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Traces of France in Gdansk

Commercial relations with France began with salt. As early as in 1378, Gdansk ships would sail to towns located in the Bay (Baie) of Bourgneuf, where the Loire meets the Atlantic, to pick up salt from the local salt mines, which was cheaper than the salt available in Luneburg, which had previously been the main place from which one could import it. After some time, entire fleets numbering dozens of ships began to sail there. The captains (usually in pairs) leading these fleets were called admirals. French merchants, on the other hand, began to visit Gdansk in the early 15th century.

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In 1468, one of the largest ships of its time arrived in Gdansk – it was Pierre de la Rochelle (Peter from La Rochelle), also known as the Great Caravel. A storm had broken the ship’s masts while waiting in the Gdansk roadstead. The wreckage was then pulled on the Motlawa. Its French owners made debts with the local merchants and... left. To get back at least some of the money they loaned, their Gdansk creditors pillaged the ship, taking everything that could be sold. When the war between the Hanseatic League and England erupted in 1471, the ship was renovated and sent to the North Sea under a new name – Peter von Danzig (Peter from Gdansk). Pawel Beneke, a Gdansk sailor, used it to acquire the famous altar with Hans Memling’s The Last Judgement for Gdansk in 1473. As the Italian ship he attacked was sailing under a (fake) Burgundian banner, the event almost sparked an armed conflict with Duke Charles the Reckless.

In 1475, after the war was over, the now-famous Great Caravel participated in a voyage to purchase salt in the Baie. However, on its way to France, it hit rocks and sank near La Rochelle, the place that birthed it...

In 1635, a French emissary arrived in Gdansk with the aim of signing a truce treaty in the Polish-Swedish war. Charles Ogier, his secretary, would note everything down, and wrote a very colourful and detailed description of Gdansk during its golden age under Polish rule. His notes also contain a discreet description of the Frenchman’s love for Elizabeth Haveradt, a 20-year-younger girl considered to be the most beautiful lady in the city.

In 1644, Marie Louise Gonzaga, the wife of King Wladyslaw IV married to him by proxy in Paris, arrived in Gdansk. After the eight-hour entrance ceremony, she was led to her quarters in the Green Gate, and, “weary from the heavy cold, she promptly went to bed”. The King was unable to greet her there as he was down with an illness in Warsaw. Each of the 11 days she spent there was full of attractions, e.g. the Royal Opera arrived from Warsaw to present its first opera play in Gdansk, in a specially-built theatre which was demolished after the Queen had departed!

After the French army led by Marshal Lefebvre conquered Gdansk in 1807, a triumphant entrance parade took place. By the order of the Marshal, the Polish legionnaires belonging to the corps of General Ignacy Gielgud who participated in the fight were given special spots in the parade, right behind the Marshal. Napoleon, who arrived several weeks later, bestowed upon Lefebvre the title of the Duke of Gdansk. This title, Duc de Dantzic, can be seen on his headstone in Paris, which is located in the Pere Lachaise cemetery. The name of Gdansk is also present on the list of victorious battles carved on the Arch of Triumph.

Starting in 1610, France had a permanent consulate in Gdansk. The first consul was the “noble Frenchman”, Jean de la Blanque. He died in 1626, leaving behind only a beautiful epitaph in the Holy Trinity Church. French consul reports are an invaluable source of information, and not only political. Among others, we can learn that, in 1716, a certain Gdansk watchmaker (unfortunately not known by name) built a clock which was reportedly resistant to the rocking motion of the sea. Hoping for an award, he wanted to present his invention in Paris, but the city’s Marine Commission refused to cover his travel expenses. Even Consul Louis Mathy was not able to help. A shame – perhaps Gdansk would have been able to boast the first creator of chronometers, 7 years before Harrison.

On the slope of the 76.5-m-tall Gypsy Mountain, which had already been the burial place of the French soldiers who had died there in 1807, 1500 Frenchmen that died on the territory of Poland were buried. They were most frequently prisoners of German POW camps from World War I and II. A cemetery design was created in 1948, built in 1961 (the monument), and its construction was finalised in 1967. The inscription on the monument reads: TO HER SONS WHO DIED FOR FRANCE IN POLAND / GRATEFUL, REPUBLIC OF FRANCE.