The Battle of White Mountain (1620), where Spanish-Imperial forces under Johan Tzerclaes, Count of Tilly won a decisive victory.
The Habsburg Offensive
Ferdinand’s offensive involved six separate armies. Bucquoy left Dampierre to hold Vienna with over 5,000 men against Bethlen, and advanced from Krems with 21,500 to eject Anhalt from his foothold in Lower Austria. Maximilian placed 8,600 men to guard his frontier with the Upper Palatinate, and accompanied the main army of 21,400 drawn from the troops that had blocked the Unionists at Ulm to enter Upper Austria on 24 July. Spain joined in by invading the Lower Palatinate, leaving Johann Georg no choice but to start operations against Lusatia in September. These moves were the necessary preparatory steps to the final assault on Bohemia itself.
The Confederates’ lacklustre campaign during the first half of 1620 disillusioned the Lower Austrians whose homes were being wrecked in the fighting. Ferdinand split the opposition by giving the verbal assurance he would respect the religious privileges of individual nobles provided they paid homage: 86 Lutheran lords and knights joined 81 Catholics and the representatives of 18 crown towns in accepting Ferdinand as the legitimate ruler of Lower Austria on 13 July. The remaining 62 Protestant nobles fled to Retz on the Moravian frontier from where they issued a declaration of defiance. The peasant militias offered only minimal resistance in the Upper Austrian mountains as the Bavarians poured in, capturing Linz on 3 August. Tschernembl and the radicals fled, leaving the moderates to surrender on 20 August, placing their 3,500 regular troops at the Liga’s disposal. Ferdinand now declared 33 of the Retz signatories outlaws. A couple of Austrian regiments remained with Anhalt’s army, but effectively both provinces had been lost to the Confederate cause. Adam von Herberstorff was left to hold Upper Austria with 5,000 men, while Maximilian and Tilly headed east along the Austrian–Bohemian frontier to join Bucquoy. Despite the Protestant majority among their inhabitants, both Austrian provinces had been recovered permanently for the Catholic Habsburgs without a single battle.
The situation grew even more serious for Frederick along the Rhine where his supporters were collecting to oppose Spain. After leaving Ulm, Ansbach marched north-west to Oppenheim, between Mainz and Worms, to cover the right half of the Lower Palatinate that protruded west of the Rhine. Together with 5,700 local militia, he now mustered 21,800 troops, and was joined by a further 2,000 English volunteers under Sir Horace de Vere in October, convoyed south by 2,000 Dutch cavalry under Prince Frederick Henry, Maurice’s younger brother. Sir Horace was one of the ‘Fighting Veres’ family with long experience of the Dutch wars, including the siege of Jülich. His regiment was the second British contingent, arriving five months after Grey’s regiment. Despite his numerical superiority, Ansbach was reluctant to fight, pinning his hopes of British mediation.
Luis de Velasco and 18,000 men were concentrated in Flanders to deter the Dutch, while Spinola left Brussels on 18 August with another 19,000, heading east through the electorate of Trier. Having secured Koblenz, Spinola rapidly overran Palatine territory west of the Rhine, taking Kreuznach and Alzey. Apart from brief skirmishes between the cavalry, Ansbach avoided contact. Nonetheless, Spinola remained concerned at the possibility of more substantial Dutch intervention with only a few months remaining until the end of the Truce, while his Italians refused to undertake another siege given the lateness of the season and the worsening weather. Ansbach retained the principal fortresses of Oppenheim, Heidelberg, Mannheim and Frankenthal as both sides retired into winter quarters in December. The Dutch went home, disgusted with the lacklustre Union leadership.
These operations dispelled Johann Georg’s hopes of a mediated settlement and he began his own advance, despite the obvious lack of enthusiasm among his officers. Count Wolfgang von Mansfeld, a distant relation of Frederick’s general, concentrated 8,300 soldiers and 3,000 militia at Dresden, prompting the Bohemians to halt grain sales to Saxony. Having summoned the Lusatian Estates to meet him, Johann Georg finally invaded on 3 September 1620, overrunning the western half of the two provinces. The margrave of Jägerndorf still held the east and had put 2,000 men into Bautzen. A Saxon defeat would destroy Johann Georg’s remaining credit in Protestant Germany and give the Bohemians a much needed boost. Despite obstruction from his subordinates, Wolfgang Mansfeld pressed on, forcing Bautzen to surrender on 5 October after a short bombardment that destroyed most of the town. Most of the Lusatian nobles and towns now accepted the Saxon guarantee for their privileges in return for renouncing the Confederation, but Jägerndorf still held out in Görlitz in the south-eastern corner of the province and it was now too late in the season to begin operations against Silesia further east.
