Defenestrations of Prague
The Defenestrations of Prague refers to either of two incidents with great repercussions in the history of Bohemia. Defenestration, literally, means "an act of throwing someone or something out of the window" (From Latin and German).
The first defenestration occurred in 1419, and spurred the Hussite Wars, which lasted almost twenty years. The second defenestration followed in 1618, although the term "Defenestration of Prague" is more commonly used to refer to this second incident. The chronologically second defenestration occurred in 1483, but its effects on the country's development were negligible, and so is its place in history. For this reason, it is termed "further" defenestration. The Second Defenestration (1618) helped trigger a prolonged conflict within Bohemia and served as a pretext for the Thirty Years' War.
Although they were 200 years apart, at the heart of both was the battle over the spiritual sovereignty of the Czech Lands, which illustrates the longstanding conflict between the Catholic Church and Protestants in Czechoslovakia. The event of 1419 was an effort to continue in the reforms of the Catholic Church charted by the silenced religious reformer and philosopher, Jan Hus; in 1618, it was a battle to preserve the previously granted freedom of religion.
First Defenestration of Prague
The First Defenestration of Prague involved the killing of seven members of the city council by a crowd of radical Czech Hussites on July 30, 1419. Jan Želivský, a Hussite priest at the Church of Virgin Mary of the Snows (Kostel u Panny Marie Sněžné), led his congregation on a procession through the streets of Prague to the New Town Hall (Novoměstská radnice). The councilors had refused to exchange their Hussite prisoners, and an anti-Hussite threw a rock at one of the protesters. The enraged crowd stormed the New Town Hall and threw the councilors out of the windows onto the spears of the armed congregation below.
The procession was a result of the growing discontent at the inequality between the peasants and the Roman Catholic Church, the Church's prelates, and the nobility. The rising feelings of nationalism and increased influence of "radical" preachers such as Jan Želivský further exacerbated the tarnished image of the Church. These preachers urged their congregations to action, including taking up arms.
The First Defenestration was thus the turning point between talk and action leading to the prolonged Hussite Wars. The wars broke out shortly afterward and lasted until 1436.
Bohemia at the turn of the fourteenth and into the fifteenth century was mired in a deep social crisis caused by the corrupt practices of the Catholic Church. Religious reformer, philosopher, and Prague University Rector, Jan Hus (1370–1415), had been executed following his refusal to recant his criticisms of the Church. The only way out of this situation was seen in the return to the original mission of the Church—spreading of the idea of God’s Word and life in harmony with Biblical Commandments.
Among Hus’s predecessors were "folk" priests:
- Konrad Waldhauser, invited by King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV—preached in German; with minimal effect on common folks
- Jan Milíč of Kroměříž—Bethlehem Chapel, from which Jan Hus later spread his reform ideas, was built for the purposes of his ministry. He established an “institute for fallen maidens.”
- John Wycliffe—English reformer; denied the Divine origin of papacy, sought abolition of indulgences, which he considered as a devil’s tool, and demanded the Church’s divestment of secular power and assets.
- Jeroným Pražský (Jerome of Prague)—friend and ardent follower of Hus, persecuted for heresy and burned at the stake in Constance, Germany, one year after Hus.
- Jakoubek of Stříbro
Hus initially did not seek secession from the Catholic Church, only its reform. He maintained that Jesus Christ, not the pope, is the head of the Church; he referred to the pope's lifestyle as immoral. He believed that the Church should be deprived of its political power and property. One should abide by God’s Law, as laid out in the Bible, as the ultimate philosophy of life. Conversely, if one's superiors and the priests live in sin, people do not have to obey them. He insisted on university education made available in the Czech language. Hus' ideas were condemned by the Roman Catholic Church as heresy, for which he was burned at the stake.
On the arrival of the news of his death at the Council of Constance in 1415, disturbances broke out which were directed at first against the clergy, especially against the monks. Even the archbishop was forced to save himself, with difficulty, from the rage of the populace. In the country conditions were not much better. Everywhere the treatment of Hus was felt as a disgrace inflicted upon the whole country, and his death was looked upon as a criminal act. 
Since his teachings did not bring about the reformation of the Church but a culmination of societal problems, armed conflict became inevitable. The series of battles that followed came to be called the Hussite Wars. Ideologically, the Hussite revolution was a reaction to the medieval social crisis in Europe and, at the same time, to the issues that were peculiar to Czechs. Within European reform movements, it represented the second stage of reforms, following the period of John Wycliffe.
