
Gąsawa, Kujawy, Poland
Spouse Grzymisława
Issue Salomea
Bolesław V the Chaste
House House of Piast
Father Casimir II the Just
Mother Helen of Znojmo

Leszek the White (Polish: Leszek Biały; ca. 1184/85 – 24 November 1227) was Prince of Sandomierz and High Duke of Poland during 1194–1198, 1199, 1206–1210 and 1211–1227. During the early stages of his reign his uncle Duke Mieszko III the Old, and cousin Władysław III Spindleshanks, from the Greater Polish branch of the royal Piast dynasty contested Leszek's right to be High Duke.[1]

Leszek was the third or fourth[2] but eldest surviving son of Casimir II the Just and his wife Helen of Znojmo.

Struggle for the succession

When Casimir II died on 5 May 1194, Leszek was only nine or ten years old. K. Jasiński, writing in 2001, puts his birthyear in 1184–85,[3] while older historiography claimed 1186–87.[4] The regency was exercised by his mother Helen, who counted with the help of Mikołaj Gryfita, wojewoda of Kraków and Fulko, Bishop of Kraków.

However, Leszek's uncle Mieszko III the Old – who had been ruler of Kraków (r. 1173–77) and was deposed after a national rebellion against him – refused to accept this, and with the help of powerful Lesser Poland families, decided to reconquer Kraków.

The war began in 1195. On the side of Leszek and his youngest brother Konrad fought the nobility of Kraków, Sandomierz, and probably the Rurikid Roman, Prince of Vladimir-in-Volhynia. Mieszko III the Old was able to negotiate with his Silesian relatives, Mieszko Tanglefoot, Duke of Racibórz and his nephew Jarosław, Duke of Opole, who promised to send food to him during the campaign.

Leszek and wojewoda Goworek, by Daniel Kondratowicz (ca. 1844).

An extremely bloody battle took place on 13 September 1195 at Mozgawa (Mozgawą) near Jędrzejów. In the first phase of the battle (in which the Greater Poland armies – personally commanded by Mieszko III and his son Bolesław – faced with the forces of wojewoda Mikołaj and Prince Roman) was inconclusive and ended with the withdrawal of Mieszko III, distraught after the death of his son during the fight. The supporters of Leszek and Konrad decided not to organize the persecution and returned to Kraków, because the casualties were great and among the injured was Prince Roman. But this wasn't the end of the battle, because soon arrived the troops of Sandomierz led by wojewoda Goworek, who attacked the Silesian army of Mieszko Tanglefoot and Jarosław of Opole, who also arrived late to the battlefield. This second phase of the battle was decisively won by the Silesians, but with the escape of Mieszko III to Greater Poland, his allies decided also for a retreat, taking with him the captured wojewoda Goworek, who regained his freedom a few months later with the payment of a ransom.

The withdrawal of Mieszko III the Old during the Battle of Mozgawą allowed Leszek (or more properly, his regents) to maintain power during the next years. The formal resignation of Leszek over Kraków took place in 1198, when Mieszko III finally regained power over the Seniorate Province through an agreement with Helen of Znojmo. On behalf of her eldest son, the Dowager Duchess and Regent obtained the recognition of his rights over Lesser Poland and received Kujavia in exchange (according to historians, Mieszko III and his son Bolesław taken over the government of Kujavia after the death of Duke Leszek). This time (with a short interruption in 1199), Mieszko III remained in control over Kraków until his death on 13 March 1202.

Probably some time earlier (in 1200) Leszek and Konrad, who had reached their majority and began to rule personally, decided to divide their domains. Konrad received Masovia and Kuyavia, while Leszek retained only Sandomierz, probably with the hope to reconquer the Seniorate with the adjacent land of Sieradz-Łęczyca.

After the death of Mieszko III, the reinstallment of Leszek was proposed. His former ally Mikołaj Gryfita, fearing the loss of political influence, demanded the dismissal of Leszek's closest collaborator, Goworek. The wojewoda of Sandomierz, ready to step down in order to obtain Kraków for his master, agreed, but Leszek, unwilling to discard him, strongly refused this request. In view of this impasse, Mikołaj Gryfita invited the youngest and only surviving son of Mieszko III, Władysław III Spindleshanks to be the new ruler of Kraków.

