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Thirty Years' War

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The Thirty Years' War was a conflict fought between the years 1618 and 1648, principally in the Central European territory of the Holy Roman Empire, but also involving most of the major continental powers. It occurred for a number of reasons. Although it was from its outset a religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics, the self-preservation of the Habsburg dynasty was also a central motive.


Origins of the war

The Peace of Augsburg (1555) confirmed the result of the first Diet of Speyer and ended the violence between the Lutherans and the Catholics in Germany.

It stated that:

  • German Princes (numbering 225) could choose the religion (Lutheranism or Catholicism) of their realms according to their conscience, the principle of cuius regio eius religio.
  • Lutherans living in an ecclesiastical state (under the control of a bishop) could remain Lutherans.
  • Lutherans could keep the territory that they had captured from the Catholic Church since the Peace of Passau (1552).
  • The ecclesiastical leaders of the Catholic Church (bishops) that converted to Lutheranism had to give up their territory (archbishoprics/bishoprics).

Political and economic tensions grew among many of the powerful nations of Europe in the early 17th century. Spain was interested in the German states, because Philip II of Spain was a Habsburg and had the territories surrounding German states' western border; France was interested in the German states, because it wanted to quell the growing power of the Habsburgs since they surrounded France's eastern border; Sweden and Denmark, meanwhile were interested in gaining control over northern German states bordering the Baltic Sea.

Religious tensions were growing throughout the second half of the 16th Century as well. The Peace of Augsburg was unraveling throughout the second half of the century as some converted bishops had not given up their bishoprics; as Calvinism was spreading throughout Germany, adding a third major religion to the region; and as certain Catholic rulers in Eastern Europe sought to restore the power of Catholicism in the region.

As the Habsburgs were primarily interested in extending their power, they were sometimes prepared to work with the Protestants. Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor, and his successor Matthias did not aggressively champion Catholicism since they were more interested in furthering the power and holdings of the Habsburgs. They were also generally tolerant towards their subjects, which allowed the different religions to spread, which upset those who wanted religious uniformity. Sweden and Denmark, meanwhile, were both Lutheran kingdoms and sought to assist the Protestant cause in the empire as well as to gain political and economic influence.

These tensions broke into violence in the German town of Donauwörth in 1606. The Lutheran majority barred the Catholic residents of the town from holding a procession, causing a violent riot to break out. This prompted Duke Maximilian of Bavaria (1573-1651) to intervene on behalf of the Catholics. After the violence ceased, the Calvinists in Germany (who were still in their infancy and quite a minority) felt the most threatened, so they banded together in the League of Evangelical Union, created in 1608 under the leadership of Frederick IV (1583-1610), the elector of Palatinate (whose son, Frederick V, married Elizabeth Stuart, the daughter of James I of England). He had control of the Rhenish Palatinate, one of the very states along the Rhine River that Spain wanted to acquire. This provoked Catholics to band together in the Catholic League (created in 1609) under the leadership of Duke Maximilian.

Matthias, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia, died without a biological heir in 1617, but had named his cousin Ferdinand of Styria as his heir. Ferdinand, who became King of Bohemia and Ferdinand II, Holy Roman Emperor, was a staunch Catholic who had been educated by the Jesuits and who wanted to restore Catholicism. He was therefore unpopular in mainly Calvinist Bohemia, whose rejection of Ferdinand launched the Thirty Years' War, which can be divided into four major phases: the Bohemian Revolt, Danish intervention, Swedish intervention, and the French intervention.

The Bohemian Revolt

Period: 1618-1625

Since the King of Bohemia was an elected office, the Bohemians chose as their preferred leader Frederick V, elector of the Palatinate (successor of Frederick IV, the creator of the League of Evangelical Union). When Ferdinand II sent two Catholic councillors (Martinitz and Slavata ) as his representatives to Hradcany castle in Prague in May 1618 to make way for his arrival and kingship, the Bohemian Calvinists seized them and threw them out of a palace window. The Catholic version of the story claims that angels appeared and carried them to safety. The Protestant version says that they landed in manure.

This event, known as the second Defenestration of Prague, began the Bohemian Revolt. Soon the Bohemian conflict erupted in the entirety of Greater Bohemia, effectively Bohemia, Silesia, Lusatia and Moravia, which was already riven by conflict between Catholics and Protestants. This confrontation was to find many facets and mirrors across the continent of Europe with the involvement of France, Sweden, inter alia.

Had the Bohemian rebellion remained a purely Eastern European affair, the war could have been over in fewer than thirty months. However, the weaknesses of both Ferdinand and of the Bohemians themselves led to the spread of the war to western Germany. Ferdinand was compelled to call on his cousin, King Philip IV of Spain for assistance.

