Defenestration of Prague Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Defenestration of Prague precipitated the Thirty Years’ War after Catholic representatives of the Holy Roman Emperor were thrown out of a window by Bohemian Protestant nobles after a heated confrontation between Catholics and Protestants. The defenestration was the last straw in a series of ongoing conflicts concerning religion, politics, and dynastic struggle in Europe.

Summary of Event

The Protestant Reformation, which began with Martin Luther nailing his ninety-five theses to the Wittenberg church door in 1517, began a century and a half of religious and political strife in the Holy Roman Empire. While the issues were initially theological, various princes saw the controversy as an opportunity to weaken the power not only of the Roman Catholic Church but also of the Holy Roman Emperor. Increasingly, the struggle became a constitutional one with religious differences marking the boundaries between the opponents. Further complicating the situation was the emergence of a militant Calvinism that challenged both the Lutheran princes and the Catholic Habsburg monarchs of the sixteenth century. Catholicism;Holy Roman Empire Protestantism;Holy Roman Empire [kw]Defenestration of Prague (May 23, 1618) [kw]Prague, Defenestration of (May 23, 1618) Government and politics;May 23, 1618: Defenestration of Prague[0770] Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;May 23, 1618: Defenestration of Prague[0770] Religion and theology;May 23, 1618: Defenestration of Prague[0770] Social issues and reform;May 23, 1618: Defenestration of Prague[0770] Bohemia;May 23, 1618: Defenestration of Prague[0770] Defenestration of Prague (1618)

By 1618, religious lines had been drawn throughout the Holy Roman Empire. Catholic princes had formed a Catholic League Catholic League that ostensibly looked to the emperor for leadership, but only for as long as the emperor did not assert too much royal power. Protestant princes were far less united, distrusting each other almost as much as they distrusted the emperor. The Habsburgs Habsburgs;Austria regarded themselves as the apostles of the Catholic-led Counter-Reformation; by 1600, they had largely eliminated Protestantism from Austria. Bohemia Bohemia was the next target for their reforming zeal. However, Bohemia had, since the age of Church reformer Jan Hus (1372-1415), been markedly reformist. Most of the influential nobility were anti-Catholic. As was typical of the age, most nobles viewed Habsburg actions as an advance of royal power at their expense.

Bohemian Protestant rebels threw Catholic imperial councillors out a window in Prague, an act—called a defenestration—that encouraged Protestant rebellion and marked the start of the Thirty Years’ War.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

Some temporary relief had been afforded in 1607, when the incompetent Emperor Rudolf II Rudolf II (Holy Roman Emperor) quarreled with his brother, Archduke Matthias Matthias (Holy Roman Emperor)">Counter-Reformation , over control of the Habsburg lands. Rudolf needed the support of the Bohemians against his brother, and in order to buy this support, he granted the Bohemian Estates a Letter of Majesty Letter of Majesty (1609) in 1609. Under this decree, religious toleration was granted to Bohemians, along with the right to construct churches and schools on royal domains. Rudolf even agreed to allow a standing committee, the Defensors, to be selected from the Bohemian Estates, which was to be responsible for making sure that the agreement was enforced. Yet these concessions did little to strengthen Rudolf’s position; in 1611, Matthias deprived him of Bohemia, and upon Rudolf’s death succeeded him as Holy Roman Emperor.

The reign of Emperor Matthias once again brought the religious issue in Bohemia to the forefront, but it was now coupled with a political issue, the search for a successor to the childless emperor. Although Matthias lost little time in reconfirming the Letter of Majesty, the Bohemian Estates soon had cause to wonder if the reconfirmation meant anything inasmuch as the emperor quickly removed Protestant officials from key offices in Bohemia and replaced them with Catholics.

A more serious threat to Bohemian religious liberty rested in the decision of Matthias to name his cousin, Archduke Ferdinand Ferdinand II (Holy Roman Emperor) of Inner Austria, the most fanatical Habsburg exponent of the Catholic Reformation, as his successor. The divided Bohemian Estates, lacking a candidate of their own, reluctantly agreed on June 17, 1617, to “accept” Ferdinand as their king, a title he shared with Matthias until the latter’s death two years later. The use of the term “accept” by the Bohemian nobility avoided the question of whether the Habsburgs held the crown of Bohemia on the basis of hereditary right or by the electoral consent of the Estates. To soothe the religious sensitivities of the Bohemian Estates, Ferdinand on the following day confirmed the Letter of Majesty.

Within a few months, a dispute developed over the interpretation of the Letter of Majesty, a quarrel that resulted in a Bohemian revolt against the Habsburgs and that ultimately led to the Thirty Years’ War Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) . Two Protestant churches, one in Hrob (Klostergrab) and the other in Broumov (Braunau), had been built on Catholic Church land, which in Bohemia was customarily regarded as royal domain. The Protestants felt that they were within their rights as set forth in the Letter of Majesty. The Habsburg authorities, however, rejected this argument. By order of the regent, Ferdinand, in 1617, the churches were ordered closed; the one at Hrob was even torn down. The Defensors summoned the Bohemian Estates to assemble in Prague on March 5, 1618, to discuss the anti-Protestant actions by the Habsburgs.

Although a decree had been promulgated forbidding Protestant assemblies, most Bohemian nobles considered the meeting legal under the agreement of 1609. The Prague Assembly petitioned the emperor for a change of policy, but Matthias refused and ordered the nobles to disperse.

