IN 1564 the Holy Roman Empire, though, as Voltaire said, it was none of these, was an imposing motley of semi-independent states: Germany, Luxembourg, Franche-Comté, Lorraine, Switzerland, Austria, Bohemia, Moravia, and part of Hungary. All these acknowledged as their head Emperor Maximilian II of the ancient house of Hapsburg, which had ruled the Empire since 1438 and would continue to rule it till 1808. After the abdication of Charles V (1555–56) the family divided half of Europe between its two branches: the Austrian Hapsburgs reigned over the Empire, the Spanish Hapsburgs reigned over Spain and its dependencies. Rarely in history has one family held power so long over so many men.
The rule of the Hapsburgs was more liberal in the Empire than in Spain, because the constituent states differed so widely in government, economy, language, religion, and ethnic character that even Hapsburg power and prestige could not keep these centrifugal forces from making the Empire a loose association of proudly self-governed units. The Imperial Diet, meeting occasionally, found it easier to check the authority of the emperor than to make laws that would be accepted by all the states; and the seven Imperial electors who chose the emperor controlled him by the pledges exacted from him as the price of his election. These electors were the king of Bohemia, the rulers of Saxony, Brandenburg, and the Palatinate, and the “spiritual electors”—the archbishops of Cologne, Trier, and Mainz. The emperor ruled directly only Austria, Styria, Carinthia, Carniola, and the Tirol, at times also Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, and western Hungary. His independent revenues were from these lands; for anything more he had to come hat in hand to the Imperial Diet, which held the power of the purse.
When Ferdinand I (brother of Charles V) died in 1564, the electors transmitted the Imperial crown to his son Maximilian II, who had already received the crowns of Bohemia and Hungary. He was too lovable to be an emperor. Everyone basked in the sunshine of his good nature and good humor, his kindness and courtesy to all classes, his open mind and heart; add his intelligence and toleration, his encouragement of science, music, and art, and a picture emerges of a gentleman incredibly crowned. He had endangered his accession by preferring Lutheran to Catholic preachers, and insisting on wine as well as bread in receiving the Sacrament; and only when he had to choose between returning to the Roman Church and retiring to private life did he conform, outwardly, to the Catholic observance. Meanwhile he protected the Protestants from persecution. He condemned the Massacre of St. Bartholomew as mass murder,1 and allowed William of Orange to levy troops in Germany to fight Alva in the Netherlands. In an age of intolerance and war he gave to the states and creeds of the Empire a remarkable example of toleration without indifference and of peace without cowardice. On his deathbed (1576) he refused to receive the last rites from the Church of Rome, but all the Empire joined in blessing his memory.
He had persuaded the electors to accept his son Rudolf as his successor, though he must have seen in him some traits of character, or effects of education, dangerous to religious concord. Rudolf II was by temperament suspicious and somber. As a possible heir to Philip II he had been sent to Spain for part of his schooling, and the Jesuits there had disabled him for toleration. Soon after his accession he severely restricted the freedom and the area of Protestant worship, alleging, with some reason,2 that the violence of religious controversy and the mutual intolerance of the Protestant sects were undermining the peace and stability of the Empire. But he was not entirely wanting in the qualities that had made his father loved. He lived in a modest simplicity, assuming no imperial airs. When one of his brothers condemned his familiarity with people of humble station, he replied, “Though elevated above others by our dignity and birth, we ought not to forget that we are allied to the rest of mankind by our weaknesses and defects.”3
Indeed, he preferred to be a savant rather than an emperor. He learned half a dozen languages, practiced almost every science and art, made valuable collections of pictures and statuary, botanical varieties and zoological specimens. He helped poets and historians, and founded many schools. He became proficient in mathematics, physics, chemistry, astronomy, and medicine, but also in alchemy and astrology; he financed the astronomic researches of Tycho Brahe and Kepler, who dedicated to him their Rudolphine tables of the stars. Absorbed in science in his palace at Prague—which he made his capital—he found no time for marriage, and not much for government. After 1594 he attended no meeting of the Diet; after 1598 he refused to sign official papers and delegated his authority to incompetent favorites. As his years mounted his mind deteriorated, not into insanity, but into a brooding, melancholy isolation haunted by fear of assassination. He had dreamed—or Tycho Brahe had read in the stars4—that his murderer would be a monk; so he came to distrust all Catholic ecclesiastics, and especially the Jesuits.5 Under compulsions internal and external, he resigned to his younger brother Matthias in 1608 the government of Austria, Hungary, and Moravia, and in 1611 the throne of Bohemia and all his remaining powers. In 1612 he died.
Matthias was already fifty-five, too wearied with campaigns to enjoy active rule. He entrusted both administration and policy to Melchior Klesl, the able and conscientious Bishop of Vienna. Klesl offended the Catholics by concessions to the Protestants, and offended the Protestants by conceding too little. Matthias’ cousin Ferdinand, Archduke of Styria, imprisoned Klesl (1618), and secured his own election to the Imperial authority soon after Matthias’ death (1619). By that time Armageddon had begun.