Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor

Eyridiki Sellou | Mar 15, 2024

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Charles IV († November 29, 1378 ibid.), born as Wenceslas (Czech: Václav), was Roman-German king (from 1346), king of Bohemia (from 1347), king of Italy (from 1355), king of Burgundy (from 1365), and Roman-German emperor (from 1355). He was descended from the Luxembourg dynasty and is one of the most important emperors of the late Middle Ages as well as the most influential European rulers of that time.

Youth and the path to kingship

Charles IV, baptized Wenceslas (Latin for Old Czech Venceslav - "Wenceslaw", German Wenzel, mod. Czech Václav) was the son of John of Luxembourg (also known as John the Blind), King of Bohemia (1311-1346), and his wife Elizabeth, the second eldest daughter of King Wenceslas II Přemysl, of both Přemyslid and Habsburg descent.

Both in his father's paternal line, the House of Limburg-Arlon, his maternal line, the House of Namur, and among the Přemyslids, he became the first bearer of the name Charles. The Luxembourgers had long maintained good contacts with the French court, so that it was the French king Charles IV who gave him his firm name Charles (with Charlemagne as the patron saint). In Paris, Charles received a comprehensive and, for the time, by no means self-evident education (ca. 1323-30). Among his educators was Pierre Roger (later Pope Clement VI, 1342-52). In France, the marriage with Blanca Margaret of Valois (French: Blanche de Valois) was also already instituted.

In 1331 he went to Italy, where his father John was pursuing far-reaching plans. Here, Charles took independent official action for the first time, even though his father's plan to establish a Luxembourgian ruling complex in northern Italy failed in 1333, mainly due to the opposition of some powerful Italian city-states and the Kingdom of Naples. The relationship between father and son was ambivalent. There was tension, probably due in part to the dispute between Charles's parents, but also to their different characters. John was considered a chivalrous and daring character, while Charles appeared more thoughtful and (except in his youth) averse to tournaments.

Charles later wrote an autobiography, which, however, does not cover his entire life, but only his childhood and adolescent years; in any case, from it we learn that he knew five languages (Latin, German, Bohemian, French and Italian). In 1333 Charles returned to Bohemia and in 1334 he was enfeoffed with the Margraviate of Moravia. In the conflict with the influential barons and his father, he was largely able to hold his own. In 1335 he was involved in the conclusion of a treaty between the Kingdom of Bohemia and Poland and Hungary concerning the claims of the Bohemian crown to the throne of the two kingdoms. In 1335-38 he was also regent in Tyrol for his younger brother Johann Heinrich (1322-1375) and his Gorizian wife Margarete (later called Maultasch). The Tyroleans had refused to be divided between Habsburg and Wittelsbach, and Charles had to occupy the land militarily even against the Habsburgs.


During the same period, the conflict between Louis the Bavarian and his opponents in the empire came to a head. Pope Clement VI, Charles's former tutor at the French court, encouraged the opposition; on April 13, 1346, he imposed an excommunication curse on Louis and called on the electors to hold a new election. Charles, supported by his great-uncle Balduin of Trier, one of the most important imperial politicians of the 14th century, stood for election as counter-king. Since the legitimate places of election and coronation, Frankfurt am Main and Aachen, held firmly to Louis, he was elected in Rhens on July 11, 1346, by the three archbishops of Mainz, Cologne and Trier, as well as by the Saxon and Bohemian vote, and crowned king on November 26 "in the wrong place" - in Bonn Cathedral Basilica.

However, there was no open conflict with Louis' supporters. In August 1346, Charles' blinded father John fell in the Battle of Crécy, in which Charles also took part; however, Charles had withdrawn early and under unclear circumstances. On September 2, 1347, he succeeded his father as king of Bohemia. Afterwards, in the same year, he undertook a journey of homage from Prague to Bautzen, the capital of the Bohemian tributary province of Upper Lusatia, in order to receive homage from the Lusatian estates.

