Bohemia Part 2: Battles in the Land of Beer

So, I jumped the gun a bit in my last post. Before the Bohemians could elect a new king, a bunch of other stuff happened.

When I first started to write my book, I wanted to cover all of this. But frankly, it’s a huge pain and makes for an unwieldy and confusing narrative. So, it will diverge pretty seriously from real events. Never fear- there will still be plenty of fighting and big battles, though! Just not these particular fights and battles.

This is what really happened:

Ferdinand II
Ferdinand II

By the time the Bohemians rebelled, the Habsburg Emperor Matthias was old and not very with it. As his presumed successor, future Ferdinand II  worried that the old guy would simply give in to the Bohemians. Matthias had been ruling with the help of Cardinal Khlesl, his chief minister. In a bloodless coup, Ferdinand simply had Khlesl arrested and locked up in an alpine castle. From then on, he was in charge.This ensured the support of Spain, Habsburg relatives who had long been concerned about the declining prestige of the Empire, as well as the decline in Catholicism.

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The War Begins: Bohemia Part I

After successfully (hah!) compressing the events of The Thirty Years War into 700 words, I thought I would do the same for the events that precipitated said war. After all, if the entire war could be summarized so succinctly, surely a mere introduction could be even shorter? All was well until I started to outline this post, and the outline started to approach 700 words. In the interests of my own sanity- and because i care about yours, too- I decided to break this down into a few easily digestible posts.

While the mention of Bohemia today evokes thoughts of artists and hippies, it is in fact a real place. I actually grew up amongst real live ethnic Bohemians, and they have names like Stasny and Kalina and are very much not hippies. It was a kingdom within the Holy Roman Empire that comprised the western two-thirds of today’s Czech Republic. Its capital city was Prague, and it was a wealthy, populous and significant part of the Empire.


Bohemia also had a complicated religious situation. It was the home of Jan Hus, an early Catholic reformer, who ended up being burned at the stake in 1415. For a hundred years before the Protestant Reformation, Hus’s followers kept his ideas alive first as Hussites, and later as Utraquists, all the while remaining Catholic.,However, they ended up embracing so many Calvinist ideas that they eventually could be considered Protestant. Lutheranism also took hold in Bohemia, and by 1618, only a minority were Catholic, and these were usually associated closely with the Habsburg court.

In 1609, there was some Habsburg infighting, known as the “Brother’s War.” Such a lovely family. In an attempt to curry favor with the Bohemian Estates- a council of aristocrats that governed the country-  Emperor Rudolf granted them a charter of religious freedom called the Letter of Majesty. Like so many of these well-intentioned documents, there was a sticking point. In this case, it involved the freedom of Protestants to build churches on Catholic property, as long as said property was held by the Crown. Otherwise, a Catholic landowner could forbid Protestant worship on his lands. Clear as mud? If you guessed this would cause trouble later, you guessed right.

In the meantime,  Emperor Rudolf died, and was succeeded by his brother, Matthias- yup, the one he was at war with earlier. His nephew Ferdinand of Styria, considered his likely successor, became King of Bohemia in 1617. He was not a universally popular choice. Ferdinand had been educated by Jesuits, and was considered downright fanatical by Protestants. The Bohemians were immediately worried that he would start whittling away at their religious freedoms. He did nothing to set their minds at ease when seven out of ten deputies he appointed to help him run the country were Catholic. With Catholics representing only 10 percent of the population, this was considered a threatening move.

Even worse,Protestant churches were destroyed on Catholic lands, in clear- or maybe not so clear- violation of the Letter of Majesty., Indignant letters to Emperor Matthias were virtually ignored, and further protests were met with orders to shut up and disperse. They did not. Instead, the Protestant Estates gathered in Prague and promptly defenestrated (I love that word!) two Imperial deputies. Since this is known as the Second Defenestration of Prague, I’m guessing tossing people out of windows was a kind of local custom. Nice.

Painting of The Defenestration of Prague

At this point, the Protestant Estates were in full-blown rebellion. They set up their own government and called up a militia. This was very far from a polished, professional force and everyone knew it. Drumming up foreign support became essential. Unfortunately, this was not very forthcoming. The Dutch made vague promises and Savoy (Who? No, seriously, Savoy used to be important) sent 2000 troops, but that was about it. The German Protestant Union was on the verge of disintegration, so no help was available from what should have been staunch Protestant allies. Well crap.

At this point, Emperor Matthias died- rather conveniently for Ferdinand- who then became Holy Roman Emperor. He was pretty noisy about his intention to re-catholicize the whole empire, which scared some other eastern states into alliance with Bohemian. A confederation was formed between Bohemia, Lusatia, Moravia and Silesia, who all agreed that Ferdinand would no longer do as king. They would need a new one. More about that lucky guy in the next post.

The Peace of Augsburg

The title of this post implies it’s about peace, but never fear- it will end with war! (but just a short one) The post itself will also be mercifully short.

