The Battle of White Mountain marked the end of the opening, “Bohemian”, phase of the Thirty Years’ War. The re-imposition of Habsburg rule and of Catholicism was swift. 27 prominent Protestants were executed in New Town Square. All other Protestants had either to convert to Catholicism or leave the country. Jesuit influence increased. New Counter-Reformation devotions were introduced – the Loreto House, Infant Jesus of Prague, St Jan Nepomucký… (Jan Nepomucký, roughly contemporary with Jan Hus, was an archbishop’s official tortured to death and then thrown into the river in the reign of Václav IV; and implausibly later associated with a story about keeping the Queen’s confessional secrets from her husband.) German became the official language. The theoretically elective Crown of Bohemia was declared hereditary. Eventually Habsburg monarchs would not even bother to be crowned King of Bohemia. For the next 300 years, Bohemia was in effect a province of Austria, administered from Vienna.1

By the terminus of the no. 22 tram at Bílá Hora there is a Baroque church surrounded by dusky yellow walls. This is the early-18th-century Church of Our Lady of Victory, commemorating the Habsburg victory on this hill in 1620. It is also the site of Chapel no. 8 on the 17th and 18th century pilgrimage route from the Prague Loreto in Hradčany to the Hájek Monastery’s Loreto Chapel of Our Lady, built in 1623–1625 in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of White Mountain. The church of Our Lady of Victory at Bílá Hora has never been open when I have been there, but its name, its location on battle site and pilgrimage route, and the style of its architecture remind one that Baroque is the artistic expression of the Counter-Reformation in Prague. The Counter- Reformation’s churches, many built on the ruins of earlier churches destroyed in the Hussite Wars, adorn the skyline. Its ornamentation fills the interior of older surviving Romanesque and Gothic churches recruited to the cause. Its saints, prominently including St John of Nepomuk, line up on the parapets of Charles Bridge.

Memorial on Charles Bridge to mark the spot where John of Nepomuk was thrown into the Vltava. The metal work is kept polished by the pious touch of passer-by. Photo by Gordon McKechnie


The awakening of Czech nationalism – Czech National Revival – began in the late 18th century and developed apace through the 19th and into the 20th centuries. In keeping with the Romantic spirit of the times, the fervour was ethnically based rather than based on the old multi-cultural (Czech, German, Jewish) territory of the Kingdom of Bohemia. The revival of the Czech language took centre stage. The re-appropriation of the country’s history came not far behind. The times of Jan Hus, Jan Žižka and the Hussite armies standing alone against the world (Proti všem – the title of Alois Jirásek’s 1893 novel about the Hussites) was re-imagined as the heroic age of the Czech nation – a curiously Protestant historiography for this then thoroughly Catholic country.

The severe structure of the country’s National Monument (where Klement Gottwald’s embalmed corpse was housed in Communist times) sits on Vítkov Hill where Žižka won the most famous of his battles. An enormous equestrian statue of Žižka stands there overlooking Prague. The contrast with the little cairn at Bílá Hora could not be greater. The Battle of White Mountain came to be seen as the saddest day in Czech history, the day of finis Bohemiae. Yet, despite its place in developing 19th-century Czech historiography, the command of the “Czech” armies that day was largely German, and half of those who fled Prague for Protestant havens in the 1620s were also German.

The Church of Our Lady of Victory at Bílá Hora. The Baroque style predominated in Prague during the re-Catholicising of Bohemia following the Battle of White Mountain. Photo by Gordon McKechnie

Jan Hus himself stands in the very heart of Prague, in Old Town Square. When his statue was erected there in 1915, it looked out at the Prague Marian Column. Erected in 1650, the Marian Column commemorated the Catholic defeat of Protestantism in Bohemia – around the column, figures of angels crushing devils made the point in stone. In 1918, a crowd demolished the Marian Column, a symbol to them of the somewhat-less-than-angelic Habsburg oppression. The flag of the Czech President today carries the words Pravda Vítĕzí – “Truth will Prevail” – derived from Jan Hus’ motto and said, probably apocryphally, to be his last words as the flames licked around him on the pyre in Constance in 1415.

St Jan Nepomucký, on the other hand, was falling from grace: “by the end of the nineteenth [century], he had become an unwelcome interloper, at least in nationalist eyes”2, “a saint fabricated by the Vatican in the eighteenth century in the interests of erasing the memory of Hus and Žižka”.3 In 1969, the Vatican effectively acknowledged the doubts and decanonised Jan Nepomucký.

The secular memorials of the 300-year-long Austrian domination were not left untouched either. Field Marshall Radecký was a Bohemian nobleman who had risen to become chief of the Austrian General Staff and who was celebrated by Johann Strauss in the Radetzky March. His statue that stood in Malostranské Square was dismantled in 1921.

The Czech National Revival left its mark on the patriotic architecture of the town. The Municipal House where a former royal palace had once stood, the National Museum at the top of Wenceslas Square, and the National Theatre on the banks of the Vltava date from this time. The Cathedral of St Vitus, left unfinished since Hussite times, was completed – in a style remarkably sympathetic to the original Gothic architecture. It is more a national monument now than a religious one. One of the windows in the newer west end of the cathedral is by Alfons Mucha, who had made his name in Paris with his posters for Sarah Bernhardt. It depicts Saints Cyril and Methodius – Apostles to the Slavs – in keeping with a pan- Slavic current in the Czech National Revival, a theme that Mucha was also then developing in his monumental “Slav Epic”.

