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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.

Battle of White Mountain as it was called, was fought on 8 November 1620. An army of 15,000 Bohemians and mercenaries under Christian of Anhalt was defeated by 27,000 men of the combined armies of Ferdinand II, Holy Roman Emperor led by Charles Bonaventure de Longueval, Count of Bucquoy and the German Catholic League under Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly at Bílá Hora (“White Mountain”) near Prague.

The battle marked the end of the Bohemian period of the Thirty Years’ War and decisively influenced the fate of the Czech lands for the next 300 years. Its aftermath drastically changed the religious landscape of the Czech lands after two centuries of Protestant dominance. Roman Catholicism retained majority in the Czech lands until the late 20th century.

Accounting for Failure

The Confederate commanders sought to exonerate themselves in letters sent to Frederick. Thurn echoed the views of Calvinist propagandists, blaming the defeat on the sins of the Bohemian people, comparing their situation to God’s punishment of the Israelites – an argument implying there was still hope since God later delivered them from Egypt. Anhalt was more forthcoming. He cited points raised by others, such as the reluctance of some units to engage, but emphasized the general declining cohesion and growing insubordination. These he blamed on lack of foreign support and the wilful failure of the civil administration to meet the army’s pay arrears, which had climbed to 5.5 million fl. by the time of the battle.

Confederate organization was certainly deficient, and it was not until August 1620 that a war council was established to oversee pay, supplies and fortifications. Poor accounting inflated the total arrears, because few checks were carried out to verify the amounts claimed by the soldiers. However, the defeat was not due to lack of resources. Mansfeld’s men had not been paid for six months when they were defeated at Záblati, yet Bucquoy found 100,000 fl. in gold, along with their general’s own plate worth another 50,000 talers. Bucquoy went on to take castles in south Bohemia, finding further hoards, including 300,000 talers in Frauenberg (Hluboká) alone.

The aspects highlighted by the commanders were symptoms, not causes of the defeat. Failure to mobilize resources indicated the leadership’s incapacity to develop the revolt’s potential. This lay in a common political culture, not religion, language or ethnicity, all of which divided supporters. Protestants formed the majority across Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, Lusatia and Austria, but lacked a common creed. Even where there were strong theological similarities, as between Palatine Calvinists and the Bohemian Brethren, cultural factors could override this as Frederick discovered with his iconoclastic programme in Prague. The Bohemians were largely Czechs, but many of their nobles spoke German. Some families with German names conversely spoke Czech, while the Moravians spoke Czech or Slovak, the Silesians either German or Polish, and the Lusatians either German or Wendish. Leading Habsburg loyalists like Lobkowitz, Martinitz and Slavata were Czech speakers, while other families such as the Waldsteins, Dietrichsteins, Kinskys, Kaunitz, Czernin and Tiefenbachs had members on both sides. There were common myths of origin, with one presenting Poles and Czechs as descendants of two brothers, Lech and Cech. Yet, Pavel Stránsky, who supported the revolt, denied the Czechs of Bohemia and Moravia were of the same nation. In short, there was no match between confession, language and political loyalty, and attempts to portray events as a national movement against German oppression are anachronistic.

What united the Bohemian rebels was their cultural and political identification with the crown of St Wenceslas and what this symbolized. Stránsky and other writers linked nation to Estates’ rights, not language or religion, and it was through this political culture that the Confederates forged alliances with the Austrians, Transylvanians and Upper Hungarians. The Bohemian magnate Vilém Rozemberk considered it entirely appropriate to present himself as a ‘native’ candidate in the Polish royal election of 1573. Though Stránsky was a burgher and while there were also educational and commercial links across the provinces, the common political culture was primarily restricted to the nobility, and therein lay much of the problem.

The Confederates’ slogan of Estates’ rights represented a form of monarchy, not a rejection of kingship. They objected to exclusion from the exercise of royal power, not the presence of a king. The Confederation’s founding diet explicitly rejected Dutch republicanism in 1619, legitimating itself according to existing laws, not new, abstract ideals of liberty or sovereignty of the people. Unlike the Dutch rebels or the English and Scottish parliamentarians, Central European nobles were unable to broaden their movement’s social base. Tschernembl was prepared to abolish serfdom in return for peasant support by 1620, but his colleagues rejected this, preferring an alliance with the sultan instead. Peasant attacks on the invaders were largely self-defence, and they also struck at Confederate troops who, for instance, demolished entire villages in their frantic search for firewood on the eve of White Mountain. The urban burghers were predominantly Utraquists, closer theologically to Catholicism but culturally and politically aligned with the Lutherans and Bohemian Brethren. Already alarmed by the Defenestration, they rapidly lost sympathy with the revolt as the nobles sought to shift the burden of military taxation onto them. The aristocrats also marginalized the poorer knights, many of whom were excusing themselves from the Confederate army by 1619, claiming ill-health.

Personal rivalries undermined solidarity even among the aristocrats, as we have seen. However, the personal character of early modern politics exposed a further weakness. The individual character of vassalage offered people the chance to change sides, seeking a pardon in return for an appropriately humble submission. Ferdinand played on this, carefully selecting those he declared outlaws, leaving the majority free to seek his forgiveness.

