Ernst von Mansfeld

Count Ernst von Mansfeld (1580-1626), a German military commander, was the most famous mercenary leader of the early period of the Thirty Years’ War. In Mansfeld’s case the lack of an inheritance likewise led him into a career as a soldier of fortune, and although he was brought up a Catholic and first enlisted with the emperor he then went over to the Protestant Union, before going on to serve in turn the Catholic duke of Savoy, the Protestant Bohemians, the Calvinist Friedrich of the Palatinate, and the Lutheran Christian IV of Denmark.

Mansfeld has become notorious as the archetypal Thirty Years War mercenary general with an army for hire to the highest bidder, but while he switched employers several times he nevertheless fought consistently on the anti-Habsburg side, despite being born and brought up as a Catholic. His father was governor of the Habsburg province of Luxembourg for almost fifty years, and in his sixties and long a widower he formed a relationship with a woman of lower rank, but although they did not marry their three children were later legitimised on royal authority. Ernst, the eldest, became the heir after the death of his much older half-brother, but his father’s estate was heavily indebted and when he died in 1604 it fell to the Spanish crown, which because of one of its periodic bankruptcies also failed to make the expected provision for Ernst and his siblings. By then Mansfeld had already served eight years in the Imperial army in Hungary during the Long Turkish War, having started at barely fifteen, but the loss of his inheritance and his subsequent inability to find preferment in the Netherlands embittered him and began the process of turning him from an adherent of the Habsburgs into an enemy.

Peace with the Turks and the truce in the Netherlands left him without military employment, so that he was glad to enlist with Archduke Leopold at the beginning of the Cleves-Jülich conflict in 1609, but he was soon captured and held prisoner. Unable to raise the ransom demanded, and with the Habsburg side unwilling to pay it, he eventually changed sides and took service as a colonel with the Protestant Union’s general, Margrave Joachim Ernst of Ansbach. In 1616 the Union allowed Mansfeld to recruit a force of some 4000 men for the duke of Savoy, who with French and Venetian support was engaged in a war with Spain over the succession to the neighbouring Italian duchy of Montferrat, and he continued to serve the duke until the final Spanish withdrawal in June 1618. He and his men were then despatched to Bohemia, where he was engaged by the Estates with a rank equivalent to major-general. Mansfeld’s army arrived at a vital moment, but it was not large, and moreover Mansfeld was notoriously inclined to pursue his own strategy, usually one of limiting his risk, rather than following the orders of his employers.

At that time, governments did not have the money or the administrative skills necessary to pursue their military ambitions. As a result, they often hired, on a contract basis, successful men who were able to undertake such difficult tasks for them as levying taxes; transferring money from one city or country to another; leading overseas expeditions; conducting maritime warfare; or – as military entrepreneurs, (i. e., as mercenary captains)- recruiting, organizing, training, commanding armies, and putting down local rebellions,. These men were very good at what they did but they were also very expensive. More than 300 of them were active in Germany alone during the Thirty Years’ War.

Mansfeld arrived in Bohemia in 1618 just in time to prevent the Imperialists from making a determined advance on Prague, following which both sides preferred to spend the autumn manoeuvring, skirmishing and ravaging the countryside rather than risk a major battle. In this Thurn fared rather better than the Imperialists, while Mansfeld besieged Pilsen, which he captured in late November after a seven-week siege, a feat for which he was promptly placed under the Imperial ban by Emperor Matthias. This marked the end of the campaigning season, leaving the troops to find their winter quarters and the governments to pursue the conflict through diplomacy and propaganda until military action could be resumed in the spring.

In the spring of 1619 Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II was almost equally isolated militarily, while the forces he had put into the field with Spanish assistance the previous autumn had fared badly. Thurn, following on from his bloodless triumph in Moravia, took advantage of the situation to march into Austria, and by May he had the capital itself under siege. In early June there was a change of fortune. Some 7000 Spanish troops were making their way from Flanders to join the Imperialists in Bohemia, but when Mansfeld tried to intercept them he was himself caught by Bucquoy, who defeated him heavily near the town of Zablati. This was the first significant Imperialist victory and one which immediately caused the Bohemian directorate to recall Thurn, so that the siege of Vienna was lifted.

