Fun Fact

Short History of the Early Christian Dukes of Bohemia

St Václav (or Wenceslaus) in the ‘Vyšehradský kodex’ ~ Prague, National Library, MS XIV.A.13, f. 68r

As promised, here begins a very short history of the early Dukes of Bohemia, from Vratislav to Bretislav. Hang on to your hats, fasten your seatbelts, grab your popcorn and enjoy some Crusader King 2 worthy storyline.

Vratislav, living in the first half of the 10th century, hated the Franks. He married a pagan princess to upset their plan of world domination and she was a fine young woman, but she evolved into a bitter old mother. When Vratislav died, his son Václav became Duke of Bohemia. That’s only logical. However, the latter saw many political upsides to embrace Christianity and he founded a rotunda church, right there in Prague. In doing so, Václav also recognized the authority of the Holy Roman Empire over his Duchy and for many years, Christian matters in Bohemia were overseen by Imperial churchmen. This whole situation enraged Ludmilla, Václav’s mother. She plotted to get her first-born and she enlisted the best man for the job, Václav’s own little brother, her second son, Boleslav.

Boleslav was shrewd. Boleslav was smart. He agreed to murder his brother. He carried the deed. He became Duke of Bohemia, hurray! However, he was too smart to backtrack on his brother’s spiritual choices and he embraced Christianity so hard that he promoted his murdered brother to sainthood. #Paradox

The four Apostles in the ‘Vyšehradský kodex’ ~ Prague, National Library, MS XIV.A.13, f. 1v

From that point onward, St Václav, better known as St Wenceslaus West of the Rhine, became the spiritual patron of Bohemia. All Bohemian Dukes and Kings had to worship him dutifully to secure their dynastic propaganda of power.

Bretislav was quite the state builder. Beyond handing Bohemia a spiritual patron, he also insured his control of the land by building strongholds all over the country. He built the stronghold in Prague, too. He was nicknamed ‘the Cruel’ when people found out that he had quite an expedite way to deal with his political opponents. To be clear, he gifted them with the same fate that he’d offered his brother. Eventually, Boleslav also tried to free Bohemia from the Holy Roman Empire grasp by reaching to Bavaria and helping the Magyar migrate West. However, Otto I was a bit of a tough nut to crack. The Magyar were utterly crushed by the Imperial Army at Lechfeld in 955 and Bohemia was forced to provide troops. It was clear from that point onwards that Bohemia would be part of the Holy Roman Empire because of its Christianization. There was no escape from it.

Boleslav II succeeded to his father. He maintained friendly relationships with the Holy Roman Empire, but most of all, he secured access and control to the silver mines of Kutná Hora and it would greatly benefit to Bohemia in the centuries to come.

The Biblical Magi in the ‘Vyšehradský kodex’ ~ Prague, National Library, MS XIV.A.13, f. 13v

Boleslav III was the next Duke of Bohemia. Nicknamed ‘the Red’ because he had red hair—what do you want me to say?—Boleslav was a gentle fruitcake. He reigned only a year or two that he already tried to strangle his brother Ulrich and castrated his other brother, Jaromir. Both fled to Bavaria and the Bohemian nobility chose to overthrow their tyrant by inviting Vladyvoj to the throne. Vladyvoj took on the Duchy of Bohemia as an imperial fief from the German King, Henry II, but he died shortly after that. Jaromir and Ulrich still out of the picture, Bołeslaw the Brave, King of Poland, swooped in and took over. Bohemia was from now on into a personal union with the Kingdom of Poland, and free from the Empire. There was no way Bołeslaw would bow to the Emperor. It would be as if the King of England bowed to the King of France only because he holds a fief of the latter.

Wait…

That’s how the Hundred Years War started!

Bołeslaw’s story as Duke of Bohemia was much shorter. Jaromir was quickly put in charge of Bohemia and the Duchy reconciled with the Holy Roman Empire. Then Ulrich took over and ultimately his son, Bretislav I, inherited Bohemia, which he ruled for twenty years from 1034 to 1055.

Bretislav wished to steal a page from Bołeslaw’s book and refused to pay tribute to the Empire. It cost him dearly. He ended up walking barefoot through Regensburg, wearing a penitentiary sack, begging for pardon. The Emperor granted his pardon and Bretislav swore his total allegiance to his suzerain. Bohemia was definitely part of the Empire, it wouldn’t be contested anymore, yet all those wars forged the Duchy as a stable and powerful polity. It wouldn’t be long before it was elevated to Kingdom. Well, two centuries basically. But who keeps count?

The Crucifixion in the ‘Vyšehradský kodex’ ~ Prague, National Library, MS XIV.A.13, f. 42r

Note on the manuscript introduced in this post (thanks to Google Translate)

The Vyšehrad Codex (National Library of the Czech Republic, XIV A 13) is probably the most valuable manuscript preserved in the Czech Republic. Researchers believe that the manuscript is the coronation evangelist of the first Czech King Vratislav I (as Prince II), or that he has composed it to commemorate this event.

The Czech King Vratislav I (ruled as Prince Vratislav II from 1061) was crowned on June 15, 1086 at Prague Castle. The Evangelist contains excerpts from the Gospels that were read at the Mass during the church year. […] The Visegrad Code was originally created without a specific purpose, into stock. Later, approximately one third of the Code was hastily completed on order from Bohemia. It also contains a reading on the feast of Saint Wenceslas, the patron saint of Bohemia, who opens the initial D-ixit with a depiction of a throne prince who, as a gesture of his right, expresses his consent to the act of Vratislav’s coronation and symbolically passed it over to the government.

Further Readings:
~ Nora Berend, Central Europe in the High Middle Ages. Bohemia, Hungary and Poland, c.900-c.1300. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
~ Peter H. Wilson, Heart of Europe. A History of the Holy Roman Empire. Cambridge [MA]: Belknap Press, 2016.

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