Charles IV - Statue in prague from 1848 by Ernst Julius Hähnel

Charles IV – Medieval Adventurer or National hero?

In 2005 the Czech people were asked to cast their vote as to who was the greatest Czech hero of all times. Curiously enough a medieval king, Charles IV, was listed on top by 68.713 votes.

In 1946 a panel of Czechs was asked to name the most glorious periods of Czech history. At that time the Hussite period was listed on top with the reign of Charles IV a sure second. However, in 1968, the first republic (from the period before Hitler’s annexation in 1938 came out in top, followed by the Hussite period. Third place was taken by the reign of Charles IV.

In the same surveys Charles IV was listed respectively as no. 4 (1946) and 3 (1968) as one of the great Czech personalities. This was in spite of the Stalinist effort to rewrite history as part of the general propaganda, by which, Charles was reduced to a typical class-enemy. [1]; a take, which was also predominant in the large exhibition in 1978, when the Communist regime launched a spectacular exhibition, “The Charles IV Era in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic’s national history,” for the 600th anniversary of Charles´ death.

Finally in 2005, the Czech public-service broadcaster, Česká televise, organized a national poll to name the greatest Czech in history. In this vote, Charles IV was listed with a comfortable margin above that of Masaryk, first Czechoslovak president.

From a strictly scientific point of view these different polls are of course not comparable. Nevertheless, they do show a marked development. While the early polls listed a present-day hero (Masaryk) on top, the later poll showed a growing resurgence in the fame of Charles IV.

Why, must we ask, does this medieval king attract such fame in the 21st century? What were his accomplishments, since the Czechs consider him “the Father of the Nation”?

Bohemia – Resurgent Periphery

Statues on the tower at the Charles Bridge in Prague © Flickr/Jaime Silva 2008
The sculptures on the Old Town Bridge Tower in Prague were placed there to remind future kings of Bohemia on their ancestry while proceeding to their coronation in the Cathedral. The two kings represent Charles IV (to the left) and his son (to the right). Notice the right-leaning head of Charles IV, the result of his accident in a tournament in 1350. © Flickr/Jaime Silva/CC

One reason that the history of Charles IV is so blatantly “good” to use is that he personally was the progenitor of a mighty myth. From the writing of his autobiography around 1350 to his fame as creator of the New Prague, the St. Vitus Cathedral, The Charles Bridge, The University and The Golden Route between Nuremberg and Prague with its numerous castles, Charles was one of the most skilled PR-managers of his time. Even if he was constantly on the lookout to ease his economic travails, he was able to send the signal out, that he was in fact an affluent and mighty ruler. His name is forever linked to the idea of a Golden Age for Bohemia, when this tiny realm in Central Europe could enter the world stage according to its merits.

Another reason, however, is that this myth was forged in a Europe otherwise besieged with a series of catastrophes, which tilted the balances of such dominant powers as France and Germany. This is a time besieged by a deteriorating climate, overexploited silver-mines, demographic crises following the attacks of plague, a series of murrains and not least – warring and feuding. Even though disputed, there is some evidence that Bohemia was less seriously hit by some of these catastrophes; thus, it is generally believed that even though hard-core evidence is sparse, the plague from 1347 – 52 did not hit Bohemia and especially Prague as hard as elsewhere – since this burgeoning city did in fact experience significant growth in this period and a considerable influx of settlers from Germany and elsewhere. On the other hand, this might be understood as more of a consequence of the increased mobility of the survivors able to move to new and more welcoming localities, where possibilities were suddenly offered for a better life.

Whatever, the background, it is an undeniable fact that Bohemia and not least Prague experienced both economic and cultural growth in the mid-14th century at a time when former centres – France and Flanders suffered horribly; and that the myth of Charles IV as “special” has forever been linked to this.

On one hand we thus have the myth, which Charles personally created and “sold” to his contemporaries. On the other hand, we have evidence of his significant political and organisational effort to forge a vibrant realm of Bohemia located on the European periphery; an effort, which incidentally was mirrored by other minor players on the historical scene – for instance the counts of Anjou, who worked to unite such outliers as Sicily, Naples and Province or the Danish king, Valdemar, who succeeded in laying the foundation for the expansion of his realm into Sweden and Norway at the end of the 14th century.

In the 21st century

It is probably this idea of a “Golden Age”, which in the 21st century has offered Charles IV up for popular consumption at a time, when the newly liberated Czech republic had to find a way to both accommodate its Soviet heritage and its inclusion in the EU. This has not been as smooth as some might have wished, witness the lack of enthusiasm to adopt the Euro; in April a poll was conducted, which showed that 78% of the Czechs were against the adoption and as yet there is no specific timetable set although it was negotiated to be part of the process after 2004 (when eastern Europe accessed the union). Recently, this foot-dragging has been accompanied with a resounding effort to keep Czechia out of the common refugee-solution, which Brussels is trying to forge. It should be mentioned that in May 2016 Czech extremists misused the anniversary of the birth of Charles IV to claim that had the king lived today refugees would never have been allowed into country; which is manifestly wrong as he in fact encouraged settlers to his “New Town in Prague”.

Blatant Nationalism

Streets in Prague 2016 © Flickr/Thomas Horak
Streets in Prague 2016 © Flickr/Thomas Horak

Perhaps less crude, Charles IV has nevertheless been offered up in 2016 as the hallowed image of the all-mighty, fatherly and good king, which any country in the midst of coming to terms with globalisation, climate changes, refuge crisis and growing right-wing populism could hope for when trying to wiggle its way through this maze. To serve this end official Czech has obviously contributed with glee. Thus, in a significant gesture the hallowed cabinet where the ancient crown jewels (among which is the crown he had made) were placed on view for a fortnight in May 2016 celebrating the birth of the iconic King on may the 14th. Officers from the Prague Castle Honour Guard watched over them, while the president, Milos Zeman, and other members of the government as well as international guests took part in a commemorative service in the Cathedral of St. Vitus at Prague Castle where the hallowed relics were carried out of their habitual hiding place; This in a country, whose population is known to be the least “religious” and most “secularized” in Europe today.

Reenactment of the coronation of Charles IV 2007
Reenactment of the coronation of Charles IV in 2007. Reenacted in the church of St. Mary and St. Jerome at the Emmaus Monastery. “Next” show is on 03.09.2016 – 04.09.2016 © DENÍK/Ivan Babej

It seems curious that the Czechs thus honour a king, who was probably most of all an adventurous and rather lucky prince, who was able to forge a successful position on the basis of his inheritance and carefully cultivated network of likeminded members of the super-elite in Europe at that time. Perhaps he should be much more likened to members of the present-day globalized financial or political elite bent on living an exiting and satisfactory life together with his like-minded peers, than a good and benevolent Czech pater patria.

Especially since it pays to remember that what we know of him is that while his mother was a Czech descendant of the old Přemysl Dynasty, his father was Duke of Luxemburg; that he was christened Wencelas, but received the name of Charles during his childhood which he spent in France until he was 14. After this he was sent to Italy to protect his father’s interests there; that it was not until 1333, at the age of 17 that he returned to Bohemia as margrave at which point he had to relearn his mother’s tongue; that the first “crown” he acquired, was the “Roman” (German) in 1346, while the second (which he inherited from his father after Crécy) was that of Bohemia; that the third crown was the Italian (Lombardian) in Milan 1355 when he was on his way to Rome, where he was crowned emperor in 1355. Finally, in 1365, he was crowned king of Burgundy at Arles. Mapping his movements through Europe shows anything but a sedentary monarch living out his life in his homeland, but rather a smooth operator on the European scene, who knew that any large-scale enterprise like his needed an administrative centre, which conveniently enough might be Bohemia and Prague; his younger brother inherited his father’s dukedom in Luxembourg. Of this opportunity, Charles obviously made the best since Bohemia, when he took over, was a fragmented policy, while Prague was a real backwater.

Looking dispassionately from afar it is perhaps best to acknowledge that here was a man, who amassed an impressive amount of crowns and wives in order to nourish a spectacular network of dependants and contacts in the fluid European business enterprise, he made it his lifework to create.

Was he foremost king of Bohemia? In a medieval perspective, we have to say: hardly! But he was definitely an accomplished individual with an impressive range of skills and competences.

SOURCES:

[1] The Intellectual Origins of the Prague Spring: The Development of Reformist Ideas in Czechoslovakia 1956-1967
By Vladimir V. Kusin
Cambridge University Press, 18 Jul 2002 – History, p. 16 and 78

[2] Was Charles IV the Greatest Czech?
By Jan Adamec
In the Visegradrevue.eu 23.05.2016

FEATURED PHOTO:

Charles IV – Statue in Prague from 1848 by Ernst Julius Hähnel © Prague.eu

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