Historical Campfire Stories: The Second Defenestration of Prague

The Second Defenestration of Prague is the coolest name for a historical event ever. It suggests someone tossed an entire city out a window, and not for the first time. It’s giggle-inducing, but don’t let that fool you. This is one of those events you should know about if you’re puzzled as to how the world got to be the way it is today.

In 1555, a treaty was signed at Augsburg which granted the princes of the Holy Roman Empire the right to establish religions in their own territories as they saw fit. This agreement made the legal division of Christendom into Catholic and Protestant states a permanent thing. Bohemia, now a part of the Czech Republic, was a kingdom of the Holy Roman Empire. It was a domain of the Catholic Habsburgs, but had a large Protestant population which included many nobles. You can probably see where this is going.

For 60 years after the Peace of Augsburg, two successive kings of Bohemia enforced a policy of toleration. Protestants were allowed to worship protestantly. Nobles and self-governing towns who chose Protestantism were allowed to endow religious institutions. There was even a proclamation granting Protestants the right to exercise their religion freely, and people were allowed to build churches on royal lands. Things were as copacetic as they could be in pre-modern Central Europe. Until 1618.

In 1617, the king, who was aging and had no children, named his cousin heir and had him elected king.  The cousin was a hard-line Catholic and a true believer in the counter-reformation. The next year, the new king persuaded the emperor to call a halt to the construction of some churches on royal land. The Protestant lords assembled to protest. The king had the emperor dissolve the assembly and relieve Count Thurn, an influential and outspoken Protestant, of his position as Castellan of Karlstadt.

The situation came to a head on May 23, 1618, in a meeting at the Bohemian Chancellory between members of the dissolved assembly (led by Count Thurn) and four Catholic Lords-Regent. The issue was a nasty letter from the emperor which had accompanied the dissolution of the Protestant assembly. The letter declared the lives and property of all the lords of the assembly forfeit, and they were afraid the Catholics were preparing to make good on that threat. They wanted to know, specifically, whether the four regents had anything to do with the letter or with convincing the king to take the hard line against Protestants.

After a bit of interrogation, the lords decided that two of the regents were too honorable and pious to use such a ploy and sent them from the room. Then they raked the other two over the coals for awhile. The two regents tried to stall for time by saying they needed to confer with a superior, who was not present, but could have the answer in a week or so. Things degenerated from there, and soon after, the lords threw the two regents and their secretary out this window:

The Castle of Prague

The Castle of Prague

Somehow, all three survived the 70-foot fall, though they were injured. I’ve heard three explanations for their survival.

  1. They were saved by divine intervention, probably by the Virgin Mary. (The Catholic pamphleteers’ version.)
  2. The were very fortunate that there happened to be a large dungheap just under the window. They fell into that, and they sure were lucky to get off with just being made to look ridiculous. (The Protestant pamphleteers’ version.)
  3. The style of clothing of the day provided lots of padding, and the wall slopes outward at the bottom, which greatly slowed their descent. (What some historians think.)

As if this weren’t hilarious enough already, one of the regents was later ennobled by the emporer and given the title Baron von Hohenfall (Baron of Highfall).

Once they’d thrown the regents out the window, there was really nothing the lords could do except arm for war and try to stir up a general uprising. That’s exactly what they did. The next year, the king of Bohemia was elected Holy Roman Emporer. The Bohemians deposed him as king and replaced him with a Calvinist. All this led to a battle in November, 1620 at Bila Hora (“White Mountain,”  in the vicinity of Prague at the time, now a part of the city). The battle in involved nearly 60,000 soldiers, the Catholics won, and Prague was sacked in the aftermath. This was one of the early battles of the 30 Years’ War.  Some people call it the first battle, because it marks the point at which the war expanded beyond Bohemia and Moravia.

The 30 Years’ War eventually engulfed all of Europe, and was the most cataclysmic armed conflict in European history up to that time. Until I read an article recently that said George R.R. Martin took his inspiration from the 100 Years’ War, I assumed he took it from this one. The series of treaties that ended it are known as the Peace of Wesphalia, and they established the legal definition of the modern state. Since I’ve recently had a few readers express an interest in some International Law pieces, I’ll have a post on the definition of statehood soon; that’s a good place to start with IL.

This is based on a real historical event, but written mostly from memory and intended to be entertaining, so check the facts for yourself. And really, shouldn’t you be doing that anyway? 😉

Image via Wikipedia

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7 thoughts on “Historical Campfire Stories: The Second Defenestration of Prague

  1. Great post. Religion has been such a wonderful force for good in the world. It is such a comfort to know we have changed so little and continue to kill for our beliefs is fantasy and fairy tales. (please read sarcastically).

    Like

  2. 200 years before in a similar incident, but not sure it was religiously motivated, a single person was flung out a window and killed. It was also over a political dispute of some sort. This one is usually just called “The” Defenestration of Prague because of the uprising & war. But it’s so much cooler to use the historically-proper version, because it adds something to the story.

    There were other, later ones also, I believe.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Historical Campfire Tales: General Jackson Does New Orleans | Things Matter

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