The English Christmas carol tells us that “Good King Wenceslaus looked out on the Feast of Stephen….” Wenceslaus, or Vaclav as he is known in Czech, was not the first king of Bohemia. In fact, he was not a king at all. He was a prince, and eventually a saint. Bohemia’s first king was Vratislav I, who ruled as Bohemia’s Prince Vratislav II from 1061 to 1086, and then as Bohemia’s King Vratislav I from 1086 to 1092.
Vratislav’s Father, Prince Bretislav I
During the early years of their statehood the Czechs and Poles vied for leadership of the Central European Slavs. Prince Bretislav I of Bohemia (Vratislav’s father) managed to win back territories that had been lost to Poland during a time when Poland was stronger than Bohemia. Bretislav conquered other parts of Poland as well, including the city of Gniezno, where St. Vojtech’s relics were kept. (St. Vojtech was a Czech bishop who was martyred in 997 while trying to convert the heathen Prussians northeast of Poland.) Bretislav took St. Vojtech’s body back to Prague, hoping perhaps to persuade the pope to establish an archbishopric for Bohemia. The plan did not work, but the Czech saint’s body was now in Bohemia.
The Holy Roman Emperor Henry III was afraid that Bretislav was getting too powerful, so he chased him out of Poland and returned Kazimierz the Restorer to occupy the Polish throne; however, Bretislav was able to keep control over Moravia and Silesia. Then in 1054 Bretislav and Kazimierz came to a peaceful settlement over their border disputes. Bretislav returned Silesia to Poland in return for a yearly financial remuneration.
Bretislav I had several sons. When he died, his oldest son Spytihnev II succeeded him to the throne in Prague. Bretislav’s younger sons, including Vratislav, were set up as princes in various Moravian strongholds. When Spytihnev began to assert more control over Moravia, his brother Vratislav fled to Hungary.
Vratislav’s wife did not make it to Hungary. She died in the hands of her brother-in-law. King Andrew I of Hungary gave Vratislav his daughter Adela as a second wife. She died, and in 1063 Vratislav married for a third time.
His third wife was Svatava. She was the sister of the Polish king Boleslaw the Bold, and the granddaughter of St. Vladimir of Russia. Svatava’s mother was Vladimir’s daughter Dobronega. Her father, Kazimierz the Restorer of Poland, was the great-grandson of Dubravka and Mieszko I. Svatava then was the great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter of St. Ludmila and Borivoj, who brought Christianity to Bohemia. Svatava was important to Czech history because she was Bohemia’s first queen.
The Investiture Controversy
Vratislav was Bohemia’s first king. He returned to Prague as Prince Vratislav II when his brother died in 1061. In 1085 Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV gave Vratislav the title of king because he had supported the emperor in a civil war in Germany and in a conflict with the pope. The following year Vratislav was crowned King Vratislav I in Prague.
The power struggle between Emperor Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII was called the Investiture Controversy. The immediate problem centered on the emperor’s attempt to invest the bishops in his realm with both temporal and spiritual authority. The greater problem was if the pope or the emperor had supreme political power in Europe.
Many bishops and archbishops in the Holy Roman Empire had amassed significant tracts of land. Emperor Henry IV considered them his vassals, just as he considered the Empire’s dukes, counts and margraves his vassals. Pope Gregory VII for his part claimed supreme authority not only in church matters, but in temporal matters as well.
During the course of the controversy Gregory excommunicated and deposed Henry on more than one occasion, and stirred up a civil war in Germany. Henry in turn deposed the pope, saw him excommunicated, had a new pope elected and installed him in Rome.
During the controversy and civil war Prince Vratislav of Bohemia proved to be a loyal vassal of the emperor. He supported him in the field in Germany against a rival emperor and sent a contingent of troops to accompany the emperor on an expedition to Rome. In 1085 Henry rewarded Prince Vratislav with a royal crown in return for his support.
Affairs in Poland
Since the last Polish king had been dethroned in 1079, Vratislav was given the title King of Bohemia and Poland. He did not extend his control over Poland, but he married his daughter Judita to the Polish prince Wladyslaw Herman. (Wladyslaw Herman’s second wife, also named Judita, was the sister of Emperor Henry IV.)
Wladyslaw Herman’s predecessor was King Boleslaw the Bold, Queen Svatava’s brother. Boleslaw brought prestige and power back to Poland. During the Investiture Controversy he sided with the pope against the emperor and in 1076 he was rewarded with a royal crown. Boleslaw also extended Polish influence in Russia and even in Hungary. Some of the Polish nobles plotted against the king, however, and the king’s brother, Wladyslaw Herman, and Bishop Stanislaw of Cracow supposedly were involved in the conspiracy. Boleslaw had the bishop put to death in 1079, but that only made things worse. Boleslaw fled to Hungary, where he lost his life. His brother, Wladyslaw Herman, succeeded him to the throne. The title King of Poland, however, was given to Vratislav of Bohemia. It would be two centuries before a Polish ruler wore the royal crown again.
There is some controversy surrounding Bishop Stanislaw’s death. Some historians have claimed that Boleslaw the Bold was a cruel monarch who had the bishop killed in a fit of rage. Others have claimed that the king had the bishop tried and executed for treason. The alleged treason has been interpreted as an attempt to rid Poland of a demented ruler, and as a pro-Czech and pro-Imperial plot to replace the king with his brother Wladislaw Herman. Remember that while Vratislav of Bohemia supported the Holy Roman Emperor in the Investiture Controversy, Boleslaw the Bold of Poland supported the pope.
In any event, Bishop Stanislaw was canonized and became the patron of Poland.
The Slavonic Rite and Roman Catholicism
Vratislav was a protector of the Slavonic rite of Saints Cyril and Methodius in Bohemia. The Latin West took over conversion of the Moravians and Czechs in the ninth century, but Slavonic rites of the East lingered on. The center of Slavonic heritage in Bohemia was St. Prokopius Monastery, which was founded around a colony of monks who were the followers of the eleventh-century Czech hermit, St. Prokopius. During the rule of Vratislav’s brother Spytihnev the Slavonic monks were replaced with German ones, but shortly after Vratislav assumed the throne of Bohemia in 1061, he brought the Slavonic monks back. Vratislav preserved this vestige of Slavonic faith in his country during his reign, but four years after his death the monastery was given back over to Latin friars.
Although Vratislav protected the Eastern rite in Bohemia, he was also devoted to the Roman Catholic Church. Vratislav founded the Saints Peter and Paul Church at Vysehrad, an old fortress south of Prague. He established a chapter of canons there and placed it directly under the pope. That is why the papal crest can be seen all over Vysehrad today. King Vratislav also moved the royal residence from Prague Castle to Vysehrad. At one time Vysehrad rivaled Prague Castle in importance and architectural splendor. However, much of Vysehrad was demolished during the Hussite Wars.
The Death of the King and of Kingship
King Vratislav died in 1092. For the time being Bohemian kingship was buried with him. The royal crown that he was given by Emperor Henry IV was not hereditary. It was not until in 1158 that a Czech ruler would wear the royal crown again. In that year Vratislav’s grandson, Prince Vladislav II, would be elevated to the rank of kingship by Emperor Frederick Barbarossa.
- Robert Janak
“Vratislav I, Bohemia’s First King,” printed in the series Czech Connections, Cesky Hlas, Spring 2010, pages 11, 14.