It Began In A Bed Chamber – A Tale of Madness At Cesky Krumlov Castle (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Eight)

“If only those walls could talk.” That phrase has popped into my mind on innumerable occasions while traveling across Eastern and Central Europe. Astride the old city walls of Pecs and Sibiu, outside the crumbling remains of the Gothic church at Zsambek, while staring at a red brick World War I fortress in the woods on the edge of Prezmysl, I wondered just what stories were hidden by those walls. I tried to imagine all the things I did not know and would never know. The human and historical dramas that were hidden by walls that now stand as a final testament of all that has vanished. This “hidden history” seemed so far away, but it was closer than I imagined. Much of it lies buried deep within history books, waiting for the curious or serendipitous to do research leading to a rediscovery. It was in this manner that I stumbled upon a piece of murderous history from Cesky Krumlov Castle that by turns fascinated and horrified me. I would soon discover that if those castle walls could talk, they would let out a howl. This would be the cry of a once powerful madman who will be forever notorious. That is because of an horrific act he carried out behind the castle walls.

Cesky Krumlov’s Castle is so fantastical that it seems to be from another world. Seeing it for the first time, illuminated under the cover of darkness amid falling snow, I felt a childlike sense of enchantment. This feeling never left me during my visit. The castle did not take me back in time, instead it took me to a place that stood outside of time. A castle and town situated in a forever land. Here was the ultimate destiny of dreams, where the mythical supersedes reality. I saw the castle as a heroic place with a happy history marked by fearless leaders, spectacular feats of high culture and satisfied courtiers. I could not imagine that hidden behind, and in one horrifying case within the castle walls, was a story of madness, mayhem and murder. A tale of horrifying degeneracy that arose from schizophrenic insanity. A shadowy, sordid tale that began in a bed chamber of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II and his most beloved mistress.

Infinite Curosity & Eccentricity - Rudolf II

Infinite Curosity & Eccentricity – Rudolf II (Credit: Hans von Aachen)

A Passion For The Bizarre – Bedroom Manners
Rudolf II was a cross between an ineffective ruler, crazed wunderkind and outrageous eccentric. Politically, he made a host of bad decisions that helped bring about the Thirty Years’ War. The most egregious of which was a badly conceived plan to unite all Christian forces in a crusade against the Ottoman Turks. The fact that Rudolf was aloof, moody, and indecisive at the best of times only made matters worse. His willful ambivalence helped ignite what became known as the Long War (1593 – 1606), which eventually led to his ouster. Rudolf’s political mistakes pale in comparison to his remarkable eccentricities. He moved the royal court from Vienna to Prague where he obsessed over the newest developments in astrology and alchemy. Imperial affairs often came a distant second to his scientific pursuits. There was also his love of art, which tended toward the obsessive. At times he could be found staring for hours on end at a painting that had captured his imagination.

Many of Rudolf’s passions were outright bizarre. He allowed a lion and tiger to roam Prague Castle where they attacked and even devoured the unwitting. Rudolf’s private life added to his less than savory reputation. He never married, but instead had a succession of affairs with both women and men. This was an attempt to satisfy his ravenous sexual appetite. Rudolf’s most noteworthy affair was with his favorite mistress, the highly intelligent, Viennese educated Catherina Strada (Katerina Stradova) who bore him six illegitimate children. The eldest of these, the magnificently named Don Julius Caesar d’Austria, was groomed for greater things by his father. Rudolf saw to it that the boy received a first-class education along with an exalted position in his court. Despite his father’s focus on ensuring he received the proper schooling, there was no amount of education that could rescue Don Julius from his natural proclivities.

Catherina Strada (Katerina Stradova) - Possible portrait

Catherina Strada (Katerina Stradova) – Possible portrait

No Escape From Sadism – The Scourge of Schizophrenia
During his youth, Don Julius displayed a tendency towards the sadistic, namely torturing animals and exceedingly violent behavior toward his own friends. By the time he reached adulthood, Don Julian was already a raging alcoholic. Sexual assault soon became an outlet for his violence. He traipsed around the Bohemian countryside with a gang of like-minded lackeys who took to raping women and pillaging in local villages. It was nothing for them to kidnap and sexually assault peasant girls. The situation grew to such extreme proportions that Rudolf was forced into action. Don Julius was sent against his will to a Carthusian monastery where he was forcibly held in the hope that his behavior might improve. His treatment involved denying him the vices he so dearly craved. The confinement soon became a failed attempt to correct his degeneracy, on the contrary it seemed to inflame his madness.

Denial as a form of punishment may have worked for some, but Don Julius lacked self-control. In truth, he just could not help himself. He suffered from schizophrenia which manifested itself in extremely violent and self-destructive behavior. Don Julius showed little sign of improvement, but Rudolf tended towards forgiveness. After Don Julius was granted his freedom, Rudolf provided him with another gift. Don Julius was given Cesky Krumlov and the surrounding region as his domain. This was a sort of internal exile where it was hoped the wayward son might correct his erring ways. Once firmly ensconced at the castle, Don Julius and his henchmen went on the rampage again. Soon those in the town and countryside were being terrorized. Violence, lewd sexual behavior and the most depraved activities were fomented on an alarming scale.

Schizophrenia & Sadism - Don Julius Caesar d'Austria

Schizophrenia & Sadism – Don Julius Caesar d’Austria

Close To Untouchable – A Path To The Truly Terrible
The Emperor’s officials did their best to cover up the worsening situation. This did nothing to help matters. Don Julius was plagued by a sadistic madness that could never be satisfied. Sex and violence went hand in hand. The more he got, the more he wanted. His exalted position made him close to untouchable. This was a recipe for something truly terrible to happen. That was exactly what would happen.

