On 23 May 1618, three figures fluttered down from a high window of the Castle Hradshin in the heart of Prague. Landing in a convenient heap of rubbish, they escaped with their lives. Thus began the Thirty Years War.
The men had been flung from the window as the culmination of disputes between the Protestant nobility of Bohemia and their overlord Matthias II, Holy Roman Emperor and leader of the Habsburg House of Austria.
The religious situation in Bohemia was complex: the Habsburg rulers were staunch defenders of the Roman church. The Bohemian population was divided among a Catholic minority (many of them associated with the Habsburg court) and various species of Protestant. Among these were the Utraquists, followers of Jan Hus. These were technically a species of Catholic, their worship differing in that laymen were permitted to receive the Holy Communion in both kinds; bread and wine. There were also true Protestants: Lutherans and Calvinists both. The intellectual influence of the latter was such that the Hussites had gradually imbibed their doctrines and has become so further estranged from the Roman church that they could be considered as true Protestants.
As a result of disputes between Matthias and his brother Rudolph (the so-called “Brothers’ War” of 1609), the Bohemian Estates had received a charter, the “Letter of Majesty”. This contained guarantees of their rights, among them religious freedom, together with the right of a committee of nobles, the Defensores, to ensure those privileges remained respected.
The Letter of Majesty was ambiguous on one point: whether lands of the Catholic Church were held from the King. If they were, then Protestants could build churches and worship freely on these crown lands; if not, then the Catholic landholder could prohibit Protestantism on his ecclesiastical property.
In 1617 the ecclesiastical rulers of Broumov (Branau) and Hroby (Klostergrab) took over or destroyed Protestant churches and forbad further heretical worship. In this they were supported by Matthias’s regents, Martinic and Slawata.
A letter of protest to Matthias received a curt and unsatisfactory response. Further protests by the assembled Protestant nobility were answered, in letter dated 21 March 1618, with an order to disperse.
Instead, the Protestant Estates defiantly assembled in Prague on 18 May 1618.
The more radical leaders of the Protestant nobility, under the leadership of Count Matthias Thurn, met on 22 May 1618. They determined to confront the regents on the following day. It was an that meeting that the regents (and a clerk in their employ) were flung from the window in the “Defenestration of Prague.”
With the attempted murder of his regents, little hope of reconciliation of King and nobles remained. The Bohemian Estates, protesting (like all early modern rebels) their undying devotion to the monarch and hatred of his faithless ministers, prepared for war.
In the immediate aftermath of the Defenestration, the Bohemians moved swiftly.
On 24 May 1618, the very day following the defenestration, the Defenestrators published an appeal to their fellow Protestants and justification of their actions: the “Apologia.” With this in hand, Bohemian emissaries began to canvas opponents of the House of Austria for support.
On 25 May 1618, the government of Bohemia was placed under the control of a committee of thirty, with civil matters under the control of William Ruppa and military matters consigned to Matthias Thurn. These then raised taxes, confiscated Catholic lands, ejected the hated Jesuits from the realm, and ordered a leveé en masse.
All Bohemia joined the rebels, save the cities of Krummau, Pilsen and Budweis.
The precipitate actions of the Bohemians presented the other Habsburg lands in the East with a dilemma: whether to join the Bohemians, assist the Emperor or remain neutral. For the moment, the last course was the one adopted.
On 26 June 1618 the Estates of Moravia assembled at Olomouc (Olmutz). Under the influence of Karel Žerotín, a Moravian elder statesman in whose character combined absolute rectitude, devout Protestantism and strict loyalty to the House of Austria, the Estates determined to remain loyal to the Emperor.
As a matter of prudence in troubled times, they did raise an army. Albrecht Eusebius Wenzel Waldstein, an obscure, but Catholic, nobleman, was made commander of the infantry. This is the man who was to rise to fame under the Germanized form of his name: Wallenstein.
On 3 July 1618 the Silesian Estates assembled at Breslau. They also determined to remain neutral but raise an army, a force of 6,000 to be retained within Silesia as a defensive measure.
The appointment of Johann-Georg von Jägerndorf as general over the Silesian force somewhat belied the Silesian’s claim of neutrality. Johann-Georg was embroiled in a dispute with the Emperor, who claimed Johann-Georg’s lands had escheated to the state.
