Thirty Years' War
The Thirty Years' War was primarily fought in Central Europe between 1618 and 1648. Estimates of the total number of military and civilian deaths which resulted range from 4.5 to 8 million, the vast majority from disease or starvation. In some areas of Germany, it has been suggested up to 60% of the population died.
Until 1938, the war was usually presented as a German conflict; this changed when historian CV Wedgwood argued it formed part of a wider, ongoing European struggle, with the Habsburg-Bourbon conflict at its centre. This is now the generally accepted view, with related conflicts such as the 1568–1648 Eighty Years War, the 1635-59 Franco-Spanish War, and the 1629–31 War of the Mantuan Succession.
The conflict can be split into two main phases. The first, from 1618 to 1634, was primarily a German civil war, during which Emperor Ferdinand II tried to re-assert Habsburg authority over the Holy Roman Empire, with external powers playing a largely supportive role. After the 1635 Peace of Prague, most of the German states sought to remain neutral, and the war became a continuation of the French–Habsburg rivalry, fought between Sweden and France on one side, the Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs on the other.
German Protestants and Catholics compromised their positions to secure some religious peace with the 1555 Peace of Augsburg. Over the next 70 years, the settlement was undermined by political and religious tensions between the Lutheran, Calvinist, and Catholic sects in the Holy Roman Empire, leading to the 1618 Bohemian Revolt. The Bohemian Estates removed the conservative Catholic Ferdinand II as King of Bohemia, and offered the Crown to the Protestant Frederick of the Palatinate. While most German princes remained neutral, its strategic implications drew in external powers, including the Dutch Republic and Spain.
By early 1620, the revolt in Bohemia had been suppressed, but when Frederick refused to admit defeat, Spanish-Imperial forces invaded the Palatinate and forced him into exile. Removal of a hereditary prince by the Emperor changed the nature of the war by threatening the rights of other rulers within the Empire. This included Christian IV of Denmark, who was also Duke of Holstein; in 1625, he intervened in Northern Germany, but was outnumbered and outfought by Wallenstein and withdrew in 1629.
Bolstered by this success, Ferdinand passed the Edict of Restitution, which undermined territorial rights across large areas of North and Central Germany. The opposition he created provided an opportunity for Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, who invaded the Empire in 1630; backed by French subsidies, the Swedes and their German allies won a series of victories over Imperial forces, although Gustavus was killed in 1632. However, even their allies objected to Swedish domination, while the war had inflicted huge economic losses; in 1635, Ferdinand and his German opponents ended their dispute.
As part of a general policy of weakening the Habsburgs, France now joined the war directly, which continued until mutual exhaustion led to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Its main provisions included Spanish confirmation of Dutch independence, and the acceptance of "German liberties" by the Austrian Habsburgs, ending their hopes of building a centralised, absolutist Empire. By increasing the status of France and Sweden, it led to a new balance of power on the continent.
The religious conflict between German Protestants and Catholics unleashed by the Reformation was settled by the 1555 Peace of Augsburg. Its central provision was the principle of cuius regio, eius religio, which meant each of the 224 member states was either Lutheran, the most usual form of Protestantism, or Catholic, based on the choice made by their ruler. In addition, Lutherans could keep lands or property taken from the Catholic Church since the 1552 Peace of Passau. While Augsburg provided a temporary solution, it failed to resolve underlying religious and political tensions within the Holy Roman Empire.
After 1560, Protestants were divided by the growth of Calvinism, a Reformed faith not recognised by Augsburg, and threatened by the Counter Reformation, a Catholic attempt to regain lost ground. Rulers might share the same religion but have different economic and strategic objectives; for much of the war, the Papacy supported France against the Habsburgs. The chief agents of the Counter-Reformation were similarly split, the Jesuits generally backing Austria, the Capuchins France.