The Bohemians, desperate for allies against the Emperor, applied to be admitted to the Protestant Union, led by the Calvinist Frederick V, Elector Palatine. The Bohemians hinted that the Palatine Elector would become King of Bohemia if he allowed them to join the Union and come under its protection - however, similar offers were made by other members of the Bohemian Estates to the duke of Savoy, the Elector of Saxony, and Gabriel Bethlen of Transylvania. The Austrians, who seemed to have intercepted every letter leaving Prague, made public these duplicities, and unraveled much support for the Bohemians, particularly in the court of Saxony.

The rebellion initially favoured the Bohemians. They were joined in revolt by much of Upper Austria whose nobility was Lutheran and Calvinist (a fact that would swiftly change in the coming years.) Lower Austria revolted soon after and in 1619, Count Thurn led an army to the walls of Vienna itself. In the East, the Protestant Prince of Transylvania, Gabriel Bethlen, led a spirited campaign into Hungary with the blessings of the Turkish Sultan. The Emperor, who had been preoccupied with the Uzkok War , hurried to reform an army to stop the Bohemians and their allies from entirely overwhelming his country. Count Bucquoy, the commander of the Austrian army, defeated the forces of the Protestant Union at the Battle of Sablat, led by Count Mansfeld, on 10 June 1619. This cut off Count Thurn's communications with Prague, and he abandoned his siege of Vienna at once. Sablat also cost the Protestants an important ally - Savoy, long an opponent of Habsburg expansion, had already sent considerable sums to the Protestants and even troops to garrison fortresses in the Rhineland. The capture of Mansfeld's field chancery revealed the Savoyards' plot, and forced the embarrassed duke to leave the war.

In spite of Sablat, Count Thurn's army continued to exist as an effective force, and Mansfeld managed to reform his army further north in Bohemia. The Estates of Upper and Lower Austria, still in revolt, signed an alliance with the Bohemians in early August, and on the 22nd Ferdinand was officially deposed as King of Bohemia, replaced by the Palatine Elector, Frederick V. In Hungary, even though the Bohemians had reneged on their offer of their crown, the Transylvanians continued to make surprising progress, driving the Emperor's armies from that country by 1620.

The Spanish sent an army from Brussels under Ambrosio Spinola to support the Emperor, and the Spanish ambassador in Vienna, Don Inigo Onate, persuaded Protestant Saxony to intervene against Bohemia in exchange for control over Lusatia. The Saxons invaded, and the Spanish army in the West prevented the Protestant Union's forces from assisting. Onate conspired to transfer the electoral title from the Palatinate to the Duke of Bavaria in exchange for his support and that of the Catholic League. Under the command of General Tilly, the Catholic League army (which included René Descartes in its ranks) pacified Upper Austria, while the Emperor's forces pacified Lower Austria; united, the two moved north into Bohemia. Ferdinand II decisively defeated Frederick V at the Battle of White Mountain, near Prague in 1620. Bohemia would remain in Habsburg hands for three hundred years.

That defeat caused the dissolution of the League of Evangelical Union and the destruction of Frederick V's holdings. Frederick V was outlawed from the Holy Roman Empire and his territories, the Rhenish Palatinate, were given to Catholic nobles, while his title of elector of the Palatinate was given to his distant cousin Duke Maximilian of Bavaria. Frederick V, although landless, made himself a prominent exile abroad, and tried to curry support for his cause in the Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden.

It was a serious blow to Protestant ambitions in the region. The rebellion effectively collapsed and widespread confiscations of property and suppression of the pre-existing Bohemian nobility ensured that the country would return to the Catholic fold after more than two centuries of Hussite and other religious dissent. The Spanish, seeking to outflank the Dutch in preparation for the soon-to-be-renewed Eighty Years' War, took Frederick's lands, the Rhine Palatinate. The first phase of the war in Eastern Germany was fully ended when Gabriel Bethlen of Transylvania signed a peace with the Emperor in January 1622, gaining a number of territories in Eastern Hungary.

Some historians regard the period from 1621-1625 as a separate phase of the Thirty Years War, calling it the Palatinate phase. The catastrophic defeat of the Protestant army at White Mountain and the departure of Gabriel Bethlen meant the pacification of eastern Germany. The war in the West, focused on occupying the Palatinate, consisted of much smaller battles than the Bohemian and Hungarian campaigns saw, and a much greater use of siege. Mannheim and Heidelberg fell in 1622, and Frankenthal in 1623. The Palatinate was in the hands of the Emperor.

The remnant Protestant army, led by Mansfeld, made an attempt to reach the Dutch border. Tilly outmanuevered them at Stadtlohn on 6 August 1623 and only a third of Mansfeld's force of 21,000 managed to escape the battle. Out of supplies, manpower, and money, Mansfeld's army dispersed in 1624.

