Ludmila (859–920)

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Ludmila (859–920)

Duchess of Bohemia, grandmother of Saint Wenceslas, and Christian saint of Bohemia. Name variations: Saint Ludmila, Ludmilla, Ljudmila. Born at Psov, a place also known as Melnik, about 859 ce; murdered on September 16, 920; daughter of a Lusatian Serb prince named Slavibor; married Borojov or Borivoj I, count of Bohemia (r. 871–894), in 873; children: three sons and three daughters, including Spithnjew also known as Spytihnev I (d. 915), king of Bohemia, and Ratislav also known as Vratislav I (887–920), duke of Bohemia (r. 912–920). Became a saint of Bohemia.

In the early 10th century, two women entered the center stage of a high drama which would determine who would be king of Bohemia, one of the most important regions of Central Europe. Legend portrayed their struggle in heroic terms: Ludmila championed Christianity and became a saint, while Drahomira of Bohemia defended paganism and ended her life in exile, branded a murderer.

Historical sources reveal little about the land of Bohemia before the 10th century. The earliest inhabitants of the area were a Celtic tribe, the Boii, from which the name "Bohemia" is derived. By 100 bce, these Celts had been displaced by Germanic tribes who were themselves pushed from the region by the Slavic peoples who arrived in the 400s ce.

The Slavs entered Central Europe as the Roman Empire steadily crumbled under the onslaught of the Germanic invasions. The fall of Rome ushered in a chaotic period known as the Dark Ages; for nearly 300 years, little history was recorded. At the end of the 6th century, nomadic Avar tribes from the east invaded Central Europe and conquered most of the Slavs. After years of subjugation, the Slavs revolted and briefly maintained a precarious independence. Then, at the end of the 8th century, a new political power arose to the west under the leadership of Charlemagne, king of the Franks. The Roman Catholic Church crowned Charlemagne emperor, and acknowledged his domain as the heir of the Roman Empire.

Charlemagne's successors, known as the Carolingian Dynasty, began sending Roman Catholic missionaries to the pagan Slavs throughout the 9th century in order to convert them to Christianity. Simultaneously, the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire sent Eastern Orthodox missionaries. However, the spread of Christianity among the Slavs was slow and checkered, for many still clung to their pagan ways. More concretely, the Byzantine mission gave the Slavs their first written language. Further, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic missionaries began to record some of the history of this tribal people.

The 9th century introduced new political challenges into the land of Bohemia. Moravia, a newly risen Slavic state, temporarily dominated the region. The Carolingian Empire to the west gradually fragmented under the press of the Vikings and internecine war. Nevertheless, the eastern part of the once mighty empire, comprised of Germans and consisting of a land area roughly corresponding to modern Germany, began making political inroads against Bohemia. Then a new invasion of eastern nomads, the Magyars, destroyed Moravian power in 894 ce and menaced Central Europe. Bohemia was caught between the German advance and the threat of the Magyars.

Drahomira of Bohemia (d. after 932)

Duchess and regent of Bohemia. Name variations: Drahomire von Stoder; Dragomir or Dragomira (from the Slavic language, drah meaning "dear" or "precious" and mir meaning "world" or "peace"). Born in Germany (birthdate unknown); died after 932 in Bohemia; born into the Stodoran family; daughter of a chief of the Havolané tribe which lived north of Bohemia in Brandenburg; married Ratislav also known as Vratislav I (887–920), duke of Bohemia (r. 912–920); children: four daughters, of whom only the name of one (Pribyslava) is known; and three sons, Saint Wenceslas (b. around 907), Boleslav I (d. 972), and Spytihnev (who seems to have died while young). Fled to the tribe of White Croatians north of Prague.

