The first to leave a written record of the existence of a busy commercial center and settlement below Prague Castle was the Arab-Jewish merchant Ibrahim Jakub, who visited Prague in 965 or 966.
In the 13th century three separate medieval towns grew out of the Prague settlement below the castle, each surrounded by walls and endowed with royal charters. They were the Old (Larger) Town of Prague (c. 1230), Gall’s Town (after 1240), which merged with the Old Town before the end of the 13th century, and the Lesser Town of Prague, (Charles Bridge, St. Vitus’ cathedral, the Slavonic Abbey, the church at Karlov, etc.). With its 40,000 inhabitants and covering an area of 8.1 sq. km Prague became one of the largest towns in Europe at that time.
In 1526 the Habsburg dynasty ascended the throne of Bohemia and after the defeat of the first anti-Habsburg uprising of the Bohemian Estates (1547) the Prague Towns lost a large part of their property and political privileges. But it was a period when culture flourished thanks to the personality and court of the art-loving Emperor Rudolph II (1576-1612).
After the defeat in the major uprising of the Bohemian Estates at the Battle of the White Mountain (1620) Prague lost the rest of its political privileges, landed property and the leading members of the intelligentsia, who were forced to emigrate to avoid the harsh re-introduction of Catholicism. The town definitively ceased to be the residential city of the Austrian Habsburgs. Yet after the Thirty Year’s War it underwent a remarkable reconstruction in the characteristic style of “Prague (Bohemian) Baroque”.
In 1784 Emperor Joseph II merged the four historical Prague Towns (the Old Town, New Town, Lesser Town and Hradcany) into one unified capital city of Prague. Prague became the core of industrialization of Bohemia and the centre of Bohemian national revival.
This process reached a culmination after the revolutionary year in 1848 with the emancipation of the Czech nation. Significant events included the construction of the National Theatre (1881-1883), the establishment of a Czech University (1882), the foundation of the Czech Academy of Science and Arts (1890) and the construction of a representative building of the National Museum (1890).
On 28 October 1918 Prague became the capital city of the independent Czechoslovak Republic, which came into being after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Four years later (1 January 1922) 37 neighbouring townships and villages were linked to form Great Prague, which by 1938 became a modern metropolis with almost 1 million inhabitants.
On 15 March 1939 Hitler’s armies occupied Prague. The anti-fascist resistance of the people of Prague lasted more than six years, and, after the closure of the Czech universities on 17 November 1939 (International Student’s Day) and the assassination of the “Reichsprotektor” R. Heydrich (27 May 1942), reached its culmination in the Prague Uprising (5-9 May 1945). This contributed to the rapid end of the second world war in Europe.
In the 1946 elections and February Events of 1948 the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia rose to power in Prague and Czechoslovakia. Its program of the “Czechoslovak Road” to socialism was from the onset negated by Stalinist deformations and crimes.
Despite a striking growth in industrial production (to twelve times that of 1948), explosive housing construction (150,000 flats), major investment in the Prague Metro, bridges across the Vltava river, and new road systems the development of Prague between 1948 to 1989 did not reach prewar parameters, and the town gradually began to lag behind other European metropolises. In 1968 the five countries of the Warsaw Pact occupied Prague.
The subsequent period (1969-1989) of so-called normalization wiped out all democratic trends and intensified the stagnation in all sphers of life. The only improvement was the partial renovation of the Historic Town Reservation of Prague, which forms a unique urbanist unit with more than 2000 valuable historic buildings, one of the most renowned in Europe.
Hope for the future of Prague was brougt about by the “Velvet Revolution” which began in the capital city of Czechoslovakia on 17 November 1989. The result was free parliamentary and communal elections in the summer and autumn of 1990.
On January 1st 1993, after the split of Czechoslovakia, Prague became the capital of the Czech Republic.