It is unknown how long was the rule of Władysław III over Kraków. According to some historians, it ended a few months after the death of his father, in autumn 1202; according to others (and this version seems more likely) it lasted until 1206 or even 1210. In any case, after the death of Mikołaj Gryfita, the Kraków nobility invited Leszek to reassume the government, without any conditions.

Intervention in Kievan Rus'

Leszek I the White, by Aleksander Lesser.

In the early years of his rule, Leszek's policy focused mainly in Kievan Rus'.[5] In 1199 he helped Prince Roman of Vladimir-in-Volhynia with troops to reconquer the Principality of Halych. This alliance ended unexpectedly in 1205, when Roman decided to support Władysław III Spindleshanks to recover the Seniorate (following the theory that he was expelled in 1202). In addition, for unknown reasons (historians believed that thanks to the intrigues of Władysław III) Roman invaded the domains of Leszek and Konrad, venturing deep into their territory. Both forces clashed in the Battle of Zawichost (14 October 1205), where Roman was defeated and killed.

The death of Roman involved Leszek and Konrad in the conflict derived with the succession of his domains, further complicated by the intervention of King Andrew II of Hungary, who supported the rights of Roman's widow and children. Leszek and his brother initially led a coalition of Rurikid princes who wanted to remove Roman's children from Vladimir-in-Volhynia and Halych; however, after some time, in order to avoid a war with Hungary, they decided to sign a treaty. In 1206 Leszek had a meeting with Andrew II at Volhynia, and since then, the influence of the Hungarian rulers over Vladimir and Halych was exclusive. In 1207, Leszek placed his domains under the vassalage of the Pope, at that point Innocent III. This put Poland clearly in the camp of pro-Papal territories in opposition to the power of the Holy Roman Emperor.[6] After that, Leszek cooperated closely with Archbishop Henry Kietlicz in implementing the reforms of Innocent III.[7]

Despite the agreement with the Hungarian King, the conflict continued. Shortly after, Roman's widow and younger son Vasilko (the eldest, Daniel was sent to the court of Andrew II), displeased with the Hungarian rule, decided to escape to Poland, where they found refuge at Leszek's court. During their exile in Poland, they received the land of Belz.

A further confirmation of an active policy in Kievan Rus' were the marriages of Leszek and Konrad with Rurikid princesses. Leszek married firstly with a daughter of Ingvar Yaroslavich, Prince of Lutsk and secondly with Grzymisława, perhaps a daughter of Yaroslav III Vladimirovich, Prince of Novgorod, while Konrad married with Agafia, daughter of Svyatoslav III Igorevich, Prince of Peremyshl.

In 1210 Andrew decided to replace the reigning prince of Vladimir-in-Volhynia with Roman's eldest son Daniel. However, not wanting to lose his political influence, he decided to send his troops there. The expected Polish-Hungarian confrontation at the end didn't occur, because Leszek was forced to make his army return after Mieszko Tanglefoot captured Kraków.

Once the situation in the Seniorate was pacified, Leszek returned to Vladimir-Halych in 1212. As a result of his military actions, he took several border fortresses. In 1213 he failed to prevent the capture of Halych by the Hungarian boyar Władysław. Although a year later he was defeated at the Bobrka river, the danger of the zone forced the Hungarian troops to retreat. In the same year, wanting to break the difficult relations with Hungary, Leszek (under the pressure of the Kraków aristocracy gathered around the voivode Pakosław) decided to conclude a peace treaty at Spiš, according to which the government of the Halych-Volhynia was given to Andrew II's second son Coloman, who was to marry Leszek's oldest daughter Salomea. Also, this treaty gave to Leszek territorial acquisitions in Kievan Rus' (the districts of Przemyśl and Lubaczów).

This alliance with Hungary didn't last, because before the end of the year Leszek decided to support the restoration of Daniel in Halych when it was clear that the local nobility didn't accept the rule of Prince Coloman. The ambiguous policy of the Duke of Kraków turned against him in 1215, when the Hungarians, impatient with the lack of help in securing the rule of Coloman, broke the alliance, and after the situation in Kievan Rus' seemed to be calm, they sent an army against Leszek, using as an excuse his support to Daniel. During this campaign, Leszek lost the lands of Przemyśl and Lubaczów.[7]

After this defeat, Leszek wanted to make an alliance with Mstislav Mstislavich, Prince of Novgorod. This new political line didn't bring any positive results to him, because prompted an alliance between Daniel Romanovych and Mstislav against Leszek. As a result, the Duke of Kraków lost in 1218 a small area between the Narew and Bug rivers.

