The Czech historian František Palacký recorded Czech history up to 1526 and avoided the evaluation of the Habsburg dynasty rule which didn’t finish until the end of I. World War. The first Habsburg on the Czech throne after the Hussite Wars was Ferdinand I. who was elected by the Bohemian estates. He didn’t particularly take to Utraquists and when he found out about the attempt to establish a united reformed church (it would include Lutherans as well as Utraquists), he demoted Prague town hall alderman and replaced them with his loyal supporters. Czechs avenged themselves in 1546, when Ferdinand was helping the emperor in the war against Schmalkaldic League in Germany. The Czech Estates refused to come to the king’s aid and Prague brigade didn’t cross the country border.
A year later the king was in war against the Saxon elector and he had to summon the Estates. Both Old and New Town nobility refused to obey and, instead of going to war, they met at Karolinum and demanded from the king to ensure religious freedom. Other requirements included for example ban on corn export, partial abolition of customs dues, the right to summon the state assembly etc. However, the war was developing in the king’s favour, resistance fall apart and the blame fall mostly on Praguers and eventually both towns’ primates and two knights (nobility members) were executed. In 1556 Jesuits were invited to Prague and in 1567 the king did away with Compactata (a document which permitted Catholic and Ultraquist churches in Bohemia). The next Habsburg king was Maxmilian II.
During his reign the situation was made even more complicated by the fact that even Utraquists themselves were not united – they were divided in Oldutraquists and Newutraquists (they were close to Czech Brethren and Augsburg Confession which was a confession of faith of the Lutheran Church) and the king was making use of the situation. Maxmilian had difficulties out of the country in Hungary and was threatened by the united army of Poland, Transylvania and Turkey. That’s why he was willing to appease the Czech nobility and signed in 1575 the Bohemian Confession, which was ensuring religious freedom for the non-Catholic church. However, when his situation improved, he banned the Bohemian Confession for all royal towns including Prague and thus the city came back to their Oldutraquists vicars.
The Rise before the Fall
Emperor Rudolph II relocated his court from Vienna to Prague and Bohemia became the centre of his empire. He wasn’t very much in favour of religious freedom. He issued a document called the Rudolphine Letter of Majesty ensuring religious freedom; however, it didn’t have a very big significance and wasn’t even signed by the highest chancellor Zdeněk Vojtěch of Lobkovice. Pressure form Catholics was becoming stronger. In 1617 Ferdinand Štýrský appeared on the Czech throne. There were indisputable breaches of the religious freedoms granted by the Rudolphine Letter of Majesty, which lead to the Protestant Estates displeasure. In May 1618 they gathered in Karolinum to discuss the situation. At first the assembly wanted to send a deputation to the emperor in Vienna but after an evenings discussion they decided to go to Prague Castle. Two out of four governors (Jaroslav Bořita of Martinic and Vilém Slavata of Chlum and Košumberk) were thrown out of a window together with secretary Fabricius. Fortunately they fell from the 16 metres on litters which saved their lives. This place is nowadays part of an enchanting garden Na Valech and the event is commemorated by three sandstone obelisks. This defenestration (an event where someone is thrown out of a window) of Prague unleashed the Thirty Years' War in Europe.
Ferdinand was later dethroned and the Estates elected a new king, Frederick of the Palatinate (Fridrich Falcky ) who wasn’t a very good one. He didn’t suit every party presented at the election and wasn’t very cultured either. He removed pictures, altars and sculptures form the St. Vitus Cathedral in such an insensitive manner that not only Czech Catholics but also Non Catholics were distressed as nothing like that happened even in Hussite times. Frederick of the Palatinate was a Calvinist which is very religiously strict. On the other hand he was regarded as a coquettish coxcomb by Praguers. It soon dawned on them that instead of the Rudolphine times conjuncture, the times of suffering are to come. What they didn’t expect was that reality was to be even harsher. War was under preparation and every war is an expensive venture. Prague towns gave three million thaler to the kingdom between 1618 and 1620 but this money disappeared in aristocrats’ pockets. Bravos, who were supposed to fight for the Czech king, weren’t paid regularly which was eventually reflected in their moral. On 8th November 1620, the decisive battle took place at White Mountain (Bílá Hora) near Prague and a demoralized estates’ army lost the battle. The Battle of White Mountain went down in Czech national history as the symbol of national catastrophe. Frederick of the Palatinate escaped from the country even before the end of the battle and revenge was terrible. Prague was plundered, many people were imprisoned and in the end 27 leaders of the resistance were executed on Old Town Square in Prague, and 15 of them were Prague burghers. There followed property confiscations, emigrations or banishments. Property confiscations caused the decline of many Prague burghers, about 400 houses were confiscated. Those punished were not only rebels’ supporters but also lukewarm Catholics. The war exhausted country was stricken by enormous inflation. The benefiting parties were the Catholic Church, as Catholicism became the only official religion, active Catholics and foreigners who came to Bohemia to acquire confiscated properties. The city was plundered by foreign armies, twice by Swedes once by Saxons. The last incursion into the Czech territory took place in 1648. Praguers were defending themselves with vigour and for that they were praised by the king, given different privileges. It was even declared that citizens wiped with their own blood the tarnish caused by the 1618 rebellion and a hand with a sword appeared in the city coat-of-arms. It has to be said that Praguers were defending mainly themselves because Swedes didn’t come to Prague to install new rule, they came merely to enjoy their plunder. Even though the “disgrace” from 1618 was washed away by blood, it didn’t improve the situation; Prague became a provincial city of the Austrian Monarchy and stayed it till 1918.
Emperor Rudolph II chose Prague to be his royal seat and it comes as no surprise that it (similarly to Charles IV era) became a centre of culture, art and science. During the Rudolph II reign the first baroque building appeared, one of the most interesting is Emperor’s Mill (Císařský mlýn) built by Rudolph for his amusement in Stromovka. It contained a lake and artificial cave which was something unusual for this period. Unfortunately the Mill was devastated and only little remained. Another amazing building is the Rudolphine Gallery (Rudolfova štola) which connects Stromovka with the Vltava River. It is opposite the Na Františku embankment, which feeds the small lake in the middle of Stromovka. Rudolphine Prague was also famous for the number of churches and other buildings, of which there was more than 150. So it could be said that the nickname hundred-spired city, which dates back to 19th century, was justified as late as Rudolphine era. The city was visited by scholars from all over Europe. There were two Universities, one Utraquists and the other one was Catholic. At first Tadeáš Hájek of Hájek was a leader of scholastic activities, after his death he was succeeded by Tycho de Brahe who invited the astronomer Johannes Kepler there. Another famous character who came to the court was a mathematician and astronomer John Dee. There were also adventurous characters such as Magister Kelly, who was caricatured in the movie Emperor’s baker and about 40 alchemists who laid the foundations of chemistry. Rudolph II’s Prague was also visited by various artists such as sculptor Adrien Vries and painter Guiseppe Arcimboldo who became famous for his creating portrait heads made entirely of such objects as fruits, vegetables, flowers, and fish.
Rudolf II is also renowned for his collector’s passion, reflecting his Renaissance interest in world. Part of his collections is in the National Museum; these are, however, plaintive remains. The subsequent Thirty Year’s War and plunder meant the collection’s destruction and later in 18th and 19th century the Habsburg court members sold a significant part of Rudolph’s inheritance. To see some of the pieces nowadays we have to travel to Dresden, Berlin and other European cities.