“First came the Greycoats to eat all my swine,
Next came the Bluecoats to make my sons fight,
Next came the Greencoats to make my wife whore,
Next came the Browncoats to burn down my home.
I have naught but my life, now come the Blackcoats to rob me of that.”
—Anonymous Poem from the Thirty Years War
Although fought by many nations, most of the destruction took place within the Holy Roman Empire, a loose concoction of nearly 1,000 semi-independent, small states, in theory controlled from Vienna by the emperor, Ferdinand II, a Hapsburg. The House of Hapsburg then ruled nearly half of modern-day Europe, including Spain and portions of Italy and the Low Countries, i. e., the Netherlands. Ferdinand’s bailiwick among the family holdings covered today’s Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Austria and included part of Hungary, Poland, and the central Balkans. His lands stretched north and south from the Baltic to the Adriatic Seas, east and west from the Carpathian Mountains to the Rhine River.
The spark that set off the conflagration was religion. Christianity, since medieval times a source of unity in western Europe, had been transfigured by the 16th century’s Protestant Reformation into a casus belli between emerging nations. Some within the Holy Roman Empire itself, many Scandinavians, even more English and Scots, and most of the Swiss had converted to Lutheranism or Calvinism or some other Protestant sect, while the Italians, the Spanish, and majority of those in the empire-along with the Hapsburg rulers- remained loyal to the pope in Rome. The new schism cut the old diplomatic ties, and traditional allies such as Spain and England were now at odds over theology. Since religious affinities did not follow territorial boundaries, all the major states found themselves dealing with religious minorities whose first loyalties were to creed, not king.
The Holy Roman Empire had from the beginning been based on a delicate balance between individual principalities and their would-be rulers in Vienna. In 1618, when Ferdinand attempted to reassert his imperial authority over apostate Bohemia by debarring Protestants from public office and shutting down their two major churches, the precarious balance was not so much upset as destroyed. In Prague, the Bohemian capital, an anti-imperial revolt broke out, and-like dominos-not only the German states but neighboring European powers fell into the fighting. At first the alliances were mostly based on religious affiliation, Protestant England, Sweden, Denmark, and the Dutch Republic falling in with Bohemia; Catholic Spain, Poland, and the papal state marching along the imperial front. But the intentions of individual belligerents varied, and sometimes changed moment to moment as events unfurled, between the holy and the profane, the aggressive and defensive, self-assertion and self-preservation. First among the more secular issues was the longing of many German princes and dukes and the rising nation-states butting up against the Holy Roman Empire to counteract and contain the multinational power and the imperial ambitions of the Hapsburg clan.
The long struggle fell roughly into two phases. In the first, local issues dominated, the most heartfelt being religious. After 1635, however, politics, naked and raw, took over, and the goal of the warmongers was nothing less than altering the balance of power in Hapsburg-dominated Europe. By the beginning of the second phase, the war had taken on a momentum all its own. On a continent divided into two camps, diplomacy had become nigh unto impossible-no neutral parties existed to mediate disputes, fighting was the only way to resolve issues, no one had the edge to win the fighting, so the war dragged on and on and on. None of this was helped by the fact that early nation-states collected few taxes and had no base to support standing armies, so rulers hired mercenaries. These soldiers of fortune had begun to appear toward the end of the Middle Ages, when the ancient obligations of feudal vassals to fight for their lords was waning under the impact of the Crusades, which gave the mercenaries combat experience. The profession had grown, and by the 17th century, mercenaries were indispensable to the conduct of war in Europe.
Rulers farmed out the task of recruiting and leading the hireling armies to privately paid generals- ambitious adventurers and unscrupulous entrepreneurs, they were men like Count Peter Ernst von Mansfeld. The bastard son of a minor Catholic prince, Mansfeld began his military career in the Hapsburg army. His illegitimate birth blocked his rise through the ranks, so early on he switched allegiance to the Protestants, leading in the course of the first eight years the troops of Savoy, France, England, and the Netherlands. Some of those hired by Mansfeld and his ilk might once have had religious feelings, but most were no better than their bosses. Many were conscripted, kidnapped more or less, while some joined up to escape the gallows or the harsh poverty the war was fast bringing in its wake. Conditions were filthy, pay uncertain, and death-more by disease than in battle-omnipotent. Mutiny and desertion were, necessarily, savagely punished. Since wages came through regimental commanders, the soldiers’ loyalty lay with them rather than a cause or a king, even when-as routinely happened-the officers skimmed the take from the rulers who hired them.
