The royal castle of Bezděz, founded in 1264 by the „Iron & Gold king“ Přemysl Otakar II, is one of our most important Gothic monuments. In the medieval period it became famous as a prison for the penultimate Přemyslid king, Wenceslas II. In the Baroque period, when the castle was used as a Benedictine monastery, it was a destination for many devout pilgrims and finally in the 19th century the abandoned Bezděz became an attraction for romantic souls, among them the famous Czech poet and writer Karel Hynek Mácha. Today’s visitors can view the royal palace and chapel with many architectural details of the High Gothic, as well as the Burgrave’s palace and other parts of the castle, including the Great Tower with its Knight’s Hall on the top floor, offering a unique panoramic view of the surroundings – not only the nearby Mácha Lake and Ještěd hill, but in good visibility also 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 used the predominant hill above the old farmstead to build a strong stone castle to protect the trade route, and against the expansion of the neighboring houses of the Ronower and Markwartinger. In 1278, after Ottokar’s death, the castle was clearly habitable as it was occupied by Brandenburg troops in the same year.
By building castles and founding royal towns, Ottokar II, the Iron and Golden King, tried to consolidate his power over the nobility.
The masters who built the Bezděz castle took most of their inspiration from the Hessen style, as shown by the spectacular chapel. The construction ironworks 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 a high artistic value.
Soon after Ottokar’s death in the Battle of the Marchfeld (August 26, 1278), the castle once designed as a respectable place for kings became the prison for Ottokar’s son Wenceslas (who was seven at the time) and the widow queen Kunigunda. Both were brought here on the night of January 25, 1279, by the prince’s guardian Otto of Brandenburg. Though a mere steward, Otto treated the country as a conqueror.
In the early 14th century, the castle became the pledge of local aristocrats. Upon the king’s consent, Hynek Berka of Dubá founded a new village called Nový Bezděz a bit to the east, and transferred all urban rights and privileges to it in 1337. Later, this village was renamed to Bělá pod Bezdězem.
Shortly after the coronation of Charles IV, the castle returned to the royal control.
Charles IV, King of Bohemia and Roman Emperor, tried to regain control over the whole royal property that had been put in pledge, and establish the new code for the country – Maiestas Carolina. This code stated that no royal property can be put in pledge anymore; Bezděz was one of the items that were explicitly listed. However, the aristocracy didn’t accept Maiestas Carolina as it limited the aristocratic privileges.
Charles IV was fond of Bezděz; in 1366, he founded the Big Pond together with his burgrave Oldřich Tista of Libštejn. Later, to honor the poet K. H. Mácha, it was renamed to Máchovo jezero (Mácha Lake).
During the Hussite wars, the castle became the biggest stronghold of the Catholic Church in the north of Bohemia. Its inexpugnability was taken for granted, so the castle became the shelter for the Land Tables, and numerous valuables owned by the church and secular owners.
Until 1468, the castle was held by the house of Michalovice. During the following 120 years, it passed from one pledge holder to another.
In 1588, Emperor Rudolph II cancelled the pledge and sold the castle to the last pledge holder, John of Wartenberg. After his death, through the marriage with John’s widow, the castle became the property of Wenceslas of Dubá. Later, Wenceslas became one of the leaders of the Bohemian Revolt, and after the lost Battle of White Mountain (1620), he fled the country together with the “Winter King”, Frederick V of the Palatinate. The castle was confiscated, and later sold for a small price to the imperial general Albrecht of Wallenstein. Just before Wallenstein took control, Bezděz was conquered for the first time, and burned down. However, it wasn’t defended by royal servants but by mutinous subjects of Wenceslas of Dubá who took refuge to the castle, and were defeated by the mercenaries hired by Maximilian of Bavaria. Despite serious damage, Wallenstein decided to rebuild the castle and turn it into a Baroque fortress. Later on, he changed his mind, and invited the monks of St. Augustine’s Order in 1627, to turn the castle into a fortified monastery (which Wallenstein planned to use if necessary). However, the monks were quite sluggish at work, so Wallenstein redistributed them back to Bělá after 9 years, and promised to give Bezděz to the Spanish order of Montserrat Benedictines (out of pure gratefulness, as they saved his life during the Battle of Lützen). Just as Montserrat, Bezděz was to be offered to hermits, and a big monastery should have been built at the foot of the hill. The Wallenstein plan, minus the monastery, was then realized by Emperor Ferdinand II; the castle was confiscated from Wallenstein together with the rest of his property, and the emperor gave it to the Emmaus Monastery in Prague. Years before, Wallenstein offered this monastery to Montserrat Benedictines too, and personally discussed the issue with their abbot Penalosa.
Before the end of the Thirty Years War, Bezděz was occupied by the Swedes for some time. After the Peace of Westphalia treaty in 1648, these places were rather dangerous for quite a long period, and the first colonization by monks didn’t start until 1661. They came to repair the chapel, and the Royal and Burgrave palace. In 1666, the monks brought a copy of the Black Virgin of Montserrat, allegedly miraculous. The statue was visited by thousands of pilgrims every year, and 15 small chapels were built from the foot of the hill right to the top by Duchess Anne of Wallenstein (1686). The chapels were decorated by paintings first, then by woodcuts depicting the crucifixion. Nowadays, these woodcuts are stored in the museum in Česká Lípa.
The possessions gathered by the monks during the previous century were lost in 1778. The monks asked Prussian troops to protect them against the Austrian army; however, the Prussians discovered the treasure, and took it away.