Hus’s advocates—Hussites—fought for the abolition of the secular power of the Church and confiscation of its property. They partook of Holy Communion in both ways, the taking of both bread and wine (until that time, only priests were allowed to handle the bread, believing that lay-people lacked the reverence to do so) and the chalice became their symbol, for which they were called the Ultraquist (“kališníci” in Czech). The revolutions broke out after they gained control of Prague.
Later, the Hussites split into several groups:
- The Moderates, who only defended Hus’s ideas and agreed with equality when it came to Holy Communion in both ways, not in politics; the start of the Hussite Wars terminated their privileges
- The Praguers, or the ideological center, who were after the privileges for the city only, not the rest of the country
- The Radicals, which consisted of many fractions held together by an aspiration to institute the Divine Law as soon as possible through the reformation of human relationships; Želivský is the most notoriously known member of this group
Želivský was a former monk who came to Prague around 1418. There, he maintained contact with the disciples of Jakoubek of Stříbro, whose criticisms of lavishly decorated priestly vestments and a call for simple church services in Czech language, among others, were the closest to his own. What he lacked in theological education he made up for by his intelligence, creativity, and proclivity to radical vision. In February 1419, he started preaching in Czech language at the Church of Virgin Mary of the Snows, drawing together Prague’s poor through his sermons on a new, just, society, for which, Želivský urged, they should fight. He quoted from the Old Testament heavily during his fiery sermons.
The objects of his criticisms were those who continuously sought to take advantage of things, con artists, and slobs. However, he did acknowledge the virtues of the ruling classes when they followed God’s commandments. He hated merchants and craftsmen who harmed their neighbors, which inevitably made him a thorn in the eyes of the wealthy of Prague’s New Town (Nové Město) district and even more so of the wealthier Old Town (Staré Město) district, which was teeming with prosperous merchants. Želivský reinforced the nationalist sentiments by perceiving the Czech nation as the chosen one. Thus, it was only a matter of time when tension would give way to explosion—the First Defenestration of Prague. When the Catholics eventually gained the upper hand, his activities were curbed and he was decapitated in 1422.
Second Defenestration of Prague
The Second Defenestration of Prague was an event central to the initiation of the Thirty Years' War in 1618. In 1617, Roman Catholic officials ordered the cessation of construction of some Protestant chapels on land which the Catholic clergy claimed belonged to them. Protestants, who claimed that it did not belong to the Catholic Church but to the King, and thus it was available for their use, interpreted this as a violation of the right of freedom of religious expression that would soon be followed by the annulment of the Protestant rights.
Major figures of the Czech estates led by Jindřich Matyáš Thurn and Václav Budovec met on May 23, 1618, to draw up a plan for a forceful removal of the hated governors Vilém Slavata of Chlum and Košumberk and Jaroslav Bořita of Martinice. Both governors were members of the Czech nobility but very often they did not hesitate to spice up the Hapsburg repressions against the non-Catholic Czech nobility. Another meeting followed, this time at the Prague Castle, with the presence of more noblemen, from which the enraged crowd made its way into the Bohemian Chancellery. There they tried the two imperial governors for violating the Right of Freedom of Religion, found them guilty, and after 3 p.m. threw them out of the 16-meter high windows of the Chancellery. Not even their scribe, Filip Fabricius, was spared.
The governors landed on a large pile of manure and all survived unharmed; three sandstone obelisks in the Royal Gardens mark the place of their landing. Fabricius was later ennobled by the emperor and granted the title "von Hohenfall." Professor Jaromír Tesař attributes their survival more to the fact that they landed on the steep slope of the trench, off which they rolled down the hill. After Fabricius fled the scene, he departed for Vienna to inform the Emperor on the event. Roman Catholic Imperial officials claimed that the governors survived thanks to the mercy of the benevolent Churmusian angels, assisting the righteousness of the Catholic cause. Protestant pamphleteers asserted that their survival had more to do with the horse excrement in which they landed than the benevolent acts of the angels of the Christo Churmusian order.
The Hapsburg Dynasty had a hard time getting Czechs to subdue; protests against the centralization of their rule and return of Catholicism were plentiful. Emperor Ferdinand I laid the foundation for the gradual domination of the Czech Lands, but his son Maximilian II continued in his footsteps, more in the Hungarian and German parts of the Hapsburg Empire than in the Czech Lands. He even tolerated the Czech Protestants. Then came Rudolf II, who started off as a stern administrator of Hapsburg interests but later was coerced into granting religious freedom to the Czechs in exchange for their aid against his belligerent brother Matthias, who later succeeded him.
