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Charles IV – the greatest Czech

Since time immemorial, he has been known as the Father of the Homeland. Maybe that’s why most Czechs think of him as a sort of inviolable icon, a revered and idealized monarch. Nevertheless, Charles IV, this Czech King and Holy Roman Emperor was a man of flesh and blood, with strengths and weaknesses of his own.

  • Charles IV. (Statue at Charles Bridge), photo: PCT

He was born on 14th May 1316 into a Royal family, but he did not have it easy, even as a child. His very young father, John of Luxembourg, who had only recently found himself on the Czech throne, had to engage in what was both a metaphorical and a real struggle with Czech nobility, as well as with his ambitious wife Eliška Přemyslovna.

The boy was first named Václav, in honour of his illustrious ancestors on his mother’s side. It was only during his seven-year stay in France that he ‘picked up’ by confirmation the name of his uncle, the French King of the Capetian line.

He did not get to see much of his mother. His fate was shaped rather more by his rugged masculine upbringing at the Loket and Křivoklát castles. At the age of seven he found himself deposited among his relatives at the French court, where he had his own private tutors. All at once, opening up before him lay a path to an extensive education, as well as to notable political and personal contacts. His friends included for example, the future Pope Clement VI. Last but not least, Charles brought back with him from Paris his first beloved wife, Blanche of Valois.

His all-round preparation for life continued in Luxembourg, on the family earldom, where the adolescent heir to the throne was raised by his authoritarian great uncle Baldwin of Luxembourg, Archbishop of Trier. Charles continued his studies of diplomacy and statecraft, added German to his linguistic prowess in French, Latin and Italian, as well as becoming fully conversant with courtly etiquette and knightly virtues. In time he was called over to Northern Italy by his father John, to participate in efforts to defend the Luxembourg realm in that challenging setting, rife with intrigue. This called on his military know-how, swordsmanship and weapon wielding, horse riding, and combat tactics. At the battle of San Felice, but also on other occasions, Charles learned how fickle fortunes can be.

After many years, Charles eventually returned to Bohemia, in the autumn of 1333. Standing in for the absenting Head of State he served as Margrave of Moravia to administer the Czech Kingdom, and did it well. As time went on, he began to involve himself in external affairs, too, e.g. on behalf of his brother John Henry in Carinthia. There were signs of discord and ultimately an altercation between son and father, perhaps driven by the latter’s concern for his own future and some jealousy of his own son’s achievements. This was exacerbated by John’s new marriage to Beatrice of Bourbon and the subsequent birth of another male child in the Luxembourg lineage. Only once King John wrote his political will and testament, and upon the 1341 recognition of Charles as the future monarch by the Czech Assembly did the situation calm down.

This resulted in joint campaigning and much success for the Luxembourg dynasty in Europe, as compared with other European Houses. By a series of incremental steps, in 1344 Charles achieved the elevation of the Prague bishopric to an Archbishopric, thus extricating the Czech State from under the Archbishop of Mainz. This was followed by his important election to the Head of the Holy Roman Empire in the year 1346. By this act, Charles, with the help of Pope Clement VI and his father John, became ‘King of the Romans’. He was voted for by five of the seven Prince-electors. A few months later he was crowned in Bonn. He had to wait a few more years for the title of Emperor, despite being a recognized authority in the Empire.

His Czech royal coronation also meant much to Charles. It took place on 2nd September 1347, in line with the previously laid down coronation ordinance. There was more to come. Uplifting the Czech Přemyslid dynasty traditions, the monarch had commissioned the St Wenceslas Crown, which along with the sceptre and orb become emblematic of the universal power of the King of Bohemia. There was a magnificent banquet to follow, outside the church of St Gall, and then the founding of the new “Coronation” church of Our Lady of the Snows.

Now there was nothing standing in the way for Charles to get on with the projects he had conceived. He chose Prague as his capital residence, making the Czech State the main power base of the Luxembourgs. He also expended considerable efforts on his imperial cities and their interests. Unlike the common policy of the time, he did not rely on expansionist military power, but on diplomacy and diplomatic marriage. This, in part, lies behind the four marriages that Charles IV entered into over his lifetime. Whenever widowed, he always quickly found a “fitting” bride, with due regard to her family background and significance. In the case of his second wife Anne of Bavaria, these were the Wittelsbachs, particularly tough as adversaries. Charles’ third marriage was to Anna of Schweidnitz, although he originally had other plans. It was this that led to the birth of his heir, Wenceslas IV. Elizabeth of Pomerania, his last, fourth wife, was the staunchest supporter of her husband and also the mother of the other heirs to the throne, of whom the most successful was Sigismund of Luxembourg.

In April of 1355, Charles attained his Imperial coronation in Rome, formally instating him as the secular head of Christendom. The election and other acts, such as the royal and imperial coronations, came with significant debts. Although his greatest borrower was the Archbishop of Trier, the monarch had need of annual tax revenues from monasteries and Royal towns as well as excise mining assessments on mined silver and coins minted, known as the Kutná Hora Urbura. Substantial sums were also expended on buying a series of fiefdoms in Bavaria, Swabia and Meissen, and primarily for the purchase of Brandenburg. Through his third marriage he acquired Schweidnitz, definitively co-opting the Silesian lands and Upper Lusatia, giving rise to the Lands of the Czech Crown, to which he added Lower Lusatia in 1368. He strengthened the position of Moravia, and appointed his brother John Henry as its head.

Charles found prime support for implementing his projects in ecclesiastical circles. As a man he was doubtless deeply religious, but he also knew that true intellectuals and experts were to be found only among church dignitaries. Among these were men like Arnošt of Pardubice or Jan Očko of Vlašim. The founding of the University in Prague on 7th April 1348, was the next step by which the monarch immensely strengthened the Church, and the City’s significance, bringing as it did the opportunity to study not just to the Czech Kingdom, but more generally, to the ‘North of the Alps’ region. At the same time, he’d brought the sovereignty of the Czech State to its peak.

Not always did the King’s intentions meet with understanding. A typical example is the attempt to draft a regional legal codex in the form of the Maiestas Carolina. This codified the internal relations within the Czech Kingdom, but in many respects impinged on the standing, interests and powers of the Nobility. Under great pressure from the disaffected Estates his royal highness backed down, and the codex was never adopted. Conversely, on the territory of the Holy Roman Empire the Emperor did achieve what he set out to do, and in 1355-56 he decreed his Golden Bull, which became in essence the new Constitution of the Empire. It governed the relations between the Empire and the Czech Kingdom, for example.

A tough opponent, a realistic politician – those are among the epithets of a man who for over thirty years stood at the helm of Europe. It goes without saying that in such high politics the end justified the means, and on more than one occasion Charles resorted to deceptive or fraudulent methods. It was for these reasons, perhaps, cognisant of his sins, that he expressed piety verging on the spectacular. His systematic collecting of Saintly relics could be considered further proof.

The present day regards Charles IV chiefly as a capable instigator-founder and developer, whose architectural efforts are evident in many places. Great care and considerable sums were expended by him on the construction of churches and monasteries, which he often had expensively decorated. His most important achievement, however, was the founding of the New Town of Prague in 1348. With this, the King sought to make Prague into a new Jerusalem. The extent, speed and quality of building development calls for respect and awe even as we embark on the 21st century.

This exceptionally intelligent, energetic and ambitious monarch was, apparently, in contemporary fashion terms a handsome and attractive man of about 175 cm in height (5'9"). He was by no means an ascetic loner. He looked after his exclusive status and due respect, in various ways caring for his good standing in the context of his times.

Charles IV died at the age of 62, on 29th November 1378. Even his lavish funeral, accompanied by momentous ceremonials, gave witness to the political power of one of Europe’s most noteworthy rulers.