These successive failures forced Leszek to reconsider his previous alliance with Andrew II of Hungary. This time, the treaty between them was sealed with the formal marriage between their children Coloman and Salomea. In return for his resignation over Halych, Leszek received Volhynia in compensation, after Prince Daniel was expelled.

The expedition under the command of Andrew II and Leszek was finally organized at the end of 1219. The combination of the Polish-Hungarian forcers was a success; both Coloman and Salomea were formally proclaimed rulers of Halych. In that year, Leszek organized an unsuccessful expedition to Vladimir. Another expedition in 1221, this time with the help of Hungary, also ended in failure; moreover, this invasions prompted Daniel, recently reconciled with Mstislav of Novgorod, to make a retaliatory expedition who ended with the imprisonment of Coloman and Salomea and the proclamation of Mstislav as Prince of Halych.

However, an unexpected alliance in 1223 between Mstislav and Andrew II about the succession of Halych (was agreed that after Mstislav's death Halych would be inherited by Andrew II's youngest son Andrew) caused a further change in the political situation: Leszek and Daniel allied against them.

This new arrangement between fact and Mstislav and behind his back Andrew II Leszek and Daniel for the succession of the Duchy Halicz (after the death of Mstislav throne was to take another son of Hungarian rulers bearing the name of the father) caused a further reversal of alliances and a common occurrence in 1223 r. Prince of Kraków and Wlodzimierz against Mścisławowi. In his expedition against Leszek in 1225 Mstislav was helped by the Cuman khan Köten. This war, as well as the previous ones, despite temporary successes, ended without a clear outcome, moreover, resulted in another change of alliances in 1227 Leszek joined with Hungary against Daniel. This was Leszek's last intervention in the long-running conflict with Kievan Rus'.

Conflict with Władysław III Spindleshanks

Seal of Leszek Biały (Leszek I, "the White"), Front side.
Seal of Leszek Biały (Leszek I, "the White"), Back side.

The quiet government of Leszek over Kraków after the deposition of Władysław III Spindleshanks was interrupted in 1210 with his excommunication in the Bull issued by Pope Innocent III. This fact was used by Mieszko Tanglefoot, who quickly conquered Kraków and took the title of High Duke for himself. The Bull was issued by the request of an anonymous Duke of Silesia, which could have only been Henry I the Bearded (because Mieszko used the title of a Duke of Racibórz-Opole). The situation became quite confused, as nobody was sure who held the real power.

The Papal Bull was a complete surprise for both Leszek and the local church hierarchy who support him, especially since both parties for first time in Poland agreeing in the choice of the new Bishop of Kraków (after the death of Fulka was chosen the chronicler Wincenty Kadłubek).

Henryk Kietlicz, Archbishop of Gniezno — who had returned from exile some time before — decided to call a synod in Borzykowa, where he tried to find a solution to this delicate issue. At the convention, in addition to the church hierarchy, assisted all the others Piasts Dukes. Leszek, wanting to regain the support of the Church, along with other rulers, bestowed a Great Privilege on the clergy, which ensured the integrity of territorial possession of the bishops (the privilege wasn't signed by Henry I the Bearded and Władysław III, but they did comply with the provisions established there). Mieszko Tanglefoot wasn't present in Borzykowa; with the help of the Lesser Poland family of Gryfici went with his army to Kraków, where the confusion among the citizens as to who was actually in charge resulted in him taking the capital without a fight. This was the zenith of the success of Mieszko; he died in May of the following year. Only then did Archbishop Kietlicz manage to make an appeal to Rome in order to obtain the reversal of the Bull. Henry I, although he was now the oldest Junior Duke, directed his attention to the German invasions to Lubusz. Leszek I the White returned to Kraków without any major difficulties.

Another result of the close cooperation between the Piasts rulers and the Church was the synod of Wolbórz where Archbishop Kietlicz additionally obtained additional privileges for the Church. The good political relationship between Leszek and Archbishop Ketlicz ended in 1216, when after the death of Pope Innocent III the Archbishop lost the favor of Rome and forced to ended his influence in government.

