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Emperor Charles IV

The medieval Czech state reached the zenith of its power and importance Charles IV. He was the King of Bohemia, later also Holy Roman Emperor, and today he is known as the Father of the Czech Nation. John of Luxembourg sent his firstborn son Wenceslas - the future Emperor Charles IV - to be educated at the royal court in France. Charles became margrave of Moravia while his father still reigned, and then also became king of Rome. His father also voted for him as king of Bohemia. By this time, John of Luxemburg was completely blind, but this did not prevent him from participating in the Battle of Crécy on the side of the French king in 1346. This battle, which was fought at the beginning of the so-called Hundred Years' War, ended in a major victory for the English. John of Luxemburg was among those killed in the battle. His son Charles was also injured, but fortunately for the land of the Bohemian crown he was not seriously wounded.

Charles IV was already an experienced politician by the time of his accession to the throne. In 1344, he negotiated the elevation of the Prague bishopric to an archbishopric with Pope Clement VI, who had been his teacher in France. The last bishop, Ernest (Arnost) of Pardubice, thus became the first archbishop. On April 7, 1348, what is now the oldest university in Central Europe was established - known as Charles University today. It was founded as a university for scholars from all over the empire, so it had a preponderance of foreign nations in its administration. Charles IV authorized the construction of Prague's New Town and Charles Bridge linking Prague's Old Town to Malá Strana ("the Lesser Quarter"). He also began the reconstruction of St. Vitus' Cathedral and built a number of castles. The most famous of these is Karlstejn, named after its founder. The current appearance of the Crown of St. Wenceslas, one of the most important pieces of the Bohemian Crown Jewels, stems from the reign of Charles IV.

In 1355, Charles IV was crowned Holy Roman Emperor, the highest-ranking secular title. A year later he issued a Golden Bull for the Empire. This stated that a simple majority of electors was all that was needed to elect the Roman king, and that the Bohemian sovereign was first among these electors. Moreover, in comparison with other secular electorates, the Czech throne was hereditary even on the distaff side. Therefore, even the daughter of the sovereign could succeed to the Bohemian throne.

Charles IV was just as noble - but much more practical than his caravanting father had been, and he took a keen interest in all aspects of rule over the Czech lands. Charles IV was not really named Charles. He was named Wenceslas IV - but he had been reared at the French court, and everyone there called him Charles, and so the name stuck. (His son, who succeeded him on the Czech throne, was also named Wenceslas IV, and this sometimes leads to some confusion.) When Charles IV came to power, he was still very young. Since he'd been raised in France, he didn't speak Czech. Wicked advisors surrounded the young king, and attempted to usurp the real rule of Bohemia while leaving young Charles IV in place as a figurehead.

Charles IV may have been young, but he was no dummy. He spoke 5 languages fluently (at a time when many crowned heads could not even read and write), and he was a masterful diplomat. He also had friends in high places - Pope Klement, who was elected during Charles IV's reign, had been the Czech sovereign's tutor at the court in Paris. Young Charles IV saw through the transparent plans of the wicked advisors who surrounded him. He quickly learned Czech, and took over rule of his own land himself. Charles IV was very clever, very devout, and very savvy. He was also a lover of art and a collector of holy relics (which he kept under lock and key all year long except for Easter, when he paraded them through the country like a travelling circus).

Charles IV strived to prevent tension and strife with the nobility. He also knew how to make concessions. When he formulated a state legal code, the Maiestas Carolina, in the 1350s, which the nobility saw as an attack on their privileges, Charles IV preferred to declare that he had burned the manuscript. The Church was a source of support for his reign. Thanks to his backing, its influence and property gradually increased.

Charles married four times in his life. He entered into politically motivated weddings with a view to making territorial gains or consolidating his international standing. Charles IV wrote his own Latin autobiography entitled Vita Caroli. Because of his contribution to Czech statehood and his significance in Czech history, he has been given the soubriquet of Father of the Country.

Charles was a very good king, and he paid attention to detail. It was he who made sure that the status of the "Lands of the Czech Crown" - the territories his father had gathered together under his rule - was legally fixed (this task was made all the easier since he was Holy Roman Emperor). He initiated a number of building projects in his reign, especially in Prague. It was at his behest that Charles Bridge and St. Vitus' Cathedral were built, and the "Hunger Wall" that he commissioned (remnants of which still stand today on Petrin Hill in Prague) is thought to be the first works-project in the world, as he had it built to create employment for the poor and hungry masses (hence the name). Charles IV personally planned Prague's "New Town" district, where Charles Square - which is also named for him - lies. Karlstejn Castle and Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad) are also named for Charles IV.

Many of the building projects initiated by Charles IV still stand, and most are perfect examples of the Gothic style of architecture, which is characterized by clean simple lines and solid structure - like the Charles Bridge and its towers, the Carolinum, or the Old-New Synagogue.

Charles IV also founded Charles University, the first center of higher education in all of Central Europe. During his reign, Prague was the capital of the Holy Roman Empire (a gilded sign on the Old Town Hall still proclaims "Praga Caput Regni" today), and he successfully lobbied to have the Prague bishopric made an archbishopric (this task was actually quite easy, as the privelege was granted him by his former tutor, now the Pope.)

It was Charles IV, too, who brought the cultivation of the grape and the wine industry to the beer-drinking Czech lands. That isn't to say that he neglected the beer industry - under his reign, stiff prison sentences were meted out to those caught exporting cuttings of prize Czech hops - essential to the brewing of great Czech beer - abroad. Charles IV had no fewer than four wives, and any number of progeny, both legitimate and il. Of these, his oldest legitimate son, Vaclav IV, was naturally chosen as his successor.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:53:26 ZULU