Boleslav I ‘the Cruel’: bloody, bold and resolute in Bohemia

This brief introduction to the life of the Bohemian Prince Boleslav I ‘the Cruel’ first appeared in the Spring 2000 edition of Slovo, the journal of the Slavic Interest Group. It is reproduced here with some minor edits for clarity.

Boleslav I of Bohemia gets a rough ride from history, not least because of his cold-blooded murder of his brother Prince Wenceslas, the saint and “good king”. In fact, though, it was Boleslav who finally brought Bohemia under the control of the Přemyslids, laying the foundations of the Bohemian and ultimately the Czech state.

When, in 925 AD, Wenceslas successfully claimed the stone throne, it was only with the aid of military “manoeuvres” conducted by Arnulf of Bavaria. In 929, shifting politics and a joint campaign by Arnulf and the German Henry I compelled Bohemia to become a tributary of the emerging (Holy Roman) Empire. The option of becoming a part of the Empire polarised the nobility; the faction opposed was led by Wenceslas’ brother Boleslav.

Tensions culminated in Wenceslas’ murder on September 28th, 935. Boleslav seized power, shielded – by coincidence or shrewdness – from the Empire’s revenge by Henry’s death and the dispute over his succession.

Boleslav’s genius lay in his recognition of the fact that only a strong military deterrent could prevent Bohemia’s absorption by the German powers. However, a major hindrance to this was the lack of unity in Bohemia itself. It is worth remembering that at this time, he directly controlled only the Prague Basin, while other chiefs had their own territories across Bohemia. Within a year of taking the throne, Boleslav embarked on his first “lightning war”, crushing all opposition to his policies, liquidating all of the non-Přemyslid princes – even those able to draw aid from Saxony itself – and replacing them with pliant members of his own family.

Building a series of new fortifications along the natural borders of his core territory, Boleslav earned his sobriquet from the introduction during his rule of regular taxation, a harsh judicial system, and enforced Christianisation. He also introduced his own coinage, and one of his denarii names his wife as one Biagota.

Nevertheless, to maintain the army (and thus Bohemia’s independence) new sources of income were required. Boleslav sent his new armies along the great trade routes, securing the profits from as long a length of them as possible – northwards into Silesia and eastwards into North Moravia, taking Olomouc before moving on to Kraków, Wislania, the Przemyśl and Czerwien strongholds, and the territories of the Lędziane all the way to borders of the Kievan Rus. As well as the obvious income from plunder, booty and tribute, Boleslav also gained an almost inexhaustible supply of the most important trade good of all – pagan slaves.

Although he had a large army at his disposal by the late 940’s, after years of skirmishing Boleslav secured his western borders by paying homage to Henry’s successor, Otto I. His loyalty was shown in 953, when an uprising of the Slavs along the lower Elbe was defeated with the assistance of Boleslav’s veterans, and in 955 the Magyars were defeated on the Lech with the aid of a sizeable force of Bohemian cavalry.

Later, as Otto became distracted by events in Italy, Bohemia’s ties with the Empire loosened. In the 960’s, Bohemian troops aided Mieszko in his war against the Veleti, and around 965, Boleslav’s daughter Doubravka married the Polish prince.

Boleslav’s empire was large, but not cohesive – it lacked even a name to hold it together. Co-operation with the Church undoubtedly led to a “know-how transfer” in terms of administration, but Bohemia lacked its own bishops – and the Moravian diocese had lapsed in the pagan revival following the fall of Great Moravia. Bishoprics would, in theory, lead to the recognition of the Bohemian empire as a Christian state of equal stature with its neighbours. It was with this in mind that Boleslav campaigned for his murdered brother to be canonised. His daughter, the nun Mlada, led a mission to Rome in 968 to negotiate for a new bishopric.

Boleslav died in 972, the bishoprics unrealised. It is paradoxical that the brother he had canonised – the mild prince of a tiny territory dominated by its neighbours – is regarded as Bohemia’s defender and patron saint. The fact that the quiet Wenceslas is generally depicted as an armoured, mounted knight, when his brother was the conquering warrior who laid the foundations of the modern Czech state, is the ultimate irony.