A major physical obstacle blocking Spanish communications was the Palatinate, a rich area in the Rhineland ruled by a Calvinist prince, the Elector Palatine. In 1618 the Elector Palatine, Frederick V, also headed the Protestant Union. Frederick hoped to break the Catholic hold on the office of emperor upon the death of the emperor Matthias (r. 1612-1619), who was old and childless.
The electors of Saxony and Brandenburg were also Protestants. If there could be four Protestant electors instead of three when the emperor died, the majority could then install a Protestant. Because three electors were Catholic archbishops, the only way to add an additional Protestant was to oust the one lay Catholic elector, the king of Bohemia—a position filled in name by the emperor and in practice by his heir, Ferdinand, who was styled “king-elect.”
Bohemia, today a part of Czechoslovakia, was then a Habsburg crown land; its Czech inhabitants wanted local independence form the rule of Germans and also of Vienna. Some Czechs expressed their defiance by following the faith that John Hus had taught them two centuries earlier, called Utraquism (from the Latin for “both”) because it gave the laity communion in both bread and wine. While Ultraquists, Lutherans, and Calvinists were all tolerated in Bohemia, Catholicism was the official state religion.
The prospect of Ferdinand becoming king of Bohemia and then emperor, with the added obligations of religious orthodoxy this would force upon him, alarmed Czech Protestants. When Protestant leaders opposing the erosion of Czech religious liberties were arrested, a revolt broke out, beginning with the “defenestration of Prague” (May 23, 1618), in which two Catholic imperial governors were thrown out of a window into a courtyard seventy feet below. Landing on a pile of dung, they escaped with their lives.
The Czech rebels offered the crown of Bohemia to Frederick of the Palatinate. Frederick went off to Prague without ensuring the defense of his home territories in the Rhineland, which the Spaniards occupied in 1620. Meantime, Catholics in Bohemia, Spain, and Flanders rallied against the Czech rebels. On the death of the emperor Matthias in 1619, the imperial electors duly chose the Catholic Habsburg Ferdinand II as his successor. Maximilian of Bavaria, head of the Catholic League, supported Ferdinand’s cause in Bohemia in return for a promise of receiving his electoral vote. The Lutheran elector of Saxony also supported Ferdinand.
In Bohemia, Maximilian and the Catholic forces won the battle of the White Mountain (1620). Frederick now fled, and Ferdinand made the Bohemian throne hereditary in his own family. He also abolished toleration of Czech Utraquists and Calvinists, but granted it temporarily to Lutherans because of his obligations to the elector of Saxony. He executed the leaders of the rebellion, confiscated their lands, and sanctioned destruction of Protestantism in Bohemia.
The continued presence of Spanish forces in the Palatinate, however, had upset the balance of power. The Lutheran king of Denmark, Christian IV (r. 1588-1648), feared that the Habsburgs would move north toward the Baltic; the French faced a new Habsburg encirclement; the Dutch were threatened by an immediate Spanish attack.
The Dutch therefore made an alliance with Christian IV, and another with the fugitive Frederick, agreeing to subsidize his attempt to reconquer the Palatinate. When fighting resumed, Frederick was defeated again, whereupon the emperor Ferdinand transferred the Palatine electorate to Maximilian of Bavaria (1625).