Bohemia was a kingdom in central Europe, a vassal from the 10th century and later an electorate of the Holy Roman Empire. The earliest known historical inhabitants of the country were the Boii, a Celtic tribe, from whom Bohemia derives its name. By the first century Slavic tribes, including the Czechs, arrived, becoming predominant in the region from the sixth century.
The only early Slavic rulers known by name are Samo, who defeated the neighboring Avars and Franks and established the first strong Slavic kingdom in Bohemia in the early seventh century, and the semimythical Krok, whose daughter Libusa, according to legend, married a plowman named Premysl, founding the Premyslid dynasty.
In the ninth century the still-pagan Bohemians were subject to increasing political and religious pressure from the Christianized Franks active in southwest Germany. Resistant to the missionary efforts of the German bishoprics, the Bohemians were more receptive to the Christian message delivered through Moravia by the Greek monks Cyril and Methodios.
In 873 Methodios baptized the Bohemian duke Borioj, leading to the rapid conversion of the Bohemians to Christianity. Continued disagreement in the Bohemian court about the degree of German influence led to the murder of Duke Václav (St. Wenceslas) by his brother Bolesław I in 935.
Under Bolesław I and his son, Bolesław II, Bohemian rule expanded to include Moravia, Silesia, and part of southeastern Poland. The establishment of the bishopric of Prague secured ecclesiastical independence. At Bolesław II’s death, the kingdom was split by civil war among his sons Bolesław III, Jaromir, and Ulrich and lost territory to Bolesław I (the Brave) of Poland.
In 1003–04, with Bohemian support, the Polish king briefly established his brother Vladivoj in Prague and consented to his vassalage to the German emperor as duke of Bohemia. This arrangement continued after Vladivoj’s death, though Prˇemyslid rule of Bohemia was restored.
Under Bretislav I (1037–55), Bohemia recovered Moravia and Silesia, and the Bohemian nobles accepted hereditary rule in the Premyslid dynasty. Bretislav’s son Vratislav supported Henry IV in the investiture struggle with Pope Gregory VII, obtaining recognition as king of Bohemia in return (1086).
Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa made the title hereditary in 1156 as a condition for Vladislav (Ladislaus) II’s participation in his Italian campaigns. Vladislav II’s abdication in 1173 was followed by an extended struggle for the crown.
In this conflict, the nobles gained power at the expense of the contesting royal candidates, who were obliged to extend new privileges in exchange for continued support. German influence, too, increased in the absence of a strong and independent Bohemian monarch. In 1197 Otokar I defeated his rivals and emerged as the unchallenged ruler, reestablishing the sovereignty of the Bohemian king.
The medieval kingdom of Bohemia reached a height of power under Premysl Otokar II. Otokar II’s rule began with a brief struggle against his father, Václav I, followed by a reconciliation and orderly succession. During his reign he sought to reduce the influence of the nobles by encouraging the immigration of German settlers to towns to which he gave legal privileges.
Otokar II also extended Bohemian rule over much of central Europe, through possession of the Austrian archduchies and the counties of Carinthia, Istria, and Styria. In 1260 he defeated Hungarian King Béla IV, his most serious rival. Otokar faced a stronger enemy in the first Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph I, who reclaimed for the empire most of Otokar’s possessions outside Bohemia.
At Dürnkrut in 1278 Rudolph’s army defeated the Bohemian and Moravian forces; Otokar II was killed in the battle, leaving the kingdom to his seven-year-old son, Václav II. After a troubled regency during which the nobles again asserted their independence from the central authority of the crown, Václav II assumed personal rule in 1290.
Under his rule, order was restored in the countryside and Bohemia regained a measure of its earlier power, subjugating Poland and intervening in the succession struggle that followed the death of András III of Hungary. Václav II died in 1305 while preparing for war with Archduke Albrecht of Austria (later Holy Roman Emperor), and his son Václav III was assassinated the following year, ending the Premyslid dynasty.
A brief succession of royal candidates followed, with the Bohemian estates insisting on their right to elect the king, over the objections of Emperor Al brecht who declared the throne vacant and awarded the crown to his son Rudolf.
The new king died within the year, followed by his father, but the Bohemian candidate, Duke Henry of Carinthia, proved to be unpopular and after a short reign was deposed by the estates in 1310. His replacement was John of Luxemburg, the husband of Václav II’s daughter Elizabeth and the son of the new emperor, Henry VII.
John spent little time in the kingdom during his long reign, preferring to involve himself in wars throughout western Europe. In his absence, the power of the wealthiest nobles and the church increased, leading to frequent feuds among the Bohemian nobles and towns. In 1346, aged and blind, John died fighting for France in the Battle of Crécy.
His son, Emperor Charles IV, succeeded him. Unlike his father, Charles devoted considerable attention to his Bohemian possessions, making Prague his chief residence. He founded the University of Prague and built the landmark bridge across the Vltava River, both of which bear his name.
Charles’s extended presence in the country restored order, though the king was ultimately unsuccessful in reforming the kingdom’s laws in the face of powerful resistance by the nobility. He rejected his father’s support of France and opened closer relations with England, leading to scholarly exchanges between Prague and Cambridge. Charles promoted the early activities of religious reformers, including the popular preacher Ján Milíc of Kromeríž, laying the groundwork for subsequent theological debate.
The reign of Charles’s son Václav IV was marked by a gradual decline in the authority of the crown and increasing tensions between the church and nobles on the one hand and religious reformers, lesser nobility, and townsmen on the other. Václav’s weak efforts to retain his authority provoked further disputes, leading to the formation of a baronial party led by his cousin Jobst of Moravia.
The barons twice captured the king and forced him to renounce his centralizing policies, which he quickly restored under pressure from the towns and gentry. Relations with the church were threatened by the execution of John of Nepomuk, the vicar of the archbishop of Prague, and Václav’s support for religious reformers led by John Huss, a master of theology at the University of Prague.
Huss and his colleagues and followers condemned the immorality of the clergy and the worldliness of the church authorities. Called by the church to recant certain of his teachings, Huss refused and was brought before the Council of Constance under a safe passage granted by Václav’s brother, Emperor Sigismund.
The trial and execution of Huss by the council in 1415 provoked popular unrest in the kingdom In July 1419 a public procession of Huss’s adherents in Prague led to a riot in which the magistrates of the new town were thrown from the windows of the town hall (the Defenestration of Prague). Václav died soon after, and Sigismund claimed the crown, leading a crusade against the Hussites in 1420.
Sigismund failed in this and in a second attempt in 1422. In subsequent crusades the Hussites easily defeated their enemies and even took the offensive, launching raids into Hungary and neighboring German states. Convinced of the impossibility of conquering Bohemia by force, Sigismund agreed to negotiations with the Hussites at the Council of Basel in 1431.
A split within the Hussite movement between moderates and radicals ended in 1434 with the victory of the moderate party at the Battle of Lipany. This opened the path to a settlement with Sigismund and the church, by which the emperor was recognized by the Hussites as king of Bohemia. Hussites were granted religious concessions by the council in return, ending the Hussite wars. Sigismund died in 1437, ending the reign of the Luxemburg dynasty in Bohemia.