Harold Harker looks at the bloody history hidden behind the now benign facades of what most agree is Europe’s most beautiful city.
The city of Prague in today’s Czech Republic is high on the must-visit list of many tourists. Its picturesque environment attracts young and old alike, having escaped the destruction that flattened much of Europe in the past century. It has beauty, majestic buildings and also a wealth of history. But few of the tourists wandering from Hradcany Castle to the Old Town Square recognise the part the city has played in the establishment of contemporary Christian belief.
It’s from here that the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas” comes—the story of John Nepomuk, patron saint of Bohemia. All over the city, religious curiosities, anecdotes and themes appear.
The history of Prague is joined closely to that of the Celts, dating to the time of Christ and beyond. Christian symbols dating from the eighth and ninth centuries have been found, but Christianity is usually credited to St Cyril and St Methodius, who brought Christianity to Moravia around 863 AD. It was following this time, with Christian kings and princes, that monasteries, castles and cathedrals were built and the story of Wenceslas comes.
Methodius and his companion brought the rites and beliefs of the Eastern Church to Moravia and Bohemia. However the church then remained under the jurisdiction of the Church of Rome.1 When Gregory VII was pope (the same pope who had a confrontation with King Henry IV at Canossa), he introduced the use of Latin in church services, which gradually became universal.
A number of notable religious leaders made their home in Prague. The first was John Milicz,2 the archdeacon and canon of the cathedral in Prague. Milicz always preached using his native language and spoke earnestly and powerfully against the abuses of the clergy. He visited Rome to find peace for his soul, but found abuses rife there. Although a Catholic, he provoked the writing of a papal Bull against himself for painting over the door of a cardinal the words, “Antichrist is now come, and sitteth in the Church!” He died a natural death aged 80 years in 1374. It was about this time that the first Waldensian missionaries, who adhered closely to the Bible’s teachings, arrived in Bohemia to share their message. Other preachers continued in the vein of Milicz. Janovius also from Prague preached that “salvation was only to be found by faith in the crucified Saviour.”3
It was about this time that John Hus was born in Husinec, a small town in the southern part of the present Czech State. After receiving his initial education there and in Pracatice, his mother brought him to Prague to attend the university. Kneeling with him as they neared the city, she committed him to the protection of God—something he was going to need.
Charles IV was king of Prague and Bohemia as well as Emperor of Germany. His reign is seen as the zenith of the Bohemian monarchy. He endowed churches and founded the university, which was called the Carolinium. An Oriel window is all that survives of its buildings.
Hus was obviously a devoted and brilliant student. He obtained his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1393 and the next year a Bachelor in Theology. This was followed two years later by the degree Master of Arts. Then Hus entered the Catholic Church where his prominence caught the attention of Charles and his queen, Sophie, who made Hus her confessor. Hus was a staunch, devoted Catholic, but he also studied the writings of Wycliffe from England.
Hus was appointed a preacher at the Bethlehem Chapel in Prague around 1402. (If visiting Prague today, a visit to the Bethlehem Chapel is well worthwhile.) There Hus preached in the common language, speaking against the prevailing vices of clergy and citizen alike. He was like the conscience of the city.
Probably Hus was responsible for bringing his city back to the authority of the Word of God. When public clamour was aroused against him for his forthright preaching, he was protected by his royal patrons. His knowledge of Scripture increased and formed the sole basis of his preaching, placing it above that of pope or councils. This belief became the touchstone of his ultimate stand against his church.
Around this time, King Richard II of England married Princess Anne of Bohemia, which brought much interchange of ideas of personnel between the two countries and, returning to their own country, the ideas of John Wycliffe found root in the fertile soil of Bohemia.
Hus and his preaching soon brought him into open conflict with his church. Finally he was summoned to the Council of Constance. This council had been called by the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Sigismund, to resolve the conflicting claims of three popes each claiming to be the pope. Hus was summoned to answer for his faith but granted safe conduct by the emperor. Upon arriving in Constance, however, and despite his guaranteed safety, Hus was arrested and incarcerated in the prison of the Dominicans on an islet called Insel, near where the Rhine flows from the lake. Today it is the site of Hotel Insel.
In the damp and unhygienic condtions, he fell sick, but repeated requests by his friends saw him moved to the Castle at Gottleiben just outside Constance. At the Council he was condemned, his priestly clothes stripped from him. He was then led to the Alter Graben, where he was burnt at the stake and his ashes thrown into the Rhine. The same Council took the opportunity to also condemn Wycliffe and his writings—even though he had died prior to this. Undaunted by that impediment, the Council had his bones exhumed and burnt, and the ashes were cast into the river at Lutterworth, England.
The condemnation and death of Hus and Wycliffe might have discouraged open dissent, but there were still those who believed the Holy Scriptures to be the sole source of authority in spiritual matters. Hussites flourished in Bohemia, and eventually had to take up arms in their defence. The Hussites are also called Ultraquists, because they believed and practised giving the Communion cup to all worshippers and not just to the priest. Bohemia was racked by religious wars for the next 200 years, with the city of Tabor the stronghold of the Hussites. Under General Ziska, a remarkable strategist and leader, they went from victory to victory.
They were defiant and often in control of much of the country. In 1618, the Hussite leaders marched into the Castle in Prague and into the Royal Palace and taking three Catholic representatives threw them out of a window—the Defenestration—an action that contributed to the Thirty Years War in Europe.
Hussite forces under Frederick, the newly crowed Calvinist king and the son-in-law of Charles I of England, had immediately to meet the forces of the Holy Roman Empire of Ferdinand. The confrontation took place at White Mountain on November 8, 1620. The Hussite forces were routed, their defeat complete. The country was pillaged and Protestantism in Bohemia smashed.
In Prague’s Town Hall Square today, 27 white crosses in the cobblestones are a memorial to the leaders of the Protestant cause who were hung at that time—university professors, pastors and noble leaders. And at the centre of the square stands a massive monument to John Hus, the Czech leader who changed both the course of history and the salvation of many.
Today visitors and tourists flock to the monuments of the past, little knowing or even caring about the great events they memorialise. Right outside Hradcany Castle is the Palace of the Archbishop that showed the prevailing link between the church and the state for hundreds of years.
Inside St Vitus Cathedral in the Castle area is the silver sarcophagus of John of Bohemia, the leader of the Counter-Reformation in Prague and who was taken by Hussite forces, suspended over the rails of Charles Bridge, then dropped to his death. The fingers of the many tourists who visit the site polish the brass plaque on Charles Bridge.
When asked why they touch it, the usual reply is, “For good luck!” as if it were something as benign as the Blarney Stone in Cork or the pen of Anonymous in Budapest. Few realise the tumultuous times, the persecution and death that led to the plaque’s placement there. But history confirms over and over that this is the result of combining the power of the state to enforce the creed of a tradition.
Prague is a city of tourists. Its peaceful facade of grand buildings and flowing Vltava River belie the hatred, oppression, war and massacres of the past. The lesson to learn from this piece of the past is that the freedom to worship how one will, to believe what one chooses, and to practise whatever one preaches, must never be linked to nor enforced by the state or secular power. Wherever, whenever, this principle has been ignored, death, destruction and ignominy follow.