Discover Charles' Life

Charles IV - 700 Years | Life

Discover Charles' Life

In the year of our Lord 1316, on May 14th, in the first hour, Wenceslas was born in the city of Prague, the firstborn of King John and Lady Elizabeth, the Bohemian and Polish Queen, and his birth brought joy and delight to all who loved the good of the King and the Kingdom.

Petr Žitavský: Zbraslav Chronicle

Born in troubled times

Shortly after dawn on May 14th 1316, Elizabeth of Bohemia gives birth to the future heir to the throne of the King of Bohemia, John of Luxembourg. The boy is given the traditional name of Kings of Bohemia – Wenceslas.

The year of his birth is described by chroniclers as one having an exceptionally large number of natural disasters. First, a large part of Prague, including Prague Castle, was reduced to ashes in a devastating fire; therefore, the Royal son is born directly in the city, probably in Štupart’s House near the Church of St. James. Soon, the country also had to endure an unprecedented drought, followed by floods and a severe winter.

The atmosphere is also aggravated by political conflicts in Central Europe. In addition, the strong opposition of power-hungry nobles in Bohemia stands against the “Foreigner King”, John of Luxembourg.

Adoration of the Magi | Chapel of the Holy Cross, Karlštejn Castle

When I was seven years old, my father sent me in the year of our Lord 1323 to a French King in France. This King let the Bishop administer the confirmation and I received the same name as him, which was Charles.

Charles IV: Vita Caroli

French education

In the uncertain political situation, John of Luxembourg seeks to deepen relations with France. Therefore, he sends his eldest son to gain education at the court of the French King and finds him a wife from the same country.

Barely a few weeks after he leaves Křivoklát, the young Prince Wenceslas finds himself in Paris. At the confirmation he accepts the new name Charles and, probably on the same day, May 15th 1323, he marries Blanche of Valois.

The seven year old spouses are separated after the wedding – Blanche leaves Paris while the Bohemian Prince learns to read, write, count and master the fundamentals of French and Latin. Later, as he sits on the Czech throne, he is very likely the first King of Bohemia who can read and write.

Sainte-Chapelle, interior, Paris, France | © Shutterstock

Then we left for Lucca in Tuscany, arranged preparations for the battle against the Florentines, built the beautiful castle (...) and gave it the name of Monte Carlo.

Charles IV: Vita Caroli

Italian adventure

John of Luxembourg is trying to take over a city in northern Italy, leading to a series of bloody clashes. For the first time, the young Prince Charles appears at his side. And the Italian adventure nearly becomes fatal for him.

Shortly after his arrival, in Easter 1331, he miraculously survives an attempted poisoning. A year later, he finds himself in the middle of a military uprising against the Luxembourgs. In the battle of Fort San Felice, he for the first time leads the army and is badly injured.

At the same time, he is acquiring statesmanship and political skills whilst negotiating treaties, and strengthens the defence of the territory gained. Near the city of Lucca, he establishes the strategic castle bearing his name – Montecarlo.

Also, he meets his younger brother John Henry for the first time.

Lucca, Italy | © Shutterstock

We arrived in Bohemia, where we have not been for eleven years. There we learned that a few years ago our mother Elizabeth died.

Charles IV: Vita Caroli

Back in Bohemia

In 1333 the strategic interests of the Luxembourgs takes Charles to Bohemia. He returns to his homeland after eleven years, basically as a foreigner – unable to speak his own language anymore.

At the end of October, he appears at the gates of Prague, which lies in ruins. Prague Castle is virtually uninhabitable, therefore, Charles settles in the city and orders that the most urgent reconstructions be implemented. He wants to bring his wife Blanche to Prague as soon as possible.

However, he manages to push through changes only with difficulty. John of Luxembourg, apparently out of fear that Charles could dislodge him from the Bohemian throne, does not let him lead the country as the “Young King\", but creates a special position for him, Margrave of Moravia. However, for this role, he does not establish any specific authority, and so a sharp struggle for power between father and son soon begins.

Prague | © Michal Vitásek, CzechTourism

When they with their numerous prelates and nobles came from the Prague Church, they arrived to a place dug up and prepared for new foundations. Four of them entered into this excavation, namely the Archbishop, the King and his two sons, they went down to the bottom and laid, with reverence, piety and in a suitable manner, the first stone for the construction of the new church.

