Christian II of Anhalt: An obsessive diarist and courtier manqué during the Thirty Years War

Among the self-testimonies of the first half of the 17th century, the diary (written mostly in German, but also in French and occasionally in Italian) which Prince Christian II of Anhalt (born 1599 in Amberg) kept for more than 30 years, and which is now being edited in digital form, must be one of the most extensive.[i] From 1621 until his death in 1656, Christian carefully recorded his travels, the ravages of war and everything that seemed important to him, including his many dreams. As the son of the man (Christian I of Anhalt, 1568-1630) who had shaped the policy of the Palatinate before the outbreak of the Thirty Years War (and with disastrous consequences), Christian II was initially actively involved in the war himself, having fought in the Battle of the White Mountain and been taken prisoner. In fact, it was as a prisoner that he first spent time in Vienna and at court in 1621. As a would-be courtier he initially devoted most of his energy to obtain an imperial pardon for himself and later for his father who lived in exile in Denmark. Although Christian felt humiliated by the Emperor’s demand to prostate himself on his knees to ask for mercy and forgiveness, he was, in the end, duly pardoned and henceforth became a loyal imperial client, despite his Reformed Protestantism.[ii] In fact, Anhalt became almost obsessed by his efforts to gain the Emperor’s favour. Whenever he was at court or attended Ferdinand II, or later, his son, outside the Habsburg hereditary dominions, he reacted most nervously whenever the emperor seemed to frown upon him. He was permanently afraid to offend his liege lord by some gaffe. In one of his many dreams he was asked to dance in front of the monarch but to his horror discovered that he wore only slippers not proper shoes, a revealing nightmare.[iii]  Even more remarkable was a dream which had Christian making love to the Empress Eleonora Gonzaga, a truly scandalous incident, though the Empress was – in his dream – duly impressed by Christian’s qualities as a lover.[iv]

Portrait of Christian II of Anhalt, anonymous, 17th century
Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel: Wa 4° 384:2

In real life Christian devoted his efforts at court to far more sober matters. He vainly tried to obtain a patent as a colonel in the imperial army and sought various financial gratifications and pensions with slightly more success. Somewhat naively, he even tried to be reimbursed for the money he had spent during the fighting in Bohemia in 1620. It comes as no surprise that the Emperor looked somewhat less kindly on such demands. But despite such setbacks Anhalt, who obtained the honorary rank of chamberlain in 1629, attended the imperial court on numerous occasions. His diaries contain valuable information on conversations he had with the Emperor’s ministers and counsellors and demonstrate that even at the height of the war a Protestant prince could still meet catholic courtiers on friendly terms. Thus, Christian recorded a long conversation with the imperial confessor Father Larmormaini S. J. in August 1635.[v] The Jesuit tried to convince him that Catholics felt by no means entitled to ignore promises they had given to Protestants contrary to the famous or infamous principle “haereticis fides non servanda est” (promises given to heretics have no binding force) which the Roman Church allegedly followed.[vi] On another occasion, in 1629, the imperial field marshal Count Althan wanted to recruit him for an ecumenical crusade against the Ottomans.[vii]  Of particular interest is a conversation between Christian and Cardinal Khlesl who had shaped imperial policy during the rule of Emperor Mathias.[viii] Although in 1629, when Christian met him, Khlesl, who had actively promoted the counter reformation in Austria in earlier years, no longer enjoyed much influence, it is remarkable that the Cardinal assured him that he had always sought a political compromise transcending all religious tensions.

