George of Podebrady
George of Podebrady came from the old Czech family of the Lords of Kunstat, whose roots can be traced back to the 12th century. George's grandfather enjoyed the privilege of holding a very important post at the court of the Czech King and Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV - his task was to taste all the wines that were served at the Emperor's table. George's father Bocek II fought in the Hussite battle of Vitkov in 1420, when little George was born. Bocek had always admired and supported the Hussite movement in the Czech lands, which started in the early 15th century and fought for reformation of the Catholic church.
"George was not brought up like boys born in peacetime: he was probably raised by a priest at his family's castle in Podebrady and from a very young age met his father's companions and friends who revealed to him the art of warfare. He had no university education, and the records we have say he did not speak any foreign language. He only knew a few words of German, but when he had to speak in Latin - which at those times was the language of European diplomacy and clerics - he needed an interpreter. As a 14-year-old boy he took part in the battle of Lipany where the radical Hussites were defeated once and for all. And this was in fact the start of George's political career."
At that time, 14 years of age was a milestone, when young noblemen were considered adults. No wonder then, that as early as in 1436, George of Podebrady first appeared in the political and military life of Bohemia. He held a respected post in the East Bohemian "landfried", an organization comprised of noblemen and town representatives, whose task was to administer the region and ensure peace. At a very young age, George married Kunhuta of Sternberk, a girl from a renowned Czech family, and it must have been a happy marriage, because during their short life together seven children were born. After Kunhuta died when giving birth to twins, George married again, this time Jana of Rozmital. She came from a respected Catholic family, and by his marriage George wanted to symbolize a link between a Hussite king and a member of a noble family professing a different faith.
In 1436 Emperor Sigismund died and the Czech lands needed a new king.
"Since a very early age, George was used to witnessing the complicated political games which always accompanied the election of a new ruler. While the Catholic lords wanted the new king, Albrecht II Hapsburg, to be just approved by the nobility, George and his Hussite supporters defended the right of the Czech nobility to elect the ruler. The same situation happened again two years later, in 1439, when Albrecht died and left behind a pregnant widow. When her son was born under the name Ladislav the Posthumous, he was immediately taken away from his mother and put under the protection of the Austrian nobility and Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich III. Having young Ladislav in his power, Friedrich wanted to force Czech noblemen to support Hapsburgs as contenders for the Czech throne."
By that time, George of Podebrady succeeded in gaining greater political power after the successful seizure of Prague in 1448 and became one of the most important political figures in the Czech Kingdom. When Friedrich III released Ladislav the Posthumous, George stood at his side and even arranged his marriage with a French princess.
"In 1457 Ladislav died unexpectedly and the Czech throne was free again. At that time George of Podebrady held the post of administrator of the Czech Kingdom, and this function concentrated a great deal of power in his hands. The Czech nobility elected him Czech King in March 1458. But soon after being crowned, George got into an extremely difficult situation, both in the Czech Kingdom and in internationally. While at home he had to defend the crown, sometimes even with the help of arms, he tried to convey some of his ideas to foreign courts as well."
The biggest stumbling block seemed to be George's promise, given during his coronation to Hungarian bishops, that while outwardly he would defend the interests of Catholics and Hussites alike, he would do his best to break the power of the Hussite nobility and abolish the law that ensured that people in the Czech lands professed both Catholic and Reformist beliefs. George simply did not have enough strength to do this, and so he soon came into conflict with the Papal court. The conflict went so far, that Pope Pius II proclaimed George and the Czech Hussite nobility heretics. George started contacting all the European courts and asked for help in reversing the Pope's decision, but all in vain. What is most significant for George's reign, however, is his project of establishing the so-called "General peace organization of the Christian nations", which came into existence in reaction to the imminent danger of Turkish expansion into Europe.
"It was an extremely well-produced project, which attracted attention in literally all the European courts. But unfortunately, most of the rulers did not give it their approval, simply out of the fear that they would antagonize the Pope himself. The project envisaged the existence of a kind of pan-European parliament, a kind of gathering of all European rulers, who would discuss the problems that the Christian world was facing and which would also coordinate political and military activities in order to paralyse the Turkish expansion to the East."
In the 1460s, the Pope started pursuing different tactics against George. He offered the ambitious Hungarian king Matthew Korvin - whose daughter had actually married George's son - the possibility of seeking the Holy Roman throne under the condition that he would stand up against George. And so in 1468, an armed conflict started, which lasted till George's death. The two kings were fighting for prestige, for the Czech crown. The war took place mostly in Moravia - the eastern part of the Czech Kingdom - and the whole region was totally devastated. But it did not solve the situation, no one really won and George had to start looking for a successor. Since he could not find a suitable candidate for the Czech throne among his sons, he turned to the Polish king Kazimier who promised him that his son Vladislav would become Czech king after George's death. And so it happened - in 1471, at the age of 51, George of Podebrady fell seriously ill, and in March of that year he died.
Do we know what George of Podebrady looked like? - was my next question for Dr Polivka.
We don't have many portraits of King George which would give us a good idea of what he looked like, but the few that we can find in historical records only confirm the description given by George's contemporaries. Aeneas Picollomini, who had traveled to Bohemia before he became Pope Pius II, wrote in his diary that George was a man of "short figure, square body, sparkling eyes and a marvelous behaviour."
There is quite an amusing story from George's life, though, and it comes from the time of the above-mentioned war between George and the Hungarian king Matthew Korvin. In 1470, on the eve of a major battle, George challenged Matthew, his son-in-law and much younger rival, to a duel. Records have been preserved about George's order to his diplomats, in which he asked them to arrange the duel on as small venue as possible which would limit the movements of both fighters. It was undoubtedly in George's interest, because he was older and much fatter than his son-in-law.