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Defenestration Painting
Defenestration Illustration
Prague Defenestration Woodcut

Defenestration ˌdiːfɛnɪˈstreɪʃ(ə)n/ noun
1. the action of throwing someone out of a window.
2. the action or process of dismissing someone from a position of power or authority.

The Defenestrations of Prague (Czech: Pražská defenestrace) were a few incidents in the history of Bohemia in which multiple people were defenestrated (i.e., thrown out a window). The first occurred in 1419, and the second in 1618; the term "Defenestration of Prague" more commonly refers to 1618. Each helped to trigger prolonged conflict, within Bohemia and beyond.

 

The First Defenestration of Prague (1419)

The First Defenestration of Prague involved the killing of 7 members of the city council by a crowd of radical Czechs Hussites on July 30, 1419. Hussite Wars broke out in Charles Square, when Hussites led by priest Jan Želivský threw some Catholic councilors from windows of the New Town Hall.

Master Jan Hus, a preacher and the university's rector, held his sermons in Prague in the Bethlehem Chapel, speaking in Czech to enlarge as much as possible the diffusion of his ideas about the reformation of the church. His execution in 1415 in Constance (accused of heresy) led 4 years later to the Hussite wars (following the defenestration, when the people rebelled under the command of the Prague priest Jan Želivský and threw the city's councillors from the New Town Hall). King Wenceslas IV died 16 days later. His younger stepbrother Sigismund was the legitimate heir to the throne.

Jan Želivský, a Hussite priest at the church of the Virgin Mary of the Snows, led his congregation on a procession through the streets of Prague to the New Town Hall (Novoměstská radnice) on Charles Square. The procession was a result of the growing discontent at the contemporary direction of the Church and the inequality between the peasants, the Church's prelates, and the nobility. This discontent combined with rising feelings of nationalism and increased the influence of radical preachers such as Jan Želivský, influenced by John Wycliffe, who saw the state of the Catholic Church as corrupt. These preachers urged their congregations to action, including taking up arms, to combat these perceived transgressions.

The town council members had refused to exchange their Hussite prisoners. While they were marching, a stone was thrown at Želivský from the window of the town hall. This enraged the mob and they stormed the town hall. Once inside the hall, the group defenestrated the judge, the king's representatives, the burgomaster, and 13 members of the town council. They were all killed by the fall.

It has been suggested that Wenceslaus was so stunned by the defenestration that it caused his death supposedly due to the shock on August 16, 1419. (Alternatively, it is possible that he may have just died of natural causes.)

The First Defenestration was the turning point between talk and action leading to the prolonged Hussite Wars. The wars broke out shortly afterwards and lasted until 1436.

 

The 1-1/2 Defenestration of Prague (1483)

More events of defenestration have occurred in Prague during its history, but they are not usually called defenestrations of Prague.

A defenestration (chronologically the second defenestration of Prague, sometimes called one-and-a-halfth defenestration) happened on September 24, 1483, when a violent overthrow of the municipal governments of the Old and New Towns ended by throwing the Old-Town portreeve and the bodies of 7 killed aldermen out of the windows of the respective town halls.

The Second Defenestration of Prague (1618)

Many German Protestants (both Lutherans and Calvinists) immigrated to Bohemia. (One of them was Count J.M. Thurn, a German Lutheran; under his leadership the Second Defenestration of Prague happened in 1618). Tension between the Protestants and the pro-Habsburg Catholics led to the Third Defenestration of Prague, when the Catholic governors were thrown from the windows of Prague Castle on May 23, 1618. They survived, but the Protestants replaced the Catholic governors. This incident led to the Thirty Years' War.

In 1555, the Peace of Augsburg had settled religious disputes in the Holy Roman Empire by enshrining the principle of Cuius regio, eius religio, allowing a prince to determine the religion of his subjects. The Kingdom of Bohemia since 1526 had been governed by Habsburg Kings, who did not, however, force their Catholic religion on their largely Protestant subjects. In 1609, Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia (1576–1612), increased Protestant rights. He was increasingly viewed as unfit to govern, and other members of the Habsburg dynasty declared his younger brother, Matthias, to be family head in 1606. Matthias began to gradually wrest territory from Rudolf, beginning with Hungary. In 1609, to strengthen his hold on Bohemia, Rudolf in issued the Letter of Majesty, which granted Bohemia's largely Protestant estates the right to freely exercise their religion, essentially setting up a Protestant Bohemian state church controlled by the estates, "...dominated by the towns and rural nobility." Upon Rudolf's death, Matthias succeeded in the rule of Bohemia (1612–1619) and extended his offer of more legal and religious concessions to Bohemia, relying mostly on the advice of his chancellor, Bishop Melchior Klesl.

