A Mad Emperor by Charles Morris
Story type: Literature
If genius to madness is allied, the same may be said of eccentricity, and certainly Wenceslas, Emperor of Germany and King of Bohemia, had an eccentricity that approached the vagaries of the insane. The oldest son of Charles IV., he was brought up in pomp and luxury, and was so addicted to sensual gratification that he left the empire largely to take care of itself, while he gave his time to the pleasures of the bottle and the chase. Born to the throne, he was crowned King of Bohemia when but three years of age, was elected King of the Romans at fifteen, and two years afterwards, in 1378, became Emperor of Germany, when still but a boy, with regard for nothing but riot and rude frolic.
So far as affairs of state were concerned, the volatile youth either totally neglected them or treated them with a ridicule that was worse than neglect. Drunk two-thirds of his time, he now dismissed the most serious matters with a rude jest, now met his councillors with brutal fits of rage. The Germans deemed him a fool, and were not far amiss in their opinion; but as he did not meddle with them, except in holding an occasional useless diet at Nuremberg, they did not meddle with him. The Bohemians, among whom he lived, his residence being at Prague, found his rule much more of a burden. They were exposed to his savage caprices, and regarded him as a brutal and senseless tyrant.
That there was method in his madness the following anecdote will sufficiently show. Former kings had invested the Bohemian nobles with possessions which he, moved by cupidity, determined to have back. This is the method he took to obtain them. All the nobles of the land were invited to meet him at Willamow, where he received them in a black tent, which opened on one side into a white, and on the other into a red one. Into this tent of ominous hue the waiting nobles were admitted, one at a time, and were here received by the emperor, who peremptorily bade them declare what lands they held as gifts from the crown.
Those who gave the information asked, and agreed to cede these lands back to the crown, were led into the white tent, where an ample feast awaited them. Those who refused were dismissed with frowns into the red tent, where they found awaiting them the headsman’s fatal block and axe. The hapless guests were instantly seized and beheaded.
This ghastly jest, if such it may be considered, proceeded for some time before the nobles still waiting learned what was going on. When at length a whisper of the frightful mystery of the red tent was borne to their ears, there were no longer any candidates for its favors. The emperor found them eagerly willing to give up the ceded lands, and all that remained found their way to the white tent and the feast.
The emperor’s next act of arbitrary tyranny was directed against the Jews. One of that people had ridiculed the sacrament, in consequence of which three thousand Jews of Prague were massacred by the populace of that city. Wenceslas, instead of punishing the murderers, as justice would seem to have demanded, solaced his easy conscience by punishing the victims, declaring all debts owed by Christians to Jews to be null and void.
His next act of injustice and cruelty was perpetrated in 1393, and arose from a dispute between the crown and the church. One of the royal chamberlains had caused two priests to be executed on the accusation of committing a flagrant crime. This action was resented by the Archbishop of Prague, who declared that it was an encroachment upon the prerogative of the church, which alone had the right to punish an ecclesiastic. He, therefore, excommunicated the chamberlain.
This action of the daring churchman threw the emperor into such a paroxysm of rage that the archbishop, knowing well the man he had to deal with, took to flight, saving his neck at the expense of his dignity. The furious Wenceslas, finding that the chief offender had escaped, vented his wrath on the subordinates, several of whom were seized. One of them, the dean, moved by indignation, dealt the emperor so heavy a blow on the head with his sword-knot as to bring the blood. It does not appear that he was made to suffer for his boldness, but two of the lower ecclesiastics, John of Nepomuk and Puchnik, were put to the rack to make them confess facts learned by them in the confessional. They persistently refused to answer. Wenceslas, infuriated by their obstinacy, himself seized a torch and applied it to their limbs to make them speak. They were still silent. The affair ended in his ordering John of Nepomuk to be flung headlong, during the night, from the great bridge over the Moldau into the stream. A statue now marks the spot where this act of tyranny was performed.
The final result of the emperor’s cruelty was one which he could not have foreseen. He had made a saint of Nepomuk. The church, appreciating the courageous devotion of the murdered ecclesiastic to his duty in keeping inviolate the secrets of the confessional, canonized him as a martyr, and made him the patron saint of Bohemia.
