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John of Bohemia. Source: Ondřej Kořínek/CC BY SA 3.0

John of Bohemia: A Heroic King Blind to His Fate

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John of Bohemia was a king of Bohemia who lived between the 13th and 14th centuries. He was known also as John of Luxembourg, as well as John the Blind. The former indicates that John belonged to the Limburg-Luxembourg dynasty (also known as the House of Luxembourg), while the latter refers to the fact that he was blind for the last 10 years of his life.

John was one of the more popular heroic figures of his day, and went on military campaigns all over Europe, thus making him the perfect example of a knight errant. Today, however, John is best-known for his participation in the Battle of Crécy, one of the most significant battles of the Hundred Years’ War , during which the king lost his life.

Who was John of Bohemia?

John of Bohemia was born on August 10, 1296 in Luxembourg. His father was Henry VII, the Count of Luxembourg and his mother was a noblewoman by the name of Margaret of Brabant. John belonged to the Limburg-Luxembourg dynasty, which had been established by Henry IV, his great-grandfather, in 1240.

Henry could consider himself the founder of a new dynasty as his son and heir, Henry VI, was born in that year. While Henry V and Henry VI both held the title ‘Count of Luxembourg,’ Henry VII made it two steps further, becoming King of Germany - formally King of the Romans in 1308 and Holy Roman Emperor in 1312. Henry was the first member of this dynasty to be crowned emperor and several of his descendants would attain this title as well.

As a child, John was brought up in Paris and was educated in the classic style by the French clergy. Thus, John’s education and upbringing made him French. Nevertheless, John was not destined to play a huge role in French politics, but became deeply involved in those of Germany. As mentioned previously, John’s father would become King of the Romans and later Holy Roman Emperor.

Henry’s attainment of these positions meant that the young John was moved from France to the Holy Roman Empire. John’s attachment to France, however, was not entirely severed, as will be seen later on. As king (and later emperor), one of Henry’s tasks was to secure the position of his family, and one of the moves he made was to obtain the throne of Bohemia for John.

14th century bust of John of Bohemia, St Vitus Cathedral, Prague. ( CC0)

Fighting for the Kingdom of Bohemia

The Kingdom of Bohemia was a kingdom in the Holy Roman Empire, and is today the westernmost, and largest part of the Czech Republic. In 1306, the Přemyslid dynasty, which traces its origin to the 9th century AD, came to an end when its last male member, Wenceslaus III, was assassinated, which caused instability in the kingdom, as several contenders fought for the Bohemian throne.

Although Wenceslaus was the last male member of the Přemyslid dynasty, he had several sisters, including Anne of Bohemia and Elizabeth of Bohemia. In addition, there was the widow of Wenceslaus’s father (Wenceslaus II), Elizabeth Richeza of Poland. It was through these three women that the contenders made their bid for the throne of Bohemia.

Anne was married to Henry of Carinthia, while Elizabeth Richeza married Rudolf of Habsburg a year after her first husband’s death. In 1306, the throne of Bohemia was occupied by Henry. In the same year, he was deposed and Rudolf became the new king. Rudolf died in the following year and Henry returned. This time, he ruled until 1310.

In 1306, Elizabeth of Bohemia was the only princess in the family who was not yet married or betrothed. At that time, Elizabeth was 14 years old, which was considered a good age to marry at that time. In the subsequent years, Elizabeth did not play a large role in Bohemian politics. After Henry’s return to the throne in 1307, however, opposition to his rule began to grow and Elizabeth became the figurehead of this group.

John was a Capable King of Bohemia

Henry tried to marry Elizabeth off to Otto of Löbdaburg for political reasons, but the princess refused to do so. In 1310, Elizabeth sought the support of the German king. In exchange for his assistance against her brother-in-law, Elizabeth offered to marry the king’s son, John, who had been made Count of Luxembourg in that year. The king agreed to princess’ proposal, and the 14 year old John and was married to the 18 year old Elizabeth on August 30, 1310.

Soon after, the newlyweds, accompanied by a German-Bohemian army, set out for Prague, and captured the city on December 19, 1310. John was named the new King of Bohemia and crowned in Prague on February 7, 1311.

