Henri-Paul Motte – Le Cardinal de Richelieu au siège de La Rochelle (1881)
Siege of Stralsund (1628)
Siege and capture of Casale Monferrato by French troops, 1630.
The defeated Spanish garrison leaving ‘s-Hertogenbosch, 17 September 1629
by Pauwels van Hillegaert 1635. Oil on Canvas.

In the years 1627–30 military sieges took place hundreds of miles apart and in different theatres of war. At Stralsund (May–Aug. 1628), Casale (spring 1628–March 1629), La Rochelle (Sep. 1627–Oct. 1628), ’s-Hertogenbosch (April–Sep. 1629), Casale again (Sep. 1629–Oct. 1630) and Mantua (Nov. 1629–July 1630), they were part of the attritional war taking place across Europe. Their course was as unpredictable as the political and strategic consequences of their outcomes were imponderable.

By negotiating an end to the siege of Stralsund, Wallenstein wanted to avoid ‘the inevitable bloodbath’ (as he put it) of storming it, damaging relations with Hamburg and Lübeck and compromising imperialist plans. That allowed the city to sign a twenty-year alliance with Gustav Adolf, creating the Swedish bridgehead into North Germany two years later. As Cardinal Richelieu’s siege of La Rochelle ended, the aggrieved lieutenant who had assassinated Charles I’s favourite, the duke of Buckingham, was executed at Tyburn. Owed £80 in back-pay, wounded in the failed English expedition to the Île de Ré to succour French Protestants in 1626, John Felton had carried out the deed in Portsmouth on 23 August 1628, declaring (in a letter sewn into his hat, one version of which read): ‘that man is cowardly base and deserveth not the name of gentleman and soldier that is not willing to sacrifice his life for the honour of his God, his King and his country’. The public outbreak of rejoicing at Buckingham’s death and the distrust which lay behind it wrecked Charles’s hopes of negotiating with the English Parliament of 1628. The Anglo-French war (1627–9), with its two failed attempts to relieve the La Rochelle siege, came ignominiously to a close. England adopted benevolent neutrality in the Thirty Years War – which meant closet support for the Spanish, the last thing Richelieu wanted. The siege equally strained France’s alliance with the Dutch (Treaty of Compiègne, 1624) strengthening fears in the Netherlands that the French were unreliable allies.

The Dutch capture of ’s-Hertogenbosch ended peace-feelers between Spain and the Netherlands. In addition to the fortress, the city was the seat of the bishopric in North Brabant and the gateway to the Maas. The population of mainly Catholic Meierij from the surrounding region were now Dutch. From that moment on (even more so when the Dutch took Maastricht in 1632) the Dutch Republic had a fringe Catholic minority whose religion and interests the Spanish were determined to protect. Madrid argued that the region’s civil jurisdiction still lay in Brussels. Catholic spiritual jurisdiction was not theirs to assign to someone else. And whatever happened to Church property would have to be discussed alongside the ecclesiastical territories in the Reich. The fall of ’s-Hertogenbosch pushed peace further away.

The failed sieges in northern Italy also complicated the European chequerboard. Olivares recognized that Spain’s Mantuan war was a gamble: 1627, he wrote, ‘will decide the fate of this Monarchy’. The emperor had secured North Germany. Spain had seized the offensive in the Netherlands. France was in open war with its Protestants and had made peace with Spain (Treaty of Monzón, 5 March 1626), ending their differences in the Valtelline. By 1630, however, the pieces were stacked against Spain. The withdrawal of troops from General Spínola’s army to northern Italy crippled the anti-Dutch offensive. Dutch capture of the Spanish treasure fleet in 1628 caused fears of another Spanish bankruptcy. Casale and Mantua diverted imperial forces from northern Germany, enabling the Swedes to secure their bridgehead in 1630. The French intervention in northern Italy rendered war between France and both the Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs all but inevitable. Attritional warfare depended for its success on one side acquiring a strategic advantage such that the other would be forced to sue for peace. Its logic, however, was defeated by the war of unintended consequences.

These dominated the period from 1630 to 1648, the year negotiations in Westphalia ended war in Germany and the Netherlands. Sweden’s military intervention with French financial and diplomatic backing in Germany in July 1630 complicated one set of diplomatic, military and political equations. France’s declaration of war on the Spanish Habsburgs in May 1635 – followed by a similar declaration against the Austrian Habsburgs a year later – aggravated another. In Sweden’s case, the issues were how to secure stable allies among North German territories and in Europe at large such that they could impose their will upon the emperor and secure a peace in which the liberties of the empire were restored but Sweden had ‘satisfaction’ for the debts which its intervention generated. France was forced to fight attritional warfare on several fronts at once, making common cause with anti-Habsburg sentiments wherever they surfaced. French diplomats took over from the Swedes the notion of a new international order in which the liberties of individual states in Germany would be preserved by a self-sustaining state system. Cardinal Richelieu’s difficulty (and Mazarin’s after him) was to persuade others that the objective of this new order was not to dismantle Habsburg hegemony and replace it with a French one.

