At the end of the first part of this blog, I noted that Charles IV could not have been more different from his rival, Louis the Bavarian. Charles, born 1316, was 34 years younger, handsome and affable. He was highly educated, and spoke several languages. He also has the distinction of being the first ruler we know of to have penned his own autobiography. It’s fascinating to be able to learn about a medieval figure not from the historical record of deeds and battles, births and deaths, but from his own hand–and the more so when his account of himself seems to accord so well with his recorded legacy.
Charles (born as Wenceslaus, a point we’ll come back to later) was the eldest son and heir of the King of Bohemia, who died in the famous Battle of Crecy, in August, 1346–one of the seminal English victories of the Hundred Year’s War between England and France, and one which drew in many of their allies. Charles was also present at Crecy, but managed to escape with his life.
When his father died and Charles assumed the throne of Bavaria, he shed the name Wenceslaus and chose the reign-name of Charles to honor his patron, Charles IV of France (yes, this is where the names become very confusing) in whose court he fostered for seven years. By that point, Charles had already been elected as Holy Roman Emperor in opposition to Louis the Bavarian–primarily at the instigation of the new Pope Clement VI. In spite of growing concern about Louis’s scheming, the German electors did not truly support Charles because they felt he was under the thumb of the French, and had conceded too much to the Pope in exchange for his crown. He was often referred to as the priest’s king as a result.
Charles worked hard to solidify his rule, making Prague his capital and founding a university there which became a center of learning and culture. All of Europe was rocked by the advent of the plague which we know as the Black Death, but was, at the time, referred to as the Great Pestilence. After Louis’ death,another emperor, Gunther von Schwartzburg, was elected, but gained little support and died soon after–possibly with the collusion of his physician.
Charles was officially re-elected, this time with greater support, in 1349, and crowned at Aachen, the symbolic heart of the empire. During his reign from Prague, Charles received letters from the poet Petrarch, who hoped to convince the HRE to move his seat of power to Rome and revitalize that damaged city. Charles also received a visit from the once-and-future Tribune of Rome, Cola di Rienzi, who pleaded for his support in re-claiming the city. Charles promptly arrested Cola and had him imprisoned, then shipped to the pope to face charges instigated by his brief, mad rule.
While Louis is remembered as divisive in both church and state, Charles IV lead an era of prosperity, culture, and relative peace within his boundaries until his death in 1378. And for those of you still wondering about that name, at the back of Charles’ autobiography, you can also find his Life of Saint Wenceslaus, his namesake and holy patron–and the man who inspired the Christmas carol, “Good King Wenceslaus.”