St. Nicholas Cathedral before 1945
The settlement was first mentioned as "Ilfing" in The Voyages of Ohthere and Wulfstan, an Anglo-Saxon chronicle written in King Alfred's reign using information from a Viking who had visited the area.
During the Middle Ages, the Viking settlement of Truso was located on Lake Drużno, near the current site of Elbląg in historical Pogesania; the settlement burned down in the 10th century. Early in the 13th century the Teutonic Knights conquered the region, built a castle, and founded Elbing on the lake, with a population mostly from Lübeck (today the lake, now much smaller, no longer reaches the city). After the uprising against the Teutonic Knights and the destruction of the castle by the inhabitants, the city successively came under the sovereignty of the Polish crown (1454), the Kingdom of Prussia (1772), and Germany (1871). Elbing was heavily damaged in World War II, and its German citizens were expelled upon the war's end. The city became part of Poland in 1945 and was repopulated with Polish citizens.
The seaport of Truso was first mentioned ca. 890 by Wulfstan of Hedeby, an Anglo-Saxon sailor, travelling on the south coast of the Baltic Sea at the behest of King Alfred the Great of England. The exact location of Truso was not known for a long time, as the seashore has significantly changed, but most historians trace the settlement inside or near to modern Elbląg on Lake Drużno. Truso was located at territory already known to the Roman Empire and earlier.
It was an important seaport serving the Vistula River bay on the early medieval Baltic Sea trade routes which led from Birka in the north to the island of Gotland and to Visby in the Baltic Sea. From there, traders continued further south to Carnuntum along the Amber Road. The ancient Amber Road led further southwest and southeast to the Black Sea and eventually to Asia. The east-west trade route went from Truso, along the Baltic Sea to Jutland, and from there inland by river to Hedeby, a large trading center in Jutland. The main goods of Truso were amber, furs, and slaves.
Archaeological finds in 1897 and diggings in the 1920s placed Truso at Gut Hansdorf. A large burial field was also found at Elbing. Recent Polish diggings have found burned beams and ashes and thousand-year-old artifacts in an area of about 20 hectares. Many of these artifacts are now displayed at the Muzeum w Elblągu.
Reconstructed pseudo-historical tenements and houses in the Old Town
CC BY-SA 3.0
Attempts to conquer Prussian land began in 997, when Bolesław I the Brave, at the urging of the Pope, sent a contingent of soldiers and a missionary (Adalbert of Prague) to the pagan Prussians, a non-Slavic people, on a crusade of conquest and conversion. The crusade encompassed much of the Baltic Sea coast, including Danzig (present day Gdańsk), and other areas of the coast up to Sambia. Starting in 1209 additional crusades were called for by Konrad of Masovia, who mainly sought to conquer Prussian territory, rather than actually convert the indigenous Prussians. Despite heroic efforts, Old Prussian sovereignty would eventually collapse after a succession of wars instigated by Pope Honorius III and his frequent calls for crusade.
Before the Prussians and their neighbors to the west, the Pomeranians, were finally brought to heel, Polish rulers and the Duchy of Masovia, both by then Christianised peoples, would be continually frustrated in their attempts at northern expansion. Aside from minor border raids, major campaigns against the Prussians would be launched in 1219, 1220, and 1222. After a particularly sound defeat by Prussian forces in 1223, Polish forces in Chełmno, the seat of Christian of Oliva and the Duchy of Masovia, were forced onto the defensive.
In 1226 Duke Konrad I of Masovia summoned the Teutonic Knights for assistance; by 1230 they had secured Chełmno (Culm) and begun claiming conquered territories for themselves under the authority of the Holy Roman Empire, although these claims were rejected by the Poles, whose ambition had been to conquer Prussia all along. The Teutonic Order's strategy was to move down the Vistula and secure the delta, establishing a barrier between the Prussians and Danzig. The victorious Teutonic Knights built a castle at Elbing.
The Chronicon terrae Prussiae describes the conflict in the vicinity of Lake Drusen (now Drużno) shortly before the founding of Elbing:
″Omnia propugnacula, que habebant in illo loco, qui dicitur (list) ... circa stagnum Drusine ... occisis et captiis infidelibus, potenter expugnavit, et in cinerem redigendo terre alteri coequavit."