A decade of warfare in central Europe created an army of exiled and dispossessed, mostly Protestants and dispersed in northern Germany, southern Poland and the Netherlands. The reassignment of their assets to others stacked up contrary and disputed interests among various parties. The scale of military operations created armaments, munitions and equipment suppliers with a stake in the continuing conflict. Enterprisers built up regiments of seasoned soldiers with credit- and supply-lines which would all need to be satisfied in any final reckoning. Military machines whose operations depended principally on living off their enemies had the problem of keeping their operations at a scale that was appropriate to the demands of attritional warfare without exceeding the resources to keep them in the field, while guaranteeing that their interests would be met in any final settlement. Military machines whose resource-chains led back to the states in whose name they operated created logistic and fiscal pressures which generated revolt and revolution back home. The costs of war in central Europe kept rising in the 1630s and 40s.

The more complex the political, military and diplomatic equations became, the less the conflicts were about any one issue. The political impasse created by the Edict of Restitution in the empire, the naked pursuit of Habsburg imperial and Spanish interests, then France’s bid for hegemony, and the accumulating material destruction, all gave the lie to its being about the survival of Christendom. Spanish commentators openly despised France for its cynicism. The French king was in the clutches of wicked cardinals who wanted to ally him with the Ottomans, the Dutch, the Swiss, ‘the enemies of Faith, of Christian people, of kings and the Catholic Church’. Its mooted new international order ignored the significance of the ‘German nation’ and masked French expansionism. When, after 1640, France supported the Catalan and Portuguese rebellions, the propagandist Francesco Quevedo lamented that France was waging unjust war ‘on the whole of Christendom … by sowing discord’. Philip IV declared Mazarin to be the ‘author of the calamities of Christendom’.

A confessional outlook resurfaced in the international politics of the 1620s but it did not last. By the 1630s it was difficult to interpret the conflicts as between two versions of Christianity. The divisions among Protestants were clear, many Lutherans being just as suspicious of Calvinist activists as they were of more interventionist Catholics. The emperor had relied on the neutrality (even active support) of Protestant princes such as the Landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt, the Elector of Brandenburg and the Elector of Saxony. Equally, not all Catholics were committed to a struggle against Protestantism. Duke Maximilian of Bavaria pursued his own dynastic and territorial imperatives, which converged in the 1620s with the emperor’s, only to diverge again in the 40s. The Jesuits, whom Protestant propaganda epitomized as a secret but united force working for their overthrow, were as divided as the world they ministered to.

The successors to the princely confessors in Munich and Vienna who advised Emperor Ferdinand and Duke Maximilian (Wilhelm Lamormaini and Adam Contzen respectively) advocated accommodation with the Protestants and the abandonment of any sense of providential destiny. Even Emperor Ferdinand II (whose letters sometimes imply that he was fighting a Crusade in the empire) urged his Generalissimo Wallenstein to use the ‘pretext of religion’ (praetextum der Religion) in his public pronouncements just as his enemies did. In 1632, Axel Oxenstierna reminded the Swedish Council of State that their involvement in the war had been ‘not so much a matter of religion, but rather of saving the public state [status publicus] wherein religion is also comprehended’. Jesuits Johannes Gans in Vienna and Johannes Vervaux in Munich had, along with their Superior General, Muzio Vitelleschi, learned the lessons of what happened when the order became too closely identified with a particular prince’s policies, or critical of them. Jean Suffren and Nicolas Caussin, Jesuits in Paris, were left in no doubt by Richelieu that they were there to support the policies of the government, while Olivares’s confessor (Francisco Aguado) regarded Spain’s war as a spiritual test in which French Catholics were as much the tempters as Dutch Protestants. The military machines on both sides were sustained by credit- and supply-lines that crossed religious boundaries. Religion had become a reason of state, used in public declarations, emphasized in propaganda, legitimizing conflict but increasingly problematic.

The international political equations as well as the complex interests of the parties made it more difficult to imagine how peace was going to be negotiated, and in what forum. Christendom’s international order no longer existed. The mediation of the papacy was rejected by the Dutch and other Protestant powers. The Reich’s Diet was in desuetude along with its other institutions. The emperor was disinclined to bring the parties of the empire together. At the Regensburg assembly of Catholic Electors in June 1630, the first item on the agenda was ‘general peace’ but it was never discussed. In 1632, Antoine Wolfath, bishop of Vienna and imperial councillor, suggested that all Catholic states send delegates to a congress to be convened in a neutral town. The emperor was lukewarm, preferring to pursue the option of separate ‘compositions’ with individual powers in the empire. In the early months of 1635, Richelieu announced Louis XIII’s intention of appointing French envoys for the negotiations so long as Philip IV participated too. But France’s declaration of war on Spain was only months away and the proposal made no headway. In 1636, the papacy offered to mediate between the parties in Cologne but it never happened. The strategic calculations led each side to think they could gain more from continuing the war.

Only when the balance changed and when the internal pressures created by attritional warfare became too strong to be ignored, did imperial, Swedish and French diplomats agree on the framework of a peace conference. The Treaty of Hamburg of December 1641 laid down its parameters. It was to be held in Catholic Münster and denominationally mixed Osnabrück, with the papacy and Venice providing the convenors. The two cities and their connecting roads were to be made neutral – both being formally exempt from their oath of allegiance to the emperor for the duration of the talks. Food supplies were protected, security arrangements put in place and the imperial postal service extended to cover both locations. Everyone understood that it would be a long process, and it was. Almost seven years later, the Peace of Westphalia was signed in September 1648.


