George of Poděbrady - diplomat king who dreamed of a united Europe

George of Poděbrady, photo: Public Domain

Though little known outside the Czech Republic, the 15th century King of Bohemia George of Poděbrady (Jiří z Poděbrad) is seen by many today as an accomplished administrator and one of the first political figures to propose the idea of European unity. On the occasion of the 600th anniversary of his birth, we will look closer at the life and legacy of the only Hussite king to ever rule the Czech lands.

George of Poděbrady,  photo: W.Rebel,  Public Domain

Born into the Hussite Wars

While the 1300s could be seen as Bohemia’s golden age, when its rulers reached the zenith of power, even controlling the Holy Roman Empire under Charles IV., the century that followed was in many ways a troubled time.

The signs were already there towards the end of the 14th century. The local silver mines that had provided wealth to the kingdom’s rulers and, in many ways, boosted their political power, had run out. Added to that a papal schism had emerged, that put the authority of the Holy See under question and some, such as the Czech priest and university lecturer Jan Hus, began pointing to the Church’s vices and hypocrisy.

Jan Hus,  photo: Wolfgang Sauber,  CC BY-SA 3.0
Hus’ eventual trial and execution by fire at the Council of Konstanz in 1415, sparked the Hussite Wars, a religious civil conflict between the followers of Hus and the Catholics at home and abroad. While this period is often commemorated for some of the greatest of Czech military victories, it was also brutal and in some ways had a revolutionary impact on the power politics within the kingdom as well as heavily impacting the economy and creating the impression abroad that Bohemia was under the control of heretics.

It was into this conflict that George of Poděbrady was born in 1420. His aristocratic father was a leading member of the moderate Hussite faction known as the Utraquists, which maintained that Holy Communion should be given to the laity celebrating the Eucharist under both kinds (bread and wine), as opposed to the Catholic practice of only the priest being able to drink the latter. It was this practice that would also lend itself to the common symbolic depiction of the Hussites - the calix from which the wine was drunk.

George’s upbringing was marked by the conflict. According to Dr Miloslav Polívka from the Historical Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences, he was probably raised by a priest at his family's castle in Poděbrady and from a very young age met his father's companions and friends, who taught him the art of war. He received neither a university education, nor does it seem that he was taught any foreign language.

The future king received his first battle experience at the young age of 14, when he took part in the Battle of Lipany, a final decisive clash between the moderate and radical wings of the Hussite rebellion, which left the moderates victorious and with much power.

Rise to power

Sigismund of Luxemburg by Albrecht Dürer | Photo: Wikimedia Commons,  public domain
Further major events that would define George’s life took place shortly thereafter. In 1436 the Catholic Church authorized Hussite priests to administer the sacramental wine, through a treaty with Bohemia known as the Compacts of Basel and, a year later, Sigismund of Luxemburg, the last Bohemian king of that dynasty, died.

Although Sigismund had made clear that his son in law Albert of Habsburg would take over the crown, Albert died just one year later, leaving his baby son Ladislaus on the throne. It was in this period that George of Poděbrady reached manhood and he would use the relative power vacuum at the top of the power pyramid to great effect, says historian Dr Blanka Zylinská from the Czech Academy of Sciences.

“This was a period when society had to be re-organised in order to ensure that the state survived. George of Poděbrady used this situation to his benefit, laying the groundwork for his future role. In 1452 he became the administrator of the state, a position that brought him close to the peak of the hierarchy. The period of his administration was very successful. He managed to get the country into a much better state than it had been in following the war and all of this enabled him to make a bid for the throne.”

George used his position not only to enlarge his own estates, but also to placate a new class of warrior nobles within the realm. Many of them had gained significant power from the property they had seized during the war and were now eager to hold onto their newly acquired power. Others, such as the South Bohemian House of Rožmberk were facing financial ruin. Using his diplomatic abilities and position of power, George managed to get these groups on his side through alliances with the former and the provision of generous loans to the latter, strengthening his possible future bid for the throne.

That moment did indeed come in 1457 when the 17-year-old King Ladislaus died. Rumours circulated that George had the young ruler poisoned, but an analysis of the teenager’s skeletal remains conducted during the 1980s showed that his death was most likely caused by a severe case of leukemia.

Although he did not hail from a royal house, George of Podebrady was able to use his influence and acquired respect to secure his election to the throne by the Bohemian estates a year later. At the age of 37, the East Bohemian Hussite noble was now king.

The king of two peoples

Compacts of Basel,  photo: repro Ota Halama,  Osudy kaple Božího těla po roce 1437/Staletá Praha,  ročník XXIX,  2013,  č. 2
His work had only just begun. As Dr Zylinská explains, the Kingdom of Bohemia faced many challenges at the time.

“As the saying goes, George of Poděbrady was a ‘king of two peoples’. Following the Hussite Wars two faiths were present in the country [Catholicism and Hussitism]. This situation was only possible because of the Compacts of Basel. This was not an easy situation for George. He had to play both sides, allowing both Hussite and Catholic nobles in his court.

“However, opposition did eventually form against him. First, this was through the so-called ‘Strakonice union’ and then the larger and more powerful ‘Zelenohorská union’. This domestic opposition would unite with George’s opponents abroad, follow the commands coming from the papal curia and eventually join the invasion force that arrived in the late 1460s.”