Conflict was precipitated by two factors: Matthias, already aging and without children, made his cousin Ferdinand of Styria his heir and had him elected king in 1617. Ferdinand was a proponent of the Catholic Counter-Reformation and not likely to be well-disposed to Protestantism or Bohemian freedoms. Bohemian Protestants opposed the royal government as they interpreted the Letter of Majesty to extend not only to the land controlled by the nobility or self-governing towns but also to the King's own lands. Whereas Matthias and Klesl were prepared to appease these demands, Ferdinand was not, and in 1618 forced the Emperor to order the cessation of construction of some Protestant chapels on royal land. When the Bohemian estates protested against this order, Ferdinand had their assembly dissolved.

Particularly galling to Protestants were perceived violations of Emperor Rudolf II's 1609 Letter of Majesty, which had ensured religious freedom throughout Bohemia. In May, 1618, wanting to air their grievances over this and other issues, a group of Bohemian noblemen met representatives of the Emperor at the royal castle in Prague; the meeting ended with two of the representatives and their scribe being thrown out a high window and seriously injured.

On May 23, 1618, 4 Catholic Lords Regent, Count Jaroslav Borzita of Martinice, Count Vilem Slavata of Chlum, Adam II von Sternberg (who was the supreme burgrave), and Matthew Leopold Popel Lobcowitz (who was the grand prior), arrived at the Bohemian Chancellory at 8:30 am. After preparing the meeting hall, members of the dissolved assembly of the 3 main Protestant estates gathered at 9:00 am, led by Count Thurn, who had been deprived of his post as Castellan of Karlstadt by the Emperor. The Protestant Lords' agenda was to clarify whether or not the 4 regents present were responsible for persuading King Matthias to order the cessation of churches on royal land. According to Martinice himself:

Lord Paul Rziczan read aloud... a letter with the following approximate content: His Imperial Majesty had sent to their graces the lord regents a sharp letter that was, by our request, issued to us as a copy after the original had been read aloud, and in which His Majesty declared all of our lives and honor already forfeit, thereby greatly frightening all three Protestant estates. As they also absolutely intended to proceed with the execution against us, we came to a unanimous agreement among ourselves that, regardless of any loss of life and limb, honor and property, we would stand firm, with all for one and one for all... nor would we be subservient, but rather we would loyally help and protect each other to the utmost, against all difficulties. Because, however, it is clear that such a letter came about through the advice of some of our religious enemies, we wish to know, and hereby ask the lord regents present, if all or some of them knew of the letter, recommended it, and approved of it.

Before the regents gave any answer, they requested that the Protestants give them the opportunity to confer with their superior, Adam von Waldstein, who was not present. If they were given the opportunity, the Protestants would get an official answer to their grievance by the next Friday (this was taking place on the eve of Ascension Day and they all must observe the holy day). The Protestants demanded an immediate answer. Two regents, Adam II von Sternberg and Matthew Leopold Popel Lobcowitz, were declared innocent by the Protestant Estate holders and too pious to have any responsibility in the letter's creation. They in turn were removed from the room; however, before leaving, Adam II von Sternberg made it clear that they "did not advise anything that was contrary to the Letter of Majesty". This left only Count Vilem Slavata of Chlum, Count Jaroslav Borzita of Martinice (who had replaced Thurn as Castellan), known Catholic hard-liners, and Philip Fabricius the secretary to the Regents. They eventually claimed responsibility for the letter and, assuming they were only going to be arrested, welcomed any punishment the Protestants had planned.

Count von Thurn turned to both Martinice and Slavata and said "you are enemies of us and of our religion, have desired to deprive us of our Letter of Majesty, have horribly plagued your Protestant subjects... and have tried to force them to adopt your religion against their wills or have had them expelled for this reason". Then to the crowd of Protestants, he continued "were we to keep these men alive, then we would lose the Letter of Majesty and our religion... for there can be no justice to be gained from or by them". Soon after, the 2 Regents were defenestrated immediately nearby, along with the Regents' secretary, Philipus Fabricius, but survived the 70-foot (21-meter) fall from the third floor. Catholics maintained the men were saved by angels or by the intercession of the Virgin Mary, who caught them; later Protestant pamphleteers asserted that they survived due to falling onto a dung heap, a story unknown to contemporaries and probably coined in response to divine intervention claims. Philip Fabricius was later ennobled by the emperor and granted the title Baron von Hohenfall (literally "Baron of Highfall").

Protestant rebels threw the Catholic Imperial Ministers from the windows of the Royal Palace at Prague Castle. Surviving the fall, the ministers took refuge in Lobkowicz Palace, where they were protected from further assault by Polyxena.

Immediately after the defenestration, the Protestant estates and Catholic Habsburgs started gathering allies for war. After the death of Matthias in 1619, Ferdinand II was elected Holy Roman Emperor. At the same time, the Bohemian estates deposed him as King of Bohemia and replaced him with Frederick V, Elector Palatine, a leading Calvinist and son-in-law of the Protestant James VI and I, King of Scotland, England and Ireland.

Because they deposed a properly chosen king, the Protestants could not gather the international support they needed for war. Just two years after the defenestration, Ferdinand and the Catholics regained power in the Battle of White Mountain on November 8, 1620. This became known as the first battle in the Thirty Years' War.

