Several years ago, when I had an interesting talk about history with a Czech guy, he mentioned that “the beginning of the Hussite war was the beginning of the end of the Czech dominance in central Europe”. I slightly disagreed with that, since I always considered the first major defeat to have happened in 1278 – the year when Czechs lost their King of Iron and Gold – Ottokar II of Bohemia, and the Habsburgs stepped into the European political arena as the major decision-makers.
Ottokar II had always been very ambitious, and if you think you felt disconnected from your parents as a teenager, well, just wait for it. The 15 years-old prince rebelled against his father, King Wenceslas I, and after victory, expelled him from Prague Castle. It took a whole year and some help of the Roman Pope for Wenceslas I to conquer Prague Castle back and imprison his disobeying son. Eventually, father and son allied again on the path to becoming the rulers of the neighboring Austrian lands (modern Austria, Slovenia, and a part of northern Italy, so the Czech kingdom was not always landlocked).
The best way to support the claim of the Czech kings was through marriage, so 19 years old Ottokar II married the 46 years old Margaret of Babenberg – the heiress of Austria. After his claim became more solid in Austria, he divorced his first wife and married one of the most beautiful women of Europe – Kunigunda of Slavonia – the mother of the future king, Wenceslas II.
King Ottokar II was a very strict but tremendously successful ruler. His limitless efforts brought prosperity to his lands, as well as multiple victories in the Czech Hungarian wars and crusades against pagan Lithuania Minor. If you try to count the towns and castles he founded or gave royal privileges to, you would end up with more than 80 names including Ceske Budejovice, Usti nad Labe, Melnik, Lesser Quarter of Prague, Jihlava, and many others. He was also the founder of the most western Russian city of Kaliningrad – German Konigsberg before World War II. Multiple reforms and active growth of the state gave the King his nickname – strong as Iron, great as Gold.
Being so powerful, Ottokar II was the strongest candidate for the role of the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. However, political games of the princes – electors, – did not allow this to happen. Their support for the powerful German nobles along with a certain fear of Ottokar II played a big role in Swabian Count, old Rudolf I of Habsburg, taking the title of the Emperor in 1273. As the prince-elector who was absent during the council, Ottokar II felt insulted and did not want to recognize Rudolf I as his superior. Although Rudolf I was a very wealthy and powerful man, the dynasty of Habsburgs did not belong to the highest European elites just yet. In revenge, Rudolf adopted a new law, forcing the Imperial lands, which changed the ruler after the death of Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, back under the ownership of the crown. That meant that Austrian lands did not belong to the Czech king anymore, putting Ottokar into a vulnerable opposition. The diplomatic and political rivalry lasted for 5 years, leading to one of the most epic and catastrophic battles in Czech history – the battle of the Marchfeld in 1278.
Come back next week to find out what happened during the battle and what were the consequences for the Czech Premyslid dynasty!