He’s not the Prince of Bohemia, he’s a very naughty Elector

I’ve been enjoying the ‘World Shakespeare Festival’ (otherwise known, in London at least, as the ‘Let’s use the Olympics as an excuse to go nuts over Shakespeare, look if we leave the culture stuff to the Olympic Committee we’ll all be up to our ears in Duran Duran all the time, do you want that?’ Festival) that currently seems to be taking over the theatres and airwaves a great deal. There are some good things happening. Get thee to the Globe, especially.

Anyway, I watched James Shapiro’s three-part BBC4 series ‘The King and the Playwright’ on iPlayer yesterday, and I liked it. Most of it. Right up until the last twenty minutes of the final episode, in fact, when Shapiro intoned, over an image of Frederick V, Elector Palatine (this image, in fact), that ‘In 1612 [James I] secured for [his daughter] Elizabeth an excellent match: to the great Protestant prince, Frederick of Bohemia’. At which point I got annoyed, stopped watching, and drew this:

I feel a bit mean about this, because aside from this I thought the series was properly ace, plus I met Professor Shapiro when he was a visiting professor at my university and he was really nice. And 1599 is ace, I always tell my students to read it. But he was wrong about quite a crucial point here. Frederick was Elector Palatine, ruler of the Upper and Lower Palatinates, areas in Germany. It’s really quite important to European history that in 1612 he was not prince of Bohemia. The start of the Thirty Years’ War, wildly simplified version:

In 1612 Bohemia was ruled by the Habsburg Emperor Matthias. In 1617 he would be replaced by his cousin Ferdinand of Styria, later to become Emperor Ferdinand II. In 1618 the Protestant Bohemian Estates decided they didn’t like Ferdinand, chucked a couple of Imperial officials out of the window of the Hradschin castle in Prague, and invited Frederick V to come and be their new, Protestant king. Fred accepted (without getting his father-in-law James I’s approval first), moved to Prague, and reigned for roughly a year before being roundly defeated by Imperial forces. The Imperials and the Spanish kicked Fred out of both Bohemia and both Palatinates, and his subsequent attempts to regain these territories were a major part of the early years of the Thirty Years’ War. Essentially, if Frederick had been the prince of Bohemia in 1612, it might have saved central Europe three decades of bloody conflict and a great deal of political and demographic change. Also, although this is rather less significant, I might be writing a thesis entitled ‘The 1620s and 1630s: When everyone was super nice to one another, and nothing got devastated at all’.

Lots of English writers refer to Frederick as a ‘prince’ around the time of the marriage but that’s because a. plenty of English folk might not have been familiar with the concept of an Elector – he’s a subject of the Emperor, but he gets to help elect each new Emperor? What’s that all about? – and b. Fred was about as powerful as James could get in terms of Protestants, but he wasn’t a sovereign ruler and so might not have seemed that impressive a catch. Calling him a ‘prince’ is just propaganda, basically.

So it might seem to be a small error, but it really isn’t. This isn’t obscure Kirsty’s-boring-PhD stuff. All this information is in TONS of books, seriously, I should know, I have to read them. And the most cursory search of the ONDB or even Wikipedia will turn up the basics. The Thirty Years’ War might not be taught much in English (or American, apparently) schools and universities but that doesn’t mean it’s unimportant.

Getting annoyed at historical mistakes on the TV is going to become an ever-larger part of my life, isn’t it.

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4 thoughts on “He’s not the Prince of Bohemia, he’s a very naughty Elector

  1. I think you have a point, but to be fair to the man the 30 Years War is a teensy bit confusing! I love your ‘simplified version of the start of the Thirty Years War’ – any chance you could provide a simplified version of the full 30 years? It has me baffled…

  2. Right, so Freddie was totally not anything “of Bohemia” when he married Liz. (Did I get that right?) But, while I’ve not watched KatP yet, from your quote I’d take Prof S’s use of “prince” to mean, er, ‘nob’, rather than ‘scion of a/the royal family’..? (.. I suppose I should watch the show to find out, rather than bicker about polysemy here. I do see your point though, and it’s hard not to roll your eyes on encountering such foot-in-the-mouth disease.)

  3. Good point, Sam – yep, I think you’re right. Fred wasn’t anything ‘of Bohemia’ at the time of the marriage, except a neighbour (the Upper Palatinate borders Bohemia) so I guess my annoyance was really at the idea that he had a clear connection to Bohemia/place in its hierarchy at all…

    It is super confusing, Karen, that’s true – particularly once the Swedes get involved. I’m not looking forward to writing about the 1630s in my next-but-one chapter! At the moment I’m only any good at simplifying the very start of the war, because I’ve written several conference papers where I’ve had to sum it up in double-quick time so I can get on to talking about whatever texts I’m blathering about. Perhaps once I’ve written the 1630s chapter I’ll be able to do that bit too… perhaps…

  4. I very distinctly remember the Thirty Years’ War, its causes, etc etc (in particular the Prague defenestration incidents, because “defenestrate” is a great word) coming up in my European History class. So it’s on at least _one_ American syllabus (or was when I was 17, anyhow)…

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