On September 2, 1347, one of Europe’s most noteworthy rulers, Charles IV was crowned King of Bohemia, marking the start of what is widely seen as the Golden Age of Bohemia.
Marking the rise of the House of Habsburg in Central Europe, the death of King Ottokar II of Bohemia at the Battle on the Marchfeld in 1278 strongly diminished the influence of the Přemyslid kings of Bohemia by restricting them to their inheritance in Bohemia and Moravia.
The last Přemyslid kings
The Bohemian crown was passed to Ottokar’s 6-year-old son Wenceslaus II who, in 1300, also inherited the Polish crown, following the murder of Przemysł II of Poland. The following year, Andrew III of Hungary, the last male member of the Árpád dynasty, died and Wenceslaus II married his son Wenceslaus III to Andrew’s only daughter, before having him crowned as the King of Hungary.
But four years later, Wenceslaus II died of tuberculosis. Wenceslaus III succeeded his father in Bohemia and Poland but abandoned his claim to the Hungarian throne to Otto III of Bavaria. Meanwhile, local claimant to the Polish throne, Władysław the Elbow-high, challenged the rule of Wenceslaus III, who was murdered before he could start his campaign. He was the last of the male Přemyslid rulers of Bohemia.
Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII of the House of Luxembourg married his 14-year-old son John to Wenceslaus III’s sister, Elizabeth, which secured for him the Bohemian throne. But John of Luxembourg was raised in Paris, didn’t speak any Czech, never stayed long in the Czech lands, and as a result was widely unpopular among the Bohemian nobility.
Originally named Wenceslaus, after his maternal grandfather, the first son of John and Elizabeth was taken to France at the age of 7, to be educated at the French court by a tutor who would later become Pope Clement VI. Wenceslaus eventually chose the name Charles at his confirmation in honor of his uncle, King Charles IV of France.
Charles’ all-round preparation for life continued in Luxembourg, on the family earldom, where the adolescent heir to the Bohemian throne was raised by his authoritarian great uncle Baldwin of Luxembourg, Archbishop of Trier. Charles continued his studies of diplomacy and statecraft, added German to his linguistic prowess in French, Latin and Italian, as well as becoming fully conversant with courtly etiquette and knightly virtues.
In time, Charles was called over to Northern Italy by his father, who had temporarily become governor of Lombardy, to participate in efforts to defend the Luxembourg realm. And after many years, Charles eventually returned to Bohemia, in the autumn of 1333, where he was named Margrave of Moravia and given the administration of Bohemia and Moravia on his father’s behalf.
Charles and Prague
Soon after arriving in Bohemia, Charles gradually began consolidating his power, looking for allies among nobles, and ordered the reconstruction of the Prague Castle with the monumental Great Hall. And by a series of incremental steps, in 1344 Charles achieved the elevation of the Prague bishopric to an Archbishopric, thus extricating the Czech State from under the Archbishop of Mainz.
And in 1346, with the help of his former tutor Pope Clement VI and his father John, Charles was elected ‘King of the Romans’, which was the first step towards being elected Holy Roman Emperor.
That same year, John and Charles went to France to fight the English armies in the first major campaign of the Hundred Years War. John, blind and aged, was led into battle at Crécy, where he was killed, with Charles himself escaping from the field wounded. And in September 1347, Charles was crowned as the new King of Bohemia, Charles IV.
King Charles IV
Charles chose Prague as his capital, making the Czech State the main power base of the Luxembourgs. In 1348, he established the great University of Prague and, in the following years, rebuilt much of his capital, adding the now famous spectacular bridge across the Vltava, and built the famous castle of Karlstein, from which he governed.
Charles’s talent, administrative experience, papal connections, and genuine love for Bohemia led him to strengthened the power and, more importantly, the prestige of the Bohemian Crown. His patronage of the arts resulted in the fertilization of native Bohemian culture, with the work of artists and scholars brought from France and Germany and the scholar-king himself inspiring much of the activity in his realm.
Charles became the first King of Bohemia to be elected Holy Roman Emperor in April 1355. He promulgated the Golden Bull of 1356 whereby the succession to the imperial title was laid down and with his coronation as King of Burgundy in 1365, he became the personal ruler of all the kingdoms of the Holy Roman Empire.
After dividing his lands between his three sons and his nephews, Charles IV died at the age of 62, in November 1378, and even his lavish funeral, accompanied by momentous ceremonials, gave witness to the political power of one of Europe’s most noteworthy rulers.
According to a poll conducted in 2019 by the CVVM agency , Charles IV, whose reign is remembered as the Golden Age of Bohemia, is considered the most influential figure in Czech history by 20% of respondents.
He is followed by Tomas Garrigue Masaryk (19%), one of the founders and the first president of Czechoslovakia in the aftermath of WWI, and Vaclav Havel (18%), the former anti-communist dissident and playwright who went on to become Czechoslovakia’s last and the Czech Republic’s first president, comes at the third place.
Find out more about Central European history in our new On this Day series.