On June 21, 1621, a huge crowd gathered in Old Town Square to view the executions of 27 noblemen involved in the Estates Uprising the previous year.
Defenestration, White Mountain, and the Aftermath
In a rebellion against the Habsburg monarchy and the threat of being forced to convert to Catholicism or leave their homeland, several Bohemian nobles first threw two governors and a secretary out of a window at Prague Castle in 1618, then battled the Imperial army at White Mountain in 1620. After the crushing military defeat, forty-seven nobles were put on trial. More than half of them were sentenced to death.
The executions began at 5 a.m. Prague’s executioner, Jan Mydlář, stood ready, with four sharpened swords. Twenty-four of the nobles would be beheaded that day, and the other three would be hanged.
A contemporary drawing of the scene shows two bodies dangling from a beam protruding from a window in the Old Town Hall, while another hangs from a gallows in the area where the statue grouping of Jan Hus stands today.
Mydlář, a Protestant himself, sympathized with the nobles, but he was forced to do his job. He eschewed the traditional red executioner’s hood for a black one, and sharpened his swords to a fine edge.
As the nobles knelt on the scaffold, facing away from him, he did his work so skillfully that an English spectator later wrote that the heads appeared to have been blown from the shoulders of the victims. With one stroke, one man after another, the heads flew into the Old Town Square, where soldiers kept the crowd at bay.
One of the nobles, Ondřej Šlík, was among those beheaded. When the executions finally ended at 9 a.m., Mydlář gathered twelve of the heads, put them in iron baskets, and suspended them from the towers at both ends of the Charles Bridge.
Six were placed on each tower. Šlík’s widow petitioned to be allowed to claim her husband’s head and bury it with the rest of his body; she received permission a year later. The other eleven heads remained on the bridge for approximately two decades.
When the heads – now only skulls – were finally taken down, they were buried under the floor of the Protestant Týn Church on Old Town Square, facing the execution site.
The Present Day
The Old Town Hall was largely destroyed by the Nazis toward the end of World War II. The Old Town Square as it appeared in the image seen here is very different now. However, the place where the scaffold stood is easy to recognize. Twenty-seven white crosses are set into the paving stones, along with the date.
The Old Town tower bears a plaque with the names of the nobles executed in 1621.