3) Daliborka: Prague Castle’s medieval prison whose first inmate inspired a national legend

Daliborka, photo: Jolana Nováková, Czech Radio

The Daliborka tower at Prague Castle is known to most Czechs as a prison and the site of a well-known national legend. It tells the story of Dalibor of Kozojedy, a nobleman who was the tower’s first prisoner and earned the hearts of the locals through his violin playing. Other theories suggest there is a more sinister reason behind Dalibor’s association with the instrument. In this episode of Landmark Prague Stories, we explore the myth and reality behind the Daliborka tower.

During the reign of King Vladislav II Jagello, a number of building projects were initiated on the site of Prague Castle. This included a ring of defensive fortifications which featured a tower on the north-eastern side of the complex, near what would later become the Golden Lane.

The Legend of Dalibor

Dalibor of Kozojedy

Built around 1496, it seems that the tower was supposed to house artillery within its thick walls. However, it soon began serving as a prison instead and would become known as the Daliborka after its first and most famous inmate Dalibor of Kozojedy.

The popular myth surrounding his story was immortalised by the Czech writer, poet and politician Alois Jirásek, who incorporated the tale of Dalibor in his book Ancient Bohemian Legends, which many a generation of Czech children has since grown up on.

“And so it happened that the peasants rebelled against Adam Ploskovský of Drahonice in the land of Litoměřice, because he was cruel to them, inventing various unlawful toils and repressions. They set out to his fortress, scaled its ramparts, pried open the gate and, when their cruel lord began fighting back, they injured and arrested him. To save his neck he listened to them. In writing he released them from servitude and promised on his honour that he will not challenge them later.

Věnceslav Černý: Dalibor of Kozojed in the tower,  photo: Wikimedia Commons,  CC0

“Near the Ploskovský estate lived a young gentleman called Dalibor of Kozojedy. He was of an ancient family. His ancestor fought bravely with King Jan at the Battle of Crécy, dying beside his lord. The freed peasants came to Dalibor and announced they had captured Adam Ploskovský’s fortress. They told him that they wish to put themselves under his protection as his subjects and that they would do so gladly.

“They knew from experience that Dalibor of Kozojedy always treated his subjects well. That he was kind to them. Indeed, that he took care of many a wretch from the local lands and would put in a kind word for him.”

Dalibor, the story goes, agreed to their offer, but the wicked Adam Ploskovský broke his word and complained to the authorities. The regional Hejtman’s heard him out. Suspicious that Dalibor had taken Adam’s lands for personal gain, they gathered the forces of Litoměřice and crushed the rebellious peasants.

Daliborka,  photo: Jolana Nováková / Czech Radio

Dalibor was brought to Prague Castle and imprisoned in the newly finished tower. The time spent in his cell felt like eternity and Dalibor grew increasingly lonely and homesick, Jirásek writes.

“And so he got himself a violin from the small amount of money he had left and which he sustained himself on. He began practicing. He never held a bow in his hand before then. Now he almost never let it go. He learned alone, playing and playing. Time began to pass faster and his music continued to improve until it was truly artistic and beautiful.

“Soon the dungeon master and the guards began to stand behind Dalibor’s door and listen in. Many a lord or official at the castle would come and listen to the gentleman from Kozojedy, who learned to play in jail. It became the gossip of the town. First the curious began turning up to see if the rumours were true, then the doubting Thomas’. Every day more and more would come until it became common for a large group of people to gather and wait at the rear castle gate.

Daliborka,  photo: Jolana Nováková / Czech Radio

“Touched, the citizens of Prague would listen. And, when they suddenly saw a rough, linen bag being lowered from the tower upon a string, they gave their groschen and other coins in charity...In complete silence they listened and as they were leaving they all agreed that no one in the whole of the city plays as well as this gentleman. Necessity and distress had taught Dalibor the violin.”

It was not just Alois Jirásek who portrayed Dalibor of Kozojedy as a noble hero who plays the violin in his cell. More than twenty, years before Jirásek’s Ancient Bohemian Legends were published, the famous composer Bedřich Smetana penned his own take on the story. In his 1868 opera Dalibor, the Czech nobleman is portrayed as being imprisoned for murdering the burgrave of Ploskovice in an act of revenge after the killing of his friend. He receives the violin from Ploskovic’s sister, who smuggles it into his cell at the tower after falling in love with him. Ultimately, the self-taught virtuoso is executed for his alleged crimes, just as in Jirásek’s story.

Daliborka,  photo: Jolana Nováková / Czech Radio

Not all bought into the heroic portrayal of Dalibor. The Czech writer Josef Svátek, a contemporary of both Jirásek and Smetana, had a very different theory about what was behind the saying: “Necessity and distress taught Dalibor the violin”.

“It was a lament so powerful, that his desperate cries could be heard outside, through the windows of the torture chamber. It attracted nearby folk, who then told a mocking tale that he who had previously avoided confessing his transgressions, was now brought by necessity and pain to play the violin. In other words, to speak the truth about his crime.”