One of Christian’s greatest concerns at court was to assert and defend the rank of his dynasty in court society and among the princes of the Empire. Not an easy task, as the house of Anhalt (or Askanien), though a very ancient princely family (one branch had even once held the dignity of prince elector), ruled only a small principality which was divided among several branches of the dynasty. To his dismay, Christian realized that even the mere envoys and ambassadors of the Prince Electors now ranked much higher in court ceremonial than his own family, or that the Duke of Lorraine as a sovereign ruler outranked him.[ix] But although he felt slighted on more than one occasion he was not discouraged, and whereas more powerful princes no longer attended the imperial court in person, Christian insisted on serving as a carver during the great banquet on the occasion of Ferdinand III’s coronation as king of the Romans in Regensburg in December 1636[x] , and was also keen to receive his fiefs in person from the hands of the Emperor[xi] despite the fact that such solemn enfeoffment ceremonies had already become rather unusual at least among the secular princes of the Empire.[xii] It may have been Anhalt’s eagerness to actively participate in court life and in ceremonies which were designed to stage and enact the Emperor’s power and authority, which made him welcome at court in the first place. Though the Habsburgs at the time had begun to raise members of the Bohemian or Austrian aristocracy to the rank of princes of the Empire, they could never quite fill the void which the absence of real princes at the imperial court had left behind; and here a man like Christian fulfilled an important role, however limited his revenues or military resources may have been. For a time one may also have hoped that Christian would convert to Catholicism at some stage, although this never happened. In any case his diaries are a unique source which give us an import insight into imperial court life during the Thirty Years War.

By Ronald G. Asch, University of Freiburg, Germany.

Ronald G. Asch held the chair of Early Modern History in Freiburg from 2003 until his retirement in 2021. Before moving to Freiburg he taught for 6 years in Osnabrück. He has published widely on British and Irish history in the 16th and 17th centuries, and also in a comparative perspective on the history of kingship, the court and noble elites in the early modern Europe. His latest book was published in 2020: Vor dem Großen Krieg: Europa im Zeitalter der spanischen Friedensordnung 1598-1618 (Darmstadt, 2020).

[i] Digitale Edition und Kommentierung der Tagebücher des Fürsten Christian II. von Anhalt-Bernburg (1599-1656), edd. Ronald G. Asch, Peter Burschel, Arndt Schreiber, Alexander Zirr, et al. – The publication of the diaries is financed by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft and is a joint project of the Herzog August-Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel (Prof. Peter Burschel) and the University of Freiburg (Prof. Ronald G. Asch)

[ii] Diary 12 Dec. 1621, fol. 5r-v.

[iii] Diary 18 Febr. 1634, fol. 279r. Such dreams are recorded quite frequently in the diary, see for example 7 Nov. 1640, fol. 393r.

[iv] „Elle m’eust fort aymè & louè ma force & vertu etcetera.“ (Diary 21 April 1631, fol. 318r). [She loved me passionately and praised my strength and manliness etc.]

[v] Robert Bireley, Religion and Politics in the Age of the Counterreformation. Emperor Ferdinand II, William Lamormaini, S. J. and the Formation of Imperial Policy (Chapel Hill, 1981).

[vi] Diary 9/19 -10/20 Dec. 1629, fol. 279v-290v.

[vii] Diary 8/18 Dec. 1629, fol. 275v-278v.- Count Michael Adolf von Althan(n), 1574-1636, was the co-founder of the Ordo Militiae Christianae.

[viii] Melchior Cardinal Khlesl, Bishop of Vienna, 1552-1630, 1612-18 Director of the imperial Privy Council, 1615 created cardinal, 1618-19 imprisoned in Innsbruck, 1619-27 under arrest in Rome. Cf. Rona Johnston, ‘Melchior Khlesl und der konfessionelle Hintergrund der kaiserlichen Politik im Reich nach 1610’, in: Friedrich Beiderbeck et al. (edd.), Dimensionen der europäischen Außenpolitik zur Zeit der Wende vom 16. zum 17. Jahrhundert (Berlin 2003), pp. 199–222

[ix]  Diary, 9/19 Dec. 1636 fol. 274v; Lorraine: 1/11 Dec. 1636 fol. 266r.

[x] Diary, 20/30 Dec. 1636, fol. 296v: „Mitt dem vorschneiden habe ich mich beholfen, so gut alß ich es
gekondt, wiewol ichs gar schlecht gemachtt, dieweil ich es nie versuchtt.“ (I tried to cut the meat as well as I could, although I did not succeed very well, as this was the first time I ever did it.)

[xi] Diary, 29. June 1635, fol. 321v–322r.

[xii] Cf. Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger, The Emperor’s Old Clothes: Constitutional History and the Symbolic Language of the Holy Roman Empire (New York, 2015).

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courtstudies (May 24, 2023). Christian II of Anhalt: An obsessive diarist and courtier manqué during the Thirty Years War. The Court Observer. Retrieved July 17, 2024 from

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