Aftermath: the executions on the Old Town Square

The executions on the Old Town Square

In the last edition of our programme we looked at one of the most defining moments in the history of the Czech lands - the Battle of White Mountain. The culmination of a three year long Protestant Uprising that saw Ferdinand II deposed and Frederick the Winter King installed, albeit only for a short while: the battle of White Mountain was poorly lost by Protestant forces. Their defeat culminated in an exodus of thousands, including such figures as the scholar Jan Komensky, or Comenius as he is more widely known, who fled to the Netherlands. Those who remained behind faced the wrath of the victors: witnessing the confiscation of land, the brutal re-Catholicisation of the country, and death for those singled out as traitors. Those who had played key roles in the rebellion and done the 'unthinkable': taken up arms against their king. Less than a year after defeat at White Mountain, on June 21st, 1621, 27 noblemen were publicly put to death on Prague's Old Town Square. Who they were, how they faced their final hour, and how they braved their punishment are subjects for this episode of Czechs in History.

The executions on the Old Town Square
Dozens of carpenters and their apprentices had laboured for days on Prague's Old Town Square, their mission: to complete a stage and gallows planned for a most grisly event - the execution of 27 noblemen who had played key roles in the Protestant revolt. Among those waiting in prison condemned to die: Jachym Ondrej Slik, Kaspar Kaplir, and Jan Jesensky, the rector of the university in Prague. They waited, while the labourers worked, readying the platform for the longest day of the year. Just in time their work was done, and a black cloth was drawn around the construction in preparation for the dreadful event. Part the historic town hall was covered in black. An unbearable tension prevailed.

Across from the scaffolding on the Old Town Square a tribunal had been erected so that the emperor's loyal representatives could sit and preside over the executions: nobility, town mayors, council members. Soldiers marched into the square to quash the mere thought of an anti-Catholic uprising from taking hold. But there was never any chance for revolt - most had long been cowed, the Winter King had long fled the country, the Protestant dream was a shambles. Common folk soon began filling the square. The condemned would be brought - one by one - to the platform to die. The hands of the executioner were none other than those of the infamous Jan Mydlar. Little time now remained.

The 27 who had been sentenced included men of different social rank from the nobility, knights, and burghers. Let us look at some of those already mentioned to get an idea of where they stood, and how their actions and beliefs had brought them to the final crossroads of their lives.

Jachym Ondrej Slik. Born in 1569, Count Slik came from Germanised, Lutheran nobility in Cheb, that had made most of its fortunes from rich silver mines and a tolar mint in Jachymov - eventually lost to Ferdinand I. Their loss turned the Slik family against the Habsburgs, and the strong-headed count took to opposition movements calling for greater religious tolerance in the events of 1609. He was also present at the pivotal First Defenestration of Prague, which set off the Protestant Uprising: enraged nobles threw two royal councillors from a second floor window at Prague Castle. Though himself a bidder for the Czech throne after the overthrow of Ferdinand II, Slik lost his nerve and backed the coronation of Frederick the Winter King instead. After White Mountain he departed the Czech lands but was later caught by Saxony spies, and eventually delivered to Vienna. On June 21st, 1621, Slik was the first of the noblemen to climb onto the podium in Prague. Jan Mydlar cut off his head using one of four axes at his disposal. According to the royal decree, Slik's right hand was also cut off. Documents from the period attest that the nobleman went to his death without fear and full of courage and pride, feelings displayed by most, perhaps all, of his countrymen condemned that day. Other prominent names among the executed nobility: Vaclav Budovec and Krystof Harant, a writer, traveller and true Renaissance man.

From the ranks of knighthood Kaspar Kaplir: one of the most formidable on June 21st, not least because he was over eighty years old. He went to his death not wanting to show the slightest sign of weakness, although he had to be helped up the scaffolding steps by assistants. Legend has it that as he walked up the steps he asked his God to give him the strength not to stumble so not to be shamed before his enemies.

The executions on the Old Town Square
From the burghers Jan Jesensky, or Jessenius, was also among those to die that day, and the poor man must have suffered terribly. The rector of Prague University, of noble descent, who had conducted the first public autopsy in Prague, a renowned diplomat, a friend of Tycho Brahe, his tongue was cut out by executioner Mydlar. It is unbearable to imagine: a man of such deeds facing such damning defeat. He had been a man who had tried to raise the standard of teaching at the university to new levels; but he had also supported Frederick, giving a famous speech at his coronation. He was beheaded, his body quartered.

The details of course are gruesome - how could they not be - and the events of June 21st, 1621 in many ways remain painful to this day. As tourists wander in Prague, admiring the beauty of the Old Town Square they often pause and wonder, scratching their heads over the 27 crosses marked on the ground where the executions took place. Many fail to realise the depth of the loss for Bohemia as it came under iron Habsburg control. The loss of some of its most erudite, and most outspoken. The tragedy did not end with the executions but continued to reverberate with the thousands of exiles who fled to safety in time, never to return home. And although many Protestant documents from that time - not surprisingly - pay homage to the condemned men's great bravery, and in some aspects are perhaps not entirely objective, it is a fact that what the 27 executed that day handed down for future generations a moral legacy one that began to revive in Bohemia only much later - in the second half of the 19th century.

June 21st, 1621. A date forever significant in Czech history. While historians, such as Michel Foucault tell us the manner of the men's punishments were common by the standards of the day - there was no other sentence for raising arms against one's king - consider this: the display of many of the noblemen's heads on Prague's Bridge Tower was unusually brutal and Byzantine. A searing, continual warning that any effort to stand against the Catholic Habsburg rulers was a false route that would end only in pain and death. A warning that resistance was futile.