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The Accession of the Luxemburgs

After the death of Wenceslas III, several kings supplanted each other as the head of state, but none of them could consolidate their position. A portion of the nobility and the abbots, who were dissatisfied with the reign of Jindřich Korutanský, concocted a coup. They deposed the king with the agreement of Emperor Henry VII of Luxemburg. The emperor consented to the marriage of his son John to Elizabeth (Eliška), the as yet unmarried sister of the last Premyslid king. Thus John of Luxemburg became the king of Bohemia. (1310–1346).

The nobility forced inauguration charters on the new king, in which the sovereign undertook to respect and observe their rights and privileges. They guarded these so vigilantly that John of Luxemburg gradually gave up on implementing an internal policy and used Bohemia solely as a hinterland for dynastic and imperial interests. His major influence on international events is borne out by the fact that in Europe at that time it held true that “without the Bohemian king nobody can settle their business.”

He sent his firstborn son – the future Emperor Charles IV – to be educated at the royal court in France.  Charles became margrave of Moravia while his father still reigned and then also became king of Rome. His father also voted for him as king of Bohemia. At this time, John of Luxemburg was already completely blind, but this did not prevent him from participating in the Battle of Crécy on the side of the French king in 1346. This battle, which was fought at the beginning of the so-called Hundred Years War ended in a major victory for the English.  John of Luxemburg was among those killed in the battle. His son Charles (1346–1378) was also injured in the battle, but fortunately for the land of the Bohemian crown he was not seriously hurt.

Charles IV was already an experienced politician upon his accession to the throne. In 1344, he negotiated the elevation of the Prague bishopric to an archbishopric with Pope Clement VI, who had been his teacher in France. The last bishop Ernest (Arnošt) of Pardubice thus became the first archbishop. On 7 April 1348, the oldest university in Central Europe was established – today’s Charles University. It was founded as a university for scholars from all over the empire, so it had a preponderance of foreign nations in its administration.  Charles IV authorised the construction of Prague’s New Town and the Charles Bridge linking Prague’s Old Town to Malá Strana (“the Lesser Quarter”). He also began the reconstruction of St. Vitus’ Cathedral and built a number of castles. The most famous of these is Karlštejn, named after its founder.

The current appearance of the Crown of St. Wenceslas, one of the most important pieces of the Bohemian Crown Jewels, stems from the reign of Charles IV.

In 1355 Charles IV was crowned Holy Roman Emperor, the highest-ranking secular title. A year later he issued a Golden Bull for the Empire. This stated that a simple majority of electors was all that was needed to elect the Roman king, and that the Bohemian sovereign was first among these electors. Moreover, in comparison with the other secular electorates, the Czech throne was hereditary even on the distaff side.  Therefore, even the daughter of the sovereign could succeed to the Bohemian throne.

Charles IV strived to prevent tension and strife with the nobility.  He also knew how to make concessions.  When he formulated a state legal code, the Maiestas Carolina, in the 1350s, which the nobility saw as an attack on their privileges, Charles IV preferred to declare that he had burned the manuscript. The Church was a source of support for his reign. Thanks to his backing, its influence and property gradually increased.

Charles married four times in his life.  He entered into politically motivated weddings with a view to making territorial gains or consolidating his international standing. Charles IV wrote his own Latin autobiography Vita Caroli. Because of his contribution to Czech statehood and his significance in Czech history, he has been given the soubriquet of “Father of the Country.”

It was not easy for Wenceslas IV (1378–1419) to emerge from the shadow of his father’s successful reign. The international situation was not too good for him either. A papal schism divided Europe. One pope was based in Rome, and another was in the French city of Avignon. Both these men and their supporters wrangled with each other over who should be recognised as pope in Europe.

In Bohemia, the dispute led to a rift between the Church and the monarch. The general vicar of Archbishop John of Jenštejn, John of Pomuk, foiled Wenceslas’s plans to establish a new bishopric. The king had hoped thereby to weaken the position of his antagonist the archbishop of Prague. On the king’s orders John of Pomuk was arrested and tortured.  His body was thrown off Charles Bridge into the Vltava River.

A tense relationship prevailed between the king and the upper nobility. The discontented nobles formed a united body and detained the king on several occasions. Wenceslas’s allies came primarily from the ranks of the lower nobility and townspeople.