Although we would not find the Royal Route on the map of Prague, Prague citizens as well as many visitors are well aware of this term that refers to probably the most beautiful sightseeing route in the city; for many, it represents the true symbol of old Prague. The name was given to a route, which for many centuries had been taken by the Czech kings in a procession to their coronation in the St. Vitus Cathedral at the Prague Castle, the spiritual centre of the kingdom. Crowded coronation processions left from the open space in the place of today’s Republic Square, where the city residence of the monarch called Royal Court used to stand, then they proceeded through Celetná Street to Old Town and the Little Square and then through Karlova Street to Křižovnické Square and via the Charles Bridge to the other side of the river, going through Mostecká Street, Lesser Town Square, then through Nerudova Street and Úvoz up to Pohořelec, where they took a sharp turn right close to the Strahov Monastery; the road from Nerudova Street leading directly to the Castle wasn´t cut out in the stone until the 17th century. From Pohořelec the procession continued through Loretto Square through Loretánská Street and Hradčany Square to the Cathedral, where the actual coronation ceremony took place. This ceremonial ride through Prague was an expression of the relationship between the kingdom capital and the monarch and also a symbol of the importance of Prague as a natural centre of Bohemia; in return, residents of the streets and squares situated along the Royal Route paid attention to the procession and richly decorated their houses, palaces and cathedrals for this occasion, thus expressing their loyalty to the new king. Today the Royal Route is the most frequent route followed by tourists; usually, however, they take it from the opposite direction, that is from Pohořelec through the Castle and Charles Bridge to the Republic Square.
Since the first coronation of a Czech king in 1086 to the last one in 1836, 26 Czech kings and 28 Czech queens were crowned and blessed with holy oil during a ceremonial mass in the St. Vitus Cathedral. The very first coronation of a king in Prague took place on 15th June 1086, when Vratislaus I, until then known as the Czech Prince Vratislaus II, sat on the royal throne. A more continuous series of coronations of Czech kings began only in the 13th century, which is also when the origins of the Czech coronation ceremony can be found. The coronations were attended by the clergy (most importantly the Prague bishop and later the archbishop), the presence of key members of the provincial nobility and important guests from the neighbouring countries was essential. According to a detailed protocol, which was written up by Charles IV,based on older customs, for himself and all his successors, on the eve of the coronation the future king and his entourage travelled from the Castle to Vyšehrad only to come back after prayers and attend evening service at the St. Vitus Cathedral; the king-to-be would manage to symbolically link the imperial and Přemyslid tradition in this way and calm down the existing rivalry between the king and the nobility, which hindered the development of the country. In a beautiful procession revelling in gold and festive red, the figure of the future king stood out rather strangely: he was dressed in simple clothes to make sure that not even the poorest people would forget that the majesty of the Czech king had its origins with Přemysl the Ploughman, a prince of peasant birth. The coronation itself took place on the following day in the still Romanesque back then, Church of St. Vitus; it was followed by departure of the new king to the Prague Old Town for a rich feast. The pre-coronation journey to Vyšehrad and back was abandoned in the years to come, especially after the Hussite wars, which significantly impaired the glory of the old royal residence.
The journey of the coronation processions of Charles’ successors only started to follow the contemporary route in the middle of the 15th century; the first person to take the current Royal Route for coronation was the successor and son-in-law of Charles’ son Sigismund of Luxembourg, Albert II of Habsburg in 1438. After him, his three successors had followed, of whom the most famous one was George of Poděbrady, who in 1458 arranged to be appointed the king directly at the Old Town Hall. In the subsequent centuries, nearly all monarchs of the Czech lands rode through the Royal Route; it has not lost its symbolic meaning even after Vladislaus II of Jagiello resorted back to safety behind the walls of the Prague Castle and the rulers of Habsburg dynasty – with the exception of Rudolph II – resettled from Prague to Vienna. The Royal Route, via the New and the Old Town to Vltava River and up to the Castle, was still taken by the court during its short or long-term stays in the kingdom capital and also by foreign delegations and other important visitors who entered Prague this way.