Several important dates from the history of the city
after 870 foundation of the Prague Castle
after 926 foundation of St. Vitus rotunda within the Prague Castle
10th century foundation of the Vysehrad Castle on the opposite Vltava bank
965 Prague first reported in the narration of Ibrahim Ibn Jakub, a merchant
973 foundation of Prague bishopric
1085 Prague becomes the residence of the first Bohemian king Vratislav I
1172 construction of the Judita’s Bridge, the second stone bridge in Central Europe finished
after 1230 establishment of the Old Town
1257 foundation of the Lesser Town
1310 – 1346 John of Luxembourg rules as the king of Bohemia
around 1320 foundation of Hradcany
1338 foundation of the Old Town Hall – the importance of the city increases
1344 Prague bishopric upgraded to archbishopric, beginning of St. Vitus, St. Wenceslas and St. Adalbert Cathedral (finished 1929)
1346-1378 Charles IV epoch – Prague becomes the capital of the Bohemian Kingdom and the Holy Roman Empire
1348 foundation of the New Town and the first university in Central Europe (Charles University)
1419-1437 attempts of the clergy toreform the church result in the Hussite revolutionary movement (Jan Hus – the reform preacher and martyr)
1526 Habsburg dynasty ascends the Bohemian throne (until 1918)
1583-1611 Rudolf II becomes the king of Bohemia, and Prague the emperor’s residence, centre of social and cultural life
1618-1620 defeat of the Czech nobles’ uprising; Czech language and Czech national consciousness begin to decline
1784 union of the four hitherto independent Prague urban units (Hradcany, Lesser Town, Old Town and New Town)
1784-1848 period of Czech national revival, beginning of the industrial revolution, establishment of Czech institutions
1918 proclamation of independence of Czechoslovakia, Prague becomes the new state capital
1939-1945 occupation by the Nazi Germany
1945 the Prague uprising, liberation of Prague by Soviet army
1948 seizure of power by KSC after the February putsch
1968 Prague Spring – an attempt to reform socialism, intervention of 5 states of the Warsaw Pact
1989 so called velvet revolution, Vaclav Havel elected the president
1990 first free elections
1993, January 1, spliting up of the Federation, formation of the independent Czech Republic
1993, January 26, Vaclav Havel elected the first president of the independent Czech Republic
1999, March 12, the Czech Republic has become a member of NATO
History of the Czech Lands
500 – 1306: The Great Moravian Empire and the Premyslid Dynasty
Some of the oldest settlers of the Czech lands were the Boii, a Celtic tribe that inhabited the region from around the 4th century BC and who gave Bohemia its name. The Boi Celtic tribe which we find in northern Italy are often recorded as inhabitants of today’s Bohemia and Moravia, the name of the former being derived from them – originally Boiohaemum, home of the Boi. Findings of Celtic graves have been made originating from the 5-th through 3-rd centuries BC.
As it seems, two fractions of the Boi existed, or possibly two tribes of the same name. The first prove that the Celts living in our country were really the Boi dates to 113 BC, when they parried the raid of the Cymbre (a northern nation). Later on the Cymbre were joined by the Teuton and succeeding that date, the archeologists find signs of the Celts losing power in the area and decreasing in number.
We also know, that in the 4-th century BC, the Celts settled in the valleys of the Mures, Somes and Cris rivers in the areas Transylvania (Romania) and Moldavia among the local peoples. In 120 BC the Teutons started to push on the Celtic lands, the Rhine becoming soon the eastern border (the Rhemos in Celtic), the valley of which is full of names of Celtic origin, which proves centuries lasting Celtic settlements. The Celts in locations of today’s Bohemia and Austria were thus isolated and began to disappear.
A few years later, the Teutonic tribes even tried to cross the Rhine. Similarly to the Celts who in the past controlled some of the Teutonic tribes, now the latter gained political power and began to expand to the south an west. The Celtic world began to grow smaller and its heart – Galia, was surrounded by the Teutonic tribes to the north and the Romans to the south.
Notions of the Celts on the Czech area are really scarce in the world literature, quite paradoxically, because the first ever known name of the Czech land originates from the Celts – Bohemia (Boehmen) from Boiohaemum. The main reason for this can be attributed to relative distance from the educated Greek world and later attempts to make our lands part of the Roman empire.
The archaeological research of the Celtic issues has a long tradition in Czech Republic and its results form a respected tradition of the European historical science. This holds from the beginnings of the 20-th century. In 1906, French scholar Decheltte translated into English a book of Czech archeologist J.L.Pic dealing with findings in the Stradonice Oppidum.
