February 15 – Ferdinand II, Emperor

February 14, 2019

Ferdinand II

Portrait of Ferdinand II, Holy Roman Emperor (1578-1637)

Emperor, eldest son of Archduke Karl and the Bavarian Princess Maria, b. 1578; d. 15 February, 1637. In accordance with Ferdinand I’s disposition of his possessions, Styria, Carinthia, and Carniola fell to his son Karl. As Karl died in 1590, when his eldest son was only twelve years old, the government of these countries had to be entrusted to a regent during the minority of Ferdinand. The latter began his studies under the Jesuits at Graz, and continued them in company with Maximilian of Bavaria at the University of Ingolstadt, also in charge of the Jesuits. According to the testimony of his professors, he displayed remarkable diligence, made rapid progress in the mathematical sciences, and above all gave evidence of a deeply religious spirit. On the completion of his studies, he took up the reins of government, although not yet quite seventeen. During a subsequent visit to Italy he made a vow in the sanctuary of Loreto to banish all heresy from the territories which might fall under his rule. He was of middle height, compact build, with reddish-blonde hair and blue eyes. His dress and the cut of his hair suggested the Spaniard, but his easy bearing towards all with whom he came into contact was rather German than Spanish. Even in the heat of conflict, a sense of justice and equity never deserted him. On two occasions, when his tenure of power was imperilled, he was unflinching and showed a true greatness of mind. Ferdinand was a man of unspotted morals, but lacking in statesman-like qualities and independence of judgment. He was wont to lay the responsibility for important measures on his counsellors (Freiherr von Eggenberg, Graf von Harrach, the Bohemian Chancellor, Zdencko von Lobkowitz, Cardinal-Prince Dietrichstein, etc.). Liberal even to prodigality, his exchequer was always low. In pursuance of the principle laid down by the Diet of Augsburg, 1555 (cuius regio eius et religio), he established the Counter-Reformation in his three duchies, while his cousin Emperor Rudolf II reluctantly recognized the Reformation.

The meeting of Emperor Rudolph II and his brother, Archduke Matthias near Prague in 1608

As Ferdinand was the only archduke of his day with sufficient power and energy to take up the struggle against the estates then aiming at supreme power in the Austrian hereditary domains, the childless Emperor Matthias strove to secure for him the succession to the whole empire. During Matthias’s life, Ferdinand was crowned King of Bohemia and of Hungary, but, when Matthias died during the heat of the religious war (20 March, 1619), Ferdinand’s position was encompassed with perils. A united army of Bohemians and Silesians stood before the walls of Vienna; in the city itself Ferdinand was beset by the urgent demands of the Lower-Austrian estates, while the Bohemian estates chose as king in his place the head of the Protestant Union in Germany (the Palatine Frederick V), who could also count on the support of his father-in-law, James I of England. When the Austrian estates entered into an alliance with the Bohemians, and Bethlen Gabor, Prince of Transylvania, marched triumphantly through Hungary with the assistance of the Hungarian evangelical party, and was crowned king of that country, the end of the Hapsburg dynasty seemed at hand. Notwithstanding these troubles in his hereditary states, Ferdinand was chosen German Emperor by the votes of all the electors except Bohemia and the Palatinate. Spaniards from the Netherlands occupied the Palatinate, and the Catholic League (Bund der katholischen Fürsten Deutschlands) headed by Maximilian of Bavaria declared in his favour, although to procure this support Ferdinand was obliged to mortgage Austria to Maximilian. On 22 June, 1619, the Imperial General Buquoy repulsed from Vienna the besieging General Thurn; Mansfeld was crushed at Budweis, and on 8 November, 1620, the fate of Bohemia and of Frederick V was decided by the Battle of the White Mountain, near Prague.

Battle of White Mountain (1620) in Bohemia.

The firm re-establishment of the Hapsburg dynasty was the signal for the introduction of the Counter-Reformation into Bohemia. Ferdinand annulled the privileges of the estates, declared void the concessions granted to the Bohemian Protestants by the Majestätsbrief of Rudolf II, and punished the heads of the insurrection with death and confiscation of goods. Protestantism was exterminated in Bohemia, Moravia, and Lower Austria; in Silesia alone, on the intercession of the Lutheran Elector of Saxony, the Reformers were treated with less severity.

The establishment of a general peace might perhaps now have been possible, if the emperor had been prepared to return his possessions to the outlawed and banished Palatine Elector Frederick. At first, Ferdinand seemed inclined to adopt this policy out of consideration for the Spanish, who did not wish to give mortal offence to James I, the father-in-law of the elector. However, the irritating conduct of Frederick and the Protestant Union, and the wish to recover Austria by indemnifying Maximilian in another way led Ferdinand to continue the war. Entrusted with the execution of the ban against the Elector Palatine, Maximilian assisted by the Spaniards took possession of the electoral lands, and in 1632 was himself raised to the electoral dignity.

Graz in the mid-17th century.

