On March 20, 1393, considered the first martyr of the Seal of the Confessional, St. John of Nepomuk was tortured and thrown into the river Vltava from Charles Bridge in Prague, by order of King Wenceslaus IV.
A brass cross, worn smooth and shiny by the innumerable hands of wish-makers, is positioned around the middle of the iconic Charles Bridge, which spans the mighty Vltava river in Prague.
The tourist tradition of rubbing the cross in the hope of having good luck is a harmless and fun part of a trip to the stunning city. But this position on the bridge has a dark and brutal history. For it was here that St John of Nepomuk met his grisly end, on March 20, 1393.
The killing of John of Nepomuk, who was vicar general for the Archbishop of Prague, is a dark chapter in the history of the bridge.
The travesty unfolded during the reign of King Wenceslas IV and the Great Schism of 1378 – a split within the Catholic Church which saw two rival Popes, one in Rome and the other in Avignon, France. Wenceslas backed the Avignon-based Pontiff and John remained loyal to Rome.
There was simmering tension and the two men clashed when it was time to appoint a new abbot to the abbey of Kladruby, in 1393. The king demanded that the appointment not go ahead and the abbey be transformed into a cathedral. But John had already confirmed the appointment.
Wenceslas ordered the torture and execution of the recalcitrant John. Not only that, but the king was said to have personally taken part in the punishment and was later depicted holding a flaming torch to John’s body.
Once the torture was concluded the king ordered John of Nepomuk to be put in chains, gagged with a piece of wood and thrown from the bridge into the Vltava to drown. The worn and shiny brass plaque is present at the very place where he was tossed into the river.
John of Nepomuk was canonized in 1729 by Pope Benedict XIII and Czech Catholics now celebrate his feast day every year on May 16.
But John of Nepomuk’s death was not the only religiously-motivated grisly spectacle to be carried out on the Charles Bridge… On June 21, 1621, a year after the sectarian Battle of White Mountain, the severed heads of 27 anti-Habsburg legionaries were displayed atop the Old Town bridge tower.
These true stories and other gruesome tales from history are included in my book Dark Secrets of Central Europe: A Tale of Three Cities, which is available on Amazon.
By Paul Christian
“From obscure Christian sects and mainstream fundamentalists, to Talmudic mysticism, Islamic invasion and the ever-present hidden hand of paganism, this region is where east meets west.” Read our full interview with Paul Christian: Unveiling the dark secrets of Central Europe.