Fri 19 April 2019

Mike Stuchbery begins a regular column on the oddbins of history and the far right, and how both often repeat themselves as farce.

It’s often too easy to blame a small circle of out of touch, effete leaders for the problems that divide a nation, or group thereof. Far too often, when the mob calls for the head of the king, they’re ignoring a complex web of contributing factors: economic, geopolitical, etc.

Sometimes, however, the ruler really is just that bad.

Kaiser Rudolf II by Arolsen Klebeband (Wikimedia Commons)

Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor, was born in 1552 in Vienna — the capital of an empire that spread from the Rhine into Hungary, from the Baltic to the Swiss Alps. His father, and predecessor to the throne, Maximilian II, was a moderate, even-tempered ruler (in comparison to many), who did what he could to mend the rifts caused by the Protestant Reformation.

As a teen, Rudolf was packed off to the Spanish court, to be taught how to rule by his uncle, the fanatical, taciturn and altogether rather menacing Philip II. Already a dreamy sort of kid, these rather dark, dour years among the Spaniards left him with a lifelong reluctance to fully engage with, well, most of what was going on around him.

When Maximilian II died in 1576, the twenty-four-year-old Rudolf was thrust into a position of power that, it would turn out, he clearly was not ready for. One of his first major decisions was to move the court from Vienna, where it had resided for some time, to Prague. There, he set up in the rather massive castle overlooking the Vltava, and it was there that he was to spend most of his reign — absorbed, removed and aloof.

City of Wonders

“He was known for the string of affairs he had with courtiers both male and female, and when he wasn’t indulging in carnal pleasures, he often kept himself to his wunderkammer, or ‘cabinet of wonders’…”

Prague Castle (Wikimedia Commons)

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to say that Rudolf’s reign in Prague did give us some good things. He was a famous patron of the arts, commissioning a bunch of rather saucy, sometimes strange artworks from some of the masters of the late Renaissance. He brought astronomers and mathematicians such as Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe to work on astrological matters, revolutionising astronomy in the process. His fascination with the occult left a legacy in the presence of larger than life figures such as John Dee and Edward Kelly, that the city still trades on.

Still, an absorbed ruler is not an effective ruler, and Rudolf very much lived in his head. He was known for the string of affairs he had with courtiers both male and female, and when he wasn’t indulging in carnal pleasures, he often kept himself to his wunderkammer, or ‘cabinet of wonders’. Many thought, presumably correctly, that the strange collection of rocks, feathers and natural oddities he surrounded himself with were more valuable to him than his subjects.

Head in the Clouds

“It was this decision that was, ultimately to lead to one of the bloodiest, most destructive conflicts in European history — the Thirty Years War.”

Predictably, Rudolf’s failure on the greater stage came from his inability to listen to others and a single-mindedness that wouldn’t let him back down. He tried to carry on the work his father begun, but this, unfortunately, in his eyes, involved a new crusade against the Turks — a hugely draining struggle that opened up conflicts on multiple fronts.

30,000 killed in the Destruction of Magdeburg in 1631 (Wikimedia Commons)

More dangerously, he allowed himself to make domestic promises that he could not keep. In 1609, he signed what was known as a ‘Letter of Majesty’, that granted Protestant subjects in Bohemia increased rights, particularly in regard to worship. When these Protestant subjects continued to protest for greater equality with their Catholic brethren, he used his armies to crush the dissent.

It was this decision that was, ultimately to lead to one of the bloodiest, most destructive conflicts in European history — the Thirty Years War. A deeper, bloodier division was created between the Protestant and Catholic populations of the Bohemia that was to result in the Second Defenestration of Prague in 1618, and the breakout of hostilities at the Battle of White Mountain. The conflict would then spread across the face of the entire Holy Roman Empire, devastating the lives of millions.

That was all in the future, however. Rudolf would not live to see it.

Fighting the Turks had bled much of Hungary dry, and as the 17th century dawned, Rudolf was forced to cede power to his brother, Matthias — firstly making him King of Hungary, then Austria. Finally, dissent among the people of Bohemia led to Matthias deposing his brother and essentially keeping him a prisoner in the castle. He died shortly afterwards, in 1612.

Many have debated as to whether Rudolf, were he a more capable ruler, might have been able to heal the divisions between Protestants and Catholics, or find a way to fight the Turks without exhausting his kingdoms. Scholars still look at his official correspondence and edicts to discern his intent.

Modern Echoes?

What is clear, however, is that he didn’t have his head ‘in the game’, that he wasn’t paying attention at several critical points in time. Whether nature or nurture was to blame for Rudolf’s inability or unwillingness to engage, the results are clear — the fragmentation and dissolution of his lands, a conflict the scars of which are still visible across the Continent.

While it’s sometimes fairly lazy to find a contemporary angle to finish on, Rudolf’s story does bring to mind several political leaders as of late, unable to take the reins and engage with a fracturing, divided populace.

I’ll leave you to think of a few examples.

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