After the considerable upheaval of the Protestant Reformation, many rulers in the affected areas were anxious to reach an agreement that would prevent further bloodshed. In 1555, the Habsburg Emperor Charles V met in Augsburg, Bavaria with members of the Schmalkaldic League, an alliance of German Lutheran princes. The plan was to create a new religious order in the lands of the Holy Roman Empire. Charles V had hoped that Catholicism would eventually be permanently reestablished everywhere, but as this looked increasingly unlikely, he decided to negotiate instead.peace of augsburgWhat was decided upon was surprisingly effective for a good many years- it was 63 years before the 30 Years War began. Peter Wilson notes that it wasn’t until 2008 that Germany again enjoyed that long a period of peace. Unfortunately, the seeds for the later conflict were planted within the decisions made at Augsburg.

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The Holy Roman Empire

This agglomeration which was called and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.- Voltaire

In other words, the title of this whole thing is very misleading. And yet, in order to understand the causes of the 30 Years War, it’s necessary to have at least a basic grasp of the nature and structure of the Holy Roman Empire.

charlemagneBack in 800 AD, the Frankish king Charlemagne was proclaimed Emperor by Pope Leo III, the first since the end of the Roman Empire some 400 years before. The title died out with Charlemagne’s line, but was revived in 962 by Otto I.  This empire was holy only insofar as it was officially sanctioned by the pope, only Roman because its emperors saw themselves as inheritors of the Roman tradition, and not so much an empire as a loose collection of states of varying sizes.

The empire was centered in Germany and Austria, and even though the Emperor was usually descended from an ongoing dynasty- most notably, the Habsburgs- he (and sometimes she) were always elected by seven German princes known as electors. These were:

The Duke of Saxony
The Margrave of Brandenburg
The King of Bavaria
The Count Palatine of the Rhine
The Archbishops of Mainz, Trier and Cologne

These guys controlled huge amounts of German territory, but the Emperor controlled much of Austria himself as a kind of feudal lord. In addition, he ruled Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia and Lusatia, and depending upon the time period, parts of Hungary, Switzerland, Italy  and Yugoslavia. Eventually, the Habsburgs also became the kings of Spain, which greatly expanded their influence although Spain tended to put its own interests first, Habsburg or not.

Holy roman EmpireOn paper, the Holy Roman Empire covered most of Central Europe, but in practice, the Emperor was herding cats. The Electors were not the most obliging bunch, and under them were hordes of lesser princes who were always squabbling over their piece of the power-pie.

That’s why there are so many castle ruins in Germany. Every guy with a title and two acres to call his own had to have one. That’s also why so much European royalty is mostly German *coughHouseofWindosrmyasscough* No matter how hard up you were, or how British your smile, you could always find an impoverished German aristocrat to take you on.

The general rule was that, the further north you went, the less power the emperor had.  This was all exacerbated by the Protestant Reformation. In many ways as political as it was religious, the Reformation provided an opportunity for restless German princes to gain some independence from the empire.

It’s probably not too surprising that the Reformation first took hold in the North (Saxony), and even though it spread all over the empire, its lasting gains remained in Northern Europe.  Crucially, three of the four secular electors were Protestant at the start of the 30 Years War.

Frederick of the Rhineland-Palatine was Calvinist, John George of Saxony was Lutheran (and quite anti-Calvinist, just to make things interesting), John Sigismund of Brandenburg was Calvinist, although a cautious one, since everyone else in Brandenburg was Lutheran, and Maximilian of Bavaria was Catholic. Maximilian however, was highly pro-German, and was not above allying himself with Protestants if it helped take the Habsburgs down a peg.

Even though the archbishop-electors were Catholic, they weren’t always automatically loyal to the Habsburgs either. Needless to say, all of this decentralization created a highly volatile situation by 1618.  The Emperor had very little direct power, religious unity was completely lacking, and the problems started by the Reformation were exacerbated by the Peace of Augsburg and a number of minor conflicts in the early 17th century. That all of this led to a major war engulfing the whole region isn’t at all surprising.

The Protestant Reformation

As promised in the last post, I’ll provide a short overview of the Protestant Reformation. This was a series of events that changed European Christianity forever, and nearly 100 years after its beginnings, culminated in the 30 Years War. In fact, some scholars would argue that the Reformation wasn’t truly over until the end of the war in 1648.

In 1517, a German monk named Martin Luther posted his infamous “95 Theses” on the door of Wittenberg cathedral. Written in Latin, the theses were actually a scholarly protest against some of the abuses of the Roman Catholic church. Some of the worst of these were widespread corruption, nepotism, and the sale of indulgences, a way to have your sins forgiven in writing, for a price, of course.

