Case study: The Battle for Jezeří Chateau

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For Jezeří Chateau, perched dramatically on the foothills of the Ore Mountains in North-West Bohemia, its struggle for survival has been an enduring one over the centuries and reached its most critical moments in the latter half of the 20th century long after pan-European wars were consigned to history. From its role as a troop base in the Hussite Wars, the various radical reconstructions it underwent, its numerous changes of ownership, and its use and misuse by German troops during the Second World War, Jezeří Chateau still faced almost inevitable ruin through deliberate neglect from the 1950s onward when the communist regime became transfixed by extracting as much of the surrounding coal deposits as possible, even at the expense of demolishing the chateau itself. Even now, after a successful fight to preserve the building, the threat of demise looms over the chateau once again as part of the equation to lifting the territorial mining limits imposed in the early 1990s.

The early history of the chateau

Even the landscape under the Ore Mountains has been through many radical changes, including the destruction of the villages Ervěnice, Nové Sedlo, Komořany, Třebušice, Dřínov, Albrechtice and Dolní Jiřetín, though one can still admire the genius of the builders from times gone by who couldn’t have chosen a more natural site for the chateau. It isn’t, however, just the calibre of this first class architectural landmark that impresses us. The chateau has also played a dominant role in the history of the region.

Today’s baroque structure covers a renaissance chateau, which in turn covers a gothic chateau. We could go even deeper into its history and look at the original Slavic settlements of the entire region. This site was chosen even earlier for their settlement by the Celts, who had their main settlement and holy sites on the slopes of the Ore Mountain foothills. Today, Jezeří Chateau is a monument of the first category, exceptional not only for its extraordinary and architectural value, but also its unsettled fate, it’s unusually beautiful location and its importance for the present and future development and shaping of life in the sub-Ore Mountain landscape.

The Gothic Chateau

There used to be a medieval chateau on the site of the present day chateau, but its founding date is unknown. The first written record of it dates from 1363-65 and states that the chateau was owned by the masters of Rvenice. Even then we encounter the names “de Lacu” (of the Lake) as well as “of Aysemberg”, also reflected in the old German name Eisenberg, logically connected to ore mining in this part of the Ore Mountains.

Bušek of Eisenberg sold the chateau in 1406 to Petr of Perč; the next owner of the property was Albrecht Sn. of Kolowrat. After his death, Jezeří was passed on to Jan Smolík of Slavice, a Catholic supporter who managed to hold the estate throughout the Hussite Wars. He left the chateau to his son Zikmund, who was known for his dislike of Saxons. Owing to this fact, there were frequent skirmishes between Jezeří and the Saxon troops at the nearby chateau of Hněvín.

The next owner of the chateau, the knight Kunz of Kaufunk (1450), also backed the interests of the kingdom of Bohemia, although his family came from Saxony. The reason for his attitude, however, was animosity between the Kaufunk family and the Prince Elector Friedrich of Saxony. The conflict escalated in 1455 when Kunz abducted the elector’s sons from the chateau of Altenburg to force Friedrich to give back the Fictum estates he had confiscated from him. Jezeří was supposed to be the place where prince Arnošt was held, but this intention never came to be. Kunz of Kaufunk and his men were caught on the Saxon side and Kunz was executed at Freiberg in 1455. Worried about the fate of Kunz’s sons, Kunz and Heinrich, the regional governor Jiří of Poděbrady took possession of the chateau and made use of the presence of his troops at Jezeří to capture the town of Most.

In 1459, the Smolík family returned to Jezeří and the last of them, Zikmund, bequeathed the chateau to his brother-in-law, Mikuláš Hochhauser of Hochhaus, in 1513. It was probably then that the chateau was rebuilt as a renaissance chateau.

The Renaissance Chateau

The conversion of the medieval chateau into a renaissance chateau was finished in 1549. There is an ornamental stone wedge over the main gate that commemorates this event. The wedge bears the coat of arms of the Hochhauser family, the year 1549 and an inscription stating “O people, remember where the master is and his family.”