Danish intervention

Period: 1625-1629

The Danish Period began when Christian IV of Denmark (1577-1648) the King of Denmark, himself a Lutheran, helped the Germans by leading an army against the Holy Roman Empire, fearing that Denmark's sovereignty as a Protestant nation was being threatened. Christian IV had profited greatly from his policies in northern Germany (Hamburg had been forced to accept Danish suzerainty in 1621, and in 1623 the Danish heir apparent was made bishop of Bremen-Verden.) As an administrator, Christian IV had done remarkably well, obtaining for his kingdom a level of stability and wealth that was virtually unmatched elsewhere in Europe, paid for by tolls on the Skaggerak and extensive war reparations from Sweden. The only country in Europe with a comparably strong financial position was, ironically, Bavaria. It also helped that the French regent Cardinal Richelieu was willing to pay for a Danish incursion into Germany. Christian invaded at the head of a mercenary army of 20,000 men.

To fight him off, Ferdinand II employed the military help of Albrecht von Wallenstein, a Bohemian nobleman who had made himself rich off the confiscated estates of his countrymen. Wallenstein pledged his army of between 30,000 and 100,000 soldiers to Ferdinand II in return for the right to plunder the captured territories. Christian, who knew nothing of Wallenstein's existence when he invaded, was forced to retire before the combination of Wallenstein and Tilly would annihilate his army. Christian's poor luck struck him again when all the allies he thought he had were forced aside: both England and France were in civil war, Sweden was at war with Poland, and neither Brandenburg nor Saxony were interested in changes to the tenuous peace in eastern Germany. Wallenstein defeated Mansfeld's army at the Battle of the Bridge of Dessau (1626) and General Tilly defeated the Danes at the Battle of Lutter (1626). Mansfeld died some months later of illness, exhausted and ashamed of the battle which had cost him half his army.

Wallenstein's army marched north, occupying Mecklenburg, Pomerania, and ultimately Jutland itself. However, he was unable to take the Danish capital on the island of Zealand without a fleet, and neither the Hanseatic ports nor the Poles would allow an Imperial fleet to be built in the Baltic. He pressed a siege against Stralsund, the only belligerent port on the Baltic which had the facilities to build a fleet the like of which could take the Danish islands. However, the cost of continuing to support Wallenstein was exorbitant, particularly compared to what could possibly be gained from the war with Denmark.

This led to the Treaty of Lübeck (1629), in which Christian IV abandoned his support for the Protestants in order to keep his control over Denmark. In the following two years more land was subjugated by Catholic powers.

At this point, the war could have been concluded, but the Catholic League persuaded Ferdinand II to take back the Lutheran holdings that were, according to the Peace of Augsburg, rightfully the possession of the Catholic Church. Described in the Edict of Restitution of (1629), these included two Archbishoprics, sixteen bishoprics, and hundreds of monasteries. Nobles and peasants alike left their lands in Bohemia and Austria rather than convert. Mansfeld and Gabriel Bethlen, the first officers of the Protestant cause, were dead in the same year. Only the port of Stralsund held out against Wallenstein and the Emperor, abandoned by all its allies.

Swedish intervention

Gustavus Adolphus at the Battle at Breitenfield (1631)
Gustavus Adolphus at the Battle at Breitenfield (1631)
The death of King Gustavus Adolphus on 16 November 1632 at the Battle of Lützen.
The death of King Gustavus Adolphus on 16 November 1632 at the Battle of Lützen.

Period: 1630-1635

Some within Ferdinand II's court believed that Wallenstein wanted to take control of the German Princes and thus gain influence over the Emperor. Ferdinand II dismissed Wallenstein in 1630. He was to later recall him after the Swedes, led by Gustavus Adolphus, attacked the Empire and prevailed in a number of significant battles.

Gustavus Adolphus, like Christian IV before him, came to aid the German Lutherans, to forestall Catholic aggression against their homeland and to obtain economic influence in the German states around the Baltic Sea. Also like Christian IV, Adolphus was subsidized by Richelieu, the Chief Minister of King Louis XIII of France, and by the Dutch. From 1630-1634, they drove the Catholic forces back and regained much of the occupied Protestant lands.

Ferdinand II depended on the Catholic League since he had dismissed Albrecht von Wallenstein. At the Battle of Breitenfeld (1631), Adolphus defeated the Catholic League led by General Tilly. A year later, they met again, and this time General Tilly was killed (1632). With General Tilly dead, Ferdinand II turned to the aid of Wallenstein and his large army.

Wallenstein and Adolphus clashed in the Battle of Lützen (1632), where the Swedes prevailed, but Adolphus was killed. In 1634 the Protestant forces, minus the leadership of Adolphus, were defeated at the First Battle of Nördlingen.

Ferdinand II's suspicions of Wallenstein flared up again in 1633, when Wallenstein attempted to arbitrate the differences between the Catholic and Protestant sides. Ferdinand II may have feared that Wallenstein would switch sides and arranged for his arrest after removing him from command. One of Wallenstein's soldiers, Captain Devereux, killed him as he attempted to contact the Swedes in the townhouse in Cheb (Eger in German) (February 25,1634).

