Silver Mines and Hussite Wars – A Walk through the Historical Kutná Hora, Czechia
I seldom participate in guided tours when traveling since I prefer more freedom, but sometimes it's the better option than spending too much time trying to get to a place by public transport. The visit to the Sedlec Ossuary and the town of Kutná Hora in Czechia was one of those tours.
Kutná Hora, view from St. Barbara's Church to the old town, with St.James Church (left) and Italian Palace (right)
Kutná Hora (historically also known by its German name Kuttenberg) is a town about 70 kilometres east of Prague. Some time after the Cistercians founded the abbey at Sedlec in 1142, silver and other ore was discovered in the area, and the monks brought in German miners from their mother house in Waldsassen (Upper Palatinate) who settled in Kuttenberg. The settlement is first mentioned in a charte from 1286, but existed at least some twenty years prior.
At the end of the 13th century, Kutná Hora had developed into the second largest town after Prague and became of great historical importance when King Wenceslas II of Bohemia granted the town the right to mint coin, the famous 'Prague Groschen'. Despite some setback during the Hussite Wars, Kutná Hora remained a prospering town until the mid-16th century when the silver deposits dried out. The town centre is part of the UNESCO World Heritage since 1995. (More about its history below.)
Zoom in to St. Barbara's Church (choir side) from the Italian Court
One of the symbols of the town's former wealth is the St.Barbara's Church, where our walk began. The church has been built on a hill overlooking the town, on ground that did not belong to the Abbey of Sedlec – who owned most of the land in the area – to demonstrate the wealth and independence of the burghers of Kutná Hora. The church is dedicated to St.Barbara, patron saint of miners.
St.Barbara, Kutná Hora, westwork
Construction started in 1388, but it took until 1512 for the building to be finished – one of the reasons of the delay was the Hussite Wars and the resulting financial problems – and the church turned out smaller than originally planned, which is still pretty impressive.
The competition of Kutná Hora with Prague became evident in the chosing of the first architects: Petr Parleř, leader of the royal workshop, who also built the St.Vitus Cathedral in Prague (photo below), and his son Jan. The Paleř family hailed from Swabia and had been involved in the construction of a number of outstanding Gothic churches like the Minster of Ulm and the cathedral in Cologne.
St. Barbara, main nave with view to the altar
Since I mentioned the Hussite Wars several times and because they play an important role in Czech history, I'll give you a brief overwiew here: The Hussite movement started with some ideas by the reformer Jan Hus (1369-1415), who in turn was influenced by John Wycliffe, (ca. 1320-1384) scholastic philosopher at the University of Oxford. Hus formulated what was to become the Four Articles of Prague which demanded freedom to preach, celebration of the communion under both kinds (bread and wine – sub utraque specie, which gave the name to the Utraquists, the major branch of the Hussite movement) as well as Church service in the native language, poverty of the clergy and expropriation of church poroerty, and punishment of the deadly sins even for kings and magnates. As result, Jan Hus was condemned a heretic and ended on a pyre in 1415.
St.Vitus Cathedral in Prague,
work of the same architects who were involved in the construction of St.Barbara in Kutná Hora
I need to introduce a major player here: King Sigismund of House Luxembourg (1368-1437). He got more jobs than he could juggle: Prince Elector of Brandenburg (since 1388, though he gave that title and position to Friedrich of Hohenzollern in 1410), King of Hungary (since 1387; 1), King of Germany since 1411 (2), titular king of Bohemia since 1419, though it would take until 1436 for the Czech Estates to acknowledge him; and Holy Roman Emperor since 1433.
Sigismund played an influential role in the Council of Constance (1414-1418) which had been assembled to deal with the Papal schism – three popes were definitely two too many – and some other problems like the conflict between the Teutonic Knights and the Polish Crown, and the heresies spread by the followers of Wycliffe and Jan Hus. Sigismund – who had granted Hus safe conduct – had no interest to see Hus executed; he wanted Hus to renounce his more audacious claims and preferably disappear in some monastery, thus turning the faucet off the movement. But Hus refused and stood by his belief, so the Church turned him over to the secular powers as convicted heretic. He was burned during Sigismund's absence.