When Mikuláš died, his son Petr took over the chateau, and from him it was passed on to his sons Václav Jr. and Mikuláš. The latter later bought the part belonging to his brother, but unfortunately died fighting the Turks at the Battle of Jager in 1569. The estate went back to his brother Václav, who sold it to his cousin Jiří Hochhauser of Hochhaus in Albrechtice. Jiří’s son Jan Mikuláš (who owned the chateau from 1605) was punished for his participation in the Bohemian Revolt of 1618 by having his fortune confiscated in favour of the emperor Ferdinand II.

The emperor gave Jezeří together with other estates to prince Karl of Liechtenstein by an edict of 15 March 1622. The new owner sold it almost exactly a year later (24 March 1623) to Vilém Popel Jr. of Lobkowicz in Bílina for 80,847 Meissen three-scores. Vilém, however, only paid for two thirds of the estate – 67 956 three-scores. The other third remained in Hochhauser possession and Vilém was supposed to pay the rest of the price to the heirs of Jan Mikuláš. Apparently, he failed to do so, because in 1631, during the Saxon invasion, Jiří and Bernard Hochhauser, who had lived in exile until that point, returned to Jezeří, pilaged it completely and “took whatever could be taken”. The financial disputes between Lobkowicz and Hochhausers were settled completely only in 1638.

To the great advantage of historians, a description of the renaissance chateau has been preserved. It had been made for the occasion of selling the chateau. The catalogue mentions the foreroom, the masters’ room, the kitchen, the buttery and pantry, three rooms for maids, an upper closet, the ladies’ room and closet, the hind closet, the upper chamber, the hall, the schoolroom, the second hall, a lower vaulted chamber, a masters’ closet and chamber, and the clock tower. There was an orchard around the chateau that included fruit and walnut trees, among other types. There were also three derelict vineyards, and below the chateau was a brewery and a Meierhof (a farm belonging to the local gentry). The estate also consisted of five villages and three other Meierhofs.

An account from October 1621 describes the chateau of Jezeří as “heavily damaged by soldiers”, not one window was intact and the doors and floorboards were torn out. Minor reconstructions, however, began at the chateau as soon as 1627; in 1638 the “brick roofs” were being repaired.

Unfortunately, on 18 February 1646 the chateau caught fire and burned to the ground, with the exception of a small tall building and the stables. A year later, Vilém Popel died and the estate went to his son František Vilém, the founder of the Nové Sedlo-Jezeří branch of the family. There were, however, no significant alterations to the chateau carried out during his lifetime.

The Baroque Alterations

The chateau came to be significantly altered during the lifetime of František Vilém’s son – Ferdinand Vilém of Lobkowicz, who resided at Nové Sedlo until the work was finished and only moved to Jezeří in 1697. The year 1696 over the main gate must therefore mark the end of the chateau’s alteration. We can correctly assume that at this point Jezeří was a magnificent place in full alignment with contemporary ideas of a family residence. Unfortunately, the name of the project’s architect remains unknown; we don’t even know the reason why the greater part of the Lobkowicz archives were not preserved.

The main longitudinal building with its four perpendicularly adjacent wings formed an H-shaped ground plan, with the hall buttress coming out of the southern side. In front of the main frontispiece with a shallow central buttress ending in a prismatic tower, there was the court of honour. At each side of the main portal there are atlantes by Jan Adam Dietz from the mid-1800s.

