Throwing Politicians Out Of Windows: A Prague Historical Tradition
Have you ever wanted to throw your politicians out of office? And I mean really throw them out of office? From the third-story window? To their death?
Well ... that's precisely what happened in Prague. Three times.
Before you start getting too excited and start searching for YouTube videos of some Czech politicians trying to fly for a second and a half before plummeting like Wile E. Coyote, this took place well over 400 years ago. All you're going to find is a few live-action recreations or maybe a flipbook animation or two.
The first defenestration -- meaning to either remove a politician from power or to yeet someone out a window, but in this case, meaning both -- took place in 1419. The ongoing clash between Catholics and Protestants created the backdrop for these political ejections. A Hussite priest named Jan Zelivsky brought his congregation through the streets of Prague and marched onto the New Town Hall, where several Hussites were being kept as prisoners. The town council members in residence refused to release them to the mass, and before talks could continue, one of the council members threw a rock out of the town hall window and struck Zelivsky. What the council member did not know was he just gave the now angry mob some lovely inspiration on how to solve their problem. That council member, along with several others, the judge, and the burgomaster soon followed that stone out the window and to their deaths.
You probably find these series of events shocking, but not as much as King Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia did -- who, after hearing this news, subsequently died from said shock. On the bright side, at least that saved him from a possible more painful death via being "THIS IS SPARTA!"-ed through a window, I suppose.
This became the First Defenestration of Prague and the turning point in the existing Catholic power and the Protestant peasantry, starting the 17-year long conflict known as the Hussite Wars. After the war, peace was short-lived, and in 1483 one of the Hussite factions became worried about losing influence. This led to yet another defenestration. The mob carried out a coup storming the Old Town Hall, where they politely escorted the Old Town Burgomaster out the damn window.
That was not the end of this particular Protestant rampage. The mob quickly moved towards the New Town Hall, the site of the previous defenestration, where they found seven council members and introduced them to the wonders of tether-free bungee jumping. Honestly, as equally baffling as the trend was how anyone else had decided to take on these positions after knowing one of the ways your employment might be terminated.
These actions overall helped to prevent the resumption of pre-Hussian conditions and to limit the ruling power. A few weeks later, three of the Prague municipalities signed a treaty, which brought on the dominion of Utraquism, becoming the largest major Hussite faction. Turns out that sometimes political and religious assassination does end well, as this ushered in the religious peace of Kutrna Hora. This agreement rang across the Czech lands and fostered peace between the Ultraquist Hussites and the Roman Catholics, declaring both religions equal in front of the law.
What a heartwarming story, no? Religious equality spread throughout the nation, all thanks to a few groups of dedicated countrymen who wanted nothing more than for their political leaders to get a whiff of fresh air and learn how to be a little more down to earth. But, if you're good at counting, you might realize that this was not the case. We still have one more, and perhaps the most historically momentous, defenestration left to hit.
In 1555, a new peace treaty was set as the standard: the Peace of Augsburg. This agreement settled a few religious disputes in the Holy Roman Empire, one of those being all the people starring in Lutheranism v Catholicism: Dawn of Pious. The Peace of Augsburg declared that there was a legal division, and Lutheranism and Catholicism were legally allowed to exist separately from each other. It was decided that rulers of their land were allowed to pick whatever religion they wanted to be (known by the phrase cuius regio, eius religio). Great! You get a choice in what religion you want to practice ... so long as you only pick option A or B, and you are the reigning royalty. Shut it, plebs!
The Kingdom of Bohemia was ruled by Habsburg kings, who, while Catholic, did not enforce their faith on the predominantly Protestant subjects. Rudolf II, who was both the King of Bohemia and the Holy Roman Emperor, continued to increase Protestant rights during his rule. He even went so far as to essentially establish a Protestant Bohemian state church that was controlled by the Protestant Estates.
But with many governments, there are power struggles. Rudolf's brother Matthias had been seeking to take over control from Rudolf. While largely inconsequential to our third story of exodus via window, he did eventually succeed. Matthias did go so far as to continue to offer legal and religious concessions to Bohemia. It was his lack of an heir, however, that made his cousin Ferdinand of Styria the ruling king in 1617.