Often the cash dried up entirely. Princes ran out of money, or lost heart, or disliked the job their hirelings were doing. When the duke of Savoy, for example, cut off Mansfeld’s men, Mansfeld complained that “neither they nor their horses can live on air” and turned them loose on the citizens. Mercenary armies frequently extracted such payment from the common folk, sometimes as taxes, sometimes in free board and lodging, often as simple booty, looting being one of the attractions of a soldier’s life. They traveled about, these armies, with a train of servants, wives, children, prostitutes, freebooters, and traders, wreaking havoc and visiting vicious depredations on villagers, who, often driven to extremes, sometimes struck back. Both villager and mercenary mutilated as well as murdered, and civilians and soldiers alike were drawn into a spiral of violence that was proving nearly impossible to stop. The destruction was so great that even the highborn belligerents had been drained of all desires except a longing for peace.
By then Germany’s population as a whole had fallen by 20 percent, higher in the areas of heaviest fighting. There, up to three-quarters of the people had disappeared from the land as a result of disease, the war, and a mass migration to the cities, where walls and payoffs kept most armies at bay. In Württemberg, a southern duchy much visited by the war, the 450,000 inhabitants living there in 1620 had dwindled to 100,000 by 1639. Germany was not the only country devastated by the three decades of conflict. In Sweden, for example, wholesale conscription had stripped the land of its adult males.
By the 1640s all Europe was in the mood for peace. Achieving it turned out to be harder than hoped, involving something new and cumbersome-an international conference of nation-states. The meetings dragged on for four years and were held simultaneously in two cities. The French and their Roman Catholic allies met with the Hapsburg emperor at Münster in northwest Germany; the Swedes and their Protestant delegates met him 30 miles away at Osnabrück. In the end, all the delegates stuck to the task at hand and produced on October 24, 1648, the Peace of Westphalia.
Starting as an internal dispute within the Holy Roman Empire, the Thirty Years’ War had swelled to involve most of the nations in Europe. The common folk saw it not so much in terms of battles won or territories gained or theologies defined and protected, but as a long orgy of violence, a glimpse of Hell created by men on Earth. The rulers who began and backed the war imagined it had been a means of establishing the status quo in Europe, a status quo that would last for almost a century. Historians came to view the war more broadly as the failure of the Austrian Hapsburgs to sustain the Counter-Reformation. Under the banner of this Counter-Reformation, said these historians, the Hapsburgs had marched all the way to the Baltic to establish their hegemony over the Holy Roman Empire. But in the end, they were thwarted by the jealousy of Catholic Bavaria and, more important, by the powerful and effective military intervention after 1635 of Lutheran Sweden under its warrior-king Gustavus Adolphus. He in turn was supported by money from a Catholic France then dominated by Cardinal Jean Richelieu. Thus was the Thirty Years’ War-and Europe-secularized, as considerations of power and diplomatic advantage superseded religion when first Sweden, then France, decided to crush Hapsburg Germany.
As a result of the war, the Calvinist, or “Reform” Church, now gained status equal to that of Lutheranism, and by and large various territorial rulers in the Holy Roman Empire could establish public worship as they saw fit. Not only did Westphalia make official Germany’s religious disunity, it confirmed as well its political fragmentation by allowing member states to conclude treaties with foreign powers. It would be two centuries before the diverse German states could be welded into a power sufficiently unified to truly threaten again the Continent’s stability.
Left in peace for the time being to rebuild their lives and livelihoods, the war-weary German people did so with surprising speed. By 1700 much of Germany had returned to its prewar housing and population levels, as the Thirty Years’ War became both a memory and a byword for calamity. Some of the emerging nations in Europe fared better than others. Protestant Sweden gained a commanding post on Germany’s Baltic coast, though it was now in no position economically or militarily to exploit the gain. On the other hand, Catholic France got 10 imperial towns in Alsace and three strategic fortresses at Metz, Toul, and Verdun, all of which laid the basis for the emerging French ascendancy in Europe.