A big contribution to researches on the Celts was Jan Filip and his who treated of all aracheological sources then available in his monumental monography “the Celts in the Central Europe” and whose “Celtic Civilization and Heritage” received numerous editions in several languages. The Celts were later replaced by Germanic tribes, and around the 6th century AD, the Slavs finally reached the territory from the east. In the 7th century, a Frankish merchant Samo succeeded in uniting the Slavic tribes under his empire and defeating the tribe of the Avars that occupied today’s Hungary.
Around 830, the Great Moravian Empire (Velkomoravska rise) was established along the Morava River by the Slavic leader Mojmir. Mojmir’s successors expanded the empire to include today’s Bohemia, Slovakia, southern Poland and western Hungary.
The empire found itself at the crossroads between the Germanic people in the west and the Byzantium in the east. Mojmir’s successor Rostislav feared the German influence and asked the Byzantine emperor to send two missionaries, Cyril and Methodius of Constantinople, to come and spread Eastern Christianity in the Great Moravian Empire.
Cyril and Methodius created the Slavonic script (Cyrillic alphabet that is still in use in Russia and Bulgaria) and translated religious texts from Greek and Latin into the Old Slavonic language. After Methodius’ death in 885, the Roman Catholic religion was adopted and the Cyrillic script was replaced by the Latin alphabet. The Great Moravian Empire collapsed with the Hungarian invasion in 907.
The rule over the region was now in the hands of the Premyslid dynasty that dominated the Czech lands from the 9th century until 1306. Around 880, the Prague Castle was founded by prince Borivoj, the first of the Premyslid princes, and the seat of power was moved there. Several churches, such as the St. Vitus rotunda, were built and foundations were laid to the Vysehrad Castle in the 10th century.
The Prague bishopric was founded in 973. The Czech lands had a high economic, cultural, and political status during the Premyslid rule, which was further strengthened by Vratislav II being granted the royal crown and becoming the first Czech king in 1085 – so far remaining subordinate to the Holy Roman Empire and the German king, with the royal title being made hereditary in 1212 by the Golden Sicilian Bull.
In the meantime, Prague was growing rapidly thanks to its position at the crossroads of several trade routes. The first stone bridge over the Vltava, Judith Bridge, was built in 1172. The Old Town (Stare mesto) was founded in 1234 and the Lesser Town (Mala Strana) was founded in 1257. During the reign of Premysl Otakar II in mid-13th century, the Czech kingdom briefly expanded all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. The Premyslid dynasty ended with the death of its last member, Wenceslas III, in 1306.
1310 – 1378: John of Luxembourg and Charles IV
The Czech throne was taken by John of Luxembourg who ruled the country from 1310 to 1346. During his reign, the territory of the Czech lands expanded and Prague continued to grow. The Prague Castle Area (Hradcany) was founded around 1320, followed by the Old Town Hall in 1338.
During the reign of John of Luxembourg’s son Charles IV, the Czech lands experienced the Golden Age of their history. Charles IV was a highly educated man (he spoke five languages), an excellent diplomat and a very good king. He established Prague as the cultural capital of central Europe and made it one of the most prosperous European cities at the time. The Czech language was promoted to the official language in the country along with Latin and German, and the position of Bohemia became very strong.
Charles IV loved Prague and the city flourished during his rule. The Prague bishopric was upgraded to an archbishopric and when the king was crowned the Holy Roman Emperor in 1355, Prague’s status increased to the capital of the Holy Roman Empire. Many building projects were started during Charles’ reign, including the St. Vitus Cathedral.
In 1348, Prague’s New Town (Nove mesto) was founded, the Charles University was established to become the first university in Central Europe, and the Karlsejn castle was founded to protect the imperial jewels and other treasures. The construction of Charles Bridge began in 1357 at the place where Judith Bridge once stood (it collapsed in a flood in 1342).
Charles IV is remembered as the most beloved Czech king and the “father of the Czech nation”. Charles IV’s son and successor Wenceslas IV took the throne after his father and his reign extended into the time of the Hussite wars of the 15th century.
1415 – 1526: The Hussite Era and George of Podebrady
The 15th century is marked by conflicts between the Protestants and the Roman Catholic Church. At the beginning of the century, a reform movement (reformace) was started and lead by priest John Huss (Jan Hus). Influenced by the writings of John Wycliffe, Huss spoke against the corruption of the Catholic Church. His sermons in Prague’s Bethlehem Chapel were conducted in Czech to be understood by ordinary people. Hus’ ideology was not liked by the Church and Hus was burned at the stake in 1415.
