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Legend has it that Gniezno was founded by the mythical Lech, the grandson of the original legendary Piast and the grandfather of Mieszko I. While hunting in the area, young Lech found the gniazdo (nest) of a white eagle, giving the town its name and the nation its emblem (the man himself had to settle for having a beer named after him).

In historical terms, Gniezno was already fortified with wood and earth ramparts by the end of the 8th century, and had regular trade links with commercial centres far outside the region. In a key development, Duke Mieszko I is thought to have been baptised here in 966, thus raising the autonomous region of Wielkopolska from obscurity to the rank of Christianised nations.

Despite this, Mieszko seems to have favoured Poznań as a city, and some historians have argued that Gniezno was never officially Wielkopolska’s capital – the first cathedral was, after all, built in Poznań, and the ruler was buried there.

Gniezno came to the fore again in the year 1000, when the archbishopric was established here, and then Gniezno’s position was further strengthened in 1025 when Bolesław Chrobry was crowned in the local cathedral as the first Polish king. Only 13 years later, the Bohemians invaded, devastating the entire region. This prompted the Poles to shift their seat of power to the more secure Kraków, though kings were still crowned in Gniezno until the end of the 13th century.

The town retained its status as the seat of the Church of Poland and is still the formal ecclesiastical capital, despite the fact that the archbishops are only occasional guests these days.