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The Habsburgs and Rudolf II

With the death of Ludwig Jagellon in battle against 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.

Enter the Austrian line of the Habsburgs, and Ferdinand I, who also happened to be the late Ludwig's brother-in-law. At first, Ferdinand was forced to make concessions to the interests of the ever more powerful Estates. Soon, however, he began systematically to weaken the authority of the nobility. His attempts to increase the central power of the Crown naturally met with the opposition of the Estates, and the whole situation culminated in the unsuccesful rebellion of the Estates in 1547.

The Estates' failure was Ferdinand's gain. He used his authority to weaken the position of the Estates and of the royal 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 Maxmilion 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. 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 and Johannes Kepler, 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.

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, 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, though this has never been known to actually happen.

Rudolf II was forced by his family to resign in 1611, and 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 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 "the Winter King" V of the Palatinate (Faltz in Czech) 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. The Estates were incontrovertibly defeated by the Habsburgs at the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620. They had been successful only in sparking the start of the 30 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. The methods that they used to subdue the protestant Estates after the Battle of the White Mountain, however, were particularly 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 - on 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 buried by the Saxons, who occupied Prague in 1632.

The Thirty Years' War, which had begun in Prague, ended there, too. In 1648, the Swedes captured the Lesser Town but were defeated on the Charles Bridge by Czech university students and residents of Prague's Jewish town. A scene depicting this battle can be seen in the very middle of the mirror maze on Petrin Hill today.

The Czech lands lost the power to elect their own rulers, as the Czech crown was made hereditary for both male and female Habsburg rulers. The Habsburgs banned all religions other than Catholicism. The property of Protestant members of the nobility was confiscated, and the power of the Catholic nobility was consolidated. The Habsburgs also made German the official language of the country, and the Czech language was, in time, all but forgotten.

These harsh policies forced many Czech protestants into exile. The most famous of them was Jan Amos Komensky (Comenius), who is known as the "Teacher of Nations."

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. For instance, in the middle of the 17th century, there was a big outbreak of witches in the Czech lands, which is attested to by the fact that in 1651 alone, 200 witches were burned at the stake. To make matters worse, 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 (also, perhaps to confuse us all, known as the Estates), 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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