As you know, in Czech there is just one term for Czechia and Bohemia – “Česko”. In this article, I would like to introduce one of the most significant and amazing parts of Czech history to you – the climax of the medieval age in the Bohemian Kingdom in the 14th and 15th century.
As you have almost certainly noticed, I find Czech history enormously fascinating. I love it because the history of the Czech lands (Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia) is about 1200 years old, excluding the Celtic and Germanic civilisations that had lived here before the Slavs came.
Slavic tribes started arriving in Bohemia in the 6th century. As time went on, Bohemia became one of the most powerful kingdoms in Europe with a huge influence on the Holy Roman empire. In these times, Bohemia was ruled by the Přemyslid dynasty, the oldest dynasty that has ever reigned over the Bohemian Kingdom. In total, only 4 dynasties have wielded power during the whole history of this kingdom: the Přemyslid dynasty (9th – 14th century), the Luxembourg dynasty (14th – 15th century), the Jagiellonian dynasty (15th – 16th dynasty) and the Habsburg dynasty (16th – 20th century). Today, I will speak about several kings of the House of Luxembourg.
In 1306, the last Přemyslid king, Wenceslas III was murdered in Olomouc. After 4 years of controversy of succession, John the Blind (who wasn’t initially blind) captured the Bohemian throne as a result of his marriage to Wenceslas’ sister Eliška (Elizabeth). John was in a difficult situation – Czech nobility didn’t like him and considered him to be a foreigner ruling their land. Moreover, the Hundred years’ war had begun and John was expected to support his relatives who ruled France at that time. Fortunately, John was a legendary knight well-known across Europe. Although he didn’t speak Czech, as a statesmanlike diplomat, he kept the Bohemian crown and he managed his son’s coronation as the Holy Roman emperor and the Bohemian king as well. John died as a real hero at the battle of Crécy in 1346. He had become totally blind after all his previous battles and crusades so he ordered his son Charles to bind him onto his horse and send him into the battle. Even today, his last words are taught at all czech schools.
“Far be it that the King of Bohemia should run away. Instead, take me to the place where the noise of the battle is loudest. The Lord will be with us. There is nothing to fear.”
When young Charles (1316-1378, and king of Bohemia from 1346) came to Bohemia, he was shocked. There was neither any respect, nor any money to rule the kingdom. At the beginning, he couldn’t even live in the Prague castle because the castle looked more like a ruin. Nevertheless, Charles IV was definitely one of the best statesmen we have ever had. His diligence and hard work facilitated the rebuilding of the Bohemian kingdom. Charles spoke 5 languages (French, Czech, German, Italian, Latin) and thanks to his upbringing in France, he also knew the Avignon pope personally. In conclusion, Charles was the most powerful and educated person in central Europe of the time.
Before his arrival, the aristocratic families de facto ruled the Bohemian kingdom since his father John was constantly out of the land. John had received a nickname – the king-foreigner – so Charles wanted to achieve something better. And he truly succeeded, becoming known as ‘the father of the homeland’. I’ll tell you several reasons why we call him this.
If you have ever been to Prague, you have definitely seen the famous Charles bridge, which was built in 1357. Maybe, some of you would like to study at the best university in the Czech Republic – Charles University is one of the oldest universities in the world, having been founded in 1348.
As you know, I live in Mělník, an average Czech town in central Bohemia. Charles had fallen in love with wine during his years spent in France. He decided to bring some French grapes from Bourgogne to Bohemia because the climate conditions were actually ideal for them. Since the times of Charles’ reign, Czechs have propagated widely the vine plants here.
Charles wasn’t only the Bohemian king, but he also became the Holy Roman emperor and Prague was appointed to be the capital of this empire. His imperial crown jewels had to be hidden somewhere. Hence, Charles led the construction of a monumental castle – Karlštejn – close to Prague in order to have his jewels under control. Furthermore, Charles also wanted to modernise the city of Prague, so he built a new Prague district – the new town located in front of the Prague castle on the right side of the Vltava.
Another interesting fact about Charles IV is that he was married 4 times. It sounds slightly insane but frankly, it wasn’t his fault because three of his wives died before Charles grew old. He loved them all very much. On the other hand, thanks to these marriages and the alliances they brought, the area of the Bohemian kingdom was expanded.