"All the little redoubts that they had in that place, which are said to be (list) ... and around the Drusine marsh ... he (frater Hermannus magister) assaulted and levelled by rendering them into ash, after the infidels had been killed or captured."
Truso did not disappear suddenly to be replaced with the citadel and town of Elbing during the Prussian Crusade. It had already burned down in the tenth century, with the population dispersed in the area.
Holy Ghost Street, ulica Świętego Ducha, possesses several pre-war examples of social housing
CC BY-SA 3.0 pl
The Chronicon terrae Prussiae describes the founding of Elbing under the leadership of Hermann Balk. After building two ships, the Pilgerim (Pilgrim) and the Vridelant (Friedland), with the assistance of Margrave Henry III of Margraviate of Meissen, the Teutonic Knights used them to clear the Vistula Lagoon (Frisches Haff) and the Vistula Spit of Prussians:
... et recens mare purgatum fuit ab insultu infidelium ...
... "and the Vistula Spit was purged of the insult of the infidels..."
Apparently the river was in Pomesania, which the knights had just finished clearing, but the bay was in Pogesania. The first Elbing was placed in Pogesania:
Magister ... venit ad terram Pogesanie, ad insulam illam ... que est in media fluminis Elbingi, in illo loco, ubi Elbingus intrat recens mare et erexit ibi castrum, quod a nomine fluminis Elbingum appellavit, anno dominice incarnacionis MCCXXXVII. Aliqui referunt, quod idem castrum postea ab infidelibus fuerit expugnatum, et tunc ad eum locum, ubi nunc situm est, translatum, et circa ipsum civitas collocata.
"The master ... came to the region of Pogesania, to that island which is in the middle of the Elbing river, in that place where the Elbing enters the Vistula Lagoon, and built there a fort, which he called by the name of the Elbing River, in the year of the incarnation of the Lord, 1237. Others report that the same fort was attacked by the infidels and then was moved to the place where it is now situated, and the city gathered around it."
Both landings were amphibious operations conducted from the ships. The Chronicon relates that they were in use for many years and then were sunk in Lake Drusen. In 1238 the Dominican Order was invited to build a monastery on a grant of land. Pomesania was not secured, however, and from 1240-1242 the order began building a brick castle on the south side of the settlement. It may be significant that Elbing's first industry was the same as Truso's had been: manufacture of amber and bone artifacts for export. In 1243 William of Modena created the Diocese of Pomesania and three others. They were at first only ideological constructs, but the tides of time turned them into reality in that same century.
The foundation of Elbing was perhaps not the end of the Old Prussian story in the region. In 1825 a manuscript listing a vocabulary of the Baltic Old Prussian language, named the Elbing-Prussian Dictionary (German: Elbing-Preußisches Wörterbuch), or more commonly in English just Elbing Vocabulary, was found among some manuscripts from a merchant's house. It contained 802 words in a dialect now termed Pomesanian with their equivalents in an early form of German.
The origin of the vocabulary remains unknown. Its format is like that of modern travel dictionaries; i.e., it may have been used by German speakers to communicate with Old Prussians, but the specific circumstances are only speculative. The manuscript became the Codex Neumannianus. It disappeared after a British bombing raid destroyed the library at Elbing but before then facsimiles had been made. The date of the MSS was estimated at ca. 1400, but it was a copy. There is no evidence concerning the provenance of the original, except that it must have been in Pomesanian.
In 1246 the town was granted a constitution under Lübeck law, used in maritime circumstances, instead of Magdeburg rights common in other cities in Central Europe. This decision of the Order was in keeping with its general strategy of espousing the trade association that in 1358 would become the Hanseatic League. The Order seized on this association early and used it to establish bases throughout the Baltic. The Order's involvement in the League was somewhat contradictory. In whatever cities they founded the ultimate authority was the commander of the town, who kept office in the citadel, typically used as a prison. Lübeck law, on the other hand, provided for self-government of the town.
Membership in the Hanseatic League meant having important trading contacts with England, Flanders, France, and the Netherlands. The city received numerous merchant privileges from the rulers of England, Poland, Pomerania, and the Teutonic Order. For instance, the privilege of the Old Town was upgraded in 1343, while in 1393 it was granted an emporium privilege for grains, metals, and forest products.
