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The Defenestration of Prague: May 23, 1618

Cardinal Richelieu wanted not only to make his king all-powerful in France, but to make France the supreme nation in Europe. To do this, Richelieu had to weaken the power of the Habsburgs, the most powerful ruling family in Europe.

Threefold portrait of Cardinal Richelieu, by Philippe de Champagne

Indeed, the Habsburgs were most powerful. The Habsburg archduke of Austria was king over Bohemia and Hungary, as well as the emperor ruling, in title at least, over all Germany. His cousin, the Habsburg king of Spain, ruled the Netherlands, northern Italy, Naples, and the vast Spanish dominions in North and South America, rich with gold and silver. Habsburg lands surrounded France to the west and the south, and Spanish fleets could attack France at any port on its long Atlantic coastline.

So powerful were the Habsburgs, so completely did they surround France, that Richelieu could not simply declare war on them. But he could take advantage of Habsburg troubles and use them to weaken Habsburg power. And the Austrian Habsburgs soon had plenty of trouble. It all began with a revolt in Bohemia.

Ferdinand von Habsburg in 1614

Bohemia had long been among the most important, and troublesome, states of the German Roman Empire. Centered on the city of Prague, Bohemia was the empire’s wealthiest and most productive region. Its agriculture and mines produced the wealth that paid for most of the imperial expenses. Bohemia—the home of John Hus—had, however, experienced a good deal of unrest. Even into the 17th century, many Hussites still lived there, and Protestantism had made many inroads among both the German- and Czech-speaking populations. For this reason, many in Bohemia wanted nothing to do with the Catholic Habsburgs. They wanted a Protestant king.

In 1612 Matthias von Habsburg, the archduke of Austria, became both Roman emperor and king of Bohemia. The old and sickly Matthias, however, had no children and so named his cousin, Ferdinand von Habsburg, to succeed him as emperor as well as king of Bohemia. It was important, if he were to become emperor, that Ferdinand become king of Bohemia, for the Bohemian king was one of the seven imperial prince electors. Of these electors, three were Catholic and three were Protestant. As the seventh elector, the king of Bohemia would cast the deciding vote for emperor. If the king of Bohemia were a Protestant, the electors might end up choosing a Protestant—and a non-Habsburg—as emperor.

Frederick, Elector of the Palatinate

Though the Protestant Bohemian nobles at first accepted Ferdinand as their future king, in May 1618, they rose in revolt against him and Emperor Matthias. Instead of Ferdinand, the Bohemian nobles wanted for their king Frederick, the elector of the Palatinate (a principality on the Rhine River). Frederick was a Calvinist; his father had been the founder of the union of Protestant German princes, called the League of Evangelical Union. Since Frederick was already elector of the Palatinate, by becoming king and elector of Bohemia, he could cast two votes for emperor.

Elector Frederick, however, did not have even the support of his fellow Protestant princes. They backed Ferdinand’s claim to Bohemia, for they feared Frederick might become too powerful if he held Bohemia as well as the Palatinate. Yet, though Ferdinand became king of Bohemia, the Bohemian Protestant nobles still supported Elector Frederick. In May 1618, they gathered in a great assembly in Prague. King Ferdinand, who was absent from Prague, sent two of his counselors, Wilhelm Slavata and Jaroslav Borsita, as his representatives to the assembly.

Feeling against Ferdinand was strong in Prague. On May 23, 1618, an angry crowd of Protestants gathered at a rally in Prague. Thousands attended, and the rally grew violent. Calling for the death of Ferdinand’s two representatives, the Protestants rushed to the royal castle in Prague, where the Habsburg governing council was meeting.

A later woodcut depiction of the Defenestration of Prague

After storming the castle, the mob grabbed Slavata and Borsita and dragged them toward a high window overlooking a moat 50 feet below. The king’s counselors struggled for their lives, praying aloud to the Mother of God. According to one account of the event, as the mob pushed Ferdinand’s counselors out the window, someone taunted, “We will see if your Mary can help you!” A few seconds later, another exclaimed, “By God, his Mary has helped!” The two councilors had fallen on top of a thick pile of manure. Martinitz was unhurt, except for his dignity; Slavata was knocked unconscious but recovered.

This peculiar event, called the “Defenestration of Prague,” marked the beginning of a long and bitter conflict. Known as the Thirty Years’ War, this conflict was one of the greatest tragedies in European history.

Beauty Amid the Ravages of War

Johann Schein (1586-1630) was a composer of the early German Baroque period. He was among the first to introduce Italianate styles into German music. Many of his compositions spanned more than the first decade of the Thirty Years’ War. Featured here is Israelis Brünnlein, (“The Fountain of Israel”), 26 madrigals drawing their themes from the Old Testament.

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