THL Isabelle de Foix


            The earliest known inhabitants of what is now the Czech Republic were a Celtic tribe called the Boii. This tribe gave the region its Latin name, Bohemia. The dates for the dominance of the Boii are not clear. For awhile the region was ruled by a Germanic tribe, the Marcomanni. It is not clear when the first Slavs arrived in the area, but by the sixth century they were the dominant population group there. Mountains and forests to their northwest and southwest protected them from German invaders but not invaders to the East. Unlike another Slavic tribe, the Wends, who settled northwest of them, they were never assimilated by Germanic peoples. In the eighth century, Charlemagne conquered and unified the Slavs to hold off some formidable invaders from the east, the Avars. After this Bohemia was relatively secure. By 800 the Czechs were in control of most of Bohemia, which they call Cechy. The Czech rulers claimed descent from a legendary plowman named Pfemysl. However, they were not able to subdue the tribes of east Bohemia. Because they had pushed so far to the west, these Slavs were surrounded by German states. Because of this, the Czechs were more influenced by powers to the west than any other Slavic peoples.

            The region just to the east of Bohemia, Moravia, was also originally populated by Celts and invaded by Germanic tribes. As was the case with Bohemia, it is unclear when the Slavs arrived in Moravia. It has been established that the Slavs inhabited the area by the eighth century. There was no tribe called the Moravians; various Slavic tribes settled in this area, and acquired their collective name from a river called the Morava River. This river became part of an important trade route between the Baltic Sea and the Adriatic Sea.

            The Slovaks were Slavs who settled to the east of Moravia. They lived in an area bordered on the south by the Danube River and the eastern curve of the Carpathian Mountains to the north. Early on in their history, they fell under the rule of the Magyars, or Hungarians, who were Finno-Ugric in ethnic origin rather than Slavic. Throughout the Middle Ages, Slovakia was referred to as “Upper Hungary”. Thus, even though they were Slavs who spoke a language almost identical to Czech, they had no close relationships with either the Czechs or the Moravians until 1918, when the modern nation of Czechoslovakia was formed. A Magyar nation, Hungary, was formed to the south of these Slavic settlements. From the west, Germans migrated down the Danube and into the Alps, forming a nation later known as “Osterreich” (German, “eastern kingdom”), known to English speakers as Austria. These two nations, Austria and Hungary, shared a border, and formed a barrier between the Slavs of Central Europe and those Slavic peoples who penetrated into the Balkan Peninsula, the Serbs and the Croats.

            When Charlemagne defeated the Avars in 796, many Moravians fought in his army. Charlemagne rewarded them for their help by granting them lands, which they held in fief from him. He still owned the land, but the local chiefs ruled it for him. Thus, they became part of the Frankish feudal system. However, the Moravian princes enjoyed so much independence that they were able to go to war with Charlemagne and his successors. By the early ninth century, Charlemagne’s empire had fallen apart, and the Moravians had acquired a strong ruler in Prince Mojimir I (reigned c. 818—c. 846). About 833 Mojimir annexed the Nitra area (now the western part of Slovakia) to his domain. His son and successor, Rostislav, stabilized this realm, successfully defending it against invaders. It was during his reign that Christian missionary activities came to the Slavic lands. A dispute over who was to control these activities erupted between several German bishoprics, and the first missions had limited success. Nonetheless, a church was erected in Nitra in 828, and in 845 the archbishop of Salzburg baptized fourteen chieftains from Bohemia. Twentieth century archeological digs have revealed the remains of several stone churches that were built before 860 in Nitra.

            Rostislav was none too pleased with the Frankish presence in Moravia, so he did not welcome the Frankish missionaries who had come to his realm. He did not approve of the Roman liturgy because it was in Latin, not Slavic. No one in Moravia understood Latin. Rostislav had received reports that the neighboring realm of Bulgaria had been converted to Christianity by Slavic-speaking missionaries from Constantinople rather than Rome. He asked the Byzantine Emperor for Slavic-speaking missionaries. A group of Slavic-speaking missionaries, headed by two brothers from the Greek town of Salonika, Constantine and Methodius, came to Moravia in 863.  They needed a form of written communication, whereupon Constantine developed the first Slavic alphabet. Constantine had been educated in Constantinople, so he used the Greek alphabet as a basis, and made adjustments to suit a drastically different language. After these efforts he entered a monastery in Rome and took the name Cyril. To this day the alphabet used in many Slavic lands, but not Moravia or Bohemia, strangely enough—is called the Cyrillic alphabet. Cyril composed a Slavic liturgy, which was approved by the pope. This connection with the papacy made the Czechs and Moravians Roman Catholic rather than Eastern Orthodox.

            The next ruler of Moravia was Svatopluk. He acquired a great deal of Slavic territory, including the whole of Bohemia, part of what is now Poland, and part of what is now Hungary. He called this state Greater Moravia. However, his successor was unable to hold off a joint invasion of Franks and Magyars, and Great Moravia disappeared early in the tenth century.

            The line of Bohemian princes had become known as the Premyslids. Perhaps the most famous of the Premyslids was Vaclav (reigned 921—929), known as Wenceslas in English-speaking lands. Vaclav was assassinated by his brother, who supposedly did not approve of his Christian faith. He was canonized as a martyr by the pope, and became Bohemia’s patron saint. During his reign, he tried to end his family’s ongoing dispute with the Saxons by naming Prague’s first church after St. Vitus, a Saxon saint. Little else is known about his political activities. It is known that the church’s name did little to end the political strife between the Saxons and the Czechs.

            In 973 a bishopric was established in Prague. The first bishop was from Saxony but was fluent in the Slavic language of the people. The second one was from the royal house of Saxony; he was elevated to the bishopric in hopes of ending the feud between the Slavniks, the royal house of Saxony, and the Premyslids. This hope was in vain, the Slavniks had their power broken and the bishop fled to pagan Prussia on the Baltic, only to suffer a martyr’s fate (997).

