The Prague defenestrations (2)
The more famous of the Bohemian defenestrations occurred on 23rd May 1618 and had catastrophic consequences for the lives of millions in Middle Europe.
Religion was again at the centre of the dispute. Bohemia had been allowed certain religious freedoms and the majority of the population had adopted Protestantism, a right granted to them by the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II, in 1609 in his Letter of Majesty. But by 1618 the Catholic Counter-Reformation was in full swing and attempts were made to close two Protestant churches being built on royal land, at Broumov and Hrob. The Protestants claimed this was a violation of the Letter of Majesty.
The leaders of the Protestant camp met with the principal Catholic hard-liners, Count Vilem Slavata of Chlum, Count Jaroslav Borzita of Martinice and Philip Fabricius in an attempt to ascertain who had persuaded the king, Matthias, to rescind the earlier commitments. When the three admitted that it was they, the Protestant leader, Count von Thurn, is reported to have said to them, “you are enemies of us and of our religion, have desired to deprive us of our Letter of Majesty, have horribly plagued your Protestant subjects…have tried to force them to adopt your religion against their wills or have had them expelled for this reason”.
Recognising he had the upper hand, von Thurn turned to the crowd assembled around Prague Castle and said, “were we to keep these men alive, then we would lose the Letter of Majesty and our religion…for there can be no justice to be gained from or by them”. With no more ado the three Catholics were snatched and flung out of the window.
Miraculously, though, all three survived their seventy-one foot fall from the third storey window. Catholic sources suggested that they were saved by angels or by the intercession of the Virgin Mary who caught them in mid fall. Protestant sources, perhaps in retaliation to the fanciful stories of divine intervention, claimed that they landed in a pile of dung. The truth is probably somewhere between these two extremes. But Fabricius, later ennobled, took the title of Baron Hohenfall, baron of high fall, showing that he at least could see the funny side of his ill-treatment.
The immediate effect of the defenestration was that the Catholics and Protestants started preparing for war. The death of Matthias in 1619 saw the election of Frederick II as Holy Roman Emperor but the Protestants deposed him and installed Frederick V as king of Bohemia, a move which did their ability to summon international support no favours. When the inevitable battle came, on 8th November 1620, the so-called Battle of White Mountain, the Catholics prevailed, Frederick was restored to his throne and after weeks of plundering and pillaging, twenty-seven nobles were executed in the town square and the heads of twelve were impaled on iron hooks and hung from the Bridge Tower pour encourager les autres.
Protestant outrage in turn proved to be the spark that unleashed the bloody carnage that was the Thirty Year War.
There was a third defenestration, as recently as 10th March 1948. The body of Jan Masaryk was found lying underneath the bathroom window of the Czechoslovak Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The official explanation was suicide but the Prague police, in 2004, concluded on the basis of forensic evidence that Masaryk had indeed been thrown out of the window. There were no angels or piles of dung to save him.