A man of our era, sceptical about all the pomposity and magnificence and always in a hurry, can hardly understand what exactly coronation meant to our ancestors – it was an important event in their lives, and in terms of social perception of the king, probably the most important one. Not only did the king assume rule over the country with all the rights and obligations resulting from it, but at the same time confirmed the integrity and legitimacy of the country, concluded a vassal agreement with his people and confirmed all the existing rights and privileges of the whole country. The festivities related to the coronation corresponded to the importance of this bond. There is, for example, a custom, which has been known since the times of George of Poděbrady which involves tossing small coins, which were to bring prosperity and wealth under the rule of the new king; another such custom was also the release of prisoners. The city was in its full beauty, precious carpets and fabrics hung from the windows, people acclaimed the king and threw flowers at the procession, city representatives welcomed the king with speeches, members of guilds and churches, pupils and students, soldiers and others presented themselves at the frequent stops, at the Castle the monarch was welcomed by top representatives of the provincial administration from the high and lower nobility. The whole event was accompanied by ringing of bells, music, singing, gunnery fire, poem recitals and theatrical performances. Famous moments also served as opportunities for demonstrating various attractions and curiosities – and so in 1527 upon the coronation of Ferdinand I, four bold men jumped into Vltava in honour of the king (one of whom died), in the coronation procession for Maxmilian II in 1564, the greatest upheaval was stirred by a herd of six camels with their Moor masters.
Particularly elaborate festivities accompanied coronations in the Baroque period with the, almost theatrical, Baroque sense for pomposity; for many decades people remembered the coronation of the emperor Charles VI in 1723, during which the richly decorated Prague streets witnessed ceremonial shows never seen before: two months had passed between the arrival of the Emperor into the city and the coronation itself and this whole period was filled with theatrical and musical festivals, trips and rides of the court around Prague, feasts as well as parliamentary meetings. In contrast, Empress Maria Theresa disappointed Prague citizens in 1743, her coronation was modest compared to the one two decades ago – the Empress, however, had a reason to be angry at the Czech estates for their cold position in the preceding war years. The coronation of Leopold II in 1791 was much more spectacular; in the period of the awakening national self-confidence, many members of the Czech elite saw in this an act of rebirth of the importance of the Czech kingdom within the Habsburg monarchy, which was even more reinforced by the fact that the new king returned to the kingdom its crown jewels, which had been previously taken by his mother to Vienna in 1743. The atmosphere of Leopold’s coronation was captured by Alois Jirásek in the historic novel F. L. Věk one century later.
The last coronation in Prague took place in 1836, when Ferdinand V the Good became a Czech king. Although his successor Franz Joseph I vowed to accept the Czech crown four times, he had never done so, despite the efforts of Czech politicians. Neither did Charles I., the last Austro-Hungarian monarch. The tradition of Czech rulers was smoothly picked up by president Masaryk and we could probably recognize some aspects of the ancient royal ceremonies even today, especially in the inauguration ceremony of the president of the republic – but the times have changed and there is a danger that a contemporary politician might feel rather alone on his journey to the Castle…
List of Czech kings, who had been crowned in Prague (date of coronation in brackets)
Vratislaus II (15. 6. 1086)
Wenceslaus I the One-Eyed (6. 2. 1228)
Wenceslaus II (2. 6. 1297)
John of Luxemburg (7. 2. 1311)
Charles IV of Luxemburg (2. 9. 1347)
Wenceslas IV of Luxemburg (25. 6. 1363)
Sigismund of Luxemburg (28. 7. 1420)
Albert II of Habsburg (29. 6. 1438)
Ladislaus the Posthumous (28. 10. 1453)
George of Poděbrady (2. 3. 1458)
Vladislaus II of Jagiello (22. 8. 1471)
Louis of Jagiello (11. 3. 1509)
Ferdinand I of Habsburg (24. 2. 1527)
Maxmilian II (20. 9. 1562)
Rudolph II (22. 9. 1575)
Matthias I (23. 5. 1611)
Ferdinand II (29. 6. 1617)
Frederick of the Palatinate (4. 11. 1619)
Ferdinand III (24. 11. 1627)
Ferdinand IV (5. 8. 1645)
Leopold I (11. 9. 1656)
Charles VI (4. 9. 1723)
Maria Theresa (12. 5. 1743)
Leopold II (6. 9. 1791)
Francis II (9. 8. 1792)
Ferdinand V (7. 9. 1836)