            The Premyslids began to suffer from infighting amongst the ever-increasing members of the family. This made their realm vulnerable to outside intervention in Czech politics, and Bohemia became part of the Holy Roman Empire. Because of this, the Slavic liturgy was abandoned in favor of the Latin rite of Western Europe. The internal difficulties within the Czech royal family continued for some 150 years. However, when the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and his successor, Henry VI, became embroiled in disputes with Lombardy and Sicily in the late twelfth century, they largely ignored their Slavic subjects, leaving them to breathe more easily. The Premyslids survived this turmoil and remained rulers of Bohemia and Moravia.

            Additionally, a gifted Czech ruler, Duke Pfemysl Otakar (1197-1230) took advantage of the dynastic disputes that broke out in the Holy Roman Empire after the death of Henry VI to strengthen the political position of the Czechs in the Empire. Pfemysl’s brother, Vladislav, was margrave of Moravia, and he gave his brother his undivided loyalty. These two were instrumental in supporting Philip of Swabia’s bid for the Imperial throne in 1198. In return for their support, Philip promised Pfemysl a royal title, confirmation of the borders of Bohemia, and the right to invest bishops. A rival claimant to the throne of the Empire, Otto, had the support of the pope. Otto was crowned and became Otto IV. The Pope realized how important the Czech lands were to the Empire, and he entered into negotiations with the Czech rulers. He tried to coax Pfemysl into accepting Otto as Emperor on the grounds that a royal title conferred by an Empire backed by the papacy would make his position stronger. The Empire was plunged into political uncertainty due to the dispute between Philip and Otto. Neither one of these men won their dispute; Frederick of Hohenstaufen was crowned Holy Roman Emperor. In 1212, Frederick installed Pfemysl as King of Bohemia in a historic meeting in Basel. Frederick provided the Czech ruler with a charter known to history as the “Golden Bull”, stabilizing the relationship between the Czech kings and the Holy Roman Empire. The Bohemians were able to provide three hundred knights for the Imperial coronation, which took place in Italy. The charter was called the “Golden Bull” because Frederick used the royal seal of Sicily on the scroll, and this seal was made of gold. Pfemysl then presented his son, Vaclav, to the nobility of Bohemia as his successor.

            Pfemysl’s reign was not without its troubles, mainly caused by his desire to conquer and rule Austria. He betrothed his daughter, Agnes, to Frederick’s heir. However, a meddlesome archbishop arranged a betrothal between Frederick’s heir and another princess. Both plans fell through when the Duke of Austria, a Habsburg, betrothed Frederick’s son to his own daughter. The betrothal dispute blew up into a war between Bohemia and Austria the very next year, 1226. During this war Austria was laid waste; this created bad blood between Bohemia and Austria. Meanwhile Henry III of England had entered into negotiations for Agnes’ hand. Pfemysl discussed the matter with the English, but he was unwilling to alienate the Holy Roman Emperor, something he would have done had he sent Agnes to the English royal family. Thus, Agnes lost her second suitor.

            When Pfemysl died in 1230, Vaclav became King. The next year the Holy Roman Emperor formally installed him as King of Bohemia, but this was a mere technicality. Bohemia was now strong enough to crown her own rulers. The Holy Roman Emperors could no longer choose kings for her. Political tensions over Agnes’ betrothal did not die with Pfemysl. Agnes tired of being a political took and entered the Second Order of St. Francis, commonly called “the Poor Clares”. This did not end the dispute between Bohemia and Austria. Frederick, the new Duke of Austria, made a deal with Vaclav’s brother-in-law, Pfemysl, the margrave of Moravia, to overthrow the Bohemian monarch as revenge for the devastation of Austria during the war. Frederick, an unprincipled, quarrelsome character, soon found himself enmeshed in a dispute with the Hungarians. The Hungarian and Czech kings united and resolved to make Austria a wasteland (1235). Frederick had also alienated the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, who stripped him of the Duchy of Austria. The Holy Roman Emperor, at this point, may be have been making plans to make Bohemia more subservient to the Empire. All of these political disputes were cast aside as the central Europeans braced for the Mongol invaders from the East. The Mongols had devastated Poland, Silesia, and Moravia. The Austrian ruler agreed to a marriage with Vaclav’s daughter, Gertrude, after his duchy was restored to him. However, only death in 1246 could stop Frederick’s political wrangling.

            In 1246 the Czech nobility, displeased with the King’s alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor, broke out in open revolt against him. The nobles persuaded the King’s son, Pfemysl, the margrave of Moravia, to seek co-regency with his father. Father and son reconciled after four years, and Vaclav kept his throne. Vaclav died in 1253 and Pfemysl became King of Bohemia. Meanwhile, Pfemysl had been chosen as the new Duke of Austria by its nobility. This was not to the liking of the Hungarian ruler, Bela IV. Bela claimed sovereignty in Styria, a land which was politically united with Austria. This dispute was quelled in a peace treaty which gave Austria and a part of Styria to Pfemysl and Styria within its present boundaries to Bela’s son Stephen.

