While Charles IV is a household name in the Czech Republic, Rudolf II sometimes gets overlooked, despite being the king who moved the Habsburg residency from Vienna back to Prague in the 17th century. This made Prague the place to be at the time.

As a child, Rudolf lived in Vienna until he was 11 years old, when his father Maximillian sent him off with his siblings to study with his uncle, Spanish King Filip II. 

Rule of the King

Crown, scepter and globus cruciger of Rudolf II by Yelkrokoyade via Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

As Maximillian’s oldest son, Rudolf took the throne in 1576 after his death and moved the dynasty to Prague, making the city a cultural and political centre of Europe. It was during this era that you could peruse the streets of Prague and find painters like Bartolomeo Spranger and Hans von Aachen, famous astrologers like Tycho Brahe or Johannes Kepler, and alchemists like John Dee and Edward Kelly seeking refuge in the city where you wouldn’t be punished for practicing “magic.”

Rudolf became an avid art collector, accumulating paintings, sculptures, literature, and later became obsessed with alchemy and occult science. We don’t know the exact moment it happened, but somewhere along the line Rudolf became mentally ill and started making irrational political decisions, largely tarnishing his reputation. 

Adding to his psychological issues and health problems, Rudolf’s own brother tried to steal the throne, exacerbating his troubles and making him paranoid of his own family and social circle.


Rudolf painted as Vertumnus by Giuseppe Arcimboldo/public domain

Rudolf was meant to marry his own cousin, Marie de’ Medici, but came up with all the excuses in the world not to go through with it. This may have been the best thing for Marie given that she eventually became a French queen after marrying King Henry IV. 

Rudolf never ended up marrying, but he did manage to have 6 children with a mistress. He named his oldest son Julius Caesar, but unfortunately, Julius had issues with alcohol, rage, and violence. He ultimately killed one of his own mistresses out of anger, and was then imprisoned by his father.

Last days

In the last chapters of his life, Rudolf became a solitary, isolated king, shut away in his chambers at Prague Castle. He was rarely going outside or socialising. He spent most of his time alone, experimenting with alchemy trying and failing to come up with elixirs to cure his blood clots and issues with his lungs and liver. He refused to see any doctors, insisting that his death would be by stroke based on what his Zodiac told him.

In 1612, Rudolf died in Prague. His body was put in a public display case for more than 7 months before being buried in St Vitus Cathedral. 

Despite Rudolf’s relatively dark life, he can still be credited with sparking a “golden age” in Prague, making it a center for art, culture, science, occult science and mystery, much of which still remains today.

Featured image is in public domain

Alex Richardson

Alex Richardson

Originally from Vancouver, Canada, Alex is a writer and trader living in Prague. He likes economics, anthropology, and cactuses.
Alex Richardson