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.


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