            Pfemysl Otakar II (reigned 1253-1278) was the most powerful sovereign in Central Europe. The Premyslids dynasty had become historically rooted in the lands of the Czechs and the Moravians. Pfemysl had no brothers, so he had no troublesome margrave of Moravia; he himself assumed this title. Silver mines had been discovered in these lands by this time, and they were a source of great wealth, as were German settlements around the border country, which had been considered inhabitable by the Slavs. The German settlers were miners, artisans, and peasants who had mostly come from northern Germany and maintained good relations with their former ruling houses. Not satisfied with his wealth and power, Pfemysl coveted Poland. Poland was vulnerable; it was divided between several members of the Piast dynasty, and had been hit hard by the Mongol invasions of 1241. It was also under constant siege by the Lithuanians and the Baltic Prussians. Pfemysl promised the dukes of Poland aid in holding off their enemies. In 1255 he was off to Baltic Prussia where he was involved in a crusade against the still-pagan Prussians, giving much-needed assistance to the Teutonic Knights. The Poles admired his courage and referred to him as the “Iron King”. He planned a similar crusade against the unconverted Lithuanians the next year; he aspired to make all of the Lithuanian chiefs of his conquered lands his vassals, completely subservient to the Czech Crown. The Pope disapproved of his choice of bishop for the newly converted, and many Polish nobles opposed the plan for fear of getting swallowed in a Czech Empire. The Teutonic Order did not want Czech competition in their conquests of the pagan Baltic peoples. The Pope wanted Pfemysl’s help in his political disputes with the German rulers. Thus Pfemysl was forced to cancel his Lithuanian crusade and even abandoned his plans to conquer all of Poland. He contented himself with the acquisition of Silesia.

            In 1259 the nobility of Styria, a region of Hungary at this point in time, revolted against Bela of Hungary and chose Pfemysl as their new ruler. Bela, an ambitious man, was prepared to fight for his throne. The Hungarians had also been hard hit by the Mongolian invasions; whole regions of their country were virtually unpopulated after the attacks. Bela settled these areas with Turkic tribes. He then expanded his influence into the nations of the South Slavs, the Serbs and the Croats. In 1260 he met Pfemysl in the Battle of Kressenbrun and lost badly. Pfemysl went on to acquire Carinthia and other Alpine areas as far south as Slovenia. Next, Pfemysl coveted the Holy Roman Emperor’s crown. The pope gave the German rulers a choice for the next Holy Roman Emperor. Several powerful princes had votes as “electors” for the election of the Holy Roman Emperor. These rulers were jealous of Pfemysl and did not want to give him any more power. The upshot of this political tug-of-war was the election of Count Rudolph of Habsburg (1273) as Holy Roman Emperor. Pfemysl was unable to hold on to his Alpine lands, and he was forced to give his Bohemian and Moravian lands to the Emperor in fief when the Czech nobility revolted against him. Pfemysl lost his political battle—and his life—on a battlefield in 1278. He became a victim of anti-Slavic sentiment among the Germans; he had made his most costly error by trying to conquer the mostly German Alps rather than his fellow Slavs, the Poles.

            Pfemysl was succeeded by his son Vaclav (Wenceslas), who became Wenceslas II. Wenceslas introduced Roman law to Bohemia, although the Czech nobility opposed it. After all, late Roman law gave the king the sole right to legislate. Wenceslas wisely refused an offer to be elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1291; he did not wish to repeat his father’s mistake. The Empire had become weak and insignificant. Wenceslas turned his attention to his fellow Slavs. There was a strong pro-Czech sentiment among the Polish nobility, and these helped him gain control of Cracow. In 1300 Wenceslas was elected King of Poland by its nobility. He accepted it as a fief of the Holy Roman Empire, but the weakness of the Empire made this a mere technicality. The wealth from the silver mines of Bohemia and Moravia made it possible for Wenceslas to introduce a new coinage system. The new coins were called grossus. Previously, the coinage system in Poland had been chaotic; the new coins brought it much needed organization. Central Europe looked poised to develop a new central monarchy, which would have been comparable to France in the west. Hungary would have been included, since the Hungarian dynasty had died out. The Hungarian crown was united with that of Croatia, and Wenceslas’s’ son, also named Wenceslas, was crowned King of Hungary.

            The pope objected strenuously to this coronation as Hungary was in fief to the papacy. A Polish opponent of the Czech dynasty joined forces with the Holy Roman Emperor and the pope in plotting the demise of Czech power in Hungary and Croatia. At first the King of France, Philip the Fair, sided with Wenceslas, but he was won to the papal cause due to complex political circumstances. The papal cause triumphed, and the Czech rulers had to give up the Hungarian and Croatian crowns. Shortly afterward, Wenceslas died (1305) and was succeeded by his son, Wenceslas III. Wenceslas signed a peace treaty with the Holy Roman Emperor and continued his father’s aggressive policy in Poland. While on his way from Prague to Poland, the young king was assassinated (1306). Thus ended the dynasty of the Premyslids.

            At the same time the relationship between Poland the Bohemia changed. The power-hungry Habsburgs grabbed Bohemia. Emperor Albert I made it a fief of the Empire and made the Czech nobility elect his son, Rudolph, as their king. Rudolph married Ryksa, Wenceslas’s Polish queen. The Emperor demanded that the Czech crown be passed down through Rudolph’s brothers. This angered the Czech nobility, who quickly developed an intense hatred of the Habsburgs. Rudolph died in 1307, and the Czechs chose Henry, the Duke of Carinthia, as their new king. The Duke was married to one of Wenceslas’s sisters. In 1308 Emperor Albert was assassinated by a jealous kinsman. Meanwhile Henry had alienated the Czechs by showing favoritism to the German cities of the borderlands.

            At this point two men emerged who would change the course of Czech history. Both had been courtiers of Wenceslas II. Peter of Aspelt had served as chancellor and had become archbishop of Mainz. He allied himself with a surprisingly strong claimant to the Imperial throne, Henry, Count of Luxembourg. Henry was elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1308, and reigned until 1313. This put Peter in a very strong bargaining position for determining the new dynasty for the Czech kingdom. He, along with the Czech Cistercian monks, chose the house of Luxembourg, and crowned Emperor Henry’s son John King of Bohemia. John married Elizabeth, who was one of Wenceslas’s daughters. Henry of Carinthia was promptly expelled from Prague, and a new dynasty, that of Luxemburgs, took control of the Czech throne.