Vladislav Hall in Prague Castle (an example of helical vaulting);
the work of Benedikt Rejt who also constructed he helical vault of St. Barbara in Kutná Hora (see below)
Sigismund was right: Jan Hus' death sparked a rise in the Hussite movement, causing unrest in Bohemia which culminated in the first Defenestration of Prague, when a Hussite crowd threw several members of the city council out a window of the town hall in Prague to their death in 1419. Open war broke out.
The Hussite armies, a mix of the population from peasants to the nobility, led by Jan Žižka and Prokop the Bald, were not well equipped (except for the knights), but they had the advantage of numbers and fought with religious fervour. The Catholic troops were usually smaller and less motivated, except for those at the borders to Brandenburg, Saxony and the Upper Palatinate who suffered from the Hussite raids. Most of the battles and skirmishes ended in favour of the Hussite or at a stalemate. . I won't detail the battles and skirmishes here, though.
Both Sigismund and the Papal Legate Cardinal Henry of Beaufort (3) tried in vain to raise a special tax in Germany to hire a mercenary army large enough to deal with the Hussite troops for good. Most German magnates saw the war less as a crusade, but more as a Bohemian problem.
Old houses in Kutná Hora
Kutná Hora was involved in a battle in 1421 during which the monastery at Sedlec was burned, and again in 1437, when a party of Hussite fugitives sought shelter in a nearby castle that was eventually conquered. Most Catholic German burghers were driven out of the town during the wars. Mining came almost to a standstill (many of the miners had been Germans), minting of coins was afflicted by the lack of silver, trade construction of St.Barbara's Church was interrupted and trade suffered. The town was damaged by a fire as well (see below).
St.Barbara in Kutná Hora, flying buttresses and soaring spires
Of course, politics and diplomacy played a role, too. There was a complicated net of duties, obligations, ambitions and the occasional betrayal going on in the background. The Hungarians thought Sigismund spent too much time in Germany, the Germans thought he spent too much time in Italy and wasn't really keen on dealing with the Hussites in the first place, the Bohemians didn't want him as king – Sigismund had to flee the country after a hasty coronation following the death of his brother Wenceslaus in August 1419. Not to mention the Hundred Years War flaring up again in the west (4).
To mention just one example involving people already known to my regular readers: Sigismund's brother-in-law Władysław Jagiełło (see footnote 1), who first supported Sigismund with troops, turned around after Sigismund negotiated a treaty Jagiełło considered in favour of the Teutonic Knights at the Council of Constance. Thus Jagiełło was ready to accept the Bohemian Crown the Czech Estates offered him; the plot ony failed due to the fact that the Polish Estates would only accept a king who had his main residence in Kraków, not Prague. In return, Sigismund proposed that Jagielłło's cousin Vytautas, grand duke of Lithuania, should be crowned king, which would have driven a wedge between the men. Vytautas' death in October 1430 put an end to that scheme.
St.Barbara, main nave, view towards the organ (west side)
In the end, the decline of the Hussite movement was mostly due to the quarreling parties within the Hussites. After years of war, the high nobility and the burghers of the towns in particular, deemed the damage caused in the economy too great and sought reconciliation and peace. On the other side, the Catholic alliances were aware that they could not put an end to the movement in the field. Sigismund was one of those arguing strongly for negotiations – he knew his Bohemians, after all.
After the moderate Utraquists joined with the Catholic side; the more radical Taborites were defeated at the battle of Lipany in 1434. The Council of Basel (1431-1449) granted the Hussites some concessions like the communion with wine and the liturgy in Czech in Bohemia. Sigismund was finally acknowledged as King of Bohemia in 1436.
Later, the Protestant movement would find fertile ground in tolerant Bohemia at an early stage, and the Thirty Years War would start with another Defenestration of Prague.
St. Barbara, upper gallery
Let's return to the church of St.Barbara. The guided visit offered a rare chance to access the upper gallery of the church. I've seen a lot of churches – though usually not with a guided tour – and seldom had the luck to get to a place which in most churches is closed to the public. It made for a fascinating view down into the naves and gave a much better feel of the actual height of a Gothic church. Soaring indeed.
View from the upper gallery
Jan Paleř changed the plan to add additional naves on both sides, turning the church into a five nave basilica. A transept obviously was never planned. The ambitious construction was put more or less on hold during the Hussite Wars, but nevertheless, the church was consecrated in 1403. This doesn't mean it was in any way complete, but churches usually were built in segments rather than horizontally, so the choir part with the altar was finished and could be used for services and prayers (this technique is also the reason the church was later cut off on the west side to half its originally intended length).
