The Kingdom of Bohemia: European Jewel and the Heritage of Czechs
The colorful history of the Czech Republic is firmly rooted in its predecessor, the illustrious Kingdom of Bohemia. A powerful kingdom that lasted for more than seven centuries, it was an instrumental component in some of the major events that unfolded within the very core of Europe. And more importantly, it was the Kingdom of Bohemia that shaped the future and the identity of the Czech people and made them into one of the most prominent members of the diverse Slavic family tree, giving them a strong and indivisible heritage.
How Did The Kingdom of Bohemia Emerge?
As a historic region, Bohemia enjoyed a very lengthy history, being the home to many diverse peoples. Today, it is the largest, westernmost region of the Czech Republic, and is home to almost 6.5 million Czech citizens, out of a total of 10.5 million. But its past is much more diverse.
Bohemia is most likely named after the Boii, a powerful and prominent Celtic Gallic tribe that was well known to the Romans and other ancient civilizations. These Celts were noted for their migratory lifestyle and warlike culture, but Bohemia was ever the heartland of their home.
However, after the major migrations of the Celtic Helvetii and Boii, the region of Bohemia, after the Gallic Wars of Julius Caesar, was largely emptied. This proved an ideal chance for the migrating Germanic tribes of Suebi and Marcomanni to settle there and call it their new home.
The earliest depiction of the coat of arms of the Kingdom of Bohemia, a kingdom founded on the early and influential Slavs in the region who eventually became the Czechs. (Pavel Fric / Public domain)
Still, this was a turbulent period in Europe’s history, and such tribes had a great tendency to migrate. By the end of that so-called ‘migration period’, the area of Bohemia became home to a new people, the Slavs. By the 6th century, the Slavs established themselves as the dominant ethno-linguistic cultural group in much of central and eastern Europe, becoming an integral part of socio-political developments in the region.
In Bohemia, the Slavic tribes came into direct contact with the Kingdom of the Franks and thus into direct contact with Christianity. Likewise, their identity and their politics became closely connected and dictated by their neighbors.
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In the era preceding the Kingdom of Bohemia, another major Slavic entity emerged, Great Moravia. This state was one of the first unified West Slavic entities to emerge in this region, after the ill-fated and short lived Samo tribal federation that preceded it by two centuries.
Bohemia was a crucial part of Great Moravia but was likewise instrumental in its rapid downfall. When the powerful ruler of Moravia, Svatopluk died, the Czechs in Bohemia quickly worked to get rid of the supremacy of the Moravian ruling dynasty. This shift was key to their rise in influence and power. And here is where the history of the Kingdom of Bohemia sees its very first rise to stardom, on the ashes of Great Moravia.
From Celts to Slavs: Those That Came to Stay
Within roughly just two centuries, the Czechs emerged as the dominant Slavic tribe in this region. Their influence on their neighbors grew, as did their power.
They became a focal point for all other, less powerful Slavs neighboring them. A strong cultic center amongst the Czechs served as a gathering point of unity that strengthened the Slavic tribes and rooted them firmly into place in Bohemia and neighboring regions. And it was exactly this unifying factor that placed the ruling Czech class one step above and planted them on the road towards kingship.
The instrumental dynasty in the formation of the Bohemian Kingdom were the Přemyslid chiefs. The members of this dynasty were from the Slavic tribe of Cechove (Čechové), who were originally based in a small territory around modern-day Prague. Through gradual expansion, the Přemyslid dynasty came to rule over much of the region of Bohemia and emerged as the most powerful amongst the tribes in the area. Their location was also crucial for their rapid growth in power and expansion: the Bohemian basin was not in the direct way of Frankish expansions.
Bořivoj I, the first historical ruler in the Přemyslid dynasty, which eventually became the Kingdom of Bohemia. (Václav Ignác Leopold Markovský (1789–1846) / Public domain)
Bořivoj I was the first historical ruler in this dynasty, and subsequent heirs expanded the Bohemian lands greatly. In time, Prague became one of the most important trading cities in Central Europe, enjoying great prosperity. Of course, all of this gave plenty of foothold and leverage to the Přemyslids and the growing Czech tribe, a foothold to become a kingdom.
