Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543)


Mikolai Kopernik was the Latin version of his name that he used in later life. He was known as Niklas Koppernigh in Germany. Nicholas was born on February 19, 1473, in Torun, in eastern Poland, located on the Vistula in West Prussia. Nicholas' father was from a merchant family. His whole family belonged to the Third Order of St. Dominic. The general idea of The Third Order was for lay people to affiliate with religious orders, as seen in the Benedictine Oblates or confraters (Taunton, "Black Monks of St. Benedict", London, 1897, I, 60-63).Founders and benefactors of monasteries were received in life into spiritual fellowship, and were clothed, in death in some sort of religious habit. This was similar to the Knights Templar, who had a whole system whereby layfolk could partake, in some sort, in their privileges and in the material administration of their affairs (English Hist. Rev., London, April, 1910, 227). But the essential nature of the tertiary (Third Order) was really an innovation of the thirteenth century. At this time, many of the laity, impatient of the indolent and sometimes scandalous lives of the clergy in lower Europe, were seized with the idea of reforming Christendom by preaching.

When Nicholas' father died, his uncle, a bishop, oversaw his education. Copernicus attended elite universities in Krakow, Bologna, and Padua. His uncle was preparing his nephew for the church. All the Copernicus' family embraced the preaching idea. Nicholas' brothers, Andreas and Nicholas Copernicus, were both clericals. His eldest sister was a Cisterian nun and abbess at Culm. While his youngest sister was married.

In 1466, this area was ceded to Prussia by the Teutonic Knights, So even if he was born in Prussia, he was a Pole at heart.

Mikolai's mother, Barbara Watzenrode, was from a prosperous Prussian family. His maternal uncle was Lukasz Watzenrode, Prince Bishop of Ermland, a see in northern Poland. His father was from Krakow and settled in Thorn. His father dealt in copper, as a prosperous wholesale merchant and city official. Mikolai's father died when he was only ten years old (in 1483). Nicholas was brought up by his uncle, the bishop of Ermeland.

Copernicus' uncle, Lukasz Watzenrode, was named after his father. Lukasz Watzenrode, Sr. (1400-1463) married Katharina von Rüdiger (d. 1496) in 1436. Lukasz's other daughter was named Christina Watzenrode (1440-1502). Christina married Tilman von Allen.


Copernicus had a great thrist for learning and found himself embroiled in various pursuits:

Nicholas Copernicus worked as a medical attendant and secretary to his uncle, the bishop of Ermeland, with whom he lived with from 1507-1512. His uncle and he lived in the princely castle of Heilsburg. His rooms were in the brick tower located a few hundred feet from the Cathedral's front door. Heilsburg was located approximately 46 miles from Frauenburg (Frombork). After his uncle's death, the castle was willed to Nicholas.

Besides studying the stars, Copernicus was a bailiff, military governor, judge, tax collector, vicar-general, physician, and reformer of the coinage. After the Teutonic wars (1519-1520) with Poland, Prussia was incorporated with Brandenburg, this had some effect on his financial holdings.

However, Copernicus was a man ready to do whatever was necessary to succeed. He wrote his book De Revolutionibus which was completed in 1530. The book was set in writing to prove that the sun is the center of the universe. This book was published in 1543, just before his death. He also published a Latin translation of the Epistles of Theophylactus Simocatta and a treatise on trigonometry.


Nicholas Copernicus' death is recorded as May 21, 1543. To this day, his burial spot has been a mystery. Since he was impoverished he was put into an unmarked grave. In the May 2006 Smithsonian magazine there is a story on pages 22-24 regarding a recent find. "Archaeologists believe they have found the remains of the 16th century astronomer who revolutionized our view of the universe," says Andrew Curry. Curry states that Nicholas Copernicus' death wasn't even recorded in church records. Now the body has been found in Frombock Cathedral, according to Jerzy Gassowski, an archaeologist at the Pultusk School of Humanities in central Poland.

In 2004, the Frombock bishops approached Gassowski and proposed a new search for the scientist. Afterall, Copernicus had been the canon of Frombock Cathedral. This was not the first search. People began to look for Copernicus' body back in 1802. Their radar showed there were more than 100 possible graves underneath the cathedral's marble tiles.

Bishop Jacek Jezierski had received an idea from a historian that Copernicus would most likely be buried near the altar where he prayed each day. Diggings began and they had to work around various masses and church events. They found three skeltons in this area. Two were too young and one was in a labeled coffin. Later on they found a dozen more bodies. They found a skull without its jawbone that Beata Jurkiewicz, a Pultusk archeaologist thought looked like the skull of a 70-year old man.

By using the Warsaw police department's crime lab, a police artist made a forensic reconstruction of what he thought the person might have looked like before. This technique is now used to identify decomposed murder victims worldwide. Then a computer program showed the man to have a long face that resembled the last known portrait of Nicholas Copernicus. There was still no real proof until DNA testing. Since Copernicus had no children they will have to use the DNA of his uncle. However, even locating his uncle's body might take years. This is because the Soviets burned most of the cathedral during World War II, and looted the bodies looking for treasures.

The author of this article is Andrew Curry, a Fulbright Journalism Fellow in Berlin, Germany. Here is the photo showing the rendition of the skull that MIGHT be Copernicus, as shown in the Smithsonian article.

Using the skull fragment above, the Warsaw Police made this computer-generated rendition of what the man might have looked like when he died. The features do resemble the features, of a much younger Copernicus, shown at the beginning of this article.

Links to Information on Copernicus:

Nicholaus Copernicus Nicholaus Copernicus-Catholic Encyclopedia Nicholas Copernicus-Scientist Nicholas Copernicus University in Torun Nicholaus Copernicus (1473-1543)


You are the visitor since September 19, 2003

Webmaster: Margaret Odrowaz-Sypniewski, B.F.A.,
Last updated on September 28, 2006

This page is hosted by