Before visiting Prague, when we conjure up an image of the city, we probably lean heavily on one or both of its most cinematic and compelling periods: the golden age under Charles IV, whose name still marks the city’s famous bridge, and the years behind the Iron Curtain. However, the city has been home to many other complex and fascinating characters, and the centuries between Charles IV and the Communists were full of political intrigue and violent upheaval in the Czech lands. In the following story we lay out the basics of this history, focused heavily on the influence of the Habsburgs in Prague, which can be extremely helpful when visiting Prague.
Like many of our history walks, Habsburgs & Jesuits in Prague Tour tackles a dense and complicated history, but seeing it firsthand in Prague makes the drama come alive. Armed with a bit of background knowledge, even those with little prior experience will be swept up in stories of the charged conflict that gripped the region during these years. Together with theologian and Context Prague docent Lenka Philippova, we give you a head start for visiting Prague.
Context Travel: I’d like to start by establishing some of the broader facts of what was happening in the Czech lands in the 15th-17th centuries to help people who are visiting Prague for the first time. Where were the borders of the Czech lands during this time?
Lenka Philippova: When the Habsburgs arrived in the 1500s, the Czech lands were roughly the same shape and size as they are today. There have long been two major regions in the Czech lands, known as Bohemia and Moravia, although historically, the area also contained other regions. And the Czech lands are traditionally quite connected – especially in the nobility – with Germany at the western border.
CT: And the Habsburgs controlled the area at this time?
LP: You cannot concentrate only on the Habsburgs, because everything before their arrival was also very important and significantly influenced the further development of Czech history. During the reign of Charles IV, Prague was the center of the Empire and we experienced these glory days at the end of the Middle Ages. He was crowned Czech king in 1346 and later also became the Holy Roman Emperor, and because of his influence, the city really developed into an important center for education and the arts. We have a lot of wonderful Gothic architecture from this period. There was also a newly founded university in Prague, which was the first university north of the Alps – the Charles University. Although he lived long before the Habsburgs arrived in the Czech lands, Charles IV is a very important part of this story. In the same year that he died, the revolutions start. We have this big leap forward in Czech history.
CT: You’re referring to the Hussite Wars?
CT: Ok, a lot of people visiting Prague may not know this history. What sparked that revolution?
LP: Well, the Hussites were a religious group that followed the teachings of [Czech religious reformer] Jan Hus and others who were critical of the [Roman Catholic] Church. They were radical and very iconoclastic. From the time of the death of Jan Hus until the arrival of the Habsburgs, the Czech lands were really viewed as a troubled and heretic kingdom in the heart of Europe. After the death of both Charles IV and his son, Wenceslas IV, the Czech throne remained de facto vacant during the Hussite wars. The Hussites rebelled and launched a revolution that was both religious and social in character, and in response, there were four crusades targeted at the Czech kingdoms.
CT: Can you elaborate on Jan Hus and his political role?
LP: Jan Hus was a Czech reformer who predated Reformation. The trickiest thing with this portion of Czech history is that we’re 100 years ahead of Reformation. Martin Luther knew the writings of Jan Hus, and he mentioned him and alluded to some of his works. An important distinction between Martin Luther and Jan Hus is that, since the beginning, Martin Luther had support from the political ruler in the area. Other religious reformers in Europe, like Jan Hus, had spoken out against the Church and failed, but the political climate in Germany was more receptive and there the secular powers supported religious reform.
CT: What was going on in the Czech lands, religiously speaking, during these years that caused them to be labeled “heretic”?
LP: This is one of the most important parts of Czech history. There was a specific religious situation, which was decided in order to end the Hussite Wars. A compromise with Rome was achieved; Czechs made many demands for religious freedoms but only one was fully accepted. The Czech lands were still part of the Roman Catholic Church, but there was this specific rite – the “utrachtvist” or “lay chalice.” People were allowed to be given wine during the holy communion. Every time a new sovereign was about to be elected, Czech estates placed a condition on the election that required the renewal of this privilege. This was still the case when the first Habsburg, Ferdinand, was elected.
CT: You mentioned the election of the first Habsburg. How did the Habsburgs arrive in the Czech lands?
