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

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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

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.

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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