On November 19, 1335, in the most important diplomatic event in Central Europe of the 14th century, Casmir III of Poland and John I of Bohemia came to the royal court of Charles of Hungary in Visegrád to form an alliance against the rising power of the Habsburgs in the region.
Characterized by decline and decay, the 14th century opened an era of unparalleled crisis in Europe as disaster after disaster struck every aspect of European life, bringing centuries of European prosperity, growth and stability to a halt. It notably brought with it a sharp decline in population growth, largely due to a series of famines and plagues, along with its fair share of political instabilities and religious upheavals.
14th century diplomacy in Central Europe
Faced with increasing frictions and social unrest, the three Central European kingdoms of Bohemia, Poland and Hungary were not spared by the crises. In Hungary and Bohemia, the historic Árpád and Přemyslid dynasties died out almost simultaneously at the beginning of the century, while Poland was still recovering from a long period of feudal fragmentation after being reunified by the Piast ruler Władysław I Łokietek.
Added to this were rising diplomatic tensions, as the new Polish king was embroiled in territorial disputes with the Teutonic Order and with the recently crowned king of Bohemia, John I of the House of Luxembourg, who laid claim to the Polish throne through his claim on Silesia. But after the death of Władysław in 1333, his son Casimir ascended to the throne, which created a new dynamic in the relations of the three kingdoms. Once in power, Casimir III launched himself into the task of sorting out matters left to him by his father.
With a new king on the Polish throne, John of Bohemia also took an interest in normalising diplomatic relations, for he was in search of an ally against the rising power of his long-time enemies, the Austrian Counts of the House of Habsburg. In 1334, to settle the dispute over Polish territories, the parties involved chose arbiters and the young Polish king appointed his brother-in-law and ally, King Charles of Hungary.
Married to Casimir’s sister, the Hungarian king accepted the task with great zeal and mediated between the young Polish ruler and the old Bohemian king during the two-year diplomatic process between Bohemia and Poland on the one hand, and Poland and the Teutonic Order on the other. And in September 1335, a Bohemian delegation went to the Hungarian royal court in Visegrád to conclude an alliance with Charles of Hungary on the Bohemian king’s behalf.
By November 1335, the time was finally ripe for the meeting of the three kings and Charles of Hungary invited Casimir III of Poland and John of Bohemia, along with his 19-year-old son Charles, later to be Emperor Charles IV, to Visegrád, where they were joined by many Polish, Silesian and German principals as part of their delegations, as well as the representatives of the Teutonic Order, for a period of over four weeks.
The Congress of Visegrád
“In the year of our Lord 1335, around the festivities of Saint Martin, Bohemian King John, his son Charles, and the King of the Poles came to the castle of Visegrád, to the court of King Charles, to seal their alliance with a peace treaty for all time”, reads a presumably contemporary account of the meeting, which survived in the work of 15th century Hungarian chronicler, János Thuróczy.
At part of the negotiations held in Visegrád, Casimir III notably agreed to pay 20,000 Bohemian silver Marks to John of Bohemia and to recognise Bohemian sovereignty over Silesia in exchange for the Bohemian king renouncing his claim on the Polish throne. Silesia thus remained part of the Czech Crown until 1742, when most of it was lost to Prussia, before being integrated back into Poland after World War II in 1945.
One of the most important documents to come out of the Congress of Visegrád, the treaty of alliance between Bohemia and Poland was signed on November 19, name-day of Elizabeth Piast, wife of the host king. Other important charters include the peace treaty between Poland and the Teutonic Order and, crucially, an agreement regulating trade routes between Hungary and Bohemia in an attempt to evade Vienna’s staple right and to obtain easier access to other European markets.
By far the biggest and most important diplomatic event in Central Europe of the 14th century, the Congress of Visegrád sealed an alliance between the three Central European kingdoms against the rising power of the Habsburgs, which lasted for over half a century and provided each country with the right of autonomous conduct of their international relations.
Casimir and his royal delegation visited Visegrád again in 1339 with the intention of bequeathing Poland to his nephew Louis, Charles of Hungary’s son and heir, thereby ensuring that Louis would be elected king of Poland in 1370 upon Casmir’s heirless death, and joining Hungary and Poland in a personal union. These events illustrate how, throughout the Middle Ages, Visegrád functioned as a place for conflict resolution and rightly became an emblem for Central European cooperation over the centuries to come.
The Visegrád Group today
On February 15, 1991, the respective leaders of Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland Václav Havel, József Antall and Lech Wałęsa, signed the so-called Visegrád Declaration, officially founding the Visegrád Group, now known as the V4. Laying the framework for the modern forms of political, economic and cultural cooperation in Central Europe, it was motivated by the desire to eliminate the remnants of the communist bloc, to overcome historic animosities between Central European countries, and to successfully accomplish social transformation and join in the Western and European integration process.
Sometimes described as a V2+2 to highlight the gap opposing Czech Republic and Slovakia on one side, and Poland and Hungary on the other, the Visegrád Group continues, however, to work as an important regional platform for Czech, Slovak, Polish and Hungarian leaders to promote joint initiatives in a wide number of areas (education, military, energy…), increase bilateral and multilateral relations on a regional scale, and defend the views and interests of Central and Eastern Europe at the EU level of policy-making.
Representatives of V4 countries meet on a regular basis and at various levels, and the official summit between the four Prime Ministers is organized once a year. The presidency of the Visegrad Group is held and rotates annually. One of the only institutionalised entities created under the V4 is the Visegrad Fund, an international donor organization established in 2000 to promote regional cooperation between civil societies, mainly through grants and scholarships.
If counted as a single nation state, the Visegrád Group would be the fifth largest economy in Europe and the 12th largest in the world. It has a combined population of approximately 64 million people (nearly the equivalent of France or the UK).
Find out more about Central European history in our new On this Day series.