The Prague defenestrations (1)
The act of defenestration isn’t an exclusively Bohemian trait but the Czechs seemed to have taken up this unusual form of political assassination up with some gusto. What is now known as the first defenestration of Prague of 1419 owed its origin to religious strife.
The casus belli was popular discontent over the corrupt practices of the Catholic church. A prominent religious reformer, Jan Hus, vehemently criticised the church seeking a wholesale reform of what he considered to be their egregious practices rather than succession. He was executed in 1415 – burnt at the stake – for his refusal to recant his criticisms but instead of putting a stop to the grumbling it only made matters worse.
Hus adherents, known as Hussites, took up their leaders’ baton and merged a demand for greater equality and national recognition with the call for religious reform. One of the most prominent Hussites was Jan Zelivsky who preached a message of direct action. On July 30th 1419 he led his congregation from the Church of the Virgin Mary of the White Snows through the streets of Prague to the New Town Hall to present their demands for the release of some Hussite prisoners.
When these demands were refused and an anti-Hussite threw a rock at one of the protesters, the mob stormed the Town Hall. They seized the judge, the burgomaster and thirteen councillors (unluckily for them) and threw them out of the window, the unfortunate victims either dying as a result of their fall or else were put out of their misery by the mob below. On hearing the news King Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia was stunned and is supposed to have died shortly afterwards from the shock of it all.
The king’s death further destabilised the situation and many Catholics were expelled from the cities of Bohemia by the increasingly aggressive and nationalistic Hussites who now formed the majority of the indigenous Bohemians. The Catholic church through the agency of the Pope raised troops and launched a series of crusades against the recalcitrant Czechs to restore control in 1421, 1422, 1423, 1427 and 1431. These dust ups are now known as the Hussite War.
The Hussites were pretty aggressive and stuck their noses in disputes in neighbouring lands. It was not until 1434 that they were pacified when a more moderate faction seized control and brokered a deal whereby they recognised the King of Bohemia and the Church in return for which they were allowed to practise their religious beliefs untrammelled.
Before we come to the Second Prague defenestration, which will have to wait until next time, we need to deal with the quaintly titled first and a halfth defenestration of Prague of 1483, which sounds rather like one of those new junctions tacked on to an existing motorway system. This piece of civil unrest again involved the Hussites who were concerned about Catholic domination of the Old Town Hall. On September 24th they seized control of the municipal governments of the Old, New and Lesser Towns. In the ensuing melee a councillor and seven aldermen were thrown out of the windows of their respective town halls.
But the mob’s fury was not yet sated. They stormed a number of the recently restored monasteries, killing a few monks along the way and destroyed some of the important symbols of the Catholic church. King Vladislaus, very sensibly, stayed away from Prague for a year until things had calmed down.