The Kingdom of Bohemia during the Thirty Years´ War

The Thirty Years´ War (1618-1648) was a conflict with the purpose to gain influence on politics and religion which spread throughout all of Europe. Its beginning is called "The Czech War". On May 23, 1618 it began with the defenestration of Habsburg supporters down from the Prague Castle.

To suppress the revolt of Czech Estates the emperor Ferdinand II dispatched army troops from Austria led by Karl Earl of Buquoy (going through Jihlava, Havlickuv Brod, Pelhrimov). Another part of the Austrian army, led by Heinrich Earl of Dampierre, went towards Jindrichuv Hradec. The army of Czech Estates stopped that march in southern Bohemia, thanks mainly to an army leader Mathias Thurn whose troops proceeded quickly from Praha to Caslav and then to the area of Trebon in southern Bohemia. Henceforth two important towns, Ceske Budejovice and Cesky Krumlov, supported the emperor. It enabled him to have locations in Bohemia to start again new marches. In 1619 the Estates of Upper Lusatia, Moravia, Upper Austria and Lower Austria began to support the Czech Estates in the fight against Habsburgs. All these fights finished by the battle at White Mountain (Bila Hora) near Praha on November 8, 1620. (1)

The head of the Eastes army, Christian of Anhalt stood face to face the Austrian army of Karl of Buquoy. The number of troops of both rivals was almost equal. The Estates army had about 20 000 soldiers in better position than the Emperor´s army of some 28 000 men. The battle lasted about 2 hours in the morning. Poorly supplied and organized Estates troops were conquered quickly. It is well known that Moravians as the last soldiers kept defence near the walls of the royal park. Upon learning of the result the Czech King Friedrich escaped to Haag in Netherlands that same year.

The administration of the Kingdom of Bohemia was entrusted to the imperial deputy Karl Earl of Lichtenstein. He ordered the disarmament of Prague burghers and the arrest of heads of the Estates revolt. A special confiscation committee was founded to seize property of all the revolters. Those arrangements were not conceived to reduce only the opposition, but different groups also had financial interests there. A special tribunal condemned many revolutionaries to a loss of property and 27 men were executed at the Old Town Square of Prague (Staromestske namesti) on June 21, 1621. (2)

As mentioned before, the confiscation of property hit many members of the Czech Estates. The seized property was sold for a minimum price to people who supported the Emperor during the war. Money devalued greatly thanks to speculators who controlled the Czech mints.

Systematically forced recatholization began already in 1621. State authorities carefully applied a decree concerning expulsion of non-Catholic priests from royal towns out of Bohemia. A year later Anabaptists were expelled from Moravia and the Prague university was handed over to Jesuits. After 1623 the rural non-Catholic priests also had to leave the country. Several royal decrees were issued for that purpose to describe in detail who and how is to be expelled and how.

In 1627 the new constitution for Bohemia was published by the Habsburgs which was called the Renewed Provincial Land Ordinance (Obnovene zrizeni zemske). It proclaimed that the Kingdom of Bohemia was to be inherited by the Habsburgs and only the king had the authority to issue new laws or to establish new provincial clerks. The Estate of Prelates obtained an important right to vote on the Provincial Assembley. The German language was declared equal to Czech. The Provincial Assembley authority was limited to the dispute of taxes and land army matters. The Letter of Majesty of Rudolf II was abolished and the Catholic Church was the only one allowed in Bohemia. (3) The same consitution became valid in Moravia in 1628.

Those who did not want to convert to the Catholic Church had to leave the kingdom. Although it concerned mainly the aristocracy, many of the burghers and farmers left the country, too. Most of them left for Saxony (areas around Pirna, Dresden, Leipzig), Poland (Leszno, Torun), Hungary (Holic, Puchov, Skalica, Trencin). (4) Among the thousands of emigrants were also well known people, e.g. Jan Amos Komensky, historians Pavel Stransky and Pavel Skala of Zhor, and engraver Vaclav Hollar.

