The story of John of Luxembourg , Bohemia’s ‘foreigner king’

John of Luxemburg, photo: Public Domain

John of Luxembourg, better known abroad as John of Bohemia, is often nicknamed the “foreigner king” by Czechs today. While he spent much of his life abroad and did not get on with his Czech subjects, he nevertheless presided over an effective foreign policy, that expanded Bohemia’s borders and helped his son – the famous Charles IV – secure the title of Holy Roman Emperor.

King by marriage

When John of Luxembourg was born in August 1296, Bohemia was in the hands of the Přemyslid dynasty which had ruled the kingdom for more than 400 years and there was nothing to suggest this would change any time soon. Its king, Wenceslas II., had just acquired the crown of Poland the year before and his wife had already provided the kingdom with a healthy son and heir.

However, by the time John reached his tenth year, Přemyslid rule lay in tatters. Wenceslas II. was dead and his son had been murdered just a year later. There was no male heir left. John, who was being educated in Paris at the time, must have had no idea that he would find himself the ruler of far away Bohemia in just four years time, but that is precisely what happened, historian Eva Doležalová from the Czech Academy of Sciences told Czech Radio.

The wedding of Jan of Luxembourg and Eliška Přemyslovna

“Following the events of 1306, the Kingdom of Bohemia entered a period of interregnum. Wenceslas III. had been murdered and at a subsequent assembly a portion of the nobility elected Henry of Carinthia as the new king. Henry was married to Wenceslas’ sister Anne and had also managed the kingdom in the absence of its ruler in the past. However, he soon ran into problems and a significant part of the local nobility opposed him.

“At the same time, the powerful Habsburg dynasty was contending for the Bohemian throne. Albrecht of Habsburg, who ruled the Holy Roman Empire which included Bohemia, proclaimed the Bohemian throne empty as a result of Wenceslas’ death and gave the kingdom to his son Rudolph.

This led to a split within the kingdom and a de-facto civil war. The Czech nobility therefore started searching for another ruler. They did this by searching for the ideal spouse for another sister of Wenceslas - Elisabeth. They ended up choosing the fourteen year old John of Luxembourg.”

John was the count of Luxembourg, but, more importantly he was also the son of a Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VII. Upon being approached by a Czech delegation with the proposal, Henry was initially hesitant, because he had heard about the previous Bohemian king having been murdered, but eventually he decided to give his assent and have his son marry the Bohemian princess. A year later, John and Elisabeth were married in Speyer.

Troubled rule

John of Luxemburg arrives in Prague,  photo: Public Domain

The Paris-educated John was in for a nasty surprise when he arrived with troops to his new kingdom, historian Eva Doležalová told Czech Radio.

“Shortly after John’s arrival in Bohemia, the nobility was able to negotiate the granting of several privileges to themselves. These have become known as the Inauguration Diploma. They delineated the basic rights of the Bohemian nobility. John thereby agreed not to use foreign advisers and to send those he already had away.

“However, this did not end up happening and the period from John’s accession in 1310/11 to 1318 resulted in what can be seen as a war in the realm.”

John difficult position was not helped by the fact that his father, who was also his liege lord, died in 1313.Facing crisis at home, the young king had to leave the country for a year and raise a host in his home country of Luxembourg so that he could restore order. The threat of another intense period of civil war loomed and it was only thanks to the intercession of Emperor Louis IV. that peace between the king and his nobles was restored. John retained his title as king, but had to respect the promises that he had given the nobility and lost most of his effective power over the kingdom.

Shortly thereafter, John’s marriage with Elisabeth also ran into severe difficulties. The king was provided with information that his wife was planning a scheme to place their son Wenceslas, the future Emperor Charles IV., on the Czech throne. John seized Castle Loket where Elisabeth and their children resided and insisted that Wenceslas be put into his own custody and the queen move, Dr. Dolezalova told Czech Radio.

Loket,  photo: Miloš Turek

“He took his son because he wanted to get him away from the influence of his mother and those parts of the Czech nobility that sided with her. He wanted to ensure that Wenceslas would remain loyal to his father and provide him with the best possible education that a child of his rank could get. From the age of seven, Wenceslas was educated at the royal French court.”

This reaction eventually resulted in a full blown revolt led by Elisabeth and her allies who occupied Prague, but the queen was defeated and she was forced to move to Mělník, the traditional residence for Přemyslid widow-queens.

How did this seeming betrayal of John by his own wife come about? And why was John so mistrustful of his spouse who had after all been the reason he got his kingdom in the first place? Eva Doležalová believes that it was due to their dynamic relationship, affected by different views.

“Elisabeth was four years older than John. Contemporary chroniclers describe her as a mature woman who looked even older than she was, so the visual contrast between the two of them must have been evident.

“Nevertheless, it does seem that they formed a romantic attachment and in the first years of his rule, Elisabeth was a loyal advisor to John. She even represented him several times at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor and was entrusted with important functions.

“What seems to have turned them against each other was their different view on domestic politics. As a Bohemian princess, Elisabeth felt more connected to local traditions and did not want to change them.”