St. Barbara, another shot of the main nave
Economy had suffered greatly during the Hussite Wars. It would take until the 1480ies to stabilize, and the burghers of Kutná Hora and patrons of the church would have enough surplus money again. The first architect of the second period, Matěj Rejsek, was a sculptor, not a mason, and soon got into trouble with the Guild of Masons, but he left behind some fine decorative elements like the tracery vaulting.
Repairs of the oldest part had also become necessary, because the local sandstone that had been used was more like musselkalk and not very durable. The rest of the cathedral was built with a sandstone of higher density.
Helical vaulting of the ceiling in the main nave
The next architect responsible for the construction of St. Barbara was Benedikt Rejt (1450-1540). He too, was involved in works in Prague and had the luck that he could bring some of the finest masons with him when building of the Hradčany was interrupted. His most ambitious project at St.Barbara was the helical vaulting of the main nave without any pillars and archs to support the vast expanse. He had done something similar in the Vladislav Hall in the Prague Castle (photo above).
Rejt took up the plans of Rejsek and brought them to another level of complicated and decorative. Rejt's first attempt collapsed, but he eventually managed to finish the work, making the main nave of St. Barbara the largest unsupported vaulted space north of the Alps.
Side nave with remains of frescoes
By the end of the 16th century, the church was finished, with eight chapels of trapezoid layout in the side naves and arcades, the ambitious helical vaulting and the three peaked roof. But by that time, the silver mines, the main source for the town's wealth, became less productive and money for the church dried up. Instead of the great entrance hall planned by Rejt, the building was basically cut off at the west side, and a much simpler westwork was added to give it a look of completion. But the church never got towers.
With the arrival of the Jesuits in Kutná Hora in 1621, the Baroque style came into fashion. Several features of the church interior, like altars and statues, are of the Baroque style, but the Gothic style remains predominant, including the remains of some frescoes.
Jesuit College, with some of the sculptures and the vineyard
When leaving the church on the way towards the town, the Barborská ulice passes the Jesuit College. It was built after the Thirty Years War – which had hit Bohemia particularly hard – as life slowly turned back to normal, mining resumed – albeit not on the former scale – and trade connections were reestablished. After the collapse of Bohemian Protestantism during the war, it was the Catholic Jesuits who dominated the spiritual life and the education. The College was built for that reason and would attract a number of well known philosophers and theologians of the time. It is a fine example of a laid back Baroque facade with a set of sculptures on the other said of the artificial bridge. Architect was the Italian Domenico de Orsini; the musselkalk sculptures of saints and historical persons were crafted by Franz Baugut 1703-1717.
Kutná Hora, view to the town and the Hrádek (left)
The original settlement of Kutná Hora must have looked more like a gold rush frontier town, after the rumour of silver mines attracted people from as far as outside Bohemia. The largest group were Germans who brought advanced technology and some of the (in)famous German order, establishing sort of a local government. A charte from 1327 lists the members of the town council – there are only German names.
Things began to change when King Václav II (Wenceslas II; 1278-1305) of the Přemyslid dynasty issued a code for the technical and administrative conditions for operating mines, the Ius Regale Montanorum, in 1300. Soon thereafter, Kutná Hora became the seat of the mint of Bohemia, with the right to strike the so-called Prague Groschen The mint was first located in the Hrádek, the castle, which dates to the very early 14th century. Later, the mint moved to the Italian Court (see below).
The castle was built to protect the new settlement and the entrance to the main mine. It was bought by a rich patrician, Jan Smíšek, after the Hussite Wars, and turned into a Gothic palace; later it came into possession of the Jesuites. Today, the Hrádek locates a minting museum, but – one of the disadvantages of a guided tour – there was no time to visit the place.
Market Square with Plague Column
The kings of the Luxembourg dynasty that provided Bohemia with several generations of kings from John the Blind († 1346) of Crecy fame to Sigismund († 1437) would grant the town a number of privileges. Kutná Hora became the financial centre of the country, and the town changed from an assemblage of huts and hovels to a well laid out place with half timbered houses on stone foundations, churches, town hall, a hospital and other features. The timber fortifications were replaced by stone walls; they soon had to be extended due to the growth of the town which competed with the Old Town of Prague at the time.