After that, the two sides met for negotiations, and they ended the Swedish Period with the Peace of Prague (1635), which:

  • Reestablished the date that the Peace of Augsburg established (1552) from which the landholdings of the Protestants (Lutherans) and Catholics were to remain the same from 1552 to 1627, effectively nullifying the Edict of Restitution.
  • United army of the emperor and armies of German states to one army of the Holy Roman Empire.
  • Forbade German princes to have alliances between them.
  • Legalised Calvinism.
  • Effectively resolved the religious issues of the Thirty Years' War.

This treaty failed, however, to satisfy France, because of the renewed strength it granted the Habsburgs. France then launched the last period of the Thirty Years' War.

French intervention

Period: 1636-1648

France, though a largely Catholic country, was a rival of the Holy Roman Empire and Spain, and now entered the war on the Protestant side. Cardinal Richelieu, the Chief Minister of King Louis XIII of France, felt that the Habsburgs were still too powerful, since they held a number of territories on France's eastern border and had influence in the Netherlands.

France therefore allied itself with the Dutch and Sweden. Spain, in retaliation, invaded French territory. The Imperial general Johann von Werth and Spanish commander Cardinal Ferdinand Hapsburg ravaged the French provinces of Champagne and Burgundy and even threatened Paris in 1636 before being repulsed by Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar. Bernhard's victory in the Battle of Compiegne pushed the Habsburg armies back towards the borders of France. Widespread fighting ensued, with neither side gaining a clear advantage.

In 1642, Cardinal Richelieu died. A year later, Louis XIII died, leaving his five-year-old grandson Louis XIV on the throne. His regent, Cardinal Mazarin, began to work toward a restoration of peace.

In 1645, the Swedish marshal Lennart Torstensson defeated the Imperial army at the Battle of Jankau near Prague, and Louis II de Bourbon, Prince de Condé defeated the Bavarian army in the Second Battle of Nördlingen. The last talented commander of the Catholics, count Franz von Mercy , died in the battle.

On March 14, 1647 Bavaria, Cologne, France and Sweden signed the Truce of Ulm. In 1648 the Swedes (commanded by Marshal Carl Gustaf Wrangel) and the French (led by Turenne and Conde) defeated the Imperial army at the Battle of Zusmarshausen and Lens. These outcomes left only the Imperial territories of Austria itself safely in Habsburg hands.

The Peace of Westphalia

Main article: Peace of Westphalia

French General Louis II de Bourbon, Prince de Condé defeated the Spanish at the Battle of Rocroi in 1643, which led to negotiations. At the negotiations were Ferdinand III, Holy Roman Emperor, the French, the Spanish, the Dutch, the Swiss, the Swedes, the Portuguese and representatives of the Pope. The Peace of Westphalia of 1648 was the result of these negotiations.


The devastation caused by the war has long been a subject of controversy among historians. Estimates of mass civilian casualties of up to thirty percent of the population of Germany are now treated with caution. It is almost certain that the war caused serious dislocation to the economy of central Europe, but may have done no more than seriously exacerbate changes that had been initiated by other factors.

The immediate result of the war, however, was the enshrinement of a Germany divided among many territories, all of which, despite their continuing membership of the Empire up to its formal dissolution in 1806, had de facto sovereignty. It has been speculated that this weakness was a long-term underlying cause of later German militarism.

The Thirty Years' War rearranged the previous structure of power. The conflict made Spain's military and political decline visible on the European stage. With Spain was preoccupied with fighting in France, Portugal – which had been under Spanish control for 60 years – declared itself independent in 1640. The House of Braganza became the new dynasty of Portugal, beginning with King John IV. Meanwhile, Spain was finally forced to accept the independence of the Dutch Republic in 1648, ending the Eighty Years' War. With Spain weakening, France was now seen as the dominant power of Europe.

From 1643-45, during the last years of the Thirty Years' War, Sweden and Denmark fought in the Torstenson War . The favourable outcomes of that conflict and the conclusion of the great European war at the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 helped establish post-war Sweden as a new force in Europe.

The edicts agreed upon during the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia were instrumental in laying the foundations for what are even today considered the basic tenets of the sovereign nation-state. Aside from establishing fixed territorial boundaries for many of the countries involved in the ordeal (as well as for the newer ones created afterwards), the Peace of Westphalia changed the relationship of subjects to their rulers. In earlier times, people had tended to have overlapping political and religious loyalties. Now, it was agreed that the citizenry of a respective nation were subjected first and foremost to the laws and whims of their own respective government rather than to those of neighboring powers, be they religious or secular.

List of battles in the Thirty Years' War

See also

External links

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