Sunday, 8 January 2012

The Thirty Years War – A Beginners Guide Part 2


In my blog of October 11, I introduced you to the first phase of the Thirty Year’s War which was marked by the Bohemian revolt and the defeat of the French Huguenot cause.


A model of Heidleberg Castle in the mid 17th century
Since posting that blog, I have travelled to Germany and Austria and was thrilled to end up in Heidleberg and actually walk through the Castle, the seat of the Palatinate rulers and the home of the Winter King and Queen. As a historian it was fascinating to see "on the ground" how the history of Europe at the time tied together. Plenty of ideas for future blogs!


Back to the Thirty Year's War!

At the end of 1625 we had left the situation as following: 

Frederick V, Elector of Palatine and one time King of Bohemia is in exile, the Catholic Habsburgs are in full control of Bohemia, Holland and the Palatinate. The French Catholics, who are unaligned to the Habsburgs are in control of France. The Protestant cause is now resting in Holland, Denmark and Sweden (and over in the East where Transylvania has triumphed) and an uneasy peace is ensuing.

We now move to phase 2 of the Thirty Year’s War – the interventions by Denmark and Sweden. You may wonder why these two States became involved. While the defence of the Protestant Religion was certainly a reason, it was in their economic interest to keep the Baltic German States Protestant and friendly.

Round 3:  The “Emperor’s War” or the Low Saxon War (1625 -1629)

While the Bohemian War raged, the Lutheran (protestant) King Christian IV of Denmark had come to the aid of the protestant forces in Lower Saxony. Christian IV had one important commodity – money. Due gleaned from tolls on the Oresund (the strait separating Denmark from Scandanavia) and war reparation from Sweden. With aid from England (and, rather surprisingly, France), Christian raised a substantial force of 20,000 mercenaries.

Unknown to Christian, Ferdinand II had recruited Albrecht von Wallenstein, a Bohemian nobleman who had profited enormously for supporting the winning side in the Bohemian revolt. When Christian invaded Lower Saxony in 1626 he found his little force up against a force of up to 100,000 soldiers. He was forced to retire and Wallenstein marched north and occupying Denmark as far as the capital itself.

Christian IV was forced to sue for peace and in 1629 the Treaty of Lubeck was signed which allowed Christian to keep Denmark as long as he stayed out of the German States. Denmark was out of the war.

End of Round 1:  Denmark is out. In the next 2 years the Emperor assumes more German territory and the death of Gabriel Bethlan, the protestant ruler of Transylvania, marks the fall of the Protestant cause in the East.

Round 4:  Sweden to the rescue! (1630 - 1635)

King Gustavus Adophus of Sweden
The warrior king, Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden is a blog subject in his own right. His intervention in the wars, turned the tables on the Emperor’s ambitions and ensured Sweden remained a major influence in European affairs until well into the eighteenth century.

Like Christian IV of Denmark, Gustavus Adolphus was subsidised by France and by the Dutch and in 1630 Swedish forces entered the arena through the Duchy of Pomerania, defeating the Catholic League at the Battle of Breitenfeld in 1631. With an army composed mainly of German and Scottish mercenaries, he marched south, virtually unopposed.

The Emperor was forced to once again call on the aid of Wallenstein, whom he had dismissed in 1630 and did not entirely trust. The Swedish defeated Wallenstein at the Battle of Lutzen in 1632 but Gustavus Adolphus was killed in that battle.

Wallenstein became involved in trying to broker a peace between the two sides and in 1633 Ferdinand fearing Wallenstein would switch sides, arranged for his arrest but Wallenstein was killed by one of his own officers when he attempted to contact the Swedes.  With Gustav Adolphus dead, the Swedes were defeated at the battle of Nordlingen in 1634 and driven out of the south of Germany.

In 1635 the Peace of Prague was signed in which an amnesty was granted to those who had sided with the Swedes. It was agreed that the Lutheran rulers of northeast Germany would be protected, the armies of the German states were assumed into the Imperial army and the German princes were forbidden from treating with each other.  

The Peace of Prague did not involve the Swedish who still occupied the northern states of Germany and nor did it satisfy the French because of the power it gave to the Habsburgs.

End of Round 4:  The Swedish forces are in occupation in the northern part of Germany. The Habsburgs still control Bohemia, Austria, Spain and the Low Countries.

The Swedes and the French came together for the final phase of the Thirty Year’s War.

Round 5:  The French connection (1635 -1648)

You would think that the French, being Catholic, would have supported the Imperial cause, but France (notably Cardinal Richlieu) felt threatened by the rising power of the Habsburgs whose territories now bordered France on all sides. In 1635 Richelieu declared war on Spain and in 1636 and the Holy Roman Empire in 1636. France aligned with Sweden and opened the offensive in the Low Countries and Germany.

Initially the French suffered disaster with the Imperial forces entering French territory and threatening Paris itself but with the aid of the Swedes they pushed the Spanish back and began to regain the lost German territories. At the second battle of Breitenfeld (outside Liepzig) in 1642, the Swedish general Torstenson, inflicted a massive defeat on the Imperial army, forcing Ferdinand III, now the Holy Roman Emperor (following the death of his father in early 1637).

In 1643 Denmark re-entered the war, but this time on the Imperial side. Torstenson and the Swedish navy made short work of the Danes, neutralising them. Over the next few years Torstenson drove through Germany, driving the Imperial army before him and culminating in the battle of Jankau near Prague in 1644. Meanwhile the French under the Duke de Conde defeated the Bavarian forces at second battle of Nordlingen in 1645. In 1648, the Swedes entered Prague and the Thirty Years War was over. Over the next few months a series of treaties were signed, known collectively as the Peace of Westphalia.

The fragmentation of the Holy Roman Empire following the Peace of Westphalia
End Round 5:  Only Austria/Bohemia remains in the Habsburg hands, the remainder of the Holy Roman Empire is fragmented into individual states. France and Spain remain at war for another eleven years.

The Human price of the War:  It is estimated that the population of Germany by 15-30% with some parts (such as Westphalia) losing 75% of its population to disease and famine.

Involvement:  This graph illustrates the complex involvement of the European powers in the struggle.




Directly against Emperor
Indirectly against Emperor
Directly for Emperor
Indirectly for Emperor


This is very much a simplistic overview of what was an extraordinarily complex political and religious scenario. It has, however, helped me clarify what the major issues and movements were in the period and I hope you have found it interesting.


For further reading, I commend you to good old Wikipedia which just abounds in resources on this subject.


2 comments:

Marg said...

Fascinating! And I am only a little bit jealous that you got to go and visit some of these places!

Alison Stuart said...

Thanks, Marg. I have to confess the inspiration for doing this blog was because I knew I was going to the heart of Thirty Years War country and I wanted to understand the machinations. Little did I know how complex it was!
In one of those strange twists of coincidence, the question of what the Fenestration of Prague was has come up several times...and my hand immediately goes up! (I originally thought it might have been something to do with the removal of all the windows in Prague)