Battle of Mühlberg (Saxony), (24 April 1547)

Charles V as victor at the battle of Mühlberg, 1547, by Titian. The armour shown in the portrait is preserved in the royal palace in Madrid.

The first battle took place on April 24, 1547, at Mühlberg (near Leipzig). By this time, imperial forces, under Don Fernando Alvarez de Toledo, Duke of Alba (1508-82), were well prepared, whereas the dilatory league had not gathered all of its strength; in fact, it had even lost some forces that defected to the Holy Roman Empire. Thirty-five hundred imperial troops allied with a papal army of 10,000-13,500 troops in all-engaged 9,000 German Protestants under John Frederick (1503-54), elector of Saxony, and Philip (1504-67), landgrave of Hesse. The result was disaster for the forces of the league, which suffered heavy losses, compared to only 50 casualties on the Catholic side. Both Protestant commanders, John Frederick and Philip, were taken prisoner, and the war abruptly ended.


A1: Coselete This veteran pikeman of the Duke of Alba’s army, which has just crossed the Elbe river, wears an open-faced burgonet helmet and half-armour – a Nuremberg cuirass, without tassets (though these may be carried with the baggage train). The Spanish monarchy purchased armour from many sources, and most of the pieces in the Royal Collection in Madrid were made by German craftsmen. The short breeches (in the English term, `upper stocks’) show the influence of the Landsknecht troops alongside whom the Spaniards fought in Charles V’s Imperial army; made in one piece with, or laced to, the hose (`nether stocks’), these are taken from a painting of 1536-44 now in Avila Cathedral. The sword is a typical 16th-century model, with protective `gavilanes’ at the hilt.

A2: Pica seca This young man is on his first campaign, and has only the minimum essentials: his pike, a narrow-brimmed pot helmet, and (hidden here) a sword, which may be an old-fashioned family heirloom. This helmet shape is the true `Spanish morion’. His simple homespun clothes are based on contemporary paintings showing poor men and servants; the short cloak was sometimes hooded. A2a, 2b: Two more examples of contemporary helmets, as widely worn throughout European armies – transitional forms that might equally be termed `cabasset’ or `morion’.

A3: Arquebusier The quality of his clothing shows him to be a man of some substance. He wears one of the styles of bonnet seen in art of the period. His expensive leather jacket, slashed and scalloped, bears a large red Burgundy Cross sewn to the breast as a sign of his nationality. He too wears Germaninspired hose, made in one piece but appearing as `upper’ and `nether stocks’. The powder, priming powder and bullets for his arquebus are carried in a horn, a small flask and a bag. Matchcord might be carried ready for use wrapped around the arm or waist, but since it was hygroscopic it was important to keep spare lengths dry inside the clothes or under the hat. Period illustrations of `snapsacks’ or haversacks are very rare, but the soldiers must have had somewhere to carry food and small effects – particularly the arquebusiers’ bullet-moulds, flint-and-steel and tinder boxes. The artist Vermeyen, who accompanied the 1535 Tunis expedition, shows nearly every pikeman carrying what seems to be a snapsack, but one soldier is clearly drinking from his, so perhaps they are waterskins?

(Weapons and armour: Spanish Army Museum; Wallace Collection; Imperial Arsenal, Vienna. Clothing: La infanteria en torno al siglo del oro, 1993; Conde de Clonard, Album de la infanteria española, 1861; Jan Cornelis Vermeyen, `The Landing at La Goulette’; Cornelis de Holanda, `Pilate Washing his Hands’, Avila Cathedral)

The Treaty of Crépy with France in 1544, followed in 1546 by a long truce with the sultan, left Charles V free to deal with more domestic matters. But his rivals acted first, and in July 1546 they moved against him from two directions. A large army under Philip of Hesse and John Frederic, Elector of Saxony, marched upon Charles from the north, while another approached from the south-west. Charles could well have been in grave peril had it not been for two unexpected factors. First, his enemies preferred to negotiate rather than attack, which gave the emperor ample time to raise troops. Second, and more surprisingly to the Schmalkaldics, one of their most important members, Maurice the Margrave of Misnia, defected to the imperial side. Maurice was Elector John Frederic’s cousin, and so opportunistic was his move that he quickly overran much of the elector’s territory. Unsurprisingly, John Frederic then chose to march north with the bulk of the Protestant army to evict Maurice, leaving Philip of Hesse isolated. Charles V struck eagerly and successfully at this latter, weaker target while his foes were so conveniently divided.

Meanwhile, John Frederic took his revenge on his cousin Maurice the Margrave of Misnia and ejected him from Thuringia. He then added to his triumph by annihilating an army of seven thousand men sent by Charles and put under the command of Albert of Hohenzollern-Kulmbach. Charles, however, advanced at the head of some thirty thousand men to confront him, and as John Frederic only commanded half that number he withdrew across the River Elbe at Mühlberg and broke down its bridge. John Frederic was desperately short of allies because Philip of Hesse had begun futile negotiations with Charles, the evident intention being to save his own domains.