The killing of Hus started a massive protest movement by his followers, the Hussites. In 1419, the First Defenestration of Prague took place when the Hussites threw seven counselors out of the windows of Prague’s New Town Hall. The religious Hussite wars were then sweeping the country from 1420 to 1434 when the last battle, the Battle of Lipany, took place. Many historical artifacts and literature were destroyed during the wars and the Prague Castle deteriorated. The conflicts ended by an agreement between the Hussites and the Catholic Church.
After some 20 years without a ruler, the Hussites elected a Czech Protestant, George of Podebrady (Jiri z Podebrad), as the country’s new king in 1458. The “Hussite king” Jiri became another beloved king in Czech history. He lead a policy of peace and wished to unite the whole Europe in one peaceful nation. Even after his death, during the reign of the Polish Wladislaw and Ludwig Jagellons, Protestants and Catholics lived peacefully side by side.
1526 – 1790: The Hapsburg Dynasty to Joseph II
Ludwig Jagellon died in battle in 1526 and Ferdinand I of Hapsburg took up the Czech throne, thus initiating the Hapsburg rule over the country that lasted until 1918. Ferdinand strengthened the position of the king and firmly reinstated the Catholic religion in the country, which included the arrival of the Jesuits in Prague based upon his invitation. The seat of power moved to Vienna and the Prague Castle became more of a recreational site for the Hapsburgs. It was reconstructed in the Renaissance style and the Royal Garden, the Belvedere, and the Ballgame Hall were added.
Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor, was crowned the Czech king in 1576 and moved his court back to Prague in 1583, thus promoting Prague to the imperial seat of power again. This era is sometimes referred to as Prague’s Second Golden Age. Rudolf was obsessed with art and science, not spending much time on his royal duties, and made Prague the center of science and alchemy. It was during his reign that Prague earned its nickname “Magic Prague”. Rudolf’s court attracted scientists and artists from all over Europe, including astronomers Tycho de Brahe and Johannes Kepler. The legend of the Golem comes from that time, too.
Rudolf’s successor Matthias attempted to deprive the Protestants of the few freedoms they were left with since the Hapsburgs took the throne, and this oppression resulted in another Protestant uprising. The rebellion started with the Second Defenestration of Prague in 1618 when several Matthias’ governors were thrown out of a window of the Prague Castle (they landed on a pile of garbage and survived). The protests culminated in the Battle of the White Mountain (bitva na Bile hore) in 1620 in which the Protestants were severely defeated by the Hapsburgs.
The Battle of the White Mountain resulted in the Thirty Years’ War that spread across Europe. 27 Protestant leaders were executed on the Old Town Square in May 1621 and all religions except Catholic were banned. The Czech language and national consciousness were suppressed for the next 150 years. Prague lost its importance and the Prague Castle deteriorated. This period in Czech history is referred to as the Dark Age (doba temna).
The situation started improving with Marie Therese who ruled the Austrian Empire from 1740 to 1780. She and her son and successor Joseph II (1780-1790) brought some needed reforms that included reducing the power of the Catholic Church, expelling the Jesuits from the country in 1773, and issuing the Edict of Tolerance in 1781, which granted political and religious rights to religious minorities. The four independent urban areas of Prague (Old Town, Mala Strana, Hradcany, and New Town) were united by Joseph II in 1784. Josefov (named after the emperor) was added to the Prague’s historical center in 1850.
In 1787, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart visited Prague and was the guest of the Duseks, leading Czech musicians, at their villa Bertramka. His opera Don Giovanni had its premiere at the Estates Theatre.
1790 – 1914: National Revival to World War I
A nationalist movement called the National Revival (narodni obrozeni) started at the end of the 18th century, attempting to bring the Czech language, culture and national identity back to life. Some of the most prominent figures of the revival movement were Josef Dobrovsky and Josef Jungmann who succeeded in introducing the study of the Czech language in schools, and historian Frantisek Palacky, author of the History of the Czech People.