Soon after that, the monastery was closed by Emperor Joseph II in 1785. Part of the equipment was transported to Emmaus and other monasteries; another part was sold, together with building materials, four years later in an auction. The houses decayed rapidly, which was, among other reasons, caused by treasure hunters. The gold rush that gripped the locals inspired Bedřich Smetana to compose the opera “The Secret”, with the libretto by Eliška Krásnohorská.
In the beginning of the 19th century, the castle decayed and became a ruin. However, this didn’t affect its popularity, especially during the period of romanticism that made castle ruins highly sought after. Bezděz was a special place for our greatest romantic poet K. H. Mácha, who often visited his friends in Doksy. He found a lot of inspiration for his works at and around the castle (such as An Evening at Bezděz or May).
The history of the castle doesn’t end with its gradual devastation. The pilgrimage tradition lasted until the 19th century. However, the visitors came not only for religious reasons but also to see a masterpiece of the medieval castle architecture, and the standing monument of the glorious Czech history.
Bezděz became a popular tourist destination, so the Wallensteins started various repairs and reconstructions. In 1932, the last private owner, Karl Ernest of Wallenstein and Wartenberg, gave the castle to the Czechoslovak Tourist Club for the symbolic price of Czk 2,000. The club immediately started to rebuild the castle for tourist purposes.
However, their efforts were interrupted by WW2, as the castle and the whole area were seized by Germany as part of the Sudetenland. After the war, in 1953, Bezděz was taken over by the National Heritage Institute.
Each palace consisted of three rooms, with the central one being twice as large as the other two. The ground floor, with flat beam ceilings, was used for technical and auxiliary functions; the main residential areas were located in the upper floor. The central hall, lit by two large Gothic windows in the outer wall, was fitted with two fields of groin vaults. In the corner, there was a spiral staircase leading to the upper floor under the roof, and it also provided access to both adjacent rooms. The eastern room is also fitted with a groin vault. It was possible to heat the room from the fireplace.
Both palaces of the upper castle use the same structure of a small hall and two adjacent rooms (in fact, this setup is typical for many other buildings of Ottokar II). However, there’s no place that would use this arrangement in such a consistent way as Bezděz. A semi-floor under the roof, or attic, was built above the vault of the first floor. It was almost certainly used for residential and also for protection purposes. The buildings were covered by gable roofs.
A typical circular bergfried tower (i.e. tower with military function only, inhabited during the times of peace). Bergfried towers could be defended as separate facilities, and thus became the last resorts of the defenders in case the enemies got hold of the rest of the castle.
The main tower of Bezděz also bears all typical features of a bergfried. Also its diameter is quite typical (approximately 10 m). Access was provided by the portal on the 1st floor. Currently, the portal is about 3 meters deeper than in its original form, and access is enabled by a modern staircase. The bergfried originally consisted of five floors; flat beam ceilings were anchored in the outer walls. The current spatial arrangement wasn’t made until the mid-19th century, when access to the tower was provided for public.
At that time, the Wallensteins also did romanticist pseudo-gothic reconstruction of the fifth floor, and fitted it with new large windows, completely defying all logic and purpose of the medieval defensive tower. The room was also fitted with the internal wooden casing, including faux wooden vault.
As name indicates, this palace was the burgrave’s seat. The burgrave was the steward of the castle, and represented the king in his absence. Of course, the burgraves of major royal castles were members of top aristocracy.
The royal burgraves also played a major role in the vassal arrangement of Bezděz. During King Wenceslas’s reign, the vassals were exempted from the jurisdiction of all courts in the country except the burgrave’s court at Bezděz, and they could appeal directly to the king.
Of course, the burgraves also were in position when the castle belonged to the aristocratic pledge holders.
The Royal Palace is the largest of all, and its structure is the most complex. Its unique position (the residence of the king) is reflected in its length and amount of rooms – more than double, compared to other residential buildings. Also the architectural details of the palace show its importance. In the northeastern part, the palace is finished by a rectangular room with the adjacent chapel. This room was used by monks as the cloister tomb. Not all rooms of the palace offered the passageway, for operational reasons. To go from one room to another, a wooden balcony was used; the remains of its structure are well visible at the façade. The outer side of the balcony was probably aligned with the chapel that protruded from the façade. The ground floor was originally fitted with flat ceiling.
(The medieval living standards required the aristocrats to live by a certain chivalrous code. They were, for example, expected to organize spectacular festivals and demonstrate their generosity. And these requirements applied even stronger for the monarchs. Bezděz wasn’t a place for royal festivities; it was only fitted for the accommodation of the monarch and his party. And his stays weren’t really frequent. For Ottokar II, the castle was primarily a stronghold, with predominant military and administrative functions.)
The chapel belongs to the most valuable early Gothic castle chapels in the country, and also to the best architectural pieces of the 13th century in general.
The current conditions are the result of the restoration before WW1; the missing elements were added, and the damaged ones were replaced. In the 1960s, the chapel was plastered, paved and fitted with stained glass windows.
The chapel is a single-nave space with two fields of groin vaults and the top vault.
The southwestern part includes a platform for the monarch to attend the religious service. Access is provided via a spiral staircase; its current design is the result of the reconstruction in the beginning of this century. There were two other ways for the king or other palace residents to enter, both right on the first floor.
The strong ground floor walls of the chapel enabled the building of a gallery on the first floor, fitted with a groin vault without ribs. The current design of outer windows is largely the result of modern restoration. The windows are divided by arches and vertical rods. The gallery was also used for military purposes; in case of need, it enabled to defend the area to three cardinal points.
The floor of the chancel (the area between the triumphal arch and the end of the chapel) is elevated by a step. There used to be an altar in the middle of the chancel. The chapel was originally dedicated to Archangel Michael.