Bohemia and good king Wenceslas: 9th – 10th c. AD
Bohemia derives its name from a Celtic tribe, the Boii, who inhabit the region during the last few centuries BC. But Slav tribes arrive in the area from the east during the early centuries AD. The most powerful of these tribes are the Cechove, or Czechs.
By the 9th century Bohemia is loosely connected to the great kingdom of Moravia, lying to the east.
From Moravia comes the influence of Christianity, energetically spread in Bohemia in the 10th century by Vaclav, a prince known in the west as Wenceslas. Murdered on his way into church in 929, Wenceslas is later venerated as Bohemia’s patron saint. (As good king Wenceslas he also features, more surprisingly, in a popular English carol.)
By the 13th century the Premyslid family, of which Wenceslas is a member, rules far beyond Bohemia. Its territories are at their greatest extent under Otakar II.
Premsyl Otakar II: AD 1251-1278
The Bohemian prince Otakar is elected duke of Austria in 1251, inherits the throne of Bohemia in 1253, wins further border territories by a victory over the Hungarians at Kressenbrunn in 1260, and subsequently extends his domain southwards as far as the Adriatic coast.
For several generations Bohemia has had close links with the German empire, and when the electors meet in 1273 to choose a new German king the most powerful candidate is undoubtedly Otakar. But the electors reject Otakar, perhaps because his dynasty is Slav rather than German. They choose instead his neighbour in nearby Switzerland – the Habsburg count Rudolf.
Rudolf enters Austria with an imperial army in 1276, defeats Otakar, and forces upon him the treaty of Vienna. By its terms Otakar renounces his claim to Austria. As a vassal of Rudolf he is allowed to keep the ancestral lands of his dynasty, Bohemia and Moravia (the western part of Great Moravia, linked to Bohemia since 1029), but he is stripped of his other dignities.
Two years later, in 1278, Otakar marches west to recover Austria. His army meets Rudolf’s at Dürnkrut, northeast of Vienna. Otakar is defeated, and is killed in flight from the battle.
Wenceslas II and Poland: AD 1291-1305
Ottakar’s son Wenceslas is only seven at the time of the disaster at Dürnkrut, yet Bohemia is stable enough for him to succeed his father on the throne without disturbance. The kingdom derives great wealth from its silver mines, and Wenceslas uses these resources for a prolonged and successful adventure in Poland.
In 1291 he occupies Cracow, close to Bohemia in southern Poland. A combination of diplomacy and force enhances the Bohemian cause in Poland until, shortly after 1296, the nobles of the western region (Great Poland) elect Wenceslas their prince. In doing so they reject the leading Polish candidate, Wladyslaw, a prince of the Polish royal house.
By 1300 Wenceslas has gathered sufficient support to be crowned king of Poland at Gniezno. But his reign over the two kingdoms of Bohemia and Poland is interrupted by his early death in 1305.
He is succeeded by a 17-year-old son, also Wenceslas. The young king travels to Poland in 1306 to claim his second crown. During the journey he is murdered in his bed (it is not known by whom, but in spite of his tender years Wenceslas III already has a reputation as a libertine). His successor on the Bohemian throne, John of Luxembourg, revives the claim to Poland. But this time the Polish nobles finally elect their own prince, Wladyslaw.
European monarchs: AD 1301-1526
The first decade of the 14th century sees the demise of two long-established indigenous dynasties in eastern Europe. The Magyar line of the Arpads flickers out in Hungary, after more than three centuries, with the death of Andrew III. Slav rule by the Premyslid family in Bohemia is brought to a more abrupt end by the bedroom assassination of Wenceslas III in 1306.
In each case the event ends the ethnic link between the ruling dynasty and the people. Both kingdoms now take their place in the patchwork quilt of medieval European dynasties. Hungarian and Czech nobles insist upon the right to choose their kings. And tempting alliances are on offer.
The Czechs choose wisely, though force proves as important a factor as choice. European power has recently shifted to the house of Luxembourg, whose count is elected Holy Roman emperor in 1308 as Henry VII. One of the Czech factions seizes its chance, offering the hand of princess Elizabeth (sister of the late Wenceslas III) to Henry’s son, John of Luxembourg. It is understood that a German imperial army will escort the bridal couple into Prague.
John and Elizabeth marry in August 1310 and reach Prague in December. Their joint army of Germans and Bohemians captures the city and evicts a rival claimant to the throne.
The Luxembourg dynasty rules in Prague for more than a century. Under Charles IV, the son of John and Elizabeth, both city and kingdom enjoy a period of unprecedented splendour – even though the early years of his reign coincide with the horrors of the Black Death.
Charles is elected German king in 1346, succeeds his father as king of Bohemia later in the same year, and is crowned emperor in Rome in 1355. So the alliance with the Luxembourg dynasty brings imperial power to Bohemia. Even better, Charles makes Prague his imperial city. Already a prosperous centre, at the intersection of important trade routes, it benefits immensely from the emperor’s patronage.
Charles founds eastern Europe’s first university at Prague in 1348 and builds its central hall (the Carolinum, named after himself). He commissions the famous Charles Bridge, joining the Old Town to the Little Quarter on the other side of the Vltava. And he adds an entirely new quarter to the city, the Nove Mesto or New Town.
The authority which Charles establishes as Holy Roman emperor (it is he who brings order to the empire’s proceedings with his Golden Bull of 1356) is sufficient for his son, Wenceslas IV, to succeed him unopposed as German king – a rare event in the recent centuries of German elections.
But Wenceslas proves unworthy of the inheritance his father has prepared for him. During a long reign he loses control in both Germany and Bohemia. On two occasions he is imprisoned for lengthy spells by rebellious nobles.
The death of Wenceslas in 1419 is followed by almost two decades of extreme violence in the Hussite wars – resulting from the reforming ideas of John Huss and from the outrage provoked by his death.
The Bethlehem Chapel and John Huss: AD 1402-1414
John Huss, a teacher of philosophy in Prague university, is appointed in 1402 to a controversial position. He is put in charge of the Bethlehem chapel in Prague.
The chapel, founded about ten years previously, is associated with a radical approach to Christianity. The pulpit here is as prominent a feature as the altar. It is to be a place for sermons in the Czech language, comprehensible to ordinary people. The preachers argue for a simple Christianity, a religion of poverty and humility, very different from the worldly grandeur of the papacy.
At about the time of Huss’s first involvement with the chapel, tension is heightened by the return from Oxford of his young friend Jerome of Prague. Jerome brings with him books by John Wycliffe, whose views – particularly on the unholy nature of the papacy – coincide with those of Huss.
For several heady years the reformers preach and agitate in Prague. The papacy is an easy target. Since 1378 there have been two rival popes. From 1409 there are three. One of them even has the effrontery to sell indulgences in Prague to finance his campaign against his opponents.
Eventually a council is called at Constance, in 1414, to resolve the issue of the three popes. As a prominent voice in the argument for ecclesiastical reform, Huss is invited to Constance to put his case.
The invitation poses evident personal danger to Huss, but he is reassured by a promise of safe conduct from the emperor Sigismund. Huss bravely sets off for the small German town which is now the scene of a glittering assembly of Christian potentates. Within weeks of his arrival he is arrested, with the emperor’s tacit approval.