Maximilian was succeeded by his son Rudolph. He had been brought up in Spain by the Jesuits, so was a staunch Catholic. He was only twenty-four when he came to the throne, and was far more learned than any prince of his time. But he was weak and changeable, uncertain of himself and suspicious of others, and little fitted to rule. The business of state wearied him. He loved alchemy and astrology. He loved fine horses too, and he spent the happiest hours visiting his stables, or in his laboratory trying to find out how to make gold, or seeking to read the secrets of the stars.
Yet at first Rudolph seemed to take some interest in the Empire. He opened the Diets in person, and he made laws against the Protestants, which, however, he never had strength of will to enforce, and which only led to revolts. Indeed he was so weak and irresolute over everything that by degrees the country drifted into confusion. Meanwhile the Emperor yielded more and more to sullen and passionate moods which almost amounted to madness. He shut himself up in his palace among the treasures of art, the paintings and sculptures which he had gathered there, and refused to see any one. His bedroom windows were barred like those of a prison, he ate his meals alone, being waited on by two servants only. He never laughed, and became so furious at the slightest noise that servants and courtiers approached him in fear of their lives.
Yet Rudolph would give up to others nothing of his kingly power. For weeks his table would be piled with papers waiting for his royal signature, for months ambassadors from foreign countries would beg an audience in vain. The affairs of the Empire were at length so neglected, that Rudolph's brother, Matthias, called a council together to decide what should be done.
It was decided that Rudolph was no longer fit to rule, and that Matthias must henceforth be looked upon as head of the House of Hapsburg.
Yet half crazy though Rudolph was, he would not yield quietly. So Matthias gathered his army, and marching against his brother soon forced him to yield. Rudolph, indeed, still kept the title of Emperor, but he gave up all his own lands, Austria, Hungary, and Moravia, to his brother. Bohemia alone was left to him.
Meanwhile the Protestants throughout the Empire had grown very much alarmed at Rudolph's efforts to crush them. So to protect themselves, they formed a league known as the Protestant Union. At once the Catholics became uneasy, and they on their side formed another league, which was called the Catholic League, and was meant to be a check upon the Protestant League. Thus both sides watched each other with fear and suspicion, each ready to fight for their rights.
The Protestant nobles of Austria had helped Matthias in his war against Rudolph, and now as a reward he gave them freedom of worship. Upon this the people of Bohemia also demanded a like freedom from Rudolph. Seeing no help for it, he granted them what is known as the Letter of Majesty, which gave to all freedom to worship God as they thought right.
But Rudolph had no sooner granted this liberty than he regretted it. He allowed his cousin, the Bishop of Passau, to enter Bohemia with an army, and waste it with fire and sword. The Bohemians then sent to Matthias for help. He came, and Rudolph soon found himself a prisoner in his own castle of Prague, and forced to yield the last of his possessions to his brother. With great pomp and ceremony Matthias was crowned King of Bohemia. But while the crown was placed upon his head, and while the people shouted, and the church bells clanged forth joyfully, the wretched Rudolph hid himself deep in the furthest corner of his palace, stopping his ears lest he should catch the slightest sound of the rejoicings.
But still another bitter humiliation was in store for him. He was forced to sign his abdication. He submitted, but his passion was so great that he could scarcely hold the pen, and his signature looked more like a blot than a name. And when he had finished it he tore the pen to pieces with his teeth in mad rage.
Rudolph was now little better than a beggar in his own kingdom. He was ill and broken-hearted, and in a few months he died.