Historical Prague - 1493

Prague's History

Kněžna Libuše

“...I see a large city, whose fame touches the stars... There in the woods by the Vltava River you will find a person who is hewing the threshold (práh) of his home and in accordance with this, you will name the city Praha(Prague)...” In a similar manner, the legends of the prophetic, passionate mythical princess Libuše depict how she founded and named our capital city. All Czechs know this tale thanks to Kosmas, who at the beginning of the 12th century wrote an account of it in his chronicle. But only the opera by Bedřich Smetana spread the tale into public awareness. Libuše was said to have made her prophecy from Vyšehrad, the oldest mythical seat of the then princedom. As the wife of the mythic Přemysl Oráč, she became the founder of the Premyslian dynasty, which then ruled the Czech lands for more than five hundred years. In spite of Kosmas and Bedřich Smetana, everything probably happened somewhat differently. However, the history of the Czech state and the history of Prague are indivisible from each other.


Prague, the capital city of the Czech Republic, lies along the Vltava River, in the middle of the Czech basin. Today, around 1.2 million people live in Prague, which is about 12% of the population of our country. Its populousness and area (about 500 km2) make it the largest city in the Czech Republic. Due to the richness and beauty of its monuments, the historical heart of Prague was placed on UNESCO’s list of protected monuments in 1992. Deservedly, it is said that Prague is the most beautiful capital city in Europe. Apologies to Paris and Rome.

The populating of this location began as early as in pre-historical times. This was helped by both its location in the centre of the Czech basin and also by the suitable climatic conditions and terrain. The Vltava River has been, from time immemorial, making its way through the deposits of the cretaceous sea and its current created today’s broken terrain. To this day, the Barrandov cliffs harbour the fossilised remains of trilobites and other ancient plants and animals. This majestic sarcophagus of a vanished world, together with the hillsides of Petřín, Letná and other hills of the Vltava valley protected the future heart of Prague from the cold northern and intense western winds.

These parts have been continuously populated since the 4th millennium BC, as shown by discoveries, the most important of which mainly come from the outskirts of Prague, e. g. from Šárka or from Unětice. Back then this was already a settlement that was significant for the entire Czech basin. From the Hallstatt period (from the 6th century BC) this land formed a substantial part of the Celt world. One of the oldest aristocratic Celt graves has been documented on our lands. Bohemia was a settlement for the Boii tribe, whose famous commander, Brena, during his military campaign into Italy, conquered republican Rome. Golden coins were also minted here. Not far fromPrague, just past Kladno u Mšeckých Žehrovic, a statue of a Celtic hero was found, which is considered to be one of the oldest works of Celtic art. On the outskirts of Prague, in Závist nad Zbraslaví, the ruins of a fort from the end of the 5th century BC lie at a location where in the 2nd century BC a famous opidum came into being, which was not one of the largest in area but of the Celtic structures known up to that point, it is believed to have the most massive fortifications. But not even this most magnificent fortress of the Celtic world was able to stop the Germanic people.

They took the name of this land from the Celts and, after the Boii tribe, named it Bojohémum, Bainaib, and finally Bohemia. Bohemia then became their home for the next five centuries. The Marobud’s tribe of Markomans warred here with the Roman Empire, and the Langobard tribe, who so thoroughly wiped out the last remains of ancient civilization in Italy, experienced their heyday here. Even when, in the year 791, the army of Charles the Great was returning from its victorious war with the Avars, they became acquainted with Langobard mercenaries in the Frank army at the memorable place of their ancestors and mourned the abandoned grave of the famous King Wacho. It seems they lamented in the ruins in Závist nad Zbraslaví.

But at this time, the Slavs already lived here. Only with them is the emergence of Prague, in the location it is found today, connected. Even though our Slavic ancestors only came to these lands at the turn of the 5th and 6th centuries, they only settled, up to the 8th century, in the outskirts of what would become “Old Prague”: in Šárka, in Bohnice, in Butovice and at Levý Hradec – the oldest seat of the Premyslian dynasty. Only the growing need of the state, the significance of the local market and ford lead to the creation of Prague Castle, which served as the residence of the Czech prince only from the 9th century. Therefore, Prague castle has been the centre of theCzech state for one thousand two hundred years. Besides Papal Rome, you will not find another older centre of a state in Europe that has been continually utilised up to now.

