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The War Begins – The Defenestration of Prague (May 1618)

In May 1618, the Protestant and Hussite estates met at Prague to discuss what they perceived as interference on the part of Crown Prince Ferdinand of Styria in Bohemian affairs in general – and in matters of confessional co-existence in particular. During an attempted coup by Protestant regent Count Heinrich Matthias of Thurn (1567-1640), armed retainers working on his behalf pushed their way into the meeting room of Prague Castle. They singled out two Catholic regents, Jaroslav Borzita von Martinicz (1582-1649) and Wilhelm Slawata (1572-1652), accused them of plotting to subvert Bohemian religious liberty, and then threw them and a secretary out of a window. In doing this, they were deliberately reenacting the first defenestration (from the Latin word for window) of Prague in 1419, when seven city officials had been thrown from a castle window.

The rebellion grew as the Bohemian estates, controlled by Hussites and Protestants, formed a provisional government. They began canvassing Protestant Europe for allies and initiated a program of repression against Catholicism. The crisis deepened in May 1619, after the death of Emperor Matthias (r. 1612-19) and the Imperial and Bohemian succession of Crown Prince Ferdinand as Emperor Ferdinand II (r. 1619-37). The conflict now moved toward war. Ferdinand was elected emperor, but the rebels deposed him in favor of Elector Palatine Frederick V (1596-1632) who accepted and was crowned King of Bohemia. Meanwhile, military operations were indecisive until late in 1620, when the Imperial and Catholic League armies crushed the rebel forces at White Mountain (November 8, 1620). It was the first battle of what would come to be known as the Thirty Years War.

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On Wednesday, May 23rd, the eve of the Feast of the Ascension (1), at 8:30 in the morning, after the procession had been performed and the holy mass heard, four lord regents came from the main church St. Vitus to the Bohemian chancellery. They quickly carried all the chairs and benches except for a single chair out of the chancellery so that there would be enough room for the arriving Utraquist (2) lords. And at around nine o’clock, Utraquist lords from all three estates (3) began arriving in large numbers with their attendants and servants in the castle of His Imperial Majesty in Prague, [and] in the Bohemian chancellery. And [they] even went as far as the Council Chamber, which is due the greatest security and respect, without an appointment, with the greatest of importunity, so that the said chamber was full of these nobles and knights, and the burghers were mostly standing outside in front of the door, which thus had to remain wide open.

When the original four regents stood together in a window corner near the stove where they had more room, and hoped that there would be an answer of the Utraquists to His Imperial Majesty's letter, which had been received on Monday, in which they had once again been instructed quite gently not to meet again until His Imperial Majesty had arrived or sent other instructions.

Instead of this, they soon had a text read aloud in a clear voice by Lord Paul von Rziczan which went something like this: After Your Imperial Majesty sent their graces, the lord regents, a pointed letter, which we asked to be distributed after the original was read aloud. It quite shocked all the Utraquist estates, [for] in it Your Imperial Majesty already declared our lives and honor to be lost. [As it seemed] everyone meant to proceed against us with execution, we came to a unanimous agreement that we, at the risk of life and limb, honor and property, meant to stand firm together, all for one and one for all, and neither expect nor submit to any legally binding statement, but rather faithfully assist one another and protect each other to the utmost. Because, however, it was known that such a letter was the result of consultation with our religious enemies, we want to know and have asked those lords regent present whether some of them knew of this letter or participated in [drafting] it, or approved it.

Thereupon the supreme burgrave (4) answered that because there were so few of the lord regents present in the Bohemian chancellery, and further because one of them, namely Lord Adam von Waldstein, the lord high steward, was lying sick in bed at his home in Prague, they would request that the three Utraquist estates submit the statement that they had had read aloud, so that the said steward could be notified and they could consult with him. They did not want to fail to provide (5) an appropriate answer on the next Friday (for the next day was an important holiday).

At this point several – Lord Heinrich Matthias von Thurn, Lord Leonhard Colonna von Fels, and Wilhelm Popel von Lobkowitz, senior – spoke one after the other to the lords regent: “No, no, we are not content with that. Why should one provoke us and refer us to the lord high steward, with whom we are quite content and are certain that he is not our foe but a pious man and our friend. We want to confirm this quickly [ . . . ]” Then the three lords listed above all spoke at the same time: “Later we can ask the high lord steward [for an answer] if we want, but now we want to have a clear answer from the four of you who are present.”

(1) The Feast of the Ascension is the day on which Christ is believed to have ascended into heaven; it falls forty days after Easter. – trans.
(2) The German text uses the term “Sub Utraque” to refer to this party. The term predates the Protestant Reformation in Bohemia and means “under both,” referring to the insistence that the laity receive both the host and the chalice at communion. For more on this, see the Letter of Majesty – trans.
(3) Unlike in other regions of the Holy Roman Empire, the clergy was not recognized as an estate in Bohemia after the early fifteenth century, though many clerics came of course from the nobility. The political process was controlled by the landowning class which was divided into lords and knights, while the peasants and citizens were granted only an advisory role. – trans.
(4) Adam of Sternberg – trans.
(5) i.e., they agreed to provide... – trans.

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