Neither Matthias nor his brothers had any offspring. A family agreement designated Ferdinand of Styria as successor. He was only accepted as Bohemian king by the estates assemblies and was not elected. Although he pledged to observe the estates’ freedoms in his oath, including Rudolph’s Letter of Majesty, he had no intention of keeping his promise.
The Catholic faction in the kingdom heightened tensions and prompted many cases of indisputable breaches of the religious freedom guaranteed by Rudolph’s Letter of Majesty, which signified the implementation of the imperial principle of “he who rules, his creed reigns,” which was invalid in the Czech lands. The non-Catholic estates complained in vain to Emperor Matthias.
Even despite a ban by the rule, they congregated in Prague May 23, 1618. The estates delegation led by Jindřich Matyáš Thurn set off for Prague Castle and accused the governor of breaching the estates’ freedoms. Arriving in the role of jury, they confirmed the accusation and as a punishment they threw the accused out of a window into the castle moat. Luckily for those thrown out the window, this did not result in any fatalities.
This defenestration of Prague unleashed the Thirty Years' War in Europe. In the course of this conflict, the population in the Czech lands declined by a third. Religious freedom disappeared and the only permitted faith was the Catholic religion. Non-Catholics had to choose between emigration and abandoning their faith. Many chose to depart the country. Confiscations were carried out to an extent that had previously never been seen. The disaffected estates elected a 30-member government (with 10 members from each estate) in place of Ferdinand II. In June 1619, a general assembly of the estates of the lands of the Bohemian Crown gathered and reformed the state as a confederation of countries. It expressly declared that Ferdinand had been deposed from the throne. It elected Frederick of the Palatinate (Fridrich Falcký) as the new king (1619–1620). Frederick was a professed Calvinist who had married the daughter of the English King James.
Unlike the Czech estates, Ferdinand II (1620–1637) succeeded in ensuring that he got help from his allies. On November 8, 1620, the decisive battle for the uprising took place at White Mountain (Bílá Hora) near Prague. It lasted two hours and the poorly paid and demoralized estates’ army lost the battle. Frederick of the Palatinate escaped from Prague shortly after receiving news of the defeat. Because of his short reign, he was given the derisory nickname of the Winter King. The Battle of White Mountain went down in Czech national history as the beginning of a “dark period” involving the decline of the Czech nation.
Ferdinand II applied the principle that all rights were forfeited as a result of the deplorable rebellion and the decision as to who would be admitted back into the fold depended solely on his merciful discretion. On June 21, 1621, 27 leaders of the uprising were executed on Old Town Square in Prague: three lords, seven knights and 17 burghers. Frederick of the Palatinate lost his elector’s vote, which was transferred to a Bavarian duke who was an ally of Ferdinand II.
The accession of the Catholic faction was disquieting for the Protestant part of Europe. Consequently in 1625, an alliance was established between England, the Netherlands, Denmark and the Lower Saxony principalities against the Habsburgs. They were supported by France, Transylvania and the Ottoman Empire.
Albrecht von Wallenstein (Albrecht z Valdštejna), the general of the imperial forces, managed to build an army and defeat the emperor’s adversaries. He displayed the same talent when it came to the art of accumulating material assets and money. He had become immensely wealthy during the state bankruptcy of 1623, which he himself had helped precipitate.
In 1629, Ferdinand overwhelmingly defeated the first anti-Habsburg coalition. Encouraged by his success, he attempted to implement the restitution of property of the Catholic Church back to the situation that had existed before 1555. This only led to a prolongation of the war. In 1627 and 1628, he issued a Renewed Ordinance of the Land for Bohemia and Moravia. This was a document of crucial significance that adjusted the distribution of power in the state. The Renewed Ordinance of the Land entrenched the hereditary right of the Habsburgs to succession. The estates assembly lost the right to elect a king. All that remained to them was very limited power to initiate legislation. After 200 years, the ecclesiastical estate could once again sit in the assembly. The cities lost most of their rights. The only permitted religion was Catholicism, and Germans were given rights equal to those accorded to Czechs.
The Thirty Years' War was continued by King Gustavus Adolphus (Gustavus II) of Sweden. The forces of his ally – Saxony – captured Prague in 1631. Hopes were briefly revived among émigrés that they would be able to return to their homeland. Saxony, however, concluded a separate peace in 1635. Naturally, it didn’t do this for nothing, as it gained Lower and Upper Lusatia in the process.
France, which was concerned about the excessive expansion of the Habsburg monarchy, entered into a coalition with the Netherlands and Sweden in 1635. Swedish forces returned to Bohemia and Moravia.
In 1645, the imperial army suffered a defeat in one of the bloodiest battles of the war at Jankau (Jankov) in Central Bohemia. During a final onslaught, the Swedes captured Prague’s Lesser Quarter (Malá Strana), Hradčany and Prague Castle in an effort to improve their position in peace negotiations. Nevertheless, the rest of the city was successfully defended thanks to the resident population. Peace negotiations took place in the Westphalian towns of Münster and Osnabrück. France and Sweden benefited the most from the peace.
The sovereignty of the Netherlands was recognized for many decades. The Habsburgs consolidated their position in Central Europe. For Czech émigrés, this meant the end of any hope of returning to their homeland. The most famous of these, John Amos Comenius – the last bishop of the Unity of Brethren and an important pedagogue, philosopher and writer – died in 1670, most likely in the Dutch city of Naarden.
The Thirty Years' War ended with the devastation of the Czech lands and threats from the Turks, who had conquered nearly all of Hungary. In 1683, after 150 years, they laid siege to Vienna for the second time with a large army. Imperial princes and the Polish king John III Sobieski came to the aid of the Habsburgs. A long Habsburg Army offensive followed after the defeat of the Turks in Vienna. The monarchy waged wars against France and the “Sun King” Louis XIV. The growth in war expenditures led to a higher tax burden on the population.
When the Spanish branch of the Habsburgs died out in 1700, the great empires laid claim to the throne (both the French Bourbons and the Central European Habsburgs). A Bourbon took the throne in Spain after coalition negotiations between Great Britain and the Netherlands, and the Habsburgs were compensated with Spanish territories in Italy and what is now Belgium.
From the very beginning of his reign, Charles VI (1711–1740) strove to resolve the situation that would arise were he to die without a male descendant. The Pragmatic Sanction of 1713 declared the monarchy to be indivisible. It also stipulated the order of succession in the male and female lines of the family. Charles devoted a great amount of effort to having this recognized and accepted in all of the Habsburg lands as well as on the international political stage. All the same, Maria Theresa eventually had to defend her claims through the force of arms in the War of the Austrian Succession.