Reign of Rudolf II Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Rudolf, who reigned as Holy Roman Emperor during a pivotal period in European history, established a court in Prague that was notable for its intellectual, artistic, and cultural brilliance. The emperor’s poor mental health and his lack of attention to politics and religion would cause his downfall.

Summary of Event

On January 16, 1556, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V abdicated his throne and officially put into place the division of the vast Habsburg holdings between two branches of the family. Charles’s son, Philip II, became king of Spain, while Charles’s younger brother, Ferdinand I, was elected Holy Roman Emperor (r. 1558-1564). Ferdinand I was succeeded as emperor by his son Maximilian II, whose eldest son and heir was Archduke Rudolf (born July 18, 1552). Holy Roman Empire Rudolf II Maximilian II Matthias Brahe, Tycho Kepler, Johannes Bocskay, István Philip II (king of Spain) Ferdinand I (Holy Roman Emperor) Maximilian II (Holy Roman Emperor) Rumpf, Wolfgang von Matthias (Holy Roman Emperor, r. 1612-1619) Brahe, Tycho Kepler, Johannes Dee, John Bocskay, István Ahmed I Rudolf II (Holy Roman Emperor)

From 1564 to 1571, at the insistence of his mother, Maria of Spain (1526-1603), Rudolf was reared at the strict Catholic court of his uncle, Philip II, but the pious and deadly serious atmosphere in Madrid so repelled Rudolf that, after he returned to Austria, the young archduke demonstrated a more liberal attitude in religious affairs, even if many Protestants in the empire still had reservations about his acceptance. His father, who had feared that his son’s experience in Spain might turn him into a Catholic like his uncle, was delighted at this turn of events and had his heir crowned king of Hungary (1572), and king of Bohemia (1575). After his father’s death on October 12, 1576, the archduke was elected Holy Roman Emperor under the title of Rudolf II.

It was not long before Rudolf began to exhibit signs of the mental instability that would plague him for the rest of his life. This may well have been inherited from his mother and great-grandmother (Joan the Mad, queen of Castile), and was certainly exacerbated by the pressures of imperial responsibility. It is possible that the emperor suffered from severe depression, which would have caused him to withdraw completely from public affairs for lengthy periods of time. Rudolf appeared incapable of making decisions, and many of the processes of government were slowed or even halted during his reign.

He would often express fear over plots against his life and occasionally endured severe nervous breakdowns. During such bouts—which occurred with increasing frequency over time—his childhood friend, Wolfgang von Rumpf, who served as chief minister, directed day-to-day matters of state. In 1600, Rudolf allegedly attempted suicide by slashing himself with broken glass. That same year, he turned against von Rumpf, accusing the minister of conspiracy and then dismissing him from office.

The state of the empire then deteriorated rapidly. Also neglected was the matter of ensuring imperial succession. While Rudolf was the father of illegitimate children, his only legitimate heir was his younger brother, Matthias, whom he detested heartily. Though the emperor was engaged for many years to a cousin, Isabella of Spain (daughter of his uncle, Philip II), he kept putting off a wedding date until it was too late.

Rudolf grew tired of the hustle and bustle of Vienna and in 1583 abandoned the city for good to set up his court and seat of administration in Prague, the capital of Bohemia. It was in Prague that, for the next twenty or so years, his court flourished intellectually and became one of the liveliest and avant-garde courts of the time. To be certain, the emperor himself set much of the tone; his eccentricities were legendary. He had a private zoo with animals from all corners of the globe and amassed a vast personal collection of objects such as artwork, antiques, weapons, and clocks.

