Right towards the end of their dynasty, the Přemyslids established what was effectively a short-lived central European empire. Its pinnacle was reached during the reign of Wenceslas II., during the turn of the 13th and 14th centuries. Apart from ruling the Bohemian realm, Wenceslas also became King of Poland and secured the Hungarian crown of St. Steven for his son. However, his weak constitution and a flash of bad luck brought the short lived empire to a sudden end.
During the 13th century, Bohemia became an important regional power in Europe. After being elevated to a kingdom in 1212, a string of strong rulers and large silver reserves enabled the ruling Přemyslid dynasty to compete in the big league of European diplomacy. The greatest extent of power came during the rule of Wenceslas II. between 1278-1305.
Wenceslas was the son of perhaps the greatest warrior monarch of Bohemia, Přemysl Otakar II., who went down in history under the nickname ‘the Iron and Golden King‘.
The epitome of an ideal medieval ‘warrior king‘,Přemysl Otakar II. secured a number of duchies to the south of Bohemia, which made the kingdom stretch to the Adriatic Sea.
However, his power and attempts to gain the imperial crown, led him to being defeated and killed by a coalition led by the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, Rudolf of Habsburg, at the Battle of Marchfeld in 1278.
Přemysl Ottokar II’.s death came at a time when Wenceslas was only six years old and the young child, who was now de-facto king, spent the first 5 five years of his reign as a captive’ of the Margrave of Brandenburg, who was named as the regent of Bohemia by the emperor.
Many stories exist among the Czechs about how the young child was mistreated at the hands of the Margrave and how this caused the King to suffer from bad health later in life.
However, Professor Kateřina Charvátová, who has written a book on Wenceslas, says that these are myths.
“He first took him to the castle of Bezděz which was a luxurious fort at the time built by Přemysl Otakar II. and held him in confinement away from influential figures. It is said that he was imprisoned. While he could not really talk to anyone, it is likely he received all the care he needed. However, as soon as Otto of Brandenburg decided to return to Brandenburg, he was taken to the fort of Spandau, which was also a luxurious residence for the time.
“The Chronicle of Zbraslav says he was maltreated and had to sew his own clothes and suffered from sickness and malnutrition, but that seems unlikely, because relations between the two men, after Wenceslas succeeded to the throne were very good. They were among the closest of confidants and friends.”
While his confinement was likely befitting of a medieval king, Wenceslas was cut off from what was left of his family. It was only when he was 12 that he was allowed to return to Prague and reunite with his mother. However she was now married to a man who had played a key role in betraying his father ahead of the Battle of Marchfeld five years earlier.
One would think that the teenage king would be eager to take revenge, but professor Charvatova says that Wenceslas was at first accepting of Záviš.
“Záviš who had the reputation of a man who was responsible for the fall of Přemysl Otakar II., by causing a rebellion of nobles against the king in 1276, which meant Přemysl could not defend his lands against Rudolf and had to give them up. He ended up becoming the lover of Přemysl Otakar’s widow.
“Wenceslas apparently started to love and admire him and gave him his privileges. Personally, I think Wenceslas, who was cut off from his family for so long, saw in Záviš a bit of a step-father. For a number of years the family seems to have worked quite well.”
Once he reached adulthood however, Wenceslas did deal with the south Bohemian upstart. Apart from being in possession of great power, Záviš also had a son with the widowed queen and there was a fear that he might reach out for the ultimate prize, the crown itself.
“In 1290 Wenceslas decided to remove this figure. In one chronicle it is said Záviš was led by his bastard brother, who hated the man, from castle to castle where he threatened to kill him if they did not surrender to the king. This ended up happening in front of Hluboká castle, which was occupied by Záviš’s brother, who didn’t believe it and refused to surrender, so Záviš was beheaded.”
Now firmly in control of the kingdom, the still young Wenceslas could rely on a large income of cash through the Bohemian silver mines, which were being fully exploited at the height of the 13th century. At peak production, they produced as much as 20 tons of silver a year.
The king’s administrative skills can be seen in the new royal mining code he issued in 1300, which is known as the Ius regale montanorum. Professor Charvatova explains the importance of these documents.
“It is a book of laws some of which survived well into 19th century Austria-Hungary, it laid out an eight hour working period and included benefits for miners. Wenceslas did not create it. He had special Italian jurists write it. Nevertheless, this interest of his does suggest he was highly educated. He was also pious and loved church liturgy.”
Furthermore, the king also dealt with the issue of sharing power with the nobility. His father ruled his nobles with an iron fist, something that did not always gain the favour of the Bohemian aristocracy.
Wenceslas devised a system in which the highest power was shared among a representative of the nobility and the clergy, thus avoiding the concentration of too much power in the hands of one man who was not the king.
Aside from making progress in the internal issues within his kingdom, Wenceslas also succeeded diplomatically. He shifted the focus of Czech expansion from the south, a policy pursued by his father and grandfather, and instead looked east.
He used his court diplomat Bernard of Kamenice, who was well versed in Polish affairs to gain influence in Poland. After securing the Duchy of Krakow in 1291, he was later crowned King of Poland in 1296 following the murder of its Piast ruler. Whether Wenceslas had his fingers in the plot is unknown, but historians believe that Brandenburg’s House of Ascania was the more likely culprit.
While he was strengthening his grip over Poland the king also gained influence within the Holy Roman Empire, exploiting the elections after the death of Rudolf.
With the death of Andrew the Venetian, the last Árpád king of Hungary, the crown of St. Steven also started to capture Wenceslas’ attention.
“I think the Přemyslids bit off more than they could chew in European politics. The emperor supported Wenceslas’s rule over Poland. However, when it came to Hungary, he protested strongly against Wenceslas’s claim and put himself on the side of the other candidates - the Angevin dynasty, which had been operating in Hungary for some time already.”
In the end the king had to secure the crown for his son who would become Wenceslas III., but he could only rule effectively over the north-western part of the kingdom and was forced to give the title up soon after his accession due to a dispute with the Angevin dynasty.
With the Přemyslid dynasty’s power stretching from the Danube to the shores of the Baltic Sea. Wenceslas II. was one of the most powerful men in Europe and his court was appropriately lavish, attracting many of the leading bards of the age.
Although not literate, Wenceslas seems to have indulged in writing poetry himself says professor Charvatova.
“He himself tried to compose poetry. We know of three poems accredited to him written in German, which was the court language at the time. We can find his name and picture in the 14th century Manesse Codex, which features the famous poets and he is there next a few other crowned figures.”
Despite his many accomplishments Wenceslas was a frail man and seems to have been plagued by a weak constitution his entire life. He died of tuberculosis at the age of only 33 in 1305.
His only son, Wenceslas, was just 15 at the time. After going through what chroniclers describe as a rowdy period of drinking and partying, where estates were promised to friends at lavish banquets, the young ruler seems to have recovered his wits a year into his reign. However, he was murdered in Olomouc in 1306 just as he was preparing for a campaign in Poland. With his death, the male line of the Přemyslid dynasty, which had ruled Bohemia for more than 400 years, died out. A period of interregnum followed during which the empire fell apart.
Was this disintegration inevitable, or could the union between Poland and Bohemia have transformed into a more centralised state? Professor Charvatova believes so.
“I really think there was a chance. Wenceslas only ruled in Poland for five years, but his power started to crumble already at the time. The Piasts started countering the Bohemian king again under the leadership of Władysław the Elbow-high, who eventually became king. I think however, that if Wenceslas had had more time, a Bohemian-Polish union was possible. Nevertheless, what was not possible was to also possess the Hungarian crown of St. Stephen.”
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