The 1618 Defenestration of Prague explained

The Defenestration of Prague in 1618 saw three Catholic officials thrown from a top-floor window of Prague (Hradčany) Castle by an angry mob of Bohemian Protestant activists. The imperial emissaries escaped uninjured, but the defenestration on 23 May 1618 proved to be the catalyst for the bloodiest war in European history, the Thirty Years' War

The 1618 Defenestration of Prague, in which four Catholic officials were thrown from a top-floor window of Prague (Hradčany) Castle by Bohemian Protestant activists, starting the Thirty Years' War. (Photo by Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

What exactly does the Defenestration of Prague mean – what happened, where did it take place and why? And how did the victims survive the 21-metre drop and why were they then able to escape? Here, on the 400th anniversary of the Defenestration of Prague, historian Derek Wilson brings you the facts…

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Prague Castle (Hradčany in the national language) is massive – reputedly the largest castle complex in the world. It is impressive particularly when lit up at night and viewed from the Old Town on the other side of the Vltava. It must have been even more dominating four centuries ago, when there were fewer buildings between it and the river. What happened there on that fateful spring day – 23 May 1618 – had a long back story and appalling, long-term results. It would herald the beginning of a Bohemian revolt against the Habsburg emperor Ferdinand II, which in turn helped spark the Thirty Years’ War.

At the root of the trouble lay the powerful forces of religion and nationalism. The Holy Roman Empire was in the early 17th century a conglomeration of principalities, dukedoms and city states under the authority of an emperor. Though the imperial title was conferred by a body of electors, representing the major constituents of the empire, it had, in fact, been held by the Austrian branch of the Habsburg dynasty since the 15th century and was widely regarded as hereditary [Rudolf IV of Habsburg was elected German king as Rudolf I in 1273 and Frederick V was the first Habsburg crowned Holy Roman emperor – as Frederick III – in 1452]. But that did not mean that the emperors were dictators: important policies were decided by members of the imperial parliament, or “diet”, and individual states jealously guarded their semi-independence. One thing that bound them all together was their allegiance to the Roman Catholic church – until the Reformation, that is.

The Reformation – a breakaway from Catholic Christendom – was begun in Bohemia by the theologian, martyr and national hero Jan Hus, in the 15th century. A hundred years later Martin Luther, in Saxony, started a much more wide-ranging religious movement. Other teachers throughout Europe followed with their own versions of Protestantism and, by 1618, the Empire had become not only a political patchwork, but also a religious miscellany of states following the doctrines of Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli and various, even more radical, Anabaptist leaders [Anabaptists were a fringe movement of the Reformation who were opposed to infant baptism and believed in the separation of church and state. They considered adult baptism to be the only proper baptism].

Nowhere was the mélange of religious opinion more marked than in Bohemia. As well as Utraquists [a branch of the Hussites who believed that ordinary people, like the clergy, should receive the Eucharist – aka the Holy Communion], the population consisted of Lutheran, Calvinists and Catholics. Peaceful rule there was only possible with a measure of toleration and, in 1609, the Emperor Rudolph II granted freedom of worship to the major religious groups in an edict known as the Letter of Majesty.

All was well until Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria, was elected king of Bohemia in 1617 (he later became Emperor Ferdinand II in 1619). He believed passionately – some would say fanatically – that dynastic, territorial and religious unity were inseparable. He never deviated from his conviction that he had a divine calling to restore the glory days of the Catholic empire.

As far as Bohemia was concerned, Ferdinand had a more material interest. With its flourishing agricultural, mercantile and industrial activities – not to mention its gold and silver mining – Bohemia was the wealthiest province and a vital contributor to the imperial coffers. All this was known to the national leaders in Prague, who viewed the new regime with apprehension. The question in the forefront of their minds was whether Ferdinand would honour the Letter of Majesty. The new king gave formal assurances that he would do so, but in fact this was a lie intended to put the nationalists off their guard and to buy time until he was ready to strike.

For a few months Ferdinand’s tactics were successful. Protestant Bohemians watched the king and his Catholic supporters warily. It was a tense situation that needed only a tiny spark to set ablaze tinder-dry mutual hostilities. That spark, it transpired, was church building. The Lutherans [Protestant Christians who identified with the teachings of Martin Luther] wanted to erect two new places of worship – a freedom which was covered by the Letter of Majesty. But the king sequestered the land they planned to build on and instead granted it to the Catholic church. When the local people staged a protest, the Catholic deputy-governors arrested them.

Were the Protestants pushing to see how far they could go, or was the king being deliberately obstructive in order to provoke a crisis? It matters not who started the fight; the important fact is that various interested parties came together to accuse the king of infringing their rights to own property and to enjoy freedom of worship. The Protestant leaders demanded the release of the prisoners. When this was refused, they campaigned throughout the land for their supporters to converge on Prague for a mass demonstration. The date was set for 23 May 1618.

