Pilgrimage: On the trail of Saint Ludmila of Bohemia

View from Levý Hradec

Princess Ludmila, grandmother of Czech patron saint “good King Wenceslas”, was the first woman in history known to have de facto rule over Bohemia. She was martyred 1100 years ago this September – killed by assassins dispatched by her daughter in law Drahomíra. Among the events commemorating that anniversary is a pilgrimage tour organized by Tom Zahn, an American specialising in genealogy-related tours.

Tom Zahn, who founded the genealogical research and tour group Pathways with his Czech wife Marie decades ago, has organised a Saint Ludmila pilgrimage tour comprised of nine walks held on separate days. The first (on 2 September), begins in her likely birthplace, Mělník, and the last (on 13 September) ends at the site of her murder, in Tetín.

I interviewed Tom Zahn ahead of the Saint Ludmila pilgrimage tour, and began by asking him whether the route that Pathways had chosen was a historical one, a path that had long been followed.

“Parts of the path go back to the 12th or 11th century, but did it go back to the time of Ludmila? Well, there are only a few places that we know, yes, absolutely. That would be Budeč, Levý hradec and Tetín.”

St Ludmila | Photo: Barbora Němcová,  Radio Prague International

Can you tell me a bit about each place – what is believed to be her connection?

“Well, the story of St. Ludmila is important also because coincides with the foundation of Czechoslovakia. In 1921, there was the thousand-year anniversary [of her death], and in the late 19th century there was a cult of St. Ludmila, about the story of the grandmother of St. Wenceslas.

“What places in particular we can say are connected with her are based in part on archaeologists trying, in the 100 years since that celebration, to prove or disprove what was believed – so, Mělník as her birthplace, for example.

“Or Budeč – Budeč has a very rich history and has the oldest church in Bohemia still standing, and the archaeologist who will be doing a presentation during the pilgrimage, Pavla Tomanová, did her master’s thesis on it.

Budeč | Photo: Miaow Miaow,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC0 1.0 DEED

“There had been an old fortification there, that was a place people could travel safely to from these royal towns or duchies, and we have to image – and while I’m walking the path I can imagine it very well – how different things must have been, how much thicker the forests were, how there were competing tribes.

“So, the dangers were very real and people would walk until they found someplace safe to spend the night and Budeč was one of these places and goes back to the period when Ludmila lived. The church will be open for us, and we’ll have a presentation there.”

“From Budeč, then to Levý hradec, which was built by the husband of Ludmila, and Tetín, where in her old age, after the marriage of Drahomíra to her son and she no longer was the duchess, she fled and was murdered there.”

Ludmila acted as regent for her husband Duke Bořivoj I in his absence and, after his death, before their sons Spytihnev and Wenceslas came of age and also ruled as Dukes.

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

Historians believe that Drahomíra – who had sided with pagan factions against the rising Christian faith – had Ludmila killed out of jealousy over his relationship with her son (Wenceslas, the future ruler), the desire to consolidate her own power as regent and greed.

Tom Zahn of Pathways again:

“There’s a lot of storytelling that goes into that – why was she murdered, was the [motive] financial, did it have to do with the loyalties of the people.

“One interesting thing is that it was Drahomíra who built the church [of St. Michael, over the grave of Ludmila], and Wenceslas the brought her remains from Tetín back to Prague. These details are for people very interesting in the importance to Christianity of this path.

“There’s another group that I think are going on this, and that’s because beyond Christianity, Ludmila serves as a very important representative of women in the early Middle Ages – that they could have power, they were significant, not just invisible behind the throne. She is really the first woman in the Czech lands who stands out historically.”

It is free to join the Saint Ludmila pilgrimage organised by Pathways, though participants must cover their own transportation costs and admission fees.

For more details on the pilgrimage, visit pathways.cz/news.php

See the webpage of the “Saint Ludmila - 1100 years" project for an overview of other events in Prague and across the Czech Republic in her honour https://www.svataludmila.cz/en/home