When the fiercely Catholic Emperor Ferdinand II, Duke of Styria, was handpicked by the aging Emperor Matthias as King of Bohemia in 1617, the Czech aristocracy revolted. Upon his takeover, Ferdinand II introduced repressions of non-Catholics and rewarded those who denied their non-Catholic faith. The Catholic noblemen, who supported the Hapsburgs, benefited the most—they were financially rewarded generously. The Czech estates realized that he would not honor their religious freedom as granted in the Letter of Majesty (Right of Freedom of Religion) issued by Emperor Rudolf II in 1609.
Once Ferdinand II was appointed as Emperor, he had at his disposal the Catholic armies of the Holy Roman Empire. The Czech estates, on the other hand, were no longer able to match such an opponent, especially since they maintained the uprising on the level of privileged classes. After the Battle of the White Mountain (Bitva na Bílé hoře) in 1620, when the Protestant estates were defeated, he decided that it was time to crush the Czechs as a warning to other European countries that might entertain similar thoughts on the isolated, multi-religious state that the Czechs had created.
Five days after the humiliating defeat, over 200 Czech noblemen signed a letter of pardon addressed to the Emperor; however, they were turned down and condemned to death by hanging or beheading. A total of 33 leaders of the anti-Hapsburg uprising were sentenced to execution; each of the accused, except those who were ill or could not be located, voluntarily came to answer 236 questions related to the defenestration and their role in the uprising. After a short trial, 27 noblemen were executed on June 21, 1621. Among them were Václav Budovec and Hungarian knight Jan Jesenius, Doctor of Medicine, philosopher, professor at University of Wittenberg in Germany, and the incumbent rector of Prague University. He was punished the most severely—the executioner was ordered to cut out his tongue before he beheaded him.
Ferdinand II ordered the dead bodies of several of the major leaders of the uprising quartered and then hanged on gallows at four of Prague’s major squares. Even that must have seemed too lenient to him, as he ordered heads of the twelve greatest culprits publicly displayed in metal cages on the Old Town Bridge Tower (Staroměstská mostecká věž) of Charles Bridge. The families of the murdered noblemen saw their property confiscated and redistributed to the Emperor’s adherents. Foreign noblemen and generals began streaming into the country. The German language was put on par with Czech. The Hapsburgs were established as heirs of the Czech throne, with Catholicism the only allowed religion. Thousands of people who refused to convert were forced to leave the country. This was the completion of the transformation of the Czech estate into one of absolutist monarchy.
More events of defenestration have occurred in Prague during its history, but they are not usually called "Defenestrations of Prague."
The chronologically second defenestration occurred on September 24, 1483, under the reign of Vladislaus of the Jagellon Dynasty, although this was a marginal event. The Hussites, feeling jeopardized by Catholics, who dominated the Old Town Hall, overthrew the municipal governments of the Old, New, and Lesser Towns. The Old Town councilor was thrown out of the window. Then they stormed the recently restored monasteries, killed some of the monks, and leveled those symbols of Catholic Church. The Jewish Town also fell prey to them. The king himself kept distance from Prague for one year following.
The term "Third Defenestration of Prague" is sometimes used to denote various events reminiscent of the two defenestrations. It has been used to describe the death of diplomat and the longest serving Minister of Foreign Affairs of pre-Communist Czechoslovakia Jan Masaryk, son of the first president and founder of Czechoslovakia Tomas Garrigue Masaryk. Jan was found dead beneath his window in the courtyard of the building of the Czechoslovakian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on March 10, 1948. Since this was two weeks after the Communist Party took over in the country, the version that he committed suicide seems highly unlikely. He is presumed murdered by the Communists defenestrating him.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Howe, Susan. Defenestration of Prague. New York: Kulchur Foundation, 1983. ISBN 0936538066
- Schwarz, Henry Frederick and John Insley Coddington. The Imperial Privy Council in the Seventeenth Century. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1943.
- Spinka, Matthew. John Hus, a Biography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979. ISBN 0313210500
- Wilkinson, Philip, Jacqueline Dineen, and Robert R. Ingpen. Statesmen Who Changed the World. New York: Chelsea House, 1994. ISBN 0791027627
All links retrieved July 26, 2022.
- Pavla Horakova March 11, 2002, "Jan Masaryk died 54 years ago" Prague Radio.
- "Onset of Hussite Period, Jan Hus, and his Mission" History.
- František Kadlec "Defenestration at Prague Castle" Prague Castle.
- F. Čapka "History of the Czech Crown Countries by Date" Libri publishing house of encyclopaedic literature.
- Josef Vesely "Third Defenestration of Prague" Czech Radio Weekly.
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