Mercenaries in Bohemia, the Rhineland, the Low Countries, 1618–1625 I

The first stirrings of the conflict that would escalate into the bloody Thirty Years War took place in the kingdom of Bohemia, now the Czech Republic but then a part of the Holy Roman Empire, the conglomeration of electorates, duchies, principalities, counties, lordships, free cities and even free villages that sprawled across the heart of the continent. The power of the emperor was limited by a constitution first established in 1338. In the first place, he was an elected sovereign and in theory, if not always in practice, the title was not an hereditary one. Seven electors chose the emperor: three bishops – of Trier, Cologne and Mainz – along with the King of Bohemia, the Elector of the Rhineland Palatinate, the Elector of Saxony and the Margrave of Brandenburg. The emperor legislated through the Reichstag, whose members comprised three colleges, that of the Electoral Council (the seven electors mentioned above), the Council of Princes and the Council of the Imperial Cities.

This constitutional edifice, with its endless possibilities for intrigue and alliance, was further complicated by the Reformation, when many of the constituent states adopted Protestantism. By 1560, little over forty years after Martin Luther had nailed his call for religious reform to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Europe was split by a doctrinal divide. Spain, most of France, Italy and the Adriatic coast as far as the frontier with the Islamic Ottoman Empire, along with the Spanish Netherlands, the Tyrol and Bavaria, remained loyal to the Catholic Church, as did the Habsburg emperor himself. All of Scandinavia, the Baltic lands, Prussia and the northern German-speaking territories adopted Lutheranism, before some veered again to adhere to the more extreme doctrines of Calvinism. The latter group included Scotland, which became officially Calvinist in 1560. It was not, however, a clean break. Parts of France had significant Calvinist minorities, and Poland, Lithuania, Hungary, Transylvania and various parts of Austria were split between all three sects. In Bohemia and Moravia a fourth denomination, the Hussites, also appeared. In some of the states of the Empire, rulers and ruled now attended different churches.

This was a matter of concern in an age dominated by dynastic politics, with powerful families vying for wealth, territory and power. Despite some features of government – such as elected rulers and parliaments of sorts – that could be seen as embryonic manifestations of the democratic systems of the modern age, Europe was governed essentially by a network of ruling families whose main aim was to nurture their own status and survival. In 1618 in Britain the Stuarts ruled, in France the Bourbons, in Sweden the Vasas, in Denmark the Oldenburgs, and slightly further down the social scale there were such dynasties as the Hohenzollerns in Prussia, the Wettins in the Saxon duchies and the Wittelsbachs in Bavaria and the Rhineland. The Habsburgs were the most powerful of all, ruling Spain and the Empire. In this Europe of pernicious intrigue who married whom could be of the utmost importance.

In 1612 the Stuarts, James VI and I and his queen, Anne of Denmark, entertained in London the young Prince Frederick from the Rhineland Palatinate. The visit coincided with the fatal illness of the eldest Stuart prince, Henry, but arrangements for the marriage between Frederick and Elizabeth Stuart, James’s eldest daughter, went ahead. The queen was initially averse to the match, thinking a Rhineland prince not of a status to merit her daughter’s hand. Frederick was a catch in every other way. A handsome 22-year-old Wittelsbach with winning ways, he had turned his back on the drinking and hunting favoured by his forebears to establish a court in Heidelberg that was a showcase for the lavish styles in art and culture emanating from France. His capital had a theatre, a famous garden, library and university, and it was at the centre of the Lower Palatinate, a spread of territories along the Rhine and the Neckar that were famed as the garden of Germany. The Palatinate lands also included a more rugged but still valuable stretch known as the Upper Palatinate, between Nuremberg, Pilsen and Regensburg, ruled on Frederick’s behalf by Prince Christian von Anhalt-Bernburg. Frederick and Elizabeth married in Whitehall on 14 February 1613; it was a love-match that was to produce thirteen children and the couple would have had a peaceful, contented life, were it not that they allowed themselves to be drawn into events on the other side of the Empire.

On 23 May 1618 an incident in Prague brought to a head long-simmering discontent between the Protestants in Bohemia and their Catholic rulers. The incident is the famous defenestration: two city governors and their secretary were hurled through a window in Hradčany Palace by a mob of rebellious citizens. Attempts to cool the over-heated confrontation and bring revolt to an end failed. As a candidate for the Bohemian throne and as a staunch Calvinist in his personal faith, Frederick supported the Protestant revolt. The Habsburg emperor, Matthias, in his capital of Vienna, sought to restore Catholic rights in this troubled corner of his domain and suppress the unrest, but the rebels, who had already expelled Jesuits and taken control of some towns, rejected the imperial olive branches. Two imperial armies were despatched into Bohemia, one from Flanders with Spanish backing and the second from Vienna. On 9 September they met and turned towards Prague.