As Ferdinand Vilém had no male heirs, he bequeathed his estate to his brother Oldřích Felix, who took over after his tragic death. On 25 September 1713 there was another fire at the chateau. Oldřich Felix, who had gone hunting that day, returned to see the building ablaze – the fire had spread so much by then that it could not be extinguished. Thanks to the committee sent by the hetman of Žatec to ascertain the damage, we now know how some of the rooms at Jezeří had looked before the fire and we can tell that the chateau already had the outer shape it has today. Unlike its renaissance predecessor, which had a tiled roof, this one only had shingles. On the middle floor there was a “new, spacious and beautiful ballroom with an oval, stucco-decorated vault, with huge columns and mascarons which took a group of ten masons, two stuccoworkers and six carpenters a whole summer to complete”. The room had nine windows and the damage inflicted by the fire was worth at least 4500 guldens. The adjacent room, by the “new dining hall”, with stuccoed ceiling and a beautiful floor was also completely destroyed (damage worth 388 guldens); another of the long list of destroyed rooms had been painted „al fresco“ (damage amounted to 350 guldens), and the alcove had a stuccoed ceiling and a valuable floor, too (350 guldens). In two adjacent rooms the fire also ruined frescoes, stuccoes and floors and its heat melted two beautiful tile stoves. In the great dining hall next to the chapel, decorated with stuccoes, a big green tiled stove was destroyed as well as a double door made of oak (damage worth 400 guldens), the fire also devoured the red room next to the dining hall, and the room next to that, a gilded study with stuccoes and frescoes on the ceiling, and another alcove (1400 guldens in total). The main helical staircase was destroyed as well as the old and the new towers with their little chambers, the “forest room” and the painted chamber, the kitchen with its foreroom, Count Lobkowicz’s painted rooms, four offices, a closet as well as a great hall above the dining room with a beautiful ceiling and floor, four capuccin rooms and another office. The fire did not spare the middle tower with a clock and two bells either, nor two dormers. A separate building below the chateau with six rooms, three closets and a laundrette was burned to the ground. The orangery, the lathe workshop, the new sawmill and other well-documented rooms and space also turned to ashes. The total damage soared to 30,398 guldens, 19 kreutzers and 3 denari.

Oldřích Felix decided to use his “modest means” to renovate the chateau the same year, and probably barely managed to do so just before his tragic death in 1722. He was also the last member of the Nové Sedlo-Jezeří branch of the Lobkowicz family, therefore the will of 4 September 1722 leaves the estate to Karel Adam - once he attained his majority – and until then it was to be managed by his father, Jiří Kristián of Lobkowicz. Karel Adam then formally sold Jezeří to Ferdinand Filip Josef, Prince of Lobkowicz in Roudnice, in 1752, thus passing the chateau, as was expected, to the Roudnice-Bílina line of the family.

The turn of the 18th century

In the time of Ferdinand Filip (from 1752), the chateau was in good condition, and therefore it was enough to simply carry out regular maintenance. After Ferdinand Filip’s death, the estate went to Josef František Maxmilián, whom we connect with a flourishing art life at the chateau (Musical Past), as well as with major alteration works. The purpose of those was to adapt the chateau to meet requirements for what was then deemed the adequate comforts of a nobleman’s lifestyle. Minor reconstruction works were carried out as soon as 1797, but the main phase of the alterations began in 1802. The structure and use of individual rooms has more or less been preserved to this day. The extensive adaptation of “piano nobile” was carried out in the northern as well as the southern part of the chateau (the theatre hall and the new chapel).

After František Maxmilián’s death, Ferdinand Josef of Lobkowicz became the 8th Prince of Roudnice. In 1821, negotiations for including Jezeří in the family inheritance began. The negotiations were successfully closed in 1835 when this permit was filed in the Land Register. In 1868 Prince Mořic of Lobkowicz became the manager of the family inheritance, and after him it became Ferdinand Zdeněk, who assigned the management to his second-born son in 1920. JUDr. Maxmilián Ervín of Lobkowicz studied law and then became an important diplomat in the services of Czechoslovakia. This was the reason he went into exile in the UK in 1938 and became equally important in the Czech anti-fascist movement there.

Jezeří during the Second World War

After Munich 1938, the Lobkowicz domains were broken up – those that found themselves in occupied territory were administratively assigned to the “firm hand” of a directorship in Bilina. Immediately following the first days of the occupation, the chateau was occupied by the staff of “SS-Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler” headed by Obersturmbannführer Sepp Dittrich. A large part of the moveable chattels were taken prior to the Sudeten conquest to Roudnice nad Labem, although following the take-over the Lobkowicz property had to be returned to Jezeří; it was later transferred to Bílina.