Mansfeld retreated to Pilsen which he had first taken it in November 1618 and had retreated there again after his defeat at Zablati in June 1619. As an outsider with a Catholic background Mansfeld had been at odds with the Bohemian generals almost from the outset, while he and they alike resented the overall command being given to Anhalt, so that he had increasingly behaved as a independent condottiere in the south west of Bohemia. Nevertheless he took an active part in Anhalt’s campaign during the summer of 1620 before being sent back to Bohemia in September, where he had re-established himself in Pilsen. The Bohemians had not paid him, so that his men too were unpaid, and when the League army arrived outside the city in October he was ready to negotiate, particularly as his Bohemian service contract was due to expire shortly, and he in fact received his discharge from Friedrich at the end of that month. For Maximilian of Bavaria time was shorter than money by this stage, and as the city was well fortified a siege would probably have taken weeks, so he met Mansfeld’s price for a truce which enabled him to march on.

Meanwhile with the truce coming to an end it was in the Dutch interest for Spanish forces to remain embroiled in Germany, so in February 1621 Friedrich was able to beg and borrow enough money to re-engage Mansfeld, then still securely fortified with his men in Pilsen. Although he had long been unpaid and had been inactive during the last stage of the revolt, the general had earlier managed to acquire many of the Palatine and privately recruited troop units which had made their way to Bohemia from the west, so that by this time he had a considerable army, which he had also protected from attack after the defeat of the revolt by agreeing a six-week truce with Tilly in January. He was able to supplement his numbers further by recruiting men from the remnants of the Bohemian army, and after he was forced out of Pilsen at the end of March he broke through into the Upper Palatinate in May, where he was followed and confronted by Imperialist units and part of the League army under Tilly’s command. Both sides were cautious, digging themselves into fortified positions and skirmishing for the next four months while Maximilian delayed, seeking to increase the pressure on Ferdinand as they haggled over Friedrich’s property. When the duke finally sent reinforcements in mid-September the resourceful Mansfeld, better at tactics than pitched battles, slipped away with his army under cover of darkness to begin a forced march across Germany, reaching the Rhine and the Lower Palatinate two weeks later, although he lost many men on the way. This was a military failure for Tilly, but it was a political success for Maximilian, who thus occupied the Upper Palatinate and secured control of one part of Friedrich’s territories.

On the other hand the episode also delayed Maximilian’s intended seizure of the part of the Lower Palatinate east of the Rhine, where he planned to forestall any possible Spanish move to extend their area of control. Tilly’s army too now hurried westwards, ostensibly pursuing Mansfeld, who moved on into Alsace, but actually aiming at the Palatinate. By then it was late in the year, and the armies were severely depleted by campaigning, epidemics and desertion, so that although Tilly occupied much of the territory he was unable to take the principal fortified cities of Heidelberg and Mannheim, while across the Rhine the fortress of Frankenthal continued to hold out as the last point of resistance to the Spanish occupiers. Thus the conquest of the Palatinate could not be completed in 1621, and there was scope for new contenders to take the field when campaigning resumed in the spring of 1622.

Ernst von Mansfeld helped Frederick V, who was King of Bohemia from 1619 to 1620, by defending the Upper and Rhine Palatinate, a historic state of the Holy Roman Empire. Because of his close ties with Frederick, who provided the cash and troops, Mansfield had 15,000 to 20,000 men under his command. He was an excellent organizer, thanks in large part to his network of experienced recruiting officers. Although he was a good strategist and a fine tactician, he was also quite ruthless and was willing to risk his men’s lives. If defeated, he would sometimes retreat so quickly that his own forces would disintegrate. This made him rather expensive to employ because new forces would then have to be recruited in the wake of his retreat.

Had Mansfeld, Christian of Brunswick and Georg of Baden-Durlach been able to bring their armies together, had the quality and equipment of their forces matched their numbers, and had they been well commanded, they might have been more than a match for Tilly’s League army, but none of these requirements was met. Mansfeld was a better recruiter and organiser than a field commander, Christian, although well provided with native wit and raw courage, was a young romantic rather than a trained officer, and Georg had studied military theory but had no practical experience. Tilly, on the other hand, was the ultimate professional and one of the most successful generals of the age, his army was well equipped, and it had a battle-hardened core from the Bohemian campaign. Christian’s army was in northern Germany while Georg of Baden-Durlach and Mansfeld were in the south, although separately, and it was evident to Tilly that he had to find, fight and defeat them individually before they could join up against him.