Two months later, on May 21, 1618, the Protestant nobles met again in defiance of this ban. On May 22, they demanded a redress of grievances arising out of the religious dispute, but the Habsburg government rejected their demands. The deputy governors of Bohemia, Jaroslav Borsita von Martinitz Martinitz, Jaroslav Borsita von and Wilhelm Slavata Slavata, Wilhelm , who were also leaders of the Catholic, pro-Habsburg faction in the Bohemian Estates, then ordered the assembly to disperse. The demand caused such an uproar that a radical wing of the Bohemian Estates, led by Heinrich Matthias Thurn, Thurn, Heinrich Matthias Baron Colona von Fels, Fels, Baron Colona von and Wenceslaus Ruppa, Ruppa, Wenceslaus raised the standard of revolt against the Habsburgs.

The incensed Protestant leaders were determined to deal with the threat, by force if necessary. On May 23, an armed band of more than one hundred men marched to Hradcany Castle for a formal confrontation with Martinitz and Slavata. Both officials denied any personal involvement in rejection of the Protestant demands. Heated words were exchanged. Suddenly, Thurn and others stepped forward, seized the two deputy governors, and hurled them through a castle window into the refuse-filled moat forty feet below. Incredibly, the victims survived the fall and managed to escape. Protestants quickly noted that the two had been lucky that their fall had been softened by the “mist” into which they had fallen; Catholics immediately retorted that their lives had been saved by angels and that it was nothing short of a miracle.

Significance

This confrontation is known in history as the Defenestration of Prague, and it precipitated widespread revolt against the Habsburg regime beyond the religious issue, beyond Bohemia, and beyond the year 1618. Thurn and Ruppa became leaders of a revolutionary government in Bohemia and mobilized fighting forces that fought with imperial troops between 1618 and 1620. In August of 1619, Bohemia led a confederation with Moravia, Silesia, and Lusatia, crownlands with which it had been affiliated in the past. This confederation proceeded to arrange a pact of mutual assistance with the Protestant states of Upper and Lower Austria. What completed the revolt was the deposition of Ferdinand on August 22, 1619, by this extended confederation. The election on August 26 of Frederick V Frederick V (king of Bohemia) , Calvinist prince elector of the Rhenish Palatinate, filled the vacancy.

Because of its brevity, Frederick’s rule is known as “the reign of the Winter King.” In March of 1619, Emperor Matthias died, and in August, Ferdinand was elected to succeed him. As Habsburg emperor, Ferdinand was determined to quell religious nonconformity in Bohemia and to regain the Bohemian crown. His army, augmented by a large Spanish force, decisively defeated the Bohemian army at the Battle of White Mountain White Mountain, Battle of (1620) on November 8, 1620. This victory ended Bohemia’s bid for autonomy. For the losers, defeat meant death, and to the leaders, defeat meant the confiscation of property of sympathizers and the recatholicization of Bohemia.

Although fighting ceased in Bohemia, the manner of the Habsburg reconquest evoked fear throughout the Holy Roman Empire and beyond. It was the start of the Thirty Years’ War in Europe.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Asch, Ronald G. The Thirty Years’ War: The Holy Roman Empire and Europe, 1618-1648. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. Asch focuses on the Holy Roman Empire’s role in the war, including the empire’s disagreements with Bohemia that precipitated the conflict.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bireley, Robert. The Refashioning of Catholicism, 1450-1700: A Reassessment of the Counter Reformation. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1999. Bireley demonstrates how the Counter-Reformation was an active response to profound changes taking place in the sixteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carsten, F. L. Princes and Parliaments in Germany from the Fifteenth to the Eighteenth Century. London: Oxford University Press, 1959. Carsten provides information and significant generalizations regarding the various assemblies and their composition.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Evans, R. J. W. The Making of the Habsburg Monarchy, 1550-1700: An Interpretation. 3d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Evans examines, primarily, Austria and the Holy Roman Empire and offers significant information on changes in Austrian lands during the period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grell, Ole Peter, and Bob Scribner, eds. Tolerance and Intolerance in the European Reformation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Chapter 7, an essay by historian Euan Cameron, examines Protestant identities in Germany during the later Reformation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lee, Stephen J. The Thirty Years’ War. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1991. Lee provides an excellent introduction to the causes and major issues of the war. He examines the motives of the participants, their gains and losses, and the religious, military, social, and economic aspects of the war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parker, Geoffrey, ed. The Thirty Years’ War. 2d ed. New York: Routledge, 1997. Parker incorporates new research to update the 1984 edition of this narrative and analytical account of the conflict. Includes maps, a six-nation chronology, genealogies, and an index with the birth date and other pertinent facts about each person listed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pursell, Brennan C. The Winter King: Frederick V of the Palatinate and the Coming of the Thirty Years’ War. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2003. A biography of Frederick V, providing his perspective of the causes and initial battles of the war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wedgwood, C. V. The Thirty Years’ War. London: Jonathan Cape, 1938. While some of the interpretations are dated, this highly readable account of the period still merits a read.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

Ferdinand II; Frederick V; Frederick William, the Great Elector; Gustavus II Adolphus; Cardinal de Richelieu; Albrecht Wenzel von Wallenstein. Defenestration of Prague (1618)

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