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Defenestration of Prague: 1618

The dramatic event which in 1618 provokes a crisis throughout Europe is known to historians as the Defenestration (out-windowing) of Prague. The windows in question are those of the seat of government, the Hradcany fortified palace. Those forcibly thrown out are two of the regents appointed by the Habsburgs.

Rumour soon embellishes an already dramatic incident, and the drop from the windows to the ground is often described as some fifty feet. It must have been very much less. Both the unfortunate officials survive to play prominent parts in subsequent Bohemian history. But their undignified exit from the palace is a flashpoint in the clash between Catholic rulers and a Protestant majority in Bohemia.

Ferdinand II, crowned king of Bohemia in 1617, has been educated by Jesuits. It is no secret that he intends to impose on his territories the rigorous Catholicism of the Counter-Reformation. Recently his regents in Prague have even tried to instal a Catholic priest in Bethlehem Chapel, forever associated in Protestant minds with the heroic John Huss.

The crisis escalates in 1619 when the Protestant party in Prague declares that the Bohemian crown is elective. They choose as their king one of the few Calvinist princes in the Holy Roman empire, Frederick V of the Rhine Palatinate.

The Winter King: 1619-1620

In accepting the Bohemian throne, and being crowned in Prague in November 1619, Frederick V is perpetrating an extremely inflammatory act within the edgy community of the German states. Ferdinand II, Habsburg successor to the kingdom of Bohemia, has been elected Holy Roman emperor in August of that year.

Frederick owes Ferdinand allegiance, as one of the German princes and as an imperial elector (the elector palatine of the Rhine). Instead, by popular demand in Bohemia, he is usurping his lord's place.

Ferdinand is able to organize a powerful army against the Protestant upstart. The bulk of it comes from the duchy of Bavaria, a Catholic line of the Wittelsbach dynasty and deeply hostile to the Protestant branch headed by Frederick in the Palatinate. In return for his support the Bavarian duke, Maximilian I, is promised Frederick's hereditary lands and his status as an imperial elector.

Frederick, by contrast, receives messages of goodwill but little practical help from the Protestant states.

The issue is decided in a single brief encounter. The Bavarian army, under its distinguished general Johann Tserclaes von Tilly, marches on Prague. A battle at the White Mountain, to the west of the city, lasts only an hour before the Protestant army gives way. On the evening of that same day, 8 November 1620, almost exactly a year after his coronation, Frederick flees from Prague with his family.

His wife is Elizabeth, daughter of James I of England. Their brief reign causes Frederick and Elizabeth to become known as the Winter King and Queen. (But unwittingly they found a dynasty. A century later their grandson becomes king of Great Britain as George I).

After the White Mountain: 1620-1625

Both the emperor Ferdinand II and the duke of Bavaria, Maximilian I, benefit greatly from the victory at the White Mountain.

Ferdinand gains full control over Bohemia. Meanwhile Maximilian has occupied part of Austria, which he intends to hold until all Ferdinand's debts to him are paid. He also now takes much of Frederick's territory in the Palatinate (part has been quietly occupied by the Spanish, moving down from the Netherlands while the locals are busy in Bohemia).

Maximilian is passionately opposed to any increase in Habsburg power. As a great Catholic prince now ruling the whole of southern Germany, he seems well placed to keep Ferdinand in check.

But Ferdinand's ruthless suppression and exploitation of conquered Bohemia introduces a new element to upset the balance. It provides him with great wealth. It also brings to prominence a general and entrepreneur of extraordinary ambition and talent - Albrecht von Wallenstein.

Wallenstein: 1621-1625

With imperial authority re-established in Prague, Ferdinand takes stern measures to end Protestant opposition. Roman Catholicism is the only religion allowed, with all education entrusted to the Jesuits. Some 36,000 Protestant families, of nobles, merchants and craftsmen, emigrate from the kingdom.

