The Emperor Rudolf II of Austria (1552-1612) is sometimes called "The Mad Alchemist". He was an intelligent man with interests in mathematics, science and alchemy, but he sufferend from dark moods and uncontrollable rages that worsened over time. Gradually he became a recluse. His illegitimate son, however, was far worse..

Rudolf II was born on the evening of July 18, 1552 as the eldest son of Maximilian II of Austria (1527-1576) and Maria of Spain (1526-1603). Both his parents were grandchildren of Juana "The Mad" of Castile (1479-1555). Like her, Maria of Spain (to the right) had a tendency to melancholia. She gave birth to 16 children, but her behaviour towards them was always somewhat distant. All her life, Maria remained thoroughly Spanish and kept close contact with her brother, Philip II of Spain (1627-1598). When the Spanish King urged Maximilian to send his sons to Spain to complete their education there, Maximilian was reluctant to let them go and postponed their departure repeatedly. Maria, however, insisted they should go, hoping that any Protestant notions they may have acquired in Vienna, whould be effectively erased in the strict Catholic court of Madrid.

In March 1564, Rudolf arrived in Spain, accompanied by his younger brother Ernest (1553-1595), Wolfgang von Rumpf and Count Adam von Dietrichstein. By then Rudolf was already a serious boy, inclined to fantasy and melancholia. In Barcelona he and Ernst were met by the grave, black-clad Philip II, who immediately took them high up into the mountains to the gloomy monastery of Montserrat. Afterwards, they travelled to the summer palace of Aranjuez, where they spend the summer. Philip was ill with fever, but his young sister and wife rode out hunting with Rudolf and Ernest. In the evenings Philip invited the boys to his bedside to dance before him, or to show him their skill at fencing. Rudolf also met Philip's unbalanced son, Don Carlos (1545-1568). In January 1568 Philip had his son locked up, and from then on it was forbidden to mention Don Carlos in conversation or even in prayers. In July the Prince died, followed in October by the Queen. The Spanish Court with its strict etiquette was gloomier than ever, while Rudolf and Ernst studied, wrote letters in Latin, practised fencing and helped serve Mass on Sunday. Rudolf was to receive an excellent training in languages and rhetorics from Spanish tutors.

Early 1570, Rudolf (to the right) and Ernst travelled with Philip II through Southern Spain. Later that year Rudolf's two youngest brothers accompanied their sister Anna (1549-1580) to Spain, where she was to become her uncle Philip's 4th wife. The following spring Rudolf and Ernest were at last permitted to journey home to Vienna. Years later Rudolf recalled: "I was seized with such joy the following night that I could not bring sleep into my eyes." The years in Spain had marked Rudolf deeply for life.

The good-natured Emperor Maximilian II (to the right) found his sons much changed after their long stay in Spain. He noted the "Spanish humours" they had acquired, the gravity and cold pride that so resembled their uncle Philip's. He ordered his sons to "change their bearing", but it was already too late to change their personalities. Maximilian was at odds with his fiery wife. He tried to avoid religious conflict, a policy Rudolf supported, but Maria was strongly committed to the Catholic cause. It worried Maximilian, because he was suffering from heart attacks, excruciating pains of gout and bouts of "kidney colic", possibly syphilis. He arranged to have Rudolf crowned King of Hungary and King of Bohemia and called a Diet to meet in Regensburg to have Rudolf crowned King of the Romans1, too. In the summer of 1576, Maximilian set out for Regensburg with his family. On the way he became indisposed and in Regensburg he fell ill again. At first he seemed to grow a little better, then Maximilian took a grave turn for the worse. At his bedside, his wife, Maria of Spain, urged him to see the court priest and his sister Anna hurried from Bavaria to join in the pleas to take the Catholic rites. When the Spanish ambassador boldly said: "I can see from your condition, Your majesty, that it would be time..", Maximilian cut him short with "You are right, Mr. Marquis, I have not slept well and would like to rest a little." Rudolf hurried to his father's deathbed, too. On October 12 Maximilian died. Two weeks later, the German Electors named Rudolf the new Emperor. He was crowned on November 1.

Rudolf was an intelligent and gifted man. He could easily speak and write Spanish, German, French, Latin, Italian and a little Czech. He also had a taste for art, and was interested in mathematics and science. Since his return from Spain, however, Rudolf suffered from dark moods that continued to deepen after his crowning. Those were troubled times. Germany was divided by Protestant and Catholic factions. A mighty earthquake took place in Vienna and the plague came and went, as did the Turks. In 1577, Rudolf suffered his first emotional breakdown, became severely melancholic and rarely left the castle. He was so ill in 1580 that there were fears for his life. He rapidly lost weight, but slowly recovered. In 1583, Rudolf decided to move his residence permanently to Prague in Bohemia to escape the crowds and pressures of Vienna. He turned to the study of astronomy and magic and started collecting beautiful and curious objects.

Rudolf gathered astronomers, humanists, physicians, artist, craftsmen and antiquarians about him. The Danish astronomer, Tycho Brahe (1546-1601)2, set up his instruments for observing the stars, and wrote down his measurements of the planetary movements. When Rudolf's cousin, Archduke Ferdinand of Styria, banished Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) from his province, Rudolf welcomed him at his court. Using Brahe's computations, known as the "Rudolphine Tables", Kepler developed his theory of the elliptical movements of the planets. Meanwhile, alchemists stirred mysterious vats in the kitchens of Hradschin castle, experimenting with elixirs. Exotic animals strolled through the corridors. Rudolf's court painters, among them Dirck de Quade van Ravesteyn (±1589-1619), specialised in images of imperial power and mannered erotic scenes. In addition, Rudolf collected paintings of, among others, Breughel and Correggio.