Foreigner king

Charles IV.,  photo: Romae: Apud Vincentium Accoltum,  Flickr,  CC0

This sensitivity to differences in governance and culture also angered a sizable segment of the aristocracy, she says.

“The Czech nobility expected the young ruler to arrive and immediately get used to the way things had always been done in Bohemia. However, this was far from the case. John brought his own court, customs and ideas of how to govern.”

For example, a contemporary description by Czech chronicler Beneš Krabice of Veitmile shows a vexation with the new fashion trends John had brought with him from France.

“In the style of monkeys, which try to imitate everything they see, the people have adopted the bad habits and customs of other lands. They have stopped wearing the clothes worn by their ancestors and now wear shortened, ill-judged dress which allows others to see their thighs and buttocks. These clothes are so tight that they can barely breather in them. Their chests are covered in large velvet padding which resembles women’s breasts, while their waists are laced so tight that they resemble greyhounds. Their bottoms are also so tightly laced that they can only walk slowly. The hoods they wear with elaborate lining on the neck, which makes them look like country hounds and their shoes are so long and pointy that they can barely walk. The Czech lands have been stained by these curious inventions and bad habits.”

John would become known as “King Foreigner” [král cizinec] among the Czech people and spend very little time in the kingdom itself, using it mainly as a source of income for his foreign ventures and military campaigns.

As for Elisabeth, she would have her allowance cut. With few remaining friends, she died aged 39 of tuberculosis. John went on to marry a French noblewoman, Beatrix of Bourbon, four years later.

By that time John’s son Wenceslas, who had now taken on the name Charles after his godfather the French king Charles the Fair, was already back in Bohemia. Charles was attempting to restore royal power which had been significantly depleted during John’s absence.

Eliška Přemyslovna | Photo: Kristýna Maková,  Radio Prague International

However, John, who was occupied with building a domain in Italy, was again gripped by paranoia towards his family. Listening to rumours that his son was building a power base in Bohemia and could be in a position to seize the crown, John took away all of Charles’ possessions in the country with the exception of the title Margrave of Moravia, severely limiting his son’s power.

Despite this act of mistrust, Historian Eva Doležalová told Czech Radio that it is difficult to gauge the real relationship between John and Charles.

“Historians are still not able to answer that question. We are still not sure whether this was just an issue of intergenerational squabbles or a real exacerbated conflict based on Charles’ possible animosity to John for sending him abroad at such a young age and cutting him off from his siblings.

“The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. It is true that they were on edge. John removed any source of financial income that his son had in Bohemia. However, both men were also very pragmatic, a typical sign of the Luxembourg dynasty at the time. They managed to reach a consensus on the direction of Bohemia’s foreign policy.”

Diplomatic gains

Charles IV,  photo: Kristýna Maková

It was precisely in foreign policy that John achieved the most marked success. For example, the definitive acquisition of the Douchy of Silesia left John’s visible legacy on any map of the lands of the Bohemian crown until the 18th century. He also acquired Egerland (Chebsko), which remains the western edge of the Czech Republic until this day.

However, historian Eva Doležalová told Czech Radio that John’s greatest success in this area was something else.

“John was a real king-diplomat who was able to operate in the delicate space of foreign policy. Not just within the Holy Roman Empire, but also in the affairs of France and the Hundred Years War.

“What can be seen as his greatest diplomatic triumph was securing the election of his son Charles as Holy Roman Emperor. Today, we view it as Charles’ success. However, his father John and his uncle Balwdin, Archbishop of Trier, were very important in this process. Without John, Charles would never have become emperor.”

Chivalric death

Charles was elected as Roman king on July 11, 1346. Just a little over a month later, John would ride to his death on the battlefield of Crécy, one of the great clashes of the Hundred Years War.

Battle of Crecy,  photo: Free Domain

John had always cultivated an image of a warrior-king. By the time of Crécy, he had been suffering from blindness for 10 years, after contracting ophthalmia and some historians believe he may have been looking for a glorious death in what was the first major battle between English and French forces in the war.

John controlled the advanced guard of French king Phillip VI. His son Charles was also present at the battle.

The medieval chronicler Jean Froissart left the following account of John's last actions:

“Then he said: 'Sirs, ye are my men, my companions and friends in this journey: I require you bring me so far forward, that I may strike one stroke with my sword.' They said they would do his commandment, and to the intent that they should not lose him in the press, they tied all their reins of their bridles each to other and set the king before to accomplish his desire, and so they went on their enemies...The king his father was so far forward that he strake a stroke with his sword, yea and more than four, and fought valiantly and so did his company; and they adventured themselves so forward, that they were there all slain, and the next day they were found in the place about the king, and all their horses tied each to other.”

John would die on the same day that the famous Bohemian warrior-king Přemysl Otakar II. was slain less that 70 years before - August 26.

Until this day, Czechs are taught the words that John supposedly uttered as he rode into the fray: "Far be it that the King of Bohemia should run away.”