The royal castle of Bezděz, founded in 1264 by the ‘Iron and Gold King’, Přemysl Otakar II, is one of the Czech Republic’s most important Gothic monuments. It became famous in the medieval period as the place where the next-to-last Přemyslid king of Bohemia, Wenceslas II, was imprisoned as a young man. In the Baroque period, when the castle was used as a Benedictine monastery, it was a destination for many devout pilgrims. Finally, in the nineteenth century, Bezděz, by that time abandoned, became an attraction for romantic souls, among them the famous Czech poet and writer Karel Hynek Mácha. Today’s visitors can visit the royal palace and chapel, which display many architectural details of the High Gothic. The Burgrave’s palace and other parts of the castle, including the Great Tower with its Knight’s Hall on the top floor, offer unique panoramic views of the castle’s surroundings — not only the nearby Mácha Lake and Ještěd Hill near Liberec, but also in good weather the peaks of the Krkonoše (Giant) Mountains and sometimes even the spire of St. Vitus Cathedral at Prague Castle (with a pair of binoculars). In peak season tours at the castle are enlivened by fencing displays.
More About the History
Probably in the 1260s, King Ottokar II built a strong stone castle on a dominant hill above an old estate. He wanted to protect a busy trade route and prevent his neighbours, the noble Ronower and Markwartinger families, from expanding their possessions. By 1278, shortly after Ottokar’s death, the castle was already evidently habitable, because it was occupied by troops from Brandenburg in that same year.
Ottokar II was known as the Iron and Gold King, both for his military prowess and his wealth. He built castles and founded royal towns as a means of consolidating his power over the Bohemian nobility.
The master builders who constructed Bezděz castle took most of their inspiration from Central Germany’s Hessian style, as can be seen in its spectacular chapel. The ironworkers did a great job, certainly to the full satisfaction of the monarch. At the time, the castle was not only truly unconquerable but also of high artistic value.
Soon after Ottokar’s death in the Battle of the Marchfeld (August 26, 1278), the castle, designed to be a respectable place for kings to live, became a well-appointed prison for Ottakar’s son Wenceslas (who was seven years old at the time) and his widowed queen, Kunigunda. Both of them were brought here on the night of January 25, 1279 by Wenceslas’s guardian, Otto of Brandenburg. Though he was officially only a steward of the young king, Otto treated the country like a conqueror.
In the early fourteenth century, the castle was given to local aristocrats in pledge, as security for royal debts. With the king’s consent, Hynek Berka of Dubá founded a new village a bit to the east of the castle, called Nový Bezděz, which was granted all the rights and privileges of a town 1337. Later, this village was renamed Bělá pod Bezdězem. Shortly after the Charles IV was crowned King of Bohemia in 1347, the castle returned to royal control.
Charles IV, King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor, tried to regain control over all of the royal property that had been pledged before his time. He established a new legal code for the country – the Maiestas Carolina. This code stated that royal property could no longer be pledged to secure debts, and Bezděz was one of the items that were expressly listed. However, the aristocracy refused to accept the limitations of the Maiestas Carolina on their privileges.
Charles IV was fond of Bezděz. In 1366, he constructed the Big Pond near the castle, together with his Burgrave, Oldřich Tista of Libštejn. Today, the pond is known as Máchovo jezero (Mácha Lake), named in honour of the poet K. H. Mácha.
During the Hussite wars, the castle became the biggest stronghold of the Catholic Church in the north of Bohemia. Its impregnability was taken for granted, so the castle became the repository for Bohemia’s land title records and numerous valuables of the Church and secular owners.
Until 1468, the castle was controlled by the house of Michalovice. For the next 120 years, it passed from one pledge holder to another.
In 1588, Emperor Rudolph II finally cancelled the pledge and sold the castle to the last pledge holder, John of Wartenberg. After John’s death, the castle became the property of Wenceslas of Dubá, who married John’s widow. Later, Wenceslas became one of the leaders of the Bohemian revolt against the Habsburgs, and after the rebels’ defeat at the Battle of White Mountain in 1620, he fled the country along with the ‘Winter King’, Frederick V of the Palatinate. The Austrians confiscated the castle and later sold it for a low price to the Imperial Army general Albrecht of Wallenstein. Just before Wallenstein took control of Bezděz, it was conquered for the first time in its history after being occupied by mutinous allies of Wenceslas of Dubá. Wenceslas’s men were ousted by mercenaries hired by Maximilian of Bavaria, but the castle was set afire in the process.