The allies of the Protestants were also preparing for war and in September, with the help of the Duke of Savoy, who was no friend of the Habsburgs, Frederick sent an army to Bohemia under the command of Count Ernst von Mansfeld. Born in Luxembourg in 1580 as the illegitimate son of the governor of the Spanish fortress there, Mansfeld was a Catholic who had begun his military career in Habsburg service. ‘Hee did so season his youth with imployment and discipline that hee was able to command his own infirmities and became a master over his owne passions’, wrote one near contemporary of his. Taken prisoner by the Dutch during the fighting with Spain, Mansfeld found his own way to freedom through impressing his captors with his honourable behaviour: he rode to Brussels, then under Spanish control, and, when he found his side had no ransom to pay for him, kept his word to the Prince of Orange and returned to captivity. His freedom was finally granted when he swore not to take up arms against the Dutch again, and he went off to join the service of the Duke of Savoy. He may have willingly joined Frederick’s cause but, as a mercenary, he was using his military skills on behalf of his paymasters, the Protestant Union, an alliance of German Protestant interests. At thirty-eight years old, he was a veteran with a painful sense of the realities; he issued a warning to the Prague Protestants that the course they had embarked on could be wrecked by the unforeseen, no matter how firm their resolution. With 4,000 men, Mansfeld headed east and proceeded to capture a series of imperial garrison towns – ‘nay, he was so powerfull and firtunate . . . that he cleered all the passages into Bohemia, and entred so resolutely into the verie bowells of the Kingdome’, in William Crosse’s dramatic figure of speech – until the Empire retained control of only Pisek, Pilsen, Crumano (now Česky Krumlov) and Budweis (now České Budějovice). Mansfeld realised his guns were too weak to make much impression on Pilsen’s walls but, in a foretaste of later difficulties, Prague dragged its feet in responding to his request for larger ordnance; he had to ride to the capital himself, only to return with two cannon reluctantly provided. They were enough, however, and on 29 November Pilsen fell once the walls were breached. By the end of the year only the towns of Budweis and Crumano remained in the emperor’s hands.

The news of these events naturally was of great concern in the Stuart court in London, although James resorted to a policy of neutrality, refusing at first to send troops to assist his son-in-law but offering his services as a mediator between the rebels and the emperor. A belief in the divine right of kings bolstered strong doubts in James’s mind about the wisdom of having elected monarchs but he still felt for his son-in-law, even when the latter showed an annoying propensity to ignore advice. The Stuart king also wished to remain on good terms with the Spanish Habsburgs, and was dreaming of an alliance with them through marriage, such were the priorities of dynastic politics. Meanwhile, the Duke of Savoy committed more forces to the Bohemian cause and, as expected, the Habsburg rulers of Spain declared for their Austrian cousins.

The Empire began to regain lost ground in February 1619. Soon, however, the Bohemians, under Count Matthias Thurn, struck into Moravia and thrust towards Vienna itself. The ageing Emperor Matthias died in March 1619, setting in motion the electoral machinery of the Empire to choose his successor. His cousin Ferdinand was his heir to Habsburg lands and, although there was no certainty the Imperial crown would also come to him, in August the electors chose him to succeed Matthias. Two days before, the Bohemian rebels had declared the same man no longer their king and had elected Frederick of the Palatinate in his place. Frederick accepted the offer of the Bohemian crown, a position that gave him two votes in the Imperial constitution – as king of Bohemia and as elector of the Palatinate – and thereby threatened the balance of powers in central Europe. Seemingly unfazed by his situation, on 31 October, at the head of a large and splendid retinue, he and Elizabeth completed the journey from Heidelberg with a triumphal entry into Prague. He resisted the attempts by other princes of the Empire to persuade him to relinquish his new crown, and finally Ferdinand issued an ultimatum: resign the Bohemian throne by 1 June 1620 or become a rebel against the Empire. The Bohemian armed forces were now facing difficulties: on 10 June, they had suffered a reverse when Mansfeld was defeated at Zablati, and now, late in 1619, Count Thurn’s advance on Vienna ground to a halt.