Of course, their geographical location was key to the shaping of their culture and politics. Compared to some other Slavic tribes that were rising at the same time, the Czechs in Bohemia were not influenced by the Byzantines and thus Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Instead, they were in the direct neighborhood of the Franks and later the emerging Holy Roman Empire. Some would say the Czechs were in the shadow of these two great ruling organizations.
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The overall German influence on the Czechs in Bohemia was established very early on in their semi-independent rule. Around 950 AD, the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I came into conflict with the Bohemian rulers, after they stopped paying tribute to him. After a prolonged conflict, Otto overwhelmed the Czech ruler Boleslaus (Boleslav), and concluded a peace treaty that re-established both tribute and an alliance between the two. Moreover, Otto granted the region of Moravia to the Bohemians, expanding their territories but at a cost.
Torn Amongst Major Powers
The cost was the fact that the Kingdom of Bohemia essentially became a fiefdom of the Holy Roman Empire, falling under its jurisdiction. Its king was to be one of the seven electors of the Holy Roman Emperor, and the Roman Catholic clergy would have an easier way to extend German influence amongst the Czechs, drawing them further within their cultural and political sphere.
For the Přemyslids the end result was far from unfavorable. Their alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor gave them all the background they needed to solidify their rule and crush all forms of dissent from regional lords. In a sense, it was the last stepping-stone from the Slavic tribal remnants to a more centralized Slavic state.
For the following several decades, the Kingdom of Bohemia was largely an autonomous state under the Holy Roman Empire. The latter’s jurisdiction became final when Otto I’s great grandson, Emperor Henry II, officially granted the fief of Kingdom of Bohemia to Duke Jaromir of the Přemyslids. Jaromir was to hold the kingdom as a vassal state of the Holy Roman Empire.
Wenceslaus II of the Kingdom of Bohemia brought the kingdom to new heights of power in Central Europe. (Master of the Codex Manesse (Additional Painter I) / Public domain)
Still, the title of the “King of Bohemia” was not fully established as a hereditary title, and would not be until the rise of Ottokar I. This ruler was the first to be granted this title on a hereditary basis and it started the stellar rise in the power of the Přemyslids. He received it for giving his support to the German King Phillip of Swabia, in his rivalry against Emperor Otto IV. The title was later recognized by the reigning pope in an official papal “bull” (decree).
In many regards, the Kingdom of Bohemia entered its golden phase in the fourteenth century and is today considered an important part of overall Czech history. The rule of Wenceslaus II brought Bohemia to the height of its power in Central Europe. Characterized as a shrewd diplomat, this king acquired the throne of Poland and of Hungary too, and commanded over a vast territory. However, such power earned him more enemies than allies.
As soon as he died, his only son was assassinated. He was thus the last of the Přemyslid male rulers. Nevertheless, members of this royal house would continue to reach great heights and solidify the power of the Kingdom of Bohemia.
Wenceslaus, later known as Charles IV, became a Holy Roman emperor and added enormous prestige to the Kingdom of Bohemia. (Circle of Theodoric of Prague / Public domain)
The Kingdom of Bohemia Becomes Part of the Habsburg Empire
After the male line of Přemyslids was finished, a series of conflicts arose over the succession. Eventually, it was the House of Luxembourg that won that lucrative position.
John, Count of Luxembourg, became the new King of Bohemia, and married the daughter of the late and powerful Wenceslaus II. And it was his son, on his mother’s side a Přemyslid, that became one of the most important rulers for this kingdom. Born as Wenceslaus, he was later known as Charles IV and succeeded his father as king.
But he was not to stop at that. He rose in power and eventually became the Holy Roman Emperor, the first head of the Kingdom of Bohemia to reach that position. He then made Prague into an imperial capital and began a series of projects that made the Kingdom of Bohemia a leading European cultural and educational center.