            Much had been accomplished during the long reign of the Premyslids. They were able to abolish an ancient Slavic tradition that brought nothing but trouble in the process of unifying nations. This was the custom of recognizing every member of a ruling family as also being a member of the government. Entire families shared power, and this custom had devastating effects among the East Slavs in particular. Their realm, which would become Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, fell apart into small city states. In Bohemia, this custom was abolished around 1200. Pfemysl I prevented the disintegration of Bohemia and Moravia by instigating the principle of entrusting the task of governance to one ruler. This did not prevent the nobility from claiming rights granted to them by ancient Slavic custom. They continued to meddle in the affairs of the Czech crown. Feudalism developed in Bohemia, but not on the scale it did in France or Germany. Czech nobles were more interested in power than they were in property.

            The Czech nobility had been encroaching on the power of the Crown prior to John’s coronation. His queen, Elizabeth, resented this, and at her request, John imprisoned the leader of the nobles involved in this scheme, Henry of Lipa. This was followed by a revolt of the nobility against the Crown, which was successful in strengthening the power of the nobility and the weakening of the Crown. Henry of Lipa was released from prison and even regained his court offices. John’s attempt to strengthen the Czech crown was a dismal failure. Unfortunately, John of Luxemburg was unsuited for monarchy; he was impulsive and cursed with bad judgment. The Queen’s attempt to educate her husband in the ways of kingship was an exercise in futility, and their marriage was a failure. The King gave credence to a rumor that had been circulating around the kingdom that Elizabeth was plotting to have him removed as king and reign as regent for their son. John imprisoned Elizabeth and their child. This angered the Czechs, who were very fond of the Queen, as she was the last of the Premyslids. The citizens of Prague forced John to free the Queen and their son. He sent the son, Wenceslas, to Paris to be educated at the French court. Wenceslas changed his name to Charles. John ignored the duties of government, giving Henry of Lipa the opportunity to rule Bohemia in everything but name. He was obsessed with the notion of chivalry as it was practiced in late medieval Europe. Late medieval chivalry was still focused on the fighter on horseback, but whereas earlier concepts of chivalry had been centered around bravery and honor on the battlefield, late medieval chivalry was basically focused on an aristocratic pastime, the tournament. John attempted to hold an international tournament in Prague in 1319, but this plan never materialized. After this he spent all of his time in France, where the spirit of chivalry was much more important than it was in Bohemia. He dabbled in papal and Imperial politics, even occupying parts of Italy for a short time. He fought in many an important battle. He went blind in 1339, but continued to fight. Both he and Charles fought for France in the Battle of Crecy, one of the most important battles of the Hundred Years’ War. John lost his life in this battle. According to Jean Froissart, the writer who wrote of the deeds of the aristocratic and the heroic, when the Black Prince, the son of England’s King Edward III, heard of John’s death, he said “The crown of chivalry has fallen today. Never was anyone equal to this King of Bohemia”.

            The Czechs hardly shared this high opinion of John of Luxemburg. He was a stranger in his own kingdom. He only resided there long enough to obtain funds for his next military enterprise. The result of the royal irresponsibility was the weakening of the Czech monarchy and the strengthening of its nobility. Even worse, John took all of the royal revenues to pay for his military exploits. The result of this wrecked the kingdom’s economy. Clearly the late medieval definition of chivalry had no room for a sense of responsibility.

            John and Charles both benefited from a favorable relationship with the papacy. In 1344 Pope Clement VI elevated the bishopric of Prague to an archbishopric and appointed a Czech its first archbishop. The Pope summoned both men to Avignon, where he told them was willing to prepare Charles for his duties as Holy Roman Emperor as the reigning Emperor, Louis IX, had alienated practically every crowned head in Europe. Fortunately, Charles had the strong, steady character of his Premyslid mother rather than his unstable father. He had grown up in Paris, where he had had an excellent education. Paris was the home of one of the greatest universities north of the Alps. Charles had to deal with Louis IX; Louis saved the situation by dying of apoplexy while hunting. The way was clear for Charles to go to the ancient city of Aachen, where Charlemagne had reigned, to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor.

            Charles had founded the oldest university in Central Europe, the University of Prague, in 1348. This school still exists and is known today as Charles University, “Universitas Carolina”. This school, like the university in Paris, had four departments: liberal arts, theology, medicine, and law. Prague attracted many distinguished scholars, painters, sculptors, and other talented people. To strengthen the Czech monarchy, Charles worked closely with both the nobility and the church hierarchy rather than alienating them by treating them with contempt. In 1356 Charles issued a blueprint for the security of the succession in the Empire. It defined the status of the rulers who were entitled to cast votes for candidates for the Imperial throne. There were seven of these princes, and they held the title of “Elector”. This meant that the succession process in the Empire was electoral rather than hereditary. This made the electors more powerful and the Emperors less powerful. This declaration by an Emperor of the House of Luxemburg was one of the defining moments in the history of Holy Roman Empire. Charles was concerned with the economic well-being of the Czechs and the Moravians, and to this end he encouraged the growth of the cities and introduced new industries into them. He introduced wine from Burgundy and plum trees from Lorraine. He had many orchards planted, founded new ponds for the establishment of fisheries, and was responsible for the planting of many forests. He made Prague the capital of the Empire. He founded a “new city” near the old city. Inspired by the grandeur of cities like Paris and Bologna, he was determined to elevate Prague to their level. The new city was adorned with a new castle and magnificent churches. He erected a bridge that still bears his name. A series of bad harvests had left many Czechs unemployed and hungry, and many of these found work in constructing a new city wall. This wall is still called “Hunger Wall”. Another new building housed the Imperial Crown jewels.

            In his capacity as King of Bohemia, Charles had to deal with the other powers that his predecessors had had to do business with, namely, Poland, Hungary and Austria. He attempted to form a bond with the duke of Austria, Rudolph, by giving him one of his daughters in marriage. Unfortunately, their relationship soon went sour, as Rudoph was a man known for his egotism. He claimed lands to which he had no rights, and Charles had to talk him out of claiming them. Rudolph pelted Charles with a litany of complaints, and produced some documents allegedly given out by Roman Emperors of the first century of our era, including Nero, conferring rights and titles to the Duchy of Austria. Charles knew that the documents were bogus because he knew Austria hadn’t been on the map during the first century, but to avoid a political controversy with Rudolph he summoned the most renowned scholar of the day, the Italian-born Petrarch, to examine the documents for authenticity. Petrarch proclaimed the documents forgeries, and was rewarded with a gold cup by the Emperor for his efforts.