Managing these issues was complicated by the fragmented nature of the Empire, a patchwork of nearly 1,800 separate entities in Germany, the Low Countries, Northern Italy, and areas like Alsace, now part of modern France. They ranged in size and importance from the seven Prince-electors who voted for the Holy Roman Emperor, down to Prince-bishoprics and City-states, such as Hamburg. Each member was represented in the Imperial Diet; prior to 1663, this assembled on an irregular basis, and was primarily a forum for discussion, rather than legislation.
While Emperors were elected, since 1440 this had been a Habsburg, the largest single landowner within the Empire; their lands included the Archduchy of Austria, the Kingdom of Bohemia, and the Kingdom of Hungary, with over eight million subjects. In 1556, Habsburg Spain became a separate entity, while retaining Imperial states such as the Duchy of Milan, and interests in Bohemia and Hungary; the two often co-operated, but their objectives did not always align. Then the predominant global power, the Spanish Empire included the Spanish Netherlands, much of Italy, the Philippines, and most of the Americas, while Austria remained focused on Central Europe.
Before Augsburg, unity of religion compensated for lack of strong central authority; once removed, it presented opportunities for those who sought to further weaken it. This included ambitious Imperial states like Lutheran Saxony and Catholic Bavaria, as well as France, which faced Habsburg territories on its borders in Flanders, Franche-Comté, and the Pyrenees. Disputes within the Empire drew in outside powers, many of whom held Imperial territories, including the Dutch Prince of Orange, hereditary ruler of Nassau-Dillenburg. In the same way, Christian IV of Denmark was also Duke of Holstein, and it was in this capacity he joined the war in 1625.
Background; 1556 to 1618
These tensions gradually undermined Augsburg, and paralysed institutions like the Imperial diet designed to resolve them peacefully. Occasionally it meant full-scale conflict, such as the 1583 to 1588 Cologne War, caused by the conversion to Calvinism of the Prince Elector, Gebhard Truchsess von Waldburg. More common were disputes such as the 1606 'battle of the flags' in Donauwörth, when the Lutheran majority blocked a Catholic religious procession. Emperor Rudolf approved intervention by the Catholic Maximilian of Bavaria on their behalf; he was allowed to annex Donauwörth to recover his costs, turning a Lutheran town Catholic.
As a result, when the Imperial Diet opened in February 1608, the Protestants demanded formal confirmation of the Augsburg settlement, which was especially significant for Calvinists like Frederick IV, Elector Palatine who had not been included. The Habsburg Archduke Ferdinand first required the return of all property taken from the Catholic church since 1552, rather than leaving the courts to decide case by case as previously. This threatened both Lutherans and Calvinists, paralysed the Diet and removed the perception of Imperial neutrality.
One outcome was the formation of the Protestant Union, led by Frederick IV and largely composed of states in Southern Germany, to which Maximilian responded by setting up the Catholic League in July 1609. While both were primarily designed to support the dynastic ambitions of their leaders, they combined with events like the 1609 to 1614 War of the Jülich Succession to increase tensions throughout the Empire.
Overshadowing this was the struggle between Catholic Spain and the Protestant Dutch Republic; the Twelve Years' Truce was due to expire in 1621, and Spain was preparing to restart the war. To do this, Ambrosio Spinola, commander in the Spanish Netherlands, needed to secure the Spanish Road, an overland route connecting Habsburg possessions in Italy to Flanders. This allowed them to move troops and supplies by road, rather than sea where the Dutch navy held the advantage; the only part not controlled by Spain ran through the Electoral Palatinate.
Since Emperor Matthias had no surviving children, in July 1617 Philip III of Spain agreed to support Ferdinand's election as king of Bohemia and Hungary. In return, Ferdinand made concessions to Spain in Northern Italy and Alsace, and agreed to support their offensive against the Dutch. Delivering these commitments required his election as Emperor, which was not guaranteed; one alternative was Maximilian of Bavaria, who opposed the increase of Spanish influence in an area he considered his own, and tried to create a coalition with Saxony and the Palatinate to support his candidacy.