For the moment, Upper Lusatia too determined to play a waiting game.
The Habsburg domains in Austria and Hungary were even less supportive of Ferdinand’s cause. The Hungarians and Upper and Lower Austrians refused to subsidize his wars; the Upper Austrians went so far as to fortify the passes and deny his troops passage (although they later repented and even voted a small subsidy).
One of the motivations for the rebel’s acts was undoubtedly fear that Matthias would soon be replaced on the throne by Ferdinand of Styria, the future Emperor Ferdinand II. Jesuit-educated Ferdinand was a staunch defender of the Roman church who had succeeded in re-Catholicizing his previously Protestant domains of Carniola and Styria.
Ferdinand had been selected by the family as heir apparent for all of the Habsburg lands in central Europe. To effectuate this, it was necessary for various other members of the House to renounce their expectations, for others to appoint him heir and lastly for Ferdinand to be presented to the Estates or Diet or other assemblage to be accepted or elected as heir.
It was unclear whether the Bohemian throne was elective or hereditary in the Habsburgs. In either event, in 1617 Matthias had engineered Ferdinand’s acceptance or election as heir to the Bohemian throne.
Ferdinand opposed negotiation with the rebels. Fearing that Matthias II would conclude a dishonorable peace with his future subjects, Ferdinand acted.
Matthias, old, sick and befuddled, was entirely dependent on his chief minister, Cardinal Khlesl. Khlesl had long been an opponent of Ferdinand, whom he saw as a threat to his power. Further, it was Khlesl who, in the face of the Bohemian rebellion, was dispatching emissaries to negotiate.
Ferdinand acted. On 20 July 1618 he arrested Khlesl and spirited him off to a castle in the Tirol.
Matthias, without his trusted servitor, was rendered powerless. From that moment, it was Ferdinand who ruled.
This represented a triumph for the Spanish arm of the House of Austria. Ferdinand, and the war party he led, has received support from the Spanish Ambassador, Count Oñate. The Spanish were determined to reverse what they saw as a decline in the prestige, the reputacion, of the House of Austria.
Outsiders from the West were also interesting themselves in affairs in Prague. Augustus von Solms had been dispatched by Elector Frederick of the Palatinate as an emissary to the Bohemian rebels.
He appeared in Prague in early September 1618 and began assuring the Directors that his master would procure support for them in Germany and prevent Ferdinand from recruiting troops there. The Bohemians had high hopes that Frederick could bring the support of the Protestant Union, a league of German Protestant princes of which Fredeerick was head, as well as of Frederick’s father-in-law James I of England and brother-in-law the Elector of Brandenburg.
Karel Žerotín and a Moravian delegation appeared soon after. In contrast to the blandishments of the Germans, they offered no more than that Moravia would stand surety for the observance of the Bohemian liberties would the Kingdom but reconcile to its King. The offer was politely rejected, and Žerotín returned to Vienna empty-handed.
Despite the nominal neutrality of Silesia, Johann-Georg von Jägerndorf could barely be persuaded against sending his forces into Bohemia in support of the rebels.
Pressed on by this firebrand, on 1 October 1618 the Silesian diet determined to send 4,000 troops into Bohemia to aid the rebellion, although they did not formally join the rebellion.
In mid-June 1618 Thurn was dispatched to reduce Krummau and Budweis to obedience with the raw recruits raised by the Bohemian levee.
The Duke of Savoy, fearful of Spanish power in northern Italy, had raised an army in anticipation of the war of Mantuan Succession. When peace broke out he dispatched that army to the aid of the Bohemian rebels. They arrived in Bohemia in August 1618.
The force was commanded by Ernst von Mansfeldt, illegitimate son of the former Habsburg governor of the Southern Netherlands and an experienced mercenary commander.
The city of Pilsen in eastern Bohemia had remained loyal to the Emperor. In the fall of 1618, Mansfeldt’s forces moved against the place. After several weeks of siege, the town fell on 21 November 1618.
Ferdinand, with the aid of Spanish subsidies, was able to raise an army to suppress the rebellion. This army, under the Flanders veteran Count Bucquoy, invaded southern Bohemia.
They had been given free passage through Moravian territory by decision of the Moravian Estates. They advanced as far as Cáslav, before being pushed back by Mansfeldt and troops dispatched by the Silesians’ allies.