            Poland’s King Casimir was no threat to Bohemia as he had his hands full with troubles concerning events in Russia and Lithuania, which were still under Mongol control. He and Charles established a good working relationship with each other. Casimir was also allied with Hungary. In 1356 Casimir visited Charles in Prague. After signing a peace accord, the two monarchs discussed the difficulties of their relationship with the Teutonic League, which occupied a considerable amount of land on the Baltic Sea, but were vassals of the Holy Roman Emperor. The Order was then at the height of its power. The monarchs agreed not to intervene in the Order’s affairs, which would have been very risky for Casimir. As Holy Roman Emperor, Charles respected the rights granted to the Order by his predecessors. The only friction that occurred between Charles and Casimir was a revolt against Charles instigated by the King of Hungary, Louis of Anjou, who was a close ally of Casimir. The Duke of Austria was also involved in this anti-imperial coalition. Charles wished to deal with the plot by peaceful means. Casimir mediated between Charles and Louis of Anjou, and the hostilities came to an end. This resolution was put into writing in a peace treaty signed at Brno (Braun) in 1364.

            The friendship between Charles, Casimir, and Louis, who was French by birth, became stronger after the held the first international congress in 1364. They all met with Peter, the King of Cyprus, who was trying to persuade European rulers to stage a crusade against the Turks. He met with little success; Europe had long since tired of Crusades. The only two kings who showed any interest in a crusade were John II of France, who was an incurable romantic, and Louis, the King of Hungary, whose lands were most vulnerable to an attack by the Ottoman Turks. Charles started to pay more attention to Polish politics when it became clear that Casimir would leave no heir. Casimir left only daughters, and Charles wanted one of them to be the bride of one of his sons. Casimir chose Louis as his successor, since Louis was his nephew and would have claimed the Polish throne in any case. Casimir himself was not particularly comfortable with this situation, but he wanted Poland to have a stable succession. His misgivings concerning his heir were well-founded. As King of Poland, Louis practically ignored Poland. Charles stayed vigilant for any possible chances to assert his power in Poland and Hungary. He secured the hand of one of Louis’ daughters, Mary, for his second son, Sigismund, in hopes of gaining the Polish crown for the house of Luxemburg. The Hungarian nobility elected Mary “King” of Hungary, but they couldn’t exactly ignore her husband. When Charles died in 1378, he had secured the crown of Hungary for Sigismund, but not that of Poland. As early as 1363, he had named his eldest son, Wenceslas, King of Bohemia. Charles asked the pope for his approval of Wenceslas as his heir to the Imperial throne in return for not asking the electors to elect Wenceslas during his own lifetime. The pope agreed, and this prevented a successionary dispute over the Imperial throne. When Charles died in 1378, the Czechs mourned him as “Father of His Country”. He had promoted Czech interests in the Empire, even advising its German rulers to learn the Czech language. His rule as Holy Roman Emperor had been a stabilizing influence in the Empire. Unfortunately, his heirs did little to preserve his legacy.

            Wenceslas was only seventeen when Charles died. Early on in his reign he began to neglect his royal duties in favor of hunting and other amusements. He showed his sympathy for the lower nobility and the townspeople by appointing men of low birth to high positions at his Court. This angered the upper Czech nobility, who had held these positions under Charles. Wenceslas also provoked a dispute with the Archbishop of Prague by not recognizing the authority the archbishop had had under Charles. The dispute reached fever pitch by 1393, when Wenceslas decided to found a new bishopric and endow it with the property of a prominent abbey. The archbishop objected, and when the abbot of the abbey died, he appointed a successor without telling the King. Wenceslas imprisoned the archbishop’s advisors. One of these was John of Nepomuk, the archbishop’s vicar general. John was tortured and killed for his support of the archbishop, and he was widely regarded as a martyr. He was canonized in the eighteenth century. The pope did nothing to help the archbishop. Frustrated, the archbishop resigned his post and moved to Rome.

            Meanwhile rumors were circulating in Prague about the king’s behavior. It was said that he was overindulgent in drink, and neglecting his work because he was lazy. This gave the nobility some ammunition against the royal power, and the leading nobles held a meeting called “League of the Lords”. Even the king’s brother, Jost, margrave of Moravia, sympathized with the League. The League demanded that the King only appoint members of the upper nobility to state offices. The King refused, and the irate nobles imprisoned him and gave Jost dictatorial powers over the realm. For awhile it looked like the house of Luxembourg was doomed to be torn apart by infighting. The King’s brother, John, Duke of Zhorelec, came to his defense. He went to Prague and gained the support of the people. Other townspeople threw their support behind John and Wenceslas. The League released the King, but the dispute between Wenceslas and the nobility continued. The dispute ended with Wenceslas keeping his throne and exiling Jost from Bohemia. However, Wenceslas’ power was greatly weakened, and he could ill afford this. He needed money from the German towns of the Empire to pay the Imperial electors his father had promised them for voting for him as his successor to the Imperial Crown. The Germans accused Wenceslas of neglecting his responsibilities as a ruler.

