St. Ludmila, martyred 1100 years ago, an early, enduring symbol of Czech national pride

Saint Ludmila

Saint Ludmila, the first historically documented duchess of Bohemia, was murdered on the 15th of September in the year 921. Together with her husband Bořivoj I, founder of the Přemyslid dynasty, she sought to spread Christianity throughout the Czech lands, and was de facto ruler of Bohemia after his death, when their sons were too young to sit on the throne.

Throughout the year, a host of exhibitions and events commemorating the life and legacy of Princess Ludmila, as she is also known, have been held across the country. The biggest events take place this coming weekend, in the central Bohemian town of Tetín, were Ludmila met her death – strangled by assassins dispatched by her daughter in law.

Personalities, pilgrims and lovers of history, led by a papal legate, will remember her there, with the event being covered by Czech Radio, the main media partner of the “Saint Ludmila – 1100 years” project. I spoke with the project director Miroslava Janičatová ahead of the festivities, and began by asking her a very simple question: who was Ludmila?

Miroslava Janičatová | Photo: Jana Myslivečková,  Czech Radio

“Saint Ludmila was the first Czech and first Slavic saint. She was the first Czech princess, the grandmother, governess and educator of St. Wenceslas. She is the first historically documented Czech woman, and the first female political figure that we know of.

“She is also the first woman whose age we know. In her day, most people did not even know how old they were. But we know when St. Ludmila died, and from legends, we can trace when she was probably born. She was about 60 years old when she died.”

Little is known for certain about Ludmila’s early life, 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.

Sometime in the late 9th century, they converted to Christianity. Some later church sources – hagiographies, and accounts of miracles connected with Ludmila’s death – claim that she baptised along with Bořivoj by none other than Saint Methodius, the Byzantine missionary known along with his brother Cyril as the “Apostles of the Slavs”.

I asked Miroslava Janičatová project what she remembers learning about the first Czech saint in school, and what Ludmila has come to mean to her personally since becoming director of the “Saint Ludmila – 1100 years” project, five years ago.

Church of Saint Ludmila,  Tetín | Photo: Hynek Moravec,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY 3.0

“I had heard very little about St. Ludmila in school. If at all, she was only mentioned as being the grandmother of St. Wenceslas. I couldn’t have imagined how much she would inspire me to do, actually strengthen me on my own life journey.”

“But already during the 19th century, when the concept of a Czech National Revival became more topical, bridges were sought to build national pride. Many charities were formed in St. Ludmila’s name, which cared for the elderly, for example. She became a figure of Czech national pride.

“Personally, I think such historical role models are missing in society – women we can look to for inspiration. And I still find that in Ludmila. Her story is shrouded in myth, but she must have been a wise and strong woman, with great inner strength.”

Saint Ludmila is said to have been a kind, merciful and zealously pious woman. Her story – including legends about her mudred 1000 years ago, ordered by her “pagan” daughter in law – is also one of the eventual Christianization of Bohemia itself.