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A History of Prague Part 5, The Habsburgh Dynasty

After Vladislav Jagellan’s death, the seat of power passed into the hands of the great Habsburgh Dynasty which was to see Prague through the most celebrated era of its history.

Ferdinand Habsburgh

When Ferdinand Habsburgh, the brother-in-law of Vladislav Jagellon, took the Bohemian throne, he moved the seat of power to Austria, where he reigned as Emperor. Prague, once the leading light of the Holy Roman Empire, became a mere outpost.

The Garden at Prague Castle
The Garden at Prague Castle

Still, Ferdinand spent considerable time in Prague and invested a great deal in the city. He brought the Renaissance way of life to the court and made important additions to the Castle grounds. In 1534 he converted the vineyards which covered the surrounding hillsides into a beautiful Italianate garden. Designed by Giovanni Spatia, it was filled with Mediterranean plants and trees such as oranges, lemons and the figs which still grow there today. Europe’s first tulips, brought from Turkey in 1554, were grown in the Royal Palace Garden. In 1563, Ferdinand completed the Royal Summer Residence for his wife Ann Jagellon. The unique Renaissance building, with its Gothic roof, was designed by Paolo della Stella and Boniface Wohlmut. The spectacular Singing Fountain in front of the residence was built in 1568. Ferdinand also established the Lion Court, to house his collection of exotic animals.


Ferdinand’s successor, his son Maximillian, also ruled Prague from Vienna. However, he continued Ferdinand’s work at Prague Palace. In 1569 the Royal Ball Game Hall, designed by Bonifac Wohlmart as a venue for Royal games and competitions was completed. Maxmillian also added plants to the Royal Garden, like the narcissi and bluebells which still grow there today.

Rudolph II

In 1575, Rudolph II, son of Maximillian, was crowned Emperor. Rudolph was well-connected. Not only was he related to the Jagellon Dynasty, the Luxembourg Dynasty and the Premyslid Dynasty but also, through his great grandmother, “Mad Joan”, to the Spanish throne. In 1583 Rudolph moved the seat of the Empire back to Prague. He took up residence in Prague Castle which he reconstructed in the Renaissance style. The Imperial Court pionneered European Mannerism and the city became a centre of Renaissance culture, Politics, Science and Alchemy (earning it the name “magic Prague”). Once again Prague had become the centre of the Holy Roman Empire. Furthermore it had entered another Golden Age.

Rudolph was an intellectual and a lover of the arts. He established workshops, studios and an observatory and invited artists and scientists from all over the world to work in them. Scholars, like the Jehuda Low ben Bezale, came to teach and research in Prague. Along with the learned came a strange collection of magicians and other bizarre figures, like the spiritualist Edward Kelley.

In1604 Rudolph founded a pheasantry in the Royal Garden. In Ferdinand II’s Lion Court he kept his beloved lion Mohamed, a gift from the Sultan of Turkey. The Emperor and the King of the Beasts had a close, almost human or perhaps even spiritual, rapport. Rudolph immortalised Mohamed in the many lion sculptures around the city of Prague, the most famous of which stands outside the Rudolfinum concert hall.

Although a devout Catholic, Rudolph was a liberal and fair-minded man. In 1609 his “Imperial Charter of the Emperor” legalised religious freedoms hitherto unheard of in Europe. This brought an influx German Lutherans and Calvinists as well as Jews, seeking refuge from religious intolerance elsewhere.

Rudolph II died in 1612, in the Royal Garden Observatory, within days of his beloved Mohammed. The death of Rudolph II marked the end of the most celebrated period in Prague’s history.

The Thirty Years War

After Rudoph’s death, his successor, his brother Matthias, moved the Habsburgh seat back to Vienna. Another stormy period  followed.

When the Bohemian Diet nominated Ferdinand of Styria as successor to Matthias, tension arose between the Bohemian Protestants and the Catholic Habsburgs.

On May 23, 1618, in the incident now known as the “Third Defenestration of Prague” Catholic Governors were thrown from the windows of Prague Castle. They were replaced by Protestants and the Calvinist Frederick V of Platz took the throne. This precipitated the Thirty Years War between Catholics and Protestants which swept across Europe. At the Battle of White Hill (Bila Hora) in 1620 Catholic Spain, Poland and Bavaria along with Lutheran Saxony (which opposed the Calvinists) fought on Ferdinand’s side. The Protestant Army, led by J.M.Thurn was backed by Moravia, Lusatia and Silesia.

The Catholics won, the Emperor Ferdinand II became King of Bohemia and the Czech lands became Catholic again. Protestant citizens were ordered to convert or emigrate. Thousands chose the latter option.

When, in 1648, the Peace of Westphalia finally ended the Thirty Years war, Ferdinand moved the Royal Seat back to Vienna and Prague became a provincial town.  The economy collapsed, people left and the population dropped from 60,000 to 20,000. The future of the golden city seemed bleak.

Explore Habsburgh Prague in the Palace Gardens and at Prague Palace. Spot Rudolph’s lions around the city and at the Rudolfinium