Charles University – one of Charles IV’s greatest legacies to nation

Carolinum, photo: Kristýna Maková

One of Charles IV’s many great legacies to the Czech nation is the Prague seat of learning that bears his name. When the Bohemian king and holy Roman emperor, born 700 years ago next month, established Charles University in the 1340s, it was the first institution of its kind in the whole of Central Europe.

Carolinum,  photo: Kristýna Maková
Charles IV established Charles University in 1348, when he was in his early 30s. The monarch had been inspired by his own studies in Paris, which gave him a clear understanding of the value that a university could have.

Historian Professor Jiří Pešek teaches at the institution today.

“He realised that if he was to build a strong state that would be a support to his aspirations to the crown of holy Roman emperor, he would need a university. Not just as an important attribute, but as an important support in legal matters, matters of church law and theological matters. He was well aware how significant all of these things were in creating a powerful state. And because he was very well-educated and had experience in that regard, he founded the university.”

One of Charles’s professors at the university in Paris had been Pierre Roger. He had since become Pope Clement VI and helped his former student and friend by issuing a bull in 1347 establishing a university in Prague.

Once it was up and running, Charles IV took a great personal interest in its activities, says Jiří Pešek.

“Charles supported the university by granting it a whole series of privileges. He also supported it by continuously working with the bishop of Prague, Arnošt of Pardubice, who was his friend and was also chancellor of the university. So we can say that Charles followed the development of the university very closely until his death in 1378. It was of great importance to him.”

Though it took some time for the institution to find its feet, it did achieve the ruler’s objectives.

“The university was very important. It was the first university north of the Alps and east of the Rhine, so it was the first in the broad Central and Eastern Europe region. Groups of professor and students from Prague went on to set up other universities – in Vienna, Krakow, Leipzig, etc. And Charles drew on its graduates. He brought them into his service and made great use of them. So I think he can have been satisfied with the university.”

More than 650 years after Charles IV set it up, Charles University regularly ranks among the top 1.5 percent of such institutions in the world. It has proven to be one of its founder’s greatest legacies to his nation. Professor Jiří Pešek again.

“For the Czech intelligentsia, for Czech culture, it ranks among the most essential and important institutions in the country. Today it has more than 50,000 students and is also a highly productive academic institution.”

Carolinum,  photo: Mirko Kašpar
Graduation ceremonies today take place at the Carolinum, a complex of university buildings in Prague’s Old Town also named after the institution’s founder.

Alumni’s degrees bear a seal showing Charles IV, with his coat of arms as King of the Romans and King of Bohemia, kneeling in front of St. Wenceslas, the patron saint of Bohemia.