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The Czech Estates Uprising and the Thirty Years War

Neither Matthias nor his brothers had any offspring. The successor to the monarchy in Central Europe and therefore also king of the lands of the Bohemian Crown was supposed to be a member of one of the Hapsburg branches – the Styrian line or the Spanish line. A family agreement designated Ferdinand of Styria as successor. He was only accepted as Bohemian king by the estates assemblies, not elected. Although he pledged to observe the estates’ freedoms in his oath, including Rudolph’s Letter of Majesty, he had no intention of keeping his promise.

The Catholic faction in the kingdom heightened tensions. In 1617, the authorities in the Benedictine demesne closed an evangelical church in Broumov. In the town of Hrob, a non-Catholic church was even torn down on the archiepiscopal estate. Both occurrences were indisputable breaches of the religious freedom guaranteed by Rudolph’s Letter of Majesty, and they signified the implementation of the imperial principle of “he who rules, his creed reigns,” which was invalid in the Czech lands.  The non-Catholic estates complained in vain to Emperor Matthias.

Even despite a ban by the rule, they congregated in Prague.  On 23 May 1618, an estates delegation led by Jindřich Matyáš Thurn set off for Prague Castle. The nobles accused the governor of breaching the estates’ freedoms. Arriving in the role of jury, they confirmed the accusation and as a punishment they threw Jaroslav Bořita of Martinice, Vilém Slavata and the scribe Fabricia out of a window into the castle moat.  Luckily for those thrown out the window, this did not result in any fatalities.

This third defenestration of Prague unleashed the Thirty Years War in Europe. In the course of this conflict, the population in the Czech lands declined by a third. Religious freedom disappeared and the only permitted faith was the Catholic religion. Non-Catholics had to choose between emigration or abandoning their faith. Many chose to depart the country. Confiscations were carried out to an extent that had not been seen until then. The disaffected estates elected a thirty-member government (with ten members from each estate) in place of Ferdinand II.  In June 1619 a general assembly of the estates of the lands of the Bohemian Crown gathered and reformed the state as a confederation of countries. It expressly declared that Ferdinand had been deposed from the throne. It elected Frederick of the Palatinate (Fridrich Falcký) as the new king (1619–1620). Frederick was a professed Calvinist who had married the daughter of the English King James.

Unlike the Czech estates, Ferdinand II (1620–1637) succeeded in ensuring that he got help from his allies. On 8 November 1620, the decisive battle for the uprising took place at White Mountain (Bílá Hora) near Prague.  It lasted two hours and the poorly paid and demoralized estates’ army lost the battle. Frederick of the Palatinate escaped from Prague shortly after receiving news of the defeat.  Because of his short reign, he was given the derisory nickname of the Winter King. The Battle of White Mountain went down in Czech national history as the beginning of a “dark period” involving the decline of the Czech nation.

Ferdinand II applied the principle that all rights were forfeited as a result of the deplorable rebellion and the decision as to who would be admitted back into the fold depended solely on his merciful discretion.  On 21 June 1621, 27 leaders of the uprising were executed on the Old Town Square in Prague – 3 lords, 7 knights and 17 burghers. Frederick of the Palatinate lost his elector’s vote, which was transferred to a Bavarian duke who was an ally of Ferdinand II.

The accession of the Catholic faction was disquieting for the Protestant part of Europe. Consequently in 1625, an alliance was established between England, the Netherlands, Denmark and the Lower Saxony principalities against the Hapsburgs. They were supported by France, Transylvania and the Ottoman Empire. Albrecht von Wallenstein (Albrecht z Valdštejna), the general of the imperial forces managed to build an army and to defeat the emperor’s adversaries. He displayed the same talent when it came to the art of accumulating material assets and money. He had become immensely wealthy during the state bankruptcy of 1623, which he himself had helped precipitate.

In 1629 Ferdinand overwhelmingly defeated the first anti-Hapsburg coalition. Encouraged by his success, he attempted to implement the restitution of the property of the Catholic Church back to the situation that had existed before 1555. This only gave rise to a continuation of the war. In 1627 and 1628 he issued a Renewed Ordinance of the Land for Bohemia and Moravia.  This was a document of crucial significance, which adjusted the distribution of power in the state. The Renewed Ordinance of the Land entrenched the hereditary right of the Hapsburgs to succession.  The estates assembly lost the right to elect a king. All that remained to them was a very limited power to initiate legislation. After two hundred years, the ecclesiastical estate could once again sit in the assembly. The cities lost most of their rights. The only permitted religion was Catholicism and German was given rights equal to those accorded to Czech.

The Thirty Years War was continued by King Gustavus Adolphus (Gustavus II) of Sweden. The forces of his ally – Saxony – captured Prague in 1631. For a moment hopes revived among émigrés that they would be able to return to their homeland.  Saxony, however, concluded a separate peace in 1635. Naturally it didn’t do this for nothing, as it gained Lower and Upper Lusatia in the process.

The Hapsburgs could not revel in their victory over the Swedes for long. France, who was concerned about the excessive expansion of the Hapsburg monarchy, entered into a coalition with the Netherlands and Sweden in 1635. Swedish forces returned to Bohemia and Moravia. In 1645, the imperial army suffered a defeat in one of the bloodiest battles of the war at Jankau (Jankov) in Central Bohemia. During a final onslaught, the Swedes captured Prague’s Malá Strana (“Lesser Quarter”), Hradčany and Prague Castle in an effort to improve their position in peace negotiations. Nevertheless, the rest of the city was successfully defended thanks to the resident population. Peace negotiations took place in the Westphalian towns of Münster and Osnabrück. France and Sweden gained the most from the peace, while the sovereignty of the Netherlands was recognized for many decades. The Hapsburgs consolidated their position in Central Europe. For Czech émigrés, it meant the end of any hope of returning to their homeland. The most famous of these, John Amos Comenius – the last bishop of the Unity of Brethren and an important pedagogue, philosopher and writer – died in 1670, probably in the Dutch city of Naarden.