Ferdinand II of the Holy Roman Empire

Ferdinand II was emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (1578-1637). He participated in the Thirty Years’ War on the Catholic side, while establishing the Austrian Habsburg reign. He was victorious in the Thirty Years’ War with the help of Wallenstein for long. But why was this man of dubious background entrusted with such an important army in the first place?

Life of Ferdinand II

 Ferdinand II was born in Graz, Austria, the eldest son of Archduke Karl of Austria and Maria, daughter of the Duke of Bavaria. He was from the Habsburg family and was the grandson of Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I.

 From an early age, Ferdinand II received a religious education and grew up a devout Catholic. In 1590, Ferdinand II studied at the Jesuit college of Ingolstadt, where he seemed to be further infused with the spirit of the Counter-Reformation.

 After Luther’s Reformation in 1517, Protestantism became vigorous in Germany. Catholic reaction to the rise of Protestantism was varied. One such movement was the Anti-Reformation, which attempted to defend and reinvigorate Catholicism and overthrow Protestantism. Ferdinand was said to have been imbued with this spirit. In 1596, he made a pilgrimage to Rome. He also inherited estates and began to enforce the Catholic faith on his subjects in Austria.

 The beginning of the Thirty Years’ War

 In 1617, Ferdinand II became King of Bohemia as a heir of Austrian Habsburg; in 1618, he became King of Hungary as well. Ferdinand went on to enforce the Catholic faith in Bohemia. As a result, the Protestant nobility revolted in the same year. In this vein, the Thirty Years’ War began.

 The Bohemian parliament ousted Ferdinand II as king. Instead, it elected the Protestant Elector of the Palatinate, Frederick V, as King of Bohemia.
 In 1619, Ferdinand II was elected Holy Roman Emperor. With the support of Catholic forces, Ferdinand crushed the Bohemian rebels at the Battle of the White Mountain near Prague in 1620. A peace treaty was signed in 1623. Thus, the 30-year war stopped for the time being. He confiscated the property of the lords who had given their support to the rebellion. As punishment for the Elector of the Palatinate, Ferdinand II transferred his electorate to the Duke of Bavaria.

 Should the war be resumed, or…..?

 After that, the situation in the Holy Roman Empire was relatively calm. However, the danger of Christian IV, King of Denmark, becoming involved in the religious affairs of the empire was emerging. This was recognized and debated by Ferdinand II and his advisors.

 So in 1625, the advisors proposed to Ferdinand II the creation of a new army. Ferdinand himself, however, was not so positive. He did not want to resume war in the empire. He feared that the creation of a new army would provoke the Protestant princes in the empire. Some also pointed out the threat of the Ottoman Empire. Therefore, it was argued that Ferdinand Ii should not fight the Protestant princes.

 At that time, a Bohemian nobleman, Wallenstein, offered to create an army for Ferdinand II. Before, Wallenstein had participated in the previous Thirty Years’ War as Ferdinand’s ally. He even lent money to Ferdinand, who was struggling to raise funds for the war.

 Therefore, a meeting was held to discuss the creation of an army. In addition to Denmark, Italy, the Dutch republic, and Hungary were also pointed out as threats. After discussion, the creation of an army was supported. Ferdinand accepted the proposal with some hesitation. It was also decided to entrust this army to Wallenstein. This new army would be Ferdinand’s main force.

 Wallenstein’s success

 By the end of 1625, Wallenstein had amassed a force of about 50,000 men. Ferdinand’s camp already had a Catholic Alliance army. Wallenstein’s army was expected to be comparable to this army in size. By 1627, Wallenstein’s army exceeded this expectation, reaching 100,000 men. This was significantly larger than the size of the emperor’s army up to that time.

 Ferdinand II was constantly troubled by the problem of raising funds for the war effort. At that time, unlike today, there were essentially no standing armies in Europe. Mercenaries were the main force. If they were not paid, they rose up. This affected the war situation. However, delays in the payment of salaries were common in Europe at that time. Therefore, mercenaries often rose up and rebelled. Ferdinand had to avoid these problems.

 Wallenstein also contributed to this war effort. He devised a system of compulsory contributions in enemy territory. The inhabitants of the occupied territories were to pay for the war. Alternatively, their land was confiscated from them and sold or distributed.