Rudolf was an ugly man with a big Habsburg lip3, pronounced jaw and short legs. At an early age, he had already lost his teeth. During the 1590s, his melancholic moods with feelings of anxiety and deep gloom, became more and more frequent. Observers described his sadness, remoteness and aloofness. He became anxious and agitated, ill tempered and bad-humoured. His exaggerated fear of family interference in his affairs gradually developed into a conviction that someone in his family planned to murder him. His gold was kept locked in chests and as a results sometimes there was no food in the castle kitchens. Meanwhile, Rudolf withdrew further from the world. He refused to see foreign ambassadors and threatened one of his ministers with a dagger. Narrow-minded papal nuncios began reporting that Rudolf had become an inaccessible recluse, but more enlightened Protestant emissaries were still received by the Emperor.

After the death of his brother Ernest in 1595, his brother Matthias (1557-1619, to the right) became heir to the throne. Matthias had few talents, but he was ambitious and had been intriguing against his elder brother for years. Rudolf hated him bitterly and took every opportunity to humiliate Matthias and allowed him neither money nor position, or even permission to marry. Rudolf himself had been betrothed for years to his Spanish cousin Isabel (1566-1633), but he postponed the marriage year after year4. His mother, who had returned to Spain as a widow, wrote from Madrid begging him to marry, but Rudolf found one excuse after another to avoid taking the final step. At the age of 32, the Infanta Isabel was finally wed to Rudolf's younger brother Albert, a former-cardinal. When Rudolf found out, he went into a frenzy.

Rudolf's favourite comrades were Wolfgang von Rumpf, Philip Lang and Duke Heinrich Julius of Brunwick (1564-1613). It has been rumoured that Rudolf was attracted to young boys as well as girls. He probably was a bisexual. For years, he had a relationship with Katharina Strada5, the daughter of his court antiquarian. He fathered 6 very strange children by her, but Rudolf was scarcely interested in his illegitimate offspring. His son Julius Caesar (±1585-1609) once wildly seized a weapon and so seriously wounded one of his servants that Rudolf ordered him interned for a time. As lord of Krumau, Julius' subsequent misconduct was so severe that his frightened servants began to flee his service. He took a concubine, Maruška, but within a few months Julius became so angry with her that he attacked her with a knife and threw her bleeding from his window. She landed in the castle pond. While she was recovering in her parental home, Julius ordered her to return to him. When her father refused to let her go, he was thrown in prison and condemned to death. After five weeks the girl returned. Julius went berserk, began stabbing her, cutting of her ears, gouging out one eye, smashing out her teeth and splitting her skull. He flung pieces of her flesh all around the room. After three hours he recovered from his frenzy and ordered her wrapped in linen and carried away. He personally nailed down the lid of her coffin and had her buried with great pomp in a local cloister. A month later Julius was arrested and taken to prison, where he was confined for the remaining years of his life.

Over the years, Rudolf's moods swung between animated engagement with the problems of his day and deep melancholia, paranoia and uncontrollable rages. During Rudolf's retreat from public affairs, Wolfgang Rumpf, his chief minister and long-time companion, gradually attained an almost total control over the central administration of the Empire. By 1599, Rudolf became convinced that Rumpf was dealing behind his back against his interest. He forced him to resign, but later he took him back. Around Easter, Rudolf fired many of his servants and banished others from court for days. For a couple of months Rudolf's rages subsided, but in July he fled from Prague in panic after an outbreak of the plague. For a year he lived in isolation in Pilsen, while he suffered from a shortness of breath. His attacks of paranoid fears were often followed by weeks of relative calm. In June 1600, Rudolf returned to Prague and for a while he went out hunting and attended parties. Soon, however, he started hallucinating and claimed that he had been poisoned or bewitched. He seems to have attempted suicide repeatedly. Once he tried to slash his throat with a piece of broken window pane. Another time he used curtain cords.
In September, Rudolf dismissed Wolfgang von Rumpf for good. From then onwards, Rudolf abstained from summoning the Privy Council or delegating his powers to a Prime Minister. As a result, the government was paralysed. Incapable of making up his mind, Rudolf refused to take any decision. He appeared hardly at all in public and ordered his galleries and walkways covered over so that he could move about completely unobserved. He took his meals alone, every day at exactly the same times in exactly the same room. Priests or prayers of any sort irritated him immensely and he lived in fear of the sacraments.

In 1611, Rudolf's brother and heir, Matthias, met with his other brothers and cousins in the Hofburg in Vienna, because they feared a Protestant take-over of the Empire during Rudolf's incapacity. They named Matthias Head of the House of Habsburg and bestowed the regency upon him. At the head of an army Matthias marched to the gates of Prague and forced Rudolf to sign over Hungary, Moravia and Bohemia. On November 11, Rudolf put his name to the deed of abdication and flung the pen to the floor. He was left only with the Imperial Crown. Matthias gave him a pension and the possession of Hradschin castle in Prague. There Rudolf lived with his exotic animals. Soon his favourite lion and two of his eagles died. In the last months of his life Rudolf took to the bottle and in December he suffered from dropsy. On January 19, 1612, his condition deteriorated and the next morning he died. Nonetheless, the people of Prague mourned "der gute Herr", because his reign was regarded as Prague's golden age.

Copyright © 2001, 2008 by J.N.W. Bos. All rights reserved.



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