The (second) Prague Defenestration

Count Jindrich Matyas Thurn, seen here looking as prickly as possible. Photo Credit: Matheus Mausen

Within Bohemia a collection of nobles called the Defenses were in charge of enforcing the Letter of Majesty’s conditions, and they were understandably concerned that any promises Ferdinand and his Jesuit advisors were making were just to mollify them until he had ascended the imperial throne. They had also seen Ferdinand’s preferred modus operandi in his own territories of Austrian Styria, where he had essentially purged the region of Protestants with any kind of authority. One of the most prominent Defenses was Count Jindric Matyas Thurn, a close friend of Frederick’s advisor Christian of Anhalt. Thurn was all too aware that Bohemia had become a kingdom sized set of training wheels for would be emperors, a place where they could rule without causing national havoc if they were a failure. Technically though, even as a formality the Bohemian king was elected, and Thurn hoped to stonewall Ferdinand at the elections. Maybe a deadlock would force the Hapsburgs to seek out another candidate. Unfortunately, his Catholic adversaries were better organized than Thurn. The Catholic Lords in the region, Counts Martinic, Slavata, Burgrave Adam von Sternberg, and their shadowy leader Chancellor Lobkowitz timed the vote perfectly and Ferdinand became King of Bohemia in 1617.

Ferdinand didn’t waste time pretending he was going to make nice, and within a few months portions of the Letter had been revoked. Protestant Chapels that were being built on ceded royal lands were demolished or stopped, and when the local Bohemians objected Ferdinand simply abolished the Estates and arrested the protesting nobles. Ferdinand’s work amounted to flinging rocks at a hornet’s nest, and the Bohemians decided they didn’t want to take this lying down. Still just heir apparent, Thurn and the others wrote to Matthias in Vienna, asking for clarification on the Letter and received a note in return from Lobkowitz defending the decision. What the letter said was unsurprising, but what really got everyone’s attention was its speedy arrival. Common Protestant consensus concluded there was no way the roads from Prague to Vienna were that good and it was assumed one of those local thorns in their side like Martinic or Slavata must have drafted the message instead. Truly it says nothing good about the reliability of communication when a timely message is not just an outlier, but grounds for conspiracy.

When a delegation including Martinic, Slavata, Sternberg and Lobkowitz arrived in Prague to discuss the matter. The meeting on May 23, 1618 didn’t start quite as they might’ve liked. A small mob of Protestant nobles organized by Thurn greeted them in the meeting room and a cohort read off a copy of the royal letter they had received. Thurn demanded to know the author of this clear forgery, and mob justice was clearly the tune to the next dance. Sensing the metaphorical torches and pitchforks, Lobkowitz asked for a bit of time to confer with his superiors. Thurn refused. The crowd was furious, but disciplined, and systematically rooted through the Catholic delegation. Ironically Lobkowitz the possible author was let free, as was Adam von Sternberg as both were considered too pious to have pulled off such knavery. Suspicion and a lot of angry fists now fell on Slavata and Martinic. Deciding they were the responsible parties, Thurn turned to the crowd and declared:

“Were we to keep these men alive, then we would lose the Letter of Majesty and our religion… for there can be no justice to be gained from or by them”.[1]

The top window in question. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

In a deliberate echo of a Prague defenestration past, the crowd seized the counts and pitched them screaming out of the nearest window, 70 feet above the ground. Slavata struggled, clinging frantically to the window sill until one of the enraged nobles smashed his fingers with the flat of a sword. Still high on adrenaline, they seized the count’s secretary and tossed him out of the window as well. With a shriek the man joined the others in the ditch below. It’s hard to imagine the feelings of the crowd. This was a deliberate and calculated act of defiance, a thrown gauntlet at the feet of Ferdinand, the Hapsburgs, and the Pope himself. Whatever they were expecting though, it probably wasn’t what one man saw when he glanced out the window for a final taunt, “’We will see if your Mary can help you!’ A second later between exasperation and amazement, ‘By God, his Mary has helped!’”[2]

All three men were already twitching. Martinic was crawling over to his more wounded friend, and with the help of the secretary bundled him into the house of their comrade Lobkowitz as the furious Praguers began to take pot shots from the windows above. Martinic and the secretary then skedaddled as fast as their legs would take them to raise the alarm in Vienna.

