Charles IV (1316-1378) reigned as king of Bohemia from 1346 and Holy Roman emperor from 1355. He strengthened monarchical authority and increased intellectual and cultural contact between Bohemia and the West.
On May 14, 1316, Charles IV was born in Bohemia, the son of John of Luxemburg, King of Bohemia. Charles was taken by his father to France at the age of 7 to be educated at the French court. John, who spent the last 20 years of his reign outside Bohemia, wanted his son to have a broader experience of the world of knighthood than Bohemia could offer. After his French education (under a tutor who would later, as Pope Clement VI, crown Charles emperor), Charles was called by his father to Italy, where John had temporarily become governor of Lombardy. After 2 years in Italy, Charles was sent by his father to Bohemia, where he was named margrave of Moravia and given the administration of Bohemia and Moravia on his father's behalf. In 1341 Charles was recognized as heir to the Bohemian throne.
In 1342 Charles's former tutor became Pope Clement VI and, in collaboration with King John, arranged for Charles to be elected king of the Romans (the first step toward being elected Holy Roman emperor) in 1346. In the same year John and Charles went to France to fight against the English armies in the first major campaign of the Hundred Years War. King John, blind and aged, was led into battle at Crécy, where he was killed. Charles, who survived the battle, now became king of Bohemia. After a diplomatic and political struggle with his rivals for the imperial crown and with the Pope himself, Charles went suddenly to Italy in 1355 and was crowned emperor by the papal legate.
In the mid-14th century the title of Holy Roman emperor was useful more for dynastic aggrandizement than as a sign of political power. The series of emperors from hitherto obscure families—Hapsburgs, Nassaus, Wittelsbachs, and Luxemburgs—who had held the title from 1273 had been elected precisely because they were unlikely to create a genuine imperial monarchy. The real power in the empire lay in the hands of the princes (the electors) who elected each emperor and in the hands of the other aristocrats and individual cities who vied with them for rights and privileges. The imperial title gave its holder only certain rights to appoint some kinds of officials, to issue some privileges, and to receive certain incomes from Italy and Germany. It also attracted dynastic jealousy and political opposition from those who feared too powerful or too ambitious an emperor. Charles faced the same problems as his predecessors: lack of an imperial administration or legal structure, lack of money, and lack of a strong social or territorial base upon which to establish a stronger imperial title.
Charles attempted first to set the empire in order. At the imperial diets of Nuremburg and Metz in 1355-1356 he issued a series of ordinances, collectively known as the Golden Bull, which stabilized the privileges of the electors, gave them virtual independence from imperial authority, and intended that they become the basis of a stronger empire. Hostility on the part of those envious of the electors, however, and of the Wittelsbach and Hapsburg rivals of Charles prevented the Emperor from contributing much toward a real reform of German government. In addition, Charles was occupied with other imperial duties. The papacy, situated at Avignon since the beginning of the century, claimed Charles's assistance for its return to Italy. The great poet Petrarch wrote Charles imploring him to remember the Roman destiny and to return to pacify Italy. In 1367-1369 Charles made an unsuccessful entry into Italy. From his return to Prague until his death he concentrated upon establishing his sons in positions of power. He had his eldest son, Wenceslaus (later Wenceslaus IV), elected king of the Romans and named him his heir in Bohemia and arranged for the marriage of his second son (later the emperor Sigismund) to the heiress of the king of Hungary. His remaining efforts concentrated upon the extension of Bohemian power.
The establishment of the house of Luxemburg on the Bohemian throne in the person of Charles's father, John, in 1310 had begun the rise of Bohemian power and prestige in Christendom. John, although away from Bohemia for the last 20 years of his life, had strengthened the power and, more importantly, the prestige of the Crown by his chivalrous adventures and by his judicious acquisition of territories for his kingdom. Charles's talent, administrative experience, papal connections, and genuine love for Bohemia led him to continue his father's policy. In 1348 Charles established the great University of Prague and, in the following years, rebuilt much of Prague, his capital, adding the famous New Town to the city by a spectacular bridge across the Vltava, and built the famous castle of Karlstein, from which he governed both empire and kingdom.
Charles's patronage of learning and the arts resulted in the fertilization of native Bohemian culture with the work of artists and scholars brought from France and Germany. Prague even witnessed an early stage of humanism under the influence of Charles's efficient and learned chancery. The scholar-king himself inspired much of the activity in his realm. He could speak Latin, French, German, Czech, and Italian, maintained an interest in theology and law, and lived a simple, pious-almost superstitious-life.
In following the imperial style of his age, which meant attending as much to the fortunes of his house as to the problems of the empire, Charles also enriched the kingdom which his house ruled. If his imperial reign was less than effective, he at least avoided being pulled into the insoluble problems of Italy and the papacy and managed to stabilize for a time the political rivalries in Germany. He died at Prague on Nov. 29, 1378.
The standard biography of Charles IV in English is Bede Jarrett, The Emperor Charles IV (1935). Another fullength study is Gerald G. Walsh, The Emperor Charles IV, 1316-1378: A Study in Holy Roman Imperialism (1924). There is a short account in the Cambridge Medieval History, vol. 3 (1932). Background works which include excellent studies of Charles IV are Denys Hay, Europe in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries (1966), and R. R. Betts, Essays in Czech History (1969).