Except for the citadel and churches, Elbing at the time was more of a small village by modern standards. Its area was 300 x 500m. It featured a wharf, a marketplace and five streets, as well as a number of churches. The castle was completed in 1251. In 1288 fire destroyed the entire settlement except for the churches, which were of brick. A new circuit wall was started immediately. From 1315 to 1340 Elbląg was rebuilt. A separate settlement called New Town was founded ca. 1337 and received Lübeck rights in 1347. In 1349 the Black Death struck the town, toward the end of the European plague. After the population recovered it continued building up the city and in 1364 a crane was built for the port.
The German-language Elbinger Rechtsbuch, written in Elbing, Prussia documented among other laws for the first time Polish common law. The German-language Polish laws are based on the Sachsenspiegel and were written down to aid the judges. It is thus the oldest source for documented Polish common law and is in Polish referred to as the Księga Elbląska (Book of Elbląg). It was written down in the second half of the 13th century.
Revolt of 1410
In 1410 the inhabitants of the city rebelled against Teutonic Knights while paying to Polish King Jagiello, who at the time was engaged in Polish–Lithuanian–Teutonic War. As the castle in Elblag was lightly defended by Polish garrison, the Teutonic Knights managed to retake it, promising the Polish defenders that they will be given free passage back to Poland. After the castle was taken, the Knights broke their promise and subsequently murdered a number of the captured defenders while imprisoning the rest.
Kingdom of Poland
Preserved tenements often resemble Amsterdam and Gdańsk
In 1440 several western and eastern Prussian towns formed the Prussian Confederation, which led the revolt of Prussia against the rule of the Teutonic Knights in 1454. For assistance against the Order, the Confederation asked for help from King Casimir IV of Poland. The burghers of Elbląg recognized Casimir as rightful ruler. After paying homage to the King, the city was granted great privileges, similar to those of Toruń and Gdańsk. Casimir's incorporation of Prussia led to the Thirteen Years' War.
After the Polish victory over the Teutonic Order, the city became part of the Malbork Voivodeship in the newly established autonomous province of Royal Prussia under the suzerainty of the Polish crown in the Second Peace of Thorn. The city was known to the Polish crown by its Polish name Elbląg. With the creation of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1569, the city was brought under direct control of the Polish crown. As one of the largest and most influential cities of Poland, it enjoyed voting rights during the royal election period in Poland.
With the 16th century Protestant Reformation the burghers became Lutherans and the first Lutheran Gymnasium was established in Elbląg in 1535.
From 1579 Elbląg had close trade relations with England, to which the city accorded free trade. English, Scottish, and Irish merchants settled in the city. They formed the Scottish Reformed Church of Elbląg and became Elbląg citizens, aiding Lutheran Sweden in the Thirty Years' War. The rivalry of nearby Danzig interrupted trading links several times. By 1618 Elbląg had left the Hanseatic League owing to its close business dealings with England.
Famous inhabitants of the city at that time included native sons Hans von Bodeck and Samuel Hartlib. During the Thirty Years' War, Swedish Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna brought the Moravian Brethren refugee John Amos Comenius to Elbląg for six years (1642–1648). In 1642 Johann Stobäus, who composed with Johann Eccard, published the Preussische Fest-Lieder, a number of evangelical Prussian songs. In 1646 the city recorder Daniel Barholz noted that the city council employed Bernsteindreher, or Paternostermacher, licensed and guilded amber craftsmen who worked on prayer beads, rosaries, and many other items made of amber. Members of the Barholz family became mayors and councillors.
During the Thirty Years' War, the Vistula Lagoon was the main southern Baltic base of King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, who was hailed as the protector of the Protestants. By 1660 the Vistula Lagoon had gone to Elector Frederick William of Brandenburg-Prussia, but was returned in 1700.
The poet Christian Wernicke was born in 1661 in Elbląg, while Gottfried Achenwall became famous for his teachings in natural law and human rights law. In 1700–1710 it was occupied by Swedish troops. In 1709 it was besieged, taken by storm on February 2, 1710 by Russian troops with support of Prussian artillery. The city was handed over to Polish King Augustus II in 1712.
The Imperial cartographer Johann Friedrich Endersch completed a map of Warmia in 1755 and also made a copper etching of the galley named "The City of Elbing" .
During the War of the Polish Succession in 1734, Elbląg wasplaced under military occupation by Russia and Saxony. The town came again under occupation by Russia from 1758-1762 during the Seven Years' War.
