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The Holy Family of Premysl I of Bohemia

Premysl I sat on the throne of Bohemia eight hundred years ago.  He ruled the country from 1197 to 1230.  In 1198 he was granted the royal crown by Emperor Phillip of Swabia.  Twice before Bohemian princes had worn royal crowns.  In 1158 Emperor Frederick Barbarosa elevated Premysl’s father Vladislav to the rank of king in return for his military assistance in northern Italy.  In 1086 Premysl’s great-grandfather Vratislav was raised to the rank of royalty by Emperor Henry IV thanks to his support against the pope in the Investiture Controversy.  In 1198 Emperor Phillip made Premysl king because of his support against a rival, Otto of Brunswick.

Phillip was murdered in 1208, however, and Frederick II was subsequently elected as a rival to Emperor Otto.  Premysl threw his support behind Frederick, and in 1212 he was rewarded by a document known as the Golden Bull of Sicily.  This document confirmed Premysl’s royal title and redefined Bohemia’s responsibilities within the empire.  There was a significant difference between Premysl’s royal title and that of his two predecessors.  This time the title was hereditary and could be passed on to his heirs.  Before it was not.

Bohemia was the only kingdom within the boundaries of the Holy Roman Empire.  As the empire’s only king, the Czech ruler was the empire’s second ranking monarch, second only to the emperor himself.  For centuries the kings of Bohemia enjoyed this unique position.  In 1701 Frederick I of Prussia crowned himself king, but his kingdom was located outside the imperial boundaries.  Only during the age of Napoleon did German states such as Bavaria, Saxony, Hannover and Wittemburg get kings of their own.

Not only was Premysl I an important political figure in his day, but he was related either by blood or by marriage to some of the holiest people of his time.  It goes without saying that the blood of saints flowed through his veins.  He was a direct descendant of St. Ludmila, who along with her husband Borivoj helped to Christianize Bohemia.  He was also a descendant of St. Vladimir of Russia, who christianized the eastern branch of Slavdom.  Premysl’s wife, moreover, was a member of the family of St. Stephen, the king who brought Christianity to Hungary.

Premysl I was the uncle of St. Elizabeth of Hungary.  Her father, Hungarian King Andrew II, was Premysl’s brother-in-law.  St. Elizabeth was born in Bratislava, the present-day capital of Slovakia.  She married Ludwig IV, Landgrave of Thuringia, who died in 1227 on a Crusade to the Holy Land.  St. Elizabeth became a follower of St. Francis of Assisi and built a Franciscan hospital where she devoted herself to the needs of the sick and dying.  She died in 1231 at the age of 23.

St. Elizabeth had a daughter, Bl. Gertrude of Aldenburg.  Bl. Gertrude was born just after her father’s death on the Crusade.  At the age of 21 Bl. Gertrude was elected abbess of the convent at Aldenburg.  She held that post until her death in 1297 at the age of 70.  She was Premysl’s great niece.

Premysl was also the great uncle of the daughters of King Bela IV of Hungary.  Bl. Kunegunde was the wife of Polish prince Boleslaw the Chaste.  After her husband died she retired to a Poor Clares convent that she had founded in southern Poland.  She died in her sixties in 1292, and was later named a patron of Poland and Lithuania.  Bl. Jolenta married Polish prince Boleslaw the Pious.  After her husband’s death she became abbess of a convent she and Boleslaw had founded in Gniezno, Poland’s old capital.  She also died in her sixties, around the year 1298.

Another daughter of King Bela IV and great niece of Premysl I was St. Margaret.  St. Margaret was born during the time of the Tartar invasion of Central Europe in 1242.  King Bela vowed to dedicate his infant daughter to the Christian faith if he survived the Tartar onslaught.  He survived all right, and he built his daughter a convent on an island in the middle of the Danube River.  Supposedly Premysl’s grandson, King Premysl II of Bohemia wanted to marry the fair Hungarian maiden.  She is said to have threatened to cut off her nose and lips if she were forced to leave her island convent.  She was allowed to stay, and she died in 1271 at the age of 28.

Premysl I was also related very tenuously to St. Hedwig of Silesia.  He and St. Hedwig had the same brother-in-law, Hungary’s King Andrew II.  St. Hedwig was born in Bavaria.  She married Henry the Bearded, who was later Duke of Silesia and ruler of Poland in turn.  Duke Henry and St. Hedwig founded several churches and monasteries in Silesia, a region that one day would become an important land of the Bohemian Crown.  St. Hedwig died in 1243, shortly after her son Henry the Pious gave his life at the Battle of Legnica defending Christian Europe from the pagan Tartars.  St. Hedwig became Silesia’s patron saint.

Not the least of the saintly and blessed relations of Premysl I was his own daughter, St. Agnes of Bohemia.  When St. Agnes was only three years old she was betrothed to one of St. Hedwig’s sons named Boleslaw.  The young Bohemian princess was sent to Silesia to be brought up in one of the convents that St. Hedwig had founded.  Some three years later her fiancé died, so St. Agnes was sent back to Bohemia.  St. Agnes had both royal and imperial proposals of marriage, but she, not unlike her cousin St. Margaret, preferred to dedicate her life to the Christian faith.  In 1234 St. Agnes founded a convent of Poor Clares in Prague, and when she herself joined the convent two years later, dozens of princesses and noblewomen in Central Europe followed her example.  St. Agnes died in 1282 at the age of 77.

St. Agnes was not canonized until 1989. Several Texas Czechs remember going to Rome to witness her canonization.  Some people even say that the canonization of St. Agnes of Bohemia was in part responsible for the liberation of Czechoslovakia from Soviet domination and Communist control.

Notes: When reading about events that happened in the Middle Ages, one often finds conflicting dates and facts.  Sometimes a writer has to toss a coin because conflicting sources appear to be equally reputable.  Anyone who has researched his family history in the US census records can understand the problem of conflicting information.  Magnify that problem by 800 years over which the few records that there were, if there were any at all, may have been lost or destroyed, and one can begin to understand the dilemma that faces medievalists.

One of the best sources for the lives of saints is The Catholic Encyclopedia.  In 1985 I found a complete set of the encyclopedia in a used bookstore in Waco.  I bought it, and on closer inspection I found that it was published in 1913 and had belonged to Rev. V. A. Svrcek.   His signature appeared in the front of every volume.

- Robert Janak

“The Holy Family of Premysl I of Bohemia,” printed in the series Czech Connections, Cesky Hlas (Newsletter of the Czech Heritage Society of Texas), November 1997, pages 8-9.

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