St. Wenceslas rotunda was built in the 11th century in the left-bank settlement around Prague Castle. How this happened will be explained in the following lines.
The left-bank suburbium of Prague Castle has been inhabited since times immemorial. By the time of the arrival of the first Premyslid prince Bořivoj at the Hradčany promontory, a cultural and agriculturally cultivated landscape had already flourished here. Its development since prehistoric times is inscribed in the pollen grains seated in the gradually increasing sediments of a vast wetland located at the site of the present-day south-west corner of the Lesser Town Square.
The prehistoric wetland in the south-west corner of the Lesser Town Square which only disappeared in the 11th or 12th century. Yellow highlights map the archaeologically verified edges of the wetland (based on the archaeological research of the National Heritage Institute, Prague).
Marshy sediments of the wetland located underneath today’s passage from the Lesser Town Square to Třžiště (Market) Street (research of the NHI, Prague).
In the 8th century, a small-sized enclave fortified with a wood-and-soil wall and 6-metre deep moat stood on the bank of the river Vltava, whose function has remained unknown to the present day. It may have functioned as a customs house, the kind familiar from that time thanks to the written records of the Frankish Empire customs tariffs, or another institution related to the trade caravan transits through Central Europe.
Once procured by the Premyslid dynasty, the Hradčany promontory was turned into the central seat of the principality and the Czech State. Settlements in the area of the so-called Lesser Town Amphitheatre were significantly expanded. During the reign of Bořivoj’s son Spytihněv I († 915), St. Wenceslas’ uncle, the fortification of the lower settlement was most probably rebuilt alongside the newly built fortification of the Prague Castle. Compared to that of the 8th century, this structure could protect a much larger area. The 10th and 11th centuries saw lively activity both within the fortified area of the lower settlement of the Castle and in the neighbouring villages outside the fortification. In the era of Prince Vratislav II, the first Bohemian king since 1085, the Czech lands came into much closer contact with Italy and the more advanced Europe than ever before, this thanks to his alliance with the Emperor Henry IV, so that not only its elites would have the opportunity to get acquainted with the heritage of antiquity, contemporary stone-building craftsmanship, urbanism, and various fashion trends.
Vratislav had his new seat built at Vyšehrad in the form of a castle overlooking the river Vltava, (at least) some parts of which were already built of stone, according to chronicler Cosmas. A royal chapel was also located in the area of the castle, the Basilica of St Lawrence, which replaced a voluminous church with a central plan uncovered in 2014. The Prince’s relocation from Prague Castle to Vyšehrad was associated with Vratislav’s disputes with this brother Jaromír, the then bishop.
The somewhat faded state of the principality-turned-royal-residence had also quite undoubtedly played its role. Its decrepit condition at the time is evidenced by a major reconstruction initiated by Vratislav’s son, Soběslav I († 1140), after the consolidation of the political situation. As a result of this reconstruction, the small-scale hillfort with a wood-and-soil fortification became, in mid-12th century, a modern stone Romanesque castle.
Certain changes after the wars in Italy certainly affected the appearance of the Castle settlement. It is therefore possible that the construction of the two rotundas – St. Wenceslas Rotunda on the left bank and St. Lawrence Rotunda on the right bank of the Prague Castle lower settlements – is a manifestation of these changes. The architectural type of the rotunda is perhaps connected with a large parochial organization of church administration, which would indicate the great importance of these two buildings for day-to-day lives of all inhabitants of the Prague Castle settlement.
Exploration under the flooring of a blacksmith’s shop from the 10th century carried out during the construction of a classroom at HAMU (research of the NHI, Prague).
Compiled in cooperation with Dr. Jaromila Čiháková of the National Heritage Institute.