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Habsburg Rule of the Czech Lands

With the death of Ludwig Jagellon (he drowned in a swamp running away from the Turks at the Battle of Mohacs in 1526), the short-lived Czech-Hungarian Union fell to pieces, leaving both the Bohemian and the Hungarian thrones unoccupied. In this restless period, the Bohemian estates elected a new sovereign. Out of several candidates, they chose a member of a powerful family - the Habsburg Ferdinand I (1526-1564). Even he had to sign an electoral capitulation in which he undertook to uphold and respect the privileges of the estates. The Czech lands became part of a large combined state, which, besides them, principally comprised Austria and Hungary as well. With a few short-lived exceptions to Rudolph II, the sovereign's court moved permanently to Vienna from Prague.

What a window of opportunity for the Austrian Habsburgs! That Ferdinand I of Habsburg, also happened to be the late Ludwig Jagellon's brother-in-law helped his claim to the Bohemain and Hungarian thrones. In Bohemia, the weakened central authority did, too. At first, Ferdinand made concessions to the ever-powerful Estates. Soon, however, he began systematically to weaken the authority of the regional nobility and towns. His attempts to increase the central power of the Crown naturally met with the opposition of the Estates, and the whole situation culminated in an unsuccesful rebellion of the Estates in 1547.

The Estates' failure was Ferdinand's gain. He used this victory to increase royal authority and to weaken the position of the Estates and the towns even more. He also invited the Jesuits to come to the Czech lands, though they never held any inquisitions here and generally did not meddle in public affairs. Ostensibly fighting to maintain freedom of religion in the Czech lands against the resolutely Catholic policies of Ferdinand, the Estates struggled to regain their former power and influence.

These conflicts simmered under the surface of things as the Renaissance swept through the Czech lands. As defenders of the Catholic faith, the Habsburgs focused on religious wars against Protestants. At the same time war was being waged in the empire, the Bohemian estates also revolted against Ferdinand in the years 1546-1547. The uprising, however, was not supported by the countries adjacent to the Bohemian state, and the fate of the resistance was decided following the defeat of its main ally, the Duke of Saxony. The royal cities were punished the most.

Religious wars in the empire did not end with the victory of the Catholic side. By entrenching the principle of "cuis regio, eius religio" ("Whose region it is, his religion it is"), the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 legalized the profession of a protestant faith. Religion was governed by the faith of the ruler, and the population had to follow him in this faith. This signified a defeat for the Habsburgs, who had fought for a Catholic empire.

In 1556, Charles V stood down and Ferdinand I became emperor. The Peace of Augsburg did not apply in the kingdom of Bohemia, however. Besides the Compactata of permitted Catholic and Ultraquist churches, Lutherans and Czech Brethren also operated illegally within the kingdom. At the Council of Trent, the Catholic Church declared its goal of re-Catholicization and the restoration of its status.

Ferdinand died 1564, and was succeeded hy Maximilian II. In 1561, the post of Archbishop of Prague was occupied for the first time since the Hussite era by Brus of Mohelnice. Czech Lutherans, Ultraquists, and the Bohemian Brethren agreed on a profession of faith in the so-called Bohemian Confession. This was supposed to ensure religious freedom and allow non-Catholic churches to have their own administration. In 1575, they submitted this to Maxmilian II (1564-1576). The sovereign did not have much room for maneuver in a situation where he needed the state assembly to approve a new tax and the election of his son Rudolph as king of Bohemia. Despite this, he only acknowledged the Bohemian Confession verbally without it being binding, but he never confirmed it in writing.

Maxmilian II was succeeded by Rudolf II. After assuming the Austrian throne, the Habsburg ruler and patron of the arts and sciences, Rudolf II (1576-1611) moved his court from Vienna to Prague - making him the last crowned King of Bohemia to live at Prague Castle. Rudolf II was a real character. He had a pet lion, he collected great art - including works by Da Vinci, Michaelangelo, and Rafael - he supported scientists such as Tycho de Brahe, Johannes Kepler as well as artists like Spranger and Von Aachen, and he was a personal friend of the legendary Prague Jewish leader, Rabbi Loew. It is said that he also financed the work of any number of quack alchemists (on his invitation John Dee and Edward Kelley spent time in Prague), and that he was a little soft in the head. It's possible that the Legend of Faust (who lived in Prague) originated at this time of scientific exploration.

The architectural style of the time was Baroque, which - like Rudolf II himself - was round and robust, flamboyant and a little gaudy. Baroque buildings like the Loreto and St Nicholas Church in Lesser Town Square are massive and grand. The statues that top them appear so heavy that they seem likely to fall and crush innocent passers-by.

Rudolf II, who suffered periods of dementia because of his acute case of syphilis, was forced by his family to resign in 1611. He had been forced during his reign to concede religious freedom to the Czech Protestants, and when his brother and successor, Matthias, tried to rescind them, mounting political tensions led the Czech Estates to rebel against the Habsburgs once again.