Little is known of Drahomira's family or childhood, except that she was born into one of Germany's noble houses. She married Vratislav I, duke of Bohemia, and had three sons, (Saint) Wenceslas, Boleslav I, and Spytihnev (who seems to have died while young), and four daughters, of whom only the name of one (Pribyslava ) is known. Drahomira was a staunch advocate of the pagan religion of Germany, but her husband was a Christian at a time when missionaries were bringing Christianity to Germany. Drahomira raised her son Boleslav in the pagan religion, although her elder son Wenceslas was brought up in the Christian church by his paternal grandmother, Ludmila , whom Drahomira despised. Vratislav died in 920, and Wenceslas succeeded him as duke, although he was only 13. Ludmila was named regent for the boy, an event which increased the tension between Bohemia's pagan believers and its Christians. Drahomira quickly became the leader of the pagans and schemed to get rid of Ludmila. Ludmila was murdered on Drahomira's orders in 920, and Drahomira assumed the regency for her son.

The civil strife of the previous years evolved into civil war as pagans and Christians fought over the course of Bohemian worship and government. Drahomira and her pagans were outnumbered, and her Christian son Wenceslas dismissed his mother from the government when he came of age at 18. She continued to plot against the Christian faction, however, and was in the general vicinity when her son Boleslav murdered Wenceslas in 929. Wenceslas' deep piety and benevolence, as well as his death at the hands of his pagan brother, led the Bohemians to canonize him and worship him as Bohemia's patron saint. It is not known whether Drahomira lived to see the effects of Wenceslas' martyrdom in galvanizing the Christians to eliminate the remaining pagans of Bohemia, for she fled north shortly after his murder. Boleslav succeeded his brother and remained duke of Bohemia until his death in 972.


Echols, Anne, and Marty Williams. An Annotated Index of Medieval Women. NY: Markus Wiener, 1992.

Jackson, Guida. Women Who Ruled. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio, 1985.

Laura York ,
Riverside, California

Before the Moravian collapse, Borivoj I, prince of Prague in western Bohemia and leading member of the Premyslid family, traveled to Moravia and accepted Christianity, allegedly from the hands of St. Methodius of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Borivoj had been born around 855 ce and married Ludmila in 873. Ludmila herself accepted Christianity shortly after Borivoj's conversion in 874.

Ludmila was the daughter of a Lusatian Serb prince named Slavibor. She seems to have been born at Psov, a place also known as Melnik, after the name of the regional castle. Psov, or Melnik, was located in Upper Lusatia, an area which bordered Bohemia. Various records refer to this general area as Milsko or the land of the Milcane.

Throughout his reign, Borivoj struggled against the Slavic pagans who resented his challenge to their traditional ways. He died at age 36 in 894. Ludmila received the castle of Tetín near the modern city of Beroun on the Mze River as a "widow's grant." Borivoj and Ludmila had had three sons and three daughters: the eldest son Spytihnev I became the new prince of western Bohemia.

Bohemia began to be recognized as a national state when Spytihnev and an eastern Bohemian prince called Viteslav journeyed to Regensburg, Bavaria, in 895 and placed their lands under the protection of the slowly rising German Frankish Empire to the west. By this move, the princes undoubtedly sought to maintain their independence from the Magyars.

Then [Drahomira] began to plot evil against [Ludmila] and sought every way to destroy her. Realizing this, Ludmila left for another town, one called Tetín. But [Drahomira] conspired with two boyars and sent them to Tetín.

—Prologue, The Life of Saint Ludmila

Although this submission may have been the only viable choice for the princes, this action opened the way to additional Roman Catholic influence from the west and thereby increased competition between the two mainstream variants of the Christian religion in Bohemia. Gradually, Roman Catholicism began to replace Eastern Orthodox. Association with the empire also embroiled the princes in future power struggles between Saxony and Bavaria, two regions which vied with each other for the imperial crown and sought political power in Bohemia.

According to the Legenda Christiani, Ludmila's conversion to Christianity had been sincere:

She was generous with alms, persevering in nocturnal devotions, devout in prayers, and perfect in charity and humble among the unknowing. She was so willing in her care for God's servants that to those to whom she was unable to offer help during the light of day, she would send urgent help through her servants during the dark of night…. This mother to orphans, consoler to widows, and indefatigable visitor of the fettered and imprisoned was perfect in all good deeds.