In 1641, the Bohemian engraver Wenceslaus Hollar illustrated the broadsheet entitled The World is Ruled & Governed by Opinion. He depicted a conversation between ‘Opinion’ (a fickle woman, seated in a tree with a tower of Babel on her head and a globe in her lap) and ‘Viator’, a cavalier. A travelling jester pours ink on the roots of the tree, which is ripe with broadsheets that fall like leaves all around. It was a satire on the destabilizing impact of news-sheets and pamphlets in the febrile atmosphere of the eve of the English Civil War, when the Stationers’ Company monopoly and royal oversight of publications were breaking down. Newsprint magnified, polarized and distorted Europe’s conflicts. One of the reasons why it was harder to disentangle the motives and achievements of those involved was because they were obliged to engage in wars of words as well as weapons, opening up the gap between what it was expedient to present as motives for actions and the underlying reality. Blaise Pascal, whose anti-Jesuit controversy made him an aficionado of polemic, had an answer to Hollar’s work: ‘Power,’ he wrote in his Pensées, ‘rules the world, not opinion, but it is opinion that exploits power.’

That exploitation was augmented by the appearance of regular printed gazettes in the early seventeenth century. They already existed in Strasbourg, Frankfurt and several other cities by 1618. The Thirty Years War expanded their circulation so that, by 1648, there were thirty weekly papers in Europe with an estimated overall distribution of 15,000 copies. They mostly consisted of digests of diplomatic, military and political events, filtering out the strange portents and prodigies which were the pamphleteers’ stock-in-trade. Newspapers sold on their capacity to provide up-to-the-minute news across a European spectrum to a reading public who needed to make sense of complex events occurring around them. Generals supplemented their own private sources of information with what the gazettes told them. Ambassadors compiled digests of what they reported. The more newspapers spread, the more they syndicated the information which they published, enabling their coverage to be greater. Contemporaries were able to understand events in a broader context. War was at large in the newspapers; so too was the emerging sense of a general European paroxysm in the 1640s as the news of uprisings and rebellions filled their columns.

It was impossible to distinguish, however, between gazettes and other ‘libels’ and ‘pamphlets’. Newspapers were complemented by newsletters, the latter often produced by the same editors. Zeitung, Aviso and Relation were titles indicating the nature of a publication without distinguishing it from regular newspapers. The Theatrum Europaeum, produced by the Strasbourg publisher Johann Philipp Abelin for the first time in 1633 published an overview of events which went back to the Edict of Restitution of 1629. A news encyclopaedia, it was marketed on a subscription basis with engravings by Matthäus Merian. The events of the Thirty Years War created endless possibilities for traditional pamphleteers. Nobles lost their heads and their lands. Heroes were defeated. The unexpected occurred. Armies devastated territories and cities were destroyed. All this was saleable news and, with a crisis in the scholarly market, pamphlets provided complementary publishing opportunities which merged with the demands for political propaganda. Over 200 pamphlets describing the sack of Magdeburg in 1631 inscribed it in collective memory. At their most effective, pamphlet broadsheets contributed to the war-effort by undermining the credibility of an opponent. Advisers and generals (Spínola, Wallenstein and others) were the targets of criticism, not the rulers themselves – the vilification of Frederick V, once he had been expelled from the Palatinate and no longer a prince, being the exception which proved the rule.

As Pascal implied, those in power exploited the press. Rulers swallowed their distaste at placing the secrets of state at the disposal of a wider public while their opponents lost no opportunity to publicize their own declarations. The Bohemian Confederate Apologia was printed and circulated to an international audience in 1618. Gustav Adolf’s 1630 Manifesto appeared in twenty-three editions in five languages. Marie de Médicis had a devoted retinue of publicists to advertise her grievances against her son Louis XIII. She put them to work especially after the ‘Day of Dupes’ (November 1630) when, attempting to reassert her authority over her son, she demanded (and believed for twenty-four hours that she had achieved) Cardinal Richelieu’s disgrace. Aristocrats and princes of the blood (among them Montmorency and Gaston d’Orléans) made sure that their reasons for revolting against Richelieu’s regime were well advertised, just as Richelieu himself employed talented publicists to articulate the reasons of state justifying his ministry. Théophraste Renaudot, who owed his monopoly on newspaper production in Paris to the cardinal, proclaimed the Gazette de France an independent voice. In reality, materials from the cardinal and the king himself appeared in its pages. The Gazette became essential reading to members of literary salons. Provincial nobles scanned its pages to find the regiments of their offspring mentioned in its pages. By the end of the Thirty Years War, newspapers had an established place in public life. Twenty-two thousand titles of printed sermons, pamphlets and newspaper issues survive from England for the period of the Civil Wars, 5,000 ‘Mazarinades’ from the Frondes (1648–52), each side using the press as an instrument not of opinion but of action.

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