Another was Frederick V, Elector Palatine, who succeeded his father in 1610, and in 1613 married Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of James I of England. Four of the electors were Catholic, three Protestant; if this could be changed, it might result in a Protestant Emperor. When Ferdinand was elected king of Bohemia in 1617, he gained control of its electoral vote; however, his conservative Catholicism made him unpopular with the largely Protestant Bohemian nobility, who were also concerned at the erosion of their rights. In May 1618, these factors combined to bring about the Bohemian Revolt.
Phase I: 1618 to 1635
The Bohemian Revolt
The Jesuit educated Ferdinand once claimed he would rather see his lands destroyed than tolerate heresy for a single day. Appointed to rule the Duchy of Styria in 1595, within eighteen months he eliminated Protestantism in what was previously a stronghold of the Reformation. Focused on retaking the Netherlands, the Spanish Habsburgs preferred to avoid antagonising Protestants elsewhere, and recognised the dangers associated with Ferdinand's fervent Catholicism, but accepted the lack of alternatives.
Ferdinand reconfirmed Protestant religious freedoms when elected king of Bohemia in May 1617, but his record in Styria led to the suspicion he was only awaiting a chance to overturn them. This was exacerbated by several legal disputes over property, all of which were decided in favour of the Catholic Church. In May 1618, Protestant nobles led by Count Thurn met in Prague Castle with Ferdinand's two Catholic representatives, Vilem Slavata and Jaroslav Borzita. In an event known as the Third Defenestration of Prague, the two men and their secretary Philip Fabricius were thrown out of the castle windows, although all three survived.
Thurn established a new government, and the conflict expanded into Silesia and the Habsburg heartlands of Lower and Upper Austria, where much of the nobility was also Protestant. One of the most prosperous areas of the Empire, Bohemia's electoral vote was also essential to ensuring Ferdinand succeeded Matthias as Emperor, and Habsburg prestige required its recapture. Chronic financial weakness meant prior to 1619 the Austrian Habsburgs had no standing army of any size, leaving them dependent on Maximilian and their Spanish relatives for money and men.
Spanish involvement inevitably drew in the Dutch, and potentially France, although the strongly Catholic Louis XIII faced his own Protestant rebels at home and refused to support them elsewhere. It also provided opportunities for external opponents of the Habsburgs, including the Ottoman Empire and Savoy. Funded by Frederick and the Duke of Savoy, a mercenary army under Ernst von Mansfeld succeeded in stabilising the Bohemian position over the winter of 1618. Attempts by Maximilian of Bavaria and John George of Saxony to broker a negotiated solution ended when Matthias died in March 1619, since it convinced many the Habsburgs were fatally damaged.
By mid-June, the Bohemian army under Thurn was outside Vienna; Mansfeld's defeat by Spanish-Imperial forces at Sablat forced him to return to Prague, but Ferdinand's position continued to worsen. Gabriel Bethlen, Calvinist Prince of Transylvania, invaded Hungary with Ottoman support, although the Habsburgs persuaded them to avoid direct involvement, helped by the outbreak of hostilities with Poland in 1620, followed by the 1623 to 1639 war with Persia.
On 19 August, the Bohemian Estates rescinded Ferdinand's 1617 election as king, and on 26th, formally offered the crown to Frederick instead; two days later, Ferdinand was elected Emperor, making war inevitable if Frederick accepted. With the exception of Christian of Anhalt, his advisors urged him to reject it, as did the Dutch, the Duke of Savoy, and his father-in-law James. 17th century Europe was a highly structured and socially conservative society, and their lack of enthusiasm was due to the implications of removing a legally elected ruler, regardless of religion.
As a result, although Frederick accepted the crown and entered Prague in October 1619, his support gradually eroded over the next few months. In July 1620, the Protestant Union proclaimed its neutrality, while John George of Saxony agreed to back Ferdinand in return for Lusatia, and a promise to safeguard the rights of Lutherans in Bohemia. A combined Imperial-Catholic League army funded by Maximilian and led by Count Tilly pacified Upper and Lower Austria before invading Bohemia, where they defeated Christian of Anhalt at the White Mountain in November 1620. Although the battle was far from decisive, the rebels were demoralised by lack of pay, shortages of supplies and disease, while the countryside had been devastated by Imperial troops. Frederick fled Bohemia and the revolt collapsed.