Among the outstanding members of the intelligentsia at the Rudolfine Court were the scientists Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler. It was in Prague that Brahe was able to complete his astronomical observations, chart the heavens, and draw calculations of planetary movement, which he called the “Rudolfine Tables.” Brahe’s chief disciple and assistant, Kepler, was able to draw on the vast store of his master’s notebooks and the tables to determine laws of planetary motion that confirmed the Copernican theory of the universe. Prague also became a haven for individuals like the Welsh occultist John Dee and for the “nonscientific” areas of astrology and Hermetism. Even Brahe and Kepler made their living as imperial astrologers rather than as mathematicians and astronomers in the traditional sense. Astrology;Holy Roman Empire Famed fine arts practitioners were at Rudolf’s court, also, including mannerist and other painters, sculptors, and antiquaries from throughout Europe. Art patronage;Holy Roman Empire

The one area of foreign affairs that demanded Rudolf’s attention was the formidable status of the Ottoman Empire Ottoman Empire;Holy Roman Empire and , still strong even after the death of its sultan, Süleyman the Magnificent. Border clashes with Ottoman armies degenerated into all-out war, which raged for fifteen years.

The imperial forces on the border were notoriously undisciplined and often looted and pillaged and turned the Hungarian population on the frontiers against them. In 1604, a charismatic Transylvanian noblemen named István Bocskay transferred his allegiance to Ottoman sultan Ahmed I and launched a revolt that Archduke Matthias (acting for the moribund Rudolf) could end only by negotiating with Bocskay—who became prince of Transylvania Transylvania .

From that point on, Matthias had steadily advanced his cause and amassed greater and greater power at Rudolf’s expense. Archduke Matthias already had been named overlord of Lower Austria and was, by contrast to his imperial sibling, a model of action. He already had ingratiated himself with the Austrian nobility and estates through his energetic suppression of peasant uprisings in 1597. In 1609, Matthias was powerful enough to force his brother to renounce the Crown of Hungary in his favor. To maintain the support of the Bohemian estates, Rudolf was forced to grant extensive liberties to his Protestant subjects through his Letter of Majesty of 1609.

Two years later, however, the Habsburg family named Matthias its head, and the triumphant archduke marched to Prague, leading an army, to compel his brother to abdicate as king of Bohemia and hand that role to him, too. Though Rudolf II retained the title of emperor, he lived for less than two months after the humiliation by Matthias. Nearly secluded, in an alcoholic daze, and sometimes babbling incoherently, he died on January 20, 1612.


Rudolf’s reign, despite its faults and failures, would glow as a milestone of cultural vitality and artistic and scientific achievement. The depredations of the seventeenth century would make this period of comparative peace and toleration appear like a golden age to the generations that followed, and the age survived through the Thirty Years’ War.

Rudolf’s weakness, however, contributed materially to the coming of this conflict. Forced to cede rights, privileges, and power to the Protestant nobility to counteract the machinations of Archduke Matthias, he created a significant Protestant bloc, especially in Bohemia. Matthias, whose own position was never that secure, in turn enlarged and reinforced these concessions to such an extent that his eventual successor, the fervently Catholic Ferdinand II (r. 1619-1637), was determined to break the Bohemian Protestants and ignite a conflict that would engulf most of Central Europe.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Christianson, John Robert. On Tycho’s Island: Tycho Brahe and His Assistants. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Describes the network that Brahe built around himself. Includes a biographical sketch of Kepler.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Evans, R. J. W. Rudolf II and His World: A Study in Intellectual History, 1576-1612. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1973. The most extensive study to date on the subject. Stresses the dualistic nature of the emperor and what he achieved for Bohemia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fichtner, Paula Sutter. The Hapsburg Monarchy, 1490-1848. New York: Palgrave, 2003. Stresses Rudolf’s inept governance as a cause for conflict and imperial decline.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fučíková, Eliška, Lubomír Konecny, and Jaroslava Hausenblasová, eds. Rudolf II and Prague: The Court and the City. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1997. Addresses Rudolfine architectural and artistic influences on Bohemia’s capital.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hughes, Michael. Early Modern Germany, 1477-1806. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. Rudolf is depicted in a somewhat negative and even dismissive fashion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Koenigsberger, H. C., George L. Mosse, and G. Q. Bowler. Europe in the Sixteenth Century. New York: Longmans, 1989. Provides excellent background but disappointingly little insight into Rudolf’s complex personality.

Aug. 17, 1477: Foundation of the Habsburg Dynasty

1555-1556: Charles V Abdicates

1593-1606: Ottoman-Austrian War

Categories: History