Today, the 23rd of May, is the 388th anniversary of the second defenestration of Prague, one of my favourite historical events. The day that Calvinist Bohemians revolted, seized the ministers of the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor and flung them out a 15 metre high window in Prague Castle. The event triggered the terrible Thirty Years War, left parts of Germany devastated and depopulated for several generations and ultimately culminated in the Peace of Westphalia the first international agreement to acknowledge countries sovereignty over their internal affairs.
C. V. Wedgewood in her classic The Thirty Years War described the incident like this:
A hundred hands dragged them towards the high window, flung back the casement and hoisted them upwards. Martinitz went first. “Jesu Maria! Help!” he screamed and crashed over the sill. Slavata fought longer, calling on the Blessed Virgin and clawing at the window frame under a rain of blows until someone knocked him senseless and the bleeding hands relaxed. Their shivering secretary clung to Schlick for protection; out of sheer intoxication the crowd hoisted him up and sent him to join his masters.
One of the rebels lent over the ledge leering; “We will see if your Mary can help you!” A second later between exasperation and amazement, “By God, his Mary has helped,” he exclaimed, for Martinitz was already stirring. Suddenly a ladder protruded from a neighbouring window; Martinitz and the secretary made off under a hail of misdirected missiles. Some of Slavata’s servants, braving the mob, went down to his help and carried him after the others, unconscious but alive.
A pile of manure, piled by chance at the bottom of the wall by gardeners, broke their fall. Many Catholics later claimed they were born down gently by angels. As you can see in the following photo it’s quite a way down.
From memory they were thrown from the first window on the left in the side wall, in the second row from the top.
With the ministers defenestrated and Prague in rebel hands the new leaders began looking for allies. After the death of the Holy Roman Emperor Mattias on the 20th of March 1619, Fredrick V, Elector of Palatine became King of Bohemia in defiance of the wishes of the old Emperor and the new who otherwise would have inherited the title. The Bohemian rebellion spread, and throughout 1619 they successfully waged war into Austria, gaining support of the Austrian Lutherans.
Its glory was short lived. By 1620, supported by the Spanish Hapsburgs and the Catholic League, (comprising Bavaria and other Catholic Germanic states), the Bohemians and their allies were put on the defensive. At the battle of White Mountain the Bohemian’s armies where defeated, Frederick fled the country and he and his wife Elizabeth (Charles I of England’s sister) became known to history as the winter King and Queen, due to the brevity of their rule. Despite the desperate failure of this mission, the pair went on to have many children, most notably Electress Sophia of Hanover, patron of Leibniz and from whom, as a result of the 1701 Act of Settlement, all Kings and Queens of England must descend. In the aftermath of the defeat in Bohemia, Elizabeth wrote this letter to her father James I:
I do not wish to importune your Majesty with a very long letter. The Baron de Dona will not fail to inform your Majesty of the misfortune that has befallen us and which has compelled us to leave Prague, and to come to this place, where God knows how long we shall remain. I therefore most humbly entreat your Majesty to protect the king and myself by sending us succor; otherwise we shall be brought to utter ruin. It is your Majesty alone, next to Almighty God, from whom we expect assistance. I most humbly thank your Majesty for the favorable declaration you have been pleased to make respecting the preservation of the Palatinate. I most humbly entreat you to do the same for us here and to send us sufficient succor to defend ourselves against our enemies; otherwise I do not know what shall become of us. I therefore again entreat your Majesty to have compassion on us, and not to abandon the king at this hour, when he is in such great need. As to myself, I am resolved not to leave him; for if he should perish, I will perish also with him. But whatever may happen, never, never shall I be other than, sire,
Your Majesty’s most humble and obedient daughter and servant, ELIZABETH.
BRESLAU, November 23/13, 1620.
There was little help forthcoming and the pair found eventual refuge in The Hague.
The tensions and quarrels that caused the Thirty Years War are of course much deeper than this one farcical incident in Prague. The reformation, the revolt of the Netherlands, and the Bourbon-Hapsburg power struggle were all ready to be triggered. The struggle involved at various stages most of the surrounding countries. Eventually both the Danes and then the Swedes intervened in succession to defend the cause of Protestantism in Germany. The Swedes then at the height of their power under one of the greatest generals in history Gustavus Adolphus saw great success until Gustavus’s death during the battle of Lutzen. Finally the French intervened, and in the process broke the Hapsburg supremacy in Europe.
The destruction in Germany was immense. Estimates indicate that around 20 percent of the population may have been killed, and certainly many more in parts where the fighting was most intense. It was a vast catastrophe and had the sort of lasting impact that the two World Wars of the twentieth century had in recent times.