After his death in 1317, everything changed. There was a feud between his sons – Bohemian king Wenceslas IV and Sigismund, the king of Hungary and Croatia. Both of them wanted to sit on the imperial throne. Wenceslas was rightfully the Holy Roman emperor since he was older than Sigismund. Nevertheless, he had many serious problems. Everybody expected that Wenceslas would be a great statesman like his father but, unfortunately, this never happened. Wenceslas loved hunting and alcohol over his duties which he found boring.
The nobility realised that their ruler was truly feeble and, consequently, Wenceslas was head of state in nothing but name, with no respect from the Bohemian aristocracy.
As for antichrist occupying the papal chair, it is evident that a pope living contrary to Christ, like any other perverted person, is called, by common consent, antichrist.
In the 14th and 15th century, the Catholic church was one of the most corrupt institutions. There were two popes (one in Rome and the other one in Avignon), priests didn’t follow the rules that they preached and your sins could be redeemed by buying indulgences, a means of literally paying for your sins. In Prague, a priest, who criticized these immoral practices, rose to prominence. His name was Jan (John) Hus. In Bethlehem Chapel, a place that every visitor to Prague has to see, he preached about the corruption of the Church itself. In particular, he sought the abolition of indulgences, and the theology that surrounded it. The Church evidently didn’t like his sermons and teachings, and Hus was burnt at the stake for heresy in 1415 during the Council of Constance.
Nevertheless, Hus was one of the most important medieval philosophers. He was influenced by the English philosopher John Wycliffe and he spread his teachings at the Charles University where he worked as a rector. His ideas inspired reformists such as Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli in the 16th century.
Love the truth. Let others have their truth, and the truth will prevail.
Meanwhile in Bohemia, Czechs were furious about the execution of John Hus. Priests, aristocrats and people who supported Hus’ philosophy united and they called themselves ‘The Hussites’. They wrote a manifesto of their movement called ‘The Four Articles of Prague’ which detailed their main goals: (1) freedom of preaching; (2) communion of both kinds; (3) poverty of the clergy and expropriation of church property; (4) punishment of notorious sinners. Thus the Hussite revolution was about to begin.
In 1419, after many religious-political conflicts between Catholics and Hussites, Jan Želivský, one of the Hussite priests, accompanied by a group of armed radical Hussites broke into the New Town Hall in Prague where they defenestrated the Catholic councillors. None of them survived. When Wenceslas IV heard this news, he got a heart-attack and he died. Bohemia had no king.
Sigismund finally got a chance to capture the Bohemian throne after his brother’s death. However, there was one last obstacle between him and the crown – the Hussites. Most of them weren’t even soldiers, so they didn’t have normal weapons like swords or spikes. Instead they used various agricultural tools and maces instead. Sigismund thought that this war would be an easy victory for him so he organised a crusade against the Hussites in 1420. However, he was very wrong.
In July 1420, Hussite armies led by, in my opinion, the best strategist of all time John Žižka absolutely vanquished Austrian crusaders led by Sigismund at the battle of Vítkov. Hussites were undefeatable since this battle. They sang the chorál ‘Ktož sú boží bojovníci’ before every battle to pump up and prepare. Smetana, one of the most important Czech composers, was inspired by this choral, dedicating one part of his symphonic poem ‘Má Vlast’ (My Homeland) called ‘Tábor’ to this medieval song. I’m sure that you will hear some motifs of the song in Smetana’s piece.
Why Tábor? Tábor is a town similar to mine where the most radical Hussites settled. Tábor means ‘a camp’ in Czech so it’s the reason why Smetana decided to call it this. Hussites were divided into three main groups – the Hussite lords (aristocrats who sympathized with Hus’ teachings), the Prague Hussites (the Hussites who came from big cities in Bohemia) and the radical Hussites (for example the Taborites). In 1434, European statesmen, priests, the Catholic Church wanted to solve the whole situation. They understood that they weren’t able to beat the Hussites in a normal way. Well, they changed their strategy. John Žižka, after losing both of his eyes during battles, died in 1424 and there was no general good enough to replace him. In 1434, the Hussites weren’t united at all and the Bohemian kingdom was in a bad situation economically after almost 20 years of conflicts. Sigismund offered a partnership to the Hussite lords and the Prague Hussites, accepting some of the Four Articles of Prague. They agreed with this proposition and in May, 1434, the last Hussite battle was fought. This was the last Hussite bloodshed. Hussites fought against Hussites. What a paradox.
After the end of the Hussite revolution, Sigismund could finally become the Bohemian king. He was crowned in 1436, but died in 1437. Bad luck.
What I have taught with my lips I now seal with my blood.