Charles IV was known as an agile youth with a penchant for taking part in tournaments. However, in 1350 he was severely crippled in Italy, forever being disfigured by a devastating blow from an adversary. Recently translated book tells the story.
We heard from many people that some German noblemen, showing pure love for your honor, complain about your dress, way too short and tight, that defies the earnestness required by the imperial majesty; you also defy your dignity by taking part in fights and tournaments. We, who only want to strengthen your power out of fatherly love, were very confused about that, and we strongly suggest Your Highness to wear appropriately long and loose clothes to show your maturity, to refrain from fights and tournaments, and to show appropriate earnestness in your actions and conduct, so nothing can be observed on you that would be inappropriate and require reprehension; instead, you should fill your majesty with high morals and virtuous deeds.
(Letter from Clement VI to Charles 25th February 1348)
The 14th century witnessed a general decline of the military and strategic significance of the heavily armed knight. On European Battlefields, one defeat after the other demonstrated how the light-armed footmen and the archers won the day. Nevertheless, the chivalric sport continued to play a significant role for knights who exchanged the battlefields with the tilt-yards and jousting fields. There they could exercise their arms while enjoying some serious recreation and fun. This was warring as spectacle and sport.
There is no doubt, Charles IV – King of Bohemia and Holy-Roman Emperor – loved taking part. Thus, he participated incognito in a tournament in Rothenburg in January 1348 disguised as Schilhard von Rechberg. At this occasion he was thrown to the ground. However, when the knights discovered he was a king, they declined to joust with him: They said: if he dies here with us, it may later be said that he was betrayed by the Swabians. As Charles’s powerplay had not come to fruition at this point – he was still called the Pope’s King (Pfaffenkönig) at that point – this might be a real worry. Conflict was constantly brewing and the Swabians did not wish to be embroiled in it .
Correct is it that Charles was the Pope’s Man. Clement VI – Pierre Roger or Peter de Fécamp – had been his teacher in Paris and Charles was indirectly instrumental in getting him elected as Pope in 1342. Later Clement returned the favour by providing support for the election of Charles to King of the Romans (a stepping stone to become emperor).
Thus it was no minor thing, when the Pope wrote to Charles in February 1348 castigating him as to his way of life. Perhaps the Pope had heard about the youthful exploits in Rothenburg and was greatly worried. According to the Pope, a number of German magnates had voiced their concern that Charles did not behave appropriately: he wore short and tight items of clothing (the brand new fashion) and enjoyed tournaments too much. In the letter Clement asked him to wear wide and long pieces of clothing in order to show maturity and dignity as well as abstain from tournaments.
This interpretation was proffered by the group of scientists who carried a detailed forensic examination out on the remains of Charles IV, when he was last exhumed in 1978. For anyone interested in the details of this study of the king and his various injuries, the Charles University recently undertook a translation and publication of the original report (in Czech). To this should be added the later work of Vicek Ramba, who in a number of articles have written about the medical help Charles must have received since he survived the traumatic experience. We should be grateful for this edition which makes it possible for a wider public to acquaint themselves with something which is more than just a curious study of how a king overcame a physical debilitation.
According to the forensic experts a lance must have hid the centre of Charles’s mandible or jaw causing a severe double vertical fracture; a part of his chin was simply thrust inwards and upwards. A further and potentially very serious consequence of this was the spinal injuries in the neck coming in from the right side; the consequences of this were probably increased by the fall from the horse after the king had been hit on the chin.
There is no doubt that these events can be linked to the kings mysterious illness which lasted from October 1350 and until next spring. During this period, the king struggled to overcome a widespread quadriplegia as well as the healing of his now disfigured face. he apparently also sought to come to personal vision of who he was, where he came from and what his mission in life was. At least we presume it was during this time, when he was bedridden he either personally wrote or dictated one of the first autobiographies known to us.
At first it must have been touch and go. Doctors would have struggled to get the helmet off and overcome massive bleeding. They probably used a mixture of opium, hemlock and mandrake in order to keep him impassive during surgery. During this procedure (as described by Ruggero di Frugardo) the kings lower jaw was lifted in order to get it into contact with the upper jaw. Then it was fastened in place with gold or silver wires.
We can only imagine the pain, when the king woke up and discovered that a) his jaw was fixed and the only intake of food was soup, beer or wine sweetened with honey and that b) his limbs were immovable.
It is an intriguing fact that this story about the king’s infirmity was kept “out of the news” while a rumour was spread that he had been poisoned. Who knew, whether he would be able to move around as a real king had to in order to continue in power?
When he finally went into the public again, he was able to move again once more. However, he was forever marred by a severe undershot, which he covered with a beard, and a limited mobility of his neck. According to a description from 1355 his head and neck ended up protruding forwards and to the right. When Charles wanted to see to his left of right, he had to turn his whole overbody. To this should be added the crooked nose caused by in an incised wound in his face above his nose. Other marks on his face and skull witness to the violent life, which the king according to his autobiography lived in his youth.
Charles may initially have been an impressive man measuring 1.73 metres with a “broad face, protruding eyes and full cheeks” and with a black beard. However, when seen up front after 1350 he must have looked like a boxer kicked around in the ring one time too many. nevertheless, he succeeded in keeping himselves in power. One reason was that he obviously continued to be fit for fight. His bones when examined were found to be strong presumably by “formed by frequent exercises and horse riding”.
To these sufferings must be added the chronic gout, which the king suffered from and which in the end led to him being carried on stretchers between mules or by carriers in a portable chair.
In the end, the king died from a broken hip which caused inflammation of the lungs. The king died on the 2nd November 1378.
 Enthält die Jahre 1316 – 1355, nebst einem Urkundenbuch von zwy hundert sieben und funfzig ist gedruckter Diplomen und Briefe. By Franz Martin Pelsel. Hagen 1780 , p. 197
Physical and personality traits of Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia
By Emanuel Vlček, Jan Bartoníček, Jan and Jan Royt, Jan
What is known today about the treatment of injuries of Charles IV in the year 1350 [Article in Czech]
By J. Ramba
Cas Lek Cesk. 2000 Apr 26;139(8):249-52.
Fractures of the mandibular condyle in Charles IV, a Czech king. [Article in Czech]
By Vlcek E and J. Ramba
In: Cas Lek Cesk. 1991 Mar 29;130(13):404-7.