A landmark is the Gothic St.James church (see the first photo of this post) with its single high tower – there was no money for a second one – built 1320-80 by the Cistercians). It was not included in the tour, but St.Barbara more than made up for it. As said above, increasing conflicts between the town magistrates and the Cistercian monastery in Sedlec led to the construction of St.Barbara's Church outside the town and range of monastic jurisdiction (though it was later included in the town walls).
The Gothic Stone House
Several of the old houses that today display a Baroque or Classicist style exterior, have a Gothic foundation. There is also a labyrinth of mines and drainage shafts under the town.
One particularly fine example of an original Gothic house remains, dating to a time before the Hussite Wars. The decorated facade was added in 1490 by a mason named Briccius Gauske from Görlitz in Germany. It is assumed that Gauske is also the mason who built the Gothic fountain.
The Gothic Fountain
It had been assumed that the well was the work of Matěj Rejsek who was involved in the construction of St.Barbara, but recent research deems Gauske to be the more likely candidate. The well was financed by Jan Smíšek, the then owner of the Hrádek; it was built in 1493-1495.
The extensive mining had led to a sinking of the groundwater level, which caused problems with the town's water supply. Water had to be brought into the town from the mountains by a system of pump works and wooden pipes over several kilometres, and was then collected in several wells. The Gothic Fountain is one of those. It was in use until 1890.
The market square, different angle
Let's get back to the Hussite Wars once again. The German patriciate of Kuntá Hora – predominantly Catholic – at first supported King Sigismund. But in May 1421, war reached up with the town. The monastery of Sedlec was burned, most miners captured and many German burghers expelled or killed. A fire destroyed part of the town, mining and coin minting came to a standstill, and with it the source of wealth of the town. It would take until 1469 before coins were again minted in Kutná Hora.
Minting and storage of silver and coins had moved to the so-called Italian Court already during the 14th century. The site became the centre of minting of the Kingdom of Bohemia. The original building was more like a castle to protect the valuable materials, but was expanded into a royal residence at the end of the 14th century, again by the royal Masons' Guild from Prague. The treasury was kept in a chamber under the royal chapel.
The Italian Palace
Kutná Hora continued to play an important role in Czech history. Vladisalv Jagiello was elected king during a meeting of the Diet of Bohemia in the Italian Court in 1471.
The Hussite Wars may have been over, but the problems between Catholics and Hussites continued to fester. After Sigsimund's death, he was succeeded by the Catholic King Albert II of Habsburg and his son Ladislaus, who had both sworn to respect the ancient compacts but tried every way out of them. The Hussite faction was led by George (Jiří) of Poděbrad, member of a patrician Bohemian family and a veteran of the Hussite Wars in which he had participated as boy of fourteen. Poděbrad defeated the troops of King Albert, and in March 1458, the Estates of Bohemia elected him king. He tried to keep peace with the Catholic Church as long as both sides stuck to the Compact (which the pope often didn't). Georg of Poděbrady died in March 1471, naming Vladislav, the son of Casimir IV Jagiełło, his heir (5).
Vladislav, himself a Catholic, was obliged to acknowledge the rights of the Hussites. It was in Kutná Hora where, long after a peace conclusion had been reached at Basel, freedom of religion was finally confirmed during a diet of the Czech Utraquists and Catholics in 1485. Catholic and Utraquist faiths were declared equal in front of the law and religious peace proclaimed for the Czech lands. The first Czech translation of the Bible was printed here in 1489.
Italian Palace, detail of the old walls
The mining and coin production were now in the hands of Bohemian financiers who held the important positions in the town council and the mining court. Most of them were entrepreneurs willing to risk more than the former German patricians, so it is no wonder that corruption and frauds took place. Social tensions between the patriciate the the miners rose, and eventually culminated in riots that lasted from 1494 to 1496.
In addition, the miners had to dig more deeply, down to 500 metres, to still access silver veins; the danger of groundwater flooding increased. In 1543, the main mine had to be closed. Deep scale mining would have required more expensive equipment than the town could afford. It was the beginning of the decline of Kutná Hora.