Ludwig the Bavarian died soon after in October 1347, and the Wittelsbach party tried to prevent Charles from being recognized as king. After trying in vain to persuade the English King Edward III and then Margrave Frederick II of Meissen to run for office, four electors elected Günther of Schwarzburg as counter-king on January 30, 1349, at the Dominican Monastery in Frankfurt am Main. The latter expressly justified his legitimacy with the election "in the right place", namely "at Frankenfort in the Velde, da Romische kunge zu rechte...gewelt sind". In the meantime, however, Charles had gained enough supporters. Diplomatically isolated, terminally ill and abandoned by his army, Günther renounced all claims in the Treaty of Eltville on May 26, 1349, in exchange for compensation and an amnesty for his supporters. On June 14, 1349, Günther died in the Johannite monastery in Frankfurt, presumably of the plague.

Charles IV was thus undisputed as Roman king. To ensure his legitimacy, he had himself elected once again in Frankfurt am Main on June 17, 1349, and was crowned again the same year in Aachen on July 25. Before the coronation, he had to wait a few days outside the city, because Aachen was full of pilgrims and flagellants. These had come to Aachen for an unscheduled pilgrimage to the shrine because of the plague.

Charles' imperial policy until his death

Charles was able to quickly consolidate his rule. After severely weakening his opponents through a marriage alliance with the Count Palatine of the Rhine and the false Woldemar (a supposedly surviving member of the ruling family of the Ascanians, who put pressure on the Wittelsbachers in the Mark of Brandenburg), an understanding was reached with the Habsburgs in 1348 and with the Wittelsbachers in 1350 (Treaty of Bautzen).

At the same time, the plague wave reached its peak. The epidemic, also known as the Black Death, depopulated whole swaths of land, whose population fell by more than a third in some cases. As desperate people searched for the cause, the claim that the Jews had poisoned wells was often believed and now instrumentalized. During the Jewish pogroms in Germany in 1349, the so-called plague pogroms, Charles was guilty of at least complicity. In order to pay off his debts, Charles pledged the royal Jewish Regal, among others to Frankfurt am Main. It regulated what was to happen to the property of Jews and promised exemption from punishment if "the Jews there were slain in the near future" (Frankfurt documents of June 23, 25, 27 and 28, 1349, referring to Nuremberg, Rothenburg ob der Tauber and Frankfurt am Main). Just one month later, such a pogrom occurred in Frankfurt. Although he was able to effectively protect the Jews in his domain of Bohemia and also elsewhere, e.g. in Ulm in 1348

In 1354 Charles, whose coming had been repeatedly urged by Cola di Rienzo, who had spent some time in Prague, went to Italy with only a small army. He was crowned with the iron crown of Lombardy in Milan on January 6, 1355. His imperial coronation was performed in Rome on April 5, 1355, by a cardinal commissioned by Pope Innocent VI, who, like all popes since Clement V, resided in Avignon. A short time later he left Italy again, without having made any effort to put the conditions there in order, even if he had been able to gain financially from the Rome campaign through the payments of numerous communes and had at least achieved the imperial coronation without bloodshed. Nevertheless, his behavior towards the papacy contributed to the fact that he was called "priest-king" (rex clericorum), which is certainly wrong, but nevertheless characteristic of Charles' curial policy, which was very much based on agreement with the pope.

Charles's first campaign in Italy had little significance, as did the second campaign in 1368-69 (in which he cooperated with Pope Urban V, from whom he hoped the papacy would return from Avignon to Rome). His Italian policy was by and large ineffective, as Charles was content with the imperial crown. He collected funds from the communes and granted privileges in return, but otherwise did not interfere further in Italian affairs; for this, his behavior was described as that of a merchant (see Matteo Villani and Petrarch). Charles thus abandoned the universal policy of his grandfather Henry VII in favor of an imperial policy based on domestic power. However, he achieved the recognition of his position as emperor by Florence and Milan and did not give up any imperial rights in Italy.

In the West, Charles did little to counteract the expansionist policy there of the Kingdom of France, with whose royal court he maintained good relations. On the contrary, despite his coronation in Arles in 1365, he released Avignon from the feudal rule of the empire and gave up the imperial vicariate in the kingdom of Burgundy (Arelat) in 1378, probably in order to be able to pursue his imperial policy undisturbed by external interference. Nevertheless, this was an advance for France, even though in 1361 he detached Geneva and Savoy from the Kingdom of Burgundy and integrated them directly into the Holy Roman Empire.