Petr Žitavský: Zbraslav Chronicle

Foundation stone of the Cathedral

The friendship of Charles and Pope Clement helps Prague to achieve the status of Archbishop's residence. To celebrate this event, the Luxembourgs establish the new Cathedral. The laying of the foundation stone takes place on November 21st in the presence of King John and both of his sons. Shortly afterwards, John and Charles set out on a crusade to Lithuania.

Following the French concept, the new Cathedral should be a place for coronations and the last resting place of Kings of Bohemia. Out of respect to his ancestors, Charles brings the remains of the Přemyslid Kings here.

John of Luxembourg tries to ensure sufficient financial resources for the construction of the sumptuous Cathedral – its construction will be partially financed from the profits of silver mines in Kutná Hora. But even that is not enough and the construction progresses only slowly. It is not fully completed until 1929.

St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague | © Martin Mařák, CzechTourism

God, the creator and lover of peace, restored in the victorious church the supreme peace, in the warring church in his extreme noble generosity the very beneficial beginning of peace, encouraging the Pope and Roman Electors to choose for the King of the Romans a peaceable prince, who shall remove the enemies of peace and their companions.

Chronicle of Francis of Prague

King of the Romans

Though the power struggle with his aging father John of Luxembourg had abated, Charles had a new political battle waiting on European soil.

The Holy Roman Emperor, Louis of Bavaria, with his interventions in the running of the Church, increasingly irritates Pope Clement VI. Church dignitaries seeking a suitable rival candidate find the name of the Bohemian prince is often mentioned for the role.

On July 11th 1346, a meeting of imperial electors takes place in the city of Rhen, where Charles is elected King of the Romans. This starts an open power struggle in the Empire.

In this turbulent atmosphere, the traditional coronation cities of Roman Kings refuse to allow Charles to enter through their gates, so the ceremony is untraditionally held in Bonn, on November 26 th, 1346.

Seven Prince-electors electing Charles’s grandfather Henry VII| Codex balduini trevirensis, around 1340

I want to give to successors, who will sit on my double throne, the double knowledge of life in this world to choose the better of them.

Charles IV: Vita Caroli

King of Bohemia

After being crowned King of the Romans in Bonn, Charles must return to Bohemia through enemy territory loyal to Louis of Bavaria. He decides not to risk it and travels to his homeland disguised as a squire.

For Charles’s coronation as King of Bohemia, everything is prepared long in advance. His father John had already confirmed to the Bohemian nobles in 1341 that he was to be his successor and by then, Charles had already given orders to create the new Crown jewels and others.

During his father's lifetime, Charles must have already given thought to the form and symbolic significance of the coronation ceremony. This explains why the new Coronation Rules of Czech Kings were already put in place in the summer of 1347. Accordingly, the ceremony takes place in September 1347.

Karel IV. | iStock

What Augustus did for Rome, Charles IV did for the capital city of Bohemia.

Umberto Decembrio, 1399

The founding year

1348 does not start happily. Northern Italy and Carinthia are hit by a devastating earthquake, which is followed in European cities by one of the worst plague epidemics in history.

Although the tragedy also concerns his empire, Charles concentrates on events in Bohemia. In the first year of his reign, he takes steps which elevate Prague to one of the most important cities in Central Europe.

In March, he personally helps to build the new city walls. Shortly afterwards, on April 7th, he issues a set of state charters, including the incorporation charter of Prague University and New Town.

However, in the same year, the King suffers a personal tragedy. After a short illness, at the age of just 32, his first wife, Blanche of Valois dies.

Historical view of the city of Prague from 1593| Civitates orbis terrarum

... to honour all armies of heaven, we built our Karlštejn Castle, which we built from its foundations as completely new and decided to call it for its lasting memory by our name, the two chapels...

Charles IV: Vita Caroli


Soon after taking over the Bohemian throne, Charles discusses the idea of building a summer residence based on a French design where he could stay with his court for part of the year to escape the ever busy Prague.

He finally chooses the strategically quite disadvantageous valley in the immediate vicinity of the Berounka River. Charles attaches the utmost importance to the construction of the new castle, evidence of which is the fact that for the laying of the foundation stone in June 1348, he sends Archbishop Ernest of Pardubice as his representative.

Only during the construction of the castle does a plan emerge to make it the main Imperial Treasury. It becomes a place for both Czech and Roman regalia, as well as numerous rare relics and jewellery, which Charles has managed to collect.

Karlštejn Castle | © Ladislav Renner, CzechTourism

Rejoice already by the delight of the uplifting joy of hearts of all of our faithful. Sing all the serfs and the entire nation, celebrate the general merriment to the benefit of our King. Behold, the Royal trunk grew a young noble branch. We have a son, cheer my dear faithful!