The lack of high quality silver decreased the quality of the Prague Groschen, still the main coin produced in Kutná Hora. Its production was terminated in 1547. The groschen was replaced by a thaler which was considered inferior. Nevertheless, the town could continue to mint coins due to imported silver and still looked prosperous on the surface for several decennia.
The end of the role of the Italian Court came with the revocation of minting rights by Imperial decree in 1724. The building decayed, but was restored in 1904 and remains a landmark of Kutná Hora.
Pretty lane in Kutná Hora
The Thirty Yeas War started in Bohemia, and struck Bohemia particularly hard. After the Battle of the White Mountain in November 1620, the King of Bohemia, Friedrich of the Palatinate – the 'Winter King' – had to flee Bohemia, together with his wife Elizabeth Stuart. The Habsburg monarchy started the re-catholization of the hence tolerant province; all Lutherans, Utraquists and Calvinists should convert or emigrate.
At first, the authorities of Kutná Hora tried to maintain the freedom of worship, to prevent the mass exodus of Lutheran miners, but to no avail. The emperor sent in Spanish troops and the Jesuits; the burghers and other inhabitants had to no choice but to convert or emigrate.
Moreover, the town was twice raided and severely damaged by Swedish troops (1639 and 1643) during the waves of the war that swept through the lands. At the end of the Thirty Years War, the mines were abandoned, many houses stood empty or were in ruins, though St.Barbara's Church had escaped severe damage.
Restored Mediaeval passage
Nevertheless, Kutná Hora recovered to some extent and was still one of the bigger towns in Bohemia at the beginning of the 19th century. But it failed to introduce the industrialisation, either in modern mining methods or the establishment of other factories.
That had one advantage, though. The pretty old town – rebuilt after the Thirty Years War – was preserved in good shape and joined the list of UNESCO Heritage in 1995. Today, it is a minor tourist attraction for visitors of Czechia, not crowded as Prague, but a pretty destination for a day tour.
Painted facade of a house in Kutná Hora
1) Sigismund's wife, Maria of Anjou, inherited the throne from her father Louis who was King of Hungary 1342-1382, and King of Poland via his mother, Elizabeth of Poland, since 1370. His younger daughter Hedwig/Jadwiga would inherit the Polish throne and marry Władysław Jagiełło who became King of Poland by right of his wife, the same way his brother-in-law Sigismund became King of Hungary.
2) The German Prince Electors had deposed Sigismund's older brother Wenceslaus – nicknamed 'the Lazy' – in 1400 due to incompetence, end elected Rupert of the Palatinate of House Wittelsbach. After Rupert's death in 1410, they went back to House Luxembourg which in the end had more political clout, power and money than a local magnate. Wenceslaus remained King of Bohemia until his death in 1419.
3) He was a brother of King Henry IV of England.
4) Sigismund visited King Henry V in England after the Battle of Agincourt (1415), trying to negotiate a reconciliation with France, and signed the Treaty of Canterbury which acknowledged the English claims to France.
5) Vladislav was only King of Bohemia proper; the duchies of Moravia, Silesia and Lusatia had been occupied by Matthias Corvinus, the King of Hungary (and another king who rose from the local nobility after the death of Sigismund). Vladislav and Matthias divided the Crown of Bohemia at the Peace of Olomouc in 1479.
Jörg Hoensch: Die Luxemburger – eine spätmittelalterliche Dynastie gesamteuropäischer Bedeutung 1308-1473, Stuttgart 2000
Martin Kintzinger: Sigismund (1410/1411-1437), in Bernd Schneidmüller, Stefan Weinfurter (ed.): Die Deutschen Herrscher des Mittelelalters – Historische Porträts von Heinrich I bis Maximilian I, München 2003, p. 462-485.
Jan Kulich: St.Barbara's Church in Kutná Hora, Liblice, 2013.
The Lost Fort is a travel and history blog based on my journeys in Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, the Baltic Countries, and central Europe. It includes virtual town and castle tours with a focus on history, museum visits, hiking tours, and essays on Roman and Mediaeval history, illustrated with my own photos.
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- Name: Gabriele Campbell
- Location: Goettingen, Germany
I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History which doesn't pay my bills, so I use it to research blogposts instead. I'm interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who still hasn't got an Instagram account.
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