Saturday, July 11, 2009

11 July 1346: Charles IV elected Holy Roman Emperor

monument to Charles IV erected near the Old Town
entrance to the Stone Bridge (Charles Bridge), 1848
And thus when we arrived in Bohemia, we found neither father nor mother nor brother, nor sisters nor anyone else we knew . . . we had completely forgotten the Czech language, which we have since relearned so that we speak it and understood it like any other Bohemian. By divine grace therefore we know how to speak, write and read not only Czech, but French, Italian. German and Latin, so that we are able to write, read, speak, and understand any one of these languages as well as another. (from his Autobiography)
Thus did Charles of Luxembourg describe his return home, a cultural as well as geographic stranger, to take his place as Margrave of Moravia (the title of heir to the throne, akin to Prince of Wales) in 1333. In 1346, he succeeded his father, an absentee ruler, as Czech king, and became the only Czech also to be elected Holy Roman Emperor.

At the time of his death in 1378, Charles was given the title, Otec vlasti, or Father of the Homeland, and for good reason: He rebuilt the Prague Castle (Hradčany), expanded and beautified St. Vitus Cathedral on the castle hill (including the lavish chapel of St. Václav [Wenceslas]), and founded the New Town of Prague, as well as Charles University (the first university in Central Europe): "in order that faithful subjects of our kingdom, who ceaselessly hunger for the fruits of knowledge, should not be forced to beg for foreign help . . . [and] seek out alien nations or plead for the satisfaction of their longings in unknown lands." Under his reign, Prague became a political and cultural center of Europe. In addition to patronizing architectural projects and painting, he lent his support to early humanism and hosted Petrarch in Prague.

The famed "Charles Bridge" (often virtually empty during the communist years, but nowadays one of the most unpleasantly overcrowded tourist spots in the city) was another of his projects: he had it built to replace an earlier structure destroyed in a flood. However, when it was the only bridge in the city, it was known simply as the Prague Bridge, and when other bridges followed, it became the "Stone Bridge" (which lent its name to a marvelous novelistic cycle of stories by the brilliant but underappreciated Leo Perutz). Only in 1870 was it renamed after its imperial patron, as Czech nationalists began to highlight his reign as a national golden age, and to construct a coherent patriotic history that could span the intervening centuries of submersion and subjugation.

Historians would cite, in addition to these cultural and visible accomplishments, the political and administrative: He pursued policies that strengthened the dynastic power of Bohemia even as he reorganized the Empire—notably in the Golden Bull of 1356—streamlining and formalizing electoral procedures and in the process promoting the development of large states over regional leagues. Among subsidiary clauses of the Bull were the requirements that the sons of electors learn Czech and Italian as well as German.

In 2005, Czechs elected Charles "Greatest Czech of all time," who (justifiably, we might suggest) outpolled even the founder of Czechoslovakia, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, and Václav Havel. Had Charles been American, his foreign—French—education, multicultural endeavors, and long absence from the country might have rendered him suspect, and skeptics would no doubt have clamored to see his birth certificate.

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