The Palatinate Campaign
The war continued because Frederick refused to accept defeat, while Ferdinand was determined to re-assert Habsburg control over the empire, and neither was willing to compromise. In August 1620, a Spanish army of 25,000 occupied the Lower Palatinate to secure the Spanish Road. German Protestants had hoped to ensure peace by abandoning Frederick, Catholics to prevent outside interference by supporting Ferdinand, but both now found themselves involved in an international war in the Rhineland.
Austrian financial weakness made Ferdinand dependent on mercenaries like Wallenstein and Tilly, as well as Maximilian and the Spanish, each with different objectives. Spanish chief minister Olivares saw securing the Palatinate as essential for retaking the Netherlands, and began discussions with James on restoring Frederick under Spanish protection. This would neutralise any threat from the Royal Navy and satisfy James' domestic critics, who considered his pro-Spanish policy a betrayal of the Protestant cause.
Always unlikely, this plan was compromised from the start since it clashed with the October 1619 Treaty of Munich; in return for military support from the Catholic League, Ferdinand secretly agreed to transfer the Palatinate's electoral vote to Bavaria, and allow Maximilian to annex the Upper Palatinate. Many Protestant rulers had refused to support Frederick because they objected to removing a legally elected king; now Ferdinand proposed to do the same, a concern that changed the nature and complexion of the war, especially when combined with his desire to re-establish the primacy of the Catholic church.
Since James could not accept anything less than the full restitution of Frederick's lands and titles, it also ended Spanish hopes of reaching a negotiated peace. In April 1621, the truce with Spain ended, and the Dutch agreed to help Frederick regain his lands, with limited English support; this allowed them to pay Mansfeld for his support, but over the next eighteen months Spanish and Imperial forces under Tilly won a series of victories. By November 1622, Spain and Bavaria controlled most of the Palatinate, apart from Frankenthal, whose garrison was commanded by the English soldier Sir Horace Vere; Frederick and the remnants of Mansfeld's army took refuge in the Dutch Republic.
At a meeting of the Imperial Diet in February 1623, Frederick was banished from the empire, his titles, lands and electoral vote formally transferred to Maximilian. Although the Spanish ambassador refused to attend to demonstrate their opposition, Vere's position was now hopeless, and in March 1623, James instructed him to surrender; the last significant Protestant force under Christian of Brunswick was defeated at the Battle of Stadtlohn in August, ending the campaign.
Danish intervention (1625–1629)
The focus of the war now changed to Northern Germany. John George of Saxony and the Calvinist George William of Brandenburg objected to Frederick's lands and electoral vote being transferred to Bavaria. With Saxony dominating the Upper Saxon Circle and Brandenburg the Lower, both kreis declared themselves neutral during the campaigns in Bohemia and the Palatinate. Ferdinand's desire to re-establish control over this area combined with fears he intended to reclaim former Catholic bishoprics currently held by Lutherans (see Map). This seemed confirmed when Tilly's Catholic League army occupied Halberstadt in early 1625.
As Duke of Holstein, Christian IV was also a member of the Lower Saxon circle, while Denmark's economy relied on the Baltic trade and tolls from traffic through the Øresund. In 1621, Hamburg accepted Danish 'supervision', while his son Frederick became joint-administrator of Lübeck, Bremen and Verden. Holding these cities also ensured Danish control of the Elbe and Weser rivers.
Wallenstein had been paid for his support against Frederick with estates confiscated from the Bohemian rebels, and now contracted with Ferdinand to conquer the north on a similar basis. In May 1625, the Lower Saxony kreis elected Christian their military commander, although not without resistance; Saxony and Brandenburg viewed Denmark and Sweden as competitors, and wanted to avoid either becoming involved in the Empire. Attempts to negotiate a peaceful solution failed as the conflict in Germany increasingly became part of the wider struggle between France and their Habsburg rivals in Spain and Austria.
