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John Henry of Bohemia and the Wicked Gretl

For a few years in the mid-fourteenth century Bohemian influence extended over the Alpine country of the Tyrol.  The younger brother of Emperor Charles IV, John Henry married Tyrolean heiress Margaret Maultasch in 1330.  Margaret was the daughter of one-time Bohemian king Henry of Carinthia.  She was born in 1318, which means that Margaret was just barely a teenager when she married the Bohemian prince.  John Henry, who was born in 1322,  was only eight years old when the nuptials were celebrated.

The Bohemian-Carinthian connection dates back to the reign of Premysl Ottokar II, who acquired Austria, Styria, Carinthia, Carniola (modern-day Slovenia) and the Adriatic coast.  The Babenburg dynasty of Austria died out in 1246.  Premysl Ottokar was elected Duke of Austria in 1251 and he married the sister of the last Babenburg ruler.  This brought him into possession of both Danubian Austria and Alpine Styria.  In 1253 he ascended to the throne of Bohemia as Premysl Ottokar II.  When Ulrich III of Carinthia died childless in 1269, he left his lands to Premysl Ottokar II.  Thus the Bohemian king came into possession of Carinthia, Carniola and land along the Adriatic Coast.

Rudolph I of Habsburg was elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1273.  He lost little time in depriving the Bohemian king of his Danube and Alpine possessions.  In 1274 the Diet of Regensburg nullified Premysl Ottokar’s rights over his southern territories.  Emperor Rudolph put together a coalition against the Bohemian king and defeated him at the Battle of Durnkrut in 1278.

Premysl Ottokar died on the battlefield.  His son and heir Vaclav II managed to keep Bohemia and Moravia, but the Danube and Alpine lands were lost to Rudolph of Habsburg.  Rudolph soon gave Carinthia to Count Meinhardt IV, who ruled the Tyrol.

When Bohemia’s native Premyslid dynasty in turn died out in 1306, the Czechs first chose Rudolph III of Habsburg as their new king.  Rudolph III was the son of Austrian duke and Holy Roman Emperor Albert I, as well as the grandson of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph, who had vanquished Premysl Ottokar II in 1278.  Rudolph III died of dysentery within a year.  The Bohemian throne was once more vacant, and the Czechs elected Henry of Carinthia as their king in 1307.  Henry, who was the son of Meinhardt IV, did not turn out to be the king that the Czechs wanted, so they threw him out of the country and replaced him with John of Luxemburg.

Margaret Maultasch was the daughter of Henry of Carinthia, who had been thrown out of Bohemia.  John Henry was the son of Henry’s replacement, Bohemia’s King John.  John Henry was sent to the Tyrol in 1327, and in 1330 he became the husband of the wicked Gretl.

Some historians translate Maultasch as bag mouth, because of Margaret’s less than attractive appearance.  She had big lips and a prominent jaw.  Others claim that the term comes from a castle in the Tyrol.  In Carinthia Margaret is known as the wicked Gretl.

Henry of Carinthia died in 1335, and Margaret Maultasch was to inherit his domains.  They included the Tyrol, her ancestral patrimony, and Carinthia, which Emperor Rudolph had given to her grandfather Meinhardt IV after conquering the country from Bohemia’s king Premysl Ottokar II

Some of the Tyrol’s neighbors saw the seemingly vulnerable young countess and her even younger husband as easy marks for their own territorial ambitions.  Margaret’s enemies included Emperor Louis the Bavarian, the dukes of Austria, the count of Wurtemburg and the duke of Julich in the Rhineland.  Margaret and John Henry held on to her inheritance, thanks partly to their own determination, thanks partly to the Tyroleans’ love of independence, thanks partly to John Henry’s father, the redoubtable King John of Bohemia, and thanks partly to a coalition of allies, including the king of Hungary, the king of Poland and the emperor’s cousin, Duke Henry of Bavaria.

Soon the coalition of Margaret’s enemies fell apart.  The Austrians were bought off with the cession of Carinthia.  Then Emperor Louis the Bavarian, who would have taken the Tyrol by force, decided to acquire it through marriage.  The bad news was that the countess of the Tyrol was already married.  The good news was that the marriage between Margaret Maultasch and John Henry was not a happy one.

By some accounts John Henry was impotent and somewhat less than intelligent.  (He was only eight years old at the time of his marriage.)  Margaret was reportedly somewhat less than attractive and wicked.  One autumn day in 1341 when eighteen-year-old John Henry was away on a hunting trip, his wife locked him out of the castle and would not let him back in.  The local nobles would not open their doors to John Henry either, because they did not like the influence of the Bohemia’s Luxemburg family in their local affairs.  With nowhere to go, the Bohemian prince had to leave the country.

After Margaret Maultasch forced John Henry out of the Tyrol, Emperor Louis the Bavarian dissolved their marriage.  Then in 1342 Margaret married Louis the Bavarian’s son, Louis of Brandenburg.  King John of Bohemia rallied the princes of Europe against Louis the Bavarian.  The Pope excommunicated and deposed the emperor and declared Margaret’s second marriage null and void.  With Emperor Louis the Bavarian deposed, the Bohemian king’s oldest son Charles replaced him as Holy Roman Emperor.  Prague became a political and cultural center of Europe, and Charles IV became Bohemia’s greatest king.

Louis the Bavarian died while hunting bear near Munich in 1347, and his son, Margaret’s second husband, died in 1361.  With them died the possibility of the Tyrol’s becoming part of Bavaria.

Margaret and her second husband Louis of Brandenburg had a son named Meinhardt, eventually known as Meinhardt V.  Meinhardt was born illegitimate, because his parents’ marriage had been considered unlawful by the Church.  In 1359, thanks to the intervention of Austria, the Church declared the marriage between Margaret Maultasch and Louis of Brandenburg lawful, and their children, including Meinhardt V, legitimate.  At the same time Margaret Maultasch agreed that the Tyrol would pass to Austria, should her family die without heirs.  With the marriage of Meinhardt V to a Habsburg princess, the Tyrol was in effect betrothed to Austria.

The father of Meinhardt V died in 1361, and Meinhardt himself died in 1363.  Since Meinhardt died childless, Margaret Maultasch gave her Alpine patrimony to Rudolph IV of Austria, and the Tyrol became a Habsburg possession.  The wicked Gretl moved to Vienna, where she died in 1369.

After he was forced out of the Tyrol, John Henry returned to the Czech Lands, where he governed Moravia as margrave from 1349 to 1375.  He married three more times.  Ironically, his third wife, Margaret of Austria, was the widow of Meinhardt V, Margaret Maultasch’s son by her second marriage.  John Henry married the widowed daughter-in-law of his estranged first wife.  Such matrimonial connections were not uncommon in Europe at the time.  John Henry died in 1375.

Incidentally, John Henry may have been impotent while he was married to Margaret Maultasch, but shortly after their separation he fathered an illegitimate child.  Then he had six more children after he married his second wife, Margaret of Opava.

John Henry of Bohemia and Margaret Maultasch of the Tyrol were not great players on the stage of European politics.  Their unhappy marriage, however, placed these children of competing one-time Bohemian kings at the center of the struggle for the control of Central Europe.  Margaret’s betrayal of her first husband and her marriage to the son of Emperor Louis the Bavarian set the stage for the election of Charles IV as Holy Roman Emperor.  Margaret’s death without an heir placed the Tyrol in Habsburg hands, and it remains an Austrian province to this day.

- Robert Janak

“John Henry of Bohemia and the Wicked Gretl,” printed in the series Czech Connections, Cesky Hlas (Newsletter of the Czech Heritage Society of Texas), February 2006, pages 17-18.

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