Ferdinand II: The Counter-Reformation Emperor

In the 17th century, the Habsburg dynasty closely allied itself with the Catholic side. Ferdinand II was the most fervent defender of the Catholic faith.

Jul 14, 2023By Barbora Jirincova, PhD History

ferdinand ii counter reformation


Ferdinand II devoted all his life to converting those he saw as lost souls to Catholicism. This goal was everything to him. He solemnly swore to the Virgin Mary to do all in his power to eradicate “heresy” from his lands. When he became a Czech and Hungarian king as well as Holy Roman Emperor, the area where the “heretics” had to be converted according to this promise considerably enlarged; however, he never lingered and set out to make the Virgin Mary proud of her great admirer.


Ferdinand II on His Deathbed

ferdinand II on his dearthbed
Ferdinand II on His Deathbed, by Johann Gottfried Schönwetter, 1637, via Kulturpool.at


Ferdinand II died in 1637. His thoughts at that moment belonged to the Virgin Mary, to whom he prayed all his life. He left his family and lands under her protection. While dying, he may have been happy about one thing: he had promised to uproot “heresy” in all his lands and he fulfilled his promise in most places. His counter-reformation actions in Styria bore fruit, and in 1600 there were nearly no Protestants in these lands. In the Czech kingdom, he suppressed a rebellion and sent the Protestants who refused to convert into exile. In 1637, the kingdom was securely Catholic. Hungary resisted as Hungary usually did because the magnates bore the burden of the war with Turks on their shoulders.


Ferdinand III might have sat at his father’s deathbed and listened to his last pieces of advice. He was a Holy Roman Emperor — his father made sure of that in 1636. But war was raging on, and he could not see the end of it. Ferdinand III was a peacemaker. He would find a way to end the bloodshed. Unlike his father, he was ready to compromise.


Those were the last moments of the counter-reformation emperor. Or at least, this is how they may have looked. But let us go back to when Ferdinand II was young, full of ambition, and his glorious political career still awaited him.

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


Ferdinand II: The Young Duke and His Solemn Promise

ferdinand i study ingolstadt
Ingolstadt, by Wenceslas Hollar, 17th Century, c. 1850, via picryl


Ferdinand II was not born a successor of an emperor like his son. He belonged to a minor branch of the Habsburg family that ruled in the Steiermark. He could not have foreseen that one day; he would sit on the highest of European thrones. His parents sent him to study in rigorously Catholic Bavaria, his mother’s homeland, because they did not want the influence of Lutheran nobles of Styria to spoil his pristine Catholic thinking. This strict Bavarian education strengthened Ferdinand’s loyalty to Catholicism.


Around this time, Ferdinand went on a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Virgin Mary and made a solemn promise. He would not let a single inch of the lands under his rule fall to the “heretics.” He would rather see his family and himself dead than let that happen. From this point of view, the clashes of Central-European politics must have been a deep shock for the young prince.


Jesuits Confessors and the Catholic Party

rubens ignatius of loyola
Saint Ignatius of Loyola, by Peter Paul Rubens, 1600s, via Wikipedia Commons


The Habsburgs allied themselves with the Jesuit order, and the Fathers of the Society of Jesus grasped the opportunity with both hands. They appointed teachers and confessors to royal households. We can imagine what influence these confessors must have wielded over their wards. And the order did not keep its distance from politics; the confessors of the Jesuit order had their directives and knew how to advise their royal charges.


But Ferdinand was a bright and ambitious duke; he knew very well that his confessors and teachers reported his every word and followed their own political agenda. But he, like many Catholic nobles in the 17th century, grew up in Jesuit schools and was loyal to the order. He wanted them to thrive as well as they did. Because for the Habsburgs, the Jesuit order represented all that they valued in their faith, and Ferdinand supported the Jesuits even against the Catholic hierarchy.


Ferdinand II and the Counter-reformation

ferdinand ii portrait
Ferdinand II, Holy Roman Emperor, c.1614, via the Kunsthistorisches Museum


When Ferdinand returned to Styria, he was shocked. For him, the place seemed to be swarming with heretics. Thus, true to his promise, he set about his counter-reformation work. In 1596 he became the official ruler of Styria and installed himself in Graz. Technically, the prince could decide the religious question for all his subjects based on the Augsburg religious peace of 1555. In practice, the 17th-century state could not enforce the law overnight.


But Ferdinand was persistent. He started by ordering the burghers in regal cities to convert or leave the country. Those who refused felt his harsh measures, from a ban on their trade to incarceration. Only Catholic priests remained in Styria; the Lutheran and Calvinist clergy were banished. That meant that only Catholic rites were available for people who wanted to get married, have children baptized, or perform the last rites and bury their dead. Some Catholic priests had mercy on their flock and performed religious services for Catholics and Protestants alike. But by law, this was prohibited, and they risked punishment.


Then came the nobles. They had also been given a chance to either convert or leave the country, while the Catholic nobles had to take care of the conversion of their subjects. By 1617 when the next stage of Ferdinand’s career started, there were almost no Protestants left in Styria.


Ferdinand II Gains the Three Crowns

emperor matthias as archduke with baton
Emperor Matthias as Archduke with Baton, by Lucas van Valckenborch, 1583, via the Kunsthistorisches Museum


Ferdinand II’s predecessors, Mathias and Rudolph II were his great-uncles. But as both died childless, negotiations took place among European diplomats. In Europe, the cauldron of religions began to boil over, with religious wars in France, fighting in the Netherlands, and the Bohemian kingdom on the brink of uprising for years. Both the Catholics and the Protestants prepared for a decisive conflict. The Habsburgs knew where they stood, and the victory of the Catholic party was their top priority.


After three emperors in a row had proved to be either too lenient or simply weak, there was a general agreement that a strong and faithful Catholic should sit on the throne of the Roman emperor; and, furthermore, that order should finally prevail in the Czech kingdom and, if possible, in Hungary. Ferdinand II proved decisive, strong, and unscrupulous when dealing with the “heretics.” The choice was obvious. All the members of all Habsburgian branches forswore their claims to the Central European kingdoms and the highest European title of emperor. All that remained was for the king and emperor, Mathias, to die. But even as he lived, young, energetic Ferdinand II took the reins of power into his hands.


Ferdinand II as the Czech King

prager fernersturz
Prager Fernersturz, 1618, via Wikimedia Commons


The Czech nobles had a right to elect their king. When the Catholic party presented Ferdinand II as the only candidate, they did not have a counter-candidate. For reasons unknown to historians today, they approved Ferdinand II as their future king, even though his treatment of Protestants in Styria was no secret. It should have been a warning to the nobles in a country that was dominantly non-Catholic.


A unique situation prevailed in the Czech kingdom. Two non-Catholic confessions that tracked their roots to the Middle Ages existed legally in Bohemia. There were German-speaking Lutherans and an aggressive Catholic minority promoted by the Habsburgian kings. Czech nobles traditionally shared the rule of the land with the king and jealously protected this dualism. They could do so with a weak Rudolph II and his brother Mathias, but chances of retaining this share of power looked slim with Ferdinand II on the throne. Yet the nobles grudgingly cast their votes in the Styrian duke’s favor.


Even before he ascended the throne, the Czech rebellion started. Religious disputes between Catholic and non-Catholic nobles resulted in the Prague defenestration when two vice-regents and their secretary were thrown out of the window of their office. Mathias lived at that time; he stood firmly against the rebels and on the side of his Catholic supporters but did not actively step up against the revolt.


The Bohemian Revolt and the Czech Stage of the Thirty Years War

snayers battle on the white mountain
Battle of the White Mountain, by Peter Snayers, 1620, via Wikimedia Commons


When Mathias died in 1619, an uprising stormed the Czech kingdom, and nobles from Austria and Hungary joined the revolt. The Czech nobles realized now that Ferdinand II presented a real threat to their success and refused to acknowledge the election from 1617.