In 1354, Charles' great-uncle Balduin of Luxembourg, who had proved to be the emperor's most important support in the West, died. The most momentous step in Charles's reign, the adoption of the Golden Bull in 1356, was only possible after difficult negotiations. Among other things, the bull regulated the election procedure of the Roman-German king and determined the number and names of the electors. It thus became the most important basic law of the empire until its downfall in 1806. The "Männleinlaufen" (running of the men) at Nuremberg's Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) is still a reminder of this today.

However, it is disputed in research whether Charles was successful with this or whether it was not rather a success of the electors, who thus put a stop to Charles' aspirations for a hegemonic kingship. As history has shown, it could be used to the respective advantage of both the electors and the imperial government. What is remarkable about the Golden Bull is that it makes no mention of the need for papal confirmation, or approbation, to attain the imperial dignity. Moreover, the law simply abolished the papal imperial viceroyalty. Charles' eldest son Wenceslas, who had already been king of Bohemia since 1363, was elected Roman-German king on June 10, 1376, while Charles was still alive. The Golden Bull did not provide for this, but it did not forbid it either, so Charles was able to get his son elected through a rather clever policy, although he had to buy the votes of the other electors with large sums of money, which had generally been a common method of asserting his interests. Until the end of the Roman-German Empire in 1806, the dynastic succession of the Luxembourgs and the Habsburgs related to them, with a continuing electoral monarchy, was interrupted only by the Wittelsbachs Ruprecht of the Palatinate (1400-1410) and Charles VII of Bavaria (1742-1745).

In the north, Charles became aware of the Hanseatic League and in 1375 became the first Roman-German king since Frederick I to visit the city of Lübeck. In Tangermünde (Altmark), easily accessible from Bohemia on the Elbe, Charles established his Brandenburg residence in the old imperial castle. The city was to become the capital of the central provinces, which was prevented by his death. Thereafter, there was a turbulent development in the Mark Brandenburg until the Hohenzollerns took over the electorate in 1415 and initially also resided in Tangermünde.

The imperial city of Nuremberg, with which the emperor worked closely (Via Carolina, promotion of the burgraves from the House of Hohenzollern), also played an important role in Karl's politics. Among other things, Charles aimed to establish an "imperial landscape" in this region (the Nuremberg Imperial Castle and the Wenceslas Castle in Lauf an der Pegnitz, which was built for him from 1356 onward, served as his residences there. In the east, Charles pursued his goals of power politics with regard to Poland and Hungary (see below).

Charles died in the same year in which the occidental schism occurred (1378). The emperor, who was personally pious and had always tried to rule in harmony with the pope, could no longer do anything to prevent this schism in the Church, but decided in favor of the Roman pope.

After Charles ensured the elevation of the Prague bishopric to an archbishopric in 1344, he initiated the start of construction of the Gothic St. Vitus Cathedral (katedrála sv. Víta, Václava a Vojtěcha). Pope Innocent IV allowed him to bring Croatian Benedictine monks from the island of Pašman to Prague to celebrate the Glagolitic (Old Slavic) liturgy in the Emaus Monastery. For the safekeeping of the royal and imperial insignia, he had Karlštejn Castle built. The extensive building activity in his residence turned Prague into the Golden City. The Charles Bridge over the Vltava River is the main evidence of this. In 1348 Charles founded the first university in eastern Central Europe, Charles University (Univerzita Karlova), modeled on the University of Naples established by Emperor Frederick II and the Studium generale at the Paris "universitas". Prague was developed by him into one of the most important intellectual and cultural centers of his time and became the de facto capital and residence of the Holy Roman Empire (however, Frankfurt am Main, Nuremberg and, from 1355, Sulzbach (today Sulzbach-Rosenberg) as the center of the imperial acquisitions in what is now the Upper Palatinate continued to be of importance. The imperial chancery led by Johannes von Neumarkt was exemplary for the education of the New High German language. The Prague School of Painting led late Gothic panel painting to its highest flowering.

