Between the 9th and 12th centuries the Czech Lands were ruled by a series of dukes from a single family the Přemyslovci.
The first member of the Přemyslovci to rule Bohemia was Bořivoj I in 870.
Between 870 and 1198 the chronicles list 52 adult male members of the Přemyslovci family of which 26 held positions of duke, 12 were vice-dukes and three held religious positions. Two of the dukes were promoted to king by the Emperor, three individuals held the ducal position twice, three dukes also held positions as vice-dukes and one individual, Jindřich Břetislav, simultaneously held the position of Bishop of Prague and Duke.
Initially succession was by primogeniture with the eldest son of a Duke succeeding his father and this position being confirmed by public acclamation by the leading Czech families usually at the castle in Prague. However, in 1055 Břestislav I called on the Czech nobility to recognise the eldest member of the dynasty as Duke. Břestislav himself was succeeded by his son, having no living brother, but thereafter succession by seniority was firmly recognised.
The form of landownership practised by the Přemyslovci had two interlinked elements to it. Firstly the duke as ruler of the Czech lands owned all the land. No other member of the family owned lands or estates although land could be gifted to them by the Duke. And secondly as the senior member of the Přemyslovci the Duke was responsible for everyone else in the family. Consequently all other members of the family were dependent on the duke for everything; from food and shelter to arranging marriages and providing dowries. However, this combination of the concentration of landownership and responsibility in the hands of a single member of the family gave rise to young men within the Přemyslovci frequently having fewer responsibilities than members of the leading families who ran estates. Young men, in other words, who were members of the ruling dynastic family but had a liminal status within the hierarchy of medieval Bohemia; and a liminal status that was public.
Within Bohemian society status and notions of manhood was gained and recognised by levels of wealth or landholdings or military prowess. However, the wealth of a junior member of the Přemyslovci was publicly known to be in the gift of the duke as was the holding of any estates. And although there were occasional skirmishes with the German marcher lords and the Poles opportunities for military activity were not guaranteed. So the status of young male Přemyslovci was not only liminal but could be thought of as emasculating.
By 1111 even the Duke had realised this and created the vice-dukedom of Moravia to assuage male pride amongst his male relatives. However the vice-dukedom remained in the gift of the duke and was not allowed to become hereditary as the Dukes feared it would become a powerbase around which rivals could gather. In fact this proved all too correct an assumption as revolts were frequently launched from Moravia encouraged by resentment over the duke’s interference in the vice-dukedom. Resentment about the ducal control of Moravia stoked revolts; revolts proved the need for the dukes control.
The adoption of the rule of seniority by the Přemyslovci although removing the problems of rule by a minor or the lack of a male heir did produce problems.
There were obvious tensions which arose when for example the adult son of a dying duke could be passed over in favour of the younger brother of a duke. But the main issue was who was perceived as senior within the family by the leading nobility. Seniority was not necessarily granted by age or relation to the duke. Other members of the family who had built up a strong retinue and who were perceived to be a stronger individual could claim seniority. And as the ducal throne could only be claimed after a public acknowledgement by the leading Czech families. Then those with a strong retinue could and did challenge for seniority.
Within this seniority system of succession if a duke were to prove weak or unpopular he could be challenged by another senior member of the Přemyslovci dynasty aided by disgruntled members of the leading Czech families. Even were a duke to be strong and relatively popular the succession by seniority could gave rise to disputes when sons of dukes were passed over in the succession by their uncles who claimed the ducal position as younger brothers of a previous duke. As a result of this many Přemyslovcis used violent means against other family members either in an attempt to gain the ducal position or to prevent others from doing so.
Members of the Přemyslovci exiled, imprisoned, forced into the church, maimed and killed their male and sometimes female relatives. They did so to gain or retain the position of duke. This intra-dynastic violence appears, paradoxically, to have given rise to two different scenarios with regards to the Czech peasantry. Where two equally matched ducal contenders or an existing duke and challenger opposed each other extreme violence was employed on both sides. Family members attacked each other and their followers and laid waste to supporter’s lands. However, the violence usually arose after a new duke was proclaimed, was sporadic in nature and tended on the whole to be in response to perceived threats or actual violence from a challenger. In this situation dukes rarely held power for long, on average only 5 years and peasant life was subsequently disrupted by changes in political leadership, changes in taxation, disruption to trade, crop burnings, and battles.
In the case where one powerful individual arose violence was employed somewhat differently. Action was taken early in the ducal reign, usually within weeks of election, against potential challengers usually in order to pre-empt revolts and was carried out on a more continuous basis; but usually only against the individual family member and his closest supporters. In this case the duke eliminated rivals before they could raise support. As a result the duke held power for a considerable time. As violence was, generally, contained within the dynasty the Czech peasantry enjoyed a period of relative calm during these times.
Struggles for supremacy within ruling families were not unknown in medieval Europe. However, the combination of succession by seniority which also required the support of the leading Czech families and the lack of land holding by non-ducal members of the Přemyslovci gave those struggles a particular flavour in the Czech lands. Lisa Wolverton has stated in Hastening Toward Prague, ‘from the mid-eleventh to the turn of the thirteenth century, the men of the ruling dynasty were in almost constant conflict with one another’. (1) But while this constant conflict over the ducal throne engulfed the Přemyslovci men and women in sometimes extremely violent and bloody family battles there is one final particular point to note. The Přemyslovci ruled the Czech lands for some 328 years with only one break when the ducal throne passed to the Polish count Bolesław I Chrobry, who nevertheless was a Přemyslovci albeit by maternal descent and from a cadet branch. In those 328 years of public acclamation with the leading families never looked outside the Přemyslovci for their rulers. Where the leading nobility agitated politically or in open rebellion against the duke the rival contender supported by those leading families was still always a member of the Přemyslovci family.
(1) Wolverton Lisa., Hastening towards Prague; power and society in the medieval Czech lands, pp 100.