 Resumption of the 30-year war

 While preparing for war, Ferdinand II launched war in 1625. Some argue that his aim was to dominate the whole empire and establish absolutism there. On the other hand, some argue that the resumption of war was merely a defensive measure to preserve the empire.

 Ferdinand II continued negotiations with his adversary, the Elector of the Palatinate, after the war resumed. But since the two sides could not come to terms, they eventually decided to settle the dispute by force. From 1626, Ferdinand’s side continued to make rapid advances. In 1629, Ferdinand concluded a peace treaty with the Danish king at Lübeck. Thus, the war was over.

Strengthening Control of the Realm

 Meanwhile, Ferdinand II consolidated his rule in Bohemia. In 1627, a new constitution was adopted. The Bohemian kingship became officially hereditary to the Habsburgs. It stipulated that the king had supreme legislative and judicial power, could legislate, and could convene the Estates General. In the same year, all Bohemian nobles were obliged to convert to Catholicism. As a result, about a quarter of the Bohemian nobility went into exile.

 Ferdinand II also strengthened his rule in Austrian territory. In some parts of it, he expelled Protestant pastors and teachers. Alternatively, he expelled non-Catholic nobles.

 Edict of Restitution

 In 1629, Ferdinand II issued the Edict of Restitution. This was to return to the Catholic princes the former Catholic principalities that had been taken by the Protestant princes in the empire after 1552. If Ferdinand II tried to return to the state of affairs that existed more than 80 years ago, major backlashs were naturally expected. Ferdinand’s advisors thus warned him against it.

 But Ferdinand II did not compromise on this matter. One of the reasons was his own piety. Ferdinand gradually came to see the revival of Catholicism as his divine mission. From his point of view, the Catholic princes had been illegally deprived of their precious lands by the Protestant princes during the German wars of religion in the 16th century. The timing of Ferdinand’s great military success in 1629 was the right time to bring these Protestant lords to justice. Thus, Ferdinand issued the Edict of Restitutino.

 However, Ferdinand II did not always make political decisions by putting his Catholic faith above all others. There were times when he put the interests and alliances of the Habsburgs above his faith.

 The Restitution Edict caused deep resentment among the Protestant princes. It also greatly increased vigilance toward the emperor. In 1630, their pressure forced Ferdinand to dismiss Wallenstein. The Protestant princes allied themselves with the Swedish army led by Gustav Adolf.

 The Thirty Years’ War resumed again.

 The Thirty Years’ War resumed as the Swedish army marched on the empire, winning a stunning victory at the Battle of Breitenfeld in 1631. Ferdinand reappointed Wallenstein in the midst of such a crisis, but dismissed him again. Wallenstein was assassinated. In the midst of these crises, Ferdinand began to consider compromises regarding the restoration edict.

 However, Ferdinand’s forces succeeded in turning the tables: in 1632, Gustav Adolf was killed in war; in 1634, the emperor’s army defeated the Swedish army. With the help of Spain and the Duke of Bavaria, the situation was thus restored. But in 1635, France finally entered the war on the Protestant side. The emperor’s army would gradually become inferior.

 Before the end of the Thirty Years’ War, Ferdinand died in 1637. The Holy Roman Emperor would later be defeated in this war.

Importance of Ferdinand II

 Ferdinand II has been described in Protestant scholarship as an essentially passive figure. They argue that he was a man who was totally dependent on his chamberlains and especially on the Jesuits and other clergy, and that he was overly constrained by his Catholic beliefs. Alternatively, in studies of the Thirty Years’ War, Ferdinand has been viewed as a tyrant who sought to suppress German freedom.
He is also regarded as one of the greatest practitioners of the Counter-Reformation and the Catholic Reformation in the strengthening of the Austrian Habsburgs territories, a reconstructor of the authority of the Holy Roman Emperor, and one of the most important figures of the Thirty Years’ War.

Emperor Ferdinand II.

Recommended or Selected References

菊池良生『図説神聖ローマ帝国』河出書房新社, 2009

Robert Bireley, Ferdinand II, Counter-Reformation emperor, 1578-1637, Cambridge University Press, 2014

Gerhild Scholz Williams(ed.), Rethinking Europe : war and peace in the early modern German lands, Brill, 2019