Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV was born on May 14, 1316 in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Originally named Wenceslas, the young boy was born into Bohemian royalty. His father, John of Luxembourg, was the king of Bohemia. Wenceslas’ mother, Elizabeth, was a member of Bohemia’s former ruling family: the Premsylid. The Premsylid dynasty had ruled Bohemia since the 9th century. After the death of Wenceslaus III in 1305, the dynasty came to an end, and John was elected to the throne.
Due to the political nature of their marriage, John and Elizabeth had an unhappy union. Wenceslaus’ parents often were at odds with each other. To make matters worse, the king also proved to be an unpopular ruler. At seven years old, the prince’s parents sent him away to France. While at the French court, King Charles IV grew fond of the boy. As a result, the king ensured that Wenceslas received a fine education in Paris.
On February 1, 1328, King Charles died. Upon his death, the Capetian dynasty’s senior line ended. In response, the French considered two candidates to succeed to the throne: Philip of Valois and King Edward III of England. Both men descended from King Philip III of France. While Philip was the paternal cousin of Charles, Edward was the former king’s nephew through his sister, Isabella of France. Ultimately, the French voted in favor of Philip, and he became King Philip VI.
As conflict began to stir between France and England over the succession, King John recalled Wenceslas in 1330. Upon his return, John made his son the administrator of north Italy. In turn, Wenceslas quickly demonstrated his skill as an administrator. The prince could organize armies, engage in diplomacy, and even be a competent general when needed. Despite his success, John felt threatened by Wenceslas. Out of fear and paranoia, the king relieved the prince of his duties in 1335.
The Hundred Years’ War
In his youth, King John had supported the election of Louis of Bavaria to become Holy Roman Emperor. However, their relationship soured over time. The breaking point between the two men occurred when Louis IV was crowned emperor without the pope’s consent. When the Hundred Years’ War erupted between France and England in 1337, both men supported opposite sides. Louis gave his support to England, while John staunchly supported France.
By 1337, King John had become completely blind. Despite his disability, John stubbornly insisted on fighting for the French. During the Battle of Crecy in 1346, the blind king rode into battle with his son. As Wenceslas looked on, his father was killed before his eyes. Although the English won the battle, the prince managed to escape with his life.
In 1346, Wenceslas would be elected king of Germany. Emperor Louis IV had formerly been king but had been deposed by the pope in 1324. As a result, Louis didn’t acknowledge Wenceslas as king. After the emperor died in 1347, Louis’ supporters also refused to support Wenceslas. In response, they began supporting anti-kings.
Despite the opposition to his rule, Wenceslas sought to end the conflict diplomatically. After agreeing to grant certain privileges, the king gained support in southern Germany. Shortly after, Wenceslas used his skill to win over northern Germany. Through his efforts, Wenceslas became recognized as the king of Germany. The following year, Wenceslas also became the king of Bohemia. As a testament to his diplomatic ability, the new king faced little resistance to his accession.
Holy Roman Emperor
In 1355, Wenceslas succeeded Louis IV as emperor. In turn, the king took the regnal name Charles in honor of Charles IV of France. As Emperor, Charles IV focused on turning Prague into his empire’s capital. The emperor not only ensured that it was his administrative center but that it supported art and culture. During his reign, Charles became known as a patron of education and funded building projects. The emperor also founded an imperial university that would go on to rival those in France and Italy.
At the beginning of his reign, Emperor Charles IV issued a succession proclamation. In the Golden Bull of 1356, the emperor clearly outlined the imperial succession. To streamline the process, there would be seven electors composed of secular and religious individuals. However, all would answer to the king of Bohemia. Successive emperors would follow the Golden Bull’s guidelines over the next four hundred years.
As part of the succession, Charles IV made plans for his children’s futures. After four marriages, the emperor had multiple children. In turn, Charles ensured that they made good marriages and would inherit his titles. His daughters, Elizabeth, married Albert of Austria and Anne married King Richard II of England. His sons, Wenceslaus, would succeed Charles as king of Germany, and Sigismund would become the next Holy Roman Emperor.
During the last twenty years of his reign, Emperor Charles IV ruled over a peaceful and prosperous empire. Upon his death on November 29, 1378, the emperor’s succession plan encountered difficulties. Charles’ son, Wenceslas, inherited the German kingship. However, Wenceslas IV would eventually be overthrown in 1400. Sigismund would eventually succeed his father as Holy Roman Emperor. However, it wouldn’t be until decades after Charles’ death in 1410.
Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV focused on using diplomatic means to get what he wanted. Through his efforts, the emperor swayed others through words rather than force. In turn, Charles became the king of Germany, Bohemia, and Holy Roman Emperor with little opposition. As a result, the emperor was able to fulfill his vision for the empire. By the time he died, Charles had left behind a stable empire with a clear succession plan in place.
Dougherty, M. J. (2018). Crusaders, Persecutors and Religious Reformers. In Kings & Queens of the Medieval World: From Conquerors and Exiles to Madmen and Saints (pp. 76-78). London: Amber Books.
Preidel, H. (n.d.). Charles IV. Retrieved November 14, 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Charles-IV-Holy-Roman-emperor
The Holy Roman Empire: A Captivating Guide to the Union of Smaller Kingdoms that Started During the Early Middle Ages and Dissolved During the Napleonic Wars. (2019).