King Wenceslas IV.

Statue of Wenceslas IV - detail of the decoration of Old Town Bridge Tower in Prague

At the turn of the 15th century, Wenceslas IV ruled the Czech kingdom. Unlike his father, the Czech King and Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV and his step-brother, king Sigismund, Wenceslas was a controversial figure, whom we can neither solely praise nor criticize. While Charles IV had established a good system of government in the Czech lands, this was not a tradition continued in the reign of Wenceslas.

Statue of Wenceslas IV -d etail of the decoration of Old Town Bridge Tower in Prague
Wenceslas IV was born in February 1361 in the German town of Nuremberg, when his mother, Anna Svidnicka was 22. Charles IV was immensely happy - after his first son died, an heir of the Czech throne was born. King Charles wrote to all the Roman electors, noblemen and town representatives: "We have a son. Rejoice, my faithful friends." And as dr. Miloslav Polivka says, the christening party was a big event:

"The christening party took place on April 11th, and the little boy was christened Wenceslas IV, a sign of the importance of St.Wenceslas in the Czech consciousness. The christening party was huge and dignified, was attended by five Roman electors, princes, representatives of Czech towns, all bringing expensive gifts to the new prince. Even the precious coronation jewels were borrowed for the party from the castle of Karlstejn. The little prince was brought to Prague in June, to his father's court at the newly renovated Prague Castle. There he was brought up in manner befitting kings of his time."

Wenceslas received first class education, spoke several languages and seemed more interested in the arts than in the affairs of state. However, he liked deer hunts and other court entertainment. The death of his mother, when he was only 1 year old, helped change the future course. His new step mother Elizabeth gave birth to Wenceslas's step-brother Sigismund of Luxemburg, who several years later caused many problems to the new Czech king.

"In the Middle Ages, boys aged 14 were considered adult, and Charles IV started taking the young prince with him on many diplomatic missions within the Holy Roman Empire. But his efforts to make his young son interested in diplomacy failed and Wenceslas began focusing his energies on domestic affairs. When Charles IV died in 1378, all of Europe was in the process of change and, more importantly, there was a Papal schism, which split the European church into two camps - one with a pope in Rome, the other in Avignon."

When he was crowned in 1378, Wenceslas found himself in a situation that caught him unprepared. His sister married the English King Richard II, who was caught up with the hundred-years war with France, but Wenceslas also encountered serious problems at home. A conflict stirred up concerning a well-known figure, Johanek of Pomuk, who was later canonized as St. John of Nepomuk. In 1383, Wenceslas was on bad terms with the church hierarchy and part of Czech nobility, and his plan was to established a new bishopric in the town of Kladruby, which would be under him. John Nepomuk, as the supreme vicar, was quicker than the King, and appointed a new Abbot, making Wenceslas unable to appoint a new bishop. He had John Nepomuk tortured and drowned in the river Vltava in Prague, which triggered his long-term conflict with the Papal curia.

"There was further conflict when the Czech nobility began to realize that the king was unable to care for his own country. Wenceslas was twice detained by them and kept for months on end in prison. Although his position at the turn of the century was very weak, the king did not let himself get bothered by his rule in the Roman empire, of which he was king - so in 1400 he was dethroned. Wenceslas was depressed and spent the next ten years trying to change the situation."

The main role in those efforts was played by Czech 15th century reformist, Jan Hus, who later gave the name to the Hussite movement, which fought for a reformed church. In 1409 a church council was called to the Italian town of Pisa, which was to decide which of the two popes would take over the Holy See and become the highest representative of the Christian church, and consequently, the partner of the Holy Roman emperor. This conflict divided the whole Europe into two opposite groups. In this struggle, Jan Hus backed Wenceslas's view, and in return king Wenceslas lent support to Hus's effort to reform the Roman church. This alliance lasted nearly 9 years.

Everything changed in 1411, when Wenceslas's step-brother Sigismund of Luxembourg was elected the Roman king. He was the king of Hungary and a very experienced politician. The situation culminated in 1414 and 1415, when Hus decided to attend a church council in the German town of Konstanz, where he could defend his teaching before the assembly of the highest dignitaries of Roman church. While Sigismund was backing Hus in the deal, Wenceslas kept silent. Later on, Sigismund backed out of the affair, but Wenceslas let the proceedings continue without intervening. Hus was burnt at stake in Konstanz in July 1415, but his supporters went on fighting....

"Without Wenceslas wanting it, Prague became the centre of the Czech reformed church, which at that time could be regarded only as heresy. The Czech nobility could not forgive him for not helping Hus, whilst the Rome dignitaries wanted him to become a vocal supporter of the Roman church. Wenceslas IV took it very badly, became very quiet, liked to be left alone and started to drink a lot. He ceased to follow politics altogether. In 1418, the new Pope, Martin V, forbade any contacts between the Christendom and the heretic Czech lands. Following warnings from the Pope and Sigismund, Wenceslas decided to act."

Wenceslas's aim was to change the situation in disobedient Prague itself, which he saw as the main source of the problems. In July 1419 he decided to change completely the composition of the Prague municipal council and appoint new councillors. A wave of fierce opposition welled against the king, and on July 30th 1419, priest Jan Zelivsky and a group of his supporters threw the members of the newly-appointed municipal council out of the window of the New Town Hall. This event is called 'the first Prague de-fenestration' and it is considered the beginning of the Hussite revolution in the Czech lands.

But Wenceslas did not live long enough to see it. Shocked by the news, he left Prague. On August 16th, he died at the Kunratice castle of a stroke or, as chronicles put it, letting out a terrible roar. He died before the battles, which effected the development in the Czech Kingdom in the coming centuries.