However, it seems that even this cynical tale is wrong about what really happened to the historical Dalibor, says Stanislav Kubát, who is one of the local tour guides employed by the Prague Castle Administration.

“We know that he would not have been able to play the fiddle in there. It probably actually refers to a torture device that would lock the victim’s arms and neck in place. Sometimes the arms would be locked beside the neck in a form that resembles someone holding a violin. It is what this torture device probably got its name from. It is still unclear even today.

Daliborka,  photo: Kristýna Maková

“There are even surrounding legends that claim that the ‘fiddle’ in the saying refers to the rack, which would have been much more brutal. But that would not make much sense, because as a noble he could not be tortured. Furthermore, his crime was apparent, so there was no need to get him to confess.”

In fact as a noble, Dalibor of Kozojedy enjoyed much better conditions than the average prisoner of the time, he says.

“One of the differences was that the cells themselves looked quite different. The walls were wooden from the inside of the tower and had little doors through which food could be passed, or there were windows in the cell, something that was actually quite unusual.

“Most importantly, the cells were always private. The prisoners had them for themselves. Another important comfort factor was that they had a stove, or fireplace inside the tower. In other words, they had a form of heating during colder periods.”

Inside Daliborka

Stanislav Kubát,  photo: Thomas McEnchroe

Those who enter the Daliborka tower today can see a restored example of one of these cells. While it may have been more pleasant than what the average man had to face if put in jail, it is still striking to see how little space each prisoner was allocated. The rooms are so small that it is hard to imagine the inmate could have even lied down without having to curl in some way or other to fit in.

For those that disobeyed, there was the threat of a much crueller fate waiting in the bottom of the tower, says the guide.

“In the bottom floor, the walls were up to 320 centimetres thick. The only possible way to get there was through a hole in the floor. Prisoners that tried to rebel or cause trouble were lowered there with the use of a pulley and starved to death.

“According to archaeological research there was this skeleton discovered at the bottom of the tower. His bones were found there. It is said that he was only 30 centimetres away from freedom and probably died of exhaustion.”

While this oubliette was likely the only real savage punishment a prisoner in Dalibor’s time would have had to fear in the tower, those who visit Daliborka today may be excused for thinking otherwise. The tower’s entrance is adorned with a skeleton in an iron cage and the rooms within contain many a medieval torture device. These were added only recently, says Stanislav Kubát.

Photo: Thomas McEnchroe

“The torture chamber was actually located in the White Tower, which is incidentally located on the Golden Lane. Nevertheless, nowadays we do have some torture instruments exhibited here. The first thing we have here is a thumbscrew, used to excerpt pressure on fingers and crush them. We also have human cages, which were used at the time, and an iron maiden. The latter is interesting because nowadays we know that they actually come from the romantic era. They were not used in the middle ages.”

The real Dalibor of Kozojedy seems to have had a rather more dull stay in the tower than the tales suggest. However, where truth and legend do seem to meet is in the fact that he died a violent end, the guide says.

“He was sentenced for backing rebels in their fight against his neighbouring feudal lord Adam Ploskovský. He also used this situation to confiscate his property. He was sentenced to losing his noble title and to death. He was executed in 1498, here in front of the black tower. As a nobleman he was not hanged, but rather beheaded.”

From prison to tourist site

Golden Lane,  photo: Štěpánka Budková

Dalibor of Kozojedy was of course not the only prisoner to be held in the tower. For example, after the defeat of the Bohemian protestant uprising against the Habsburgs at the Battle of White Mountain in 1621, some of the rebellious Czech noblemen were imprisoned here before being famously executed on Old Town Square.

Daliborka continued to serve as the castle prison thereafter, eventually even housing inmates from the common classes. It was only in the late 18th century, when this function was abolished following the application of Emperor Joseph II’s judicial reforms.

Since the late 19th century Daliborka has been open to the public and its surrounding Golden Lane attracts millions of tourists every year, says Prague Castle Administration Spokesman Jan Pastor.

“In 2019 almost 2 million tourists visited the Golden Lane near by Daliborka tower. If we compare June last year, when almost 200,000 visitors passed through the Golden Lane, this year it was only 25,000, so it is clear that the decrease caused by the coronavirus pandemic is more than 85 percent.”

Those who travel to Prague during the global pandemic and are interested in a guided tour with all the stories about the Daliborka tower need to book a viewing on the Prague Castle website. Those who just want to take a peek can get to Daliborka by taking a stroll through the nearby Golden Lane, which was reopened in June and can be accessed any day from 10am to 6pm.

Whatever you decide to do, the medieval prison is certainly a must see in the eyes of Mr Kubát.

“Since Bohemian history and the history of Prague is filled with legends and stories, it is almost mandatory for guests or tourists to visit Daliborka, because it is home to one of the best known of these legends.”