Ludmila, the first Czech saint, grandmother of Wenceslas, martyred 1100 years ago

Saint Ludmila's tomb

Saint Ludmila, the first historically documented Duchess of Bohemia, was martyred 1100 years ago this September – strangled by assassins sent by her own daughter in law. Best known today as the grandmother and educator of the Czech patron saint “good King Wenceslas”, Saint Ludmila was among the few women in history to de facto rule over Bohemia.

Baptism of Ludmila and Bořivoj | Source:  Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

Princess Ludmila, as she is also known, was the wife of Bořivoj, founder of the Přemyslid dynasty. Sometime in the late 9th century, he converted to Christianity during a visit to the court of Great Moravia, and was allegedly baptised by none other than Saint Methodius, the Byzantine missionary known along with his brother Cyril as the “Apostles of the Slavs”.

Little is known for certain about Ludmila’s life before the death of her husband, other than that she was the daughter of a Sorbian prince, likely born in Mělník, central Bohemia, married Bořivoj in her teens, and had as many as six children with him.

Jakub Izdný | Photo:  Charles University

But, says Dr Jakub Izdný of the Institute of Czech History at Charles University, author of a new book on Ludmila published ahead of the 1100-year anniversary of her death, she is the first historically known Czech woman, and quite likely the first woman to rule Bohemia.

“What we know for sure is that Ludmila existed – that’s something quite unusual for the Middle Ages, actually. We have the remains, the relics of Ludmila, which were anthropologically tested, so we know that she was a member of the [first ruling] family we describe as the Přemyslids.

“And we can say that the stories about her could be true. For example, the question of her position – she was quite a strong woman, lived until her sixties, and was definitely a member of the elite.

St Ludmila | Photo: Markéta Kachlíková,  Radio Prague International

“Her body was venerated, that’s something we can say for sure because the box of her relics was filled with precious vestments, which shows us that she was somehow an exceptional woman and revered.

“We can also be sure that she was actually the grandmother of Saint Wenceslas. Most of the stories and legends could be true – so the family relations, the political context. What we of course cannot be sure of is the definitive version of the struggle between Ludmila and her daughter in law.”

Ludmila is said to have been a kind, merciful and zealously pious woman, and her story – including legends about her death at the hands of assassins sent by her daughter in law, Drahomíra – is also one of the Christianization of Bohemia.

St Ludmila | Photo: Maxim Massalitin,  Flickr,  CC BY-SA 2.0

Some later church sources – hagiographies, and accounts of miracles connected with Ludmila’s death – claim that she baptised along with Bořivoj, notes the historian Dr Jakub Izdný.

“That’s something that we cannot say for sure, but none of the oldest sources mention that they were baptised together. We have a quite interesting description of Bořivoj’s baptism, connected with the Great Moravian principality and actually even with the archbishop Methodius, who was a very important figure in Christianity in central Europe, obviously.

“Obviously, this could be some sort of hagiographic invention, trying to connect Bořivoj together with the illustrious person of the archbishop. It could also be that it was a less important person who baptised him.

St Ludmila | Photo: Barbora Němcová,  Radio Prague International

“From the Moravian sources, we don’t hear about this event – so obviously there is the question of whether the story given by the Bohemian legend is true – and the [Moravian] account only mentions the Duke, not his wife – actually, the Duke and his retinue, probably his guard, not the family.

“It is possible that Ludmila could have been baptised with Bořivoj in the same way and visiting Great Moravia at the time. But it’s quite improbable, because obviously women’s lot was quite different in the Middle Ages, and it’s quite probable she was either pregnant or had a small baby, so she would not travel a lot.

“Also, we have to mention that from the other parts of the story, we can see that Ludmila could work as a regent for Bořivoj, so leaving his wife behind would be the best way to ensure nothing bad happened while he was away.

Bořivoj | Source: Acoma,  Czech Chronicle,  Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

“So, this brings us to the theory that Ludmila could have been baptised later, perhaps by some of the persons mentioned by the hagiographers as students of Methodius, who were coming with Bořivoj to establish Christianity in Bohemia.”

I asked about the baptism in part because I’m curious whether one of them, Bořivoj or Ludmila, adopted Christianity earlier and greatly influenced the other.

“It’s quite hard to answer this because it is something not much mentioned in the sources. And on the contrary, it is quite an interesting part of the story – who actually brought the faith to whom, how and when.

“We have these pictures or illustrations in the manuscripts, where sometimes we see Bořivoj as the one being baptised, alone. But we also have one where they share a tub of baptism, which is quite interesting.

“Also, there are other figures that appear in the later medieval sources, such as the hermit Ivan – who is said to be some sort of teacher of St. Ludmila, living in Bohemia, who had to be some member of the Slavic aristocracy from nowadays Germany.

“So, he came as a monk, and they found him in the forest – a legend told in other times by other person. It seems like a quite important motif in the later stories.

St Ludmila | Source: Packare,  Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

“But for some reason, the oldest sources do not include stories like this. They say there was this duke named Bořivoj, he was baptised, and he had a wife named Ludmila - like that, not quite detailed.