The Premyslian Empire and Premyslian Prague proliferated together with Christianity, which was made accessible to the local people by St. Cyril and St. Methodius in the Slavic language. They came to us from Byzantium, but in Greater Moravia, where they were summoned in the year 864, they battled from the beginning with their Latin-oriented counterparts from the Frank Empire. It was as if this encounter between the Eastern and Western world at the very dawn of the Czech state marked the later peripeteias of our modern history. However, the Western orientation won out. Prince Wenceslas († 929 or 935), the principal sacred patron and eternal ruler of this land, anchored the Czech state in western politics and after the founding of Prague’s bishopric (974) even Latin culture prevailed over Old Slavic. But Greater Moravia’s heritage remained present, particularly in the popularity of an unusual type of cathedral in the shape of a rotunda.

Václav I.

Prague in the 10th century was an imposing, large metropolis. Ibrahim Ibn Jakob, the Arabian traveller and entrepreneur, described Prague as a rich “stone city”. Unfortunately, not much is left from his time; the following epoch of Romanesque art was more generous. Monuments at Prague Castle, numerous temples, fragments of the Judita’s stone bridge and wholly unique Romanesque city houses support the extraordinary significance and wealth of Prague in the 11th and 12th centuries. In spite of this, Prague did not have the rights of a city, and its built-up area, as isolated yards, went from Prague Castle to the Vltava River ford and further along the other side of the river all the way to the Vyšehrad fortification. The densest and richest built-up area was in the location that would later become Old Town (Staré Město), which was then called Mezihrady (between castles). There, an international market blossomed. That is also why this section became the heart of the city. King Wenceslas I, between the years 1230–41, enclosed it with ramparts and with the founding of St. Gall’s town (Havelské město), laid down the foundations for the freedoms of a city. Probably from this time forward, Mezihrady came to be also known as “Prague’s City” (Pražské město), after Prague Castle. At that time, the Gothic style also pervaded here: additional city buildings, palaces and cloisters were built. In the middle of the 13th century about 4,000 inhabitants lived in the Prague agglomeration, which was a large city at that time. However, by the beginning of the 14th century, the number of inhabitants of Prague rose to 10,000 people. The expansion of the capital city reflected the flowering of the Czech state. The Premyslian dynasty – after more than five hundred years on the throne – ruled from Prague not only Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia, but also the Polish and Hungarian kingdoms. The richness of the Kutná Hora silver mines evoked the same kind of fever that occurred in the 19th century in the Klondike, and the silver Prague groschen, minted from the year 1300, represented one of the most stable currencies in Europe for the next three centuries. In Olomouc, in the year 1306, the young Wenceslas III was murdered, thus the Premyslian dynasty died by the sword and the linked states immediately fell apart. However, it remained an attractive example for central Europe. The Luxemburgs and Jagiellons imitated it, but only the Hapsburgs renewed the unity of central Europe.

Charles IV.

The Luxemburgs ruled us for almost one hundred and thirty years (1310–1437). Jan Luxemburg, “royal diplomat” and “the last knight”, acquired the Czech throne with his marriage to Eliška Přemyslovna. He sold various privileges, and so Old Town (Staré Město) was able to buy the right to have a town hall (1338) and thus become a true medieval city. Jan’s son Wenceslas was raised in the Paris court, where he took the name Karel. He acquired the emperor’s crown and became Charles IV (Karel IV). He did a lot for Prague, which was the capital city of the Czech state and also of the Holy Roman Empire. He had Prague Castle rebuilt, and was credited for raising Prague’s bishopric to an archbishopric (1344) and with his father founded St. Vitus’ Cathedral (katedrála sv. Víta). After the death of the builder, Matthias of Arras, he called from Gmünd an extraordinarily gifted young man and all-around artist, Peter Parler, who among other things built the Charles Bridge. In the year 1348 he founded Charles University, the oldest university in central Europe, and that year he also laid the foundation for Prague’s New Town, which displaced a number of old, scattered structures. The expansion of the fortifications under the castle, (today’s Lesser Town [Malá Strana]), the construction of a number of monumental cathedrals and cloisters, together with a belt of fortifications, which drew into the city a number of vineyards, orchards and gardens, and even old Vyšehrad, changed Prague into a large metropolis, incomparable to anything in Europe as it was then. The area of Prague reached 700 hectares and the number of inhabitants rose to 40,000. After the death of Charles IV, already then called the Father of the Homeland, his son Wenceslas IV took the throne. He was as good as his father, but he had bad luck. The old world collapsed and his closest relatives, including his brother Sigmund, just complicated his situation. In Bohemia the fine art of the “beautiful style” was expanding, but in Prague, the first European reformation was also being born.

