John of Luxembourg


And now it's time for this week's edition of Czechs in History, and today Nick Carey takes a look at the life of John of Luxembourg.

While the Czechs are very well acquainted with Charles IV, whose mark has been left in many places in the Czech Republic, in Prague in particular, there are few people who could tell you who John of Luxembourg was, and what significance he could have for the Czechs, especially given his place of birth. He was in fact Charles IV's father, and the first member of the Luxembourg dynasty to rule the Czech Lands. And he was nothing like his son...

There is very little record of the early years of John of Luxembourg's life, but he was born in Luxembourg in 1296, the son of King Henry VIIth of Luxembourg. There was certainly very little when he was born to link him to the Czech Lands, but, says Miroslav Polivka of the Institute of History at the Czech Academy of Sciences, something unforeseen took place took place in the Czech Lands that completely changed the existing order:

"In 1306 the last of the Premyslid dynasty, which had lasted for several hundred years, came to an end when Vaclav III died in 1306. This left the Czechs ruled by a noble, Jindrich Korutansky, who was weak, and the Czech Lands soon became almost completely ungovernable. After various internecine struggles broke out amongst the Czech nobility, several members of the aristocracy approached King Henry VIIth of Luxembourg and asked him if he would become the ruler of the Czech kingdom".

King Henry was not himself interested in the Czech throne, but he decided instead to have his young son John installed as king. The main problem that faced the selection of John as king of the Czech Lands was that, according to old Czech laws, he needed to be elected by the Czech nobility before he could become king. To strengthen his case, it was eventually agreed that he should marry the last female representative of the Premyslid dynasty, Eliska, who was four years his senior. The final arrangements were made in 1310, when John married Eliska at the age of 14. This relationship was, however, very problematic. Miroslav Polivka:

"Eliska was, by all accounts, a beautiful, passionate and very strong-willed woman. This led to problems between the couple, because the Czech nobility was essentially divided into two camps, one of which supported King John, and the second formed a camp around his wife, Eliska. This was a divisive element in Czech society, and weakened John's power base as king."

One of John's first actions as king was to try and install stability in the Czech Lands, which had suffered terribly from the internecine struggles preceding his coronation. The main struggle he faced, as did every subsequent king, was taxation. John wished to increase taxation to provide a standing army, but at every step of the way the nobility opposed him. In the end, a compromise deal was reached in which the king agreed that taxes would be levied at every royal wedding, coronation, or birth. Furthermore, he was only allowed to issue a general call to arms if the Czech Lands were under threat. The intransigence of the nobility, plus the fact that John did not speak Czech and preferred the culture of the courts in Western Europe, led to John spending less and less time in court in the Czech Lands, and considerable more time abroad.

In 1316, a son was born to John and his wife Eliska. Originally named Vaclav, the boy became the centre of a power struggle between the factions supporting the king and his wife:

"John of Luxembourg was worried that the nobles supporting his wife would exert too strong an influence over the rearing of the boy. An even greater fear was that his son could be seized by his wife's faction and used to blackmail him, so he had Eliska sent to the castle at Melnik, and held Vaclav in safekeeping in Prague Castle. Eventually, John had his son sent to the French court for an education, where the boy's name was changed to Charles, in honour of the French king."

The relationship between father and son was never a warm one, but the two maintained formal contact, and both of them appreciated the role of the other.

One of the few times that Charles went into to battle was when he helped John of Luxembourg fight in Italy on behalf of the Holy Roman Emperor, Ludwig of Bavaria, in the early 1330s. This conflict, and many others, kept John of Luxembourg out of the Czech Lands for long periods at a time, and in 1336, he made his son Charles the margrave of Moravia, which essentially made him the ruler during his father's absence. These absences grew longer over time.

As well as lacking any emotional attachment to the Czech Lands, John of Luxembourg had a fondness for battle:

"He was brought up in the knightly traditions of the Middle Ages. He loved to joust at tournaments. He was well known all over Europe for his jousting and fighting abilities. And, unlike his son, who preferred diplomacy and dialogue, John of Luxembourg never passed up the chance to get involved in a fight or battle."

Another attraction that kept him out of the Czech Lands was his second wife, a French princess called Beatrix. His first wife Eliska died in 1330, and a few years later he married Beatrix, and spent a great amount of time at the French court in Paris. He developed strong links with the French, and it was this, and his love of fighting that led to his downfall.

In the 1340s, England and France were heading towards war over the Low Countries, and when an English army landed in Flanders in 1346, John of Luxembourg decided to provide aid to his French allies. As part of this aid, he decided that he would fight for the French on the field of battle. This despite the fact that by this time he suffered from a rather debilitating handicap. Miroslav Polivka again:

"Although John of Luxembourg was not really old by this point, he was after all only fifty years old, his eyes were afflicted by a disease from his mid-forties onwards. We do not know what this disease was, but after he lost the sight in one eye, he went to Montpelier in France, where the best eye specialists in Europe at that time were located, though they failed to do anything for him. They also failed to prevent him losing the sight in his other eye, and so he was rendered completely blind."

This did not stop John of Luxembourg wanting to fight against the English, and on August 26th, 1346, when the English and French met at the Battle of Crecy, he dutifully charged onto the field with a force of Czech troops he brought with him. During the course of the fighting, he fell victim to English longbowmen and died on the battlefield.

In his life and indeed his death, John of Luxembourg differed greatly from his son Charles IV, who founded the first university in Central Europe, spoke many languages and was a consummate diplomat. According to Miroslav Polivka, this was caused by a mixture of differing levels of education, and the two separate eras in European history to which the two men belonged:

"John of Luxembourg started his education but was never able to finish it. He studied in Paris up until the age of fourteen, but then his father decided that he was to assume the Czech throne. This cut his education short, and he never had the chance to make up the difference. He was also a Medieval king. He was brought up with old codes of chivalry and honour that a nobleman needed in those days if he were to become a knight. He was always in the thick of things, and like many of his contemporaries, he loved to joust, and believed in honour and glory on the battlefield. After John died, the time of the Medieval kings and knights began to die out."

As previously mentioned, the Czechs are well acquainted with Charles IV and all that he for the Czech people. Few of them, however, know who John of Luxembourg was. That said, what did he do for them in comparison with Charles IV, and what should Czechs remember him for? Miroslav Polivka again:

"John of Luxembourg suffers from the fact that he is really overshadowed by the deeds of his son. Charles IV did indeed do a great deal for the Czech Lands, but John had his own influence too. After he arrived in Prague, a certain level of culture appeared in the Czech court. John of Luxembourg and his entourage brought with them Gothic influences in architecture, literature and science that had hitherto not been available. John also brought stability and security to the Czech Lands, and his friendship with the French court and the Holy Roman Emperor were of great use to the Czech Lands. The Czechs in general benefited under John, and Charles, with his education and abilities, took that even further."