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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

The Defenestration of Prague

Updated: May 15, 2022

"The clouds gather thick in the German sky; jealousies and discontents arise between the Catholics and the Evangelics, or Lutherans, of the Confession of Augsburg. Both parties draw into confederacies and hold assemblies; the one seeking by the advantage of power to encroach and get ground, the other to stand their ground and hold their own."

John Rushworth, Historical Collections of Private Passages of State: Volume 1, 1618-29 (London, 1721)

Prague Castle is an imposing structure. It is reportedly the largest castle complex in the world. With its crenellations, towers, and spires, the castle sits atop high ground overlooking the left bank of the Vltava River. The skyline of the castle dominates the view from Old Town Prague on the opposite side of the river. Built in the 9th century, the castle has undergone many transformations, and as seen today, it is a blend of Renaissance and Baroque architecture. It has been the home of the kings of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperors and the seat of government for the Czech Republic. In 1618, the castle would have been even more impressive because few structures were between it and the river.

The Kingdom of Bohemia resided in what is now the Czech Republic in Central Europe. Once an independent principality within the German Holy Roman Empire, the kings of Bohemia had sovereignty over the neighboring areas of Silesia and Moravia. They were one of the seven imperial electors who voted on who would be emperor. A few of these kings became emperors themselves, and Prague became the seat of imperial authority. By the early part of the 16th century, though, Bohemia became part of the hereditary lands of the House of Hapsburg. Since the 1450s, a member of the Hapsburgs was the de facto emperor. (And would continue to be so up until 1918.)

The 16th century also saw the establishment of the Czech Reformed Church, also known as Hussites, after founder Jan Huss. The Hussites joined the Lutherans and several other sects that sought to challenge the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. The early part of the century witnessed several religious conflicts throughout Europe. Within the territories of the Holy Roman Empire, both sides reached a tentative agreement in 1555. The Peace of Augsburg established the principle of "Cuius regio, eius religio" ("whose realm, whose religion."). Rulers of the various German states would decide the official religion - either Lutherism or Catholicism. Those citizens who did not submit to the official religion were allowed to emigrate elsewhere.

Unfortunately, the Peace of Augsburg did not include many of the other reform movements that were beginning to expand throughout Europe. This included Calvinists, Anabaptists, and the Hussites. Many of these denominations continued to be persecuted in both Lutheran and Catholic states. Bohemia played host to a number of these sects, and peace within the kingdom depended on a large degree of state-sanctioned tolerance. For the most part, this occurred and culminated in the issuance of an edict known as the Letter of Majesty in 1609. The edict was delivered by the Hapsburg Emperor Rudolf II, who was also the king of Bohemia. The spirit of tolerance continued under Rudolf's successor, Mathias, but Mathias died shortly after taking the throne and was replaced by his adopted son Ferdinand. Ferdinand II, who would be crowned emperor in 1619, was a devout Catholic, and he viewed religious unity, dynastic unity, and territorial unity as all the same. You could not have one without the others. Consequently, he began pushing back on the reformists. Ferdinand replaced many Protestant officials and filled many government appointments with Catholics. When the Lutherans wished to build two new churches as their right under the Letter of Majesty, Ferdinand refused. He then turned around and granted the land to the Catholic Church. Those who protested the actions of the king were arrested.

Prague Castle

At dawn, May 23, 1618, a large crowd of protestors gathered in front of the castle. They were all Protestants and led by the veteran of the wars against the Turks, Count Thurn. Along with Thurn was a delegation of Protestant government officials. The crowd was upset over newly adopted policies by the king, Ferdinand II. Thurn and the other officials wanted to know who persuaded the king to roll back Protestant liberties, particularly the construction of churches, granted under Ferdinand's predecessors. The group barged into the castle and stormed into the chamber, where four of the king's Catholic deputies met. The delegation demanded answers, and the deputies requested that they speak with their superior before issuing an official statement. Thurn was not satisfied though he let two of the deputies leave the room. Then he deemed the remaining two, Count Slavata and Count Martinice, as enemies and urged the crowd to show no mercy on those who would wage war upon them. The mob surged forward, pinning the two men against the tall windows. Someone unlocked the casements, and first Martince and then Slavata were tossed out the open window. The men miraculously survived the seventy-foot drop to the flagstones below.

The defenestration - the act of throwing someone out the window as a form of execution - would trigger what is considered the most costly and most destructive conflict in Europe before World War II.

Under the veneer of a religious conflict, the Thirty Years War grew out of the entanglement of dynastic struggles and balances of power. In Bohemia, the local nobility, with a long tradition of independence, resisted the attempts by the Hapsburgs to assert imperial authority. The Holy Roman Empire was still a hodgepodge of principalities and independent cities, and the localized conflict in Bohemia soon drew in others from across the empire. The Elector of Palantine, in what is southwest Germany along the Rhine, was a Protestant and challenged Ferdinand's authority. Sides were drawn nominally based on whether one was Catholic or Protestant. Yet, in many cases, rulers decided which side to support based on if they could gain power or territory at the expense of a local or family rival. What looked to be a German civil war quickly broke across the boundaries of the empire. Other players became involved from Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain, and France. By the end, the scope of the war had morphed into a power struggle between the House of Bourbon (France) and the House of Hapsburg (Spain and Austria) for control of Europe. Cardinal Richelieu, the famed minister of Louis XIII, gave voice to the concept of raison d'etat - reason of state. Despite being a Catholic, Richelieu did not hesitate to support Protestants if it meant advancing French interests.

The principal players (left to right): Emperor Ferdinand II, King Philip IV of Spain, King Gustav Adolphus of Sweden, Cardinal Richelieu of France

The Thirty Years War is regarded as the first modern war and the first to be considered to employ the idea of "total war." The civilian non-combatants would suffer the most as the armies of various nations marched across Central Europe. The sack of the Protestant city of Magdeburg by Catholic Imperial forces is emblematic of the destructive nature of the war. In the words of the city's Burgermeister: "the great and splendid city that had stood like a fair princess in the land was now, in its hour of direst need and unutterable distress and woe, given over to the flames, and thousands of innocent men, women, and children, in the midst of a horrible din of heartrending shrieks and cries, were tortured and put to death in so cruel and shameful a manner that no words would suffice to describe, nor no tears to bewail it."

Sack of Madgeburg, 1631

King Gustav Adolphus of Sweden is said to have destroyed over 1,000 German towns, 18,000 villages, and over 2,000 castles. The locations of battles were widespread and far-flung across the entire region. Armies were filled not only with the soldiers of the main combatants but also mercenaries from those nations not directly involved. As the opposing forces marched across the land, they brought with them famine and disease.

It is estimated that the combatant nations lost 25% - 40% of their populations as a result of battles, starvation, and illness. Agriculture suffered as farmland was burned and scorched. It would take a generation to recover. People either were forced to leave or fled in the path of invading armies. Cities became empty. Poverty and suffering increased along with crime. In the long term, while France, England, and Spain coalesced into strong national states, Germany remained splintered, crippled, and prone to the influences of the other great powers. It would not be until the mid-19th century when Otto von Bismarck would lead Prussia in unifying the German states. Historian C.V. Wedgewood summed it up the best. The war was “morally subversive, economically destructive, socially degrading, confused in its causes, devious in its course, futile in its results. It is the outstanding example in European history of meaningless conflict.”

All that from tossing two men out a castle window.


Further Reading

The Thirty Years War: C.V. Wedgewood

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