Tales from the crypt: Did Petr Vok, last of the House of Rožmberk, really steal his dead ancestors’ gold?

For more than 400 years, the grounds beneath the Cistercian monastery in Vyšší Brod remained sealed and shrouded in mystery. Following the burial there in 1611 of Petr Vok of Rožmberk – the last of the famous Bohemian family line – not a soul has ventured into the vault. An expert team has now uncovered the truth behind (some) enduring legends.

For the past decade, a team of Czech archaeologists, geophysicists and other experts have been monitoring the final resting place of the southern Bohemian branch of the House of Rosenberg.

Photo: Josef Vandělík,  Naše historie

Now, 410 years to the day since the death of Petr Vok, the team has definitively completed their research and emerged with some tales from the crypt.

Jiří Šindelář, a geophysicist with the Our History association, who specialises on non-destructive archaeology, has been part of the effort since the start.

“We are the first people, since the early 17th century, to have had an opportunity to see the inside of the vault, and in detail… In 2011, we inserted a special device inside the tomb, which is otherwise inaccessible, and began to document and monitor the microclimate at six-hour intervals.”

Photo: Josef Vandělík,  Naše historie

Ten years later, the team have removed the device and begun to explore the burial chamber using new, more powerful devices, such high-definition cameras with 4K resolution.

And then they saw it – elaborate golden treasures buried alongside members of the House of Rožmberk, says Jiří Šindelář.

Petr Vok | Photo: Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

“In order to dare to say, ‘Hey, there is some gold jewellery!’, you must have a clear view and quality detail. Today, I can look throughout the entire tomb, over many metres, and see exactly where the jewels are.”

That has not quite put to rest one lingering legend about Petr Vok, a leading Protestant in the turbulent years before the Battle of White Mountain, says the Catholic priest Justin Berka, prior of the Vyšší Brod monastery.

“Petr Vok was said to have visited the tomb and wanted to remove the gold objects buried with his ancestors so he could repay some debts. It seems that was not the case.”

One legend that the team has definitively debunked is that the Rožmberks, were not buried in coffins at all but were left in chairs in seated positions.

Vyšší Brod monastery | Photo: Radio Prague International

Having filmed everything in detail, the team is trying to make faithful copies of some objects, for example a mysterious ring resting on the lid of Petr Vok’s sarcophagus (which states his date of death: November 5, 1611).

They believe the ring could have belonged to Vok’s wife, Kateřina z Ludanice, who died a decade before him. That is most likely the case, says Zuzana Thomová, an archaeologist with the South Bohemian Museum.

“It appears to be a typical Renaissance ring from the 16th century. They were usually decorated with enamel, but for people of such prominence as the Rožmberks, stones were set in them.”

According to Justin Berka, prior of the Vyšší Brod monastery, the ring may be centuries older, and belonged to Viola of Teschen – the widow of King Wenceslas III, who later married a Rožmberk and so is also buried in the tomb.