Wedding of John of Luxemburg and Elise of Premyslid in Speyer 1310 / Hochzeit Johanns von Luxemburg mit Elisabeth von Böhmen (Elisabeth (Eliška) Přemyslovna) in Speyer 1310. ( Public Domain )

John proved to be a capable ruler. Together with a team of advisors, the king came to understand the problems affecting his newly-gained kingdom and took measures to address them. In a short period of time, the state was stabilized. For this achievement, John was appointed as one of the seven prince-electors of the Holy Roman Empire . This was a highly prestigious role, as the prince-electors had the privilege (since the 13th century) of electing the King of the Romans, who would then be crowned as the Holy Roman Emperor by the pope.

…But His Subjects Didn’t Love Him

In addition to this, John was also a claimant to the thrones of Poland and Hungary, by virtue of his status as the successor of Wenceslaus. John also extended the kingdom’s northern borders by acquiring Upper Lusatia and Silesia during the 1320s. In spite of these contributions to the kingdom, John was not well-loved by his subjects.

This was due to the fact that he spent lavishly, which in turn required him to tax the Bohemians heavily. Moreover, John was regarded as a foreign ruler, especially by the nobility, which eroded his popularity even further. In addition, John’s marriage was not going smoothly either. Although John and Elizabeth had seven children together, the couple lived almost separate lives.

John of Luxemburg from medieval manuscript. ( Public Domain )

To make matters worse, rumors indicating that Elizabeth was involved in a plot against her husband began to circulate in 1323. John, who became anxious about losing his throne, decided to kidnap his three eldest children, Margaret, Bonne, and Charles, and sent them to France. The children never saw their mother again.

John was also involved in European politics beyond the borders of his kingdom. In 1313, John’s father set out from Pisa on a military expedition against the Kingdom of Naples. On the way, he attempted to capture the city of Siena, but was unsuccessful. Shortly after, the emperor fell ill with fever and died.

Two Dynasties, Two Kings

At the time of Henry’s death, the Holy Roman Empire was dominated by two major dynasties – the House of Luxembourg and the House of Habsburg . In 1314, when Henry’s successor was to be elected, John was only 18 years old and considered too young to be a viable candidate. Therefore, the Luxembourg faction settled for Louis IV (known also by his nickname ‘the Bavarian’), who hailed from the House of Wittelsbach.

Although Louis was elected King of the Romans, and was subsequently crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1328, his election was not without opposition. In fact, two elections had been held in 1314, and the Habsburg candidate, Frederick the Handsome (or ‘the Fair’), was elected during the first round. A second election (with different prince-electors) was held the next day by the Luxembourg faction, who were not satisfied with the result of the previous day.

As a consequence, there were two kings of Germany, each claiming to be the rightful ruler. The conflict dragged on until 1325, when Frederick finally recognized Louis as the legitimate king. For much of the conflict between Louis and Frederick, John threw his support behind the former. John was rewarded accordingly when Louis emerged victorious.

Military Campaigns and John the Blind

John’s involvement in European politics was not limited to the conflict in the Holy Roman Empire, as he also went on various military campaigns around Europe, which gained him widespread fame as the ideal knight-errant. Incidentally, as John was quite frequently absent from Bohemia, he decided to leave the administration of the kingdom in the hands of his viceroys.

One of the most famous campaigns John participated in was the Northern Crusades, during which he aided the Teutonic Order against the pagans of Lithuania. It was also during this time that John went blind. In 1336, while on campaign with the Teutonic Order, John contracted ophthalmia (inflammation of the eye), which resulted in his blindness. According to one story (which may be apocryphal), the king lost the vision in one eye to cataract.

The physician hired to heal the king was unsuccessful and was therefore put to death by drowning. Later on, the king went to Avignon, where Guy de Chauliac, a physician famed for his expertise in ophthalmology, was living. de Chauliac, however, not only failed to cure the king, he even cost him his other eye. de Chauliac, however, was not drowned, saved, perhaps, due to the fact that he was the pope’s personal physician. In any case, there were rumors that John’s blindness was a punishment from God, but John simply brushed them aside.

John of Luxembourg in the Hundred Years’ War

In 1337, the Hundred Years’ War broke out and John decided to lend his support to the French. The emperor, however, was a supporter of the English, and the relationship between John and Louis grew increasingly strained as the years progressed. Eventually, in 1346, John allied himself with the pope, Clement VI, and secured a formal deposition of the emperor. Louis was replaced by John’s son, Charles, who was elected as King of the Romans. Subsequently, in 1355, Charles was crowned Holy Roman Emperor as Charles IV.

John died in the same year that Charles was elected King of the Romans. In 1346, the Hundred Years’ War had been going on for almost 10 years. On July 12 of that year, the English king, Edward III , landed an invasion force on the coast of Normandy. Edward’s’ goal was to conduct a large-scale raid through northern France in order to support his claim to the French throne.