The property of those who leave, and of anyone judged to have assisted the rebellion, is expropriated and sold to Ferdinand's supporters. More than 75% of the privately owned land changes hands in this upheaval. No one profits more from the rich available pickings than Albrecht von Wallenstein, whom Ferdinand appoints governor of the kingdom of Bohemia.

Wallenstein is a minor Czech nobleman who becomes rich through marriage to an elderly widow. From 1617 he uses her money to raise a small private army with which he assists Ferdinand. His reward, after the suppression of Bohemia, includes a licence to issue coins debased to half their previous value. With the profit he buys at a knock-down price sixty large estates, which together make him lord of the whole of northeastern Bohemia.

Wallenstein now proposes to Ferdinand a bold extension of his earlier private army. He offers to provide, at no expense to the emperor, an independent imperial army of 24,000 men. The expense, raised by a financial agent, will be recovered from conquered territories.

The idea appeals to Ferdinand because it frees him from reliance on the powerful duke of Bavaria, whose army made possible the victory at the White Mountain. Wallenstein's plan is approved and he is appointed chief of all the imperial forces. Seeing another rich opportunity, he mobilizes his estates in Bohemia to provide arms and equipment for the army.

Wallenstein acquires a welcome opportunity to put his army into the field when Christian IV, the king of Denmark, decides to take a hand in the troubled affairs of Germany.

Wallenstein plays a major part in the war until his assassination in 1634. Exhaustion among the German princes now at last makes a compromise possible. The conflict which flared up in Prague in 1618 is resolved, at least in local terms, by a peace agreed in Prague in 1635.

It is the emperor who makes the major concession. Instead of the ownership of church lands being restored to the situation prevailing in 1555, as demanded by Ferdinand's Edict of Restitution, the date of the agreed status quo is now to be the very recent one of 1627 - reflecting the period immediately before the issue of the edict in 1629. (In 1648, in the peace of Westphalia, there is a final minor change - the relevant year becomes 1624).

After Westphalia: 1648-1848

Prague features as dramatically at the very end of the Thirty Years' War as at the start. In July 1648, just three months before the signing of the peace of Westphalia, Swedish armies occupy part of the city.

Like the rest of central Europe, Bohemia has suffered three decades of conflict and deprivation. But the after-effects of the crisis are probably greater here than anywhere else. The terms of the treaty of 1648 specifically allow the Habsburgs to enforce Roman Catholicism in their territories. In Bohemia this is a licence to continue the policy already put into practice in 1621 by Ferdinand II.

The many Protestant exiles who left in 1621 now know that there is no chance of returning. The native Czech element in Bohemia is henceforth virtually limited to the peasants, who work for German-speaking landowners on terms akin to serfdom. In 1680 a law is introduced demanding three days each week of corvée (compulsory unpaid labour on manorial estates). By 1738 this has been increased to six days a week at busy times such as harvest. Over the same period there is a steady increase in the tax demands made on the peasants.

With these economic conditions, in a strictly controlled religious framework, the population of Bohemia is dragged back into the Middle Ages.

Some improvement occurs eventually, in the 1770s. The disbanding of the Jesuit order in 1773 not only removes their intolerant influence; it also liberates their considerable wealth, for use by the government. A peasant uprising of 1775 leads to a law restricting the corvée. And in 1780 a reforming emperor, Joseph II, inherits the throne in Vienna.

In 1781 Joseph passes an Edict of Toleration in Habsburg territories. For the first time since the Thirty Years' War Protestants are allowed to worship in Bohemia. Measures to help the peasants include abolishing the corvée and, in 1789, a maximum tax level of 30% of produce.

Joseph's brother, Leopold II, even makes concessions to a revival of interest in Czech culture. He founds in 1791 a chair in the Czech language in the Charles university of Prague (where instruction has formerly been in Latin, and then in German).

Interests of this kind - in Czech as a language, in Bohemian history and in the wider allegiance of a shared Slav heritage - fuel the first serious attempts to assert a national identity.

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