However, Charles failed with his land peace (Maiestas Carolina) in 1355 due to the resistance of the local nobility. His reign also saw the final incorporation of Silesia into the Bohemian dominion with the Treaty of Namslau in 1348, for which his father had created the conditions with the Treaty of Trenèín. In return, the Polish king Casimir the Great received Mazovia as a personal fief. Charles' marriage to Elisabeth, a granddaughter of Casimir, in 1363 was to settle the old Bohemian-Polish conflict for the time being.

Further information on this subject: →History of Prague

Charles was undoubtedly the most successful household power politician of the late Middle Ages. He also secured Bohemian sovereignty over Silesia (finally in 1368) and Lower Lusatia (purchase in 1367). In 1373, in the Treaty of Fürstenwalde, he received full power of disposition over the Mark of Brandenburg and thus a second electoral dignity for his house; in addition, the Mark was recorded as accurately as possible statistically in the so-called Landbuch, so that taxes could be collected more efficiently. The marriage of his son Sigismund to the heiress of King Louis I of Hungary (betrothal in 1372) also secured this kingdom for the Luxemburgers. However, the hoped-for acquisition of Poland did not succeed. In order to strengthen his domestic power, Charles was not afraid to pledge imperial estates or even to give up imperial rights, as in Burgundy in the west (see above).

Charles' pledging policy was partly due to his chronic lack of money (he had had to raise an enormous sum just to secure his election as Roman-German king) and partly due to his dynastic policy. From now on, every succeeding king had to rely on his house power. The House of Luxembourg had now become almost unassailable. But this was to prove a heavy mortgage for his son Sigismund, since he had no significant house power and no major imperial estates outside the Luxembourg sphere of influence. Charles also stipulated that his sons and relatives should be provided for from the household power complex after his death, which meant that the position of power created by Charles was ultimately lost again.

After the emperor's death on November 29, 1378, his body was laid out in the auditorium of Prague Castle for eleven days. The subsequent funeral ceremonies lasted four days, during which the dead body, accompanied by 7,000 participants, was transferred from the castle through Prague's Old and New Towns and then across Charles Bridge to Vyšehrad. There he was laid out for one night. For two more days, the mortal remains were made available to the public in the Convent of St. James and the St. John's Church of the Virgin Mary (St. Mary Under the Chain). The final funeral ceremony in St. Vitus Cathedral in the presence of his entire court was celebrated by Prague Archbishop John Očko of Wlašim, assisted by another seven bishops.

First marriage: Charles IV married Blanca Margaret of Valois in 1329.

Second marriage: Charles IV married Anne of the Palatinate in 1349.

Third marriage: Charles IV married Anna of Schweidnitz in 1353.

Fourth marriage: Charles IV married Elizabeth of Pomerania in 1363.

Vita Caroli Quarti

Charles IV's autobiography is the first self-portrayal of a medieval German ruler and covers the period from his birth (1316) to his election as king (1346). While the first 14 chapters are written strictly subjectively and tell the story continuously until 1340, the last 6 chapters remain objectively distancing, therefore it is assumed that another author from the ruler's circle is responsible. The autobiography is not uniform, but also includes other literary genres, e.g. a treatise on life and rule, or a scriptural exegesis on the feast of St. Ludmilla. However, the main focus of the account are the moments in the life of Charles IV when he proved himself against great odds, for example, when he was the only one to survive the poisoning of his retinue by the grace of God, as he writes (chap. 4). Another interesting anecdote is the account of a ghostly apparition during an overnight stay in Prague Castle (chap. 7). Also in chapter 7 is a vision of Charles: an angel abducts him at night and takes him to a battlefield where another angel cuts off the genitals of the leader of the attackers, the Dauphin of Vienne, because he had sinned against the Lord. The vision follows the classical structure of medieval visions, and the punishment of the Dauphin is also a medieval topos. The Dauphin Guigo VIII actually died on July 28, 1333, as a result of a wound inflicted on him during the siege of the castle of La Perrière.

