Bohemia


BOHEMIA    ÈECHY (Cz); Böhmen (Ger).

  1. A region in central Europe;
  2. The Kingdom which included that region.
Historical map with Bohemia proper outlined in...

Historical map with Bohemia proper outlined in pink, Moravia in yellow, and Austrian Silesia in orange. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The region of Bohemia proper is the west of the present Czech Republic, and lies in the basin of the River Elbe, which, as the Labe, flows through the north of Bohemia.   It is virtually surrounded by hills and mountains:  the Sudeten Mountains, the Erzgebirge and the Böhmerwald separate it from Germany, hills divide it from Austria, and the Moravian Heights stand on its borders with the other Czech region of Moravia.

The people are Slav in language.   The Carolingians tried a time or two to extend their power into Bohemia, but without success.   In the 9th century a principality arose in neighbouring Moravia whose authority came to be acknowledged in Bohemia.  

The dynasty that was to rule in Bohemia, the Premyslids, emerged during the period of Moravian hegemony, and survived the downfall of the Great Moravian Empire, which followed upon the Magyar eruption into central Europe.   The 10th century saw struggles between Christian and pagan, between ardent Christians and cautious ones, and between those who favoured German influence and those who did not (the first homage by a Bohemian Duke to a German King had been paid in 895).  

English: Wenceslas II, King of Bohemia and Poland

English: Wenceslas II, King of Bohemia and Poland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In one such struggle a Duke called Vaclav, who was favourable to Christianity and to German influence, was murdered c.935 by his brother, Boleslav the Cruel.   Boleslav struggled long, but in 950 he acknowledged the supremacy of  the German King Otto, while his dead brother became Bohemia’s patron saint and is known to us as Good King Wenceslas.

The German Kings, Emperors from 962, from time to time asserted their power over the princes to the east.   Bohemia, unlike Poland and Hungary, was too close to be able to shake off these claims upon them and so it became a part of the Empire.   It was not however like the lesser Slav rulers to the north.   Its territory was more substantial, more defensible and wealthier in mineral deposits than theirs, so that Bohemia was a far more independent and powerful part of the Empire than the lands of the Princes of Mecklenburg or the Dukes of Pomerania.   It was able to play in the game of power politics within and beyond the Empire, as Bavaria had done in the 10th century, and as Austria and Brandenburg were to do in later years.

This peculiar status was acknowledged in the granting of the royal title to the Dukes of Bohemia.  Henry IV bestowed it for life on Vratislav II in 1086 for his help in the crises of the Emperor’s reign and Frederick I gave it to Vladislav II, his half-uncle by marriage, in 1158.   Vladislav’s title was intended to be hereditary, but he abdicated in 1172 at the beginning of years of dynastic turmoil, years that saw the giddiest procession of Dukes that Bohemia had known.  

The situation was not improved by the willingness of the Emperor Frederick I, Barbarossa, to meddle in its affairs.   Through his first wife he had acquired land on the border with Bohemia and had accumulated more territory since.   He weakened the Duchy further by appointing a Margrave of Moravia as his own vassal in 1182 and granting the Bishop of Prague princely status in 1187.

Eventually Ottakar I, a younger son of the late King, secured the Dukedom in 1197, assumed the royal title in 1198, and had it confirmed for him and his heirs by the Emperor Frederick II in the Golden Bull of Sicily, 1212.   Frederick also made him Cup-bearer of the Empire, a household office that was seen later in the century as making the King one of the electors of the Empire.   Ottakar recovered control over the principalities created by Barbarossa.

The Duchy had long included its eastern neighbour, Moravia, which was used to provide appanages for members of the Premyslid family;  but the last Premyslids sought a wider Empire. Between 1251 and 1269 Ottakar II gathered Austria, Styria, Carinthia and Carniola into his territory, but was later turned out by Rudolf I, elected German King in 1273.   Wenceslas II held a mortgage on Meissen, pursued a claim on Poland for himself and another for his son on Hungary, but in 1305 he died and the next year Wenceslas III, last of the Premyslids, was murdered.  His first successor, the Habsburg heir, soon died, the second, the Count of Tirol, failed and in 1310 the Emperor Henry VII, of Luxemburg, made his son King of Bohemia.