As the army troops of Catholics and Protestants were crossing Bohemia and Moravia, the devastation of the country was increasing. Being in jeopardy all the time, farmers were unable to keep agricultural production at a sufficient level to supply themselves and towns since armies seized all the yields they found. In contrast to bigger towns, farmers were not protected by walls against roaming deserters, homeless people and thieves. Because of continued injustice countrymen were leaving farmsteads or revolts of farmers burst out in different areas: Tabor and Zatec in 1620, Nachod, Caslav, Kourim, Posazavi in 1622, Hradec Kralove in 1628. They tried to attack smaller army troops or roaming single mercenaries and revenged upon them. Those revolts were suppressed and punished without mercy. Something like an exception among revolts of farmers were revolts of peasant and shepherds in eastern Moravia (an area called Wallachia). There, peasants and shepherds supported the Eastates army and other troops against Habsburgs in the years 1621, 1623-1624, and 1626. In the years 1642-1643, they helped the Swedes to conquer Kromeriz, Prerov, Lipnik, Novy Jicin, and Lukov. After the Swedes withdrew their troops from Moravia in 1644, the Wallachians were defeated cruelly. About 200 people were executed.

The Thirty Years´ War influenced also geographical changes of the borders of the Kingdom of Bohemia. In 1635 the emperor concluded a peace treaty with the Elector of Saxony in Prague. To acquire Upper and Lower Lusatia, the Elector of Saxony promised to stop any future attacks. Afterwards, the Czech king had only the right of using the honourable title and coat of arms of Lusatia.

European powers were worn out by these long lasting fights. For several years they tried to negotiate a peace treaty that finally succeeded in 1648. Nevertheless, for the Kingdom of Bohemia it was not a happy ending as expected. Despite the Swedes strive for general amnesty and abolition of all confiscatory judgements done after 1620, according to the peace treaty the status quo of January 1, 1624 regarding property of Catholic and Protestant Estates was restored. Thereby, it frustrated plans of the Czech emigrants to get home and to live in the Protestant religion there. Later they lived in different places in Europe ever since hoping for come-back, engaging in political activities which might help them to turn politics in their favor. Their descendants no longer showed such a deep interest in their fathers´ homeland and "Czech roots" became strange to them.

The war was over, but consequences were visible everywhere. Because of frequent forced contribution, a lack of coins hit the market and the currency devalued. Trade companies and merchants´ contacts were broken and general prosperity rapidly declined. Before the war about 151 000 farmsteads existed in Bohemia, while only 50 000 remained after the year 1648. The number of inhabitants decreased from 3 million to 800 000. Many towns and farmsteads were left deserted, e.g. there were 20-50 % of deserted houses in Bechyne, Ceska Trebova, Duchcov, Jablonec, Kadan, Policka, Rakovnik, Strakonice, Stribro, Teplice, Vimperk, Vysoke Myto, Zatec, over 50 % in Cesky Brod, Frydlant, Hradec Kralove, Jaromer, Louny, Manetin, Most, Olomouc, Prachatice, Tabor, Tachov, Vodnany, and Zlin.

The High Aristocracy Estate reinforced its power and land possession. Among the richest houses in western Bohemia were the families Verdugo, Lammingen, Trautmannsdorf, Fürstenberg, in northern Bohemia Gallas, Desfours, Harrach, Waldstein, Lobkowicz, in eastern Bohemia Piccolomini, Leslie, in southern Bohemia Eggenberg, Schwarzenberg, Marradas, Buquoy, in northern and southern Bohemia Liechtenstein, Dietrichstein, Collalto, Rottal, Serenyi. Some of these noble families came from abroad and gained their property in the Kingdom of Bohemia only during the war.

The lack of inhabitants capable of handy-work forced the aristocracy to limit their freedom for the purpose of manorial work. Without permission people were not allowed to move, enter a trade school, marry, etc. A few days each week they had to work for the landlord without obtaining any salary. It took more than 100 years untill this kind of serfdom was abolished in Bohemia.

The defeat at the Battle of White Mountain meant the end of the Czech Estates opposition and became a symbol which has influenced the Czech mentality even untill the present day. The period which followed the Thirty Years´ War is called The Dark Age (Doba temna) by Czech historians for comparing the life to the pre-war times, as all levels of society declined for a long period of time.

(1) Today Bila Hora lies in the western part of Praha.
(2) The place where it happened is still marked on the square pavement.
(3) The Letter of Majesty of Rudolf II (Rudolfuv majestat) was a charter issued by the Emperor Rudolf II in 1609. It granted freedom to some non-Catholic confessions in Bohemia.
(4) The localities mentioned in Hungary are now located in Slovakia.

Published in "Nase rodina (Our Family)", St. Paul, MN, Volume 15, Number 4, June 2003, Page 125-129