How the Thirty Years´ War Began in Prague

The Thirty Years' War was the deadliest conflict the world had ever known in the 17th century. The war shook Europe, and it all began in Europe's heart: Prague.

Apr 18, 2023By Barbora Jirincova, PhD History

how thirty years war began prague


Some call it the Bohemian rebellion. In May 1618, two governors and one secretary fell out of the window of their office. They survived, although the rebels meant to kill them. The rebellion was unplanned and poorly prepared, their troops were underpaid, and they failed to inform their allies of their actions.


It was a farce. But it sometimes happens in history that even farces have terrible consequences. In 1618 the cauldron of Europe was already boiling over — the Thirty Years´ War was emerging from it. As a result the Czech kingdom would suffer immensely.


The Thirty Years´ War: First Blood

defenstration prague thirty years war
The Defenestration of Prague, by Matthaus Merian, 1662, via Wikimedia Commons


The office of Prague governors is full of angry men. They cannot cram into the office. Some stand in the door, some behind it. Some men cannot even see what is going on inside. The two governors and their secretary are trying to hide their fear. A few minutes before, they were sure that nobody would dare to harm them. Now they see angry faces and have lost their certainty. The fact that the rebels dared to storm the office with swords in their hands should have warned them. But how do you deal with wild animals? Don’t let them see your fear…


These thoughts could have raced through the heads of the Czech governors in 1618. A few minutes later, they will be pushed out of a window. But how did it only come to this? Why did the Thirty Years´ War begin?

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


The Thirty Years´ War: The Boiling Cauldron of Religions

johann georg matthaus merian
Johann Georg I, by Matthäus Merian, 1642, via Peace Palace Library


In 1618 there were three major Christian sects in Europe. The Catholics had regained their confidence after the Council of Trent and with it, they desired to regain the positions they lost during the Reformation. The Calvinists were also on the rise, as more and more people had converted to Calvinism. But they had no legal recognition. The only legal document settling the religious score in the Holy Roman Empire, the Treaty of Augsburg from 1555, counted only the Catholics and the Lutherans. But it did not matter. Neither party liked the treaty anyway. They both wanted more. The Lutherans felt threatened by the rise of the Calvinists. The most potent Lutheran prince, the duke of Saxony, would rather deal with Catholics than with Calvinists. Which he later did.


And then there was the Czech kingdom. Most of its people were not Catholics but would not be called Protestants. The history of their breach with the Church had started a century before Martin Luther.


The Czechs and Their Different Religions

luther hus cranach thirty years war
Luther and Hus serving communion under both kinds together, 16th century, via Wikimedia Commons


In 1618 the Czechs established two non-Catholic denominations. The Utraquist church came from the ideas of a 15th-century thinker. So did, the Unity of Brethren. The Utraquist church arose during the bloody wars of the 15th century, the Hussite wars. From 1419 to 1434, Rome tried to suppress the “heretics” with a series of crusades. Until an agreement was settled; and the Utraquist church was founded and gained legal approval.


The Unity of Brethren was born in the 16th century. They were persecuted until 1609 but flourished nonetheless. In the 16th century, all these religions coexisted in one kingdom in peace. The Czechs and the Moravians had their fill of religious wars and they did not wish to get into it again.


So, while the Protestant reformation was born and religious battles raged in Germany, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, Prague’s Protestants married Catholics, and aristocrats of all denominations were put on the same councils and discussed the future of their land. But the times were changing, and the idyll came to an end.


A New Generation and New Problems

martin luther 95 theses
Luther posting his 95 theses in 1517, by Ferdinand Pauwels, 1872, via Duke University


At the beginning of the 17th century, peaceful coexistence was no longer possible. A new generation of Catholics came home from universities in Italy, France, and Spain. They did not want peace. They wanted the heretics gone. And the Utraquists and the Unity of Brethren? These new generations grew up.


Some young men had also studied at Protestant universities in Germany or France and for them, peace was also not desirable. Because nobody liked the status quo, they all believed their denominations were correct. And they all laid a universal claim. When the last aristocrats of the old era died at the end of the 16th century, the atmosphere in Prague was simmering again. And Czech kings knew very well which side they were on.


Habsburgs: Once Catholics, Always Catholics

emperor ferdinand
Kaiser Ferdinand I, 1520, via the Kunsthistorisches Museum


In 1526 the Czechs elected their new king and chose Ferdinand I of the house Habsburg. They knew very well that he was a Catholic. But they had had Catholic kings before, and so nothing changed. Furthermore, German princes supported Lutherans, and this Ferdinand (unlike his brother, Charles, the Spanish king) seemed to be a reasonable politician.


He was always ready to compromise and willing to lay his strict Catholic beliefs aside to keep the peace. But like all Habsburgs, Ferdinand I believed in the rule of a firm hand. The Czechs were used to weak kings, to kings that were always away — kings only in name. Ferdinand and his aristocrats would disagree. They would not let go of even the smallest amount of power. It was not religion only that led to the clash between the Czech aristocracy and their kings. It was also due to very different views of kingship.


The Peace Begins to Crack

kaiser rudolph II thirty years war
Kaiser Rudolph II, by Hans von Aachen, 1606, via the Kunsthistorisches Museum


The 17th century seemed to have started well for the Czech Protestant aristocracy. Rudolph II sat on the Czech throne. In fact, he mostly lay in his bed, unwilling or unable to rule, while his brother Matthias led a campaign to overthrow him.


The Czechs grabbed the chance and forced Rudolph to sign the “Letter of Majesty”, a document that gave religious freedom to Utraquists and the Unity of Brethren. But Rudolph abdicated only a short time later. His brother Matthias confirmed the Letter but never intended to stick to it.


Catholics in the Czech kingdom never accepted the Letter of Majesty. They did not feel bound by its measures. Supported by Spanish and Austrian diplomats, and with secret support from the king, they brought the counter-reformation to the land and pressed their subjects to convert. The Protestants complained about it to the emperor to no avail.


Ferdinand II of Styria: The Counter-Reformation Emperor

archduke ferdinand ii
Archeduke Ferdinand II. von Innerösterreich, 1614, via the Kunsthistorisches Museum


In 1617 a new king was to be elected. Matthias had no heir, so his relative Ferdinand of Styria was to rule after him. Who was Ferdinand of Styria? He was possibly the worst choice the Protestant aristocrats could have made.


Ferdinand was a young and ambitious prince. He wanted to lead his lands with a firm hand, but above all, he was a Catholic, devoted and passionate. Ferdinand vowed to the Virgin Mary that he would uproot all the heretics from the lands entrusted to him. In 1617 he had already succeeded in fulfilling his promise. In his dukedom of Styria, no Protestant prince remained. When the election came, the Czechs were unprepared. They did not know of any competitors.


Naively, they believed that Ferdinand would keep his promises. Ferdinand swore to uphold the religious freedoms mentioned in the Letter of Majesty. But before that, he secretly consulted his Jesuit confessor about whether he should do it. The Jesuits were clear. “An oath given to a heretic does not bind you to anything, dear sir. You shall make a false promise. But it will all be done for the glory of our church.” And so, Ferdinand II was elected as future king and waited for Matthias to die. The Thirty Years’ War seemed inevitable with a counter-reformation emperor on the throne.


The Thirty Years’ War: The Conspiracy Begins

emperor matthias thirty years war
Emperor Matthias as Archduke with Baton, by Lucas van Valckenborch, 1583, via the Kunsthistorisches Museum


In 1617 two Protestant churches were closed. One was pulled down by its Catholic suzerain. Protestant aristocrats complained to Emperor Matthias. They said that the law was being broken and that the Catholics were breaking religious rules constantly. But the emperor ordered the meeting to be dismissed and threatened sanctions.


The future rebels could not believe their ears as the answer from Vienna was read aloud. The emperor could not have written this letter. And anyway, the answer came too soon. They suspected the governors, fervent Catholic aristocrats had written the letter instead of the emperor. A secret meeting was held, and further steps were discussed.


A group of armed men walked into the governor’s office and demanded an answer. They released one of the governors — a man known for being a compromising and reasonable Catholic. Then they decided to settle the score with the rest.


The First Blood of the Thirty Years’ War

battle bila hora thirty years war begins
Battle of Bílá Hora and Prague, by Raphael Sadeler the Younger, 1620, via the Royal Collection Trust


Mathias of Thurn, the future general of Protestant forces, took the floor. He proclaimed that the governors were poisoners of the peace and that they broke the king’s law. They were sentenced to death on the spot.


Because there was a rule stating that one should not spill blood in the office, they followed Czech tradition and threw the governors and their secretary out of the window. Two fell directly to the ground, and rolled down the steep slope. One of them tried to hold on to the side rail, and as they finally pushed him down, he hit his head and got badly injured.


This was the first blood that was drawn in the Thirty Years’ War. The rebels tried to shoot at the running men out of the window, but two had only a few bruises and managed to get their severely injured colleague to safety. They found their way to a house of a prominent Catholic lady, the wife of a Czech chancellor. She took them in and refused to give them over when the rebels came looking for them. As soon as they could, they went to Vienna to the emperor. The Czech rebels tried to negotiate and defend their actions, but the time for diplomacy was over. At least for dealing with their emperor. They had crossed the line.


Everybody had to prepare for the Thirty Years´ War.

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.