Rudolf II was one of the most important and most influential rulers of the Czech lands; his name is still famous centuries after his reign.
Rudolf II was a member of the House of Habsburg. His titles included King of Bohemia, King of Hungary and Croatia, Archduke of Austria, and the big one, Holy Roman Emperor. His life was, by modern standards, short. He was born July 18, 1552. He died January 20, 1612.
Rudolf was born in Vienna, the son of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II and Maria of Spain, who herself came from a royal family. From an early age, young Rudolf showed an interest in science, alchemy, and magic, interests which would remain with him for the rest of his life. He was also an avid collector of curios. Depression ran rampant in the Habsburg family, and Rudolf suffered from it all his life; as he aged, the bouts of depression worsened.
Though Rudolf never married, he did have several children by various women. The most famous – or rather, infamous – of these was Don Julius Caesar d’Austria. Julius received the finest education available, but he suffered from severe mental illness. Rudolf sent him to live in Cesky Krumlov in 1607. Julius had the good fortune to live in the city’s breathtakingly beautiful castle, but his surroundings did nothing to improve his mental state. A year after moving to Cesky Krumlov, Julius committed the horrific murder of a barber’s daughter who also lived in the castle. After torturing and murdering the young woman, Julius desecrated her corpse. Rudolf recommended life imprisonment for his son, but Julius died the following year (1609), apparently due to a ruptured ulcer.
Rudolf showed little interest in Catholicism, the religion in which he had been raised, and did his best not to take sides between Catholics and Protestants. Some historians believe that this attitude was at least partially to blame for the Thirty Years’ War. Unfortunately for Rudolf and those under his command, he made the decision to wage war against the Ottoman Empire in 1593. The war dragged on until 1606, by which time many of Rudolf’s subjects were heartily sick of it. In 1604, the Hungarians revolted against the Habsburgs in the Bocskai Uprising. Rudolf’s relatives forced him to give control over Hungary to his younger brother, Matthias, in 1605. Rudolf promptly planned to war with the Ottoman Empire again, but Matthias, backed by the Hungarians, forced Rudolf to hand over the kingdoms of Hungary, Moravia, and Austria to him.
Seeing their chance, the Protestants of Bohemia demanded greater freedom of religion. In 1609 – the same year his son Julius died – Rudolf granted this freedom to them. However, when the Protestants demanded even more freedom, Rudolf called out his army to suppress them. The Protestants turned to Matthias, who imprisoned Rudolf in his castle in Prague. In 1611, Rudolf gave to Matthias the Kingdom of Bohemia. His reign was at an end. He died the following year.
Rudolf was a great collector of paintings, and would often sit for hours on end, marveling over a new addition to his collection. Among the painters he admired was Giuseppe Arcimboldo, who painted a fascinating and amusing portrait of the Emperor that made him look as if he had been composed of various fruits and vegetables. The scientists who graced his court included Johannes Kepler and Tycho de Brahe.
During his time at Prague Castle, Rudolf added various wings to house his ever-increasing collection – paintings, gemstones, books, and much more. His interest in alchemy and astrology motivated him to invite two English visitors to his court. One, John Dee, was the court astrologer to Elizabeth I of England. The other, Edward Kelley, was a con artist who took Rudolf and other members of his court for huge amounts of money. Surprisingly, Kelley’s stepdaughter, Elizabeth Jane Weston, was an honored member of court and wrote many poems in honor of Rudolf.