            At this point in time, the Church was wracked with a dispute between rival claimants to the papacy. One claimant, Clement, lived in Avignon and was supported by the King of France, and the other claimant, Boniface, lived in Rome and was supported by the King of England. Wenceslas supported the Avignon claimant, with disastrous results. Boniface courted Wenceslas’s enemies in Germany, and got enough support from the Imperial electors to depose him as Emperor (1400). A dispute arose over this deposition and Wenceslas’ replacement, Rupert, is known to history as the “anti-king”. The year before the Czech nobility resumed their war against the King. Wenceslas asked his brother, Sigismund, to help him in return for co-regency in Bohemia. Sigismund chose to play the role of a double agent, and tossed Wenceslas back into prison. He them chose a prominent churchman as regent of Bohemia (1402). Several towns were loyal to Wenceslas, as were the members of the lower nobility, and the people of these towns were furious with Sigismund. They broke out in revolt against this makeshift government. Wenceslas remained on the throne, but all of his prestige was gone. It had been shown just how vulnerable the royal power in the realm was.

            By this time the wealth of the Church had become a major issue in European politics. The kings, nobles and the burghers, the middle classes of the towns, had given abundantly to the Church. By the early fifteenth century, the Church had become extremely wealthy. The Bohemian Church was no exception. One sixth of the arable land and forest was owned by the Crown; one-third belonged to the nobility and the free peasants, and the rest, half the land of Bohemia, belonged to the bishops, chapters, town and rural clergy, and religious communities—i.e, the corporate bodies of the Church. A bishopric was commonly thought to be the best source of income in Bohemia. Thus, it was the aim of noble families to secure archbishops for their sons, sometimes before these sons had left their nurseries. These financial arrangements were made with the pope himself, since he chose all of the bishops. They nobles had to promise the pope to pay for the bishopric; they then had to raise the money. They then wanted more money to finance their lavish lifestyles. Many of these bishoprics were held by men who were not even priests; they were politicians who had served their monarchs well and were the beneficiaries of papal politics. Many of these offices were even held by absentee foreigners. Indeed the presence of foreigners, particularly Germans, was an issue in the turmoil that developed in the Church in Bohemia. The Czechs were starting to bitterly resent German wealth and power in their country. The discovery of the silver mines had made Bohemia the wealthiest country in central Europe. The wealth from the silver mines was mostly owned by townspeople, who were mostly German. Even though the Slavic liturgy had been suppressed in the late eleventh century in favor of the Latin, it was not been forgotten. The Slavic speaking missionaries who had converted the Czechs to Christianity were canonized in the thirteenth century. In the fourteenth century, Charles IV obtained permission from the pope for the use of a Slavic liturgy. Nationalism mixed with economics to cause a political explosion of monumental proportions.

            Not surprisingly, the holders of these Church offices became extremely wealthy, and preferred luxury and choice encounters with the opposite sex to traditional Catholic morality. Meanwhile the number of priests outnumbered the number of these offices, leaving many a priest to scrounge meager livings moving from post to post. This gap between rich and poor clergy created great tension within the Church, along with great resentment amongst the people at the lax morality of the upper clergy. Not surprisingly, this resentment gave strength to reform movements. Furthermore, the kings and the Czech nobility coveted the Church’s wealth. Reformers h ad begun their activities during the reign of Charles IV, who supported clerical reform. Soon these reformers began writing books and making speeches on church reform in Czech. The one who attracted the most attention was a young priest named Jan, or John Hus.

            Jan Hus was born around 1370 in a small town in southern Bohemia. He later admitted that he had become a priest in order to secure a comfortable life. Around 1390 he came to Prague to study at the university, where he lived in the most impecunious circumstances. He became a lecturer at the university and was ordained a priest in 1400. He started his preaching career at a church in the old part of Prague two years later. He soon became renowned as an extraordinary speaker. In 1402 he was chosen preacher of the Bethlehem Chapel, a church which had been founded for the purposes of Church reform. One requirement of this position was that the preaching was to be done in Czech, not Latin. Around this time Hus went through an intense spiritual transition. He began to believe that this sole purpose as a priest was to save souls from the fires of Hell. Not only was he known for his oratory; he was also known for his exemplary life as a priest. He was very focused on his work; he was satisfied with his modest salary, and he was chaste. He began to complain about corruption in the Church. This met with the approval of the townspeople of Prague and even with the Archbishop of Prague. Hus denounced the corruption of the Church at clerical synods in 1405 and 1407, apparently with the approval of King Wenceslas and his Queen, Sophia. Not surprisingly, he incurred the wrath of the wealthy holders of bishoprics. These accused him of exaggerating the problems concerning bishoprics and also of reducing the prestige of the priesthood as a whole. In truth, it was they were diminishing the prestige of the priesthood and the Church in general. But the defining moment of Hus’ career had yet to come. This defining moment was his discovery of the works of an English reformer named John Wycliffe.

            Wycliffe (1320—1384) believed that churchmen should live in simple poverty, as had the earliest Christians. He felt that the Church needed to return to the ways of the earliest Christians, the apostles. He felt that the Church’s vast wealth should be taken over by the state. He accused the pope of being the Anti-Christ for participating in the corruption arising from the wealth of the church. He wanted to abolish beliefs and practiced that he blamed corruption on. These included relics, pilgrimages, and the veneration of saints. He rejected the teaching authority of the Pope and the bishops and strongly believed that the Bible should be the sole source of Christian doctrine. Wycliffe’s ideas were almost identical to the Protestant teachings that would take northern Europe by storm two centuries later. After Wycliffe’s death, the Church declared his ideas heretical.

            Wycliffe’s ideas spread to Bohemia, where they found some favor among the German members of the faculty at the University of Prague. However, the Germans were greatly outnumbered among the university faculty, which voted to denounce forty-five articles of Wycliffe’s teachings. The teaching of these doctrines was forbidden. Nevertheless, Wycliffe’s ideas spread rapidly around Bohemia. The clergy accused the Archbishop of Prague and King Wenceslas of being lax in enforcing the ban. They named Hus as one of the instigators of the heresy. In 1403, at the request of the pope, the Archbishop of Prague called convocation of the Bohemian clergy to officially denounce the hearings. Two advocates of Wycliffe’s ideas, one a Czech and one a Pole, were summoned to Rome. They were arrested on the way and imprisoned. They were only freed after Wenceslas had repeatedly requested their release. The Archbishop of Prague began to suspend priests he suspected to being sympathetic to Wycliffe’s teachings. Hus angrily denounced these suspensions, which cost him the support of the Archbishop. To the Archbishop, reform was one thing, the acceptance of Wycliffe’s ideas was quite another. Hus continued to consider himself a loyal Catholic; he simply believed that the dishonesty and hypocrisy he saw in the Church had to go.

