Castles, cathedrals and conflict: exploring Prague’s history
The Czech capital is famous for its medieval Gothic architecture – but there are countless other facets of its tumultuous past to encounter on a visit. Dr Eleanor Janega, who teaches in the Department of International History at LSE, guides us around the pivotal moments and sites in Prague’s history
Once upon a time, in a land in the centre of Europe, a princess named Libuše met a ploughman, Přemysl. The two fell in love, and founded not just a dynasty – the Přemyslids, who ruled Bohemia (in what’s now the Czech Republic) for some five centuries – but also the settlement on the River Vltava that became the city of Prague.
That’s the legend, anyway. Like most medieval dynasties, the Přemyslids needed that little hook of mythology to justify their rule. But at least some surviving physical remains link that tale to historical fact.
Prague and the Přemyslids
The Přemyslid dynasty was reputedly founded in the eighth century AD, but in prehistoric times the region was inhabited by the Celtic Boii tribe, from which the name Bohemia is derived. Centuries later, Germanic invasions of other parts of Europe, notably the campaigns of Attila the Hun in the mid-fifth century, sparked large-scale movements of various peoples around Europe – including Slavs, who settled in this area.
The bastion founded, according to tradition, by Libuše still stands on an outcrop above the Vltava, south of the city centre: it is called Vyšehrad, or “castle on the heights”. Certainly, evidence suggests the site was fortified from at least the 10th century, though much of the current edifice dates from later eras. It does, however, encompass the 11th-century Romanesque Rotunda of St Martin, and the great graveyard hosting such luminaries as composers Antonín Dvořák and Bedřich Smetana, and artist Alphonse Mucha, whose glorious art nouveau paintings are still used in countless adverts.
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The jewel of Bohemia
As Bohemia grew in importance during the later Middle Ages, so did Prague, its riverside location providing excellent connections. As early as AD 965, a Jewish merchant named Ibrahim ibn Yacoub described Prague as a busy trading centre. In AD 973, Prague gained its own bishopric, Christianity having been promoted earlier that century by Duke Václav I (Anglicised as Wenceslas, of ‘Good King’ carol fame). That brought Bohemia under the auspices of the Holy Roman Empire, which helped grow trade yet further.
The establishment of productive silver mines near the city also boosted Prague’s wealth. During the later Middle Ages, that was reflected in major building projects. The ruling Přemyslids established the castle on top of the Hradčany hill, on the left bank of the Vltava, in the late ninth century.
That evolved into the sprawling complex that now encompasses various palaces, churches, museums and other sites in Hradčany and nearby Malá Strana district. Modern-day visitors love to stroll Golden Lane, the pretty street occupied by goldsmiths in the 17th century, and later home to writers including Franz Kafka.
On the opposite bank, the Old Town (Staré Město) developed. The first bridge was built around 1170 to facilitate movement between the castle and cathedral district, home of the monarchs and city authorities, and the Staré Město, where most of the shops and commerce were based. That bank was also home to the thriving Jewish community, in the Josefov district; you can still visit the Old New Synagogue (Staronová synagoga), built c1270, within the larger Jewish Museum complex that also encompasses the Old Jewish Cemetery, founded in the 15th century.
That first span over the Vltava was replaced in 1357 by the picturesque Charles Bridge, to which its celebrated statues of saints were added mostly in the 18th century. The monarch who ordered that bridge, and after whom it was named, was pivotal in the transformation of the city. The last Přemyslid ruler, Václav III, died heirless in 1306 – after a four-year tussle for power, the throne was taken by John of Luxembourg.
Prague after the Přemyslids
His son, Charles IV, was an incredibly diplomatic, charismatic and intelligent man who was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1355 – and who was determined that the new imperial capital should reflect his lofty status. As well as the bridge, Charles revamped the castle and, ensuring Prague was promoted to an archbishopric, started the building of the grand Gothic St Vitus Cathedral in Hradčany.
