The Thirty Years' War and the Imperial Succession

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Bohemia in the Thirty Years' War

The Holy Roman Empire in the early seventeenth century was the weak federal government of Germany and its satellites. It was an elective monarchy with a presumption of hereditary succession and was divided into about 300 provinces which were also monarchies, some elective, some hereditary and some ecclesiastical. Usually the emperor was also a provincial ruler: Rudolph and his successors were, among other things, kings of Bohemia, an elective monarchy which had once been independent and retained its own language.

The key to the period is the imperial election of 1619. On 28 August of that year the electoral college convened to elect a successor to Emperor Matthias, but first it had a constitutional deadlock to resolve. Two men both claimed the crown of Bohemia and the electoral vote which it conferred, the two rights being indivisible: however, under imperial law the college determined its own membership. If the college recognised one claimant it was imposing a king on Bohemia, and if it recognised the other it was allowing the Bohemian constitution to override that of the empire.

The real issue was religious. The two men were Ferdinand II, a Catholic who claimed the Bohemian crown by right of inheritance, and Frederick V, a Protestant who alleged that Ferdinand's claim had been annulled by his own election at provincial level. The other electoral votes were distributed between three Protestants and four Catholics, which meant that imperial primacy entailed a Catholic majority and provincial primacy gave the two sides parity. The electors chose to recognise Ferdinand and he was elected emperor that day. The result was a war which lasted a generation.

Bohemia, with its long Protestant tradition, had been in rebellion against Ferdinand since the Defenestration of his agents there in 1618. After the Battle of the White Mountain near Prague in 1619 he made himself its master, exiling Frederick and executing his supporters. He repeated the process in the province of the Palatinate, where Frederick had also ruled, and suppressed Protestantism in both provinces. The religious allegiance of a province was indeed a decision for its prince, but previous kings of Bohemia had chosen to grant religious toleration for the sake of unity. In response a coalition of Protestant provinces unsuccessfully fought the imperial forces to restore Frederick, allying themselves successively with Denmark, France and Sweden in the cause of provincial primacy, which was eventually conceded. Each side financed the war by plundering the other side, and Germany was devastated.

Prague was looted three times: in 1619, after Frederick was deposed; in 1631, when neutral Saxony entered the war; and at the end of the war in 1648, when the Swedes departed with their booty.

The imperial succession

Rudolph II (1576-1612)

Succeeded his father unopposed. Created a fabulous court at Prague which broke up on his death.

Matthias (1612-1619)

A stopgap who wrested authority from his brother Rudolph and in turn lost it to his cousin Ferdinand II. Moved the imperial capital back to Vienna.

Ferdinand II (1619-1637)

Won the imperial crown and forced Bohemia into the Catholic camp at the cost of the Thirty Years' War.

Ferdinand III (1637-1657)

Succeeded his father unopposed, inheriting an unwinnable war. Secured the succession for his son Ferdinand IV but then outlived him.

Leopold I (1658-1705)

Young and untried on his succession, he was kept waiting for the imperial title, which was now purely honorific.