They proclaimed that the Habsburg Dynasty had lost all rights to the crown and elected a new king: young protestant Prince Frederick, the Palatine on the Rhine. In response, Ferdinand II did not hesitate to create an alliance with the head of Catholic German princes, the Duke of Bavaria.


When Ferdinand’s general and Maximilian of Bavaria defeated the Bohemian Revolt in the Battle on the White Mountain, the Czech phase of the Thirty Years’ War was over. The reprisals after the uprising surprised the whole of Europe with their harshness. But Ferdinand joined in the punishment of the rebellious Czechs with his counter-reformation measures. Catholics, even freshly converted Catholics, could evade punishment and even profit from the situation. Ferdinand II used confession as a mark of loyalty to the dynasty and to him personally. The once free and self-confident Czech kingdom was at his mercy now because the elites were defeated, the revolt failed, and a new Catholic aristocratic caste was slowly being created.


The Thirty Years War and Albrecht of Wallenstein

ferdinand II generalissimus wallenstein
Albrecht von Wallenstein as Mars, by Baccio del Bianco, c. 1626, via Wikimedia Commons


The Bohemian phase of the Thirty Years’ War was over, but four more stages remained to be fought. Ferdinand II would not live to see the end of the war; it would be up to his son to lead the peace negotiations. But Ferdinand’s story would not be complete without another Czech noble crossing his path.


Albrecht of Wallenstein was a skilled military leader and an even more skillful military entrepreneur. He stepped into Ferdinand’s service and slowly made himself indispensable to the emperor. From an insignificant Moravian noble, he rose to be the great generalissimo of the Catholic armies and earned himself a duchy. Historians nowadays disagree over what happened. Whether Wallenstein aspired to be a peacemaker or was only a greedy man who overreached himself. Either way, in 1634, his interests conflicted with the emperor’s. The German princes never stopped despising this newly-made convert from a small country. Yet, the convert led the army, their army.


Ferdinand II resorted to the basest measure a crowned ruler can resort to — assassination. He paid assassins to murder Albrecht of Wallenstein, and the murder shook the European public. Nobody doubted Ferdinand ordered the assassination, and everybody agreed that this act was beneath the God-chosen and God-anointed emperor, even his Catholic allies and Wallenstein’s old adversaries agreed. And without Wallenstein’s genius, the chance to end the war with victory grew slimmer and slimmer.


Legacy and Memory of Ferdinand II

ferdinand ii and the counter reformation
Intercession of Charles Borromeo, by Johann Michael Rottmayr, c. 1730s, photo by Josefka, via Pixabay


Ferdinand II died in 1637 and left his son an empire to rule and a war to win. As France entered the war on the Protestant side in 1634, Europe was in a stalemate. Yet this kind of stalemate meant blood, fire, suffering for the inhabitants, and economic disaster for every country involved. It would rage on for 11 years after Ferdinand II’s death, although his son, Ferdinand III, would turn out to be a peacemaker.


It would be unfair to blame Ferdinand II for the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War. The forces that created this war were much larger than one man. Yet, his uncompromising and harsh attitude did not help, and he made political mistakes that prevented the Catholics from winning when they had a chance. However, to Ferdinand II lying on his deathbed, his life must have seemed successful. He fulfilled the solemn promise he gave Virgin Mary; he uprooted the “heretics” from Styria and, more importantly, the Czech kingdom. He returned the Czech kingdom and Styrian duchy to the Catholic see and strengthened the Catholic church’s position in the Empire. What were a few lives and some blood compared to this endeavor? Perhaps these thoughts ran through his head in his last moments. His son probably saw the world through a much gloomier lens because now — he would have to fix his father’s mess.

Author Image

By Barbora JirincovaPhD HistoryBarbora is a historian and a university teacher from the Czech Republic. She studies the history of women and the early modern ages. She holds a Ph.D. in history from Charles University in Prague, where she teaches. She is passionate about teaching history to the broader public. Understanding history can make the world a better place. She is also a contributing writer and copywriter and loves writing on various topics.