Wenceslas legend

The cult of St. Wenceslas occupied a central place in Charles' life. He himself was named after the Bohemian national saint until his seventh year and also had his firstborn baptized in this name. Charles' writing is considered to be the culmination of the veneration of Wenceslas. He probably wrote it between 1355 and 1361, possibly in 1358 as a votive offering for the birth of his daughter Elizabeth. Like any fully developed medieval saintly legend, Charles' Legend of Wenceslas consists of a life story and a miracle story (following the translatio of the saint's body to his place of worship, Prague Cathedral). Charles IV probably processed vites of the saint handed down since the 10th century. It is therefore a compilation of earlier texts. Charles IV felt obliged to the Catholic Liturgy of the Hours (liturgia horarum). The Liturgy of the Hours is still binding for the clergy of the Catholic Church. The purpose of the Liturgy of the Hours is to bring before God each time of day with its particularity. Charles IV performed the Liturgy of the Hours as a clergyman, since by virtue of his coronation he also felt himself to be a deacon. During the Christmas service, therefore, he also exercised the right to sing the Christmas Gospel before the clergy and people in full imperial regalia. He emphasized his readiness to defend the Gospel by brandishing the imperial sword three times. Thus, it is not surprising that the individual parts of the Legend of Wenceslas consist of lessons of a rhyming officium. A classic passage can be seen in Lectio V: the so-called footstep miracle. According to it, St. Wenceslas, accompanied by his servant, visited the churches of the area one winter night. The saint walked barefoot through the snow, so that his feet bled and left traces. The servant followed the saint's trail and no longer felt the cold. Especially in the English-speaking world, this miracle is known through the Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas.


A collection of philosophical aphorisms, spiritual texts, and reflections on various religious and moral issues. The Moralitates are evidence of Charles' deep faith and his conception of a king's virtue: a king has to provide justice and well-being for his country within the grace of God (ch. 1). In three headings, Charles is explicitly named as the author. One example of biblical exegesis, and it is from the sixth chapter, where Charles IV is named as author ("Haec est moralisatio domini Caroli regis Romanorum"). In this chapter, Charles IV refers to a passage in Genesis (Gen. IV, 22) about "Thubalcain, who forged the tools of all the ore and iron craftsmen." In the Emperor's Moralisatio, Thubalcain is equated with man: Man, according to Charles, has the task of acting like it: Namely, just as Thubalcain elicited sounds from the iron, so man should elicit "sounds" from himself through mortification (castigatio) and thus achieve perfection.


The authorship of Charles IV, which the editor S. Steinherz had represented, is no longer assumed in research today (see Fürstenspiegel Karls IV.). In the Fürstenspiegel, an unspecified emperor describes to his son the proper way to govern. In doing so, the author draws primarily from Augustine and Petrarch.

In modern research, Charles IV is judged differently. Representatives of a positive view are among others Ferdinand Seibt and Peter Moraw, partly also Jörg K. Hoensch. Partly very critical, but also highly differentiated, is Heinz Thomas.

It is undisputed that Charles was highly intelligent and an outstanding diplomat, and that he promoted the arts and sciences. In the context of positive appreciations (for example, by Moraw), he is described as the greatest Roman-German emperor of the late Middle Ages.

Furthermore, it is credited to him that he did not allow himself to be entangled in the Italian affairs like his grandfather Henry VII and that he was able to gain the title of emperor without bloodshed and in agreement with the Pope. His reign is perceived as the last high point of the old empire in the Middle Ages, even though his emperorship bore little resemblance to the universal emperorship of past times.

On the other hand, it is critically noted that he was not willing to settle the political situation on the ground in Italy. His Italian campaign, in which he immediately set off north again after the imperial coronation, was already viewed very critically by his contemporaries Petrarch and Matteo Villani. Moreover, it is pointed out that he did not succeed in maintaining the position of power he had created. Moraw also admits that he left the basis of the dynasty in Bohemia fragile. He is also credited negatively with the policy of pledging, which turned the emperorship into a purely imperial household. The fact that he partially failed to fulfill his duty to protect the Jews also weighs on the negative side of his government record.