Despite serious damage, Wallenstein decided to rebuild the castle and turn it into a Baroque fortress. Later on, however, he changed his mind and in 1627 invited monks of the Order of St. Augustine to turn the castle into a fortified monastery (which Wallenstein and his army could use for themselves if necessary). However, the Augustinian monks were quite sluggish in rebuilding the castle, so nine years later Wallenstein gave it back to the village of Bělá. Then, he then promised Bezděz to the Spanish Benedictine Order of Montserrat, out of gratitude for their saving his life during the Battle of Lützen. Like the Abbey of Montserrat in Spain, Bezděz was to be used to shelter pilgrims, and a big monastery was meant to be built at the foot of the hill. Wallenstein’s gift, minus the monastery under the castle, was eventually completed by Emperor Ferdinand II after he confiscated the castle from Wallenstein together with the rest of his property. The emperor gave it to the Benedictine Monastery of Emmaus in Prague, where years before Wallenstein had met with the Montserrat Benedictines and their abbot Penalosa to discuss the gift.
During the Thirty Years War, Bezděz was for a time occupied by the Swedes. After the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the area was still rather dangerous for quite a long period, and the monks did not arrive at Bezděz until 1661. They repaired the Chapel and the Royal and Burgrave’s palaces. In 1666, the monks brought in a copy of the reputedly miraculous statue of the Black Virgin in Montserrat. Tens of thousands of pilgrims visited the statue every year, passing on their way fifteen small chapels built from the foot of the hill up to its top by Duchess Anne of Wallenstein (1686). The chapels were first decorated by paintings, then woodcuts depicting the crucifixion — the Way of the Cross — were added. Nowadays, the woodcuts are stored in the museum in Česká Lípa.
The property amassed by the monks over the previous century was lost in 1778. The monks asked Prussian troops to protect them against the Austrian army, but the Prussians discovered the monks’ treasure and carried it off.
Soon after that, in 1785, the monastery was closed down by Emperor Joseph II. Some of its furnishings were transferred to Emmaus and other churches. The rest was sold at auction four years later, together with building materials taken from the castle. Among other reasons, the houses inside decayed rapidly because of the depredations of treasure hunters. The gold fever that gripped the local population inspired Bedřich Smetana to compose his opera The Secret, with a libretto by Eliška Krásnohorská.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the castle decayed further and fell into ruin. However, this didn’t affect its popularity, especially because the period of romanticism made castle ruins very popular. Bezděz was a special place for the greatest Czech romantic poet, K. H. Mácha, who often visited his friends in nearby Doksy. He found a great deal of inspiration for his works at and around the castle, including ‘An Evening at Bezděz’ and ‘May’.
The history of the castle doesn’t end with it falling into ruins. The pilgrimage tradition at Bezděz lasted until the nineteenth century. Visitors came not only for religious reasons but also to see a true masterpiece of medieval castle architecture, and a monument to the glory of Czech history.
Bezděz became a popular tourist destination, so the Wallensteins began various repairs and reconstructions. In 1932, the last private owner, Karl Ernest of Wallenstein and Wartenberg, sold the castle to the Czechoslovak Tourist Club for the symbolic price of 2,000 Czechoslovak crowns. The club immediately started to rebuild the castle for tourist purposes. Their efforts were interrupted by World War II, when the castle and the whole region were seized by Germany as part of the Sudetenland. After the war, in 1953, Bezděz was taken over by the National Heritage Institute.
The Vassals’ Palaces
Both of the two vassals’ palaces in the castle consisted of three rooms. The central room was twice as large as the other two. The ground floor, with its flat beamed ceilings, was used for technical and service functions, while the main residential areas were located on the upper floor. The central hall was lit by two large Gothic windows in the outer wall and was over-arched by two groin vaults. In the corner, there was a spiral staircase leading to the upper floor, which also provided access to the adjacent rooms. The eastern room is also fitted with a groin vault. The room could be heated by a fireplace.