            At this point an international political dispute made Bohemia’s internal tensions more complex. The College of Cardinals wished to bring the papal schism to an end. They wanted to depose both papal claimants and elect a new pope. They offered political support to Wenceslas in return for a declaration of neutrality between the rival claimants and then support for their choice for a new pope. Wenceslas accepted the proposal, but he ran into stiff opposition from the Archbishop and the German masters of the university. Wenceslas took most of the political power of the German masters of the university away from them and conferred more power onto the Czech masters, who supported him. This was the famous “Kutna Hora” decree, issued on 18 January 1409. Tensions between the Germans and the Czechs, who had never been fond of each other, reached a boiling point. The German teachers and students left Prague and went to the University of Leipzig and other German schools. The University lost its prestige as a center of learning. It took on a more provincial character, and rumors that it was a hotbed of heresy ran riot in the other universities of Europe. The entirely Czech faculty gave Wenceslas their support for a new pope, but the Cardinals’ choice for a new pope did not have universal recognition. Consequently the already chaotic Church now had three rival claimants to the papal throne. The Archbishop of Prague was furious with the King, and only supported him when Wenceslas threatened to confiscate the lands of the clergy.

            As a result of the University becoming an exclusively Czech institution, Hus became the leader of the adherents of the teachings of Wycliffe in Bohemia. He had the support of the other faculty of the university as well as the Czech people. He preached in Czech and became a symbol of Czech resentment of German power. The Archbishop of Prague told the Pope in Rome that Hus was a major heretic and claimed that he was destroying the Church in Bohemia. He ordered an immediate cessation of the teaching of any of Wycliffe’s doctrines anywhere. The clergy of Prague ignored this order; the Archbishop then placed Prague under interdiction. No church activities were allowed in a land under interdiction. Church officials burned confiscated copies of Wycliffe’s works in the courtyard of the Archbishop’s palace in Prague. In 1411 the papal claimant resident in Rome, needing money for his political shenanigans, proclaimed a new offering of indulgences. Indulgences were an old doctrine in the Church, but payments for them were never officially part of Church teachings. To their everlasting shame the popes let churchmen sell forgiveness of sins. Hus and his supporters blasted the indulgence campaign for its purpose and theological errors. The giving of money, he said, was no substitute for true penance. Hus now went so far as to question the very existence of Purgatory. He also accused the Pope of being a gold-digger. The indulgence campaign ran into so much resistance in Bohemia that the King banned any further preaching against it. He badly needed the pope’s support to hold onto his throne. Three followers of Hus were beheaded for violating the King’s decree. The Roman papal claimant summoned Hus to Rome; Hus refused to go. The papal claimant retaliated by excommunicating Hus.

            Sigismund, Wenceslas’s son, became Holy Roman Emperor in 1410. He was anxious to settle the papal schism. Another Council of the Church was called, and it met in Constance. They again summoned Hus, and the Emperor promised the embattled Czech a safe-conduct. On the way to Constance, Hus made the mistake of sending one of his noble friends to meet the Emperor rather than going himself. He skipped the meeting and went straight to Constance without the safe-conduct. Hus also continued to celebrate mass, a forbidden activity for an excommunicated priest. These actions weakened him against both Emperor and Church. When he reached Constance, he was imprisoned. The Cardinals and the Emperor offered Hus freedom if he would recant his beliefs; he refused to do so. The angry Emperor declared that he would not let Hus return to Bohemia alive. On 6 July, 1415, Hus received the last rites of the Church, and then was burned at the stake.

            Hus’ execution caused a national rebellion in Bohemia. A group of Czech and Moravian nobles went to Constance to defend Hus’ reputation. They considered the execution an insult to an entire nation. They pointed out that Hus had been an excellent role model for the priesthood in his way of life. The University of Prague declared Hus a martyr. Meanwhile Hus’ closest associate, Jerome of Prague, was burned as a heretic in Constance on 30 May 1416. The Czech nobility sent an irate missive to the Council in defense of Hus. They formed a league to guarantee freedom to preach their Hussite beliefs in Bohemia. The Council then summoned the members of the league to Constance; they refused to go. The angry Czech nobility drafted the “Four Articles of Prague”, a call for Church reform. The first article demanded that the Bible should be the basis of the teachings of the Church rather than the teachings of the bishops and councils. In effect, they rejected the doctrine of apostolic succession. The second article demanded that the Eucharist be given in both kinds, the wafer and the wine. From this demand came the official name for these Hussites; the Latin for “under both kinds” is “sub utraque specie”, thus the name “Utraquists” for the Czech reformers. Ironically, Hus had never advocated this practice, and the origin of the idea in Bohemia is not clear. However, it became the key demand of the Hussites. The adoption of new doctrines became characteristic of the Hussite movement; to them, Hus had only started the movement, and it was up to them to finish his work.  The third article demanded that the clergy live in poverty, and that the Church be stripped of its wealth. This demand came from the lower nobility, whose small holdings could not compete with the immense holdings of the upper nobility and the Church. They wanted the holdings of the Church for their own. The fourth article demanded that all serious sins, especially those committed in public, should be punished. Wenceslas, who still reigned as King of Bohemia, had originally supported the revolt, because he wanted the Church’s property, but when the movement threatened to control religious practices in the Kingdom, he began to fear its power. He felt that it threatened his civil as well as religious power, and he began to appoint anti-Hussite to Court positions. On 30 July, 1419, a large Hussite crowd forced its way into the royal chambers and performed for the first time a form of political protest which has survived in Bohemia to the twentieth century. The word “defenestration” refers to the practice of tossing political opponents out of a window to fall into a hostile crowd, which kills the target of the outrage in case the fall doesn’t kill him first. Wenceslas had no sooner approved of a pro-Hussite Council than he died of a heart attack. It was a great misfortune that Bohemia had such a weak ruler at such a crucial time in its history; at his death, Bohemia suffered from severe religious divisiveness. Catholics and Hussites fought each other in the streets of Prague and elsewhere throughout the realm.

