Wenceslas (in Czech, Václav) I was a king with a notable reign, preceded and followed by two of the most famous kings in Czech history. However, Wenceslas himself did a great deal to raise the standard of living and the international prestige of Bohemia, causing him to be ranked among the top Czech kings. Like his son, Ottokar II (the “King of Iron and Gold”), he encouraged German craftsmen and merchants to settle in Bohemia, creating an influx of emigrants that increased the population of Bohemia considerably. He also founded the towns and cities of Loket, Brno, Cheb, Jihlava, Olomouc, and Žatec, as well as giving Prague’s Old Town the privileges of a township.
Wenceslas, the son of Ottokar I of Bohemia, was born circa 1205. On February 6, 1228, he became the co-ruler of Bohemia, along with Ottokar. His father died on December 15, 1230, at which time Wenceslas became the senior king.
During his reign, Wenceslas found himself dealing with some serious outside threats. Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II started a war with Lombardy in 1236 and demanded that all the kings of the Empire support the war effort by sending troops. As it happened, the troops of Bohemia were more than slightly reluctant to leave the country, fearing an invasion from Frederick II, Duke of Austria.
The emperor placed an Imperial ban upon the Duke, forcing him to leave Vienna and take refuge in Wiener Neustadt. The emperor then took both duchies ruled by Frederick (Styria and Austria), putting them under imperial control. Wenceslas, not happy that an area so close to Bohemia was now under the emperor’s control, allied himself with Duke Frederick against the emperor. This alliance allowed Wenceslas to increase Bohemia with territories given to him by the Duke. The Imperial ban was lifted in 1237, but the two men – aided by Otto II Wittelsbach, who was the Duke of Bavaria – continued to oppose the emperor.
In 1241, the Mongols invaded Europe, under the command of two grandsons of the warrior Genghis Khan. When the Mongol troops reached Bohemia, Wenceslas and his men successfully defended the country. Fortunately for the king and his people, the main army (some 20,000 strong) was not sent to fight the Czechs; only a much smaller detachment attacked the king’s troops.
Frederick II of Austria went to war against King Béla IV of Hungary in 1246. It was a fatal move; the Duke was killed in battle on June 15 of that year. His death meant that the Duchies of Austria and Styria were up for grabs, and Wenceslas had his eye on Austria as a means of further expanding the Kingdom of Bohemia. The emperor neatly thwarted his plans by putting Austria back under imperial rule, but the governor he appointed had to deal with an uprising among the angry Austrians.
Meanwhile, Wenceslas made the sound tactical move of arranging the marriage of Frederick’s niece, Gertrude, to his own son, Vladislaus (in Czech, Vladislav). Gertrude was the heiress to the Duchy of Austria. Unfortunately for Wenceslas, Vladislaus died suddenly on January 3, 1247.
As if things hadn’t been hard enough, Wenceslas’s son Ottokar II led a rebellion against his father in 1248. Ottokar managed to seize the throne, which he held from July 31, 1248, to November, 1249. Wenceslas eventually quashed the rebellion and imprisoned his son.
Although Wenceslas had failed in his first attempt to secure the Duchy of Austria, the year 1250 brought about another opportunity. Gertrude, Duchess of Austria, had married Herman VI, Margrave of Baden, with whom she had a son, Frederick I. Wenceslas invaded Austria in 1250, then released Ottokar and gave him the title of Margrave of Moravia, as well as Duke of Austria. He then arranged Ottokar’s marriage to Margaret, the sister of the late Frederick II of Austria, proclaiming her Duchess of Austria.
Having lived an extremely full life, Wenceslas I died on September 23, 1253.