Bohemian Kingdom

Czech Republic Table of Contents

Foundation

When the Great Moravian Empire disintegrated, a new political entity, the Bohemian Kingdom, emerged. It would play an important role in the development of the Czech nation. The Bohemian Kingdom was a major medieval and early modern political, economic, and cultural entity and subsequently was viewed by many Czechs as one of the brightest periods of Czech history. But whatever its longrange implications for Czech history, it is important to remember that the Bohemian Kingdom was a medieval state in which ethnic or national questions were far overshadowed by dynastic politics.

The Bohemian Kingdom emerged in the tenth century when the Premyslid chiefs--members of the Cechove, a tribe from which the Czechs derive their name--unified neighboring Czech tribes and established a form of centralized rule. Cut off from Byzantium by the Hungarian presence, the Bohemian Kingdom existed in the shadow of the Holy Roman Empire. In 950 the powerful emperor Otto I, a Saxon, led an expedition to Bohemia demanding tribute; the Bohemian Kingdom thus became a fief of the Holy Roman Empire and its king one of the seven electors of the emperor. The German emperors continued the practice of using the Roman Catholic clergy to extend German influence into Czech territory. Significantly, the bishopric of Prague, founded in 973 during the reign of Boleslav II (967-99), was subordinated to the German archbishopric of Mainz. Thus, at the same time that Premyslid rulers utilized the German alliance to consolidate their rule against a perpetually rebellious regional nobility, they struggled to retain their autonomy in relation to the empire.

After a struggle with Poland and Hungary, the Bohemian Kingdom acquired Moravia in 1029. Moravia, however, continued to be a separate margravate, usually ruled by a younger son of the Bohemian king. Because of complex dynastic arrangements, Moravia's link with the Bohemian Kingdom between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries was occasionally severed; during such interludes Moravia was subordinated directly to the Holy Roman Empire or to Hungary (see fig. 2). Although Moravia's fate was intertwined with Bohemia's, in general it did not participate in Bohemia's civil and religious struggles. The main course of Czech history evolved in Bohemia proper.

Growth

The thirteenth century was the most dynamic period of Premyslid reign over Bohemia. Emperor Frederick II's preoccupation with Mediterranean affairs and the dynastic struggles known as the Great Interregnum (1254-73) weakened imperial authority in Central Europe, thus providing opportunities for Premyslid assertiveness. At the same time, the Mongol invasions (1220-42) absorbed the attention of the Bohemian Kingdom's eastern neighbors, the Hungarians and the Poles.

In 1212 King Premysl Otakar I (1198-1230) extracted a Golden Bull (a formal edict) from the emperor confirming the royal title for Otakar and his descendants. The imperial prerogative to ratify each Bohemian king and to appoint the bishop of Prague was revoked. The king's successor, Premysl Otakar II (1253-78), married a German princess, Margaret of Babenberg, and became duke of Austria, thereby acquiring upper and lower Austria and part of Styria. He conquered the rest of Styria, most of Carinthia, and parts of Carniola. From 1273, however, Hapsburg emperor Rudolf began to reassert imperial authority. All of Premysl Otakar's German possessions were lost in 1276, and in 1278 Premysl Otakar II died in battle against Rudolf.

The thirteenth century was also a period of large-scale German immigration, often encouraged by Premyslid kings hoping to weaken the influence of their own Czech nobility. The Germans populated towns and mining districts on the Bohemian periphery and in some cases formed German colonies in the interior of the Czech lands. Stribro, Kutna Hora, Nemecky Brod (present-day Havliekýv Brod and Jihlava were important German settlements. The Germans brought their own code of law--the jus teutonicum- -which formed the basis of the later commercial law of Bohemia and Moravia. Marriages between Germans and Czech nobles soon became commonplace.

Golden Age

The fourteenth century, particularly the reign of Charles IV (1342-78), is considered the Golden Age of Czech history. By that time the Premyslid line had died out, and, after a series of dynastic wars, a new Luxemburg dynasty captured the Bohemian crown. Charles, the second Luxemburg king, was raised at the French court and was cosmopolitan in attitude. He strengthened the power and prestige of the Bohemian Kingdom. In 1344 Charles elevated the bishopric of Prague, making it an archbishopric and freeing it from the jurisdiction of Mainz and the Holy Roman Empire. The archbishop was given the right to crown Bohemian kings. Charles curbed the Czech nobility, rationalized the provincial administration of Bohemia and Moravia, and made Brandenburg, Lusatia, and Silesia into fiefs of the Czech crown (see fig. 3). In 1355 Charles was crowned Holy Roman Emperor. In 1356 he issued a Golden Bull defining and systematizing the process of election to the imperial throne and making the Czech king foremost among the seven electors. The Bohemian Kingdom ceased to be a fief of the emperor.

Charles made Prague into an imperial city. Extensive building projects undertaken by the king included the founding of the New Town southeast of the old city. The royal castle, Hradcany, was rebuilt. Of particular significance was the founding of Charles University in Prague in 1348. Charles's intention was to make Prague into an international center of learning, and the university was divided into Czech, Polish, Saxon, and Bavarian "nations," each with one controlling vote. Charles University, however, would become the nucleus of intense Czech particularism. Charles died in 1378, and the Bohemian crown went to his son, Wenceslas IV.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress