Old part of Prague Castle

Prague – Centre Stage for Charles IV

Charles IV was a king obsessed with organising feasts and processions of all sorts. His rebuilding of Prague is a witness to this.

Prague Charles Bridge wikipedia
The Charles Bridge in Prague. Source: Wikipedia

When Charles IV arrived in Prague in Böhmen in 1333 he was no more than seventeen. From his autobiography we gather that he felt quite alone. “And so, when we arrived in Böhmen, there was no father, no mother, no brothers or sisters to meet with, nor anyone known” (Autobiography, p. 148). He also felt it as a distinct disadvantage that he no longer spoke or understood Czech. At this point Charles was delegated the responsibility for Böhmen as Margrave by his father who was

Charles writes, that he began by regaining control with a number of important castles and towns. At the same time, he worked to lay his hands on the royal domains, which had been pawned or simply stolen during the interregnum after his mother’s death two years before.

During this period, Charles had already begun his rebuilding of Prague. The first act had to do with getting a proper place to stay. This entailed a total rebuilding of the old Castle in Prague.

The narrow promontory, where the castle is located, had been chosen well in the 9th century. With steep slopes and access only from the west it controlled the river at a good crossing point. When Charles arrived it was an old and uninhabitable place. In fact, he tells us in his autobiography that it was totally leveled with the earth. It had been destroyed by a fire in 1303 and not rebuilt.

To the south had been the palace, 48 x 12 metres and two storeys high. At the ground floor were two rooms, while the top floor was divided into four. One of these was equipped with a fireplace. To the east was the Chapel consecrated to All Saints. With the palace clinging to the South Wall, the old Romanesque Cathedral was opposite to the north next to the house of the bishop. The first initiative was to reconstruct the palace in the French Gothic fashion.

Burg in Prag © ArcTron 3D
Burg in Prag © ArcTron 3D

However, it was not until the 1340’s that plans of rebuilding the town on a more grand scale were underway. The erection of the Gothic Cathedral St. Vitus thus went ahead after 1344, shortly after the establishment of the Prague Archbishopric. Charles never saw the final church – building continued until 1929. Nevertheless, it soon became the most sacrosanct place in the kingdom. In 1347, Charles was crowned in what would later be the Gothic choir of the new cathedral. In 1373 building activities had proceeded so far that the remains of kings, dukes, and bishops formerly buried in the Romanesque basilica could be deposited in the new burial vaults.

Concomitantly, Charles’ main interventions in Prague were initiated. In 1348 Charles founded the university and in connection with that he planned a whole new town to the south and east. The main challenge, he claimed in the foundational charter, was to find a was to house the hoards of immigrants, who sought out a living in a booming economic centre. This New Town was remarkable in a number of ways. First of all, it was very large and it took until the 19th century before new expansion had to be planned. One of the characteristic features were the regular layout with straight Roma-like streets and a very large central market. All this was walled up at great speed. Spread out across this new town were a number of new and vibrant religious institutions situated along the main routes and providing convenient spiritual halting places when the citizens and the king were parading their wealth through town – primarily their extremely large treasure of relics provided by their king.

Central for this civic religiosity was the yearly procession of the royal insignia and the rich cache of passion relics, which the king had collected, burrowed, gang-pressed and probably also stolen from all over Europe.

Finally in 1357, Charles began on the construction of a new bridge. The old had flushed away in a grim flood in 1342 and people had to be ferried across after that. The new bridge stands today as a romantic venue for tourists looking for a nice location to send a photo home of their beloved. In Charles’ time it was foremost a very practical intervention. But it also functioned as a ritual passageway between Cathedral, Castle and Town of the Emperor, his entourage and his hoard of royal insignia and relics while leaving and entering town. Hence the bridge was never lined with buildings as is known from for instance Ponte Vecchio in Florence.

Even though Prague continued to look like a construction site well into the 15th century, it was soon used as an elaborate urban scene with a grand performer and director, Charles IV, at the head of the stage company.

Prague from Harmann Schedel's Liber chronicarum
Prague from Harmann Schedel’s Liber Chronicarum 1439


The sacred Topography of Medieval Prague
By Zoë Opačić
In: Sacred Sites and Holy Places. Exploring the Sacralisation of Landscape through Time and Space. Ed. by Sæbjørg Walaker Nordeide and Stefan Brink. Brepols 2013.

The Charles Bridge in Prague: a Podium for Ceremony.
By Jana Gajdošova
Presentation of PhD project in Art History.

The Archaeology of Prague and the Medieval Czech Lands, 1100 – 1600
By Jan Klápště
Equinox 2016


prague of Charles VIPrague of Charles IV, 1316 – 1378
by Jan Royt
University of Chicago Press 2016








Part of the old castle from the time of Charles IV. Source: Prague Tourism Office








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