The main Confederate army had been paralysed by three pay mutinies from the end of June, which finally ended on 2 August when the government extorted more money from the Prague Jews. This denied Anhalt the last opportunity to crush Bucquoy before Maximilian joined him. Abandoning his positions in Lower Austria, he retreated north into Moravia, thinking his opponents were heading in that direction. This had been Bucquoy’s intention but Ferdinand overruled his own general, placing him under the command of Maximilian who followed Tilly’s advice to march directly on Prague. Maximilian had received 5,000 additional Liga troops, but his army already had 500 sick before it left Bavaria and was now gripped by ‘Hungarian fever’, a form of typhus or cholera depending on the contemporary diagnosis, that would kill 12,000 Catholic troops before the year was out.
The epidemic is an indication that the full horrors of war were present from the outset, and were not a product of escalating barbarity. The irregular forces on both sides were already infamous for their cruelty. The first group of Cossacks crossing Moravia in January 1620 had disrupted a wedding, kidnapping the bride after murdering the groom. Ferdinand informed the Saxon elector after the siege of Vienna that
the Hungarians had devastated, plundered and burned everything where they had stayed, and (it is said), stripped the people to their last threads, ruined, cut them down and dragged a large number of them as prisoners, subjected them to unheard of torture to find money and property, dragged away numerous lads of twelve to sixteen years old, and so ill-treated pregnant women and others, that many of them were found dead everywhere on the roads. They pulled ropes around the men’s necks so tight that their eyes popped out of their heads.
Ferdinand concluded with a remark that became the standard refrain throughout the war: ‘Indeed, the enemy has behaved so terribly everywhere, that one can almost not remember whether such tyranny was ever heard of from the Turks.’
The Liga troops behaved terribly during their invasion of Upper Austria, despite being well-supplied. The violence may partly have been revenge for the peasant resistance along the frontier, but there was already disorder on the march through Bavaria and the targets were indiscriminate, the men plundering Catholic monasteries and convents as well as Protestant homes. Catholic diarists depict such breaches of discipline as divine punishment for the heretical rebels, and clearly many senior figures used this as an excuse, ignoring the duke’s efforts to maintain order, like his courtiers who helped ransack Schloss Greilenstein in Lower Austria. Religious hatred was fanned by a large crowd of priests accompanying the combined imperial-Bavarian army, including the superior general of the barefoot Carmelite order, Domenico à Jesu Maria. Born Domingo Ruzzola in Aragon, he already had a reputation for prophesy and had won Maximilian’s confidence after curing an eye infection and other ‘miraculous’ acts.
Realizing his mistake, Anhalt hurried west to block the invasion from a position at Tabor as the imperial-Bavarian army reached Budweis. Thurn was still sulking at being replaced by Anhalt, while Count Mansfeld resented Hohenlohe’s promotion to field marshal and refused to cooperate, marching south-west in a futile attempt to distract Maximilian by threatening Bavaria. The duke bypassed Tabor to the west, storming Prachatice on 27 September, and moving through Pisek to reach Pilsen on 5 October. Mansfeld raced back, arriving just in time, while Anhalt followed to Rokycany a short distance to the east. Mansfeld opened the first of what would prove an almost continuous series of secret talks over possible defection. Maximilian and Bucquoy thought it was a ploy to gain time – supplies were running short and the duke was allegedly reduced to eating black bread while Tilly snatched an apple from a passing Dominican friar. It grew so cold that some soldiers froze to death at night.
Determined to maintain momentum, Tilly had no intention of being stuck outside Pilsen all winter and, backed by Maximilian, overruled Bucquoy to march north towards Prague. Marradas was left to blockade Pilsen, while Wallenstein was sent with a small imperial detachment into north-west Bohemia to establish contact with the Saxons still beyond the mountains. Anhalt dashed north to block the way to Prague, to an important road junction at Rakovnic. Possibly influenced by Maximilian’s example, Frederick now joined his troops, confirming Anhalt’s authority and temporarily boosting morale. The soldiers agreed to suspend another pay protest and dig into a wooded ridge behind a marsh. Maximilian was stuck in front of this position from 27 October. Bucquoy was badly injured in a skirmish on 3 November, but a supply train arrived the following day, reviving morale. Maximilian and Tilly knew they had only a short time to force a battle before winter suspended operations and gave Frederick a reprieve. Covered by morning mist and some noisy musketeers left to distract the Confederates, the army slipped round the ridge on 5 November and raced towards Prague. Anhalt only realized the danger later that evening, but force-marched his men to overtake his opponents and reach the White Mountain, about 8km west of the city, at midnight on 7 November.