Puchnik escaped with his life, and eventually with more than his life. The tyrant’s wrath was followed by remorse,–a feeling, apparently, which rarely troubled his soul,–and he sought to atone for his cruelty to one churchman by loading the other with benefits. But his mad fury changed to as mad a benevolence, and he managed to make a jest of his gratuity. Puchnik was led into the royal treasury, and the emperor himself, thrusting his royal hands into his hoards of gold, filled the pockets, and even the boots, of the late sufferer with the precious coin. This done, Puchnik attempted to depart, but in vain. He found himself nailed to the floor, so weighed down with gold that he was unable to stir. Before he could move he had to disgorge much of his new-gained wealth, a proceeding to which churchmen in that age do not seem to have been greatly given. Doubtless the remorseful Wenceslas beheld this process with a grim smile of royal humor on his lips.
The emperor had a brother, Sigismund by name, a man not of any high degree of wisdom, but devoid of his wild and immoderate temper. Brandenburg was his inheritance, though he had married the daughter of the King of Hungary and Poland, and hoped to succeed to those countries. There was a third brother, John, surnamed “Von Goerlitz.” Sigismund was by no means blind to his brother’s folly, or to the ruin in which it threatened to involve his family and his own future prospects. This last exploit stirred him to action. Concerting with some other princes of the empire, he suddenly seized Wenceslas, carried him to Austria, and imprisoned him in the castle of Wiltberg, in that country.
A fair disposal, this, of a man who was scarcely fit to run at large, most reasonable persons would say; but all did not think so. John von Goerlitz, the younger brother of the emperor, fearing public scandal from such a transaction, induced the princes who held him to set him free. It proved a fatal display of kindness and family affection for himself. The imperial captive was no sooner free than, concealing the wrath which he felt at his incarceration, he invited to a banquet certain Bohemian nobles who had aided in it. They came, trusting to the fact that the tiger’s claws seemed sheathed. They had no sooner arrived than the claws were displayed. They were all seized, by the emperor’s order, and beheaded. Then the dissimulating madman turned on his benevolent brother John, who had taken control of affairs in Bohemia during his imprisonment, and poisoned him. It was a new proof of the old adage, it is never safe to warm a frozen adder.
The restoration of Wenceslas was followed by other acts of folly. In the following year, 1395, he sold to John Galcazzo Visconti, of Milan, the dignity of a duke in Lombardy, a transaction which exposed him to general contempt. At a later date he visited Paris, and here, in a drunken frolic, he played into the hands of the King of France by ceding Genoa to that country, and by recognizing the antipope at Avignon, instead of Boniface IX. at Rome. These acts filled the cup of his folly. The princes of the empire resolved to depose him. A council was called, before which he was cited to appear. He refused to come, and was formally deposed, Rupert, of the Palatinate, being elected in his stead. Ten years afterwards, in 1410, Rupert died, and Sigismund became Emperor of Germany.
Meanwhile, Wenceslas remained King of Bohemia, in spite of his brother Sigismund, who sought to oust him from this throne also. He took him prisoner, indeed, but trusted him to the Austrians, who at once set him free, and the Bohemians replaced him on the throne. Some years afterwards, war continuing, Wenceslas sought to get rid of his brother Sigismund in the same manner as he had disposed of his brother John, by poison. He was successful in having it administered to Sigismund and his ally, Albert of Austria, in their camp before Zuaym. Albert died, but Sigismund was saved by a rude treatment which seems to have been in vogue in that day. He was suspended by the feet for twenty-four hours, so that the poison ran out of his mouth.
The later events in the life of Wenceslas have to do with the most famous era in the history of Bohemia, the reformation in that country, and the stories of John Huss and Ziska. The fate of Huss is well known. Summoned before the council at Constance, and promised a safe-conduct by the Emperor Sigismund, he went, only to find the emperor faithless to his word and himself condemned and burnt as a heretic. This base act of treachery was destined to bring a bloody retribution. It infuriated the reformers in Bohemia, who, after brooding for several years over their wrongs, broke out into an insurrection of revenge.
The leader of this outbreak was an officer of experience, named John Ziska, a man who had lost one eye in childhood, and who bitterly hated the priesthood for a wrong done to one of his sisters. The martyrdom of Huss threw him into such deep and silent dejection, that one day the king, in whose court he was, asked him why he was so sad.
