A Swedish soldier and a gambling monk both ride at night but are harmless
One of the darkest moments for Prague was at the end of the Thirty Years’ War, when Swedish troops looted Prague Castle and Malá Strana. The war ended before Old Town fell, thanks to a strong defense of Charles Bridge, but many of Emperor Rudolf II’s treasures wound up being carted off to Scandinavia where they still remain.
But once the fighting ended in 1648, not all of the soldiers returned home. One remains as a headless horseman, killed by the angry mob for looting a church.
There are in fact (or in legend anyway) two headless horsemen riding slightly overlapping routes, but it is easy to tell them apart. And neither seems dangerous.
As the fighting raged near Charles Bridge, one soldier took the opportunity to grab chalices, jeweled reliquaries, monstrances and whatever else wasn’t nailed down from the altar and sacristy of St Nicholas Church.
The mob, though, thought this was just too much. They chased him as he tried to go up Nerudova Street toward Strahov Monastery, and eventually caught him by the Black Gate that once stood halfway up the street. After a struggle he fell off his horse.
The angry mob cut off the soldier’s head so he would not be able to say which peasants had attacked him.
The mob placed the headless corpse of the greedy soldier back on his horse and sent it to the monastery at Strahov, where the Swedish army was encamped.
His fellow soldiers went quickly down the street and found bloody evidence of where the fatal struggle happened, but no head — and no mob. The head was never found, and remains a mystery. The headless corpse was buried in a mass grave along with those who fell in battle, and the whole incident was soon forgotten as news of a peace treaty arrived.
The mob returned the stolen goods to the church, and went about their lives, never being punished and receiving only silent thanks from the priests at the church.
The headless soldier still goes up and down Nerudova Street between Malostranské náměstí and where the Black Gate stood looking for his lost gold, and possibly also his head, usually at midnight. Sometimes he goes as far as Strahov, his original destination.
Another headless rider is seen on his horse on Úvoz Street heading down into the upper part of Nerudova. This is a monk who gambled with dice instead of going to give the last rites to a dying man.
The dying man’s brother came to Strahov Monastery to ask the monk for the sacrament of extreme unction, but the monk was losing money and wanted to get even first.
No matter how much the brother begged, the monk just kept on gambling and drinking the monastery’s beer. The man left disgusted, and went back alone to sit with his dying brother to wait for the end.
When the dice game was finally over, the monk remembered his duty and set out to find the house. But he was too late.
A figure appeared in front of the monk with a giant flash. It was the soul of the recently departed man, who left this realm unblessed. The monk’s horse reared and the monk fell, hitting his head so hard that it broke clean off.
On nights with a full moon, the headless monk now rides out from Strahov’s lower gate through an old orchard to Úvoz Street and a bit further after it joins with Nerudova.
You can tell which rider is which by their clothes, as one is in a military uniform and the other in a hooded robe. Also, the Swedish soldier does not understand Czech.
And the monk carries his severed head in one of his hands.
There is another tale of a Swedish soldier so desperate for money he was robbing graves under the floor of the church in Strahov, until one of the angry skeletons got revenge. But we are saving that charming legend for a dark and stormy night.
The Battle of Prague took place between July 25 and November 1, 1648. It was clear that peace was soon to come, and the main purpose of the battle was to loot the city of Emperor Rudolf II’s treasures before the Treaty of Westphalia could be signed. Swedish troops were camped out around Strahov Monastery, and ironically the Swedish Embassy is now right next door.
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, which has roots going back to the Crusades.
As late as 2004, when the Czech Republic joined the European Union, there were efforts to get some of the items back, including the Devil’s Bible and statues from Wallenstein’s Garden. They were not successful.
Nerudova Street is named for 19th century poet Jan Neruda, who lived at the House at the Two Suns. In the 17th century, the street was called Sporrengasse because it is so steep that wooden boards or spars had to be put across it. In Czech this was mistranslated as spur (sporn in German) to make Ostruhová Street.
It was also called Strahovská cesta (Strahov Way) by some, and the upper paved part was Na Dláždění, meaning “on the pavement.”
Halfway up the street was a gate called by various names such as Strahov Gate, Black Gate and Hansturk Gate, the latter referring to an inn owned by Hans Turek located there at one point. The gate marked the division of Malá Strana and Hradčany, the Castle district.
The gate reportedly had battlements (crenelation) and was in two parts with a drawbridge. It dated back to the 13th century. Remnants of the gate are in the basement of the house at Nerudova 19, called At Hans Turek (U Hansturka). The gate was torn down in 1711, as it was seen as a bit outdated then to close off the street with a drawbridge.
The stones from the gate were recycled into the Church of the Virgin Mary (Klášterní kostel Panny Marie pod ochranou Božské Prozřetelnosti), located next to where the gate used to stand.
Over time, most of the rest of the walls and gates were torn down as the city modernized and the districts merged. The city’s few remaining town walls and gates had to be torn down when Emperor Franz Josef declared Prague an open city in the 1860s.
Úvoz Street joins with Nerudova Street near Prague Castle. Before 1870 it was called Hluboká (Deep). Úvoz means a sunken path in the woods, and fields below Stahov on Petřín still are to one side of it.
Strahov Monastery, established in 1143, has a long brewing tradition, and that has been renewed recently, with a restaurant at the complex offering microbrew beer and a lovely view.
Mozart visited Strahov Monastery on November 16, 1787, and played the organ at Church of the Ascension of the Virgin Mary. Fruit trees still exist just below the monastery in Petřín Park.
The current St Nicholas Church (Kostel svatého Mikuláše) in Malá Strana was built between 1704–55 where a 13th century Gothic church of the same name also stood. The design of the current church is mostly by Kryštof Dientzenhofer, completed by his son Kilian Ignaz Dientzenhofer.
During the communist era, the church tower was used by the state security, the StB, to monitor the American and Yugoslav embassies and the path to the West German Embassy.
Strahov can be seen in The Tarot of Prague on the Major Arcana card The Chariot and the Queen of Swords. The Strahov library, used often as a film location, is on The Hierophant.
Nerudova Street makes many appearances. A relief of Jan Neruda, from the House at the Two Suns, is the basis for The Magician. One of the two suns appears on one of the variations of the Major Arcana card The Sun.
The house sign for At the Three Violins is on the Three of Pentacles. The house sign for At the Red Lion is on the Ace of Pentacles.