With the Peace of Westphalia, the threat of Hapsburg domination had subsided, and it was the turn of others, notably the French, to kindle territorial longings. Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Church’s role of universal mediator in international disputes, long in decline, had been forever diminished, and henceforth it would be the new rulers of nations doing the treaty making and deploying the diplomats.
King James I and Count Peter Ernst von Mansfeld
To spearhead his campaign to recapture the Palatinate, James secured the services of the German mercenary Ernst, count von Mansfeld, who had fought for the Elector Frederick in 1620-2 and thereby gained something of a reputation in England as a Protestant hero. Over the summer of 1624 James negotiated an agreement with Louis XIII of France whereby Louis promised to pay half of Mansfeld’s expenses for six months, allow his troops to land either at Calais or Boulogne, and to provide 3,000 cavalry which would be waiting in northern France. The alliance was to be cemented by the marriage of Prince Charles to Louis’s sister Henrietta Maria (whom Charles had met on his way back from Spain the previous year), although Louis held out for religious concessions just as sweeping as those previously demanded by Spain. Under the terms of the marriage treaty, eventually signed at Paris on 10 November 1624 and ratified by James and Charles at Cambridge two days later, Louis was to pay a dowry of £120,000 (in two instalments), while James publicly agreed to allow Henrietta Maria complete freedom of worship, to have twenty-eight religious attendants who would be allowed to wear their habits in public, and also to have the care of the education of any children of the marriage until they reached the age of thirteen. At the same time, James and Charles signed a private engagement-Ecrit Particulier- to release all Catholics imprisoned for their religion and to allow English Catholics to practice their religion in peace. In January 1625 James further agreed to lend Louis XIII seven ships to help put down the rebellion of the prominent Huguenot nobleman the duke of Soubise-a rebellion which initially had been condemned by other French Huguenots.
Mansfeld came to England in early November to raise troops for the joint Anglo-French venture to recapture the Palatinate: 12,000 men were to be recruited in England (mostly by impressment), 10,000 in Scotland, with the earl of Lincoln commanding an additional contingent of cavalry. The venture proved ill-fated from the start. With the parliamentary subsidies yet to come in, there was not enough money to pay or feed the men properly, and the raw recruits-many of whom did not want to serve in the first place-grew disorderly. They `spoyled’ the countryside around Dover `as yf yt had been in an enemie’s countrie’; many tried to desert; others mutinied; while Mansfeld was so concerned that it was said he `durst not shew himself among them’. Furthermore, James and Louis had different war aims. James was desperate to avoid an open breach with Spain, and so wanted the troops sent directly to the Palatinate; in theory, any Spanish forces that occupied any of Frederick’s territories were acting under direction of the Holy Roman Emperor. Louis, by contrast, wanted them to be sent to relieve Breda in the Netherlands, which had been under siege by Spanish forces since August 1624; however, this would involve England intervening on the side of the Dutch in their war of independence against Spain. James objected and instructed Mansfeld to go directly to the Palatinate without passing through any Spanish territory (which would involve a lengthy detour along the French border towards Lorraine, to avoid the Spanish Netherlands); Louis, unhappy at the prospect of having Mansfeld’s untrained and ill-disciplined troops marching through north-eastern France, refused to let Mansfeld’s army land at Calais. So at the end of January, during the heart of what was an extremely cold winter, the transport ships carrying the men headed off towards the coast of Holland and Zeeland, where the Dutch-whom Buckingham had failed to notify in advance-were totally unprepared to feed them. The results were predictable. Thousands of men died of malnutrition, exposure, and disease. Of those who survived, many deserted. Mansfeld decided to head to Breda, although at first his English colonels, reluctant to disobey their sovereign, refused to join him. It was not until the spring, after James had passed away, that Charles gave Mansfeld permission to take his English troops to relieve Breda. Of the original 12,000 enlisted Englishmen, he now had at most 7,000 men left, of whom half were to die in the next couple of months. When Breda finally surrendered to the Spanish in June, perhaps only 600 Englishmen survived.