“Huss is burnt, and we have not yet avenged him,” replied Ziska.
“I can do nothing in that direction,” said Wenceslas; adding, carelessly, “you might attempt it yourself.”
This was spoken as a jest, but Ziska took it in deadly earnest. He, aided by his friends, roused the people, greatly to the alarm of the king, who ordered the citizens to bring their arms to the royal castle of Wisherad, which commanded the city of Prague.
Ziska heard the command, and obeyed it in his own way. The arms were brought, but they came in the hands of the citizens, who marched in long files to the fortress, and drew themselves up before the king, Ziska at their head.
“My gracious and mighty sovereign, here we are,” said the bold leader; “we await your commands; against what enemy are we to fight?”
Wenceslas looked at those dense groups of armed and resolute men, and concluded that his purpose of disarming them would not work. Assuming a cheerful countenance, he bade them return home and keep the peace. They obeyed, so far as returning home was concerned. In other matters they had learned their power, and were bent on exerting it.
Nicolas of Hussinez, Huss’s former lord, and Ziska’s seconder in this outbreak, was banished from the city by the king. He went, but took forty thousand men with him, who assembled on a mountain which was afterwards known by the biblical name of Mount Tabor. Here several hundred tables were spread for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, July 22, 1419.
Wenceslas, in attempting to put a summary end to the disturbance in the city, quickly made bad worse. He deposed the Hussite city council in the Neustadt, the locality of greatest disturbance, and replaced it by a new one in his own interests. This action filled Prague with indignation, which was redoubled when the new council sent two clamorous Hussites to prison. On the 30th of July Ziska led a strong body of his partisans through the streets to the council-house, and sternly demanded that the prisoners should be set free.
The councillors hesitated,–a fatal hesitation. A stone was flung from one of the windows. Instantly the mob stormed the building, rushed into the council-room, and seized the councillors, thirteen of whom, Germans by birth, were flung out of the windows. They were received on the pikes of the furious mob below, and the whole of them murdered.
This act of violence was quickly followed by others. The dwelling of a priest, supposed to have been that of the seducer of Ziska’s sister, was destroyed and its owner hanged; the Carthusian monks were dragged through the streets, crowned with thorns, and other outrages perpetrated against the opponents of the party of reform.
A few days afterwards the career of Wenceslas, once Emperor of Germany, now King of Bohemia, came to an abrupt end. On August 16 he suddenly died,–by apoplexy, say some historians, while others say that he was suffocated in his palace by his own attendants. The latter would seem a fitting end for a man whose life had been marked by so many acts of tyrannous violence, some of them little short of insanity.
Whatever its cause, his death removed the last restraint from the mob. On the following day every church and monastery in Prague was assailed and plundered, their pictures were destroyed, and the robes of the priests were converted into flags and dresses. Many of these buildings are said to have been splendidly decorated, and the royal palace, which was also destroyed, had been adorned by Wenceslas and his father with the richest treasures of art. We are told that on the walls of a garden belonging to the palace the whole of the Bible was written. While the work of destruction went on, a priest formed an altar in the street of three tubs, covered by a broad table-top, from which all day long he dispensed the sacrament in both forms.
The excesses of this outbreak soon frightened the wealthier citizens, who dreaded an assault upon their wealth, and, in company with Sophia, the widow of Wenceslas, they sent a deputation to the emperor, asking him to make peace. He replied by swearing to take a fearful revenge on the insurgents. The insurrection continued, despite this action of the nobles and the threats of the emperor. Ziska, finding the citizens too moderate, invited into the city the peasants, who were armed with flails, and committed many excesses.
Forced by the moderate party to leave the city, Ziska led his new adherents to Mount Tabor, which he fortified and prepared to defend. They called themselves the “people of God,” and styled their Catholic opponents “Moabites,” “Amalekites,” etc., declaring that it was their duty to extirpate them. Their leader entitled himself “John Ziska, of the cup, captain, in the hope of God, of the Taborites.”
But having brought the story of the Emperor Wenceslas to an end, we must stop at this point. The after-life of John Ziska was of such stir and interest, and so filled with striking events, that we shall deal with it by itself, in a sequel to the present story.