The First Defenestration in Prague

Defenestration – the act of throwing a thing or person out of a window (with the intent to kill) – occurred three times in the history of Prague. In all cases, religious disputes were the underlying cause. Two of the defenestrations started long wars. The last one, in 1618, was the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War. The first one, in 1419, was the event which marked the start of the Hussite Wars. Today, I will share with you the first defenestration.

The backstory

The First Defenestration in Prague by Adolf Liebscher, photo: public domain

The First Defenestration in Prague by Adolf Liebscher, photo: public domain

The religious conflict in the Czech Kingdom intensified with Jan Hus’s death at the stake in Constanza in 1415,   perhaps contrary to the expectations of the Catholic Church. The Hussites had a strong position within the Czech nobility and townspeople. However, the strong German population in the cities and towns remained Catholic. The Hussite-Catholic conflict, therefore, often ran along the Czech-German line too. The unfolding events were influenced heavily by decisions made (or sometimes not made), by Czech King Wenceslas IV. In addition to his troublesome personality, there were also the pressures from many sides including Wenceslas IV’s brother Sigismund (King of Hungary and Holy Roman Emperor) and the Pope abroad, and Hussites and Catholics at home.

The crucial events happened in Prague. In winter 1415-1416, the Hussites were in control of a majority of the churches and chapels. In early 1419, Wenceslas IV reversed the situation, probably on the insistence of Sigismund and the Pope. Nevertheless, the king hinted that the Hussites were still in his favor to some extent and his decision eventually enraged both sides. Several violent incidents occurred in Prague.

The following spring saw a great surge of “pilgrimages to mountains.” Those were large gatherings of people who celebrated Mass in the Hussite manner. The atmosphere was full of religious exaltation and the people were very sensitive to the issues of faith and salvation. Many people in the countryside and in the towns expected the second coming of Jesus in the following months.

At the same time, Prague was buzzing like a bee hive. In the New Town of Prague, a fiery and charismatic Hussite preacher Jan Želivský attracted many to his sermons, which escalated the tensions. After a chance meeting of the Hussite crowd with Wenceslas IV (who lived in New Town) the king appointed a new city council which was openly against the Hussites. He also expelled some Hussites from the city.

Change is in the air

New Town Hall in Prague, photo: archive of prague.tips

New Town City Hall in Prague, photo: bkm / prague.tips

The new city council quickly arrested some of the Hussites. The conflict seemed inevitable. On Sunday July 30, things finally came to a head. Jan Želivský gave a militant sermon in the Church of the Virgin Mary on the Snows to an audience where many men carried weapons. After the sermon, the crowd led by John, left the church and broke into another church controlled by Catholics and continued further on to New Town City Hall at the corner of Charles Square (the building still serves as a city hall).

Enraged Hussites broke into the building and threw the councilman and other staff from the windows. Because the windows were not so high, the fall itself probably was not fatal. But the blows by the weapons of the crowd waiting below the windows were. Thirteen or 14 men died at City Hall including the mayor. The whole defenestration showed some sign of careful preparation and seems not to have been spontaneous.

The King was enraged but appointed a new City Council proposed by the insurgents. However, he died only 16 days after the defenestration. Bohemia was now without a ruler (heir apparent was Wenceslas IV’s brother Sigismund whom the Hussites saw as enemy), and soon there were numerous clashes between the Catholics and the Hussites which eventually became a full-fledged war.

The Hussite Wars dragged on for 15 years and ended in a compromise between the moderate Hussites who were free to observe their own rites, and Sigismund who finally sat on the Czech throne. The Czech Kingdom thus became a country where another Christian group (originally considered a heretical one) had the same rights as the Catholic Church – for a century, it was an anomaly on the map of Europe until Martin Luther started the reformation in Western Europe. Probably no one in the crowd that marched towards the New Town City Hall could have guessed what would cone out of that hot day.

Author: Pavel Janecek

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