400 years since Prague’s Old Town Square executions

Executions of 27 noblemen at Prague’s Old Town Square

Exactly 400 years ago, Habsburg Catholic authorities put three nobles, seven knights, and 17 burghers to death on Prague’s Old Town Square. Their executions – victor’s justice – came many months after the defeat of the reformist Bohemians in the seminal Battle of White Mountain. Twenty-seven white stone crosses have long been embedded in the historic square, paying tribute to the men whom Czechs consider to be martyrs of the nation.

The 17th century Battle of White Mountain – the culmination of a three-year long Protestant Uprising that saw the Catholic monarch Ferdinand II deposed – was a defining moment in the history of the Czech lands. That defeat culminated in a mass exodus of aristocrats, tradesmen, and intellectuals, including the renowned scholar Comenius.

Pavel Černý is a Church of the Brethren pastor and a lecturer at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Prague. The mass exodus of the nation’s elite, he says, was devastating “blow” from which it would not recover fully for centuries to come.

27 crosses in memory of the executioned | Photo: Drobné památky/Wikimedia Commons,  CC0 1.0 DEED

“I think that the exodus was something that profoundly damaged the Bohemian kingdom. A wide range of accomplished people of various professions left the Czech lands. Five out of six Bohemian nobles went into exile, hundreds of thousands of families, in different waves. The kingdom lost intellectuals, Comenius among them, and many of its most capable people working towards stability. It was, in my view, a huge blow.”

Most prominent Protestants who did stay behind were soon stripped of their land, status and dignity. Forty-seven leaders of the rebellion were eventually put on trial. It had proven difficult to set up a tribunal, with members of higher social classes reluctant to participate – including some who had survived defenestration.

Executions of 27 noblemen at Prague’s Old Town Square | Photo: Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

After the trials, scores of carpenters laboured for days to erect a stage and gallows on Prague’s Old Town Square. Among those condemned to die was philosopher Ján Jesenský, rector of the university in Prague, whose tongue was cut out before his beheading. His body was quartered and impaled on stakes. In all, 27 defendants – including one Catholic – would pay the ultimate price on June 21, 1621. Headless bodies were handed over to the families, and heads attached to the Old Town Bridge Tower.

Memorial plaque to 27 noblemen at Prague’s Old Town Square | Photo: Kristýna Maková,  Radio Prague International

The condemned were led to the gallows by Lutheran and Utraquist preachers (Brethren were not allowed), but there were also Catholic clergy in the belief that some might convert at the last minute. Pavel Černý says the people of Bohemia were horrified by the executions, all the more so because they took place so long after the Battle of White Mountain. The clergymen’s accounts of that day 400 years ago are chilling, says Pavel Černý.

“The confessional conversations that have survived are very moving as they include personal and family details. They are remarkable material which, from a theological point of view, show that in the end, people – who may have been of different denominations – when they faced death, sought God’s arms in the same way.”

One of the many factors that had led the Protestants to rise up against Ferdinand II were perceived violations of Emperor Rudolf II’s guarantee of religious freedom throughout Bohemia. Such tolerance was abandoned in stages beginning in 1621, when the new Emperor would order all non-Lutherans to leave the realm in three days or to convert to Roman Catholicism. The following year, he would forbid the practice of the Lutheran faith as well.