Ferdinand of Styria was born in 1578. Ferdinand was educated at the Jesuit College at Ingolstadt. When he became archduke of Styria, Ferdinand ruthlessly persecuted the Protestants who lived there. Any form of disaffection was suppressed.
For Catholics, he was a conscientious and benevolent ruler and one of his great triumphs was establishing schemes of care for the sick.
His two great loves were Catholicism and hunting. He hunted at least three times a week.
“The great number of his contemporaries wrote him off as a good natured simpleton wholly under the control of his chief minister Ulrich von Eggenberg….(yet) he was one of the boldest and single-minded politicians that the Habsburg dynasty had ever produced.” (Wedgwood) He ruthlessly pursued his policy of catholic reform and Habsburg advancement. He trusted Eggenberg but the polices carried out were his.
In Bohemia he upset many of his subjects there by his policy of hard Catholicism and centralisation. From 1618 there was growing unrest in Bohemia. His Spanish cousins put huge demands on him not to show any form of weakness that could encourage others in the Holy Roman Empire to rebel. The Spanish Habsburgs gave him money and troops and in return Ferdinand agreed to give them Alsace.
In August 1619, Ferdinand was elected Holy Roman Emperor. He was now emperor and king of Bohemia. The Bohemians rejected him as king and appointed Frederick of the Palatine to be their king. This was an open case of defiance. The Bohemian rebellion was ruthlessly suppressed in 1620 and Bohemia went through a decade of decline.
Why did Ferdinand treat Bohemia so ruthlessly ? Historians differ as to his intentions. It may be simply because he was angered by their defiance and felt that a suitable punishment was required. His love of Catholicism and hatred of Protestantism may have clouded his decisions. Wedgwood believes that “absolute power was his aim” and therefore any rebellion or hint of it in the Empire would not be tolerated. The Bohemian incident was an opportunity for him to re-assert the power of the emperor which had been in decline for a number of decades.
Other historians hold the view that Ferdinand was a realist and that he knew his power in Germany was on the wane and would never be recovered. He also knew that even Catholic German princes such as the Duke of Bavaria would put their independence before loyalty to Vienna. He knew that his remaining sphere of influence was in the eastern sector of his empire and that is why he could not tolerate any dissent from the Bohemians. He had to ensure that his power base – the eastern sector of the empire – remained totally loyal. This view of Ferdinand being a realist is held by historians like Dr Hughes.
His position in Europe during the Thirty Years War depended on his own military position. For the Edict of Restitution he was in a position of strength. Yet just one year later, his position was weakened by Regensberg. At the battles of Lutzen and Nordlingen he was victorious and some consider that the height of his power in Europe was reached at the Peace of Prague signed in 1635. At this meeting, the German princes agreed to accept his authority and bound themselves to him to fight the enemies of the Austrian Habsburgs. In 1636, his son was elected King of the Romans. At this time, his lands were free of heresy (though not the empire) and he had an army that was feared.