Although many Catholics had helped elect George, the situation quickly deteriorated. The pope annulled the Compacts of Basel, saying that they were only valid for the first generation of Hussites and in 1466 excommunicated the king of Bohemia.

Calling for European unity against the Turks

George, aware that a clash with the Holy See would come eventually, attempted to gather allies across Europe. His idea, probably inspired by his advisors Antoine Marini of Grenoble and the German Martin Mair, revolved around the creation of what he called the Treaty on the Establishment of Peace throughout Christendom. Dr Zylinská explains.

“The idea was to create a sort of union of European monarchs. Perhaps the most fascinating component of this proposal are its details which envision the establishment of various organs, such as a European Court which would act as arbiter in the various disputes of Christian monarchs in order to prevent them from entering into conflict and focus instead on uniting all forces to combat the heathen threat to the continent.

Louis XI,  photo: Public Domain
“In this sense the ‘peace’ component of the project is a bit weak, because it was intended instead to project military strength towards the Turkish threat, a danger that was also causing concern to the pope, who organised various attempts to counter them, even considering to put George in charge of a [Christian] army that would be sent to fight the Turks.

“Of course this sort of organisation could not be created. It was unrealistic and ahead of its time. Originally, it counted on a role for the pope, but then removed this component, which of course angered the Roman pontiff. Once he was against the idea other monarchs began to move away from the project as well. Perhaps the most important in this respect was the King of France Louis XI, who received an embassy sent by George, but on advice from his councillors decided to refuse.”

The Turkish Ottoman Empire was a major threat to Europe at the time, having just conquered Constantinople [modern Istanbul] and possessing a highly organised military force, it was advancing swiftly through the Balkans and threatening both Central Europe and the Mediterranean.

Aside from the French royal court, George’s proposals were initially well received by the king of Poland and some German princes. However, the multilateral treaty, which proposed a new order in Europe, was simply not fitted for the systems in place during the late Middle Ages.

Despite the failure of his peace project the Bohemian king would continue to attempt to improve relations abroad and put an end to the rumours that Bohemia was a land of evil heretics. For this purpose, he sent out a sort of Bohemian ‘chivalric expedition’ across Europe, which it was hoped would impress Europe’s courts. The journey of this group of 40 men was described by one of its members, Václav Šašek of Biřkov, and would later serve as literary inspiration to the famous Czech 19 century writer and historian Alois Jirasek.

Facing a crusade

Attempts at gaining favour among Bohemia’s neighbours failed however and following his excommunication by the pope, a crusade was called against George. Matthias Corvinus, the ruler of Hungary, Bohemia’s neighbour to the south, seized on this opportunity and launched a military campaign against George in 1468. Initially successful, Matthias’ forces were later defeated by the Bohemian’s and the Hungarian king was captured. He swore that he would help George reach a peace agreement with the pope. However, that same year, he allowed the Moravian Catholic nobles to proclaim him king of Bohemia.

Death and legacy

Matthias Corvinus,  George of Poděbrady,  photo: Public Domain
At this point, George seems only to have been in control of the core Czech lands in his kingdom. It had become clear to him that he would not be able to establish a lasting dynasty. He would instead end up offering the crown to the neighbouring Jagiellon dynasty which ruled in Poland, says Dr Zylinská.

“He was a realist. He could see that it was not possible. Although he had sons none of them were born while he was king, so he had to consider how things would develop.

“When he was considering the options it was clear that he was not going to accept Matthias, because he had led the crusade. Austria led by Emperor Frederick III of Habsburg was also not a favoured choice. The choice of Poland was logical. The Hussites had already been in negotiations with the ruling dynasty there when Sigismund of Luxemburg died and they had invited Jagilleos to rule in Bohemia. Therefore, once he signed peace with Poland in the 1460s George began negotiating with them and they ended up taking the throne.”

Due to a bad liver, George suffered from obesity and dropsy for much of his life. His condition led him to die suddenly on March 22, 1471. His death was followed by conflict between Matthias of Hungary and the Jagilleos for the Czech throne. In the end, the polish dynasty prevailed, but would rule the kingdom for just over half a century, their last King of Bohemia Louis killed by the forces George had tried to unite Europe against - the Ottoman Turks.

Although unable to forge a new European order, nor a dynasty of his own, George of Poděbrady is seen by most Czechs favourably. Dr Zylinská explains why she believes his rule was largely an accomplished one.

“It was a major success for him that, as a member of the aristocracy and not of a royal house, he was able to become king. Furthermore, despite the fact that he was a Utraquist, he was accepted by foreign rulers. He was seen as an excellent diplomat and was invited as an arbiter in disputes within the Holy Roman Empire. George was even considered for the role of a sort of anti-king in Germany, because the then King of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III was seen as inactive.

“I think his rule was also successful for the country itself, because the Hussite Wars and subsequent developments posed a real threat to the unity of the Bohemian kingdom that Charles IV had created. Only Bohemia and partly Moravia were Hussite, the other lands of the crown remained Catholic, so that could easily have happened. George managed to tie these lands back to the crown and establish largely peaceful relations with the kingdom’s neighbours, so I would consider that a success.”

George of Poděbrady,  photo: Public Domain