Ride of the Kings

Written by David Fiala

Category: Czech Tradition

Celebrated on the last Sunday of May on ‘letnice’ it is a tradition at least 200 years old. Celebrated nearly in every village in the Slovacko and Hana region before the Second World War, it has gained its popularity back and is now returning to villages like Skoronovice u Kyjova, Doloplazy, Chropyne or Hluk. In 2011, it was proclaimed as a UNESCO’s masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage.

Its origins are unknown, but some say it has started when Matyas Korvin fled from battlefield dressed in woman’s clothes and drove through a village with his parade, begging for food because he was unprepared for a loss. Other sources claim it was a pagan tradition, where people begged the gods for big yields. They dressed in colorful clothes and rode through the village on horses waving flags and other colorful objects, singing.

Different variations of this event exist, but in Vlcnov, which is the most popular of Kings’ rides, it follows this schedule: People gather at the king’s house. Legrúti, that is 18-year-old boys along with 18-year-old girls, družice go to church for mass. Then everybody rides to the town hall to ask the mayor for permission. After the permission is granted, the ride itself begins, which is accompanied by following words: „Hýlom, hýlom! Počúvajte, horní, dolní, domácí aj přespolní, co vám budu povídati o svatodušní neděli…“ (Hey, hey! Listen upper people and listen, lower people, locals, and newcomers, to what I am telling you about whit Sunday…) Legrúti in a formation on horses escorts the king, who is usually a young boy (he has to be a virgin) on a horse himself. The horse is adorned with colorful ribbons by the boy’s mother and it is guided by the boy’s father. The boy has a white rose between his lips. Two legrúti walk alongside the king’s horse and they each carry a saber to protect the king from legrúts from an attack from another king’s ride, which can come from another village. It has been a tradition that when two king’s ride meet, legrúts try to steal the king from the rivals and demand money as ransom. (A tragedy occurred in 1819 when four rivaling villages formed two teams and demanded the others kings. Neither of them would give up so a battle took place and 13 people died. It is known as the Battle of the four kings.) The ride goes from an upper end of the village to a lower end and throughout the ride, legrúts and the king call for onlookers to give money to the king’s boot (which is strapped to the horse). Once the ride reaches the bottom end, the boy is reunited with his parents.

Kings’ ride in other villages in the Czech Republic exists. Some of the most famous include a King’s ride in Kunovice, Hluk, and Skoronice. This tradition also takes place in other European countries such as Sechseläute in Switzerland, Kreuzreiten in Germany and in Poland.