Kingdom of Prussia
The Greek-Catholic Church of Elbląg
During the First Partition of Poland in 1772 Elbląg was annexed by King Frederick the Great of the Kingdom of Prussia. Elbing became part of the new Prussian Province of West Prussia in 1773. In the 1815 provincial reorganization following the Napoleonic Wars, Elbing and its hinterland were included within Regierungsbezirk Danzig in West Prussia.
Elbing industrialized under the sovereignty of the Hohenzollern kings in Berlin. In 1828 the first steamship was built by Ignatz Grunau. In 1837 Ferdinand Schichau started the Schichau-Werke company in Elbing as well as another shipyard in Danzig later on. Schichau constructed the Borussia, the first screw-vessel in Germany. Schichau-Werke built hydraulic machinery, ships, steam engines, and torpedoes. After the inauguration of the railway to Königsberg in 1853, Elbing's industry began to grow. Schichau worked together with his son-in-law Carl H. Zise, who continued the industrial complex after Schichau's death. Schichau erected large complexes for his many thousands of workers.
Georg Steenke, an engineer from Königsberg, connected Elbing near the Baltic Sea with the southern part of Prussia by building the Oberländischer Kanal (Elbląg Canal).
Elbing became part of the Prussian-led German Empire in 1871 during the unification of Germany. As Elbing became an industrial city, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) frequently received the majority of votes; in the 1912 Reichstag elections the SPD received 51% of the vote. After World War I, most of West Prussia became part of the Second Polish Republic. Elbing was joined to German East Prussia, and was separated from Weimar Germany by the so-called Polish Corridor.
During the Nazi Germany era (1933–1945), three subcamps of the Stutthof concentration camp were located near the town: Elbing, Elbing (Org. Todt), and Elbing (Schinau). These were closed and many of the German inhabitants of Elbing forced to flee as the Soviet Red Army approached the city toward the end of World War II (see Evacuation of East Prussia). Laid under siege since January 23, 1945, about 65% of the city infrastructure was destroyed, including most of the historical city center. The town was captured by the Soviet Red Army during the night of February 9/10, 1945. During the first days of the siege most of the population of approximately 100,000 persons fled. After the end of war, in spring 1945, the region together with the town of Elbing became part of Poland as a result of the Potsdam Conference and the area was settled by Poles after remaining Germans were either transferred or fled to Germany. As of 1 November 1945 16.838 Germans remained in the town.
History after 1945
EB, Polish beer produced by the Elbrewery Company in Elbląg
CC BY-SA 4.0
The city was repopulated and given the Polish name Elbląg. Elbląg' was part of the so-called Recovered Territories and out of the new inhabitants, 98% were Poles expelled from Polish areas annexed by the Soviet Union from central Poland. Parts of the damaged historical city center were completely demolished, with the bricks being used to rebuild Warsaw and Gdańsk. The Communist authorities had originally planned that the Old Town, utterly destroyed during the fighting since January 23, 1945, would be built over with blocks of flats; however, economic difficulties thwarted this effort. Two churches were reconstructed and the remaining ruins of the old town were torn down in the 1960s.
Along with Tricity and Szczecin, Elbląg was the scene of rioting in the coastal cities in 1970 (see also Polish 1970 protests). Since 1990 the German minority population has had a modest resurgence, with the Elbinger Deutsche Minderheit Organization counting around 450 members in 2000.
Restoration of the Old Town began after 1989. Since the beginning of the restoration, an extensive archaeological programme has been carried out. Most of the city's heritage was destroyed during the construction of basements in the 19th century or during World War II, but the backyards and latrines of the houses remained largely unchanged, and have provided information on the city's history. In some instances, private investors have incorporated parts of preserved stonework into new architecture. By 2006, approximately 75% of the Old Town had been reconstructed. The city museum presents many pieces of art and items of everyday use, including the only 15th century binoculars preserved in Europe.
Elbląg is also home to the Elbrewery, Poland's largest brewery, which belongs to the Żywiec Group (Heineken). The history of the Elblag Brewing Tradition dates back to 1309, when Teutonic Master Siegfried von Leuchtwangen granted brewing privileges to the town of Elbing. The present brewery was founded in 1872 as the Elbinger Aktien-Brauerei. In the early 1900s, the brewery was the exclusive supplier of Pilsner beer to the court of German Emperor Wilhelm II.