Wenceslaus

Wenceslaus (1361-1419) was Holy Roman emperor from 1376 to 1400 and as Wenceslaus IV was king of Bohemia from 1378 to 1419.

Wenceslaus, son of the emperor Charles IV, succeeded his father as emperor-elect in 1376 but was deposed on the grounds of his alleged "worthlessness" by German opponents in 1400. As emperor, Wenceslaus was faced with the problems raised in the Church by the Great Schism and with those raised in the empire by the rivalry of political factions, which, unlike his father, he proved unable to control. In Bohemia, Wenceslaus's reign was marked by increasing aristocratic and ecclesiastical opposition to the growing power of the royal house of Luxemburg, to Wenceslaus's attempts to strengthen the power of the Crown, and to the early force of Czech nationalism.

Wenceslaus grew up and was educated during the years of his father's greatest prestige and effectiveness. Charles IV had devoted great energy to Bohemia, and his political and artistic influence was particularly strong in Prague and in the great castle of Karlstein, from which he governed both Bohemia and the empire. The flowering of Bohemian art and education that took place during Charles's reign coincided with the first stirrings of Czech national feeling, which the Emperor supported. Wenceslaus was a product of his father's cosmopolitan interests. He possessed considerable native intelligence and absorbed effectively the education his father provided for him. He appears to have been a talented diplomat in his early years, and he gave every sign of following in his father's footsteps. Wenceslaus, however, early evinced passions for hunting and drinking that later contributed to serious failures in his reign.

As king of the Romans (the title possessed by a ruler who has been elected as successor to the Holy Roman emperor but not yet crowned by the pope), Wenceslaus was faced with the problems caused by the Great Schism (1378-1415). A supporter of Pope Urban VI in Rome, Wenceslaus was opposed by those who supported Pope Clement VI in Avignon. Another cause of dissension lay in the dynastic rivalry between the house of Luxemburg on the one hand and the houses of Hapsburg and Wittelsbach on the other, dynasties that had once provided Holy Roman emperors and were eager to do so again. A third source of trouble for Wenceslaus was the political dissension in Germany. Charles IV had granted considerable privileges to the electors and to other aristocratic dynasties and to town leagues. The lesser nobility then attempted to claim the same privileges, and the result was political chaos. For the first 20 years of his reign, Wenceslaus managed to impose some degree of order upon his German subjects, but his resources were drained in military campaigns to support his brother (later Emperor Sigismund) in Hungary, and in disputes after 1394 with the Bohemian aristocracy. As long as he could use his Bohemian resources to maintain order in Germany, Wenceslaus was successful. During the last decade of the 14th century, however, those resources were fully engaged in Bohemian affairs, and Wenceslaus encountered ferocious opposition from the electors and the nobility of Germany. That opposition culminated on Aug. 20, 1400, when a meeting of the electors declared Wenceslaus deposed on the grounds of incompetence, inability to restore peace, and failure to heal the schism.

As king of Bohemia, Wenceslaus encountered problems of a different kind. His insistence upon royal rights quickly precipitated a series of quarrels with the higher clergy of Bohemia, and his employment of the lower nobility and bourgeoisie alienated the higher nobility. In 1394 the first of a series of aristocratic revolts broke out, possibly related to the breakdown in the relations between Wenceslaus and John of Jenstein, Archbishop of Prague. The revolt was led by Wenceslaus's cousin Jobst of Moravia and purported simply to force the King to reform the government and dismiss his advisers. In fact, the revolt, like those that quickly followed in 1397, 1401, and 1403, was an attempt on the part of the aristocracy to defend its individual rights and privileges against the more broadly based government of the King. Between 1394 and 1403 Wenceslaus was at the mercy of the aristocracy; and after 1403 the broken royal government was faced with yet a third domestic crisis, the revolutionary movement of piety and Czech national feeling that centered on John Hus and opened Bohemia to several decades of religious and social revolution.

The 14th century had witnessed a great upsurge of devotional feeling in Bohemia, and such great vernacular preachers as Milic of Kremsier had stirred criticism of the Church and of an Old Testament fundamentalist attitude toward dogma. When John Hus became the leader of this movement in 1402, Wenceslaus was powerless to check its excesses. Torn between Czech Hussitism and the demands of the Church for orthodoxy, Wenceslaus extended protection to the "heretics" while conciliating the Church. The burning of Hus, ordered by the Council of Constance in 1415, however, touched off great resistance. In 1419 a mob of Hussites attacked several of Wenceslaus's officials in Prague and killed them. The King, encountering the same tensions in Bohemia that he had found in the empire, could do nothing. His political and temperamental weakness— and his career of increasing political frustration—came to an end when he died of an apoplectic seizure on Aug. 16, 1419.

Further Reading on Wenceslaus

There is no biography of Wenceslaus in English. The best accounts in English are in The Cambridge Medieval History (8 vols., 1911-1936); R. W. Seton-Watson, A History of the Czechs and Slovaks (1943); and Frederick G. Heymann, John Zizka and the Hussite Revolution (1955).

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