King Władysław the Elbow-High was not elbow-high

King Władysław I Łokietekthe, aka the Elbow-High, is esteemed in Polish history for unifying Poland under one crown in the 14th century. The son of a Polish prince of the ruling Piast Dynasty, he was an able soldier and diplomat who skillfully navigated the turbulent waters of family inheritance, wars both foreign and domestic, and the Papal court in Rome to win the throne of Poland. He was the first Polish king crowned at Wawel Cathedral in Krakow and the first to be buried in the royal crypt there.

He was also short. The nickname “Łokietekthe” is a diminutive of “łokieć,” Polish for ell, a unit of measurement equivalent to a cubit (18 inches) derived from the combined lengths of forearm and extended hand. In Old English, ell was the word for forearm, and the measurement just adopted the same term. The word elbow combines the words for arm and bend.

The king’s reputation for shortness has taken on near-legendary proportions over the centuries. Tour guides at Wawel Cathedral have told visitors the Elbow-High king was 120 centimeters (3’11”) tall, a foot shorter than Danny De Vito. They are going to have to revise their script now, because an endoscopic exam of his body has found that they have been shortchanging Władysław by a lot.

The truth came to light when researchers took advantage of the renovation of the Poet’s Crypt at Wawel Cathedral to conduct geophysical surveys of the underground spaces east of the renovated crypt that are hard to access, including the area of the crypt under Władysław’s funerary monument. This was a spot of particular interest because when a stone in the cathedral floor was replaced in 1838, a body was spied through the gap. It was not in a coffin and bore no marker or emblem identifying the body.

The team drilled three boreholes through the floor at the base of the tomb and threaded lighting and an endoscope through them to view the remains in detail. They were in good condition, the dark blue robes and shoes still intact. There was no crown on his head, but there was a sword in a scabbard by his side and a royal scepter diagonal across his chest, a partially disintegrated wooden orb fallen alongside of it.

The clear view of well-preserved remains allowed researchers to estimate the height of the king within a 2-3 inch margin of error. The Elbow-High king was 152-155 cm tall (5′-5’1″). The average height of western European men in the 14th century was about 165-167 cm (5’5″-5’6″), so while he was shorter than the norm, he was not all that far from it. The nickname snowballed over the centuries into an exaggerated account of the good king’s vital statistics.

Here is a short clip of the boreholes being drilled and the view through the endoscope: