Charles IV - the father of the Czech nation

Charles IV, photo: Kristýna Maková

Hello and welcome to a special programme celebrating the 700th anniversary of the birth of Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia. Charles was born in 1316, and reigned as Emperor from 1355 until his death in 1378 at the age of 62. During his reign, Charles put Prague on the map as a major royal seat of power, as well as a major centre of culture. He founded Charles University, and also started construction on Prague’s famous eponymous bridge. He also established a number of castles, including the famous Karlštejn Castle near Prague. To this day, he is seen as a kind of “father of the nation”, presiding over a Golden Age for Bohemia, a result of Charles’ skills as a leader and diplomat – it also had much to do with the fact that Bohemia escaped much of the ravages of the bubonic Plague sweeping through Europe from 1346–53. Charles married four times, and had twelve children, although four died in infancy. He is buried in St. Vitus Cathedral, at Prague Castle.

Charles IV,  photo: Kristýna Maková
I am joined in the studio today by Bohumil Vurm and Zuzana Foffová of an organisation called Praga Mystica, which mounts various cultural and educational-themed events and exhibitions. They are both also authors, having written – either together or individually – on subjects ranging from wine, tarot, the Knights Templar, and Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor. They have just completed a new book on the life of Charles IV, and have kindly agreed to come in and talk about his life and times.

Tell me about Charles’ background. He was born Václav, or Wenceslaus, and his parents were John the Blind (or John of Bohemia) of the Luxembourg dynasty and Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia of the Czech Přemyslid dynasty. Explain the significance of these dynasties in Europe of that time.

Bohumil Vurm: “He was born to fabulous families. The Luxembourg family wasn’t as rich and long-lasting as the Přemyslid dynasty. But they did have one emperor among them. Charles’ grandfather was Holy Roman Emperor, so certainly that was a big plus. His father John could have been emperor too, but he was too young at the time of the death of his father.

“From the mother’s side, the Přemyslid dynasty was very rich and the most powerful kingdom in central Europe. Also, Charles drew considerably on the richness of Bohemian history, even to the point that the famous Italian poet Francesco Petrarca wrote him a letter complaining ‘I wish there was no Bohemia, because you love these people more than us Romans.’

“Nevertheless, the childhood of Charles IV was rather dramatic. There was great tension between his parents. When they were married in 1310, six years before Charles was born, John of Bohemia was fourteen, and his wife Elizabeth was eighteen. An 18-year-old girl was almost too old to get married in the Middle Ages. But she was a very strong personality, having the weight of the Přemyslid dynasty behind her. So there was major tension, to the point that when Charles was three, he was taken by John from his mother and essentially imprisoned – even though the prison was actually quite nice because Charles was very well cared for – in Křivoklát Castle, where he spent four years of his life without his mother. And then Charles was shipped-off to Paris, where he received a super education.”

And Zuzana, Charles also married at a very young age to Blanche of Valois, the daughter of French Count Charles of Valois. Why were royals married off while still children? Presumably this was to ensure the continuation or creation of a desired royal lineage.

Blanche of Valois,  Charles IV
Zuzana Foffová: “Exactly, that was very common in the Middle Ages, especially among the members of the Luxembourg and Přemyslid dynasties, marrying each among the courts of Europe to unite. As for Charles, it’s also important to note that he was christened Charles later on while in Paris. He was born Wenceslas, or Václav in Czech.

“Also, he was born on May 14th according to the Julian calendar, but according to today’s Gregorian calendar, he was born May 22nd.”

Bohumil Vurm: “So everybody will be celebrating eight days too early.”

And where was he born?

Bohumil Vurm: “He was born in downtown Prague, although we are not sure in which house. There are two candidates. But it was near Old Town Square.”

And it wasn’t until many marriages later that Charles finally had the much-sought male heir, Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia, who became King of Germany. His second son, Sigismund, succeeded Charles IV as the second Holy Roman Emperor from the House of Luxembourg. So was this the peak era of the House of Luxembourg?

Bohumil Vurm: “Well, by his father's line he was of Luxembourg, but that is not where Charles’ seat was. That was in Prague. So just as easily we can talk about the Přemyslid dynasty. They were the last members of this dynasty, and indeed Charles IV represented its peak. After him, Wenceslaus IV wasn’t as bad as is often said, but Sigismund was another peak of sorts, as he inherited his father’s diplomatic talents. They say that Sigismund was really the last medieval emperor. The ones who came after him were Hapsburgs, and eventually the empire shrunk and ended up called the Holy Empire of the German Nation.

“And Sigismund and Charles were among the last few who were crowned as emperors in Rome. Because if the Roman king was not crowned in Rome, then he could not call himself Emperor. It was only after going to Rome and being crowned either by the Pope or someone appointed by the Pope – only then could he call himself Emperor. So certainly Charles, and to a great extent Sigismund, were the last great emperors. And they were both Czechs on their mothers’ side. And they both resided – Charles more so – in Prague.”

Zuzana Foffová: “I think that Charles – based on what we can tell from the records, including his own autobiographical works, felt more Czech than Sigismund or Wenceslaus IV.”

Would Charles have spoken Czech as his native language? Because he spoke quite a few languages.

Zuzana Foffová,  photo: archive of Praga Mystica
Zuzana Foffová: “He spoke five languages. Not only spoke, but was also able to discuss deep subjects, read and write...”

And was one of these was Czech, because presumably German was the dominant language of the Czech lands at this time.

Zuzana Foffová: “Charles forgot Czech when he spent seven years in Paris, where he spoke Latin and French. He also spoke Italian very well because he also spent around seven years in Italy.”

Bohumil Vurm: “When he came back, he later recalled – and by the way not every monarch can write their own memoirs, which shows how well educated he was – that he almost forgot the Czech language. And he had to re-learn it when he came back. Then he did something quite revolutionary: when he expanded Prague about threefold by adding the New Town, which to this day is a wonderful jewel of the capital, then he invited many people to live there from outside of Prague to provide the necessary new inhabitants.”

Zuzana Foffová: “And tax free...”

So it was an old fashioned version of a tax incentive?

Bohumil Vurm: “He was a developer. But not only that. Most of the people who moved to Prague spoke Czech, unlike the existing inhabitants who largely spoke German, even though they were Czechs. So this helped to revive the Czech language. Plus he also received a special permit from the Pope whereby one specific church was allowed to have the Holy Mass given not in Latin, but in Slavonic languages. This was very unusual. The whole Roman empire had no such church. So one of the reasons why I am speaking Czech today in such a small country of ten million people is because of Charles IV.”

Zuzana Foffová: “And that monastery was called Na Slovanech – or Emauzský klášter (Emmaus Monastery).”

Bohumil Vurm: “And next to Karlštejn Castle, it features some of the best preserved fresco monuments we have in Central Europe or north of the Alps.”

During Charles’ studies and the time he spent in France and Italy, one of his teachers was the future Pope Clement VI. And this relationship helped Charles in later years and turned out to be very useful.

Bohumil Vurm,  photo: archive of Praga Mystica
Zuzana Foffová: “Yes, that was Pierre Roger. Charles met him in Paris when he was young. And we can say that in essence a ten-yea-old boy basically got a university degree. Because along with the future pope, he travelled to College de Sorbonne and listened to the lectures there.”

Bohumil Vurm: “Pierre the future pope, was more of a mentor than a teacher to Charles. He would take him to Sorbonne. So even though he was very young for a university degree, he probably attended some university seminars. And he was obviously a keen learner. And it’s clear that there was a plan for Charles’ future to become an emperor. Not only did he marry into the royal family of France, which was a key power centre in Europe next to the Holy Roman Empire, but also his mentor advanced through the Church hierarchy. Pierre went on to become a cardinal, and it was about 1340 when Cardinal Pierre Roger de Rosières met young Charles. This was about six years prior to Charles becoming Holy Roman King, and they predicted each other’s futures. Pierre told Charles that one day he will be an emperor. And Charles replied: ‘before that happens, you will become the Pope’. And indeed both happened.

“The funny part is that even though they were bound by strong ties, there were also difficulties for Charles regarding being crowned emperor. For that he had to go to Rome and have the consent of the Pope...”

Let’s explain some of these titles. Charles’ father John of Bohemia died in 1346. He’s killed fighting the English as part of the Hundred Years’ War. So then Charles the IV becomes the King of Bohemia. A month earlier he’d already been selected to be the King of the Romans. And it wasn’t until some time later in 1355 that he became the Holy Roman Emperor. And there was an alternative Emperor, Roman King Ludwig of Bavaria – or Louis IV, of the House of Wittelsbach – who died in 1347 – and Charles appears to have outmanoeuvred this rival.

Bohumil Vurm: “It is all rather confusing. But it happened within a period from 1346-1355. In May, 1346, Charles was selected as a new Roman King. But at the time, there was already an existing Roman King – Louis IV, or Louis the Bavarian. But he didn’t want to cooperate with Pope Clement VI – Pierre, Charles’ former mentor. This culminated in Louis even being excommunicated from the Church. And he then crowned himself Emperor in Rome in spite of being rejected by the Pope. So it was a very tense situation. They ultimately selected a new king, namely Charles.

“Then in the summer the Battle of Crécy occurred between the English and French. John the Blind, Charles’ father, went in fighting even though he had been blinded six years previously. And he knew he was going to die. But before that he sent his son away from the battlefield so he would be safe. In November of 1346, Charles was crowned Holy Roman King. That inevitably meant fighting with Louis the Bavarian. He was then also crowned King of Bohemia in September 1347 – naturally after his father’s death, he was the heir to the Czech Crown. But he wasn’t just entitled, he also had to be elected, as this was also an elected post.”

John the Blind,  photo: Public Domain
Zuzana Foffová: “We should explain that being Roman King was at the level of being Emperor. But to officially become an emperor, there needs to be a coronation procedure.”

So it is an entrance procedure towards becoming an emperor. And as King of Bohemia, technically Charles IV ruled over an area that basically covers today’s Czech Republic, as well as areas to the north in what are today eastern German and western Poland. So as King of the Romans, you are ruling the same area as that of the Holy Roman Emperor spread across half of Europe?

Bohumil Vurm: “Well, the Holy Roman Empire was a kind of anti-empire. It comprised of the German lands, part of Switzerland, northern and central Italy, Bohemia, Moravia and part of Poland. So it was like a kingdom in the middle of Europe. Nevertheless, these kingdoms or principalities were independent. They were just joined together in this specific state, which was governed by the king. And the king would have all the privileges of the emperor. But he only became Emperor when he was crowned in Rome. So being king was the same, just without the prestige of the Emperor title.”

Was Charles then technically also the ruler of the German lands, Italian lands and so on?

“It’s tricky. It’s almost like a federation of states. He would be the equivalent of the European Union president, so to speak, but with strong executive powers. He was the only one who could bestow titles. And even though it may sound ceremonial, in those days that meant prestige, power and money. Charles IV was the chief of the large state, but within individual kingdoms or principalities, dukes and so on would rule. The only real king within the Holy Roman Empire was the Czech king. And Charles IV’s great-grandfather, Přemysl Otakar II, ruled a territory that was larger than the rest of the Holy Roman Empire. In those days, Bohemia was not tiny. In the times of Charles IV, it was like half of the total empire. So being Czech king was already a good position.”

Charles is known for helping to put Prague on the map as a major centre of 14th century European power and culture. So how did he consolidate his power? He seems to have been ready to assume the reigns as soon as it was bestowed upon him, because from an early age he was told he would become a leader. So how did he set about building up his centre of power in Prague?

Zuzana Foffová: “We already mentioned the New Town. That was built up as a kind of development project. He invited people to become citizens of Prague, and tripled its size. So this alone says something bout his plans. As he started to build the cathedral at Prague Castle, all these points were interconnected. It was a huge plan of development comprising churches, squares and other buildings.”

So was that a strategic decision? Was he purposefully consolidating his power by increasing the prominence of Prague?

Prague,  photo: Filip Jandourek
Zuzana Foffová: “Yes, and it wasn’t just about making Prague bigger. I think he felt that the location of Prague’s founding was a special place within Europe. He thought that the hill where Prague Castle was built was a special place.”

Bohumil Vurm: “Not only did he enlarge the capital of Bohemia, but he also turned this relatively small town into an international metropolis. His plan was to do the same thing as Emperor Constantine had done 1,000 years before him. During the 4th century, Constantine the Great moved from Rome to Byzantium. And he set about creating a new Rome, namely Constantinople. And Charles did the same. He created a new Rome in Prague. Because in his day, the pope resided in Avignon, not in Rome. Because the French king wanted to have the pope under his influence.

“So Charles wanted to renew the fame of the Holy Roman Empire and to turn Prague into a new Rome. He consolidated his power by these physical acts of enlarging Prague, and through dynastic marriages and so on. He also had to make sure that Bohemian nobles were extremely strong and powerful and rich – and would play along. Which was never easy. His father John the Blind had great difficulties with regards to settling disputes and being on friendly terms with Czech nobility.”

You have a new Czech-language book out on Charles IV called “Karel IV. Rytíř, Poutník, Král, Císař”. How in 2016 can one write a book about a subject that has been dead for hundreds of years? Where do you get your information from, and what new things can your book bring to the table?

Zuzana Foffová: “Of course we relied on several sources. Firstly we visited many places associated with Charles IV, not only in Bohemia, but also abroad. Secondly, there was literature – we read the available contemporary documentation. Thirdly, we consulted with professors and other historians who are experts on medieval times.”

Would you say that your book confirms the general assumption about Charles IV that he was the “father of the Czech nation” and a great man. And what did you discover while writing the book?

Bohumil Vurm: “I think our greatest discovery was that he was just a human like anybody else, but with extraordinary strengths and abilities. And very skillful. He was controversial as well. He was no holy man. He was certainly a devout Christian, no question about that. He collected holy relics and observed all the rituals expected of good Christians. But at the same time, Charles IV was very pragmatic and willing to break his word in order to achieve what he wanted.

“A good example of this is when he was trying to consolidate his power in Bohemia, he wanted to bring new regulations to these lands – simply a law, which would improve organisational matters. He did the same for the Holy Roman Empire. There he succeeded without trouble. He created a new regulations for the Holy Roman Empire which lasted several hundred years. But when he tried to undertake the same efforts in Bohemia, he could not get the approval of his nobles.

Charles IV
“So even though Charles IV had written these proposals on paper, when he came to the meeting where the announcement was supposed to be made, he pretended that the papers had been accidentally destroyed in a fire. Obviously this was a very pragmatic move to avoid Charles facing being seen as a loser who had been defeated. Instead, he implemented the changes gradually throughout his rule.

“After his son was born Charles IV also reversed his position and succeeded in creating new rules about the succession of the Holy Roman Emperor to make the institution hereditary. Which resulted in another of his sons Sigismund becoming the next Holy Roman Emperor. Although he never put it in writing, Charles did everything to make it hereditary. So he had flexibility and cunning, but all towards the aim of improving his kingdom. He always had higher principles on his mind. It wasn’t about greed or lust for power.”

Charles IV died aged 62, which is quite old for that time, right? Did he die at the peak of his powers? Was Charles IV popular with his subjects?

Zuzana Foffová: “Yes, he was very popular. The funeral procession was very lavish. Charles IV was well-liked and he knew that if his subjects are happy and doing well, then the ruler does well too.”

Bohumil Vurm: “Charles IV died when he was about 62 and-a-half. But it was in a way a premature death. Later on, scientists found out that his condition at the time was akin to that of a 50-year-old. So he was a very fit man. And his son Sigismund lived to be almost 70. So obviously there were some good genes there. Charles IV died because he broke his leg and eventually he got pneumonia as a result.

“But he did already have difficulties walking before that, not because of bad health, but as a result of the wounds he had sustained from battling or jousting or whatever. He had lived through some tough times and was even paralyzed for half a year (in 1350, possibly the result of spine problems). Some people thought that was the end, but he overcame it. Charles was a very vital man, and accomplished so much. He simply overshadowed all the other rulers of Europe of that time.”