Poland’s lost palaces and stately homes

May 30, 2023 | Culture, Visit Places

I have a fascination with the British aristocracy, the endurance of hereditary titles and the permanence of their many opulent residences.  Whilst the 20th century brought with it many problems and changes of use, these stately homes have mostly survived and over 80% of the buildings remain. This isn’t quite so for Poland’s palaces.

In 1939, within the borders of the Second Polish Republic, there were about 19,000 landowners’ residences, including about 15,000 mansions and 4,000 palaces.  Now, less than 1% of this figure remain – 4,834 mansions and palaces of which nearly half are in ruins and only about 150 manors and palaces which have preserved their architectural and historical values. * 

Early palaces

Chatsworth House, Derbyshire

To see how this turbulent history has affected palaces, take Chatsworth House in Derbyshire which I often visit. Built by Bess of Hardwick in the 16th century, redevelopment was halted 100 years later by the Civil War, but soon re-established when the monarchy returned to power. During the 19th century, the 6th Earl of Devonshire, inspired by his travels throughout Europe added greatly to the buildings and grounds.

Chatsworth House, Derbyshire

Chatsworth escaped major damage during World War Two (as so many home were too ruined by army requisitioning to live in), by allowing a girl’s school to move there. The family returned in the 1950s to live and despite very heavy death duties, had the foresight to open the house to visitors in order to save the estate.

Contrast this with Krzyżtopór Castle which before Versailles in France was built,  was said to be the largest and most luxurious residence in the whole of Europe.  Krzysztof Ossoliński of the Topór family crest, commissioned the building in 1620 in the village of Ujazd near Sandomierz in southeastern Poland.

Krzyżtopór Castle ruins/ Photo: CC-BY-SA-2.0-Jerzy-Kociatkiewicz

Marble was laid throughout, supposedly even in the stables which housed 300 horses. Built in the style of an Italian palazzo in fortezza (palaces in fortresses), it was supposedly planned out like a calendar with 4 bastions – as many seasons, 12 large halls – for months, 52 chambers – for weeks and 365 windows. Completed in 1644, it was built as a pentagonal defensive structure with ornate gardens. Unfortunately it was captured by the Swedes in 1655 and burned by them two years later. Partly inhabited until 1770 it has stayed a ruin for the last 250 years.

Poland’s aristocracy

The Polish Szlachta (nobility) were historically equal by birth rather than having more or less prominence and all had a role in running the state. Larger than the English aristorcracy, it was 10% of the whole population and should not be seen as equivalent to gentry. Being noble meant a legal hereditary status regardless of wealth or lifestyle. On the whole, the szlachta tended to acquire titles at foreign courts, from the Holy Roman Emperor or the Pope and then princes from Lithuania were also included in its ranks. 

Nieborow/ Photo: idziemydalej.pl

Once the partitioning of Poland took place between the Russian, German and Austrian powers, the nobility lost their privileges in various ways especially in their roles in running the state, although they were recognised as aristocracy. Still, many lost their rights to estates due to various rebellions.

Duke Michał Hieronim Radziwiłł had rebuilt a previous residence in Nieborów, between Warsaw and Łódz in central Poland as a baroque palace in the 18th century. His wife Helena, founded the romantic gardens which she called Arkadia, based on the popular English garden model, with the largest collections of ancient art in Poland within its pavilions.  Their son who inherited the estate, led an insurrection which was crushed by the Russian army so it was requisitioned by the Tsar and like many of noble birth, he was sent to Siberia.  Returning many years later he claimed the estate back and the family set up a pottery factory to maintain it.

English Country Idyll

Althorp / Photo: tripendy.com

A similar property in the UK is Althorp, where Princess Diana Spencer was born. Dating from 1688 it was radically altered a century later. The Spencer family also amassed an extensive art collection and during the 18th century, it was a major cultural hub for the political classes.  Although some of the owners had hard times and in the 20th century sold off many furnishings and contents it has remained within the family throughout and can be visited with beautiful landscaped gardens and a very similar greek temple to Arcadia.

Nieborów Temple of Diana / Photo: smakszlaku.pl

The Temple of Diana in Arcadia has the inscription “Mi involio altrui per ritrovar me stessa” ( I run away from others to find myself) where Helena spent many hours. Nieborów survived the Nazi occupation but the last Duke was arrested by the Russians in 1945 and his wife died in a Gulag. When he returned he was banned from the building and it was taken over by the National Museum in Warsaw. Thankfully, a friend, the Director, managed to ensure that its collections remained intact in the worst of Stalinist times. The beautiful gardens of Arcadia can be viewed with many of the original features now in ruins – a perfect escape into past times.

Arcadia Gardens, Nieborów remains /Photo:

Palaces in the South East

One of the most opulent palaces in South East Poland, Łańcut fared slightly better.  Similar to the rebuilt Royal Castle in Warsaw or the Wawel in Kraków, it was built in 1642 on the site of a wooden castle,housing the greatest magnates of Poland, the Pilecki, Lubomirski and Potocki families.  The German army, the Wehrmacht were stationed there in World War II which saved it from total destruction, but the owner fled from the Soviets in 1945. It was turned into a museum and gradually restored.

Overall, however, in the 20th century, the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 destroyed many Polish noble homes and an independent Poland with redrawn borders, led many families to leave their homes leading to further impoverishment. 

Włostów Pałace, South East Poland / Autorstwa Lajsikonik – Praca własna, CC BY-SA 3.0,

How many of us have heard family tales of estates with almost mythical status, razed to the ground throughout the two World Wars, or barely standing and requisitioned for Soviet use. Włostów Palace about 70km from Kielce was one that belonged to the Karski family and remained intact until the owner Szymon Karski, working with the partisans in 1942 was found out and the whole family escaped. Requisitioned by the communist state as a school and farm, it fell into total disrepair.

Aristocratic titles

In the Polish constitution of 1921, the use of aristocratic titles in the public sphere was abolished, but they remained important in private and social life.  The history of the Polish aristocracy totally ended in 1945 when the communists who took power in Poland and decided to completely destroy the magnate families through harassment and confiscation of estates. Most of those who survived the war decided to emigrate though there are some descendants in Poland now, like Prince Jan Lubomirski-Lanckoroński who having made his own fortune, claims to  know the new King and Queen and runs the charitable Princes Lubomirski Foundation in honour of his ancestors.

If you’d like to visit some of Poland’s castles and palaces, many are in Silesia, Łódz county or the South East. Click on this Visit Poland link or for this Lonely Planet guide toAbandoned manors and palaces. Or if you have claims to the Polish nobility there is a legally recognised Polish Nobility Association.


*http://www.ziemianie.org.pl/siedziby-ziemianskie-dzisiaj/ (Polish Landowners website)

The main photograph is of Krzyżtopór Castle from above.


Related Blogs

Posted by Anna Kucewicz | September 30, 2023
Polish Book “The Peasants” has a worldwide renaissance
Nearly 100 years after Władysław Reymont won the Nobel Prize for literature, his epic book „Chłopi"(The Peasants) has entered the world stage in a blaze of colour. An animated film...
Posted by Anna Kucewicz | August 31, 2023
Wilno Polish City of Dreams
The beautiful panorama of the city of Wilno has been an inspiration for artists and writers throughout the centuries who called it home. Adam Mickiewicz to Juliusz Słowacki, Stanisław Moniuszko...
Posted by Anna Kucewicz | March 30, 2023
Young Poland artists shaping the future through nature and rural life
I've always loved this poster by Teodor Axentowicz for the 1898 Society of Polish Artists exhibition. I took inspiration from it for Polish at Heart’s brand colours. The woman’s head...