A 700-year old wedding is creating quite a stir in the Czech Republic. Exhibitions, lectures and a commemorative silver coin have all been lined up to mark the marriage which started a new dynasty of Bohemian kings. We look at the celebrations and the history behind them.
The marriage being celebrated is that of Jan or John of Luxembourg, also known as John of Bohemia or John the Blind, and Princess Eliška Přemyslovna, the daughter of the last king of the Czech Přemyslid line. It took place on September 1, 1310, in the German city of Speyer after protracted negotiations.
This was not a marriage made in heaven, but like most of the high society matchmaking of the time an arranged marriage dictated by political and military considerations. The rich kingdom of Bohemia was split by struggles between the headstrong nobility and that had prompted the approach to Jan’s father, Henry, to become king. He refused but put forward his son instead.
With hindsight it was a momentous step for Luxembourg and Bohemia, the dawning of a golden age for the latter and especially Prague, and a move that helped put Luxembourg on the map. Tomáš Hládek is a director at the Czech National Bank which has minted a special silver coin to mark the wedding. He explains the event’s significance and why it is being marked.
“The Luxembourg family started to rule on the Czech throne in 1310 and for another 150 years it was the ruling family and of course it was the family that gave us not just Jan the Blind but also Charles IV and Sigismund, Zikmund as we say in the Czech language. So the new rulers played an important role not only in the Bohemian kingdom but also in Europe. So that initial wedding started a very important part of history and therefore is attractive.”
The Luxembourgs had not so long before been elevated from mere counts. As holder of the title Holy Roman Emperor, Henry was already heavily involved expanding his power, principally into northern Italy. But possession of the Kingdom of Bohemia, which with its rich silver mines was one of the most prosperous parts of Europe, was undoubtedly a coup.
That step and Jan’s later involvement at the top table of European struggles at the time make him a key figure in the Grand Duchy’s history as Alena Velíšková of the Luxembourg embassy in Prague explains.
“What Charles IV is to us Czechs, I mean the biggest king of the world, the same is true as regards Jan of Luxembourg for people from Luxembourg. For them, he is the biggest king of their history. He got new lands like Bohemia and Poland and so forth. This is the importance for Luxembourg.”
“Jan was 14 and Eliska 18, but that difference quickly evened out as Jan grew up. He got used to his new environment. He has of course backing from his own retinue of advisers which he brought with him from the court in Luxemburg and the court of his father, the Holy Roman Emperor.”
But there were problems. The King of Bohemia was elected by the nobility and they sought to hold onto their powers and resist the king’s moves to increase his by raising more taxes.
“He was faced here with dealing with a very difficult situation because there was a very independent and proud nobility and bourgeois which did not want a king who was giving orders. They wanted to retain some influence on the government of the country. For him, this was a very difficult lesson.”
Those sort of problems became personal when Jan’s headstrong wife later got involved in domestic politics as well.
The main exhibition to mark the historic wedding is being held in Prague’s Stone Bell House on Old Town Square. The building, originally a gothic municipal palace, is believed to be part of the city residence adapted for the royal couple when they first arrived in Prague. An annex of the exhibition, that covering the sculptures and stone carvings from the era, is being held at the Lapidarium of the National Museum at Výstaviště. That includes some recent archaeological discoveries such as the tombstone of a young man from Kutná Hora.
“We have chosen many items that have been preserved not just from here in Bohemia but also from abroad. There are many items in gold, primarily reliquaries, manuscripts which show very well the high level of court culture during the last of the Premyslids, under Otakar II, Václav II and the last of them Václav III.”
Probably the highlight, and the symbol of the exhibition, is the wedding crown which formed part of the Bohemian royal treasure trove found at Sroda Slaska in 1985 in what is now Poland. The find, which included hundreds of Bohemian gold coins and jewellery, has been described as one of the most important discoveries of the 20th century.
The exhibits show similarities between developments at the time in Luxembourg and in Bohemia as rulers tried to assert their power.
“To show off the life of Jan’s family, we have borrowed some very beautiful documents from the Luxembourg archives which explain the policy of the dukedom towards the church and city of Luxembourg which was very much in parallel to what was happening under the Premyslids.”
That is perhaps a break with the previous historical treatment of the debut of the Luxembourg dynasty in Bohemia which sought to stress the changes rather than the continuation with what went before. The more recent approach tends to give more credit to the Czech Přemyslid line than was the custom in the past.
“It was often presented in the last century that this flowering of gothic culture in Bohemia was due to the Luxembourgs, mainly Karel IV. But that is not true. I have to say that that tradition gradually developed here under the Přemyslids during the eighth and ninth centuries in Bohemia. And under the last Přemyslid in the 13th century it achieved a very high level indeed. From Václav II, from whose era we unfortunately have very few traces, artefacts show that it was at the same level as the level of the court in Paris or London.”
Over time, Jan spent more and more time outside Bohemia. This led to criticism that he merely used the kingdom as a treasure chest to fund his fondness for battle and political intrigue to further his family’s interests. The marriage with Eliška soured. She was banished to Mělník castle, around 30 kilometres from Prague, while their first son, Václav, later renamed Charles in honour of the French king, was kept by his side and later sent to the French court to complete his education. Eliška died in 1330 with Jan marrying a French princess, Beatrix, a few years later.
It was that French connection that was Jan’s undoing. Although he has problems with his eyesight from his mid-40’s onwards, becoming blind in one eye and then completely blind, he decided to join his allies the French during the fighting that later was parcelled together as the hundred years war.
At the battle of Crécy in Northern France, Jan and his 50 Bohemian knights were killed as the English longbow proved its worth. One of the heroes of the fighting, the son of the English King, the Black Prince, paid tribute to Jan’s courage by taking his heraldic emblem and slightly adapting it to become his own. This continues to be the emblem of the Prince of Wales.
Jan’s actions led to the now little used idiom ‘to fight like the King of Bohemia,’ meaning to fight blind.
He was succeeded by his son Charles, or Karel, who had been kept safe from the fighting. The new king and Holy Roman Emperor was to select Prague as capital for his empire and make it a European centre for the arts and learning. Part of the credit for that can be given to his more straightforward and pugilistic father.
“It can be seen that he gradually prepared the ground for his son to get that highest position and his son, Karel IV, fulfilled that dream.”
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