Ferdinand II

Ferdinand II (1578-1637) was Holy Roman emperor from 1619 to 1637. He attempted to revive imperial authority in Germany and to restore Catholicism in his domain.

Born in Graz in Styria on July 9, 1578, Ferdinand of Hapsburg was the son of Archduke Charles of inner Austria and Maria of Bavaria. His father, a devout Catholic, ruled a province which had been strongly influenced by the Protestant Reformation. To protect his heir from Lutheran influences, Charles in 1590 sent Ferdinand to school at Ingolstadt in Catholic Bavaria. Archduke Charles died shortly thereafter, and Ferdinand ruled Styria under a regency until he was declared of age in 1596.

His Jesuit teachers, militant missionaries of the Catholic restoration, were enormously influential in forming Ferdinand's conception of his duties as a Christian prince, and from the beginning he dedicated himself to restoring the Roman faith in his lands. In 1602 he expelled Protestant teachers and preachers from Styria, closed or destroyed their churches, and gave his nonnoble Protestant subjects the choice of conversion or exile.

When his cousins the emperors Rudolf II and Matthias died childless, Ferdinand fell heir to the Hapsburg dominions in Austria, Bohemia, and Hungary. In 1617 he was elected king of Bohemia and in 1618 king of Hungary, intimidating the noble assemblies in both instances. In 1619 he succeeded Matthias as Holy Roman emperor. His Protestant subjects, fearing an attack on their right to worship, refused the oath of homage, and in May 1618 the Bohemian nobility rose in revolt. With the support of Maximilian of Bavaria and the forces of the Catholic League under Count Tilly, he bloodily suppressed the Protestant rebels in Austria and Bohemia in 1620.

His efforts to restore Catholicism precipitated the Thirty Years War, a European conflict in which the religious issue ultimately became submerged in a conflict for domination of the Continent. In 1629 and again in 1635 Ferdinand II was in a position to dictate a favorable peace in Germany. But both times he refused to make reasonable compromises with the Protestant princes and their powerful foreign protectors, France and Sweden.

Ferdinand II has been judged harshly for his religious fanaticism and his lack of political realism. In an age of brutal power politics he persisted in subordinating his political goals to his religious convictions. He was easily outwitted in a bargain and naive about issues that went beyond the uplifting religious tracts that made up his only reading. By dynastic accident he reunited the main Hapsburg domains in central Europe, but in pursuing the chimera of Catholic restoration he widened the rift between imperial authority and the German princes. He died in Vienna on Feb. 15, 1637.

Further Reading on Ferdinand II

The only major source for the reign of Ferdinand II is in German. In English the best references are in general works on the period. The most important are C. V. Wedgwood, The Thirty Years War (1939); S. H. Steinberg, The "Thirty Years War" and the Conflict for European Hegemony, 1600-1660 (1966); and H. G. Koenigsberger, The Habsburgs and Europe, 1516-1660 (1971).