The Augustinians Are Invited to Bohemia

The arrival in 1262 of the Augustinians in Bohemia (or the “crown lands of St. Wenceslaus”) marked one of the earliest attempts at implanting the Order of St. Augustine among the western Slavs. With zealous inititiative friars at the newly founded Seemanhausen friary in Bavaria (sharing a common border with a burgeoning dynamic Czech principality) resolved to expand eastwards. An ancient tradition redacted during the baroque period attributes the founding of the monastery to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The chronicler relates that she requested Ulrich Zajic, an influential courtier at the court of King Premyslav Ottakar II, to build on his Ostrav or Insula estate “a church and monastery” dedicated to her Annunciation “for my servants (the Augustinian friars).” The power of such an attributed petition (dated to March 1260) was not lost on the friars and their patrons considering that the requested monastery was finished and consecrated posthaste by May 1262. Shortly after, in 1267, the monastery of Korona Panni Marie (“Coruna Mariae Virginis”) was founded in the northern Moravian town of Moravska Trebova, followed in 1268 by the monastery of St. Lawrence in Sopka, near Melnik, in northern Bohemia. The most important, however, of these and subsequent foundations was the royal church and monastery of Saint Thomas and Augustine situated beneath the kings’ own castle in the burgeoning capital city of Prague.

Fortunately, the earliest documentary history of this Augustinian church and monastery, the Codex Tomaeus has somehow survived, mirabile dictu. This invaluable document describing the genesis of the Augustinian Order in Bohemia begins with an epilogue granting the fledgling Order of friars the twin assurance of papal support and protection. In quick succession three early rescripts were summarily issued specifically in favor of the Order’s foundation in Prague.

Vaclav II, self-styled “the King of Bohemia and Margrave of Moravia” promulgated the first royal rescript, on July 1, 1285, soon followed by the document of the Benedictine Abbot Christian of Brevnov (August 09, 1286) and the third by Tobias, “the bishop of Prague” issued on August 13, 1286.

The royal rescript, issued by King Vaclav II, was among the first acts of this tormented young monarch once he attained his majority in 1283. His childhood, difficult even by then accepted rough medieval standards, was complicated by his premature accession to the Bohemian throne at the age of seven (1278). Following the tragic death in the battle of Moravske Pole (1278) of his immensely popular father, Ottokar II who had extended Bohemian influence from the Baltic to the Adriatic litoral, young Vaclav II spent his next seven years in confinement. As a helpless pawn in the hands of ambitious noblemen he was so psychologically and physically wounded by the experience that for the rest of his twenty-eight year reign he suffered striking episodes of depression. Despite these handicaps he was a successful king. Marrying the Habsburg princess, Guta or Jitka in 1287, he was crowned King of Bohemia (1297) and King of Poland (1300). Conventionally pious according to the standards of his age, he, in addition to the Prague monastery of St.Thomas, gratuitously funded a monastic house in Domazlice (1288). His rescript in favor of the Prague friars was drawn up in the accustomed curial form wherein the King donator is sollicitous that to “his cities…only those honest and outstanding in virtue should be invited to dwell.” Apparently assured of their virtue, the invited Augustinian brothers or receptores were bound to remember the king’s deceased father “before the face of God.” To facilitate this obligation, Vaclav II bequeaths to them forever “the church of St. Thomas (donum) outside the walls of the New City below the Prague castle” on a site that he and a certain “Chunrad of Sacz” have agreed. The rescript concludes and the necessary royal seals were affixed in the presence of the witness, one “Welizlai, a canon of Prague and royal pronotary.”

Otherwise, the rescript is rather spare. For example, it does not mention the chapel of St. Dorothy and the adjacent cemetery nor does it even acknowledge Benedictine proprietary patronage over the ecclesia beati Thom(a)e. The second or espiscopal rescript, dated either on August 08 (or 13) 1286 and issued by Bishop Tobias of Prague, was more precise. In contrast to the king’s simple donation of the church of St. Thomas in return for the friars’ suffrages, the bishop now, in consultation with the Benedictine Abbot of Brevnov fleshes spells out such details crucial for the foundation of the “brother hermits of St. Augustine” in Prague. Once armed with the necessary royal, episcopal and abbatial approval for patronage of St. Thomas Church, its land and adjacent cemetery, the Augustinians were assured entrée into Prague’s ecclesiastical and monastic circles. To ward off possible objections from the powerful monastic Breznov chapter, Bishop Tobias concluded his directives with a brief encomium lauding the “abbot’s honorable men of the foresaid convent monastery (of Brevnov).” We can only guess whether such praise was intended to placate the monastic capitulars now under royal pressure to surrender their strategic Mala Strana benefice to such a motley group of non-descript friars. Bishop Tobias, too, in turn, may also have been pressured by Pope Clement IV who in the previous January “commanded that the priors and brothers of the Augustinian Order be allowed to live in cities, fortified areas and villages without hindrance.” Whatever the reasons, this episcopal license supported both by royal decree and Benedictine compliance handed over the church of St. Thomas with adjacent properties to the Augustinian community.

The third rescript dated August 9, 1286 from Abbot Christian of Brevnov, frankly acknowledged the Saint Thomas property transfer as a fait accompli. Naturally, the “pious and humble petition” of King Vaclav, “ the illustrious heir and lord of the kingdom of Bohemia and marquisate of Moravia,” would have moved Abbot Christian and his Benedictine chapter to action. And they freely voted in perpetuum, ownership and patronage “of St. Thomas church, its estate and cemetery” to the Augustinian friars hermits and their successors. Once passed this final adjudication, the Augustinians found their place in Prague, “the Mother City and Capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia.”