Undoubtedly, she had a large hand in influencing her eldest son. Spytihnev fostered Christianity in Bohemia by building the churches of saints Peter and Paul at Budec and the Church of Mary the Virgin at Prague Castle. Spytihnev was succeeded by his brother Vratislav I upon his death at age 40 in 915.

Little is known of Vratislav except that he built the Church of St. George in Prague and died at 33 years of age in 920, supposedly while fighting the Magyars. He had married Drahomira of the Stodoran family, whose father was a chief of the Havolané tribe which lived north of Bohemia in Brandenburg. Her tribe was part of the Veletians, a Baltic-Slavic tribal confederation who were sometimes known as the "Lutici" (meaning "Wild or Fierce Men") because of their warlike qualities and refusal to accept Christianity. Still, some sources suggest Drahomira had converted to Christianity herself. Ironically, Drahomira's name in Slavic meant dear or precious (drah) and world or peace (mir). Vratislav and Drahomira had seven children: three sons, (Saint) Wenceslas, Boleslav I, and Spytihnev (who seems to have died while young), and four daughters, of whom only the name of one (Pribyslava ) is known.

Vratislav's untimely death left Bohemia with an heir, Wenceslas, who was only about 13 years of age, or five years short of the majority or legal age he would need to attain before he could assume the throne. Therefore, Drahomira was selected through the consensus of the Bohemian elites to rule as regent until Wenceslas came of age. Ludmila was placed in charge of the young noble's education.

Certainly, the stage had been set for potential political conflict, internally, and perhaps internationally. While Wenceslas' grandmother Ludmila was conspicuously Christian, his mother Drahomira came from a tribe steadfastly pagan. Most records indicate that pagan factions within Bohemia looked to Drahomira for an alternative answer to the new ways. Arnulf, duke of Bavaria, was sufficiently anxious about the Bohemian-Bavarian alliance to visit Wenceslas. The young future king assured Arnulf their relations would remain unchanged.

Wenceslas had been born in 907 ce near the town of Lubusin at Stochov. The Slavic priest Paul of Prague Castle, who was Ludmila's confessor, baptized him and taught him his native language. He received formal instruction in Latin at school at Budec under the priest Ucen. Although he was an exemplary student, his studies were interrupted by internal strife involving the nobility of Bohemia who supported either his mother or his grandmother.

Historically, power elites within a country which has a young future ruler have been restless and have sought to press their own agenda, and 10th-century Bohemia was no exception. In addition to religion, the nobles who supported Drahomira seem to have been concerned about matters of state. Wenceslas was an exceptionally pious young man and may have ignored the necessary martial aspects of being a ruler in turbulent times. Historian A.P. Vlasto has suggested that the nobility of Bohemia feared Wenceslas would make a better monk than a warrior, and that Christianity, which espoused nonviolence, might not provide the philosophical strength needed to fend off outside aggression. Thus, some nobles believed Ludmila's influence on Wenceslas was negative.

Naturally, this faction encouraged Drahomira to take greater power upon herself. They pinned their hopes on the eventual succession of Wenceslas' younger brother, Boleslav, who enjoyed hunting and martial sport. According to the Legenda Christiani, this prospect may well have been consistent with Drahomira's own desires:

Drahomira was no ordinary woman. She was energetic, ambitious and loved power. Her fiery character had been only imperfectly suppressed by the adoption of Christianity. Boundless ambition and jealousy drove her to crime.

Negotiations between Ludmila and Drahomira at this time were not cordial. Ludmila retired to her castle at Tetín and attempted to placate Drahomira by assuring her she did not desire undue power in Bohemia. Unfortunately, Drahomira determined to eliminate her rival and dispatched a party to Tetín led by two men, Gommon and Tunna. On September 16, 920, the marauders forced the castle gate and took Ludmila prisoner.

Seeing she was about to be killed, Ludmila asked to be beheaded so that her blood could flow in emulation of other martyrs. Instead, the two men strangled her with a rope. Tetín and the surrounding lands were seized by Drahomira's faction, and Ludmila's followers were hunted down or forced to flee.