Encouraged by the emergence of his new supporters, Friedrich himself accompanied Mansfeld, who moved his army west into the Palatinate early in 1622, crossing the Rhine and encountering Tilly with a smaller force but in a strong defensive position at Wiesloch, ten miles south of Heidelberg. Mansfeld withdrew, hoping that Georg of Baden-Durlach would soon join him, but Tilly followed, attacking from the rear on 27 April as Mansfeld’s troops crossed a small river. The subsequent fighting was indecisive, although the League army suffered considerable losses, while Tilly himself was wounded and narrowly escaped capture. Both sides then retired to a safe distance, where Tilly was reinforced by Cordoba but his opponents’ strength was increased much more by the arrival of Georg and his Baden army. The Palatine side then unwisely sacrificed their numerical superiority as Mansfeld split off to besiege a small Spanish-held town, giving Tilly the chance to attack Georg at Wimpfen, near Heilbronn, on 6 May. The resulting battle was fiercely fought and long drawn out, but the outcome was a decisive victory for Tilly, while the Baden army was virtually destroyed, and little more than a quarter of the men eventually rejoined Mansfeld.

Meanwhile Christian of Brunswick had been making his way south slowly, experiencing some difficulty in crossing hostile territory. Tilly took the opportunity to concentrate all his available forces into one of the largest armies which had so far been involved, so that even though Mansfeld despatched a sizeable part of his own force to join Christian the latter was outnumbered by around two to one. Tilly caught up with him at Höchst, just west of Frankfurt am Main, attacking him at another river crossing on 20 June and putting his army to flight with heavy losses. Christian managed to join up with Mansfeld’s main force, and together they escaped Tilly’s pursuit, although with further losses, and after re-grouping they headed north east, aiming to reach Dutch territory. Cordoba intercepted them near Namur in late August, leading to another battle at Fleurus, but eventually Mansfeld and Christian succeeded in breaking away, claiming victory despite yet further losses of men and equipment, so that it was with a very much reduced and battle-scarred force that they eventually reached their destination.

Both generals had in fact already been dismissed by Friedrich, ‘Winter King’ of Bohemia a move intended as a conciliatory gesture towards his opponents and a response to the urgings of his father-in-law James I, as the defeats of the summer had undermined his resolution and he was for the first time prepared to consider negotiation. Georg of Baden-Durlach, even more disillusioned, had discharged the remains of his army in late June and petitioned the emperor for a pardon. The conquest of the Palatinate was completed in the following months, when Tilly finally captured Heidelberg in September and Mannheim surrendered at the beginning of November. The fortress of Frankenthal held out over the winter, but it too was surrendered by its mainly English defenders in March 1623, on the orders of James I, who hoped that this would assist peace negotiations.

In the event little progress was made in agreeing peace terms, and in the meantime Friedrich recovered his determination to continue the struggle. Mansfeld and Christian of Brunswick entered Dutch service briefly in the autumn of 1622, and they were able to rebuild and reequip their forces over the winter. Hence they intended to take part in the joint campaign with Bethlen Gabor in 1623 mentioned above, but once again the two generals failed to unite their armies, and Tilly intercepted Christian in north Germany before the march eastwards began. Christian attempted to retreat back towards Holland, but eventually Tilly forced him to battle at Stadtlohn, on the border west of Münster, effectively destroying his army on 6 August although Christian himself escaped. Maximilian refused to allow a pursuit into Dutch territory, as the League was as anxious to avoid entanglement in the war in the Netherlands as the Spanish and the Dutch were to limit their involvement in Germany.

After defeating Christian of Brunswick at the battle of Stadtlohn in August 1623 Tilly had moved his army back into Westphalia and encamped it on the borders of the Lower Saxon Circle, where he rebuilt its strength while he kept watch on Mansfeld in Ostfriesland, and although Mansfeld dispersed his force and slipped away early in 1624 Tilly stayed put. There were of course good reasons for this. Mansfeld had fled into Holland once before, only to re-emerge six months later with a substantial reconstituted army, and he might have done so again.

During this campaign Mansfeld had remained on the defensive in a strong position in Ostfriesland, on the Dutch border in north-west Germany. Tilly did not have sufficient resources to mount an attack after his own losses over the summer, so instead the two armies settled into winter quarters in the region, but in January 1624 the local Estates, anxious to be rid of the troops, offered Mansfeld enough money to pay off his men, most of whom promptly re-enlisted with the Dutch.

Mansfeld himself slipped away too, but before the year was out he had recruited a new army with James I of England’s money, for service in the next phase of the war.