There were some Scots in Habsburg service in the Empire, which was now poised to strike back at the rebels. For example, in 1619 Sir Henry Bruce, who had earlier served in the Low Countries and had joined Ferdinand’s court in 1617, had been appointed captain of the garrison in the town of Nikolsburg (now Mikulov) on the Moravian–Austrian border. A Catholic, Bruce’s shift in allegiance may have arisen from a sense of alienation from the resolutely Protestant Dutch, especially as in 1604 he had killed a Captain Hamilton in a duel and in 1607 had had to seek settlement of arrears. He may have been the same Henry Bruce who survived the killing in Gudbrandsdalen in 1612 but this cannot be established. The castle in Nikolsburg was threatened by rebel forces in December 1619 but Bruce managed to hold on for a time, though in the process he earned himself a bad name for his plundering of the nearby town of Breclav and his mistreatment of Jews and Anabaptists. Finally, in January 1620, he surrendered Nikolsburg to the rebels, left for Prague and then travelled to the Netherlands, where he tried to offer his military skills in the service of Elizabeth Stuart, an example of a Scot who was torn between loyalty to his faith and loyalty to a dynasty. There were a considerable number of Irish soldiers in the Habsburg forces and some of them also found their allegiance tested in the same way. A letter from Colonel John Butler, an Irish officer, written over a decade later in 1631 says: ‘I will let you understand whate a scruple I make of late to searve in these wars, for I protest before God, I did not heretofore understand as much as I doe now knowe, that the King of Sweedland is for the recovery of the Palatinate onely and we for the hindering of it, but for my parte I will sooner beg my bred than serve against my sacred King’s sister.’

A war resistant to all the diplomatic efforts to curtail it spread across central Europe during 1620 as the various nations took sides according to where they saw their interests lying, and as men of war turned their eyes towards this potential source of honour and wealth. Early in March a Scot called John Hume, then at Sedan, wrote to the minister of Libberton, near Edinburgh, to say that ‘Thaire is a horse companie gone out of this toune to the King of Boheme.’ Four companies of musketeers under the command of Sir John Seton of Carchunoth (possibly Gargunnock near Stirling) left the Netherlands to make their way to Bohemia. They reached their destination early in May – Seton had to find 200 men to replace losses, probably mostly through desertion, on the way – and were assigned to watch the frontier with Saxony in the Meissen area. Meanwhile, Frederick had sent Sir Andrew Gray to London in February to raise men for his forces. Gray’s background is obscure. He had seen service in Sweden for some years in the regiments commanded by Patrick Ruthven and Sir James Spens before temporarily joining the escort of Elizabeth Stuart to Heidelberg in 1613. As a Catholic and having been imprisoned for alleged involvement in a murder in Sweden, he probably took the opportunity to remain in the service of Frederick and Elizabeth. In London Gray was at first commanded to recruit quietly so as not to alarm the Spanish ambassador – James was still pursuing friendly relations with Habsburg Spain – but this restriction was soon removed and recruitment proceeded apace. On 19 April, the Privy Council in Holyrood ordered criminals to be enlisted, adding on the twenty-eighth that beggars and vagabonds, ‘maisterless men haveand no laughfull trade nor meanis of intertenyment’ should join the colours on possible pain of a whipping or being burnt on the cheek for a first refusal, and hanging for a second. The Privy Council also took the opportunity to rid the country of over a hundred mosstroopers from the reiving clans of the Borders. Some of the recruits soon deserted and were reported to be hiding in Edinburgh, Leith and Canongate. The Privy Council declared them to be ‘feeble and unwor[thie] dastartis, voyde of curage and of all honest and vertuous d[ispo]sitioun’ and gave them a period of grace in which to come back or risk hanging. Gray sailed with 1,500 men from Leith to Hamburg towards the end of May, and a further 1,000 English recruits took ship from the Thames estuary. One of them no doubt was James Nauchtie from Aberdeen, who preferred soldiering to marriage.

Among the officers who sailed from Leith was John Hepburn, the second son of the laird of Athelstaneford in East Lothian. Born in or around 1598, John may have studied at St Leonard’s College in St Andrews, where his name appears in the records for 1615, the same year in which he travelled to France, visiting Paris and Poitiers with a classmate, Robert Monro from Easter Ross. Monro was also to make a name for himself in the European wars, as we shall see, and the coincidence of the two men being friends and then both becoming mercenary commanders suggests the fashion at the time for military pursuits. Unlike Monro, Hepburn came from an old Catholic family and when Sir Andrew Gray set up a recruitment campaign with a camp at Monkrig, not far from Athelstaneford, the fact that Gray was also a Catholic may have added to the allure of the colours.

