A Family Powershare

The various routes for the Spanish Road. Cooperation with both Italian states like Savoy and the Empire were considered vital. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

By the 1590s and 1600s the Dutch Rebellion cast an ever larger shadow into German affairs. Now into its third decade, the war had descended into a brutal holding pattern, and the Holy Roman Empire was key to the ongoing war. Now under the less able leadership of Philip III,[1] Spain’s choices for resupplying her armies in the Netherlands were either utilizing the English Channel, which was like threading a needle that explodes when touched on either side, or using what was called the Spanish Road. Confusingly for a road, this still involved maritime travel. Spanish troops were sent through Spain’s Italian possessions, then through a bending network of allied Catholic German states to the Netherlands. Naturally this connection was both tenuous and constantly fluxing as France under Henry IV tried their best to disrupt the road. Needless to say Spain took a strategic interest in the western Empire, an endless source of worry for the region’s Calvinists and Lutherans.[2] Perhaps a better emperor could have held this tension in check, but Imperial leadership was not at its best.

Like his predecessors the Emperor Rudolf II[3] was less interested in the religious hangups of his subjects. Unlike other Hapsburgs though, Rudolf seemed less interested in most of the trappings of power in general, and often struggled with bouts of “melancholy”.[4] Instead he preferred to indulge his taste for science, art, the occult, and affairs with likely both men and women. While respectively the qualities probably would have made him an excellent museum curator and a fantastic addition to any Game of Thrones style drama, Rudolf unnerved his brothers and the Spanish Hapsburgs. In the words of an Austrian noble:

“His majesty is interested only in wizards, alchemists, Kabbalists and the like, sparing no expense to find all kinds of treasures, learn secrets and use scandalous ways of harming his enemies…He also has a whole library of magic books. He strives all the time to eliminate God completely so that he may in future serve a different master.”[5]

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Emperor Rudolf II. The cover image, by Vertumnus is the more nutritious version of his portrait. Photo Credit: Joseph Heintz

Doubtless much of this was a bit of a smear and exaggeration, but it was hard to ignore that alongside the likes of astronomers like Johannes Kepler, Rudolf’s court in Prague attracted 200 or so alchemists and other ominous figures like John Dee and Nostradamus. The latter even dedicated a horoscope to Rudolf, which was probably the old charlatan’s version of a Hallmark birthday card.[6] As for the spell books, Rudolf did go out of his way to purchase things like the legendary Voynich Manuscript. To the delight of 13 year old boys ever since, the Emperor also had quite a taste for erotic artwork. Insofar as he took an interest in the topic of the religious schism, Rudolf’s bright idea for unity was that everyone could do with some team building exercises. This of course meant a massive new campaign against the Ottomans, an enemy everyone could rally behind attacking, at least in Rudolf’s mind.

As with Ancient Rome and the Persians, there were several buffer states jammed in between the Hapsburgs and their Ottoman foes. The states of Moldavia, Wallachia, and Transylvania changed hands and loyalties with dizzying frequency, depending on whichever power in the region was waxing at the time. Rudolf’s glorious crusade plowed into these little territories, and immediately got mired in a mixture of local politics and prolonged sieges. The resulting war “Long War”[7] dragged from 1593-1606 at great financial and human cost. As passive aggressive grumbling in Germany turned into very aggressive shooting, the men both Catholic and Protestant alike would turn to for leadership would all cut their teeth in this war; figures like Count Thurn, Tilly, Wallenstein, and even John Smith of Jamestown would all spend some time on the front lines.

In the end, both sides signed on to the Peace of Zsitvatorok out of pure exhaustion; agreeing to swap some fortresses and Transylvania’s nominal sovereignty in a way that left the Ottomans slightly ahead. However, both the cost and Rudolf’s increasingly erratic decisions in the war raised more eyebrows among his Hapsburg relatives.

An Ottoman miniature of the Battle of Mezoke in 1596. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

In 1605, tired of the fighting and sensing a chance to throw off the Hapsburg kings they had never asked for the Hungarians launched into an open revolt. Sensing his opportunity, Rudolf’s younger brother Matthias stepped forward to negotiate the terms of the peace on Rudolf’s behalf. Over the next several years Matthias, then governor of Austria, began to acquire more of his elder brother’s titles and responsibilities. The end for Rudolf came in 1609 as Bohemia’s majority Protestant population made their own bid for local governance. While the Emperor first issued a Letter of Majesty guaranteeing their right to worship in Hapsburg territory, when the revolt didn’t subside Rudolf tried to clamp down more forcefully. It was the final crisis that gave Matthias the chance he was looking for, and in 1611 he forcibly removed his brother from power. While Matthias would prove to be a competent emperor, he would struggle and fail to defuse the growing religious discontent brewing in the Empire.

[1] “God has given me all these kingdoms, and a son unfit to rule them”. Philip II on his successor

[2] Already in 1583-1588 the Spanish forcefully intervened in the Cologne War to depose a newly converted Protestant ruler. It would put anyone on edge.

[3] Reigning from 1576-1612ish.

[4] His contemporary’s term. In all likelihood Rudolf suffered from depression, which was one of those unwelcome gifts that Hapsburg intermarriage kept right on giving to each successive generation.

[5] BBC (2008). Rudolph II. In Our Time.

[6] Like many prophetic arrows, later “historians” have drawn a bullseye around some of Nostradamus’ prophecies to claim he predicted the overthrow of Rudolf by his brothers.

[7] A name about to acquire some truly ominous irony in our case.


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