The Czech reformation was ahead of Europe’s by more than one hundred years. We paid a harsh price for this. The burning of Jan Hus at the Council of Constance (6 July 1415) made both his backers and opponents more radical. The Hussite Revolution broke out in full force. Even though the memories of the heroic battle of the Czech Utraquists and the famous victory of their leader Jan Žižka from Trocnov helped Czechs to overcome the difficult times and inspired many artistic works, the peripeteia of the civil wars, the abundant expunging crusades and the Pope’s anathemas tormented this land for almost the entire 15th century. Bohemia found itself in the isolation of heretics, Prague became poor and the number of its inhabitants fell to 25,000. Our golden age had ended.

Rulers of the Jagiellon Dynasty, who wanted to guide the country out of crisis, had many great ambitions, but unfortunately far lesser abilities. Even though Prague’s crafts and trade flowered, Late Gothic art adopted the Renaissance innovations. But after Vladislav II also became the Hungarian king and moved his seat to Budín (1490), the royal oligarchy fully ruled the state and the significance of Prague again declined. The tragic death of king Ludvík in the battle at Mohacs (1526) not only ended the more than half-century rule of the Jagiellons, but opened the way for the Turks into Hungary and the Hapsburgs to power.

The Hapsburgs held together the states of Austria, Bohemia and Hungary for almost four hundred years (until the year 1918). Their accession to the Czech throne was accompanied by the growing Renaissance, which was only slowly making its way through Protestant environs, so Prague was only reached by a late wave of Renaissance art – mannerism, where however it shone brightly. The great fire of Prague Castle and Lesser Town (Malá Strana) in the year 1541 did irreparable damage, however, at the same time it provided a great opportunity to apply the new style. The Renaissance palaces around Prague Castle and the Summer Castle of Queen Anna Jagiellon (from the years 1537–63) were the avant-garde of this style. Emperor Rudolf II, in the year 1584, brought his residence to Prague and Rudolfine Prague became the European centre for late mannerism. The demented but art-loving Emperor Rudolf surrounded himself with capable artists, scientists, and charlatans. He rebuilt Prague Castle and its gardens; he created an extraordinary collection of art works and was compelled to give sanction to religious freedom in his empire.

Rudolf II.

With the fall of Rudolf II, religious tolerance ended. The conflict between the Protestant majority and the Catholic Hapsburgs led to the Estates Uprising, which began the Thirty Years War (1618–48). The Czech Protestants lost. The Czech state lost its rights for three hundred years – it became a mere province – and the majority of Czech royalty, intellectuals and patricians emigrated. A cruel period of re-Catholicising occurred. The frenzy of war had slaughtered half of all the inhabitants of this land, and the Protestant and Catholic armies plundered the Czech kingdom and Rudolf’s collections. In spite of that, even during the war, Albrecht of Wallenstein, the ambitious emperor’s general, tried to uphold Rudolf’s artistic tradition. His magnificent palace in Lesser Town (Malá Strana) ushered in the monumental constructions of Prague’s Baroque period. The fall of Albrecht of Wallenstein and his subsequent murder (1634) ended the patronage of this magnate, but his example was not forgotten. Prague again changed its face. The cooperation of talented artists and generous sponsors fills in the second half of the 17th and the first third of the 18th centuries.

The Age of Enlightenment brought the decline of artistic power and a fall into provincialism. In spite of that, the Estates Theatre (Stavovské divadlo) was able to celebrate the success of Mozart’s Don Giovanni and the house called Bertramka became a silent witness to the composers’ Prague sojourn. At that time about 80,000 people lived in Prague and from that time the number of its inhabitants has been constantly rising.

