The Church of Saint Thomas to the Year 1420

When the Augustinians arrived in 1285, Mala Strana (the “Lesser Town”) than comprised a closely parceled area nestled below the royal castle promontory or Hradcany (“sub arce” or “sub castro”) and separated from the Staromesto or “Old Town” of Prague by the sinuous and unpredictable Vlatava river. So delimited by nature, Mala Strana once settled could never really expand and has maintained even to the present something of its picturesque yet changeless panorama. From its very beginning in the first decades of the thirteenth century through the first quarter of the fifteenth century it was a self-contained and, at times, consciously conceited “royal courtyard”. Secure within a belt of protective fortifications ranging from around the royal castle to be bounded by the later Caroline ramparts to the river, the strana had its basic hub in what would be Malastranska namesti. Reduced over the centuries to a pedestrian transit point dominated by the baroque pile of sv. Mikulas and brooding seventeenth century palaces it is of interest to us as the site of the Augustinian church and monastery of St. Thomas, the Apostle.

Unfortunately, there is scant information about the architectural style and décor of the original church of St. Thomas and the adjacent chapel of St. Dorothy. According to recent archeological studies, the extant remains of a Romanesque structure with characteristic lancet windows carved in thick masonry still discernible within the south wall of the present chapel of St.Dorothy, can confidently be identified as the earliest remains of the original Benedictine church. Regarded as an invaluable heirloom of Czech architecture, this wall, now an integral part of St. Thomas’s church, resembles some characteristic features of the neighboring St. Mary “under the Chain Bridge” Church dating from the late twelfth century. According to the ancient chronicle St. Thomas was dedicated in the year 1228.

At any rate, it was obvious that from the very beginning this cramped Benedictine structure was insufficient for these early Augustinian friars. Dedicated to preaching and pastoral ministry, the need for space was obvious and they soon embarked upon an expansion program on which they wasted neither time nor effort. According to the Codex Tomaeus building expenses were paid for in two ways. The first was realized through the generosity of numerous citizens of Mala Strana, the Minor Civitas. Throughout the fourteenth century, a number of benefactors assisted the friars at St. Thomas in form of a property or head tax assessment (a census). Voluntarily levied by a proprietor on a person, a household or even a village with the express approval of the local magistrates or imperial chancery, the collected revenue was then given to the prior “for the convent of the monastery of St. Thomas.” By any standard some of these benefactions were certainly munificent. The generosity of a certain Lord Bohuslav Svamberk of Mericia is a case in point. In 1342 he gave Nicholas of Launy, OSA, the local superior, a considerable sum of money “for the construction and furnishing of a new convent or college dedicated to the glory of God, his glorious Mother Mary and the sweet confessor, bishop and doctor St. Augustine.” The same nobleman, quite apparently concerned for his salvation, even provided for the building of a cloister walk and directed that after his death all rents and full rights over the village of Lom be given the friars as their “inheritance forever.” In 1391 Frenczlin, a householder of some means, on the other hand, offered a bequest that a light be kept burning perpetually before the image of Our Lady in that same cloister walk of St. Thomas monastery. Sifting through the evidence afforded by the Codex Tomaeus, it appears that the majority of such donations were made between 1351 through 1405 or that “golden age” which abruptly ended with the devastation of the Hussite wars beginning in 1420.

The second income came from the benefactions of the friar-friendly Luxembourg dynasty especially King John I “the Blind” (+1346), his queen, Eliska (+1330), their most generous son, Emperor Charles IV (1346–1378) and other numerous court prelates and retainers. This Luxembourg accession – regarded as pivotal in Bohemian political history – gained ascendancy with the extinction of the native Premyslid dynasty in 1310. Prague, their inherited seat and administrative center, now took on the air of an important European capital. As early as 1306 or some twenty-one years after their foundation in Prague, the Augustinians were released from a land tax paid to the Benedictine nunnery of St. George. They promised, in turn, to remember the Lady Abbess, a Premyslid princess by birth, and her community, in their suffrages. The year 1316, however, was even most memorable for the Order. On May 02, in the presence of King John I and his court, Peter von Aichspelt, the Prince Bishop of Mainz (the canonical Metropolitan of Prague) and Baldwin of Luxembourg, the Prince Bishop of Trier (a royal uncle), solemnly co-consecrated the recently completed Augustinian church of St. Thomas and St.Augustine. The edifice was richly appointed and, if extant descriptions are to be trusted, it must have been one of the most magnificent churches in fourteenth century Prague.