Gray’s men disembarked on the banks of the Elbe and moved east, reaching Boizenburg on 10 June and Cottbus, close to the present German–Polish frontier, on the 16th, after following a northerly route across Germany to avoid contact with Saxony, whose loyalty to the Protestant cause was not yet clear. An anonymous commentator noted their arrival in July: ‘Colonel Gray is (God be blessed) safely arrived in Lusatia with his Brittans: he hath mustred two thousand foure hundred brave men; they are mightily praysed for their modest behaviour in their passage.’ After some more remarks on how well the soldiers had behaved en route, so much that one begins to suspect propaganda, the writer notes, ‘They are all armed and the King’s Maiestie [Frederick] hath given them leave to rest themselves three weekes and it may be, will let them lie there still upon the Frontiers.’ Gray’s force, and probably also Seton’s and that of Sir Horace Vere, were assigned to Mansfeld’s corps, one of four comprising the Bohemian army. Some of the Scots and English troops from Gray’s Regiment were despatched under the command of John Hepburn to guard Frederick in Prague. In keeping his units together, Mansfeld had had to deal with discontent in the ranks. Pay had not been forthcoming, a perennial problem with mercenary armies, and one not helped when Frederick had hinted that officers were not treating their men fairly by possibly purloining the money sent for them. Mansfeld had to ride to Prague to confront the Bohemian government but came back with only a third of the amount he sought, and that grudgingly given. The commander spent it on treating the sick and wounded and settling debts, tried to get money out of the country landowners around him, and trusted to the good will his men showed to him.

The assembling defenders of Frederick and the Protestant cause were in action very soon in the south of Bohemia. In mid May Seton’s men took Prachatice, and in June the forces of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, which probably included Seton’s contingent, and others fought off an Imperial attack on Vodnany. Early in July they recaptured Tyn on the Vltava River. After this, Mansfeld and Saxe-Weimar separated, with the former moving to Neuhaus (now Jindrichuv Hradec). Towards the end of July 1620, the army of the Catholic League, led by Duke Maximilian of Bavaria and his experienced general, Count Johannes Tserklaes of Tilly, crossed into Austria while Spanish Habsburg forces from Flanders spilled into the Lower Palatinate to occupy Frederick’s home territory. Sections of the Bohemian army fell back before the advance, part of it reaching Neuhaus, at the time held by two companies under Seton, on 21 September. On the following day the combined Imperial forces reached Budweis. Mansfeld took his units, including Gray’s, west to the area around Pilsen, between Prague and Bavaria. Then Pisek fell to the Imperialists and at Nepomuk a few days later Gray and his men came under severe pressure from the vanguard of the enemy. Mansfeld was effectively sidelined in Pilsen, tempted by a call to withdraw from the conflict under terms from Maximilian of Bavaria, a course of action that he finally took after reminding the hapless Frederick in person that his contract had expired and had not been renewed.

The main part of the Bohemian army fell back on Prague. The final battle took place on 8 November on the slopes of the hill called, in Czech, Bila Hora, White Mountain, a few miles south of the capital. Thurn, still in command of the Bohemian forces, began the day with 15,000 men around him in a strong defensive position on the slopes but his troops, predominantly mercenaries, quickly crumbled before the Imperial attack, and a late cavalry charge failed to retrieve an advantage. The Bohemians broke, leaving 2,000 dead and wounded behind them, and the Imperial cause had triumphed. Frederick and Elizabeth fled along snowy back roads from Prague to Breslau (now Wroclaw). Here the heavily pregnant Elizabeth Stuart wrote a quick letter to her father that included a plea to James ‘to protect the king and myself, by sending us succour’. Long before the letter arrived in London she had given birth – to her fifth child, on 25 December – and was moving towards Wolfenbuttel in Brunswick to the safety of relatives. Shortly afterwards, she and Frederick set up a court in exile in the Hague, and became known thereafter as the Winter Queen and King. In 1623 Frederick was stripped of his rights as an elector of the Holy Roman Empire in favour of Maximilian of Bavaria.

At the time of the defeat on Bila Hora, Sir Andrew Gray was with an artillery detachment near the castle of Karlstejn, a towering stronghold on a high ridge some distance south-west of Prague, in the ring of defensive positions around the capital, while Seton’s contingent was still in southern Bohemia. Some of Gray’s officers were taken prisoner at Bila Hora and were later ransomed by him, and he withdrew to Pilsen. On 16 November Mansfeld was formally released from his obligations in Bohemian service – the Bohemian estates promised to forward pay arrears to him. The old warrior rallied his remaining troops and led them west to the Palatinate, ‘never desisting untill he came within the sight of Heydelbergh, where he was no sooner descried from the Watch-towers and his Drummes were heard to beate but immediately the whole Towne shouted for sudden joy.’ Gray withdrew slowly westward, occupying the town of Elbogen (now Loket) and then Falkenau (now Sokolov), where he resisted Imperial assault until a surrender in April, after which he and his surviving men – some three hundred in number – returned to the Rhineland and joined the garrison of the fortress of Frankenthal, now under threat from Imperial forces.

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