Far from being the faith of historical progress, Bohemian Protestantism symbolized a fading version of aristocratic corporatism threatened by the growth of a more centralized state. The Habsburgs’ decision to make Catholicism the touchstone of political loyalty gave centralization a confessional character, though there was nothing specifically ‘Catholic’ about it, as indicated by the reverse pairing of Protestantism with the political establishment in countries like England. The limited opportunities for military and political appointments encouraged Protestants to identify with a romanticized world of paternalist landlords, something that found direct expression through their patronage of parish appointments. They remained linked to territorial and provincial politics through their possession of estates entitling them to seats in the diet. However, power was shifting to the centre with the growth of regular taxation that improved the crown’s ability to reward service with salaries, rather than land grants. These relationships were still early modern, since they were mediated through the ruler’s court rather than an impersonal state; and because they remained personal, cultural capital assumed considerable importance. Like other princes, the Habsburgs stressed emotive concepts like trust, fidelity, prestige and honour, rewarding those who displayed these virtues in their service. This social capital was necessary to take full advantage of economic resources, as exemplified by the numerous landless nobles who remained respected ahead of richer burghers.

The underdeveloped nature of communication heightened the court’s significance as the venue to acquire social and cultural capital. It was the place to meet influential people, and gain experience and the skills required to succeed as a noble. Patronage was inherently unstable, depending on the patron’s continued ability to meet competing aspirations among his clients from limited resources. The Habsburg court grew from six hundred people under Ferdinand I to eight hundred under Rudolf, while the junior branches added perhaps six hundred more places. These were still relatively few compared to the establishment of Elizabeth I in England who had more courtiers than Rudolf, or even Cardinal Richelieu who maintained an entourage of 480. As emperors, the Habsburgs had to cater to additional clientele from the Empire, leaving too few posts for their own nobles. Patronage also represented only a ‘soft’ form of control. It entailed a reciprocity that was not legally enforceable. The patron had no sanction for disloyalty beyond public disgrace and dismissal. Moreover, by shifting bargaining from the constitutional arena of the Estates to the informal world of the court, patronage arguably retarded political development. It proved divisive, as favouritism concentrated rewards for some, fuelling resentment among others.

The situation was exacerbated by the two relatively close imperial successions. Officials still served a monarch, not an impersonal state. There was no job security, as a new ruler was free to dismiss his predecessor’s advisers and appoint his own favourites. This proved particularly divisive in 1619 as Ferdinand brought his existing, exclusively Catholic Inner Austrian clientele into the Habsburg and imperial government, displacing many of the Protestants still in service.

Nobles faced growing competition for land, which led to falling incomes in some cases, and cultural pressures (partly influenced by the court) entailing expensive grand tours for their sons and elaborate new mansions and country houses. The number of Protestant nobles without land in Lower Austria rose from 61 to 117 across 1580–1620. Only 43 of the 334 Protestant nobles had crown appointments by 1620, compared to 72 of the 123 Catholics. Crown appointments employed over half the landless Catholic nobility, giving them a source of income denied their Protestant counterparts. Moreover, state service rather than wealth increasingly determined admission into the nobility, as the Habsburgs ennobled their servants. This, in turn, gave recipients access to more land, as salaries could be invested in land sold by indebted families. From being predominantly smallholders in the later sixteenth century, Catholics emerged as the major Lower Austrian landowners by 1620. Protestants responded by sending their sons to Germany to acquire the university education increasingly required for state employment, but many returned radicalized by the confessional militancy on campus, effectively excluding themselves from the jobs they were seeking.

Confessional differences merely sharpened existing tensions between the horizontal solidarity of kinship and corporate ties among nobles and the vertical relationship between patron and clients. Despite constituting the majority of the nobility in the Habsburg provinces, Protestants failed to form a united front against the dynasty. Of the Lower Austrian Protestants, 77 paid homage to Ferdinand in April 1619, while 121 remained uncommitted and 102 joined the revolt, of whom only 50 actually fought against the crown. The splits across many families may have been due to a deliberate policy of hedging bets, sending sons to serve on both sides while the father or an uncle remained neutral and looked after the property. Nonetheless, the relatively small number of active supporters indicates a high level of distaste for the rebel cause. It was not so much a failure of aristocratic corporatism to defeat monarchical absolutism. Rather, the idealized Protestant version proved less attractive than the alternative, equally corporate identity of a nobility united and rewarded by royal favour.

Other factors played their part. Unlike the Dutch, the Bohemians lacked a natural redoubt into which they could retreat. Failure to take Budweis and Krumau gave the Habsburgs bases across the southern frontier, and once Saxony joined the emperor, the rebels were effectively surrounded. The Bohemians’ failure to achieve any real victories early on deterred others from joining. Nonetheless, England had backed the Dutch in 1585 before it was clear they would defeat Spain. The fact that no foreign power, other than Bethlen, openly supported Frederick indicates attitudes were hardening towards rebels across Europe as a whole. This explains the prominence given to religion in pro-Bohemian propaganda, since it was easier to appeal on this basis than champion them as an alternative, federal system of government.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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