Since the 1977 Hohenstaufen exhibition, large-scale exhibition projects have been a measure of the scientific and public interest in medieval rulers. The 600th anniversary of the death of Charles IV in the following year brought three such exhibitions, with "The Time of Charles IV in the History of the Peoples of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic," which attracted 650,000 visitors to Prague Castle, being judged a "politically motivated" rival project to "Emperor Charles IV 1316-1378," which attracted about 200,000 visitors to Nuremberg Imperial Castle. The exhibition "Die Parler und der Schöne Stil 1350-1400" ("The Parlers and the Beautiful Style 1350-1400"), which opened in Cologne at the end of the year (approx. 300,000 visitors), with its three-volume catalog provided a foundation for "Art and Culture under the Luxembourgish". A comprehensive new presentation of these aspects was offered by "Charles IV, Emperor by the Grace of God" in 2006 in New York (Metropolitan Museum) and Prague (Castle), whereby the driving force was now understood to be less the Parler family of master builders, but rather the court culture and the will to represent the House of Luxembourg. The first Bavarian-Czech national exhibition on the 700th anniversary of the birth of Charles IV in 2016 at the Wallenstein Riding School and Charles University in Prague as well as the Germanic National Museum in Nuremberg ties in with the deliberately European perspective of this show, both in terms of organization and content, and uses primarily art and cultural-historical objects to present the biography of the ruler in the context of an era described as crisis-ridden.


  1. Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor
  2. Karl IV. (HRR)
  3. František Kavka: Bohemia in History. Hrsg.: Mikuláš Teich. Cambridge University Press, 1998, ISBN 0-521-43155-7, Chapter 3: Politics and culture under Charles IV, S. 60 (
  4. Wolfgang Klötzer: Günther von Schwarzburg, in: Wolfgang Klötzer (Hrsg.): Frankfurter Biographie. Personengeschichtliches Lexikon. Erster Band. A–L (= Veröffentlichungen der Frankfurter Historischen Kommission. Band XIX, Nr. 1). Waldemar Kramer, Frankfurt am Main 1994, ISBN 3-7829-0444-3, S. 286 f.
  5. Historischer Verein Ingelheim e. V. vom 3. August 2010., archiviert vom Original (nicht mehr online verfügbar) am 20. Januar 2009; abgerufen am 7. Januar 2011.  Info: Der Archivlink wurde automatisch eingesetzt und noch nicht geprüft. Bitte prüfe Original- und Archivlink gemäß Anleitung und entferne dann diesen Hinweis.@1@2Vorlage:Webachiv/IABot/
  6. Zu Karls Politik gegenüber den Juden vgl. zusammenfassend Jörg R. Müller, Andreas Weber: Karl IV. und die Juden. In: Jiri Fajt, Markus Hörsch (Hrsg.): Kaiser Karl IV. (1316–2016). Erste Bayerisch-Tschechische Landesausstellung. Prag 2016, S. 218–225.
  7. ^ Massimo Dadà, Guida di Fosdinovo, La Spezia, Giacché, 2010, pp. 37-38.
  8. ^ Cinzia Cremonini-Riccardo Musso, I feudi imperiali in Italia tra XV e XVIII secolo, Roma, Bulzoni, 2010, p. 39.
  9. Pierre Monnet, Charles IV, un empereur en Europe, Fayard, 19 août 2020, 404 p. (ISBN 978-2-213-69923-3), p. 36
  10. ^ a b Karl IV. In: Hans Herzfeld [de] (1960): Geschichte in Gestalten (History in figures), vol. 2: F–K. Das Fischer Lexikon [de] 38, Frankfurt 1963, p. 294
  11. ^ Kavka, František (1998). "Chapter 3: Politics and culture under Charles IV". In Teich, Mikuláš (ed.). Bohemia in History. Cambridge University Press. p. 60. ISBN 0-521-43155-7.
  12. ^ Mahoney, William (2011). The history of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Greenwood. p. 50. ISBN 978-0313363054.

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