Like other mercenary captains, Mansfeld had his share of military successes and of military failures, but unlike the vast majority of other captains he also understood the propaganda value of the written word. At his direction, for example, in 1622 his administrative staff produced a wide-ranging “apologia”-that is, a formal defense of his opinions, positions, or actions-which was designed to uphold his reputation and to impress prospective employers with his military expertise and knowledge. In the words of the modern Dutch scholar Aart Brouwer (with light editing), the essence of Mansfeld’s apologia is as follows:

The tone of the apologia is that of a soldier, a cool professional who speaks in a succinct manner and with a degree of sarcasm, even of a superficial rationality, about battles past and his own and often bloody part in them. What is most remarkable about the apologia is Mansfeld’s cynical but pragmatic view of mercenary soldiers, whose loyalty, he says, depends solely on regular payments. As soon as these are withheld, they will “take their income where they find it, and once the doors have been opened they will run on and on at the same level of lawlessness. The Germans, Dutch, French, Italians and Hungarians each add their own national vices and mis chief to the mix, so that there is no form or shape of fraud or ruse which they will not practice.”

The Dutch hired Mansfeld in 1622 because Spain was preparing to attack the strategically-important Dutch town of Bergen-op-Zoom and they needed his expertise. To get to Bergen-op-Zoom, however, Mansfeld and his men had to march through Lorraine and Habsburg territory-while being pursued by the army of the Spanish general Cordoba. When Mansfeld reached the town of Fleurus in the Spanish Netherlands (present-day Belgium), he found to his great surprise that Corboda had got there first by marching through Luxembourg and the Ardennes.

The resulting battle of Fleurus seems to have been something of a draw. On the one hand, Cordoba claimed victory and sent a set of captured Mansfeld colors, e. g., battle flags, to the Infanta Isabella in Brussels. (Infanta Isabella of Spain was, together with her husband Albert of Austria, the joint sovereign of the Spanish holdings in the Low Countries and in the north of France.) On the other hand, much of Mansfeld’s ragtag mercenary army, with only two field guns, had managed to push the veteran Spanish troops aside and to force its way into the Netherlands, where it regrouped and fought on. The Dutch appreciated what Mansfeld had accomplished but, on balance, they considered his troops to be goet volck maer buyten discipline (“good people but without discipline”) and ordered him to seek quarters outside their own country.

BATTLE OF DESSAU, 1626. Albrecht von Wallenstein’s victory of the Protestant forces under Count Peter Ernst von Mansfeld at Dessau, Germany, in 1626. Contemporary broadside.

About 1624 he paid three visits to London, where he was hailed as a hero by the populace, and at least one to Paris. James I, being the father-in-law of Frederick V, Elector Palatine, was anxious to furnish him with men and money for the recovery of the Palatinate, but it was not until January 1625 that Mansfeld and his army of “raw and poor rascals” sailed from Dover to the Netherlands before failing to relieve the siege of Breda. Later in the year, the Thirty Years’ War having been renewed under the leadership of Christian IV of Denmark, he re-entered Germany to take part therein. But on 25 April 1626 Wallenstein inflicted a severe defeat upon him at the bridge of Dessau. Mansfeld, however, quickly raised another army, with which he intended to attack the hereditary lands of the house of Austria, and pursued by Wallenstein he pressed forward towards Hungary, where he hoped to accomplish his purpose by the aid of Bethlen Gabor, prince of Transylvania. But when Bethlen changed his policy and made peace with the emperor, Mansfeld was compelled to disband his troops. He set out for Venice, but when he reached Rakowitza near Sarajevo, in Bosnia, he was taken ill, and here he died on 29 November 1626, probably from a hemorrhage. He was buried at Split.

Wild rumors immediately spread upon his death, e. g., that he had died standing up in full armor with his sword drawn; that he had expired in the arms of his most loyal servants; or that he had left behind many valuable hidden treasures. In reality, however, his death was much less romantic and less eventful than his life. According to a modern biographer, Mansfeld had repeatedly broken the law, had used violence and subterfuge to steal the possessions of other people or to destroy their livelihood, and had undermined every kind of moral or worldly authority as he saw fit.

Dessau 1626 by Warlord156

This scenario is based on the Battle of Dessau Bridge. In reality it was a very one-sided affair with the Protestant forces heavily outnumbered and very unwise to launch an attack that ultimately lead to defeat and surrender of large parts of their army. For this scenario however, the armies have been evened up a little so that a more balanced game can be had – but the overall theme of the battle is retained. This battle is a challenge; the imperial position seems to be a strong one, well protected and lots of areas of cover to defend. The protestant’s don’t really have enough troops to directly assault the earthworks and so must try and tempt the imperials out of their positions and hope that their superior artillery will sufficiently weaken the opponent before the tercio’s steamroller their way through to the bridge.

Pike & Shot: Campaigns

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