The close of the “Age of Enlightenment” is closely connected with the nationalist revival. The remainder of the Czech aristocracy and the descendants of the noble White Mountain immigrants supported the emancipation of theCzech nation, its sciences and arts and its cultural and political institutions. However, the tragic manner of the definition of a nation according to its language laid down the foundations for the national split between Czech and German-speaking Czechs. Both nationalities competed with each other and the reverberations of their rivalry can still be seen in Prague today: the German Rudolfinum and State Opera as compared with the Czech National Theatre and National Museum. As we move away from that period, it is obvious that the works of both nationalities complement each other and this competition was very useful. Even though Czech literaturewritten in German culminated at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries in the books of Franz Kafka, Gustav Meyring and Franz Werfel, the rift between the two ethnic groups was widening.

Artistic works of the 19th century, including Prague’s Art Nouveau, complemented the Baroque face of medieval Prague, but did not change its character. In fact, even the modern trends of the beginning of the 20th century did not harm the face of old Prague. Modern art is not a heterogeneous element in this ancient city organism, as long as it is sensitively aware of its surroundings, as is shown, for instance in the cubist structures from the time before World War I. Yes, Bohemia is the only land where cubist architecture exists, and Prague is the capital of cubist architecture.

World War I led to the fall of the Hapsburg monarchy. On 28 October 1918 the Czechoslovak Republic was announced, Prague again became a real capital city and Prague Castle welcomed the president of the Republic – T. G. Masaryk, who found his architect in the prudent Josip Plečnik. In the second half of the twenties, art deco replaced functionalism. Czech functionalism and surrealism, and also the ideas found in the writing ofKarel Čapek, are world-renowned ideas that represent the varied mosaic of culture between the wars. The twenty-year period of the First Republic can be considered the second golden age in our history. However, the honeymoon between Prague and Paris ended with the Munich Pact in the year 1938. Great Britain and France threw us to Hitler.

The collapse of the First Republic and the occupation by Fascist Germany again endangered the existence of the Czech-speaking majority in this land. The atrocities wrought by the Nazis made the future coexistence of Czechs and Czech Germans – 98% of whom decided to be German Germans – impossible. The liberation of the Republic and the Prague Rebellion in May 1945 meant the return of freedom. Then after the war the displacement of 2.5 million Germans ended 700 years of coexistence of both nations in our land.

After the sad Munich experience with our western allies and under the impression that the Soviet Union freed most of the State, many Czechs fell for the illusion that it is possible to unite democracy and communism. Forty percent of the votes were enough for the Communists to take over in 1948. In the following years, with a creative enthusiasm, the new rulers tried to destroy everything that reminded them of the “antiquated” times and to replace it all with new symbols. An example is the gigantic statue of Stalin on Letná Plain, which was removed back in 1961. In the year 1968, the tanks of the “friendly” nations of the Soviet Bloc crushed the efforts of the so-called Socialism with a human face. This was followed by another stage of the systematic devastation of our cultural heritage, a reminder of which is the absurdly constructed street under the National Theatre. So, probably the only useful thing that the Communist regime left behind in Prague is Prague’s subway system.

The Velvet Revolution, from the 17th of November 1989, allowed us to return to a sort of civilisation that most people in this land consider to be their own. Prague again awoke to freedom. Free elections meant the division of Czechoslovakia, because the majority of Slovaks had quite a different idea of a united state. Since 1993, Prague has been the capital city of the Czech Republic, which joined NATO on 12 March 1999 and is vehemently preparing to join the European Union.


Panorama Pražského hradu

Prague is an astonishing organism. It is not unusual to find that the Baroque faćade of a building hides Gothic masonry and Romanesque basements. Old Prague is a medieval city with a Baroque overcoat, adorned with mod-ern art like jewellery. Adjoining its historical heart (Prague Castle, Hradčany, Lesser Town, Old Town, and Vyšehrad) is the inner town, whose quarters grew from old outskirts, and from the 18th and particularly the 19th centuries they grew together with Prague towns (e.g. Karlín, Smíchov, Holešovice, Vinohrady, Vršovice, Žižkov). And now the outer town is connected to them today, full of housing developments, shopping centres, family villas, forests and gardens, but also industrial units (e. g. Jižní Město, Jihozápadní Město, Bohnice, Prosek).


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Updated 01-01-1970 01:00