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With the death of Ludwig Jagellon (he drowned in a swamp running away from the Turks at the Battle of Mohacs in 1526), the short-lived Czech-Hungarian Union fell to pieces, leaving both the Bohemian and the Hungarian thrones unoccupied.
What a window of opportunity for the Austrian Habsburgs! That Ferdinand I of Habsburg, also happened to be the late Ludwig Jagellon's brother-in-law helped his claim to the Bohemain and Hungarian thrones. In Bohemia, the weakened central authority did, too. At first, Ferdinand made concessions to the ever-powerful Estates. Soon, however, he began systematically to weaken the authority of the regional nobility and towns. His attempts to increase the central power of the Crown naturally met with the opposition of the Estates, and the whole situation culminated in an unsuccesful rebellion of the Estates in 1547.
The Estates' failure was Ferdinand's gain. He used this victory to increase royal authority and to weaken the position of the Estates and the towns even more. He also invited the Jesuits to come to the Czech lands, though they never held any inquisitions here and generally did not meddle in public affairs. Ostensibly fighting to maintain freedom of religion in the Czech lands against the resolutely Catholic policies of Ferdinand, the Estates struggled to regain their former power and influence.
These conflicts simmered under the surface of things as the Renaissance swept through the Czech lands.
Ferdinand was succeeded by Maxmilian II, who was succeeded by Rudolf II. After assuming the Austrian throne, the Habsburg ruler and patron of the arts and sciences, Rudolf II (1576-1611) moved his court from Vienna to Prague - making him the last crowned King of Bohemia to live at Prague Castle. Rudolf II was a real character. He had a pet lion, he collected great art - including works by Da Vinci, Michaelangelo, and Rafael - he supported scientists such as Tycho de Brahe, Johannes Kepler as well as artists like Spranger and Von Aachen, and he was a personal friend of the legendary Prague Jewish leader, Rabbi Loew. It is said that he also financed the work of any number of quack alchemists (on his invitation John Dee and Edward Kelley spent time in Prague), and that he was a little soft in the head. It's possible that the Legend of Faust (who lived in Prague) originated at this time of scientific exploration.
The architectural style of the time was Baroque, which - like Rudolf II himself - was round and robust, flamboyant and a little gaudy. Baroque buildings like the Loreto and St Nicholas Church in Lesser Town Square are massive and grand. The statues that top them appear so heavy that they seem likely to fall and crush innocent passers-by.
Rudolf II, who suffered periods of dementia because of his acute case of syphilis, was forced by his family to resign in 1611. He had been forced during his reign to concede religious freedom to the Czech Protestants, and when his brother and successor, Matthias, tried to rescind them, mounting political tensions led the Czech Estates to rebel against the Habsburgs once again.
They began their rebellion in grand Czech style, with the Second Defenestration of Prague in 1618. In this second defenestration, two vice- regents of the Austrian monarch and some governors of the Czech lands were thrown out of a tower window at Prague Castle. They were not killed, however, as they fell onto a pile of garbage (mostly straw) which had accumulated in the castle moat. So it can be said that they (at least the non-Austrian of the throwees) were the world's first bouncing Czechs. To add insult to injury (or perhaps insult to insult?) the Bohemian diet of the Estates then elected Frederick V of the Palatinate (also known as Frederick Faltz or as "the Winter King") as their ruler, thinking that his father-in-law - the English King James I - would come to their aid. They could not have been more wrong.
This rebellion of the Czech Estates was particularly unsuccessful. It culminated in the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620, in which the Estates were incontrovertibly defeated by the Habsburgs. They had been successful only in sparking the Thirty Years' War, which was to devastate much of Europe. Incidentally, the then-mercenary, later-philosopher Rene Descartes fought at the Battle of the White Mountain on the side of the Habsburgs.
Well, the Habsburgs, quite understandably, did not appreciate these disturbances which were emanating from the northern reaches of their empire. But the methods that they used to subdue the protestant Estates after the Battle of the White Mountain were extraordinarily harsh.
First, they executed 27 nobles - leaders of the Estates who had fought on the losing side against the Habsburgs at the Battle of the White Mountain - in Prague's Old Town Square in May 1621. Some of the heads of the decapitated leaders of the rebellion were then hung strategically around Prague - for instance, on the Old Town bridge tower of the Charles Bridge - to serve as an ominous reminder to the people of Who was Boss. (It is said that every year, at the exact hour and on the exact day that they were killed, the ghosts of the 27 wrongly-executed nobles can be seen haunting the spot where they lost their heads. The place today is marked by 27 crosses in the cobblestones of Old Town Square, next to the Astronomical Clock.) The heads hung there for 11 long and lonely years, before finally being taken down and given a proper burial by the Saxons, who occupied Prague in 1632 in the course of the Thirty Years' War.
The Thirty Years' War, which had begun in Prague, ended there, too. In 1648, the Swedes had succeeded in capturing the Lesser Quarter and plundering it and Prague Castle (carrying off many valuable artworks which decorate Swedish castles and palaces to this day). They were defeated by a ragtag force of Czech university students and residents of Prague's Jewish town on the Charles Bridge in the last battle of the Thirty Years' War. It is said that the Swedes were beseeched to come by the exiled Protestant leader, Comenius (Jan Amos Komensky) - he had wanted them to come to the aid of the by-now utterly defeated Protestant forces, but by the end of the war it was already too late.
As a result of all this tumult, the Czech lands lost the power to elect their own rulers, and the Czech crown was made hereditary for Habsburg rulers. The Habsburgs banned all religions other than Catholicism. The property of Protestant members of the nobility was confiscated and handed out to loyal Catholics.
Those Czech Protestants who weren't already in exile were forced to convert to Catholocism. Only a very few had the courage to continue to practice their religion in secret.
The population of the country had been halved by the sundry aftermath of the Battle of the White Mountain, and as fewer people also means fewer people paying tax, taxes were raised.
Things were pretty bad all around. The rich got richer, the poor got poorer, and the economy went into a deep recession. Luckily, it was high time for the Enlightenment to make an entrance. The administrative reforms of Maria Theresa and her son, Joseph II, did much to alleviate the situation.
These two rulers reduced the privileges of the now all-Catholic nobility (who are also - perhaps to confuse us all - known as the Estates, as the formerly Protestant nobility had also been called). They expelled the Jesuits in 1773, and they attempted to end social oppression by abolishing serfdom in 1781. In the same year, they issued the Edict of Tolerance, which permitted the free exercise of religion and the secularization of education, science and art. Prague's Jewish town is called "Josefov" to this day in honor of Josef II.
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