The Battle of White Mountain
The coming battle was the first major action of the war and proved to be the most decisive. Anhalt’s position was relatively strong. The White Mountain ridge, taking its name from chalk and gravel pits, ran north-east to south-west for about 2km, rising about 60 metres from the surrounding area. It was strongest at the northern (right) end where the incline was steepest. This end of the ridge was covered by a walled, wooded game park containing the Star Palace, a small pavilion where Frederick and his wife had stayed prior to their triumphal entry to Prague a year earlier. The marshy Scharka stream lay about 2km in front of his position, but was deemed too far from the hill to be defended.
Anhalt had 11,000 foot, 5,000 cavalry and 5,000 Hungarian and Transylvanian light cavalry. He wanted to entrench the entire length of the ridge, but his mutinous soldiers were exhausted and said digging was only for peasants. Frederick went on to Prague, persuading the Estates to find 600 talers to buy spades, but it was too late and the soldiers managed to make only five small sconces. Most of the artillery had not caught up, and the ten cannon with the army were distributed along the line. Johann Ernst of Weimar held the Star Palace with his infantry regiment, while the rest of the Confederate army drew up along the ridge in two lines in the Dutch manner, interspersing cavalry squadrons in close support between the infantry battalions. The light cavalry were dispirited, having been surprised earlier that night and most were positioned fairly uselessly as a third line in the rear, while some covered the extreme right. Despite obvious shortcomings, Anhalt remained optimistic, believing the enemy would simply stall in front of his position as at Rakovnic, and Frederick remained in Prague to eat breakfast.
Thick fog obscured the imperial-Bavarian approach on the morning of Sunday 8 November. The advance guard secured the two crossings over the stream, followed by the rest of the army that deployed from 8 a.m. The Liga regiments drew up on the left opposite the northern end of the ridge, while Bucquoy’s Imperialists took station on the right. Together, they had 2,000 more men and two more cannon than their opponents, and they were in better spirits. Both halves of the army deployed in the Spanish fashion, grouping the 17,000 foot into ten large blocks, accompanied by small cavalry squadrons.
The commanders conferred while their men took up their positions and heard mass. Bucquoy wanted to repeat the earlier trick and slip past to Prague, but Maximilian and Tilly were convinced it was time for the decisive blow. The dispute was allegedly resolved by Domenico bursting in and brandishing an image of the Madonna whose eyes had been poked out by Calvinist iconoclasts. If this is true, it was a calculated act, because the Carmelite had found the icon in a ruined house over three weeks before. The Catholic troops were elated when they received the order to attack; they were tired of chasing the Confederates across Bohemia and savoured the prospect of plundering Prague.
The artillery had been firing for some time to little effect. At about fifteen minutes after midday all twelve guns fired simultaneously to signal the advance. The Imperialists had less ground to cover to reach the ridge than the Bavarians who also faced a steeper climb. Anhalt decided on an active defence, sending two cavalry regiments down the slope to drive off the imperial cavalry screening the flanks of the Italian and Walloon infantry spearheading the assault. Thurn’s own infantry regiment then moved down to engage the enemy foot as they laboured up the slope. Seeing their own horsemen retiring, the Thurn regiment fired a general salvo at extreme range and fled. Anhalt’s son tried to retrieve the situation with his own cavalry regiment from the Confederate second line, his men using their pistols to blast their way into one of the imperial tercios. For a brief moment it looked as if the Confederates might yet snatch victory, but more imperial horse came up, and even Bucquoy arrived, despite his earlier wound, to rally the infantry. Anhalt junior was captured and within an hour of the main action starting the Confederate horse were in full retreat, many units pulling out of the line without even engaging the enemy. The Bohemian foot followed soon after, while the Hungarians fled, some dismounting in order to escape through the vineyards covering the way to Prague. Despite claims of their being spooked by Domenico’s sudden appearance through the smoke, the panic stemmed from reports that Bucquoy’s Polish Cossacks had ridden round the south-west end of the ridge and were already at the rear. Schlick’s Moravians on the right lasted longer, largely because of the time it took Tilly to reach them, but they too gave way around 1.30 p.m. A few survivors resisted for another half hour in the Star Palace before surrendering.