They began their rebellion in grand Czech style, with the Second Defenestration of Prague in 1618. In this second defenestration, two vice- regents of the Austrian monarch and some governors of the Czech lands were thrown out of a tower window at Prague Castle. They were not killed, however, as they fell onto a pile of garbage (mostly straw) which had accumulated in the castle moat. So it can be said that they (at least the non-Austrian of the throwees) were the world's first bouncing Czechs. To add insult to injury (or perhaps insult to insult?) the Bohemian diet of the Estates then elected Frederick V of the Palatinate (also known as Frederick Faltz or as "the Winter King") as their ruler, thinking that his father-in-law - the English King James I - would come to their aid. They could not have been more wrong.

This rebellion of the Czech Estates was particularly unsuccessful. It culminated in the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620, in which the Estates were incontrovertibly defeated by the Habsburgs. They had been successful only in sparking the Thirty Years' War, which was to devastate much of Europe. Incidentally, the then-mercenary, later-philosopher Rene Descartes fought at the Battle of the White Mountain on the side of the Habsburgs.

The Habsburgs, quite understandably, did not appreciate these disturbances which were emanating from the northern reaches of their empire. But the methods that they used to subdue the protestant Estates after the Battle of the White Mountain were extraordinarily harsh.

First, they executed 27 nobles - leaders of the Estates who had fought on the losing side against the Habsburgs at the Battle of the White Mountain - in Prague's Old Town Square in May 1621. Some of the heads of the decapitated leaders of the rebellion were then hung strategically around Prague - for instance, on the Old Town bridge tower of the Charles Bridge - to serve as an ominous reminder to the people of Who was Boss. (It is said that every year, at the exact hour and on the exact day that they were killed, the ghosts of the 27 wrongly-executed nobles can be seen haunting the spot where they lost their heads. The place today is marked by 27 crosses in the cobblestones of Old Town Square, next to the Astronomical Clock.) The heads hung there for 11 long and lonely years, before finally being taken down and given a proper burial by the Saxons, who occupied Prague in 1632 in the course of the Thirty Years' War.

The Thirty Years' War, which had begun in Prague, ended there, too. In 1648, the Swedes had succeeded in capturing the Lesser Quarter and plundering it and Prague Castle (carrying off many valuable artworks which decorate Swedish castles and palaces to this day). They were defeated by a ragtag force of Czech university students and residents of Prague's Jewish town on the Charles Bridge in the last battle of the Thirty Years' War. It is said that the Swedes were beseeched to come by the exiled Protestant leader, Comenius (Jan Amos Komensky) - he had wanted them to come to the aid of the by-now utterly defeated Protestant forces, but by the end of the war it was already too late.

As a result of all this tumult, the Czech lands lost the power to elect their own rulers, and the Czech crown was made hereditary for Habsburg rulers. The Habsburgs banned all religions other than Catholicism. The property of Protestant members of the nobility was confiscated and handed out to loyal Catholics.

Those Czech Protestants who weren't already in exile were forced to convert to Catholocism. Only a very few had the courage to continue to practice their religion in secret.

The population of the country had been halved by the sundry aftermath of the Battle of the White Mountain, and as fewer people also means fewer people paying tax, taxes were raised.

Things were pretty bad all around. The rich got richer, the poor got poorer, and the economy went into a deep recession. Luckily, it was high time for the Enlightenment to make an entrance. The administrative reforms of Maria Theresa and her son, Joseph II, did much to alleviate the situation.

These two rulers reduced the privileges of the now all-Catholic nobility (who are also - confusingly - known as the Estates, as the formerly Protestant nobility had also been called). They expelled the Jesuits in 1773, and they attempted to end social oppression by abolishing serfdom in 1781. In the same year, they issued the Edict of Tolerance, which permitted the free exercise of religion and the secularization of education, science and art. Prague's Jewish town is called "Josefov" to this day in honor of Josef II.

Austrian rule was relatively benign toward the Czechs. The Hapsburg Empire was more cosmopolitan than aggressively German, consisting of a hodgepodge of central and eastern European ethnic groups. German was the lingua franca, but beyond that, German speakers were not necessarily the only beneficiaries of Hapsburg policies. If, as Tomas Masaryk put it, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a "prison of nations," it was equally clear that some parts of the prison were distinctly better than others.

In comparison with Slovakia and Carpatho-Ukraine, both under Hungarian domination for centuries, the Czech lands were remarkably favored. The Austrians lacked the overweening chauvinism of their Hungarian counterparts. On the eve of World War I, German was mandatory neither as the language of instruction nor as a second language. Censorship of the Czech press was limited. Czech associations (the basis of the political parties of the First Republic) flourished in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Cultural organizations, newspapers, and theaters were all commonplace parts of Czech life.





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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:53:25 ZULU