The English army, which numbered about 14,000 men, began raiding the Norman countryside, and captured Caen on July 26. The French king, Philip VI, responded by assembling an army in Paris, about 20,000 strong. When Edward received news of Philip’s military preparations, he marched his army northwards and began moving along the coast.

The King of Bohemia at the Battle of Crécy

On August 24 the English won the Battle of Blanchetaque and crossed the Somme. After that, the English army camped near the forest of Crécy. In the meantime, Philip marched his army quickly to Crécy, as he was eager to defeat the English. Furthermore, as the English had crossed the Somme, Philip’s strategy of trapping them between the Seine and the Somme was foiled.

On August 26, two days after Edward had crossed the Somme, the English and French armies met for battle. Philip initiated the battle by assaulting the English with his 4,000 hired Genoese crossbowmen. These mercenaries, however, were no match for Edward’s 10,000 longbowmen, who were able to fire much further, and reload much faster.

Fresco by Lazzaro Tavarone at the Palazzo Cattaneo Adorno, depicting the crossbowmen of Genoa during the storming of Jerusalem. ( Public Domain )

Moreover, as a result of the brief thunderstorm before the battle, the crossbow strings became wet and slackened, rendering them much less effective than they should have been. The longbowmen, on the other hand, simply untied their bowstrings during the storm to keep them dry. As the crossbowmen retreated, the French knights began their charge against the English.

These knights fared no better than the crossbowmen before them. The knights’ initial charge was impromptu and therefore disorganized. The chaos was compounded by the fact that the crossbowmen were fleeing in the opposite direction, making collision between the two sides inevitable.

The knights’ advance was further hampered by the muddy terrain, the position of the English on a hill, and the obstacles placed by the English between them and the French. Finally, the longbowmen continued their firing, which killed many of the French knights. By evening, the English had repelled 16 French charges. Philip, who himself was wounded, realized that the battle was lost, and ordered a retreat.

John of Bohemia’s Legacy

The English lost between 100 and 300 men at the Battle of Crécy , whereas French losses are estimated to have been between 13,000 and 14,000. Among the dead were many of France’s noblemen, including the king’s brother, Charles II of Alençon, the Duke of Lorraine, and the Count of Blois. John was also in that group, though he is remembered for being chivalrous till the very end.

Painting by Julian Russel Story of the Black Prince at the battle of Crecy. At his feet lies the body of the dead King John of Bohemia. (Public Domain)

Painting by Julian Russel Story of the Black Prince at the battle of Crecy. At his feet lies the body of the dead King John of Bohemia. ( Public Domain )

A record of John’s final actions is found in the Chronicles of Jean Froissart. According to Froissart, when John learned about the order of the battle, he desired to go into battle. Being blind, however, the king would have easily lost his way on the battlefield. Therefore, John’s men tied the reins of their horses’ bridles to the king’s to guide him on the battlefield. Needless to say, they were killed by the English.

In another account, the Chronicle of Prague , John was informed that the battle was lost, and that he should flee. He replied by saying “Far be it that the King of Bohemia should run away. Instead, take me to the place where the noise of the battle is the loudest. The Lord will be with us. Nothing to fear. Just take good care of my son.”

John of Bohemia at the Battle of Crécy. ( Public Domain )

John’s remains were first interred in Kloster Altmünster (the ‘Old Abbey’) in Luxembourg. When the abbey was destroyed in 1543, they were moved to Kloster Neumünster (the ‘New Abbey’). During the French Revolution , the abbey’s monks entrusted the king’s bones to the Boch family, who hid them in an attic in Meltlach on the Saar River.

Subsequently, the bones were presented by Jean-Francois Boch to Frederick William III, the king of Prussia, who claimed descent from John, when he visited the Rhineland in 1833. The king had John’s bones interred in a funeral chapel near Kastel-Staadt, on the German side of the border with Luxembourg.

John’s bones finally returned to Luxembourg in 1945. In that year, Nazi Germany was on the verge of defeat, and the government of Luxembourg seized the opportunity to retake the king’s bones (through a covert operation), and brought them back to their country, where they remain in the crypt of the Notre-Dame Cathedral until today.

Tomb of John of Bohemia in the crypt of the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Luxembourg City, Luxembourg. (Dozura/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

Top image: John of Bohemia. Source: Ondřej Kořínek/ CC BY SA 3.0

By Wu Mingren

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