In addition, an important direction of Leszek's policy was involved with Pomerania and the Christianization of Prussia. Already in 1212 the Duke of Kraków (with his brother Konrad) had a meeting at Mąkolno with Mestwin I of Pomerelia with the purprose to arrange a Christian mission, who only began four years later, when a Bishop was sent to a missionary activity, but without positive results.

However, the idea of Christianization continued. Henry I the Bearded soon became interested to help, and with him Władysław III Spindleshanks. In 1217 Leszek and Henry I arranged a meeting at Danków, and one a year later they reunited again, this time also with Władysław III at Sądowel, where was concluded an alliance between the three rulers. Moreover, in Sądowel was also concluded a treaty of mutual inheritance between Leszek and Władysław III (where Leszek, as the youngest prince, had the better chance to inherited; this treaty also virtually desinherited Władysław Odonic, Władysław III's nephew and closest male relative).

The agreement with Henry I and Władysław III enabled Leszek to adopt since 1218 the title of dux Poloniae or dux totius Poloniae.

Christianization of Prussia

The main purpose of Leszek, Henry I and Władysław III was their common desire to begin the Christianization of Prussia. They soon were joined in their efforts by Konrad I of Masovia, Leszek's younger brother and Swietopelk II, Duke of Pomerelia (who soon showed that his participation in this project was only a cover, because his main goal was to restore the political independence of his domains).

Around this time, there emerged an interesting story concerning Leszek: at some point, the Duke of Kraków once explained to the Pope that Polish knights could not participate in his Crusade to the Holy Land because the trip would be too expensive and there was no mead or beer to be had in Palestine.[8]

Initially, an attempt was made to convert the Prussians by peaceful means through special trading centers in which the pagans would become acquainted with the Christians. In the end, however, after not seeing much progress, it was decided that there should be a military expedition, which took place in 1222. However, soon the whole enterprise failed, especially when during the trip Swietopelk II withdrew his support. He gave refuge at his court to Władysław Odonic, who began his fight against his uncle Władysław III.

Unable to cope with the immediate challenge, the Piasts' rulers decided to create a "Knight Guard" (pl: stróże rycerskie) to protect their frontiers, where knights from all their domains were required to participate.

The idea of the Knight Guard had already collapsed by 1224 as a result of the defeat of the Lesser Poland knights, who suffered a surprise attack from the Prussians. The defeat and slaughter contributed significantly to the already cowardly attitude of the command of the Guard, a member of the Gryfici family, who was punished with exile.

In 1225, unhappy with this turn of events, the Gryfici conspired against Leszek and invited Henry I the Bearded to take the throne of Kraków, who for unknown reasons broke his previous alliance and using Leszek's involvement in Kievan Rus' affairs, appeared near Kraków. The war between Leszek and Henry I was preempted because of an attack by the Landgrave Louis IV of Thuringia on Lubusz, which forced Henry I to retreat. Before he could leave Lesser Poland his troops had wanted a clash with the forces of Leszek and Konrad on the Dłubnia River. The battle didn't occur, because the opponents were able to conclude an agreement. It was known, however, that the return to the previous alliance and close cooperation who lasted during 1217–1224 would no longer be possible.

Now complications occurred in 1227. In Greater Poland Władysław III Spindleshanks wasn't able to deal with his nephew. Leszek was personally interested in the conflict, because he still hoped to inherit the domains of the childless Władysław III. For unknown reasons, at that point Odonic lost the support of Swietopelk II, and thus he couldn't be sure of his victory. Therefor it was unsurprising that both parties were interested in ending the conflict. Another problem that Leszek wanted to solve was the issue of the dangerous independent behavior of the Pomerelian Duke.


Main article: Gąsawa massacre
The Death of Leszek the White (1880).

A meeting of Polish Dukes was organized in the district of Gąsawa on the border of Kujawy and Greater Poland, which was attended by Leszek, Władysław Odonic, Henry I the Bearded and Konrad I of Masovia, was held in November 1227 (for unknown reasons, one of the most interested, Władysław III Spindleshanks, didn't attend the meeting). The content of the talks was most likely the conduct of Swietopelk II of Pomerelia.[9] On the morning of 24 November, some men of Swietopelk II, with the probable help of Odonic (although this fact is doubtful for some historians) attacked the princes when they were bathing. Henry I was seriously wounded, and saved his life only thanks to his faithful knight Peregrinus of Wiesenburg, who covered him with his own body. Leszek managed to escape on his horse half-naked to the near village of Marcinkowo but the assassins caught up to him and killed him with an arrow to his back.

