Prague’s Dramatic Defenestrations: A Glimpse into Tumultuous Times
Have you heard of the Defenestration of Prague? First of all, how cool is the word defenestration? It means throwing someone out of the window.
It all starts with the House of Hapsburg, (also known as House of Austria) an initially nondescript family from the mountains of Switzerland, that rose up to become rulers of the Austro-Hungarian and Spanish Empires, and of various other parts of Europe for 700 years – one of the most prominent and important dynasties in European history from the 15th to the 20th centuries, ruling until 1918. The House of Hapsburg was quite fascinating on its own, but it was also around at a very turbulant time in Europe. The protestant reformation that began in Germany was causing all sorts of problems in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Hapsburgs were Catholics and did not subscribe to the Protestant agenda, especially in the Netherlands and Bohemia (now Czechia, with its capital at Prague).
Prague’s history is marked by not one but three extraordinary defenestrations, where individuals were thrown from windows: the first in 1419, the second in 1483, and the third, most well-known one, in 1618. The term “defenestrate” is believed to have originated from these very events in Prague. The most famous one is where disgruntled Protestants hurled the two royal governors and their secretary out of a window at Hradčany Castle in 1618. They subsequently penned a lengthy apology justifying their actions.
Defenestration was not an uncommon practice in the Middle Ages and early modern period, often resembling lynchings or mob violence culminating in murder. While the term “Defenestration of Prague” typically refers to the third event, the 1483 incident also holds historical significance.
On July 30, 1419, a mob of Czech Hussites (a Czech proto-Protestant Christian movement that followed the teachings of reformer Jan Hus), led by radical preacher Jan Želivský, stormed the New Town Hall in Prague and defenestrated the burgomaster and several members of the city council, killing them all.
This incident, known as the First Defenestration of Prague, marked a turning point in the Hussite Wars, a series of religious and political conflicts that engulfed Bohemia for nearly two decades. The defenestration was sparked by growing discontent with the Catholic Church and the perceived corruption of its leaders. Želivský, a fervent advocate for Hussite reforms, had been rallying support for a more equitable society and a more accountable Church. A stone thrown at him from the town hall was the final straw, igniting the mob’s fury and leading to the violent overthrow of the city council.
The death of King Wenceslaus IV, who succumbed to shock upon hearing the news of the defenestration, further destabilized the region and paved the way for open warfare. The Hussite Wars, fueled by religious fervor and nationalistic aspirations, would leave a lasting mark on Bohemian history.
In 1483, during the reign of King Vladislaus II of Hungary, simmering tensions between Catholics and Utraquists, descendents of Jan Hus, who advocated for receiving communion in the form of both bread and wine, reached a boiling point. Fearing for their diminishing influence, Utraquist radicals staged a violent coup in Prague’s Old Town, New Town, and Lesser Town. The uprising culminated in the defenestration of the Old Town burgomaster and the bodies of seven New Town councilors from their respective town halls.
This tumultuous event, known as the Second Defenestration of Prague, marked a turning point in Bohemian history. It effectively curbed the power of the ruling elite and prevented a return to the pre-Hussite era, when Catholicism held sway. On October 6, 1483, the three Prague municipalities signed a treaty of unity, ushering in a period of religious reconciliation. The culmination of this rapprochement came in 1485, when the Kutná Hora Assembly declared the equality of both Catholic and Utraquist churches.
In 1618, Bohemian resistance to Hapsburg authority, resulted in the third defenestration of Prague. The Peace of Augsburg of 1555 settled religious disputes in the Holy Roman Empire by enshrining the principle of Cuius regio, eius religio, allowing a prince to determine the religion of his subjects. The Kingdom of Bohemia, which had been governed by Habsburg kings since 1526, had largely remained Protestant despite the rulers’ Catholic faith. Previous kings had let the protestents practice their own faith. However, in 1617, King Ferdinand II, a proponent of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, was elected king of Bohemia. Ferdinand’s attempts to assert control over the Protestant nobility and restrict their religious freedoms led to the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War in 1618.
In 1617, the very Catholic Ferdinand of Styria (who became Fredrick II of Austria) exerted his control over Protestant Bohemia and stopped the construction of some Protestant churches. He then had the Bohemian assembly dissolved. On May 23, 1618, four Catholic emissaries arrived at the Bohemian Chancellery to discuss this with Protestant leaders. Two of the four were deemed innocent of playing any part in stopping the construction. The remaining two accepted responsibility and awaited any punishment; which was for them to be chucked out of the window. They survived the 70 foot drop mainly because they fell on a large pile of manure. This event contributed to the start of the thirty year war — a brutal religiously motivated war, resulting in 8 million deaths.
The first and third defenestrations had far-reaching consequences, igniting religious conflicts that extended beyond Bohemia’s borders. The first defenestration sparked the Hussite Wars, while the third triggered the Thirty Years’ War. In contrast, the second defenestration brought a period of religious peace to Bohemia for 31 years, known as the Peace of Kutná Hora.
More events of defenestration have occurred in Prague during its history, but they are not usually called defenestrations of Prague.
Prague’s defenestrations serve as a reminder of the turbulent and often violent times of the past. They offer a glimpse into the political and religious tensions that shaped not only the city’s but Europe’s history.