The iconic Bethlehem Chapel fell into the hands of the Jesuits after the Battle of White Mountain. What was left of it was demolished in the late 18th century, when many ecclesiastical buildings were torn down, and later a block of flats was built on its site. Curiously, it was rebuilt under the Communists between 1948 and 1954. Jan Hus and the Hussites had been re-imagined yet again. This time they had become medieval proto-Communists. In 1956 Jirásek’s Proti všem, starring the Hussites, was made into a big-budget movie. Jan Želivský – the radical Hussite priest who preached at the Church of St Mary of the Snows, championed the poor, and who was later executed on the orders of the town council – was commemorated by the Communists with a plaque on the Old Town city hall that recognises him, in the categories of Communist history lessons, as a “victim of the bourgeoisie”. In 21st-century internet chatter, Hus, Želivský, Žižka and their comrades have metamorphosed into early human-rights campaigners.


The no. 22 tram on its way back from Bílá Hora to the centre of Prague passes the Villa Bílek. Outside it stands František Bílek’s statue of Jan Amos Komenský (Comenius), last bishop of the Unity of the Brethren (the spiritual descendants of the radical Hussites). Comenius was one of the finest European scholars of his day, often called the father of modern universal education, and perhaps the most famous among the exiles who left Bohemia after the Battle of White Mountain. His picture is on the current Czech 200 Koruna banknote.

The theme of exile is picked up in one of the twenty massive tableaux in Alfons Mucha’s “Slav Epic”. Painted over many years after Mucha returned to Prague from Paris, the “Slav Epic” went on display at Prague’s Municipal House this summer after its return from exhibition in Japan. In his painting of exile (tableau no. 16), Mucha depicts an aged Comenius on the beach at Naarden in the Netherlands where he was soon to die. Begun before the independence of Czechoslovakia in 1918, Mucha gave the twenty tableaux of the “Slav Epic” to the nation in 1928 to mark its first ten years, hoping perhaps that with Masaryk’s new liberal republic the experience of exile was now something of the past. Exile, though, resurfaced following the events of 1938, 1948 and 1968. It has not always been easy for those who left to return. The life experience of those who leave and those who stay differs. Milan Kundera, who eventually left Prague a few years after 1968, wrote in Ignorance, his 2002 novel of exile and return: “She had always taken it as a given that emigrating was a misfortune. But now she wonders, wasn’t it an illusion of misfortune, an illusion suggested by the way people perceive an émigré.” Kundera wrote Ignorance in French. Josef Škvorecký was hailed as a Canadian writer. Madeleine Albright became US Secretary of State.


And what of those thrown out of the Castle window in 1618? They survived, though probably not by landing on the apocryphal pile of dung beneath the window. In the nearby Lobkowicz Palace, restored to the Lobkowicz family in the years following the “Velvet Revolution” and now open to the public, you can see a painting of the formidable Polyxena Pernštejn, wife of the first Prince Lobkowicz and through whom the Lobkowicz family acquired the palace within the Castle precincts that today bears their name. In the painting Polyxena defiantly shelters the victims of the 1618 Defenestration from a mob of angry burghers. They had sought refuge in her palace.

The National Theatre on the banks of the Vltava, built as part of the Czech National Revival, entirely with subscriptions from private individuals, in the late 19th century. Photo by Gordon McKechnie

Incidentally, Princess Polyxena’s Spanish mother gave her as a wedding present the wood-and-wax statue now known and venerated as the Infant Jesus of Prague. Polyxena in due course passed the waxwork on to the Carmelite nuns. It is now kept, well-dressed and in Baroque splendour, in the Church of Our Lady Victorious in Malá Strana.

Vilém Slavata of Chlum and Jaroslav Bořita of Martinice left Prague soon after being thrown from the window. Both returned, to Prague and to government, following the Battle of White Mountain. Their secretary, Fabricius, defenestrated with them, was later ennobled as, with something approaching a sense of humour, “von Hohenfall”.

We walked back from the Lobkowicz Palace, past St Vitus’ Cathedral and the Old Royal Palace from which the three Habsburg administrators were thrown in 1618, through the Castle’s tourist-filled courtyards, out into Hradčany Square. Here stands the Martinic Palace, one of Prague’s finest noble houses. Jaroslav Martinic bought the property well before he was defenestrated, and initially began to reconstruct it in the Renaissance style. When he returned to Prague after the Battle of White Mountain, he had the work completed in the newly fashionable Baroque style. The layout of the palace he built is a replica of the Old Royal Palace within the Castle itself, but to half-scale – which may suggest unrealised ambitions.

Jaroslav Martinic died in 1649, a year after the 1648 Peace of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years’ War. Earlier in the day, in the ambulatory of St Vitus’ Cathedral, we had paused at the Martinic Chapel where Jaroslav Martinic is buried. Jaroslav Martinic may not be numbered among the nation’s heroes in Czech historiography, but here, in death, he lies among the kings and saints of Bohemia.


1 Source: PNG.

2 Derek Sayer, The Coasts of Bohemia: A Czech History. Princeton, 1998, p. 100.

3 Sayer, op. cit., p. 15.

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