During the rule of Charles’ immediate successors, Wenceslaus IV and later, Sigismund, the Kingdom of Bohemia became the center of some defining and radical events. During the 1400’s, the so-called Hussite Movement swept through this region. Considered as the earliest form of Protestant Reformation, this small religious movement turned into a series of deadly and violent conflicts that would change the future of the Catholic Christianity.
What emerged was the Bohemian Reformation, originating in the University of Prague with its leader, Jan Hus, and spreading from there. While the Hussite Wars lasted roughly 80 years, the Bohemia Reformation lasted roughly 200. The Bohemian Reformation produced the first national church separated from the authority of Rome in the history of Western Christianity. And the Kingdom of Bohemia is where it all began.
This was a very chaotic period in European history. The Hussites eventually split into two rivaling currents which fought against each other. Emperor Sigismund famously said that “only Bohemians can defeat Bohemians.”
After the Hussite king died in 1471, the ruling family of Bohemia became the Polish-Lithuanian Jagiellonian dynasty. However, their rule was somewhat brief.
After the death of King Louis II of Hungary and Bohemia in the Battle of Mohacs against the Ottomans in 1526, the Kingdom of Bohemia came under the rule of the Habsburg monarchy and Archduke Ferdinand I of Austria. In this new era, the Kingdom of Bohemia became a place of flourishing culture and education, and a region of great religious freedom. It was for a time one of the most liberal areas in the Christian world. Prague reigned as an important imperial capital several times over this period.
Since 1526, the history of the Kingdom of Bohemia became closely connected to that of the Habsburgs and the Holy Roman Empire. This painting shows the coronation of the only queen of the Austrian Empire, Maria Theresa in 1741. She went on to become a Holy Roman Empress. (Johann Daniel Herz / Public domain)
The Final Freedom for the Czechs and Slovaks
Since 1526, the history of the Kingdom of Bohemia was closely connected to that of the Habsburg Monarchy and the Holy Roman Empire. When the latter was dissolved in 1806 during the Napoleonic Wars, Bohemia became a major part of the Austrian Empire ruled by the Habsburgs. Later, after the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, it was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
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Even then, Bohemia kept its name and the formal status of a separate kingdom all the way until 1918. Within the Austro-Hungarian empire it was one of the empire’s “crown lands,” and Prague continued to thrive as one of the most advanced cities of the time.
During the 19th century, the Czech language went through an intense period of national revival, after being dominated by German for roughly two centuries. This was a major aspect of the strengthening of Czech national identity and helped them rekindle their connection with the glorious past of the Kingdom of Bohemia.
The time for the independence of Czech people finally came after the devastating events of the First World War. After the defeat of the Central Powers and the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Kingdom of Bohemia ceased to exist as well. However, from those ashes emerged a newly formed and free Czechoslovak Republic.
And although the Kingdom of Bohemia was known to the Czechs as “České království,” the Czech Kingdom, it was never a fully independent entity, and the Czechs and Slovaks living within it were never truly free. Like many other struggling Slavic nations, Bohemia too was torn between the major powers of Europe, which vied for domination over its rich resources and advantageous territory.
However, patience was the saving grace of all Slavic nations. The Czechs and Slovaks, two brotherly peoples, found their independence after many long centuries, and after the defeat of their overlords. After a peaceful, brotherly separation, the independent republics of Slovakia and Czechia emerged, carefully preserving the rich heritage and memory of what once was the Kingdom of Bohemia.
Top image: Night view of the castle and Charles Bridge, Prague, Czech Republic. Prague, over time, became the definitive center of the growing Kingdom of Bohemia. Source: © Jorge Royan / http://www.royan.com.ar
By Aleksa Vučković
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Sayer, D. 2000. The Coasts of Bohemia: A Czech History. Princeton University Press.
Wilson, P. H. 2011. The Thirty Years’ War: Europe’s Tragedy. Harvard University Press.