He showered the city with money, building the magnificent Church of Our Lady Before Týn on the Old Town Square in Staré Město and founding the city’s university, now called Charles University. Notably, he established the New Town (Nové Město) in 1348. Prague rapidly became one of the largest and most important European cities north of the Alps; somehow it escaped the worst of the Black Death, maintaining its political, religious and commercial prominence through the 14th century.
Unrest erupted in the early 1400s when a scholar at the university, Jan Hús, began promoting a new brand of theology influenced by the teachings of John Wycliffe. His work was condemned by church authorities – as was much of the Reformation that followed in western Europe – but he garnered large-scale support before being executed in 1415.
In 1419, the movement he kick-started led to the first Defenestration of Prague, when a mob led by a priest named Jan Želivský threw seven Catholic city councillors out of the windows of the New Town Hall, marking the start of what became known as the Hussite Wars. You can still visit this landmark building, with its imposing Gothic tower, on Charles Square.
Prague’s Habsburg revival
This upheaval took its toll on Prague’s status, though it remained a wealthy trading centre. It wasn’t until the Habsburg Rudolf II, King of Bohemia and Archduke of Austria as well as Holy Roman Emperor, came to power in 1575 that the city’s political fortunes really revived.
Unlike other Habsburgs, who saw themselves as tied to Austria, Rudolf loved Prague. He also loved art, architecture and diverse other studies – he was fascinated by occult sciences. He nurtured a renaissance in the city, embarking on numerous building projects and bringing in thinkers from across Europe, returning prestige as well as wealth to Prague. It became a centre for astronomical research, and gleaned new ideas on science and other topics from the Ottoman empire.
Boom time was back, and Prague continued to grow. The population doubled during the early decades of the 18th century, becoming increasingly diverse under the Habsburgs. The onset of the Industrial Revolution provided another boost, with factories springing up in the Karlín industrial quarter, established in 1817 to exploit the region’s bountiful coal supplies.
By the mid-19th century the population had swollen to over 100,000, and the city welcomed an influx of students, artisans, artists and intellectuals. This fuelled a nascent Czech nationalism, and whispers of greater independence from the Austro-Hungarian empire that had been created in 1866.
War, occupation and revolution
During the First World War, the Czechs fought as subjects of the Austro-Hungarian empire; when it collapsed in 1918, a Czechoslovak Republic was founded, with Prague as its capital. This new state was ethnically mixed, and home to some three million Germans. As a result, the Munich Agreement of 1938, negotiated between Adolf Hitler and the leaders of Britain and France (but not the Czechs), saw a swathe of territory known as the Sudetenland handed to Germany. Occupied by the Nazis during the Second World War, Prague avoided the heavy bombing that devastated many other European cities, so much of its medieval, Renaissance and later heritage remains largely intact.
After liberation, Prague became the seat of a Communist government which – despite a failed attempt to soften Stalinist policies in the so-called Prague Spring of 1968, which was brutally suppressed by Soviet forces – remained in power till the Velvet Revolution of 1989. You can still see bulletholes pocking the walls of the National Museum in Wenceslas Square, reminders of the 1968 Soviet crackdown.
That was followed by the Velvet Divorce of 1993, creating the modern Czech and Slovak Republics, and the arrival of mass tourism as people long excluded from Prague arrived to discover its historic marvels.
Today, it’s easy to get a sense of the city’s various golden ages: the growth around Hradčany and its castle from the ninth century, Charles IV’s building projects in the 14th, the artistic and architectural heritage of Rudolf II, even the communist style of the second half of the 20th century.
Certainly, admire the Astronomical Clock and Old Town Square, and stroll over the Charles Bridge to roam the Golden Mile in the castle. But make time to discover the other aspects of Prague’s history, too – the industrial and intellectual facets that made it one of the greatest cities in Europe.
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Dr Eleanor Janega was speaking to Paul Bloomfield
Eleanor Janega is a medieval historian and broadcaster. Her specialisms include sexuality, propaganda, apocalypticism, and the urban experience. She is the author of books including The Once and Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women's Roles in Society, and The Middle Ages: A Graphic History
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