Hitler’s personal banner departed Jezeří on 19 October 1938, when the chateau was occupied by a garrison designated to keep watch over prisoners who were accommodated close to the forestry management offices at Jezeří. These prisoners were Poles, Russians and Frenchmen, as well as German soldiers on criminal charges. In March 1943, the chateau was used for prison purposes. A special camp was established there for prominent persons “Sonderlager für prominente Persönlichkeiten” – mainly highly placed French officers. A labour commando of 96 men from the Flossenbürg concentration camp also came to the chateau. The whole chateau was painted a camouflage green. Guardhouses were constructed around the building connected by electric fences and patrolled by guard dogs. The wider surroundings were closed to the population. In the chateau itself, an average of around 100 people were accommodated. From 1943, about 238 men went through this camp. Among the prominent personalities interned at Jezeří were Pierre de Gaulle – the brother of the future French president Charles de Gaulle, the son of the former French premier Michael Clémenceau, Dr. Menetrel – Marshal Pétain’s personal physician, Prince Michael Montenegra, and others.

Post-war history – the start of the downfall

After the end of the Second World War, the chateau and its lands were over time returned to the ownership of the Lobkowicz family; it is said that guests at that time included the Czechoslovak Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk. The Czechoslovak ambassador to Great Britain, JUDr. Maxmilián Lobkowicz, remained faithful to democracy after the Communist putsch of February 1948 and decided to remain in exile.

Soon after the February “victory” – on 20 April 1948 – the Provincial National Committee introduced national administration at Jezeří. On 21 August 1949, the chateau was taken over by the National Culture Commission. The state of the chateau was declared to be bad, especially in relation to the roof, the plaster and castellated decoration of the bannisters on the rear terrace, while the floors were seen to be in good condition. The chateau was first rented out to the Ministry of Technology, but on 22 September 1950 the government decided to make it available to the Ministry of National Defence; it was specifically allocated to the management of the Chomutov garrison.

The “takeover” of the chateau took place on 28 August without notifying the National Culture Commission and the State Monument Administration in a way that completely contradicted the principles of these institutions. The 100-member garrison simply occupied the chateau, threw the remaining inventory into the chapel, and whitewashed the whole chateau in their own style both in reality and figuratively. The Czechoslovak People’s Army tried to adapt the chateau grounds completely to its own needs. The interiors were destroyed, many rooms in the chateau were intentionally modified and the remaining furniture stolen or destroyed.

In 1955, the chateau was taken over by the Ministry of Interior. In line with a decision dated 9 January 1958, administration was delegated to the Ministry of Education and Culture, Monument Care Department. On 29 August 1958, the chateau was transferred to the State Monument Administration, and then in 1959 it was transferred to the Regional National Committee in Ústí nad Labem. At that time there was no security provided at Jezeří and the chateau was left exposed to vandals from 1960. From 1961 to 1972, the chateau was administered by the District National Committee in Most when the first project for reconstructing the building was drawn up. Its author was the Institute for Landscape Creation and Protection of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences, which had responsibility for supporting Jezeří in its research programme. A further anticipated use of the chateau consisted in the intention to build an extensive recreational area of supra-regional importance, but everything remained an idea only, just like the declared intention to have exhibitions of famous musical traditions.

From 1964, artistic-historic and construction research was undertaken under the leadership of Václav Mencl. The subsequent reconstruction was methodologically contributed to by the Regional Centre of State Monument Care and Nature Protection in Ústí nad Labem, although its collaboration with the Usti-based District Construction Enterprise only led to the further devastation of the building. At the same time as the demolition of the unmaintained chaplain’s dwelling and kitchen annexes, the north-east wing of the chateau and the underlined buttress were seriously damaged, known these days as the oriel. This desperate situation was allowed to continue for the whole of the following period without any security, and it is testimony to its solid and honest construction that no other parts of the building fell apart. In 1967, the then administrator permitted further gross interference by the District Construction Enterprise from Ústí nad Labem by ripping up around 150 m² of parquet flooring and its subsequent use at the chateau in Ploskovice. The District National Committee in Most reconstructed the gatehouse as a temporary dwelling for a guard, and in 1972 the chateau was transferred to the administration of the Regional Centre of State Monument Care and Nature Protection in Ústí nad Labem. Further reconstruction was therefore postponed indefinitely. The chateau administration at that time prohibited even normal maintenance being carried out and justified neglecting the state of the chateau on the grounds of the ambiguous situation regarding the mining activities of the North Bohemian Lignite Mines.