The Battle of Bila Hora, which ended so quickly for the Czech Protestant troops, had a grim and gory aftermath the following year.
Visitors to the Old Town Square in Prague may wonder at the sight of 27 crosses set into the cobblestones in front of the Old Town Hall, around the corner from the Astronomical Clock. The reason is that, on June 21, 1621, 27 noblemen who had taken part in the Estates Uprising were put to death there. At the time of the executions, the Old Town Square looked very different from the view everyone enjoys today; drawings of the event show an area that is barely – if at all – recognizable. The square was packed with spectators, and everyone witnessed the wrath of the Habsburgs towards those who dared to defy them.
A scaffold, which took days to build, had been set up at the place of execution. The public executioner was a man named Jan Mydlar. Mydlar was himself a Protestant, and sympathized with the accused, but dared not be open about his political leanings. To show his support for the men, he wore a black executioner’s hood, rather than the usual red one. He had also sharpened his swords – all four of them – to a razor-like edge.
These men were of the nobility, and a stranger execution has likely never been witnessed in Prague. One of the men was a count by the name of Jachym Ondrej Slik. Slik had taken part in the First Defenestration of Prague, and even put himself forward as a successor to the throne of Bohemia. Following the Battle of Bila Hora, Slik fled the area, but was betrayed and forcibly returned to Prague.
Kaspar Kaplir, a knight, was among the condemned. Kaplir was about 80 years old at the time, and asked God to keep him from stumbling as he walked to his death. He had to be helped up the steps to the scaffold, but made his way to his beheading without stumbling.
Possibly the most famous of the condemned men was Jan Jesensky (in Latin, Jessenius). Jesensky was an exceptionally learned man who taught at Charles University. He also conducted the first autopsy in the Czech lands, in the year 1600. Jesensky was renowned for his oratorical skill, and as a punishment before dying, Mydlar forced open Jesensky’s mouth and hacked out his tongue. He also chopped off Jesensky’s right hand, as he did with Jachym Slik. Each man’s right hand was nailed to his head after the execution. Jesensky’s body suffered the additional indignity of being quartered. The pieces were put upon pikes and set outside the city gates, on the road leading to Kutna Hora.
Mydlar began the executions at 5 a.m. Over the next four hours, he beheaded 24 men and hanged the other three. An English visitor to Prague who viewed the executions wrote about them later, specifically about Mydlar’s skill with his swords. He claimed that the men’s heads “appeared to have been blown from their bodies, as if by a divine wind.” When Mydlar had finished slicing, chopping, and stringing up, the heads of 12 of the noblemen (including Slik and Jesensky) were placed in iron baskets, which were hung from the towers at each end of the Charles Bridge. Slik’s daughter won the right to claim her father’s head the following year, and it was buried with the rest of his body.
The other 11 heads decorated the bridge towers for about 20 years, until they were finally taken down and buried under the floor of Tyn Cathedral, which faces that long-ago execution spot. It would be the only resting place for Jan Jesensky.
As a final ironic note, when Jesensky conducted that famous first autopsy, one of the spectators was none other than Jan Mydlar. 21 years later, Mydlar would conduct a very different sort of autopsy on Jesensky.