By early November, Bucquoy was at bay within the walls of Budweis. Mansfeldt left a blocking force under Hohenlohe before the walls and pressed forward into Austria, whose borders his army crossed on 25 November 1618.
Short on supplies and hampered by the lateness of the season, he did not advance far. Instead he turned back to Moravia. The Moravian diet had assembled on 4 December 1618. Thurn appeared with a cavalry escort designed to intimidate the assembly. Nonetheless, at Žerotín;’s urging the Moravians remained loyal to the Emperor.
The campaigning season over, the parties attempted to prepare themselves for the next spring’s contest. The Elector Palatine attempted to garner support for the rebellion from Savoy, who would promise nothing absent intervention by one of the great powers, and his father-in-law James I of England, who would promise nothing at all.
The Emperor, meanwhile, was attempting to procure mediation of the dispute by the Protestant Electors of Brandenburg and Saxony, the Catholic Archbishop Elector of Mainz and the Catholic Duke of Bavaria, Maximillian. Neither the Bohemians (nor, indeed, the Emperor himself) were particularly serious about this conference.
Emperor Matthias II died in 20 March 1619 at Vienna. This complicated Ferdinand’s position further since, as the House of Austria’s designated heir, would now have to seize the reins of all of the disparate Habsburg realms.
The Upper Austrians politely rebelled, asserting that upon the death of Matthias rulership had passed to Archduke Albrecht. They refused to follow any other Habsburg, and, as Albrecht was old, ill and in the far-away Netherlands, this meant that they intended to follow no Habsburg at all.
Pending the arrival of Albrecht, in April 1619 government was placed in the hands of a committee of Protestant noblemen, who swiftly allied themselves with the Bohemians.
The Lower Austrian Protestants too were restive, presenting Ferdinand with innumerable petitions and protests against infringement of their rights.
Save for Carniola, Styria and the Tirol, all of the Habsburg’s hereditary possessions. the Erbländer, were in ferment or open rebellion.
In mid-April 1619, the Bohemians, angered that Moravia had given free passage to the Emperor’s troops, dispatched an army of 10,000 under Thurn to invade that country. Upon the approach of the Bohemian army, the Estates removed Žerotín and the rest of Moravia’s former leaders and joined the Bohemian rebellion.
When the Moravians changed sides Wallenstein fled to Vienna with a few of his soldiers and all of the Moravians’ treasury.
Strengthened by the Moravian armies, in early May 1619 Thurn advanced into Lower Austria. He took the city of Laa and crossed the Danube at Fischamend. In June 1619 the rebels stood before the walls of Vienna.
Without a siege train, Thurn evidently expected that the city would fall to him by virtue of internal rebellion. It is certainly true that the Protestant nobility were restive, and on 5 June 1619 went so far as to menace Ferdinand in his own throne room. However, Ferdinand was not to be cowed. The timely arrival of a troop of Habsburg cavalry dispatched from the Netherlands by the King of Spain terrified the rebellious noblemen into inaction.
Seeing the pointlessness of further waiting before the Viennese walls, on 14 June 1619, Thurn withdrew.
In any event, there was need of Thurn’s troops in Bohemia.
Bucquoy’s army in Budweis had been strongly reinforced. When Bucquoy learned that Mansfeldt was moving from Pilsen to support Hohenloe’s troops beseiging Budweis, he sent out a force of his own from Budweis to ambush the relieving force.
On 10 June 1619 Mansfeldt’s army was brought to bay at the village of Záblati. The Bohemian force was utterly destroyed. Mansfeldt escaped with the remnants of his cavalry, but his entire infantry force was lost.
In the wake of the defeat, the rebels were forced to raise the siege of Budweis. On 15 June 1619 Hohenloe retreated to Sobyeslau where he awaited reinforcment by Thurn.
Bucquoy took control of the strong places of southern Bohemia and sent a force under Dampierre to Moravia to roll up the rebels there. However, Dampierre was defeated at Wisternitz in early August 1619.
Bucquoy himself began to march northward thrrough Bohemia. The rebel army, unpaid, ill-trained and badly led, was powerless to stop him. Hohenloe deployed his troops to block Bucquoy’s path to Prague, leaving him free rein elsewhere.