Ferdinand II Elected Holy Roman Emperor

Dan Graves, MSL

Ferdinand II Elected Holy Roman Emperor

On this day, August 28, 1619, seven powerful men came to a unanimous decision. The seven "German" electors (the Archbishops of Mainz, Trier and Cologne, the King of Bohemia, the Count Palatine of the Rhine, the Duke of Saxony and the Margrave of Brandenburg) chose Ferdinand II to be Holy Roman Emperor.

Forty-One year old Ferdinand immediately faced a grave crisis. Bohemia and Silesia were in revolt, their armies camped outside the walls of Vienna. Bohemia (part of modern Czechoslovakia) was shifting toward the Protestants. In Hungary, evangelicals marched to triumph. Austria itself was siding with Ferdinand's enemies.

German Protestants knew their lot would be tough. Although Protestants had been in the majority in Austria when Austria yielded its homage to Ferdinand in 1596, he refused to keep to the policy of Charles V which allowed the reformers to exist. Ferdinand put down Protestants and anyone else who called for reforms that would limit his royal power. His principle was "one church, one king." He did not think highly of freedom of conscience or political freedom. Trained by Jesuits, Ferdinand never escaped their domination. Once while in the Sanctuary of Loreto on a visit to Italy, he vowed to the Virgin to banish "heresy" from any territory that might come under his sway. The Thirty Year's War is a brutal reminder of what such vows mean in practice. Ferdinand had chances to end that war, but refused if it allowed the Reformation to flourish.

To hold his throne, Ferdinand hired foreigners. His surprising coalition included Spanish Catholics and a German Lutheran elector, the Duke of Saxony. The Catholic ruler Sigismund III of Poland and Maximilian of Bavaria also helped. The result was that Protestantism was crushed in Bohemia. Led by Denmark, the Protestants raised an international coalition. But general Wallenstein raised an army of 40,000 men in Ferdinand's behalf and defeated Christian IV of Denmark.

By 1629, Ferdinand thought he was so strong that he could issue his Edict of Restitution. This decree ordered that all the property and goods that once belonged to the Roman Church should be restored to it. Since the property had been in other hands for almost a century, ruin threatened much of Germany. Powerful rulers would be left penniless. Furthermore, it was clear that Ferdinand hoped to make himself master of all the territories that now lay at his feet, removing or reducing their local leaders. Opposition rose; his very success spelled his doom.

Catholic and Protestant alike, fearful of losing liberties and privileges they had won with difficulty in the past, howled for Wallenstein's removal from command. For his part, Wallenstein said that he "would teach the Electors manners. They must be dependent on the emperor, not the emperor on them." However, Ferdinand needed the electors' votes if his son, Ferdinand III, was to be made King of Rome, a step that would put him in line to become the next emperor. The electors said they would not give Ferdinand the vote unless Wallenstein was sent packing. The Jesuits and the Catholic league also hated Wallenstein--his success made Ferdinand too independent of them.

Pressed on every side, Ferdinand gave in. Even so, the electors refused to name Ferdinand III the King of Rome at that time. Ferdinand realized he had been tricked. By his death in 1637, the victories of the Lutheran Gustav Adolphus and his Swedes had undone much of what Ferdinand gained after his election on this day in 1619.

Bibliography:

  1. Bireley, Robert. Religion and Politics in the Age of the Counterreformation: Emperor Ferdinand II, William Lamormaini, S.J., and the formation of imperial policy Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, c1981.
  2. Gindely, Anton. History of the Thirty Years' War. New York, Putnam, 1884, source of the portrait.
  3. Klaar, Karl. "Ferdinand II." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
  4. Various encyclopedia and internet articles such as "Ferdinand II, Holy Roman Emperor" at Bartleby.com.

Last updated June, 2007

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