The failed attempt of the Swedish army to conquer Prague at the end of the Thirty Years’ War has been back in the news, as a Baroque-style Victory Column that was toppled by a mob in Old Town Square 1918 is now likely to be rebuilt on its original spot.
The conflict left several colorful legends in its wake, mostly dealing with the pillaging of part of the city. One of them warns us of what can happen if you try robbing a grave in Prague.
The Swedes held Prague’s Malá Strana and Hradčany districts from the end of July to the start of November 1648, but were kept back from entering Old Town at Charles Bridge until the war ended.
But for several months the Swedish soldiers pillaged and plundered the left bank of the Vltava river, gambling among themselves. First they took the obvious movables from the churches — the chalices, reliquaries and statues — but soon these ran out.
One soldier had gambled himself badly into debt and was desperate to loot some more gold or jewels before his fellow gamblers arranged an “accident” for him.
The soldier thought that maybe some graves might contain gold and ruby rings or other treasures. In the dark of night, he stole into the Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary at Strahov, an almost cathedral-like structure with sculpted flat tombstones on the floor.
He chose one close to the front, near the entrance to the sacristy. With some ropes and tackle he brought, he managed to lift up the tombstone of a certain Count Lažanský of Buková.
The thieving soldier was surprised to see a secret staircase leading down at a sharp angle, but he quickly convinced himself that it must be a passage leading to where the monks from Strahov monastery had hidden the rest of their gold.
As he reached the bottom of the stairs, he found a coffin with golden letters in German. Upon opening it, the skeleton inside rose up and strangled the thief. It didn’t take long, as the mercenary likely died of a heart attack first.
The tackle holding open the grave collapsed, fracturing the stone. The soldier’s candle soon burned itself out. The next morning a monk found the tackle and the damaged stone, but just thought that someone had tried unsuccessfully to lift it and gave up, leaving his tools behind.
The soldier’s fellow gamblers looked for him but figured that he deserted rather than pay his debts. The war ended, and even the military police stopped looking for him as it was a moot point.
Things in Prague slowly got back to normal. The monks at Strahov began to patch up the war damage, and eventually got to fixing the tombstone of Count Lažanský, but it was not on the top of the priority list. In fact, about a decade had passed.
Once the stone was lifted again, the church sexton went down the stairs to see a mummy in an old Swedish uniform, with his eye sockets wide open and a look of fear on his leathery face. Around his neck were the bony hands of Count Lažanský, who was still in his much faded courtly attire.
Blood-curdling screams coming from beneath the church floor can be heard on rare occasions. The ghost of the Swedish soldier can sometimes be seen, clutching at his throat as if he was still trying to fight off the bony hands of the count’s skeleton.
The Battle of Prague took place between July 25 and November 1, 1648. Swedish troops camped around Strahov Monastery, and ironically the Swedish Embassy is now right next door.
Swedish forces serving Queen Christina carried off countless wagons of booty, including statues from the Wallenstein Garden, the Gigas Codex (Devil’s Bible), and esoteric collections from the time of Emperor Rudolf II, right up until when the Treaty of Westphalia was signed.
There is another tale of a looting Swedish soldier. This one is now a headless ghost who patrols part of Nerudova Street looking for his treasure and his head.
The Czech forces were led by Governor Feldmarschall Rudolf von Colloredo, who held off the Swedes at Charles Bridge. A statue of him as well as his tomb can be found in the Church of Our Lady Beneath the Chain (Kostel Panny Marie pod řetězem), owned by the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, a Crusader group that also own Prague’s John Lennon Wall.
Mozart visited Strahov Monastery on November 16, 1787, and played the organ at Church of the Ascension of the Virgin Mary. The complex is also famous for the Strahov Library, which has been used as a location in several films. The church also has a wax-covered saint’s body on display, Sanctus Exuperantius, about whom very little is known.
The noble Lažanský family, among other things, owned the palace where Cafe Slavia is now located. It is across the street from the National Theatre.
Most versions of the story say the tomb that was raided was that of Ferdinand Rudolf Lažanský of Buková, an officer who fought at White Mountain in 1620. But he didn’t die until 1657, which is too late for the events of the story. There was Count Šebestián Lažanský, who died in 1611, but he is an undistinguished figure in history.
In 1990, Czechoslovak President Václav Havel said in a speech that he intended to ask for the return of items taken during the Thirty Years’ War, but the request fell on deaf ears as Sweden said the gesture could lead to museum collections worldwide being drained.
The issue came up again in 2004, when the Czech Republic joined the European Union, but again nothing was done. The Devil’s Bible, though, was lent for an exhibition in September 2007 to January 2008, but only after sufficient guarantees were made that it would be returned. The exhibition was highly successful.
The effort to replace the Victory Column at Old Town Square has been going on since the 1990s. Some people welcome it as a part of Prague history, and others oppose it as a symbol of 300 years of Habsburg domination of Bohemia.
The Baroque sandstone column has the Virgin Mary on top of a pillar, with four angels at the base. At noon, the shadow of the column crosses the Prague meridian, making the column into a large sundial.