            The Czech nobility was almost entirely Hussite, and they told Sigismund, Wenceslas’ heir, that they would only accept him as King if he implemented the Four Articles. Sigismund refused, and demanded full obedience to the Church from all Czechs. He had a Hussite burned at the stake in Prague to prove his loyalty to the Church and opposition to Hussites. The Hussites organized an army, led by a brilliant military leader, Jan Zizka, one of Hus’ strongest supporters.  This army was mainly devoted to resisting Sigismund’s power. The pope preached a crusade against the heretics of Bohemia to support Sigismund. In    1421 the Hussite army scored a decisive victory over Sigismund’s army. Sigismund and his supporters, the Catholic League, humiliated, retreated while the Hussites destroyed a royal castle. A meeting of the Czech nobility that year deposed Sigismund and declared the Four Articles as the official religion of the realm. Zizka’s troops, moreover, defeated Sigismund’s army three more times. After Zizka’s death in 1424 a new leader assumed control of the Hussite army, and they massacred a group of Germans crusading in the service of the pope and Sigismund in 1427. Meanwhile the Hussites began to have their own problems when infighting between factions of the movement erupted. The movement split into moderates willing to negotiate a settlement with the Catholics, and radicals, who objected to negotiations on the grounds that reconciliation with the Council of Basel would lead them right back into submission to Rome, a path that they would never accept. By 1434 the moderates were tired of war. Some of them joined the Catholic army, and these massacred most of the radical Hussite army that year. Both the moderate Hussites and royal officials accepted a compromised version of the Four Articles, and Sigismund was crowned King of Bohemia in 1436. At long last, the Czechs and Moravians could live in peace, even though some elements of the population were bitterly opposed to the compromise.

            Sigismund was not able to enjoy his triumph very long; he died in 1437. His son-in-law, Albert of Austria, King of Hungary, was crowned King of Bohemia; however, he died in 1439. His infant son, Ladislas Posthumus was elected King of Bohemia, and the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick III of Austria, became his guardian. Frederick never allowed Ladislas to enter Bohemia, and the country slipped into anarchy. Fortunately, a strong noble, George of Podebrady, was able to seize Prague and end the anarchy. A moderate Hussite, George was committed to conciliation with Catholics. In 1452 he crushed the radical Hussites by conquering their stronghold, Tibor. He was able to bring the young King to Prague, and he began negotiations with him. Unfortunately, Ladislas, whose name was a version of the Slavic name Vladislav, died suddenly the next year. The nobility elected George King of Bohemia. George continued his policy of reconciliation. He hoped that another Church Council, the Council of Basel, would accept a version of the Four Articles. They did not, and the pope excommunicated George. The King of Hungary, Matthias Corvinus, playing the role of an advocate of papal authority, invaded Bohemia with the notion of having himself crowned King of Bohemia by Catholic Czech nobles. However, George crushed Matthias in battle. Unfortunately for Bohemia, George died the next year, 1471. He had worked hard to bring Bohemia out of its isolation from its Catholic neighbors and to create a spirit of harmony between European powers. This would have preserved peace in Europe, unfortunately the plan never materialized. Had the Council of Basel accepted the compromised version of the Four Articles, religious tensions in Bohemia would have greatly eased, since this was the main demand of the Utraquists. Instead, the dispute between the Utraquists and the Catholics continued. Additionally, a new movement arose in Bohemia, consisting of radical Hussites called the Czech Brethren. As the Moravian Brethren, this group still exists, the oldest Protestant group in the world.

            The Utraquists continued to seek a compromise with Rome, but no pope would accept a compromise. There was no thought of compromising on either side. As a result, Bohemia and Moravia became the most accommodating country of the new religious ideas in Europe. The Czech Brethren completely rejected the teaching authority of the pope and the councils, and broke away to start their own church. They required their clergy to be celibate and imposed a rigid moral code on their members. They rejected the organization of the state and the privileges of kings and nobles. They did not believe in laws passed by worldly governments, and most importantly they were not to use violence under any circumstances. They were also taught not to resist evil by force, and thus they avoided becoming a threat to religious or political stability. They were soon looked on by many as exemplary Christians and became the precursors of the Protestant Reformation.

            The Protestant Reformation broke out in Germany in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses to the door of Wittemburg Cathedral. He had read, and liked, Hus. The Protestant Reformation grew throughout Europe. New Protestant groups proliferated as the ideas of the Reformers more radical than Luther found their voices. The Czech Brethren became sympathizers with the views of French reformer John Calvin. So did the Protestants of Holland, Scotland and Switzerland. In 1603 Rudolph, the King of Bohemia, issued a decree outlawing any faith in Bohemia besides orthodox Catholicism. Three years later Rudolph was deposed. The mostly Protestant Czech nobility exacted a promise of religious toleration from Rudolph in return for re-instating him as King. In 1618 another defenestration occurred in Prague when angry Protestants threw Catholic royal officials out of the window of the council chamber. This started the Thirty Years War, and two years later a battle on the White Mountain near Prague, saw the triumph of the Imperial Catholic forces over the weak forces of the Czech and Austrian nobility. These nobles fled to Silesia, and the Protestant Reformation was over in Bohemia. So were the Middle Ages.




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The Encyclopedia Britannica, Fifteenth Edition, Macromedia: Knowledge in Depth, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc, 1995

The New Penguin Atlas of Medieval History, Colin McEvery, Penguin Books, 1993