It’s worth a detouring side note here. The comic farce of the window based eviction would be the subject of pamphlet fights for the rest of the war. Catholics declared the miraculous fall of the three men a sign of the blessed Virgin’s intervention. Angels had descended and grabbed the faithful, dropping them with only a blessedly mild concussion on the ground. The less divine, and more likely correct Protestants argued that the story was a literal pile of bullshit, in that a refuse pile beneath the castle walls had likely broken the Catholic’s fall.[3]

When Ferdinand learned that his Catholic messengers in Bohemia had been shown the window, he had been sitting down to a rather satisfying bit of lunch. He had just gotten word the Hungarian Diet had named him King, which must have felt nice. His cousin was on death’s door, and it seemed like he was about to become Emperor. The news took him and everyone else by complete surprise, and he soon scrambled for reinforcements.

Likewise in Bohemia Count Thurn and his allies knew their chances of survival were slim if the revolt stayed local. The Defenestration had been a call to national resistance, a historic echo of the Hussites. As Thurn and the others remembered though, the Hussites had been subjected to no fewer than five crusader invasions. It was doubtful the Bohemians would be as lucky in a second round of wars as they had been the first time.[4] Thurn was able to badger the region’s Protestants into declaring their freedom from Ferdinand, though critically they claimed they did not oppose the ailing Emperor. Thurn hoped the distinction would downplay Spanish intervention, and just appear like a veto of a specific Hapsburg.

Piles of poop especially, it is difficult to see how the Bohemian revolt was any more or less trivial than the other conflicts that had roiled the Empire in recent years. From 1615-1617, ending just the year before, the Hapsburgs and Venice had fought a minor flairup over some Albanian pirates known as the Uskoks. Certainly, some of the princes even took steps to defuse the situation. Johann Georg, the moderate Lutheran Elector of Saxony, and Maximilian of Bavaria both wrote letters to the rebels, urging them to seek arbitration. Matthias was on death’s door, but there was still might be time to secure the Bohemians a fresh concession that might assuage them. All it would take was a little compromise on both sides, and for Matthias to linger on just a little longer.

Karl Sovoboda presents a more chaotic and appropriate take on the defenestration.

But peace was hardly on everyone’s mind, and a few shoves in the right direction were all it took to start the avalanche. Even as the first wave of imperial forces crossed the border into Bohemia, Count Thurn received a note from Christian of Anhalt. A mercenary army, paid for by the Duke of Savoy and the Elector Palatine Frederick, under the leadership of the veteran Ernst von Mansfeld[5] was on its way. There were clear strings behind the offer, and Thurn agreed to offer the crown of Bohemia to Frederick. Christian especially saw the rebellion as his crowded hour. Even though the majority of the Protestant faction was opposed to intervention, Christian was certain they would fall into line when the time came. Staring at the chessboard of European politics, Christian saw his endgame in Millenially apocalyptic terms. The Netherlands, England, Denmark, Savoy, Sweden, and even Transylvania would all be pulled into a war that would finally shatter the Hapsburgs. Frederick would sire a line of kings that would rule for centuries.

In a sense, all these things would come to pass. Though certainly not in the way that Christian envisioned. As the hawks and doves in Germany flew back and forth making their case, it looked like a settlement might be reached. Thurn agreed to send some envoys to a general conference scheduled for the city of Eger in April 1619. Then on March 20th, 1619, Emperor Mathias died.

[1] Heifferich, T. (2015). The Essential Thirty Years War: A Documentary History. Hackett Publishing.

[2] Wedgwood, C.V. (2005). The Thirty Years War.

[3] As a final postscript, the real winner of this sordid tale was the secretary Phillipus Fabricius. After surviving his close encounter with the ground, Fabricius was ennobled for his sacrifice. Proving that the Hapsburgs had a delicious sense of humor, his family title became Baron von Hohenfall, or “Baron of High Fall”.

[4] After 15 years of fighting every comer and still finding time for an internal civil war, the Hussites had won a compromise of sorts from their imperial masters. Utraquist doctrine was still the going faith in Bohemia in 1618, and a major source of the tensions here.

[5] “The whole world was his oyster and the sword his best tool to open it”. C.V Wedgwood on Mansfeld.


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