But Drahomira's troubles were not over. Gommon and Tunna subsequently became powerful lords and too independent for Drahomira's taste. Therefore, her faction destroyed Gommon and his family. Tunna barely managed to escape with his life. Meanwhile, the people of Bohemia, deeply moved by the circumstances of Ludmila's death, visited her tomb where they testified miracles were occurring. Recognizing the danger of public reaction to her own rule, Drahomira built the Church of St. Michael over Ludmila's tomb so that she could claim the miracles were due to the archangel rather than to the grandmother of Wenceslas.

Despite this continuing turmoil, Wenceslas ascended the throne in 925 at the age of 18. He banished Drahomira to Budec, transferred Ludmila's remains to Prague, and recalled many of the priests who had been put to flight.

The rise of the young ruler and his aggressive attempts to Christianize Bohemia did not sit well with those who supported Drahomira and Boleslav. Although Wenceslas invited Drahomira back into society after her temporary banishment, she never enjoyed such power as she had previously. Consequently, her followers increasingly turned to her son and Wenceslas' brother, Boleslav. When Wenceslas had a son in 929, Boleslav saw his own path to the throne blocked in perpetuity.

International relations only deepened the divide between Wenceslas and Boleslav. Wenceslas favored an alliance with Saxony while Boleslav favored Bavaria. Saxony had become the leading political power in Central Europe under King Henry I the Fowler and had concluded a temporary peace with the Magyars. As Bohemia still had reason to fear a Magyar invasion, Wenceslas may have sought closer relations with Saxony in order to keep the Magyar threat at bay. In addition, since Bohemia could not have stood against the might of Saxony, Wenceslas may have preferred a closer relationship to possible subjugation.

Despite this rapprochement, Henry the Fowler invaded Bohemia in 929. While many Bohemian nobles favored resistance to Henry, Wenceslas submitted and accepted the Saxon king as his own overlord. Legend says Henry recognized Wenceslas as king of Bohemia in return. This was one more slap in the face of the nobles who favored Boleslav and an alliance with Bavaria.

Consequently, Boleslav decided to seize the throne. Determined not to assassinate Wenceslas in Prague where he was most popular, Boleslav lured his brother to a holiday feast at his own castle at Stará Boleslav. There, the two brothers met for the final time with Drahomira probably in attendance. As Wenceslas walked to church the following morning on September 28, 929, he was ambushed and killed by Boleslav and his henchmen.

Immediately, a reaction set in against the priests of Bohemia, and they and many of those loyal to Wenceslas were taken prisoner, killed, or forced into exile. Even Drahomira did not feel safe. Once more, she sought protection in flight, this time to the tribe of White Croatians living north of Prague. History records no more of her.

Boleslav, whom some called "the Cruel," at least proved to be an able ruler. During his reign, he extended the borders of Bohemia to include much of Moravia, Slovakia, Silesia, and Cracow. Ironically, Christianity, from its nucleus at Prague, continued to spread throughout Bohemia. In 932, Boleslav moved his brother's remains to the Church of St. Vitus in Prague. Wenceslas became the national hero, the national saint and the protector of the armies of Bohemia and subsequently of the Czech Republic. He primarily is known to the English-speaking world through the Victorian Christmas carol written by John Mason Neale "Good King Wenceslas."

Because of the importance of Wenceslas to the Bohemian-Czech nation, the lives of both Ludmila and Drahomira would have been significant even if they simply had remained in the roles of grandmother and mother. As the hand of fate dictated, however, both became key players and diametric opposites in a national and even international game.

In the end, the verdict of history judged each woman differently, polarizing them. The Roman Catholic Church elevated Ludmila to the sainthood between the 10th and 12th centuries and declared September 16 as her feast day on the Christian calendar. Drahomira became the proverbial evil woman.


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suggested reading:

Englebert, Omer. The Lives of the Saints. NY: Barnes and Noble Books, 1994.

David L. Bullock , Ph.D., author of Allenby's War: the Palestine-Arabian Campaigns 1916–1918 (London: the Blandford Press, 1988)