Leszek's body was transported to Kraków and buried in Wawel Cathedral on 6 December 1227, or a few days earlier.[10]

The death of Leszek the White fundamentally changed the political situation in Poland. Despite his turbulent government, Leszek was the Duke of Kraków universally recognized by all the Polish princes. Swietopelk II upon Leszek's death declared himself independent from Polish vassalship. Leszek's son Bolesław V was still a minor upon his father's death and the rule over Lesser Poland remained contested between Leszek's brother Konrad I and Władysław III Spindleshanks, who according to the treaty of 1217 was his heir, until in 1232 Duke Henry I the Bearded of Silesia finally prevailed.

Marriage and issue

Older historiography established that Leszek married only once, in 1207 with Grzymisława, daughter of Ingvar Yaroslavich, Prince of Lutsk. However, modern research considered now that he married twice, firstly in 1207 or 1208 with the unnamed daughter of Prince Ingvar, and after her repudiation, in 1210 or 1211 he married Grzymisława, who probably was a daughter of Yaroslav III Vladimirovich, Prince of Novgorod.[11] From his second marriage, Leszek had three children:

Church foundations

In 1216 Leszek founded the Church of Saint Wenceslaus (pl: Kościół św. Wacława) in the city of Radom, who was further equipped by his son Bolesław V the Chaste, and in 1440 was extended and partially rebuilt in the Gothic style.


Wikimedia Commons has media related to Leszek the White.
Statue of Leszek in Marcinkowo Górne.

He is scarcely numbered (Leszek I), while his name also scarcely spelled Leszko or Lesco.

An opera about him Leszek biały was performed in 1809. It had been written by Józef Elsner.[15]


  1. Malcolm Barber, The Two Cities, p. 368
  2. The existence of a third son of Casimir II named Odon is controversial; however, recent historiography believes that it could be a real person. K. Jasiński: Rodowód Piastów małopolskich i kujawskich, Poznań–Wrocław 2001, p. 247.
  3. K. Jasiński: Rodowód Piastów małopolskich i kujawskich, Poznań–Wrocław 2001, pp. 23–25.
  4. O. Balzer: Genealogia Piastów, Kraków 2005, pp. 459–460 (1st ed. 1895)
  5. "Leszek the White". artyzm.com.
  6. Halecki, Oskar; Polonsky, Antony. A History of Poland. Routledge and Kegan-Paul. p. 28. ISBN 9780710086471.
  7. 1 2 Halecki and Polonsky. Poland. p. 29
  8. "Mead History". beer100.com.
  9. Halecki and Polonsky. Poland. p. 29.
  10. K. Jasiński: Rodowód Piastów małopolskich i kujawskich, Poznań–Wrocław 2001, pp. 26–27, footnote 74.
  11. D. Dąbrowski: Dwa ruskie małżeństwa Leszka Białego. Karta z dziejów Rusi halicko-włodzimierskiej i stosunków polsko-ruskich w początkach XIII wieku, [in:] "Roczniki Historyczne", t. 72, 2006, pp. 67–93.
  12. Historiography also showed 10 November 1268 as her death date, but seems unlikely. K. Jasiński: Rodowód Piastów małopolskich i kujawskich, Poznań–Wrocław 2001, pp. 23–25.
  13. Coloman of Galicia-Lodomeria profile, thepeerage.com
  14. Cawley, Charles, POLAND, Medieval Lands, Medieval Lands database, Foundation for Medieval Genealogy,
  15. "Leszek bialy (Leszek the White), opera in 2 acts". answers.com.


Further reading

Leszek the White
Born: ~1186 Died: 24 November 1227
Preceded by
Casimir II the Just
Duke of Sandomierz
Succeeded by
Władysław III Spindleshanks
Preceded by
Casimir II the Just
Duke of Masovia
Succeeded by
Konrad I
Preceded by
Casimir II the Just
High Duke of Poland
Succeeded by
Mieszko III the Old
Preceded by
Mieszko III the Old
High Duke of Poland
Succeeded by
Władysław III Spindleshanks
Preceded by
Władysław III Spindleshanks
High Duke of Poland
Succeeded by
Mieszko IV Tanglefoot
Preceded by
Mieszko IV Tanglefoot
High Duke of Poland
Succeeded by
Władysław III Spindleshanks
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