Tuesday, 1 November 2011

A Halloween special- Delving into Prague's gruesome past

Around this time of year, we all hear horror stories, ghost tales, and gory legends. Most are just make believe, but in Prague, some of these are very real. Some say that Prague is the most haunted city in Europe. Whatever the truth may be, Prague has certainly had a bloody history.
The old town square (Staroměstské náměstí) has been for a long time, Prague's main political and cultural centre dating back from around the 12th century. Here you can find the  astronomical clock (Pražský orloj).
This mechanical clock has had an unfortunate history. The tower that houses the clock was originally built in 1381. The original clock wasn't added till 1410 by clockmaker Mikulas of Kadan with the astronomer Šindel who was also a professor of mathematics at Prague Charles University. In the past it was believed that a craftsman called Mr Hanuš installed the clock, but in fact he only carried out some repairs of it in 1490 and is also thought to have added the calendar dial underneath.
It is said the the local councillors feared he may go on to help design other great clocks in Europe, so to prevent this from happening they had his eyes burned out with red hot pokers. When Mr Hanuš realised why this had been done to him, he got revenge by having an accomplice take him to the tower. He climbed up to the clock and pulled a secret lever that stopped the clock from working for many years. Many tried to repair it but if they succeeded it would only be for a few weeks before it stopped again.
In 1787 the clock narrowly escaped being sold for scrap iron before being rescued by watchmaker Jan Landesberg but it wasn't until the 1860's before the calendar and the rest of the mechanisms began to work.
A fire in 1864 caused some damage but worse was to come. The whole building was burnt down in 1945 by the Nazis taking with it the city archives. After much effort, the damage was repaired and replaced to how it is seen today. Could all this destruction have something to do with Mr Hanuš?
In the Old Town Square you can also see a memorial to Jan Hus, the 14th Century Priest who was burnt at the stake on 6th July 1415 after being accused of heresy. As the Dean of the Charles University of Prague, he had many followers and criticised various catholic practises. Ex-communicated by the pope in 1410, he was later invited by the pope to the council in Constance to renounce his ideas. After refusing, he was sentenced to death. A high paper hat was placed on top of his head, with the inscription "Haeresiarcha" (meaning the leader of a heretical movement).
The executioners undressed Hus and tied his hands behind his back with ropes, and bound his neck with a chain to a stake around which wood and straw had been piled up so that it covered him to the neck.  The imperial marshal, Von Pappenheim asked him to recant but again he refused saying "God is my witness that the things charged against me I never preached. In the same truth of the Gospel which I have written, taught, and preached, drawing upon the sayings and positions of the holy doctors, I am ready to die today." His ashes were later thrown in the Rhine.
Soon after, on the 9th of March, 1422, Jan Želivský, a popular Hussite priest and a radical representative of the Hussite reformation, was invited to the Old Town Hall. When he arrived, the door was bolted and the executioner summoned, who then decapitated Želivský and 9 or 12 of his followers. Želivský's followers outside saw blood begin to trickle out of the building. They forced their way in to get their leader's head, which they then carried through Prague on a platter. Afterwards, they retaliated with equal violence.
As you walk round the Square today you will see 27 crosses embedded in the stone cobbles representing the 27 noblemen that were executed on what is called  "the Day of Blood" by the protestants for their role in dethroning the Habsburg Ferdinand and naming Friedrich as King of Bohemia. As punishment, the victims were executed in order from high to low rank by means of decapitation. 12 of those heads were displayed for 10 years after on Charles Bridge. Earlier this year an art group added an extra cross to acknowledge a said 28th victim  named Martin Fruvejn. It was said he committed suicide but it is more likely he was tortured to death before the executions took place.

So perhaps this is why many think Prague is so haunted? When so much death and destruction has occurred over the years in one place, it may be wise to keep a look over your shoulder, should you dare to wander the Old Town streets alone at night....

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