Letter from Prague New research throws light on predecessor of Charles Bridge
There is one place I like showing both Czechs and visitors who have been to Prague several times, a place I myself learned about when recording a piece about Kampa Island a few years ago. Right inside the doors of a hotel about 10 metres from Charles Bridge you can see part of its predecessor, the Judith Bridge.
While the staff of Rezidence Lundborg may be reluctant to let non-residents into the basement to examine remnants of the arches of the Romanesque bridge, they are always obliging if you enter its reception and café for a quick look at stone slabs that at one time were on its surface.
The Judith Bridge – Juditin Most in Czech – was the first stone bridge in the Czech lands, and at the time of its completion in 1172 one of the few in existence anywhere in Europe.
The story goes that, frustrated with the frailty of wooden bridges, a Prague bishop was extremely impressed by a stone one while on a military campaign with King Vladislav II in Italy. He reputedly found a fellow enthusiast in the king’s wife, Judita Durynská, who took a close interest in the building of the structure that later bore her name.
The Judith Bridge was destroyed by flooding in 1342 and when Charles Bridge began going up 15 years later it was built several metres higher, to prevent the only means of crossing the Vltava on foot being destroyed again.
The bits in the Rezidence Lundborg aren’t all that remains of the Judith Bridge. In fact, its most notable remnant is the smaller of the two towers on the Malá Strana side. There are also elements to be found on the Old Town side, including some, handily enough, in the Museum of Charles Bridge at Křížovnické náměstí.
When a weir burst in 1941 the Vltava reached such a low point that parts of the arches of the Judith Bridge were visible – for the first and last time – on the surface. Photographs from then were, for many years, among the few clues archaeologists had as to exactly where the structure, which was slightly bowed and did not follow the same path as the Charles Bridge, stood.
Much more has been learnt in recent times, however, thanks to underwater research carried out by police divers, who accepted a request from the National Monuments Institute to attempt to track it on the bed of the river.
In dives last May and twice this year, they have taken illuminating photographs and made a number of exciting discoveries, including remnants of three of the Judith Bridge’s 20 pillars. Among the most valuable findings have been an oak grid that was the base of one of the pillars and parts of wooden piles – with the wood dating from around the year 1200 – driven into the river bed.
Only divers will ever get to see the stumps of the Judith Bridge’s
pillars with their own eyes. But the rest of us can certainly enjoy a quick
look at the few parts that remain on dry land.