That Time the Citizens of Prague Literally Threw Their Politicians Out of Office


Providing a unique wrinkle to the phrase,
“throw the bums out of office,” twice, first in 1419 and again in 1618, frustrated
citizens of Prague (today in the Czech Republic) literally threw their leaders out of the upper
story windows of their public buildings. The word for throwing someone or something
out of a window, defenestration, is also sometimes used to mean dismissing the authority of a
person; and with both Prague defenestrations, both meanings apply. Each of the two incidents arose, like many
disputes, at the intersection of religion and politics. With the first, at this early point in the
15th century there was a fair amount of discontent internally within the Catholic Church; in
particular, regular folks were peeved over the relative amount of wealth held by the
clergy and nobility compared with the grinding poverty of the peasant class. In response, radical preachers sprang up,
including a relatively popular priest of the Hussite sect named Želivsky. After the Prague town council refused to release
some Hussite members that it held prisoner, Želivsky led his followers on a protest march
to the town hall, Novomēstská radnice. During the march, someone from the town hall
threw a stone at Želivsky; this lit a fire under the already smoldering mob, which then
stormed the building where they found a judge, a burgomaster and 13 council members. Every one of the officials was soon thrown
out of an upper story window; those that didn’t die from the fall were killed by the mob below. The second defenestration came about from
a dispute between Protestants and Catholics. For four decades following Martin Luther’s
nailing of his 95 grievances (of which a bitch was not one) to a Wittenberg church door,
Catholics and Protestants across Europe engaged in a range of disputes. (Interestingly, while today Luther’s act
is often noted to be a rebellious one against the church, at the time it was anything but. Lacking group email or digital message boards,
priests commonly nailed such notices to church doors when they had something to discuss amongst
the clergy. In fact, it would appear that Luther did not
intend for his work to be debated widely by the general public, simply fodder for discussion
among his priestly peers.) In any event, in 1555, the Catholic Holy Roman
Emperor (who also the King of Bohemia, of which Prague was its capital) and his Lutheran
princes and nobles settled their dispute (for the time being) with the Peace of Augsburg. Over the next six decades good relations between
them led the Bohemian kings to gradually give the nobles ever greater religious freedom
and increasing civil and legal powers. In 1618, those fond feelings came to an abrupt
end as the heir to the kingdom, a devout Catholic in favor of the Counter-Reformation (to re-impose
Catholicism in Europe) grew in power and succeeded in eventually removing much of that formerly
held by the Protestant nobles – to the point that he had their assembly dissolved. On May 23, 1618, several of these Protestant
nobles, understandably infuriated, confronted four Catholic lords at the Bohemian Chancellory,
demanding to know the latter’s role in their recent downfall. Two of the Catholic lords, Count Vilem Slavata
of Chlum and Count Jaroslav Borzita of Martinice, were proud of their actions and quickly took
responsibility, assuming they would just be arrested. The Protestant lords had other plans. One of the leaders of the group, Count Matyáš
von Thurn, stated to the pair as the gathered crowd watched, “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…” He then stated to the mob, “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…” Shortly thereafter, the mob threw both counts,
along with their secretary, Philipus Fabricius, out of the third-story windows; remarkably
all three survived the fall, as well as the entire incident – even though there was
a crowd of Protestants watching the proceedings. Unlike with the first defenestration, apparently
no one at the second thought to finish them off. Subsequently, two very different versions
of the Catholic lords’ survival were told. Catholics later claimed that the Virgin Mary
and angels caught them and gently placed them on the ground. In response to this, protestants averred that
there was a large pile of fecal matter just under the windows, which cushioned their fall.

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