95 Theses

The common folk were also encouraged to spend money on things like viewing relics, supposed bones of saints, pieces of the Cross, and even the Virgin Mary’s milk. I guess if questioning got you burned at the stake, no one would ask why a virgin was producing breast milk and how it had been preserved for over 1000 years.  There is also a conspiracy theory about how beer brewing methods before 1521 led to beer that made people dumb. Dumber than it makes them now, apparently.

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The Thirty Years War in 700 Words

thirty years war
Ernest Crofts- A Scene from the Thirty Years War

As some- or maybe all-of you may know, this novel I’m working on  is loosely based upon the Thirty Years War, which engulfed  Central Europe between 1618 and 1648. Because it’s not a super-popular topic among English-speaking readers, I thought I’d provide some general background information about the whole mess. Because it really was about the hugest mess there ever was, in my less-than-scholarly opinion.

Obviously, there is way too much to cover in one post. In most cases, it’s too much for one book, whether it’s history or fiction. So today, I’ll start by outlining the conflict in general. In future posts, I’ll discuss some of the components and the key players in greater detail.

For most Europeans who study history, the Thirty Years War is a  big deal. If you’re American, the interest in the Civil War is pretty equivalent, reenactors and all.

Nearly all of the countries of Europe were involved at some point, and the area comprising modern-day Germany and Austria, as well as parts of The Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, France and the Czech Republic were completely devastated. As Peter Wilson puts it:

Nonetheless, even in the twenty-first century, German authors could assert that ‘never before and also never since, not even during the horrors of the bombing during the Second World War, was the land so devastated and the people so tortured’ as between 1618 and 1648 (Europe’s Tragedy: A New History of the Thirty Years War, pg. 6)

However, if you think that such a horrible and significant conflict would have clearly defined reasons for starting, think again.There was more than one cause, and different countries got involved for different reasons.

Some of those reasons went  back nearly a hundred years, to the beginning of the Protestant Reformation (More about that in a future post). But it was much more than just a religious conflict. Europe was also in the midst of political, military and economic convulsions that eventually played out in this conflict.

The fun began in Bohemia, a kingdom within the Habsburg Empire, that revolted when a new Habsburg emperor, Ferdinand II, came to power. The Bohemian nobility was largely Lutheran, and since Ferdinand was known for his hard-core Roman Catholicism, they feared for their religious freedom.

The Bohemians threw out (literally, out the window) the Emperor’s representatives in Prague and proceeded to elect their own king, Frederick V, a German prince, who was also, confusingly, a Calvinist. Even more confusingly, his wife was the daughter of James I of England, who was not Catholic, but also neither Lutheran nor Calvinist.

As it turned out, James was not the useful ally his son-in-law had hoped for, and initial support from other German Protestant leaders was also virtually non-existent. It seemed that no one except for the rebels actually wanted a war.

Before long, Frederick and the Bohemians were soundly defeated, and that should have been the end of it, except it wasn’t. The fighting continued somewhat sporadically until Denmark got involved in 1625, for confusing reasons I still don’t understand.  Finally defeated in 1629, Denmark went home, and Sweden invaded Germany in 1630.

The Swedes had a spectacular king in Gustavus Adolphus, and Germany would probably be Sweden today if he hadn’t inconveniently (for the Swedes) died in battle.  Still Sweden carried on for three years after their king’s death,without making much progress. It was time to ask for help from France.

Even though the French king and his henchman, Cardinal Richelieu (of Three Musketeers fame) were Catholic, confusingly, France came in on the side of the Protestants.  But that’s also a story for another day.

The whole thing finally got wrapped up via the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 because all parties were exhausted and/or dead. Except for the French and Spanish, who kept at it for another ten years or so.

As you’ll soon find out, my story is going to compact the chronology- I don’t want to take thirty years to tell it. I’m looking to capture the spirit, rather than the letter, as it were. You can thank me now, because this gross oversimplification is an act of mercy, as any of you who’ve read Wilson’s tome (linked above) can attest.

Spain of the Golden Age at a glance

Unfortunately, it look like this book is in Spanish. The excerpt sounds marvelous!

Sellswords, mercenaries and condottieri

ʻEveryone fought, from the Duke of Alba, a Spanish grandee, to Pizarro, a swineherd. They all fought: noblemen and labourers, shepherds and burghers, scholars and magnates, clergymen and rogues, clerks and knights. Every region of Spain sent its sons to fight. Garcilaso, Ercilla, Cetina, Alcázar, Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Calderón fought. An entire people fought, without differences of class, loyalty, duty, profession or wealth.
‘They fought over the Andes and in the Alpine foothills, on the plains of the Po and on the Mexican plateau; beside the Tiber against the Pope, and beside the Mapocho against Arauco; on the banks of the River Plate and the Danube, the Elbe and the Tagus, the Orinoco and the Escalda; at Pavia and Cuzco, in the Alpujarras and in the Amazon jungles, in Tunisia and in Amberes, in the Gulf of Lepanto and off the English coast, at Navarino and Terceira, in La…

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