Stanisław was born at Szczepanów in 1030 in southern Poland, and studied at a cathedral school in Gniezno (which at the time was the capital of Poland), before traveling abroad to further his education. Having returned to Poland, Stanisław was ordained to the priesthood, and in 1072, at the behest of Pope Alexander II he somewhat reluctantly succeeded Lambert Suła as Bishop of Kraków.
Episcopal status (Stanisław was one of the first native Poles to become a bishop in Poland) thrust him into Polish political life, and, ultimately, into conflict with King Bolesław II who was crowned in 1076.
Stanisław worked out to bring about the full Christianization of Poland, introducing papal legates, restoring the see of Gniezno to metropolitan status (acceptance of which was a condition for the then Duke Bolesław’s coronation), and persuading King Bolesław to build a network of Benedictine monasteries.
The initial falling-out between Stanisław and Bolesław seems to have related to some land that a man called Piotr had sold to Stanisław for the use of the diocese, and which Piotr’s family had refused to hand over after his untimely death.
Sitting in judgment on the case, Bolesław decided in favour of the family of Piotr, but, according to pious legend, Stanisław arranged for the publice exhumation of Piotr (no fewer than three years after his death), after which he dramatically raised him from the dead so that he could testify on his behalf.
Bolesław had no choice but to decide in favour of Stanisław against the family of Piotr, who rebuked his astonished sons in open court, and, presented by Stanisław with a choice of remaining alive or returning to the peace of his grave, opted for the latter.
Stanisław also came into conflict with Bolesław over the King’s sexual immorality. Some historians believe that Stanisław was involved in a plot orchestrated by the nobles to dethrone Bolesław, or at least to distribute some of his powers the nobility and to the Church.
Bolesław was unwilling to reform his ways (either sexually or politically), with the result that Stanisław felt compelled to excommunicate him. Bolesław interpreted this as a politically motivated action designed to undermine the King and foment treason, and dispatched a band of soldiers to execute Stanisław on the spot.
The soldiers were reluctant to harm so holy a Bishop, so, being a man of action, Bolesław took matters into his own hands, and murdered Stanisław during a celebration of Mass. His emboldened henchmen then helped him hack the corpse of Stanisław to pieces before hurling the severed parts into a pool outside the church.
The martyrdom of Stanisław took place in 1079, and provoked such outrage that Bolesław was forced to flee to Hungary. A cultus soon developed, and the year 1245 saw the translation of his relics to Wawel Cathedral in Kraków, and in 1253 he was formally canonized by Pope Innocent IV. From the time of Władysław I the Elbow-High, most of the Kings of Poland were crowned kneeling in front of the sarcophagus containing the relics.
It was also said that, guarded by four eagles, his dismembered corpse had been miraculously reassembled in the pool where the parts had been thrown, and in feudal times, when Poland itself was broken up into smaller points, this pious story became a powerful metaphor for hopes of future national recovery and unification.
A more recent Archbishop of Kraków, Karol Wojtyła (the future Pope John Paul II, described Saint Stanisław the patron saint of moral order, which seems appropriate inasmuch as Stanisław’s ecclesiastical career was devoted to the establishment of moral order and discipline within Church and society, while the catalyst for his martyrdom was his conflict with Bolesław concerning the disordered morality of the King.