The history of Vyšehrad is closely connected with the evolution of Prague districts and the history of the Czech nation. The massive rock looming high over the Vltava river was a tempting location for settlements since the most ancient times and became a subject of many legends. However, the first reliable documents of the existence of a hill fort at Vyšehrad only date back to the mid-10th century as the site where denarii (coins) of Boleslaus II were minted. Since then, Vyšehrad has changed its function and appearance several times. It was a royal castle, even the seat of a monarch for a short period of time. It became a city and later, a Baroque fortress the appearance of which it has retained to these days. At the end of the 1800s, Vyšehrad became a national symbol and the cemetery of the most famous Czechs. Today, Vyšehrad is a popular destination for walks with breath-taking views of the city and a number of major monuments. There are many faces to Vyšehrad, come see them all!
A Royal Castle
The most illustrious chapter of the history of Vyšehrad began during the reign of Vratislaus II (b. 1061, d. 1092) who was crowned the first King of Bohemia in 1085. Because of his incessant arguments with his younger brother Jaromír, the bishop of Prague, he relocated the seat of his rule from the Prague Castle to Vyšehrad. Around 1070, he founded an independent chapter directly subordinated to the Pope there, which was provided for by vast properties. The Vyšehrad Chapter played an important role in Czech history. Since 1222, its provost held the position of the Royal Chancellor and participated in the forming of the royal foreign policy. During the reign of King Vratislaus and his successors, Vyšehrad was a busy construction site. The Romanesque Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul and Rotunda of St. Martin were built. Stone ramparts were erected around Vyšehrad and the Royal District with a palace was mapped out atop the rock over the Vltava. After Vladislaus II became Duke of Bohemia in 1140, the seat of the ruler was moved back to the Prague Castle and Vyšehrad started fading from limelight. However, the Vyšehrad Chapter retained its unique position and later, helped the House of Luxembourg to the Czech throne.
Vyšehrad gained a new importance during the reign of Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia Charles IV which lasted from 1346 to 1378. He considered Vyšehrad a symbol of the most ancient Czech history and the Přemyslid dynasty which he was a descendant of through his mother. He enacted new coronation rules according to which the coronation procession of the Czech king started in Vyšehrad as a token of respect to the ancestry. In 1348, Charles IV founded the New Town of Prague and connected Vyšehrad to its city walls. Within two years, the Vyšehrad fortification was expanded, reinforced with towers and the new Špička Gate was constructed. The Royal District and its several palaces underwent a general reconstruction as well as the Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul. This promising growth of the site was soon terminated by the Hussites who conquered and pillaged Vyšehrad despite the fortress being defended by a royal detachment. Subsequently, the ramparts facing the city were torn down and the Royal District was left in ruins. A new chapter in the history of Vyšehrad began.
Town of the Vyšehrad Hill
After Hussite soldiers partially demolished Vyšehrad, poor artisans started settling in the compound and gradually occupied the deserted areas in the castle and its neighborhood. The Vyšehrad Chapter stayed but lost most of its properties and never regained its original importance. After 1450, the Town of the Vyšehrad Hill was formally established with two constituent parts: The Upper Town was located in the actual Vyšehrad and its marketplace operated between the Church of Decollation of St. John the Baptist and Rotunda of St. Martin. It included several dozens of houses, a school, the Burgrave's house , the ruins of the Royal Acropolis and the district of the Vyšehrad Chapter. The Lower Town consisted of the area of the former village next to the castle and its marketplace was found on today's Vratislavova Street. The Lower Town included the Church of Humility of Virgin Mary as well as a mill and a lime kiln by the Botič creek. Gardens and vineyards were established on the slopes of Vyšehrad. However, the history of the Town of the Vyšehrad Hill was soon to end. The Thirty Years' War proved the Prague fortification obsolete. Therefore in 1650, the construction of a new fortification started and the Vyšehrad fortress was to become a part of it. The Upper Town disappeared and Vyšehrad was completely transformed.
The construction of the Vyšehrad fortress according to a design by general Innocenzo Conti and Josef Priami started in 1653. Even before it began, the Tábor Gate with a connecting angular rampart was already finished on the Pankrác side as early as 1639. A massive brick fortification with the plan of an irregular pentagon featuring five bastions protruding from its corners was finished around 1727. The new fortification included the Baroque Leopold Gate (1669) and an elaborate network of Casemates – underground tunnels for quick movement of soldiers and storage of material. Most older buildings were demolished and the Vyšehrad Chapter was temporarily abandoned. An impressive armory was built in the former Royal Acropolis. However, it burned down in 1927 and was never restored. The Vyšehrad fortress was never used to counter any military campaign against Prague. On the contrary in the wars for the Austrian heritage, the fortress was used as a base by the French army and later, by the Prussian army. The final reconstruction of the fortress took place in the mid-1800s when the Empire-style Brick Gate (1841) and a cannon firing position on the city side were finalized.
A National Symbol
In the second half of the 19th century, the military strategic importance of Vyšehrad faded. However, its patriotic significance grew mostly thanks to the Vyšehrad Chapter headed by provosts Václav Štulc and Mikuláš Karlach who had transformed Vyšehrad into a symbol of the most ancient history of the Czech nation. Their efforts were rooted in legends related to Vyšehrad, such as the stories of Queen Libuše, valiant Bivoj, the mythical horse Šemík or the Women's War, which narrate the mythological origins of the rule of the Přemyslids. The two provosts initiated the establishment of public orchards and a Neo-Gothic reconstruction of several Vyšehrad buildings which included a renovation of the Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul according to a design by Josef Mocker and František Mikš in 1885-1903. This transformation of Vyšehrad was crowned by the foundation of a national burial ground on the site of the former parish cemetery. Its new dominant, the Slavín tomb, was finished in 1893. Since then, a whole range of the most prominent representatives of Czech politics, culture and society have found their final resting place there. Vyšehrad definitively shed its fortification role in 1911 when the military transferred its ownership to the city of Prague.
Today, Vyšehrad is a magic and mysterious location where legends meet the real - often still undiscovered – history and the present. It is a place which retains visible traces of all of its long and intriguing past, a place which is firmly established in the history of both Prague and the entire Czech nation.
Text Ing. arch. Petr Kučera