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The Premyslid Princes of Bohemia

The centre of the state moved westward to Bohemia.  Power was concentrated here in the hands of the Premyslids, who held onto it for more than 400 years until 1306. There are many old legends associated with this family and the entire Czech tribe. One of them describes the origin of the Premyslid dynasty itself.

The Czechs were ruled by Princess Libuše, the daughter of Krok, who reigned several generations after Praotec Čech. Even in this instance, the chroniclers have evidently given us very precise accounts of what happened. Libuše did not want to govern the ungrateful Czechs without male support. She instructed her people to follow her horse who on his own would lead them to the future prince. He was to be recognized by the fact that he would be ploughing with oxen. The horse led the delegation to a small village near what is today Ústí nad Labem, where they actually did find a ploughman. His name was Přemysl. And so, according to legend, the first ruling dynasty in Bohemia was given his name. Premysl’s shoes of bark and a period-style stone throne, on which a new prince was always installed, were held at Prague Castle as a reminder of the ancient times of Libuše and Přemysl until well into the Middle Ages.

Of course, the first historically documented Premyslid was Bořivoj, who is already known to us. He had himself baptised at the Great Moravian court of Prince Svatopluk. He was initially based in the fortified settlement of Levý Hradec, which is where the oldest preserved church in Bohemia is located.

He subsequently relocated to Prague. Bořivoj’s wife Ludmila became one of the first Czech saints because she was throttled at the Tetín settlement on the orders of her daughter-in-law Drahomíra.

Ludmila and Bořivoj’s grandson Wenceslas went down in history as one of the most famous Premyslids. He lived from 907 to 935. After losing a war to the Saxon King Henry I, he undertook to pay a tribute to the victor. He also requested the shoulder of St. Vitus from him (which was originally deposited at Saint Dennis) so that he could construct a Church of St. Vitus over his relics at Prague Castle.  In the course of time, this was rebuilt many times and not completed until 1929. His younger brother Boleslav, who was dissatisfied with Wenceslas’ policies and hankered after princely power himself, had Wenceslas murdered on 28 September 935 at his settlement in Stará Boleslav. He took charge of government as Boleslav I., and was later called Boleslav the Cruel by medieval chroniclers. His war with the Saxon king Otto I, however, ended in defeat.

With the creation of the state, it was desirable to build a separate church administration. Consequently, a bishopric was established in 973, which was subordinate to the archbishopric in Mainz. Until that time, Bohemia came under the Regensburg diocese.  Sas Dětmar became the first Prague bishop.  After him, Adalbert (Vojtěch) was appointed Prague bishop at the church in Levý Hradec in 982. Adalbert was a member of the powerful Slavník family, whose importance was comparable with that of the Premyslids. They, however, did not want any threat to their reign. In 995, Premyslid forces attacked the Slavník settlement in Libice. All of its inhabitants were massacred.

Adalbert and his two brothers were residing abroad at the time. He then left for Prussia to spread Christianity and on 23 April 997 he was killed by pagans while promulgating the Christian faith.

Adalbert’s fame and the power of his legend were exploited by the Bohemian Prince Břetislav in 1039 for a campaign in Gniezno. He captured the city and had Adalbert’s remains brought back to Prague. In order to prevent confusion and power struggles between the Premyslids, Břetislav set rules of succession. Like everywhere in ruling families at that time, relations between members of a dynasty included family murders, torture, blinding and castration. Consequently, Břetislav introduced the so-called Seniority Principle, whereby the oldest living Premyslid always occupied the throne. Later, the principle of primogeniture was applied, which meant that the succession went to the firstborn son of the ruling monarch.  Vratislav I., who reigned from 1061 to 1092, was the first Bohemian sovereign to receive the royal crown in 1085. However, it was only bestowed on him personally, and was not given on a hereditary basis.  He received the crown from the emperor Henry IV for assisting in a struggle with Pope Gregory VII over investiture, which was a Europe-wide dispute as to whether the Church had precedence over or was subject to secular power.

In 1126, Bohemian forces under the leadership of Prince Soběslav defeated the army of Emperor Lothar III in a battle near Kulm (Chlumec). The emperor had wanted to strengthen his influence in Bohemia by intervening in the power struggles of the Premyslids. The Bohemian forces, who went into battle under the banner of St. Adalbert, which was attached to the lance of St. Wenceslas, prompted the chaplain Vitus (Vít) to have a vision.  Allegedly, he saw how St. Wenceslas was fighting for Bohemia on a white horse and in a white robe above the point of the lance.  Lothar III was defeated in the battle and Soběslav had the rotunda of St. George built at Říp out of gratitude.  It still stands there to this day.

Vladislav I became the second Bohemian king in 1158. He also received the royal crown for assisting an emperor. A Bohemian division led by the sovereign himself was of considerable help to Emperor Frederick Barbarossa in a campaign against the city of Milan.

Přemysl Otakar I. (who reigned in the years 1197–1230) skilfully used struggles for the imperial throne in the empire. First in 1198 he achieved the renewal of the royal title for the Bohemian prince, and in 1212 Emperor Frederick II elevated Bohemia to the status of a kingdom in his document called the Golden Sicilian Bull.