Uneasy at the rapidly increasing power of the emperor, the estates of the Lower Saxon circle (Kreis) had meanwhile formed a confederation, and resolved under the leadership of their head, King Christian IV of Denmark to oppose the emperor (1625). In face of this combination, the Catholic Union or League under Count Tilly proved too weak to hold in check both its internal and external enemies; thus the recruiting of an independent imperial army was indispensable, though the Austrian exchequer was unable to meet the charge. However, Albrecht von Waldstein (usually known as Wallenstein), a Bohemian nobleman whom Ferdinand had a short time previously raised to the dignity of prince, offered to raise an army of 40,000 men at his own expense. His offer was accepted, and soon Wallenstein and Tilly repeatedly vanquished the Danes, Ernst von Mansfeld and Christian of Brunswick, the leaders of the Protestant forces. On the defeat of Christian at Lutter am Barenberge (27 August, 1626), the Danish Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein fell into the hands of the victorious Tilly, Christian was compelled to make the equitable peace of Lübeck on 12 May, 1629, and Wallenstein was invested with the lands of the Dukes of Mecklenburg, allies of Christian.

Kaiser Ferdinand II and his second wife, Eleonora Gonzaga, Princess of Mantua.

Contemporaneously, an insurrection broke out among the Austrian peasants for the recovery of their ecclesiastical rights abrogated by the emperor. This rising was soon quelled, but, as Wallenstein did not conceal his intention to establish the emperor’s rule in Germany on a more absolute basis, the princes of the empire were unceasing in their complaints, and demanded Wallenstein’s dismissal. The excitement of the princes, especially those of the Protestant faith, ran still higher when Ferdinand published, in 1629, the “Edict of Restitution”, which directed Protestants to restore all ecclesiastical property taken from the Catholics since the Convention of Passau, in 1552(2 archbishoprics, 12 bishoprics and many monastic seigniories, especially in North Germany). At the meeting of the princes in Ratisbon (1630), when Ferdinand wished to procure the election of his son as King of Rome, the princes headed by Maximilian succeeded in prevailing on the emperor to remove Wallenstein. The command of the now reduced imperial troops was entrusted to Tilly, who with these forces and those of the League marched against Magdeburg; this city, formerly the see of an archbishop, energetically opposed the execution of the Edict of Restitution. Even before Wallenstein’s dismissal on 4 July, 1630, Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden, had landed at the mouth of the Oder, but, as the Protestant estates (notable Brandenburg and Saxony) hesitated to enter into an alliance with him, he was unable at first to accomplish anything decisive. When, however, in May, 1631, Tilly stormed and reduced to ashes the town of Magdeburg, the Electors of Brandenburg and Saxony openly espoused the cause of Gustavus Adolphus. After the utter defeat of Tilly at Breitenfeld (September, 1631), Gustavus Adolphus advanced through Thuringia and Franconia to the Rhine, while the Saxon army invaded Bohemia and occupied its capital, Prague. In 1632, the Swedish King invaded Bavaria. Tilly faced him on the Lech, but was defeated, and mortally wounded. Gustavus Adolphus was now master of Germany, the League was overthrown, and the emperor threatened in his hereditary domain. In this crisis Ferdinand induced Wallenstein to raise another army of 40,000 men, and entrusted him with unlimited authority. On 6 November, 1632, a battle was fought at Lützen near Leipzig, where Gustavus Adolphus was slain, though the Swedish troops remained masters of the battle-field. Wallenstein was now in a position to continue the war with energy, but after the second half of 1633 he displayed an incomprehensible inactivity. The explanation is that Wallenstein had formed the resolution to betray the emperor, and, with the help of France, to seize Bohemia. His plan miscarried, however, and led to his assassination at Eger on 25 February, 1634. The emperor had no hand in this murder. On 27 August of the same year, the imperial army under the emperor’s eldest son, Ferdinand, inflicted so crushing a defeat on the Swedes at Nördlingen that the Protestants of south-western Germany turned for help to France. On 30 May, 1636, by the cession of both Upper and Lower Lausitz, Ferdinand became reconciled with Saxony, which became his ally. On 24 September, the combined imperial and Saxon armies were defeated at Wittstock by the Swedes under Baner. France now revealed its real policy, and dispatched a powerful army to join the ranks of the emperor’s foes. Ferdinand lived to witness the election of his son as German Emperor (22 December, 1636), and his coronation as King of Bohemia and Hungary. He died, however, 15 February, 1637, without witnessing the end of this destructive conflict, known as the Thirty Years War. In his will, he expressly provided for the succession of the first-born of is house and the indivisibility of his hereditary states.

HURTER, Geschichte Kaiser Ferdinands II und seiner Zeit (11 vols. Schaffhausen, 1850-1864); GINDELY, Geschichte de dreissigjährigen Krieges (3 vols., Prague, 1882); KLOPP, Tilly im dreissigjährigen Kriege (2 vols., Stuttgart, 1861); HUBER, Geschichte Oesterreichs (5 vols., Prague and Leipzig, 1894).

Karl Klaar (Catholic Encyclopedia)


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