There was plundering and pillaging in Prague for weeks following the battle. Several months later, twenty-seven nobles and citizens were tortured and executed in the Old Town Square. Twelve of their heads were impaled on iron hooks and hung from the Bridge Tower as a warning. This also contributed to catalyzing the Thirty Years' War.

The Second Prague defenestration in 1618 began the Bohemian Revolt. The Second Defenestration of Prague precipitated the Thirty Years' War. During the subsequent wars, Prague Castle was damaged and dilapidated. Many works from the collection of Rudolph II were looted by Swedes in 1648, in the Battle of Prague (1648) which was the final act of the Thirty Years' War.

 

The Third Defenestration of Prague (1948)

Sometimes, the name the "Third Defenestration of Prague" is used, although it has no standard meaning. For example, it has been used to describe the death of Jan Masaryk, the Czechoslovakian minister of foreign affairs Jan Masaryk was found dead, in his pajamas, in the courtyard of the Foreign Ministry below his bathroom window on March 10, 1948.

The official report listed the death as a suicide. However, it was widely believed he was murdered, either by the nascent Communist government in which he served as a non-partisan Foreign Minister, or by the Soviet secret services. A Prague police report in 2004 concluded after forensic research that Masaryk had indeed been defenestrated to his death, most likely by Czechoslovak Communists and their Soviet NKVD advisers for opposing the February 1948 Communist putsch. This report was seemingly corroborated in 2006 when a Russian journalist said that his mother knew the Russian intelligence officer who defenestrated Masaryk.

The initial investigation stated that he committed suicide by jumping out of the window, although some believe that he was murdered by the ascendant Communists. A 2004 police investigation into his death concluded that, contrary to the initial ruling, he did not commit suicide, but was defenestrated, most likely by Czechoslovak Communists and their Soviet NKVD advisers for opposing the February 1948 Communist putsch.

 

History of Defenestration

Defenestration is the act of throwing someone or something out of a window. The term was coined around the time of an incident in Prague Castle in the year 1618, which became the spark that started the Thirty Years' War. This was done in "good Bohemian style" and referred to the defenestration which had occurred in Prague's City Hall almost 200 years earlier (July 1419), which also at that occasion led to war, the Hussite war. The word comes from the New Latin de- (out of or away from) and fenestra (window or opening). Likewise, it can also refer to the condition of being thrown out of a window, as in "The Defenestration of Ermintrude Inch".

While the act of defenestration connotes the forcible or peremptory removal of an adversary, and the term is sometimes used in just that sense, it also suggests breaking the windows in the process (de- also means removal). Although defenestrations can be fatal depending on the height of the window through which a person is thrown or throws oneself or due to lacerations from broken glass, the act of defenestration need not carry the intent of, or result in, death.

The term originates from two incidents in history, both occurring in Prague. In 1419, seven town officials were thrown from the Town Hall, precipitating the Hussite War. In 1618, two Imperial governors and their secretary were tossed from Prague Castle, sparking the Thirty Years War. These incidents, particularly in 1618, were referred to as the Defenestrations of Prague and gave rise to the term and the concept.

  • As recorded in the book of Kings II in the Bible, Jezebel was defenestrated at Jezreel by her own servants at the urging of Jehu. (2 Kings 9: 33)
  • In chapter 20 verses 6 through 12 of The Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament, the accidental autodefenestration of a young man of Troas named Eutychus is recorded. The Apostle Paul was travelling to Jerusalem and had stopped for 7 days in Troas. While preaching in a third-story room late on a Sunday night to the local assembly of Christian believers, the young man Eutychus drifted off to sleep and fell out of the window in which he was sitting. Interestingly, this incident is likely also the only recorded case of raising from death after fatal defenestration, as though Eutychus was taken up dead from the ground below, the Apostle Paul fell upon the body, embraced it, and then presented him alive to those present, whom the Bible indicates "were not a little comforted." (KJV) (Acts 20:6-12)
  • On July 9, 1993, the prominent Toronto attorney Garry Hoy fell from a window in a playful attempt to demonstrate to a group of new legal interns that the windows of the city's Toronto-Dominion Centre were effectively unbreakable. He had performed the same stunt on several previous occasions – dramatically slamming his body against the window – but this time it popped out of its frame and he fell to his death. The accident was later commemorated for its unusual nature by a 1996 Darwin Award and has been re-enacted in several films and television shows.
  • On October 26, 1997, NBA player Charles Barkley was arrested for hurling a bar patron through a plate-glass window after the man tossed a glass of ice at him.
  • In Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005), Palpatine kills Mace Windu by blasting him through a window with lightning from his fingertips.
  • In The Avengers (2012), the Hulk tosses the evil god Loki through a window. Loki also throws Tony Stark out a window in a prior scene.
  • The term is sometimes used humorously among GNU/Linux hackers to describe the act of removing Microsoft Windows from a computer.
Prague Defenestrations by Adolf Liebscher 1419

 

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