Frederick stayed in Prague all day and was tucking into lunch when the first fugitives arrived. Many drowned in the Moldau in their desperation to escape. The imperial-Bavarian army lost 650 killed and wounded, mostly to young Anhalt’s brave attack. The Confederates left 600 dead on the field, with a further 1,000 strewn on the way to Prague, as well as 1,200 wounded. The losses were severe, but most had escaped. Prague was a large, fortified city and it was unlikely the enemy could besiege it with winter approaching. It was here that Tilly’s strategy of relentless pressure paid dividends, transforming a respectable battlefield success into a decisive victory. Already weakened by Tilly’s vigorous campaign, Confederate morale collapsed. Even Maximilian was surprised at the extent of the enemy’s demoralization, expecting defiance when he summoned Prague to surrender. Confederate leadership was utterly pathetic. Tschernembl and Thurn’s son, Franz, tried to organize a defence on the Charles Bridge to stop the Bavarians crossing the river. Frederick hesitated, but Anhalt and the elder Thurn thought the situation hopeless. Queen Elizabeth, heavily pregnant with her fifth child, left early the next morning. Her husband feared angry citizens might prevent him escaping if he took the crown with him, so he left it behind, along with his other insignia and numerous confidential documents, and joined the refugees streaming eastwards out of the city.
Collapse of the Confederation
Imperialists were already entering the western side of the city, catching the tail of the royal baggage train. Many Confederates were still loitering, demanding their back pay, but they dispersed once Maximilian granted them amnesty on 10 November. Those foolish enough to remain were murdered over the next few days. The city was stuffed full of valuables, cattle and other property brought there for safekeeping prior to the battle and now abandoned in the precipitous retreat. Along with empty mansions and houses, it was too tempting for the victorious troops who began seizing what they found in the streets, then breaking into homes, and finally robbing with violence. ‘Those who have nothing, fear for their necks, and all regret not taking up arms and fighting to the last man.’
Under these conditions, further pursuit was impossible. The winter was also exceptionally cold, with even the Bosporus said to have frozen over. Mansfeld still held most of western Bohemia, while Jägerndorf was in Silesia and Bethlen in Hungary. Yet nothing could slow the collapse of Frederick’s regime as moderates distanced themselves from the revolt. The Moravian Estates already paid homage to Ferdinand at the end of December. Frederick fled east over the mountains into Silesia in the middle of November, but was given a frosty welcome by a population angry at his perceived Calvinist extremism. Fearing the Saxons would block his escape to the north, Frederick hurried on down the Oder into Brandenburg in December, leaving the Lusatians and Silesians to surrender to Johann Georg after prolonged negotiations completed in March 1621.
Bethlen had finally renounced his truce with the emperor on 1 September, advancing again with 30,000 horsemen to overrun Upper Hungary and retake Pressburg, where he intended to hold his coronation with the St Stephen’s crown he had captured the year before. Most of the Polish Cossacks arriving during 1620 had been attached to Dampierre’s command and deployed to cover the harvest against Transylvanian raiders. A Liga regiment arrived at the end of September 1620, as well as Croats and the private retainers of Magyar magnates tired of Bethlen’s depredations. The Inner Austrian Estates mobilized 2,500 men, while their Lower Austrian counterparts sent a Protestant regiment that had not joined the Confederate army. Dampierre advanced to disrupt Bethlen’s coronation, and though he was to be killed on 9 October he had managed to burn the Pressburg bridge, denying access to the south side of the Danube. Bethlen sent another 9,000 troops to help Frederick, but these arrived too late for White Mountain and retreated rapidly through Moravia in November.
Though the grand vizier ratified the alliance agreed with Frederick in July, it became clear that the sultan was only using this to pressure Ferdinand to adjust the 1606 truce. News of White Mountain reached Constantinople in January, removing any doubts about the wisdom of avoiding a breach with the emperor. Meanwhile, the Ottoman pasha of Buda seized the Hungarian border town of Waitzen long claimed by his master. This alarmed the Magyar nobility, exposing the consequences of their internecine struggle and Bethlen’s inability to protect them from the Ottomans. The leading families either declared for Ferdinand or at least joined the French ambassador in pressing Bethlen to reopen talks at Hainburg in January 1621.