History I Never Knew: The Charles Bridge, Prague

The Charles Bridge at Sunset

Today’s history lesson is about a place on my bucket list.

I’d love to visit Prague some day. I’m told that it’s a magnificent old city. Part of the reason for that is that somehow the physical ravages of modern war did not reach it. That’s a good thing.

There’s also a personal tug. Prague is the city where, in 1933, America’s National Hockey Team won its first world championship. Our team, the Massachusetts Rangers, defeated the Toronto National Sea Fleas, 2-1 in overtime, to take the title. The overtime goal was scored by John Garrison, “The Ghost of Harvard Yard.” The coach of the team was my uncle, Walter Brown. It was the first time ever that an American team defeated the Canadian team in international competition.

But back to today’s lesson – it’s about the city’s most-photographed sight, the Charles Bridge over the Vltava River in the city’s center. It’s been known at the Charles Bridge only since 1870, in belated recognition of Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. It was he who laid the first stone, back in 1357.

Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV

Charles was big into numerology. And so he insisted that the first stone be set in place at exactly 5:31 a.m. on July 9 of that year.

Why such precision? Because the date and time make for a palindrome: 135797531 (or 1357 9, 7 5:31). That number, which reads the same backward and forward, is carved onto the stones of the Old Town Bridge Tower at the east end of the bridge. Charles believed that it would bring a magical strength to the structure. All righty, then.

The bridge wasn’t finished until 1402. Its length is 1,692 feet. For more than 400 years it was the only means of crossing the Vltava, and it was therefore the most important connection between Prague Castle and Prague’s Old Town. The bridge helped to make Prague an important nexus for trade between Eastern and Western Europe.

There’s more superstition beyond Charles IV’s numerology. The bridge was also constructed in perfect alignment with the tomb of Saint Vitus and the setting sun on the equinox. More recently, people came to believe that rubbing the plaque at the base of the statue of Saint John of Nepomuk will grant you a wish.

Saint John of Nepomuk

John was murdered on the orders of King Wenceslas IV during the bitter conflict of church and state that plagued Bohemia in the latter 14th century. In 1390 he was made vicar general for the archbishop of Prague. In 1393 the archbishop, with John’s support, excommunicated one of the favorites of the king and thwarted the king’s ambition to make a new bishopric out of the province of Prague.

John was arrested as the archbishop’s chief agent. Wenceslas personally tortured him with fire, after which he reconsidered and released him on an oath of secrecy regarding his treatment. John, however, was dying, and to conceal the evidence Wenceslas had him gagged, shoved into a goatskin, and cast into the Vltava. Bohemian Catholics came to regard John of Nepomuk as a martyr.

Saint John’s statue is one of 32 points of interest (see map) on the bridge. Things also got interesting there around the time of the horrific Thirty Years War (1618-1648). The war began in May of 1618, touched off by the colorfully-named Defenestration of Prague. In that incident, three Catholic officials, emissaries from the Holy Roman Emperor, were tossed from an upper window of Prague Castle by an angry mob of Protestant Bohemian rebels.

Statues and Attractions on the Charles Bridge

Three years later, on June 21, 1621 after the Battle of White Mountain, the 27 leaders of the anti-Habsburg revolt were executed. Their severed heads were displayed for all to see on the Old Town Bridge Tower. Apparently, that grisly measure – quite common in those times – wasn’t much of a deterrent.

Near the end of the war, the Swedes occupied the west bank of the Vltava. As they tried to advance into the Old Town the heaviest fighting took place right on the bridge. During the fighting, they severely damaged one side of the Old Town bridge tower, and the remnants of almost all gothic decorations had to be removed from it afterward.

It wasn’t until the late 17th and early 18th centuries that the bridge became the attraction that it is today. That’s when the alley of baroque statues was installed on the bridge’s pillars.

Charles IV’s numerology didn’t spare the bridge from severe damage. In 1890, a huge flood hit Prague. Thousands of rafts, logs and other floating materials from upstream gradually formed a giant barrier against the bridge. Three arches were torn down by the pressure, and two pillars collapsed from being undermined by the water, while others were partly damaged.

Two statues, St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Francis Xavier, fell into the river. The Ignatius statue was replaced by statues of Saints Cyril and Methodius. For the St. Francis statue, they had a replacement cast.

1890 Flood Damage

It goes without saying that the Charles Bridge, also known as Karlův Most and Karlsbrücke, is one of the most visited and photographed sites in Prague.

No wonder, eh? It’s a place I’d love to visit myself.

And now you know the rest of the story.

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