A Brief History of Prague
Prague has always been the capital of the Bohemian lands.
The present-day Czech Republic comprises the historic lands of Bohemia (west), Moravia (east), and a small slice of Silesia (north-east). Bohemia became a state at the end of the 10th century and was an independent kingdom under the Holy Roman (German) Empire until its annexation by Austria in 1626. Slovakia (further east) formed a part of Hungary for nearly 900 years. Hungary, in turn, was under Austrian rule from the 16th century onward. The union between the Czech lands and Slovakia was effected at the end of World War I in 1918. It disintegrated during World War II (1939-1945), and again in 1993, three years after the revolution that ousted the Communist regime. The Communists held power in Czechoslovakia between 1948 and 1989.
In the 5th century BC, the Celtic tribe of Boii settled the Bohemian Basin, giving their name to the country. Western Slavs immigrated in the 6th century AD. Czechs established a tribal stronghold on Prague’s Castle Hill before 873 as vassals of the Great Moravian Empire. In 873, Borivoj, earliest documented ruler of the Premyslid dynasty, and his wife St. Ludmila, were baptized by St. Methodius, the ”Apostle of the Slavs“. They also founded the Prague Castle. The ”Good King Wenceslas“, Borivoj’s grandson, established numerous churches with the aid of German missionaries. Latin replaced Slavonic liturgy, previously introduced via Great Moravia. Wenceslas was murdered by his pagan brother Boleslav the Cruel in 935 and later declared a saint. The year 965 marks the first written description of Prague in the travelogue of the Jewish merchant Ibrahim ibn Jacob. Already in the 10th century, Prague was ”a city built of stone and mortar, and a lively marketplace“. Prague was made a bishopric as early as in 973. In 1125-1140, Sobeslav built a Romanesque palace in stone on Castle Hill. In the 12th century, Prague, with its seven triple-naved Romanesque basilicas, was the third largest city in Europe, surpassed only by Rome and Paris. In 1212, the Czech rulers were recognized by the Emperor as hereditary kings of Bohemia. Bohemian kings became one of the seven ex officio electors of the Holy Roman Emperor. The Old Town of Prague, located on the opposite bank of the Vltava (Moldau) river than the Castle, received its charter in c. 1230. The town was erazed and re-built 9 feet higher to prevent flooding. King Premysl Otakar II (1253-1278) aquired Austria and Styria and expanded his territories from the Baltic to the Adriatic. King John of Luxemburg (1310-1346) devoted his energies to private adventures in various parts of Europe. During the reign of his son Charles IV (1346-1378), however, Bohemia reached its political and cultural peak. Prague was made an archbishopric in 1344. In the same year, the construction of the Gothic St. Vitus’s Cathedral commenced. In 1348, Charles IV was elected Roman Emperor, with Prague as his residence. Also in 1348, he founded Charles University, the oldest university in Central Europe, one that is about 40 years older than the oldest German university in Heidelberg. The Gothic Charles bridge was constructed after 1357 by Peter Parler, the architect of St. Vitus’s Cathedral. A Jewish community existed in Prague since the 10th century, in 1389 the Jews were massacred in their ghetto. The Czech Reformation was initiated by a learned University Rector named Jan Hus. This advocate of church reform was invited to the Council of Constance, arrested and burnt at stake as a heretic in 1415. Hus’s death triggered off a civil war. In 1419, Hussite radicals stormed the New Town Hall, hurling the councilmen from the window. Over 30 councilmen were killed in this so-called First Prague Defenestration. Five crussades sent by the Pope failed to defeat the Hussite army. The radical Hussites were finally defeated at Lipany in 1434. During the Hussite revolution, great numbers of monasteries and churches were looted and damaged, with monks killed by an angry mob. In 1526, the Bohemian Estates elected Ferdinand of Austria, a Catholic and a Habsburg, to become their next king. In the 16th century, Renaissance became the fashionable style. The mainly protestant nobility grew increasingly unhappy with their foreign rulers who were breaking one promise after another. Rudolf II (1576-1611) was one of the few Habsburgs who resided in Prague and not in Vienna. He granted Bohemia religious liberty in 1609. In 1618, leaders of the Protestant Estates threw emperial envoys from the Castle’s windows in what became The Second Prague Defenestration, but also the beginning of the Thirty-Year War. In 1620, the Czechs were defeated at the Battle of the White Mountain near Prague. On year later (1621), 27 leaders of the ill-fated insurrection were beheaded in the Old Town Square. The Thirty-Year War ended by a Swedish besiege of Prague in 1648. The period of Counter-Reformation started. Re-catholization of the nation was rather successful, with 90 % of the population back Catholic at the end of the 18th century. The rich Baroque style dominated arts and architecture (1680-1780). While Maria Theresia was Czech Queen for nearly 40 years (1743-1780), her enemies, French and Prussian troops, were taking turns in Prague. Her son Joseph II (1780-1790) was an Enlightened reformer, who abolished serfdom, expelled Jesuits, dissolved most monasteries and granted civil equality to Jews. German, not Czech, was declared the sole official language. In 1787, Mozart conducted in Prague’s Nostitz Theatre the world premiere of Don Giovanni to enthusiastic reception. The 19th century was characterized by a rebirth of Slav national consciousness among Czech intellectuals. Industrial revolution (after 1820) transformed Bohemia into one of the most densely industrialized countries in Europe. Pre-second-world-war Czechoslovakia (1918-1938) was ranked 11th in the world in the industrial input. After 40 years of communist rule, the nation’s economy was ranked 56th. In 1946, two-million Sudeten Germans were expelled from Czechoslovakia under terms of the Potsdam agreement, partly as a retaliation for Hitler’s annexation of the Sudeten in 1938. The new Democratic Czech Republic (1993-present) became a full-fledged member of the European Union in May 2004. Prague is repeatedly ranked as one of the safest cities in the world. In recent years, it has become the fourth largest tourist destination in Europe, surpassed only by London, Paris, and Rome.