The Luxemburgs lasted until 1437;  they were German Kings, 1346-1400, 1410-37, Margraves of Brandenburg, 1373-1415, Kings of Hungary 1386-1437.  None of this lasted, nor did their tenure of part of the Upper Palatinate, 1353-73.   They left Bohemia divided religiously, the result of the Hussite schism.   Their Habsburg heir died young and was succeeded by an as yet unborn child, who was to die at seventeen.

A Czech nobleman reigned, 1457-71, to be followed by Ladislas, a feeble Polish Prince, whose lands in Moravia, Silesia and Lusatia were seized in the first part of his reign by Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary, who himself was also used the title of King of Bohemia.    Ladislas got his lost lands back through succeeding his Hungarian rival in 1490 and ruling as feebly in Hungary as he did in Bohemia.  His son was killed resisting the Turkish advance in 1526 and Bohemia, which once had looked as though it might become the great power of central Europe, became part of the Habsburg lands through the succession of Ferdinand, the brother-in-law of the late King.

The Luxemburgs did make some longterm additions of territory to Bohemia.   From Louis IV they acquired the Egerland in the west in 1322;  Upper Lusatia came to them in 1319 and 1329, Lower Lusatia in 1367;  but the greatest gain was Silesia.   From 1327 King John persuaded one Silesian Duke after another to acknowledge his overlordship and in 1339 the Polish King recognised his title – any doubts about the attitude of the Holy Roman Emperor to the matter were resolved later by the Luxemburgs’ acquisition of the German Crown.   To overlordship the Kings were able to add individual ownership when one of the Silesian Duchies, Breslau, fell vacant in 1335.

The Luxemburgs also settled the matter as to whether Bohemia was an Electorate.   In the 13th century the idea had rapidly taken root that the election of the German King lay in the hands of a group of Electors.   One argument was for a perfect balance, three clerical and three lay electors;  others argued for seven electors so that all four of the great household officers should be Electors – the King of Bohemia was Cup-bearer.   Two of the early elections with a restricted group of Electors took place in one year, 1257.   Four elected one King in January, four another in April, the prince voting twice being King Ottakar II of Bohemia, who would gladly have voted for himself if he had had the chance.  

This double-dealing cast doubt upon Bohemia’s right to be an Elector, and there was an alternative, the Duke of Bavaria.   The matter was settled in the Golden Bull of 1356 by the Emperor Charles IV, who also happened to be King of Bohemia.   Still, as if to acknowledge that there were problems in a King being an Elector and also in the ruler of a largely Slav nation dealing with the affairs of Germany, it was also decided that the King would only attend the College of Electors for the purpose of electing the King of the Romans, and not the political and administrative meetings of the College of Electors which were also provided for by the Golden Bull.   It was not until 1708 that the King of Bohemia became an ordinary voting member of the College.

The throne of Bohemia was elective, at least where there was no clear dynastic heir.   That was changed in 1627 (Bohemia) and 1628 (the Margraviate of Moravia) in consequence of the triumph of the temporarily dethroned Habsburg King over the elected Winter King in the Battle of the White Mountain.   Bohemia became an hereditary monarchy, and the defeated Protestants and the remnants of the Hussites felt the rigours of the Counter-Reformation.   A few years later, in 1635, the Emperor Ferdinand II gave the Lusatias to the Protestant Elector of Saxony.   In 1740 Frederick II of Prussia seized Silesia;  only a small portion of it, around the uppermost course of the Oder, was left to the young Queen Maria Theresa.   Bohemia had thus become more or less the same land as the present Czech Republic (part of the Silesian Duchy of Teschen went to Poland in 1919 rather than Czechoslovakia).

In the Austrian Empire of the 19th century and in the Austrian half of the divided Empire after 1867 Bohemia proper was one of the Crownlands (the 2nd largest in both area and population).   With the collapse of the Empire in 1918 the name of Böhmen went out of use in the new Czechoslovakia.   The Czechs use Èechy for the country or the suffix Èesky in the names of the regions, of which there are five in Bohemia proper, plus Prague:  North, East, South, West and Central Èesky.

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