Bohemia, a kingdom within the Holy Roman Empire and a large part of the hereditary lands of the Habsburg family, was the land whose domestic conflict sparked a major European war. Any revolt in Bohemia was sure to meet with decisive retribution. In the context of the seventeenth century, however, the Catholic-Protestant religious dispute existed alongside conventional Great Power politics. Like the secret treaties that preceded World War I, the ties created by this dispute drew in many parties that would otherwise have preferred not to get involved. The Bohemian revolt expanded into the Thirty Years’ War.
Since 1555, the Holy Roman Empire had been governed on the compromise principle that the religion of a given area’s prince would be the religion of the area itself. In many places, like Catholic Bavaria or Protestant Saxony, this resulted in consolidation. Strangely, in the heart of Habsburg Crown lands, Bohemia experienced fragmentation.
During the half century before the war, Bohemia experienced a marked decline in its noble families; more than half of the greater noble families became extinct by 1615. This allowed for the appearance of new magnates, and for the expansion of the power bases of the existing ones. Generally, these changes benefited Catholic nobles; the Protestants found themselves more numerous among the lesser nobility.
Changes were also underway at the highest levels of power. The Austrian and Spanish branches of the Habsburg family resolved their differences, including a dispute over the succession: the Archduke Ferdinand of Styria was designated the heir of the Emperor Matthias. Both sides in the religious divide watched this development closely.
Matthias was considered something of a moderate on the subject of religion. In his youth, before his accession to the throne, he had been open to Protestant influences, and even as Emperor, he was largely uninterested in actively promoting Catholicism at the expense of Protestantism. In contrast, the Archduke Ferdinand was anxious to do just that. His designation as heir was seen as another step toward the general conflict that both sides had long anticipated, and for which both sides had long been preparing.
This designation was officially given in Prague; the court then transferred to Vienna. Before leaving, the court appointed ten regents for local governance. Of these, seven were Catholic, and Ferdinand had given them instructions for reducing Protestant power. On the whole, their measures were tactical, rather than outright bans on Protestantism. Protestants were to be denied civil service jobs, and a local censorship office was created. Another measure, forbidding the use of funds donated to Catholic institutions in the payment of Protestant churchmen, seems only fair. In Broumov and Hroby, however, Protestant services were banned altogether. These towns belonged to lands held by the Catholic Church directly, and as such, they were subject to different rules. Still, it was an important symbolic measure for the Protestants.
The Bohemian Protestants began an appeal to all Protestant power bases in Europe for aid. They found their strongest support in the Palatinate, and accordingly set about preparations to elevate Elector Frederick V to the kingship of Bohemia. In the face of this crisis, an assembly was held in Bohemia, and it requested a policy change from the Emperor. He responded by ordering the assembly to close. It did so, but gathered again in May, 1618. On May 23, they were again ordered to go home. This time, the assembly marched on Hradcany palace to attack the governing regents. Two of them were thrown out of the window, along with one of their secretaries. Known as the Defenestration, this act was the beginning of another revolt, the third to arise in Bohemia in just a decade.
The expansion of conflict was almost immediate. Other provinces went into revolt, with Silesia, Lusatia and Upper Austria doing so that same summer; Lower Austria and Moravia did so the following year. Spain and many Catholic princes in Germany rallied to the defense of the Emperor. For their part, the Protestants in Bohemia sought to buy the support of Protestant leaders elsewhere in Europe by offering the kingship to Frederick – and to the Elector of Saxony, the Duke of Savoy, and even to Bethlen Gabor of Transylvania. Moreover, Spanish involvement ensured that the Dutch and the Venetians would get involved.
In this age, it took time to mobilize and deploy armies. Some troops were already available to both sides; in fact, a Protestant army led by Count Thurn even attempted a siege on Vienna in May, 1619. By the summer, Imperial forces were strong enough to begin action against Bohemia, even as Bethlen Gabor hammered at Hungary. The political lines were drawn in August: on the 26th, the Bohemians officially offered the throne to Frederick V of the Palatinate, and taking heart from Bethlen Gabor’s successes, he accepted it; then on the 28th, Archduke Ferdinand was elected Holy Roman Emperor.
With the two camps solidly lined up behind an acknowledged leader, additional forces were raised for the fight. The Catholic League in Germany raised a substantial army, to be led by County Tilly; Frederick V raised an army of his own under Count von Mansfeld. The Protestant Union, a consultative body representing the various Protestant powers of Europe, was more circumspect, largely because of England’s lack of enthusiasm for the conflict. It resolved to defend Protestantism in the face of attack, but not to go to war to place Frederick on the throne of Bohemia.
The army under Tilly sought action against Mansfeld’s forces in 1620. The campaign came to an abortive climax on November 8, at the White Mountain near Prague. After only an hour of fighting, Tilly’s forces defeated the Bohemian revolt. Pockets of resistance remained for up to two years, but all of the Habsburg territories that had joined the revolt were essentially pacified.
Bohemia’s role in the war had ended, but the war itself was far from over. The Imperial army turned its attention to the Palatinate itself, while the Elector Frederick, now effectively committed to a losing war, did everything in his power to gain foreign assistance. The struggle over Bohemia had become the first salvo in a long and devastating war.
Childs, John. Warfare in the Seventeenth Century. Cassell & Co., 2001.
Cowley, Robert and Geoffrey Parker, eds. The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Houghton Mifflin, 1996.
Parker, Geoffrey, ed. The Thirty Years’ War (Second Edition). Routledge, 1997.
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