Czech literature was reborn with novelist Bozena Nemcova, Romantic poet Karel Hynek Macha, political columnist Karel Havlicek Borovsky, and others. The first dictionary of the Czech language (the Czech-German Dictionary) was written by Josef Jungmann and published in five volumes in 1834-1839. Czech institutions were established to celebrate the Czech history and culture. The National Theater opened in 1883 and the National Museum in 1890.
The 19th century is also characterized by the Industrial Revolution and the building of factories. A railway between Vienna and Prague was opened in 1845. The growing industry resulted in an increase of Prague’s Czech population as people moved to the city from the countryside.
The beginning of the end of the Hapsburg dynasty came with the assassination of Francis Ferdinand in 1914, an event that preceded World War I.
1918 – 1945: The First Republic and World War II
With the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I, the Czech lands and Slovakia jointly proclaimed the establishment of independent Czechoslovakia on October 28, 1918. Prague became the capital of the country and the Prague Castle became the seat of the first president of Czechoslovakia, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk.
The time between WWI and WWII is now called “the First Republic”. Czechoslovakia had a parliamentary democracy, concentrated 70% of the industry of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, and had an economy that was among the strongest in the world. Prague became close to Paris then, as is exemplified by the great Czech-French art-nouveau painter Alphonse Mucha.
In the mid-1930s, the German inhabitants of the Czech border areas called the Sudetenland began calling for autonomy. Masaryk resigned from his post of president in 1935 due to illness and was replaced by Edvard Benes. In September 1938, Germany, Britain, France and Italy signed the Munich Pact, giving Hitler the right to invade and claim Czechoslovakia’s border areas, despite the fact that France had a treaty with Czechoslovakia promising help in the event of military aggression. O nas bez nas (about us, without us) has become a phrase bitterly remembered by all Czechs.
On March 15, 1939, Czechoslovakia was invaded by Hitler’s army. The border territories were seized by Germany and the rest of the country was occupied by Nazi Germany until the end of World War II in 1945. The end of the war came with the Prague Uprising on May 5, 1945 and the subsequent liberation of Prague by the Soviet Red Army on May 9. The western territories of the Czech Republic, including Plzen, were liberated by the American army lead by General Patton.
1945 – 1989: The Communist Era
Soon after WWII, the power in the country went largely to the hands of the Communist Party and the first wave of nationwide nationalization of the industry and other areas of the economy took place. At the same time, some two million Germans were expelled from the country and their property was confiscated.
The Communist Party seized complete power after the coup d’etat on February 25, 1948. This event marked the start of the Communist totalitarian regime that lasted until the Velvet Revolution of 1989. A second wave of nationalization took place and 95% of all privately owned companies became the property of the state. There were a number of political trials and executions in the following several years. The economy went steadily down under the socialist regime. Basic human rights were suppressed.
The 1960s were a time of greater political and cultural freedom and changes were made in the Communist Party itself. Alexander Dubcek, secretary of the Communist Party, attempted to create a more humane version of socialism, “socialism with a human face”, that would guarantee people’s basic rights and reduce the amount of political persecution in the country.
The changes culminated in the spring of 1968 (known as “Prague Spring”) when changes reached the government. The growing political freedoms in Czechoslovakia were seen as a threat by the Soviet Union. On August 21, 1968, five Warsaw Pact member countries invaded Czechoslovakia and Soviet troops continued to occupy the country until 1989.
The period from 1968 to mid-1980s was the period of “normalization”, the purpose of which was to put things back to the way they were before the attempted Prague Spring reform. Any sign of disapproval of the regime was persecuted and opposition moved underground or became limited to isolate acts of protest, such as the suicide of Jan Palach, student of Charles University, who lit himself on fire on Prague’s Wenceslas Square in January 1969.
1989 – present: Velvet Revolution and Beyond
The Russian perestroika that was introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid-1980s marked the last years of communism in Czechoslovakia. The late 1980s are characterized by public demonstrations. A week after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, the Velvet Revolution brought an end to communism. Vaclav Havel, former dissident, was elected president during the country’s first democratic elections in January 1990.
On January 1, 1993, Czechoslovakia peacefully split into two independent countries, Czech Republic and Slovakia, and Havel was elected the first president of the Czech Republic. The Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999. In 2002, the country was approved to become a member of the European Union on May 1, 2004