By dawn a large crowd had gathered outside the castle under the leadership of the veteran soldier Count Jindřich Thurn [who had served in the imperial army against the Ottoman Empire]. When the Protestant deputies arrived for a showdown with their Catholic counterparts they were followed into the building by their angry supporters. Arrived in the small room where four Catholic deputies sat, the Protestant leaders demanded to know whether Ferdinand had ordered his Bohemian subjects to bow to his will on pain of death and whether the Catholic deputies had encouraged him to adopt this intransigent stance. Two of the deputies satisfied their accusers of their innocence and were allowed to leave the church. That left behind Count Villem Slavata and Count Jaroslav Martinitz quaking before the impassioned mob that stood between them and the door. Thurn turned to his followers and urged them to show no mercy to the men who had urged the king to wage religious war on his Protestant subjects. They must not, he insisted, be allowed to escape with their lives.

At that the mob surged forward, pinning the deputies (who were screaming to the Virgin for protection) against the tall windows. Someone unfastened the casement and flung Martinitz out. Slavata put up more of a fight and clung desperately to the window frame. One of the assassins struck him a blow on the head and he fell senseless into the abyss. For good measure the attackers threw the deputies’ gibbering secretary, Philip Fabricius, out after them. The three victims fell 21 metres to certain death on the flagstones below. Only, they didn’t. Thurn and his men, crowding round the open window, were astonished to see Martinitz and the secretary get up and scurry away, while some of Slavata’s servants carried their unconscious master to safety.

A painting of the 1618 Defenestration of Prague. (Photo by Christophe Boisvieux/Corbis via Getty Images)
A painting of the 1618 Defenestration of Prague. (Photo by Christophe Boisvieux/Corbis via Getty Images)

This was the Defenestration of Prague, and it left several questions for historians to address. The obvious one was, “How could three men have escaped with their lives from such a fall?” By a stretch of the imagination we might persuade ourselves that one or two of the men had avoided not only death but incapacitating injury. But all three? The secretary could, feasibly, have survived by landing on top of his superiors. But, even if the men had escaped unscathed, why did the revenge-crazed mob not rush down to the courtyard to finish the job they had begun?

Legends claiming to provide answers were quick to emerge. The Catholic explanation was simple: the frantic prayers of the doomed men had been heard in heaven and angels had been sent to lower the deputies gently to the ground. This, the Catholics were convinced, provided dramatic proof of whose side God was on. The Protestant response was, more literally, ‘down to earth’: the victims had landed in a dung heap, they said. Does that story stack up? In the centuries before efficient sewage disposal such middens did exist and were periodically cleared by carters employed for the unsavoury task. In a large castle complex such as Hradčany, which was occupied by hundreds of officials, courtiers and servants, human waste must have accumulated quite quickly. So the Protestant version of events is perhaps feasible, though it does sound like a tardy counterblast to the ‘divine miracle’ theory.

Any attempt at an alternative analysis of the events of 23 May 1618 leads us into the thickets of speculation. Might Thurn’s mob have been aiming at humiliation, rather than assassination? Could the three royal representatives have been thrown from a lower window as a demonstration of contempt? Well, an earlier event in Prague’s history – and one that must have been familiar to the perpetrators – suggests they knew exactly what they were doing, or trying to do. Almost 200 years earlier (30 July 1419) a Hussite protest had turned nasty. The demonstrators had entered the town hall and defenestrated [threw out of the window] the mayor and several other municipal officials, all of whom were killed. Other not dissimilar events had occurred in Bohemian history, so while it would be an exaggeration to describe the 1618 defenestration as a “traditional” event, it was certainly not without precedent. To Bohemians it was an appropriate way of dealing with those who trampled on the freedom of the people.

We may today be no further forward in solving the mystery of the escaping deputies, but about the effects of their treatment there is no doubt whatsoever. The Defenestration of Prague was the catalyst that activated the worst war in European history, the Thirty Years’ War. The rebels deposed Ferdinand II, set up a provisional assembly and raised an army of 16,000 troops for the nation’s defence. The crown of Bohemia was offered to Frederick V, the Elector Palatine, whose wife was the daughter of James I of England.

The Bohemian problem was like a lit match thrown into a box of fireworks. The politico-religious instability that was Europe exploded in a series of conflicts over the next 30 years. As well as the Austrian and Spanish Habsburgs and the states of the Empire, France; the Dutch Republic; Denmark and Sweden put armies in the field. From nations not involved per se, idealists and soldiers of fortune arrived to sell their services as mercenaries. Central Europe was shattered, burned, broken, raped and trampled into oblivion.

It is no exaggeration to call the Thirty Years’ War the worst war in European history. The combatant nations lost between 25 and 40 per cent of their populations to military action, famine and disease. Cities became empty, smouldering shells. Farmland took a generation to recover. The Swedish army alone destroyed in Germany 1,500 towns; 18,000 villages and 2,000 castles. The great 20th-century historian Dame Veronica Wedgwood described it with searing succinctness: “Morally subversive, economically destructive, socially degrading, confused in its causes, devious in its course, futile in its results, it is the outstanding example in European history of meaningless conflict.”

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Derek Wilson is the author of Superstition and Science – Mystics, sceptics, truth-seekers and charlatans (Robinson, 2017)​ and ​The Queen and the Heretic –  How two women changed the religion of England (Lion Books, 2018). To find out more, visit www.derekwilson.com