The palaces in the upper castle are based on another floorplan with a small central hall and two adjacent rooms (a setup that is typical for many other buildings constructed by Ottokar II). However, no other castle used this arrangement in such a consistent way as Bezděz. A low-ceilinged room under the roof, or attic, was built above the vault of the first floor. It was almost certainly used for residential purposes and also for defence of the castle. The buildings were covered by gabled roofs.
The Devil’s Tower
The circular bergfried tower was a tower that was for defensive purposes only that was not inhabited during times of peace. Bergfried towers could be defended separately, and thus were the last resort of the castle’s defenders when enemies had seized the rest of the castle.
The Main Tower
The main tower of Bezděz also has all the typical features of a bergfried, including its diameter of approximately 10 metres. Access was provided by a portal on the first floor. Compared to its original form, the portal is now about three meters below ground level, and access is via a modern staircase. The bergfried originally had five floors supported on beams anchored in the outer walls. The current arrangement of the rooms dates from the mid-nineteenth century, when access to the tower was first provided to the public. At that time, the Wallensteins did a romantic, pseudo-gothic reconstruction of the fifth floor, fitting it with large new windows that completely defied the logic and purpose of a medieval defensive tower. The room was also given stylized internal wooden panelling and a wooden vaulted faux ceiling.
The Burgrave’s Palace
As its name indicates, this palace was the seat of the Burgrave. The Burgrave was the steward of the castle and represented the king in his absence. The Burgraves of the major royal castles were naturally leading members of the aristocracy.
The royal Burgraves played a major role in the feudal vassal system at Bezděz. During King Wenceslas’s reign, his vassals were exempt from the jurisdiction of all courts in the country except the court of the Burgrave at Bezděz. From there, appeal was direct to the king.
Understandably, the Burgraves worked for the aristocratic pledge holders as well.
The Royal Palace
The Royal Palace is the largest of all the castle’s palaces, and its structure is the most complex. It was unique as the residence of the king, which is reflected in its size and spaciousness – more than double that of the other residential buildings in the castle. The architectural details of the palace also show its importance. In the northeast part of the palace there is a rectangular room adjacent to the Chapel. When the monks occupied the castle, they used this room as the monastery’s tomb. For technical reasons, not all rooms of the palace could be connected. To go from one room to another, a wooden balcony had to be used; the remains of it are clearly visible on the façade. The outer side of the balcony probably ran up to the Chapel, which protruded from the façade on the courtyard side. The ground floor of the palace was originally fitted with a flat ceiling.
Medieval aristocrats were required to live according to a certain chivalrous code. They were, for example, expected to organize spectacular festivals and demonstrate their generosity. That was even more true for monarchs. But Bezděz wasn’t built as a place for the King to receive high-born visitors. It was furnished only for the accommodation of the monarch and his court. His stays were not frequent. To Ottokar II, the castle was primarily a defensive stronghold, with predominantly military and administrative functions.
The Chapel, which is dedicated to the Archangel Michael, is not only one of the most valuable early Gothic castle chapels in the Czech Republic, but also one of the country’s most important architectural works that date to the thirteenth century.
The Chapel’s current appearance is the result of restoration work done before World War I. At that time, missing elements were added, and damaged ones were replaced. In the 1960s, the Chapel was plastered, paved, and fitted with stained glass windows.
The Chapel has a single nave with two groin vaults and a top vault. In the southwestern part of the Chapel there is a balcony where the monarch sat during religious services. Access to it is provided by a spiral staircase, whose current design is the result of the reconstruction at the beginning of the twentieth century. Besides the winding staircase, there were two other ways for the king and other palace residents to enter the Chapel from the first floor.
The thick ground floor walls of the Chapel allowed the building of a gallery on the first floor, with a groin vault without ribs. The current design of the exterior windows, which are set into pointed arches and vertical columns, is largely the result of modern restoration. The gallery was also used for military purposes; in case of need, the space could be defended from attack from three sides.
The floor of the chancel (the area between the triumphal arch and the end of the Chapel) is raised up one step. There used to be an altar in the middle of the chancel.