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The rise and fall of the Przemyslid Dynasty

With the Great Moravian Empire out of the way, the Przemyslid family succeeded in laying the foundations of a Czech state somewhere around the the end of the ninth century. They did this mostly by ridding themselves of all of the things that were standing in their way, like the Vrsovic and Slavnik clans - which the Przemyslids murdered in a particularly bloody manner. The only Vrsovec to escape the massacre of his family was Adalbert, but it didn't do him much good. Adalbert was so thankful for his salvation that he became a Christian missionary and headed northwest (to the area of today's northeast Germany) to spread the Word. No sooner did he arrive at his destination than he was brutally roasted and eaten by the inhabitants. Adalbert (or Vojtech, as he is known in Czech) is another of the Czech nation's patron saints today.

But Vojtech was not the only early Czech guy to be made a saint thanks to the Przemyslid's bloodthirstiness. On the contrary - the Przemyslid rulers were rather a mixed bag, and when they ran out of rival clans to murder, they started murdering each other - resulting in some more early saints for the Czechs.

Wenceslas I, the fourth Przemyslid Czech ruler, was made a saint soon after his murder in 929 or 935. This Wenceslas (in Czech, Vaclav) is the Good King Wenceslas of the Christmas carol, and it was during his reign that the Czech lands entered into an alliance with Saxony, thereby laying the foundations for closer relations with the restored Roman Empire.

This mischievous affability on Wenceslas' part towards the Czechs' western neighbors is a main reason that he was killed by his brother, who wasn't very good (in fact he is known as "Boleslav the Cruel.") Another reason might be that Boleslav was a pagan, and he felt that Wenceslas was frittering away too much time with this new Christian fashion he'd picked up -- though lust for power probably also played a role in Boleslav's motive for the murder, which took place at the very door of the church in Stara Boleslav, where Wenceslas was trying to seek refuge.

Incidentally, Boleslav and Wenceslas' Grandmother (on their father's side) was also murdered, and also made a saint. It is said that she was either smothered to death with a pillow or choked to death - this time, the killer was her daughter-in-law (Boleslav and Wenceslas' mother), and the motive was, again, power (Drahomira wanted to place Wenceslas on the throne.)

Things didn't get much better within the Przemyslid family, it is suspected that . Interestingly enough, the Przemyslids are remembered rather fondly in the Czech Republic today, as it seems that most people are blissfully unaware of the family's murderous streak.

Maybe that is because the Przemyslids occasionally took time off from their favorite sport to increase Bohemia's power and prestige. In typical early feudal fashion, this meant that they went out killing people in other countries instead, expanding their empire to Moravia and Silesia, as well as the upper reaches of the river Vistula and parts of western Slovakia. In Moravia, they set up a system of dukedoms, with the office of "Margrave" (ruler of Moravia) sometimes being held by the Bohemian Dauphin, sometimes by a rival for the Bohemian throne. In this way the Przemyslide dynastic killings were stayed, and both Bohemia and Moravia came to be regarded as hereditary lands of the Przemyslid dynasty. All the while, the expansion of the Przemyslid Dynasty's power went hand in hand with the spread of Christianity in the region.

This growing Przemyslide state maintained its sovereignty, though it formally recognized the feudal supremacy of the Roman-German Empire. The Czech lands ranked among the most advanced of the European feudal states, being at the forefront of economic power and cultural achievement at the time. In keeping with this growing importance, the territory was officially recognized through the granting of a royal crown to the Przemyslid Dynasty in the eleventh century (it was made hereditary in 1212 by the Golden Sicilian Bull) and the granting of the title of 'emperor' for Czech rulers.

The 1100s and 1200s were a very busy time in this part of Europe, and colonization, trade and cultural activity were steadily on the increase. Prague, which lay smack dab in the middle of several continental trade routes, flourished. Prague's Old Town was founded in 1234 as the first of Prague's five towns, and the Lesser Quarter was founded in 1257. Border forests were settled and towns and fortresses were founded and fortified. These sweeping changes literally transformed the country, and in keeping with these physical changes, the social structure of the territory also evolved. From about this time, aristocrats, burghers, and serfs were to be spotted in the Czech lands - as were German settlers, who were invited to colonize previously uninhabited (mostly border) regions of Bohemia and Moravia. The German settlers, whether burghers or peasants, did not form a homogeneous or politically separate group, and they soon became part of the local community, identifying with Czech statehood and sharing in the development of the Czech and Moravian lands as fully enfranchised members of the population, but mostly but keeping their native language (in addition to learning Czech.) Many, many, many, many centuries later, the places that they settled would come to be known as the "Sudetenland."

From the thirteenth century, the Czech kingdom was one of the most robust states in all of Europe, with a growing population and a vigorous economy. This, in turn, made the Czech nobility and rulers all the more rich and powerful, and enabled king Przemysl Otakar II to expand his territory rather extensively (if briefly). Otakar II was quite well-known in his time, and he even makes an appearance in Dante's Divine Comedy. Otokar II, also known as the "King of Gold and Iron" (because of his considerable wealth and his considerable military might) defeated the armies of the Hungarian king in 1256 and again in 1260. This military victory allowed him to annex the Alpine countries (today's Austria and beyond) - extending his territories all the way to the Adriatic Sea. Some people claim that this brief period - in which Bohemia controlled territory bordering on the sea - is the basis for Shakespeare's infamous 'Bohemian seacoast' from his play, "The Tempest."

Well, while the Czech lands were gaining power, prestige, oceanfront property and other things, a powerful rival appeared in Germany in the person of the newly-elected ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, Rudolf Habsburg - a member of a previously unimportant family from the Rhineland. This Rudolf formed an alliance of German princes and - after the Czech King Przemysl Otakar II was killed in battle in Moravia against the combined Roman and Hungarian forces on August 26, 1278 - Rudolf took possession of the abovementioned Alpine lands, which later became the basis of the Habsburgs' power - ie Austria.

The late Czech King Przemysl Otakar II was succeeded by his son, Wenceslas II (1278-1305). Under his reign, the mining of Czech silver at Kutna Hora and the minting of the Czech silver groschen - one of the hardest European currencies of the time - flourished. Wenceslas II also created a confederation between Bohemia and Poland. For a short time, Hungary - under the rule of Matthias Czak Trenciansky, who held absolute rule over most of Slovakia as well - also joined this confederation.

The Polish-Czech union was strengthened under the brief rule of Wenceslas III. Had it survived, it might have contributed to the creation of a more advanced region in Europe as the earlier Czech- Austrian union had. However, this was precluded by the death of young Wenceslas III (in 1306, when he was just 17 years old). Wenceslas III was the last male member of the Przemyslids line, and after his death the Czech-Polish union fell apart.

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