LP: The Habsburgs were a noble family and strongly Catholic dynasty which came from Switzerland and rose in power during the Middle Ages. When the first Habsburg succeeded on the Czech throne, he was elected by the estates, which wanted a ruler who was willing to petition the pope to prolongate this privilege of chalice.
CT: This is during the period directly following the Hussite Wars?
No, not precisely. In the 1430s, a compromise with Rome was achieved and it was decided that the Czech people would be given the privilege of the lay chalice. Peace was finally negotiated and sealed, which ended the wars. Then there were 90 years of elections and a strange series of kings – some Polish sovereigns, one Czech nobleman – but none from a royal family.
CT: You’ve been referring a bit to the “estates,” the electoral body which was selecting these kings. Can you explain their role?
LP: As I mentioned, the first Habsburg succeeded on the throne in 1520 because the estates believed he would be an advocate for their religious freedom. This unusual series of kings that I just referred to were all elected by the assembly of the Czech estates, which had representatives of church and nobility. Even though the Habsburgs were building an empire at this time, we [in the Czech lands] were still technically independent for 100 years under the Habsburgs. We are very proud of this.
CT: Did anything change with the election of the first Habsburg king?
LP: He quite wisely and moderately started to re-Catholicize the country. He invited the Jesuits, for example to help him change the religious climate in the country a bit. The goal of the Habsburgs in those years was to strengthen the Empire in preparation for an impending religious conflict: the Thirty Years War.
CT: Why is it significant that the Habsburg king, Ferdinand, invited the Jesuits to enter the Czech lands?
LP: The Jesuits were a religious order established in Spain by Ignatius of Loyola in 1534. They were meant to help to regain back the power and cultural hegemony of Catholic Christianity. Globally, they were one of the main missionary groups in India, China and Latin America. For most North Americans, they are connected with education, from kindergartens up to universities. However, in Catholic Europe, they were seen as the force of Rome, not subordinate to the local church.
CT: The Thirty Years War was a political conflict that was deeply rooted in religious differences due to Reformation. How did these ideologies interact in the Czech lands? How were the Czech lands involved in the conflict?
LP: This Thirty Years War, which happened in the first half of the 1600s, primarily took place because they wanted to settle the religious tension that Reformation caused. During this conflict, it was decided which countries or principalities would be Catholic and which would be Protestant – the whole of Europe was fighting for faith for 30 years. We were already fighting this war as a Catholic country, because the Czech Reformation under Jan Hus had ended 100 years earlier. We are really misplaced in the history of the Thirty Years War, since we did not experience this religious movement or this war as the other countries in Europe did. In fact, the conflict only started in the Czech lands because of the Habsburgs. However, in 1618 there was a revolt of the non-Catholics and anti-Habsburg Czech noblemen. It was an open rebellion and after two years the rebels were defeated in the famous White Mountain Battle. Every child in the Czech lands learns that date, it’s like Gettysburg or the Magna Carta. That was the end of the Czech independence and the very beginning of the military conflict in the rest of Europe.
CT: How did the Thirty Years War affect the future of the Czech lands, then?
LP: After the major rebellion by the anti-Habsburg noblemen in 1620s and the defeat of the rebels, we became hereditary lands of the Habsburgs. The estates were disbanded, abolished, and this ended that electoral system. Suddenly, all the noble families became unimportant because the region became a hereditary region, ruled by the Habsburgs. This was, again, done because the Habsburgs needed to strengthen themselves in preparation for the Thirty Years War.
CT: Why is this period of the Habsburgs and Jesuits important for Czech history?
LP: The rule of the Habsburgs over the Czech lands was the culmination of monumental events that have defined the country’s history, and that makes this story quite uneasy and, at times, overwhelming. You cannot concentrate only on the Habsburgs, because everything that happened before their arrival significantly affected the way that the later stories unfolded. The collision of all of these elements – sovereignty, nationalism, religion, conflict, revolution – still illuminates key features of Czech identity and culture.
The architecture of Prague has also been affected in a fascinating way by this entire story – but that is best explained while walking through the streets of Prague with a Context docent, like Lenka. To learn more check out all of our Prague walking tours.