Now Ferdinand was not quite the First Amendment kind of guy. A big proponent of the Catholic Counter-Reformation; he did his best to try to tear down the concessions that his predecessors made to the Bohemian Protestants, who had largely grown used to the idea that they were allowed to self govern and not bow to the ruling nobility class. Then the Emperor decided to order the construction of Protestant chapels to stop. You might imagine that the Protestant estates did not like that, and, spoiler: they didn't. They aptly protested. The Emperor's response? Your assembly is now dissolved, and your titles removed.
Now you might realize that the Emperor did not come to this decision on his own and was influenced into it -- the Protestant Estate members thought so too. So in 1618, an assembly of the three primary Protestant estates gathered at the Bohemian Chancellery to meet with the four Catholic Lords Regent. The topic: Which of you dicks were responsible for shutting down our assembly?
It's recounted that Lord Paul von Rziczan read out a letter addressed to these four Lords Regent, which may go down in the historical annals as one of the most succinct and hot fire j'accuse to dropped:
"His Imperial Majesty had sent to their graces the lord regents a sharp letter that was, by our request, issued to us as a copy after the original had been read aloud, and in which His Majesty declared all of our lives and honour already forfeit, thereby greatly frightening all three Protestant estates. As they also absolutely intended to proceed with the execution against us, we came to a unanimous agreement among ourselves that, regardless of any loss of life and limb, honour and property, we would stand firm, with all for one and one for all... nor would we be subservient, but rather we would loyally help and protect each other to the utmost, against all difficulties. Because, however, it is clear that such a letter came about through the advice of some of our religious enemies, we wish to know, and hereby ask the lord regents present, if all or some of them knew of the letter, recommended it, and approved of it."
As expected, the regents did not want to give an answer. They requested that the Protestants give them the chance to talk with Adam von Waldstein, their not present superior. ("We promise you'll hear from us by next Friday. Go home -- we'll call you, don't call us.") That didn't fly with the visiting Protestants. They wanted an immediate response. After deliberating for a bit, they removed two of the regents from the room, Adam II von Sternberg and Matthew Leopold Popel Lobkowitz. It was decided that they were innocent by the Protestant group, as they were much too pure to have had any hand in the matter.
This left Count Vilem Slavata of Chlum and Count Jaroslav Borita of Martinice, along with the secretary to the regents, Philip Fabricius. The two remaining regents in question were known Catholic hard-liners. They eventually acknowledged their responsibility in the dissolution of the Protestant Estates and agreed to receive their punishment.
The duo was a touch too naive and believed that they would only be arrested and detained by the Protestants. They were quickly escorted up to the Chancellery's third floor, where these men of faith were promptly introduced to the (70-foot) high heavens.
In a shocking turn of events, the three ejectees failed to meet God and actually survived the plunge. The Catholics claimed that they were caught and slowly set down by a group of angels, or perhaps it was the divine intervention of the Virgin Mary. On the other hand, the Protestants were rather impressed that a big pile of dung happened to be near the castle, and how oh so fortunate it was that it broke their fall. The likelihood of divine intervention or conveniently placed manure mound aside, perhaps the funniest outcome was the poor secretary, Philip Fabricius, being granted the title of Baron by the Emperor for his heroic survival. Henceforth Philip Fabricius was to be known as Baron von Hohenfall. Translating to the Baron of Highfall, to be exact.
War was now on the horizon, and the Protestant Estates and Catholic Habsburgs began seeking out allies for war. While many events followed and contributed to the overarching tensions and conflicts -- the Third Defenestration of Prague is seen as a key moment in the Bohemian Revolt that sparked the incredibly brutal and bloody conflict known as the Thirty Years' War.
I suppose the moral of this saga is that throwing political figures out of a window results in a peaceful and positive resolution. Well ... at least two out of three times.
Top image: Vaclav Brozik/Nat'l Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne