In the past Strakonice was a town founded by a feudal lord and its history is thus linked to the House of Bavors, who were replaced by the Knights of Malta in the early 15th century.
Document from 1243
The first written mention of Strakonice dates from 1243, when Bolemila, the wife of Bavor I, donated the villages around Strakonice to the Knights of Malta, and mentioned St. Wenceslas’ Church, where she publicly announced this donation. The document is antedated, which means that it was drafted some time after the donation took place. Unlike nowadays, it was not common to validate a legal deed in writing immediately. A written legal deed then did not enjoy as great evidence value as a century later. The first written documents do not contain much information about Strakonice. We only know that there was a church and the oldest part of the castle was occupied by the Knights of Malta. Not until 1318 do the documents allow us to gain an idea of what Strakonice looked like at that time. This is because Vilém Bavor presents a comprehensive overview of the possessions of the Knights of Malta, so we know that there was a school where the Knights would teach, several bridges over the river, it also mentions several citizens’ names, which indicates that Strakonice was already a town in the full sense of the word. Statements made by members of the order of the Knights of Malta in 1373 describe the size of the local commandry. It was the second largest, after the Prague commandry. It consisted of 16 brothers between 24 and 53 years of age; we are also told that one of them was ill and suffered from a heart condition and shaky hands. It is impossible to say what particular disease he had, though. The school provided instruction and boarding to 17 learners, which is an enormous number in the medieval context.
Fire was a disaster for every town. And Strakonice too has been faced with its destructive power. The first mention of a fire is from 1357 and the next one took place two centuries later in 1520. However, floods have been no exception either and some documents by Grand Priors mention “high water” which “destroys, undermines and spoils bridges, banks and walls”. The frequent floods were probably the reason why the Bavors, the first owners of the town, did not believe in the sustainable existence of the town. They seem to have favoured the settlement of Lom with the oldest chapel: St. Wenceslas’ Church. Ironically enough, unlike Strakonice, the village of Lom was destined to perish. Strakonice was a typical river town with bridges, foot bridges and mills. We even know the name of an owner of the castle mill: Kosma. There were certainly far more mills in the area, but their names have been forgotten. Bavor IV, one of the last generations of the Bavor family paid more attention to the town than his predecessors. By then, the owners of the town had taken care of the Order rather than the town.
At the dawn of the Hussite era Strakonice lost its founders: the House of Bavor died out and the entire castle with the town was gained by the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta. The last mention of the Bavor family dates from 1402 and is soon followed by a purchase contract concluded by Jindřich of Hradec, a representative of the Order, who bought the castle from Vikéř of Jenišovice, the then deputy burgrave of Prague Castle. It is disputable what the history of the town might have looked like had the House of Bavor remained a part of Czech history. This question is intriguing because Strakonice was a Catholic stronghold in the time of the Hussite Wars and fought against the Chalice a long time after the defeat at the Battle of Lipany. Nearby Sudoměř witnessed a failure of the crusade waged by the knights with the red cross of Malta and the demise of Jindřich of Hradec, the master of the Priory. However, Strakonice was a place of refuge for all opponents of the Chalice in the entire course of the unrest which shattered the whole kingdom. The Order’s archive was moved from Prague to Strakonice, which even became the main seat of the Priory.
After the death of Jindřich of Hradec, his position was occupied by warlord Václav of Michalovice. While he held the office, the Union of Strakonice was founded as a counterpart to the Union of Poděbrady. When he passed away, Jošt of Rožmberk became the Prior; he was a diplomat rather than a warrior like his predecessor. As a representative of a Catholic order, Jošt was certainly far from favouring George of Poděbrady, but did not express any open renunciation of the king until the last days of his life when he entered the ranks of the Union of Zelená Hora. It is not generally known that Jošt had long helped his lord George seek acknowledgment by the Catholics and mainly at the Pope’s court. He believed that George would eventually give up his Utraquist confession. Jošt himself was faced with political and religious troubles in Wroclaw, where he served as a bishop, for his loyalty to the state and hence also his respect to the Utraquist ruler. His life was in danger many times. When Jošt was not present at the Castle of Strakonice, his younger brother Jan of Rožmberk would take care of the castle. The Knights of Malta would often accommodate and entertain papal legates on their way to Wroclaw or back to Rome. Similarly, the Priors of Strakonice would frequently travel to Wroclaw or Nisa and then on diplomatic missions to Rome and the Pope.
Historic map of Strakonice
After the demise of Jošt, Jan of Švamberk became the administrator of the Strakonice property, but had to put up with the adverse economic situation of the Order and the property of the Strakonice commandry. When he died, the office of the Order’s head in Bohemia, Moravia and other lands of the crown passed on to another of the House of Rožmberk, Jan III of Rožmberk. Although he did not win a nation-wide reputation, he deserves credit for the fact that Strakonice flourished at the dawn of modern times. Fortification, the right to use a red wax seal and a reconstruction of the castle is, in short, his contribution to the town. His era was marked by the struggle for the Rožmberk legacy with the mighty Zdeněk of Rožmitál and also the clash between him and his brothers in relation to control over the Rožmberk property. He was not very self-confident or ambitious, but the lack of these qualities affected the management of the family’s property rather than that of the Order and the economy of the Strakonice region.
At the dawn of the modern age, the appearance of the town and its immediate vicinity changed, too. Fishponds and the development of guilds are reflected in the number of privileges granted to the town or individual guilds. Many of them influenced the production of the town, which focused on drapery and clothing production as there were numerous tanners, hatters and cutters in the town. This was also the era when the local Jewish community began to assert itself. The Jews took over the clothing industry in the 19th century, the development of which reached its climax with the manufacturing of fezzes at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. However, this development was hindered by the Thirty Years War. In 1619 Mansfeld’s troops looted the town and the castle. The Grand Priory’s property was disintegrated. Only 46 citizens and 36 new settlers remained in the town after the war. Grand Prior Rudolf Colloredo of Wallsee (1637-1657) issued a regulation on 5 December 1645 whereby he relieved the town of warfare taxes and allowed the citizens to sell beer in surrounding villages.
After the Thirty Years War the castle decayed and the Grand Priors lost their interest in Strakonice and their stays there grew scarcer as they preferred Prague. Also, the Jesuits appeared in the nearby chateau of Střela and remained there until 1773, when their order fell into disgrace. The controversies between the town and its feudal lords intensified. The citizens sought emancipation. This is proved by the numerous disputes between the Grand Priors and the citizens which often ended with the imprisonment of the town council. This antagonism lasted until the 18th century, when the situation calmed down as the Grand Priors concentrated on reconstructing the castle rather than managing the town. Grand Prior Ferdinand Leopold Dubský of Třebomyslice had a new palace built. However, this edifice never served as a permanent residence. In the following centuries the Knights of Malta returned to their original mission – setting up hospitals and foundations for the poor and sick as well as building churches. For instance, Grand Prior Michael Ferdinand of Althan had the Church of Our Lady of Sorrows built in Podsrp in 1771-1772 and provided the town with a financial contribution for the building of a school. This school also featured teacher training. However, the Grand Priory and the town often quarrelled over the position of the teacher of the catechist and the headmaster. In 1784 the Order gave up the distribution of honey porridge as this charitable activity was no longer in touch with the requirements of the period. Instead, the Order donated a significant amount of money to the accounts allotted to the poor and the interest was used to support the less affluent inhabitants of Strakonice.
A view of Strakonice in the 19th century
In the 19th century Strakonice earned a reputation for its production of fezzes, i.e. types of hats, which also gave their name to the production plants, which were called fez factories. Since the production of fezzes had no tradition in this country, the producers focused on export. This spurred the development of transport and mainly railway. First, the connection between České Budějovice and Plzeň was built in the 1860s and Strakonice was one of the stations on its route. Then the local line Březnice – Blatná – Strakonice was built with a branch line to Nepomuk. These local lines were nationalised in the 1920s. The Knights of Malta also used this new means of transport; in the 19th century the Order committed itself to operating emergency and ambulance service in battlefields. The Order began to establish military hospitals and set up emergency and ambulance trains, according to designs by magistrate knight MUDr. Jaromír Mundy. The town, like the entire country, would soon be hit hard by World War I. Numerous families of Strakonice inhabitants lost their members in the war. As the war was drawing to a close, there was a lack of food, which gave rise to a growing dissatisfaction among the population of Strakonice and all of Austria-Hungary. The monarchy was approaching its disintegration. Influenced by the October news about the Austrian troops’ defeats the town’s policeman Karel Kraus heralded the formation of Czechoslovakia as early as 14 October. He was imprisoned for this act in Písek, but did not remain there long as this news soon came true on 28 October and Austria-Hungary ceased to exist.
The formation of the new republic brought an end to the almost seven centuries of the Knights of Malta and their control over the town. This change was caused by the land reform of the 1920s. The Order’s property was seized, the Order decided to abandon the town and Strakonice lost their feudal lords. In the so-called First Republic, Strakonice often welcomed leading politicians such as MP Rudolf Beran, Alois Švehla, and Dr. Edvard Beneš. This period witnessed the establishment of another important factory – the ČZ motorcycle manufacturer, which has operated to this day. This abbreviation originally stood for Czech Arms Factory, for it made arms, from pistols up to aircraft cannons (the production continued during WWII, but the arms were intended for the German troops). In the 1930s the town suffered from the global economic crisis followed by the rise of Fascism, which meant the end of the Strakonice Jewish population. In November 1942, Strakonice Jews were deported to Klatovy and then to Terezín, where they were held before being sent to extermination camps.
The assassination of Heydrich also cost several local people their lives: MUDr. Karel Hradecký, František Kohout, Miroslav Píša, Václav Raba and MUDr. Miloš Rektořík. Two resistance movement units formed in the town in WWII: Prokop Holý and Niva. Their members cooperated with other groups such as Předvoj, Rudý bod and others. The underground movement involved people working at the post office, railway workers, fez factory staff and, above all, workers from ČZ. At the end of the war these disparate groups were united under a single name: Niva (30 April 1945). On 4 May 1945 the Czechoslovak flag was raised in Kuřidlo and arms were seized in the ČZ plant. The German troops did not resist. On the following day a signal – four short siren hoots – was sounded to indicate the beginning of the liberation of the town. However, the Strakonice population death toll rose by 9 more people that day. These were shot dead near Masarykova liga, where they assaulted a German train transport passing by. A Local National Committee was formed on the same day with Jan Vondrys as the Chairman. The following day witnessed the arrival of four units of General Patton’s tank division, which protected the town. The American troops remained in the town until 23 November 1945.
After World War II, life returned to normal. Niva ceased to exist on 30 June 1945 and its arms and mission were taken over by the newly formed 47th infantry regiment. The ČZ production once again focused on motorcycles and fez factories were allowed to stop manufacturing uniforms and start producing hats and fezzes. The town started to take its present shape. However, the local Jewish community has never been restored in the town. The last traces of the Jewish congregation disappeared in the large urban reconstruction project in the 1970s which involved the demolition of the synagogue. However, the new development swallowed many more nooks of old and nostalgic Strakonice, such as the house where F. L. Čelakovský was born, the chateau mill, the romantic weir, etc.