Castle of the Week 29 – Prague Castle

Prague Castle can be found in the middle of the capital of the Czech Republic on a sprawling site on top of a rocky ridge above the Vltava River. It gives the impression of being a small walled town rather than a castle and at 570 meters long and 128 meters wide it is the largest ancient castle in the world according to the Guinness Book of Records.

The first castle, of timber with earth and stone ramparts and a moat, was built in about 870 by the ruling dynasty of Bohemia, princes from the Premyslid family. From the beginning, churches and houses were built inside the walls and by the end of the 10th century there were three churches, together with a convent. By this time, the castle was the seat of both the King of Bohemia and the Bishop of Prague.

In 1041 and again in 1142 the Castle was besieged & burnt down. The second conflagration resulted in its being rebuilt in stone and strongly fortified with roofed walls, towers and ditches. In 1346 it became an imperial residence, the seat of the Holy Roman Emperor King Charles IV of Bohemia. The royal palace was rebuilt magnificently with golden roofs as a symbol of wealth and power and the fortifications were strengthened. Building continued, including the cathedral of St Vitus started in 1344 and modelled on French cathedrals although it wasn’t finally completed until 1929. However in 1421 the castle was captured by the Hussites during the Hussite wars. Under Jan Hus, they were simple people from the countryside, using farming tools as weapons, fighting for their religious beliefs. After the Hussite rebellion was quelled, the castle started to fall into disrepair and it was no longer inhabited.

In 1483 King Vladislav decided to make the castle his home so it was refortified with three towers on the northern side. The royal palace was also rebuilt with the huge Vladislav Hall being the biggest secular vaulted hall in Europe at the time.

The Habsburg family became the royal house in 1526 and they started rebuilding the castle in a renaissance style with formal Italian style gardens and entertainment buildings such as a summer palace, a shooting range and a ball games hall. In 1541 there was a huge fire and much of the castle was burnt down. After the fire, Rudolph II began to turn it into a suitable place to be the centre of his empire, building a new wing onto the palace to house his art and science collections. The best equipped stables in Europe were built with about 300 horses in residence; there were also lions and leopards.

During the 17th and first part of the 18th century there was a long period of war during which the castle was besieged, damaged and looted. In 1631 it was occupied by the Saxons, in 1648 it was the turn of the Swedes and in 1757 it was besieged by the Prussians and badly damaged.

The last great rebuilding was carried out during the second half of the 18th century under the Empress Maria Theresa and was in the baroque style that can be seen today. However, the capital of the empire had moved to Vienna and as Prague was no longer considered so important the castle gradually became dilapidated once again and most of Rudolph’s art collection was sold.

In 1918 the Czechoslovak Republic became independent after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the castle once again became home to a head of state with alterations being begun in 1920. During this rebuilding, they found walls of much older buildings including those of timber houses from the first castle, so an archaeological excavation took place finding many items from the castle’s earliest days. Originally the dig was open to the public, but unfortunately damage was being done so now it is walled in.

In 1939 Hitler’s armies occupied Prague and Hitler himself stayed in the castle for a few days that year.

The castle is still the seat of the head of state, the president of the Czech Republic. The crown jewels are kept there, as are precious Christian relics, relics of the Bohemian kings and art treasures.

Write-up provided by GillB. Photos courtesy of Castles of the World