The Battle of White Mountain

The Battle of White Mountain

In today's edition of Czechs in History Radio Prague looks at the historical significance and fallout of the Battle of White Mountain, one of the most famous events in Czech history every student here at one time has learned by heart. The date of the battle was November 8th, 1620. The setting: a small, normally quiet hillside, just outside of Prague. But, the day would see a disappointingly one-sided affair, a battle that took less than two hours to lose by the Czech nobility. Defeated were the Protestants of the Bohemian Estates' army, vanquished by Austrian Imperial and Catholic forces. In a sense, the battle was an overture. The first military clash of many in the complex many-phased and multifaceted conflict that would sweep and divide Europe: the Thirty Years' War. The continent would be split along vicious, unrelenting religious and political lines. The players, the conflict, the event from which the kingdom of Bohemia never recovered - keep reading to find out more.

The year was 1618 and political and religious tensions in the kingdom of Bohemia were balanced on a blade's edge. Much of the largely Protestant nobility was already deeply regretting the election of Habsburg Ferdinand II as king of Bohemia just one year before. The monarch had showed himself to be an impassioned Catholic with little respect for the religious treaty, the so-called Majestat, or Majestic Letter, signed, albeit reluctantly, by one of Emperor Rudolf II, in 1609. That document of law acknowledged and tolerated the existence of non-Catholic denominations, principles Ferdinand II neglected in his religious zeal. To make matters worse, the monarch's absolutist-style rule, showed little respect for the aristocracy. Late May, 1618, tensions reached their peak. The Bohemian nobility met in Prague despite a warning from Vienna from Emperor Mathias, to discuss the situation. The next day, led by such figures as Vaclav Budovec and Jindrich Mathias Thurn, the enraged aristocrats decided to act...

The victims of their wrath proved to be two royal councillors cornered in their office at Prague Castle. Loyal Catholics, the men were thrown from the 2nd floor window of the Castle's Ludvik wing, in what would come to be known as the First Defenestration of Prague. Falling 17 metres the men must have believed they were falling to their deaths. But, to everyone's surprise, including their own, they suffered only relatively minor bruises. Later, Catholic followers would attribute their miracle landing to holy intervention by the Virgin Mary. In reality, it was both the incline of the ditch into which they fell, as well as underbrush onto which they landed that probably saved their lives. Their luck was in good measure: the councillors also dodged several pot shots fired at them from above.

Soon, cooler heads among the nobility began to prevail, but by now it was clearly too late. Royal officials had been accosted; the act could not be undone.

At first the nobles tried to demonstrate that their protest was not direct aggression against their ruler, but Emperor Mathias would have none of it. From the very start he labelled the insurgency as a rebellion, and so the stage was set. The nobility then elected a thirty member directorate made up of noblemen, knights, and burghers in equal measure. They issued an apology in self-defence to try and calm the situation but to no avail: the directorate served instead as a magnet, becoming a central body for organising the new Estates army. A mercenary army that would be formed, after hundreds of anti-Catholics, hearing of the rebellion, made their way to Prague.

Finally, completing the rebellion, bringing it full circle: the Estates deposed their Habsburg ruler Ferdinand II in 1619, and appointed Frederick of the Palatinate as the new king of Bohemia. The hope was that Frederick, who was nephew of James I in England, would be able to secure support and funds from abroad; in reality he would remain isolated. The Winter King, as he would come to be known, would last barely more than one season, forced to flee from the kingdom of Bohemia after the decisive battle of White Mountain.

1620. The start of the year saw the advantage shift to Austrian forces - a year before, Ferdinand II secured funds from Spain and support from Poland. The Czech lands, by contrast found themselves short of monetary funds and internationally isolated. By the third week of September united Imperial and Catholic League forces met in the south Bohemian town of Ceske Budejovice, one side led by Maximilian of Bavaria, the other by Karel Bonaventura Buqouy. Both ardent supporters of the Counter-Reformation, entrusted to see it through. They began to move on Bohemia.

The Battle of White Mountain
Meanwhile, caught off guard, the Estate armies of Christian of Anhalt and Jindrich Matyas Thurn met in Jindrichuv Hradec, failing to stop the advance of Austrian forces all the way up to Pisek. In west Bohemia, commander Arnost Mansfeld was also forced to withdraw to the town of Pilsen. Shortly after, the Imperial and Catholic forces negotiated a cease-fire with Mansfeld, while awaiting reinforcements. The Estates army, meanwhile, stationed itself in Rokycany.

The initiative slipping from their grasp, the Estates forces could only hope on the on-set of winter would bring any further action to an end for the rest of the year...

That was not, however, the case. The enemy armies began to move, and although the forces met in a skirmish, trying to prevent them from gaining further ground, the Catholic League and Imperial forces then circumvented the Estates army, heading directly for Prague.

On the night of November 7th part of the Estates army, led by Thurn, however were able to pass their enemies, and take up an advantageous position at White Mountain, known in Czech as Bila Hora.

The morning of the 8th of November the Estates army was ready at Bila Hora in two echelons, formed of foot-soldiers, cavalry, and reserves. The right wing flanking the Hvezda arboretum, the left, led by Thurn himself, backs against the Ruzyne hillock. Cannons were set up. Behind their positions 5,000 riders. Another 600 nearby. In all the Estates army numbered about 15, 000 men.

This against the encroaching Catholic and Imperial armies whose number was almost twice that :some 27, 000, taking position on the field, their cannons lined in a row out front. Ready to do battle. Yet now that it had come to it, neither side seemed willing to engage.

27 noblemen was executed on Prague's Old Town Square
In the end a small force was sent forth to test the waters, to engage the enemy, simply to see how the Protestants would react. Fighting began just after noon. There was surprise on both sides, none greater, than the shock that part of the Estates forces began to fold under that first attack. Incredibly Thurn's well-trained mercenaries suddenly took to their heels. Other units, seeing them go, followed behind.

Meanwhile, a cavalry charge led by Christian of Anhalt inspired a momentary turn but was not supported, and the counter attack cut through his legion with devastating effect. The battle was just about sealed. Most ran now, will several key military leaders fell into enemy hands. With improper support, a lack of unity prevailing, and a lack of steadfastness in the end, the day was lost before it had even properly begun.

Two thousand lay dead or dying, while others were routed and captured. The Bohemian uprising had been crushed. Still, the great majority of Estates forces had retreated, remaining intact. They could have fought another day, they could have still fought for Prague. The Habsburgs triumphed and could set about re-Catholicising Bohemia, punishing all those who remained behind who had taken part in the revolt. The next year 27 noblemen would be executed on Prague's Old Town Square, and an exodus of tens of thousands from Bohemia would begin. No other than a Habsburg would ever again sit on the Bohemian throne.