The Schmalkaldic War

The Schmalkaldic War began in 1546. Insisting that he was acting against disobedient vassals, rather than Protestants, Charles used Spanish troops under the Duke of Alba to defeat the leading German Protestant, Elector John Frederick of Saxony, at Mühlberg on 24 April 1547. The Elector was captured, and, two months later, the other Protestant leader in opposition, Philip of Hesse, who had been defeated first, surrendered. Victory in Germany helped Charles strengthen Habsburg authority in Bohemia where some of the nobility had looked to the Schmalkaldic powers who had prepared to invade the kingdom. Charles had been helped by the neutrality of France (a consequence of the secret terms of the Peace of Crépy) and by the support of Protestant princes who hoped to benefit personally: Duke Maurice of Saxony (a different branch of the dynasty) and Margrave Albert Alcibiades of Brandenburg-Kulmbach. The victory reflected the combination of military and political factors characteristic of the conflict in the period, not only of the Wars of Religion, but also of the Italian Wars. Charles exploited his victory to dictate peace terms at the `Armed Diet’ of Augsburg. The Electorate of Saxony was transferred to Maurice in 1550.

Charles V’s defeat of the Schmalkaldic League at the Battle of Mühlberg was both the first major battle fought by Spanish troops in northern Europe and the greatest success for the Habsburg military system after Pavia. It was also a victory that owed as much to political as to military circumstances. A contest between the Emperor and the alliance of Lutheran princes and cities had been in the offing since the creation of the League in 1531, but it was only in 1546 that, having recently made peace with Francis I, Charles decided to resolve the religious division in the Holy Roman Empire by force. He proceeded carefully to win over certain Protestant princes and to obtain assistance from the German Catholics.

In the summer of 1546, while he was assembling his army, the League, led by the Elector John Frederick of Saxony, moved first and opened hostilities on 14 August. Charles’s preparations were not complete, but the League’s attempts to invade the Austrian duchies were thwarted by a skillful defensive campaign conducted by the Duke of Alba along the Danube in the autumn of 1546. At the same time Duke Maurice of Saxony, who had been won over by the Emperor, invaded the Electorate and forced John Frederick to retreat.


By early 1547 Charles had both completed the assembly of an army of 30,000 Spanish, Italian, Netherlandish and German troops and forced a number of League members into neutrality. In April he advanced into Saxony, catching John Frederick, who had remained curiously indecisive during the first months of 1547, with his army dispersed. Having only some 15,000 men with him the Elector was retiring on his capital, Wittenberg, when Charles’s scouts encountered his outposts near Mühlberg on the Elbe.

Charles had collected a sizeable number of boats on his side of the Elbe with which to make a pontoon bridge, but a local peasant, whose farm had been destroyed by the elector’s men during their withdrawal, happily disclosed to Charles’s army the location of a ford. The crossing began on the very dark and foggy morning of 24 April 1547. The river was wide, and thus it was that an astounded Schmalkaldic army suddenly felt bullets whizzing round them. Their experience of firearms was with arquebuses and pistols, which they knew were of too short a range to reach across the Elbe. But the Duke of Alba, Charles V’s general, was employing a new, heavier, long-range version, which was fired from a forked rest and had been given the name of `musket’.

The tough Spanish infantry led the imperial army during its crossing. The musketeers felled the occupants of boats on the far shore and the vessels were then taken by other Spaniards who clambered on board with knives between their teeth. They were followed over the ford by the light cavalry, and then came Charles himself at the head of his reiters, a scene immortalised for ever in a painting by Titian. The vanguard hastily secured the far bank and began to construct the planned bridge of boats to facilitate the progress of the rest of the imperial army.

John Frederic, Elector of Saxony, was taken completely by surprise. His camp lay three miles beyond the river, and he had eaten a leisurely and hearty breakfast before learning of the disaster. Without even considering a counterattack, he gave orders for his army to retreat to the safety of Wittenberg. Once Charles realised what had happened, he sent the Duke of Alba on ahead to harass his opponent’s withdrawal. The Protestant army had gone scarcely three miles when its rear was attacked. Sensing that the heavy reiters would soon be upon him too, John Frederic resolved to stand and fight. This gave Charles the opportunity to draw up his army in battle array, and he wasted no time in sending in squadrons of reiters and other cavalry units against the elector’s more vulnerable mounted men on the wings. On the imperial right, Maurice the Margrave of Misnia used old-fashioned mounted arquebusiers, who softened up the Saxons sufficiently for a triumphant charge. Other imperial mounted troops completed an encirclement by bursting out of cover on the road to Wittenberg. Great was the slaughter. The elector, having defended himself with the sword, was captured and taken before his emperor. He was eventually imprisoned for life, and all his domains, together with the title of Elector of Saxony, went to Maurice the Margrave of Misnia. Thus did the Battle of Mühlberg put an end to the Schmalkaldic League through a combination of cavalry and infantry tactics, old and new. Philip of Hesse, who might have saved John Frederic, paid for his inaction by a similar sentence of imprisonment.


Yet, strange to relate, there was one more act to play: the newly promoted Maurice, Elector of Saxony, reasserted his Protestant sensibilities and made an alliance with France against Emperor Charles V. However, his delusions of grandeur came to an abrupt end at Sievershausen in 1553. The battle included a skirmish between rival squadrons of reiters, and an anonymous bullet from a wheel-lock pistol felled the erstwhile Margrave of Misnia. He died two days later.Charles’s success in reducing the number of his opponents while concentrating his own forces left John Frederick practically isolated. Charles was thus able to deploy a massive numerical superiority at the decisive moment while the bold seizure of the crossing of the Elbe by the Spanish infantry gave him the crucial tactical advantage.

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