Charles IV announces the birth of his son Wenceslas

Desire for an heir

The death of Blanche of Valois in 1348 greatly grieved Charles. However, as he still does not have a male heir, he must think pragmatically and soon marries Anna of Bavaria.

A year later, the couple has a son, whom they name Wenceslas. But Charles’s hopes for the continuation of the family line are sadly premature. The boy dies when he is less than two years old. Moreover, shortly after that, in 1353, the Czech King becomes a widower for the second time when Anna of Bavaria falls from a horse and breaks her neck.

Charles marries for the third time and takes steps, which would, if necessary, allow the succession of his younger brother, John Henry, or possibly his son. He eventually gains his long desired successor in 1361.

Blanche of Valois | © Pražský hrad, Jan Gloc

You have no idea how monstrous it is to rule!

Charles IV in a letter to Francesco Petrarca

Domestic political failure

Although the Czech Kingdom flourishes, Charles encounters one of his greatest political failures here.

Similarly to Ottokar II and Wenceslas II before him, he also attempts to set out provincial rights and bring order to relationships between the monarch and the aristocracy.

The so-called Maiestas Carolina was established to define how the monarch may dispose of Royal property and to modify the conditions of succession in order to avoid disputes relating to the Crown. It also strengthened the power of the monarch against the aristocracy.

But, in this matter, Charles encounters stiff resistance from the aristocrats, who are satisfied with the existing customary rights and do not want to change them. As soon as Charles discovers that the new Provincial Code has no chance of being approved, he decides to refrain from his original aims.

Golden Bull of 1356

The Emperor laid the foundation or the first stone in the foundation of the new bridge on the banks near the Monastery of St. Clement.

Chronicle of Beneš Krabice of Weitmile

Stone legacy

After the death of the first architect of St. Vitus Cathedral, Charles searches in Europe for a suitable successor.

Finally, he invites to Prague the builder Peter Parler, who at that time was only twenty four years old. Together, they begin the next stage of the reconstruction of Prague and the entire Kingdom.

After the floods in 1342, the ever expanding Prague is clearly lacking a stone bridge – and the Emperor's attention is aimed in this direction. In 1357, Charles lays the foundation stone of a new bridge and Peter Parler’s stonemasons start work.

Thanks to their efforts, in mere decades Prague becomes an important centre of trade routes, by which Charles tries to link the Kingdom with the rest of Western Europe.

Charles Bridge, Prague | © Dagmar Veselková, CzechTourism

When the Emperor resided in Italy, in the city of Milan, he sent messengers to the city of Pavia, and insisted that the body of St. Vitus the martyr, the patron saint of the Czech Kingdom, was given to him, which has rested for many years in the Monastery of St. Augustine. And so he brought the body to St. Vitus Cathedral, and numerous bodies and relics of other saints to the Prague Church, and he adorned them with gold, silver and precious stones.

Chronicle of Beneš Krabice of Weitmile

Prague, the heart of Europe

Since 1354, every year at Easter at the Cattle Market, Charles allows the public to view the Roman Crown Jewels and rare relics, which he acquired while travelling through Europe.

On the so-called Feast of the Holy Lance and the Nails of Our Lord, Christians from all over Europe gather in Prague. Charles is fulfilling his lifelong dream. Prague is alive and importantly, is flourishing.

Charles’s interest in collecting relics culminated in 1369. According to chroniclers, that year the city on the Vltava River attracted up to 100 thousand pilgrims.

Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV placing a piece of the Holly Cross into the Reliquary Cross | A detail from the Relic Scenes, around 1360, Karlštejn

I, the fourth Charles, an Emperor unbeaten by the great horrors of the world, now overwhelmed by death, under this grave I am hidden; noble Lord, please, let my soul pierce the stars.

the inscription on the gravestone of Charles IV quoted at the funeral speech by Jan Očko of Vlašim

Sad Kingdom

In the last years of his life, Charles is trying to transfer the largest possible amount of his obligations to his sons.

Although for his whole life he has suffered from gout, the immediate cause of his death is an accident. After an unfortunate fall from a horse, he breaks his hip and is confined to bed. Shortly afterwards, he gets pneumonia, to which he succumbs on the evening of November 29th,1378.

Several days pass between his death and funeral, during which mourners from all over the Kingdom gather in Prague.

On Saturday, December 11 th, the Emperor, accompanied by 564 link-boys, sets out on his final journey.

Golden Gate, St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague | © Sergey Kohl Shutterstock