“We can say that Ludmila had to have been baptised quite soon after her husband, or with him, because that was the usual way and attitude in the Middle Ages. We cannot imagine that there were marriages where the husband and wife had separate religious views.”

The reign of Bořivoj, the first historically documented Duke of Bohemia, had begun roughly in 870, when the Czech lands were subordinated to Great Moravia. He married Ludmilla in about 874, both were baptised a decade later, and became enthusiastic evangelists in a pagan land.

But Christianity failed to take root among Bořivoj’s subjects, and in around 883, he was deposed in a revolt by a Přemyslid kinsman, only to regain power a year later. He then had the first church built on the grounds of what is today Prague Castle.

Spytihněv I | Source: Acoma,  Czech Chronicle,  Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

After Bořivoj died in 899, he was first succeeded by his eldest son, Spytihněv I, a minor at the time. Until he came of age, Ludmila acted as regent – if not de facto ruler of Bohemia, albeit still subordinate to Duke Svatopluk of Great Moravia.

According to later hagiographic sources, Ludmila was the figure most responsible for the Přemyslids becoming Christian, and played a significant role in the religion eventually taking root in Bohemia and beyond.

“Ludmila had to do something, let’s say, to save the position of the family. We read in the hagiography that she was dealing with the retinue of the Duke, that means she worked as the head of the house.

“That could have been her normal position, even while Bořivoj was living, but it could mean she was the head of the House of Přemyslid, which means she was actually the head of state – because it was the same thing. But, of course, we are speaking about an early medieval state, which is something quite different than today.”

In any case, she probably had quite a strong character and definitely had great influence, or some very capable advisors.

Vratislav | Source: Acoma,  Liber depictus,  Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

“Definitely. Either way, she was successful because five years later, her oldest son is a leader of Bohemia. So, she was somehow successful. We don’t know if was with the help of some other powerful figures or her sole responsibility, but she was definitely part of the world of politics.”

After the death of Spytihněv in 915, their youngest son, Vratislav, by then a grown man, became Duke of Bohemia, and Ludmila appears to have settled into the role of grandmother, devoting herself to ensuring Wenceslas got a proper Christian education.

After Vratislav’s premature death in 921, however, Ludmila found herself at odds with her daughter in law, who managed the ducal estate and military company. Drahomíra likely felt threatened by the Ludmila’s influence over Wenceslas – and allied herself with pagan notables in Bohemia. Dr Jakub Izdný of the Institute of Czech History again:

“It could have been a similar situation as when Ludmila’s husband died, but now [in 921] there were two powerful women figures who aspired to rule. This is probably one of the obvious reasons for conflict.

Drahomíra | Photo: ŠJů,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0

“Women’s regency was definitely not common, but those responsible for governing were used to it – if there was a male successor who was only a minor at the time. This happened at other times and in other places around Europe in the Middle Ages.

“A lot of historians tell us it is possible that Ludmila educated Wenceslas sooner than written in the legends… This also could have also been a source of conflict between Drahomíra and Ludmila, because this obviously mean that she has a certain influence on the future ruler.”

In any case, over the centuries, the accepted view of Ludmila and her conflict with Drahomíra shifted to that of a ‘good Christian’ versus a ‘bad pagan’. Is there any reason to believe Drahomíra was pagan?

Drahomíra killed her mother-in-law | Source:  public domain

“If we look at the oldest legends, they tell us that it was mostly a struggle for power; that Drahomíra was jealous, not willing to share power with Ludmila, and this is the reason that she became angry and eventually killed her mother-in-law.

“Even the authors of the hagiography don’t tell us their conflict involved a fight between Christians and Pagans. Later, the theme of paganism – or at least some unwilling to accept the Christian world – actually comes in the Wenceslas hagiography, when he himself describes his mother, as ‘bad figure and coming from a pagan land’. So, this opens the possibility that Drahomíra herself was a pagan.

Drahomíra  (left) | Source: Acoma,  Velislai Biblia Picta,  public domain

“But, on the other hand, we read that when she tried to hide her murder of Ludmila, and most of all hide that miracles were happening around Ludmila’s grave, as she was becoming a saint, Drahomíra decided to build a church on the grave – so, that’s something a pagan probably wouldn’t do.

“We can also read this act as a sort of atonement for her sins, some sort of later gesture of regretting her deeds. It’s not mentioned directly in any of the sources, but it’s something that we can think about.”

Tetín Castle | Photo: Martin Pecka,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0

“And, of course, Drahomíra was the wife of a Christian duke, so obviously there’s a very limited chance that she wasn’t baptised herself – before the marriage, she definitely had to accept the culture of her husband somehow.”

Ludmila was at Tetín Castle near Beroun when she was strangled on 15 September 921, by assassins dispatched by her daughter in law. She was at first buried in the church of St. Michael at Tetín, but her remains were later removed by Wenceslaus, to the church of St. George in Prague, built by her husband.

Author: Brian Kenety