The Defenestration of Prague of 1618

A later woodcut of the defenestration in 1618

The wars of religion had been raging for years now and left their mark on the nations of Europe.  Catholics and Protestants had been at each other’s throats fighting for the souls of men for what seemed like forever.  However, the fighting took a strange form in what is now the Czech Republic.  They liked to throw people out windows.

The first instance of this was on July 30, 1419 when Jan Želivsky, a follower of the Czech reformer Jan Hus, led a procession through the streets to Charles Square to demand the release of Hussite prisoners.  The Catholic town council refused and somehow a stone was thrown at Želivsky from the window of the New Town Hall.  People went crazy and stormed the building.  Once inside, they threw seven members of the Prague Town Council out the window.   The judge, the burgomaster and members of the town council careened out the open windows and hit the waiting pikes of the army below.  This kicked off the Hussite Wars, which lasted until 1436.

The Czechs must have really liked throwing people out the window because they seemed to keep that in their back pocket.   By the time we get to 1618, the Czech Republic is part of the Holy Roman Empire along with Germany, Slovakia, Austria and the Low Countries.  The Empire was neither Holy or Roman, and it was in quite a mess.  Protestant revolutions had been running through the countryside since 1517.  These were supposed to be settled by the Peace of Augsburg, which basically said the prince of the region could determine the religion of the individual area.  Bohemia, the kingdom containing Prague, was nominally Catholic as the Habsburgs ran the place.  However, most of the subjects were Protestant so they didn’t push the issue.  

However, Ferdinand of Styria, the new King of Bohemia, didn’t get the memo.  He came to the throne in 1617 and decided to go whole hog into the counter reformation movement.  To support this, he put a ban placed on the construction of new Protestant chapels on royal land in Bohemia.  The nobles protested, and instead of listening Ferdinand dismissed them and dissolved the governing body.  Just to make sure the point was driven home, Ferdinand stripped the Protestant landlords of their titles.  No one was happy about that, and all the lords of the dissolved assembly of the three main Protestant estates traveled to Prague.  En masse, they marched on the Bohemian Chancellery and confronted the four Catholic Lords Regent- Count Jaroslav Brzita of Martinice, Count Viem Slavata of Chlum, Adam II von Sternberg and Matthew Leopold Popel Lobcwitz- and demanded if they had anything to do with the king’s action.  Adam II von Sternberg and Matthew Leopold Popel Lobcwitz were absolved of guilt and let go.  That left Count Jaroslav Brzita of Martinice, Count Viem Slavata of Chlum, and their secretary Phillip Fabricius.  They are quoted as saying, “you are enemies of us and of our religion, have desired to deprive us of our Letter of Majesty, have horribly plagued your Protestant subjects… and have tried to force them to adopt your religion against their wills or have had them expelled for this reason”. Then to the crowd of Protestants, he continued “were we to keep these men alive, then we would lose the Letter of Majesty and our religion… for there can be no justice to be gained from or by them”.  They were thinking they’d just be imprisoned or something.  Well, they obviously forgot where they were.

The window (top floor) where the second defenestration occurred. Note the monument to the right of the castle tower. Photo Credit- DigitalExtropy

All three men were pitched out the window of the building.  However, all three men survived the 70 foot drop.  Catholics maintained the men were saved by divine intervention and spun stories of angel’s hands catching them and setting them gently on the ground.  Protestant pamphleteers depicted them landing in piles of manure.  Either way, they escaped.  Phillip Fabricus was eventually ennobled and given the title Baron von Hohenfall or literally Baron of the Highfall.

This little escapade kicked off the Thirty Years War, which did not go well for anyone one. The Protestants were crushed and the uber Catholic Ferdinand became Holy Roman Emperor.  The Habsburgs were ensconced in the seat of power.  On the practical side, Germany lost about a third of its population and Bohemia lost about half.  It took the Czech people three centuries to regain their losses from the Thirty Year’s War as the land was burned and the people were starving.  The middle class and lower nobility was destroyed, and Bohemia became a lesser possession of the Holy Roman Empire rather than the elective monarch it was before.

All because three people were thrown out the window.


ER