The Story of Perchta of Rozmberk (1429 – 1476)

7-8 2004 Dějiny English
obálka čísla

This year, it will be almost six centuries since a little girl whose parents gave her the somewhat odd name of Perchta first saw the light of day from the window of a chateau in the Bohemian town of Cesky Krumlov. Her father was Oldrich II of the famed and powerful line of the lords who bore the insignia of a red rose on a silver field. They were the Lords of Rozmberk. Many of their names are written into the history of the Czech lands. While they were always a powerful family, they did not always side with the monarchy. In fact, they often stood against it.

Oldrich II was born in January 1403, during the reign of Vaclav IV, a descendant of the house of Luxemburg, the happiest of royal lineages. In those days, at the dawn of the 15th century, no one could have guessed that the first half of that century would witness an extremely bloody war that would pit the members of a single nation against each other.

As a true descendant of the Lords of Rozmberk, it was natural for Oldrich to devote most of his life to politics. His early years were marked by the brutal Hussite wars. The Hussites were followers of Jan Hus, a priest and religious reformer who was burned at the stake by the Catholic Church for heresy in 1415.

A group of his followers in Bohemia, who became known as the Hussites, took up his cause, which included demands for communion in both kinds for the laity as well as priests and calls for limitations on the property holdings of the church. In 1419, war erupted in Bohemia between the Hussites, who eventually splintered into various sects, and their Catholic opponents.

At first, Oldrich sided with the Hussites, but he soon turned against them and became one of their most passionate opponents. His troops were involved in several skirmishes with the Hussite forces in the 1420s. Later, though, Oldrich would turn his talents to diplomacy. Under the auspices of Sigismund, the king of Bohemia and emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, he attempted to negotiate a truce with the famed Hussite military leaders Jan Zizka and Prokop Holy. But the talks broke down amid mutual suspicions.

Both sides left rivers of blood, devastation, and desolation in their wake. Both were responsible for the deaths of countless innocent people, for the wasteful destruction of towns and villages. No one was willing or able to forget what had come to pass during that short decade of the 15th century. Oldrich’s attempts to achieve peace in the land were effectively dismissed by Sigismund, who ordered the lord of Rozemberk not to fulfill any of his agreements and to convince other members of the Catholic side to do the same.

In was in such an era that the little girl named Perchta grew up with her siblings in Krumlov. As if the tribulations of that time were not enough, the children’s mother, Katerina of Vartemberk, died in 1436. Their father never married again, and the children were brought up by nannies and servants. It should be noted, though, that documents from the period state that Perchta did receive a good education, which was not typical for young girls of her era, even for those of noble lineage. But the Rozmberks were truly the most important line in the Czech kingdom for centuries, and they placed emphasis on the proper upbringing of their children.

Despite the difficult times, Oldrich managed to spread and unite his land-holding line. But the constant wars and trips to diplomatic negotiations had effectively reduced his wealth, and so Oldrich decided to have his 20-year-old daughter marry into the family of Lichtenstein, which had its seat in the southern Moravian town of Mikulov. It seemed, at first, to have been a standard arranged marriage between two families in which the feelings of the future husband and wife were irrelevant.

Allow me now, dear reader, to offer my own personal view of the situation. As a young student, when I first laid eyes on a portrait of Jan of Lichtenstein, I went cold. From his bloodless face, a pair of fish-like, slightly goggling eyes looked back at me. Then, I had to smile when I saw his thin, spidery legs wrapped in cream-white stockings. And it seems as if the painter did, in fact, capture the true essence of Jan of Lichtenstein. As it turned out, not only did Perchta’s husband have a less than appealing body, but his face was a perfect match for his miserable personality.

History does not tell us if the engaged pair met in person before their wedding. Arranged marriages were the norm in that era. It was rare indeed for a married couple to find true love. Usually, the best that they could hope for was to grow accustomed to one another. And since it was virtually impossible to get a divorce due to the authority of the church, and so there was generally no other option – especially for women – but to accept one’s fate.

Lady Perchta’s marriage also turned out to be typical in the sense that she had terrible relations with her mother in law. It seems that Jan of Lichtenstein’s mother truly hated Perchta and made use of every opportunity to annoy, trouble, or bother her daughter in law in some way. The birth of her children changed nothing. Both mother and son oppressed the fragile, educated lady of Rozmberk through ill-treatment and even hunger. She wrote desperate letters about it to her family – letters that reveal her wretched state in all its naked agony. They have been preserved in the family archives, and they stand as a testimony to the difficult position of women – even women of noble families – in the 15th century. Without those letters, Perchta’s suffering, like that of so many other women of her time, would have remained hidden behind the doors of the luxurious estate.

For a long time, her letters received no response. But the shameful behavior of the family of Jan of Lichtenstein finally spurred King George of Podebrady himself to action. The king decided to intervene despite the fact that Oldrich II, as head of the Catholic opposition, had stood against him. Or perhaps that was precisely the reason for King George’s decision to intervene. But this only spared Lady Perchta for a time.

In the end, she fled with her children back to Krumlov. But she did not stay there for long. After the death of her husband, she moved to Vienna as a widow. From there, she engaged in endless fights, on her own behalf and on behalf of her children, for the inheritance left behind by her husband.

She died in Vienna on a beautiful spring day in May 1476, and was laid to rest in that city. One of her most famous portraits hangs to this day on a wall of the chateau in Cesky Krumlov. The painting depicts a slim, fragile-looking woman in a white dress, with dark hair and eyes and a Renaissance-style jewel adorning her head. In her hands, she holds a pair of small gloves.

Yet, even in death, she did not find peace. Soon after her passing, Perchta became the subject of numerous legends. She became the White Lady, a ghost that was said to frequent her family’s old estates. It is said that her spirit was most often seen in the Krumlov chateau, but she was also seen in the Bohemian towns of Telc, Bechyne, and Rozmberk. Legend has it that she would always appear whenever something important was going to happen to the Rozmberk family. If she was holding white gloves, it meant that something joyful would happen; black gloves usually meant that someone would die.

One of the most beautiful legends associated with the White Lady took place in the southern Bohemian town of Jindrichuv Hradec. There, in a small, medieval, and dark kitchen, the young Lady Perchta is said to have cooked sweet porridge for the poor people of the town, which suggests that she had a compassionate heart. This must have made it even more difficult for her to endure the constant humiliation and slights that her husband and mother in law rained down on her.

Allow me, dear reader, to conclude this article with two interesting items. The first item concerns a man by the name of Petr Vok, who came into the world 110 years after Perchta’s birth. Peace-loving and tolerant, Vok was a man of truly Renaissance spirit and morals. When, in 1611, the mercenary forces of the Bishop of Passau threatened to invade and lay waste to southern Bohemia, Vok immediately ordered the silver treasure of the Rozmberk line to be melted down and turned into coins to pay off the bishop’s troops. This act, which saved the country from a needless war, forever endeared him to successive generations of Czechs. Vok died later that year, and since he had no children, the Rozmberk line died with him.

This year will mark the 465th anniversary of his birth. It is perhaps a coincidence that exactly 135 years after the death of Lady Perchta, the line of Rozmberks who bore the insignia of the red rose on a silver field was extinguished forever. Find some time to think back on both of them this year.

The second item of interest concerns a descendant of the lords of Lichtenstein. After the Battle of White Mountain in 1620 and the execution of 27 Czech nobles on Prague’s Old Town Square the following year, Vilem of Lichtenstein became the vice-regent of the Czech lands. He went on to gain notoriety as an exceptionally avaricious, ruthless, and unprincipled administrator.

Jana Volfova
Translated by Victor Gómez

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