Click here for: It Ended In A Bed Chamber – A Tale of Murder At Cesky Krumlov Castle (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Nine)

Heir To The Fall – The Collapsing House of Rozmberk (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Six)

The speed with which the House of Rozmberk’s three century long reign over southern Bohemia came to an end was breathtaking. It was the antithesis of slow decline and ossification as their wealth and power vanished in the space of a generation. In 1592 the magnificent reign of William of Rozmberk came to an end with his death. A decade later, the Rozmberk estates were bought out by the Habsburg Emperor, Rudolf II. William’s time in power had been marked by a seemingly endless array of economic, architectural and cultural achievements bringing the House of Rozmberk great acclaim. They had also come at great expense. Nonetheless, his reign was a true golden age as the Rozmberk dynasty brought the renaissance to southern Bohemia. Then it all fell apart. What happened? The person most responsible was a man as flawed as William was gifted. This was his brother Peter Vok, who led the House of Rozmberk into a precipitate decline from which it would never recover.

Ladies Man - Peter Vok in his younger years

Ladies Man – Peter Vok in his younger years

Heavy Debts – Marriage, Morals & Money
Peter Vok of Rozmberk did not seem to have much in common with his brother William, other than the fact that they both came from the same exalted family. The one common denominator in their personal lives was a fatal flaw that helped bring the House of Rozmberk down. Peter, like his older brother, failed to produce any offspring. Unlike William who was married four times, Peter was only married once. Unfortunately, the marriage turned out to be a disaster. He did not wed until he was forty-one years old. Prior to the marriage, Peter had a reputation as a frivolous playboy who was uninterested in a serious relationship. When he did finally decide to marry it was to Catherine of Ludanice. Catherine was a teenager, only 15 years old at the time. Peter was a quarter century older than his wife. This odd match got off to a surprisingly good start as Peter lavished attention on his young wife, but over time he grew increasingly hostile to her. The young lady began to show signs of mental instability. The couples’ failure to produce an heir only made matters worse.

Meanwhile, Peter was in dire financial shape. This was nothing new. His spendthrift ways had left him with little room to maneuver financially or politically. This was not the first time he had been on the verge of bankruptcy. In 1569 after purchasing Castle Bechyne, he set about on an uber expensive renovation of its dilapidated Gothic Castle into a Renaissance style chateau. He then used the chateau to throw lavish parties where alcohol flowed freely. Peter loved nothing more than drinking copious amounts of alcohol, carousing with women and being the center of attention at the parties he threw. This behavior led to massive amounts of debt. Even a man as disciplined and level headed as his brother William had trouble at times with his own financial situation. For someone of Peter’s dubious morals financial insolvency was more than just an existential threat. In the case of the debts he had incurred during this period, William ended up bailing Peter out for a promise of further financial rectitude. This worked, but only temporarily. The brothers would eventually have a falling out as William became increasingly exasperated with his brother’s behavior.

The Chateau at Trebon - Peter Vok's final home

The Chateau at Trebon – Peter Vok’s final home (Credit: Richard Mortel)

A Loss Of Credit-ability – Cost Of Living
By the last decade of the 16th century Peter was once again in bad financial straits, but William was now dead. In addition, there was no future family heir. This meant that there was no one to rescue Peter from himself.  Peter was the new head of the House of Rozmberk. This further increased the burden on his finances since he now took on William’s financial responsibilities. Peter first tried transferring many of the properties to his wife before she died. This did little to alleviate his indebtedness. Creditors continued to close in on him.

Peter was soon left with only one choice, to begin selling off Rozmberk estates. Despite sale after sale, Peter was only able to reduce his debt burden by a little over half. Paradoxically, he continued to spend excessive amounts to lead a life of luxury in Cesky Krumlov Castle. He kept almost 200 courtiers employed, a number that was unmatched even at the height of William’s reign. One outrageously expensive purchase – silver matrimonial beds from Italy – was indicative of Peter’s largesse. All the while, Peter struggled to keep his creditors at bay. He was incapable of frugality.

A Debt To Pay - Peter Vok late in life

A Debt To Pay – Peter Vok late in life

The Unrecovered – A Family’s Fortunes
Peter’s massive debts were such that he was finally left with no other choice but to sell what had been the family’s most important base of power, Cesky Krumlov Castle. In 1602, the Habsburg Emperor Rudolf II purchased the castle complex from him. This effectively put an end to three hundred years of Rozmberk rule over the castle and its surrounding area. All the incredible renaissance renovations done by William that had made Cesky Krumlov one of Europe’s greatest architectural set pieces was now under the ownership of Rudolf. Peter moved to Trebon, where he immediately proceeded to continue spending loads of money. This time he set out on a mission to create one of the great libraries in Europe. He succeeded, but at considerable expense.

Peter soon found himself in yet another unenviable fiscal situation when Bavarian soldiers from Passau began to ravage southern Bohemia. He was forced to pay them off in order to keep the peace. Peter only found refuge from his debts and permanent peace when he died in 1611. If anything, his lack of self-control and wastrel behavior had helped bring the situation about. When the Thirty Years’ War broke out less than a decade later, the Renaissance that had been led by the Rozmberks in southern Bohemia was once again viewed with great fondness. The architecture and culture had left a lasting impression of wealth and refinement. It had been a time of gifts bestowed upon the region and its people by William and Peter. That golden age had vanished into history, like the Rozmberk family it was never to return.

Click here: Patron’s Place – Cesky Krumlov & The Eggenbergs (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Seven)