In the June 1624 Treaty of Compiègne, France subsidised the Dutch war against Spain for a minimum of three years. Under the December 1625 Treaty of The Hague, the Dutch and English now agreed to finance Danish intervention in the Empire. Intended as the basis of a wider coalition against Ferdinand, France, Sweden, Savoy and the Republic of Venice were also invited to join, but it was overtaken by events. In early 1626, Cardinal Richelieu, main architect of the alliance, faced a new Huguenot rebellion; in the March Treaty of Monzón, France withdrew from Northern Italy, re-opening the Spanish Road.
The intervention involved three Protestant armies; the main force under Christian IV was to advance down the Weser, while Mansfeld attacked Wallenstein in Magdeburg and Christian of Brunswick linked up with the Calvinist Maurice of Hesse-Kassel. The advance quickly fell apart; Mansfeld was defeated at Dessau Bridge in April, and when Maurice refused to support him, Christian of Brunswick fell back on Wolfenbüttel, where he died of disease shortly after. The Danes were comprehensively beaten at Lutter in August, and Mansfeld's army dissolved following his death in November.
Many of Christian's German allies, such as Hesse-Kassel and Saxony, had little interest in replacing Imperial domination for Danish, while few of the subsidies agreed in the Treaty of the Hague were ever paid. Charles I of England allowed Christian to recruit up to 9,000 Scottish mercenaries, but they took time to arrive, and while able to slow Wallenstein's advance, were insufficient to stop him. By the end of 1627, Wallenstein occupied Mecklenburg, Pomerania and Jutland, and began making plans to construct a fleet capable of challenging Danish control of the Baltic. He was supported by Spain, for whom it provided an opportunity to open another front against the Dutch.
In May 1628, his deputy von Arnim besieged Straslund, the only port with large enough shipbuilding facilities, but this brought Sweden into the war. Gustavus Adolphus despatched several thousand Scots and Swedish troops under Alexander Leslie to Stralsund, who was appointed governor. Von Arnim was forced to lift the siege on 4 August, but three weeks later, Christian suffered another defeat at Wolgast. He began negotiations with Wallenstein, who despite his recent victories was concerned by the prospect of Swedish intervention, and thus anxious to make peace.
With Austrian resources stretched by the outbreak of the War of the Mantuan Succession, Wallenstein persuaded Ferdinand to agree relatively lenient terms in the June 1629 Treaty of Lübeck. Christian retained his German possessions of Schleswig and Holstein, in return for relinquishing Bremen and Verden, and abandoning support for the German Protestants. While Denmark kept Schleswig and Holstein until 1864, this effectively ended its reign as the predominant Nordic state.
Once again, the methods used to obtain victory explain why the war failed to end. Ferdinand paid Wallenstein by letting him confiscate estates, extort ransoms from towns, and allowing his men to plunder the lands they passed through, regardless of whether they belonged to allies or opponents. Anger at such tactics and his growing power came to a head in early 1628 when Ferdinand deposed the hereditary Duke of Mecklenburg, and appointed Wallenstein in his place. Although opposition to this act united all German princes regardless of religion, Maximilian of Bavaria was compromised by his acquisition of the Palatinate; while Protestants wanted Frederick restored and the position returned to that of 1618, the Catholic League argued only for pre-1627.
Ferdinand failed to take advantage of divisions among his opponents by passing the Edict of Restitution in March 1629. This required the restoration of all lands taken from the Catholic church after 1555, and while technically legal, it was politically unwise. Its enactment would alter the boundaries of nearly every single state in North and Central Germany, deny the existence of Calvinism and restore Catholicism in areas where the church had not been a significant presence for nearly a century. As Ferdinand knew none of the princes involved would agree, he used the device of an Imperial edict, once again asserting his right to alter laws without consultation. This new assault on 'German liberties' ensured continuing opposition and undermined his previous success.
Swedish intervention; 1630 to 1635
As ever, Richelieu's policy was to 'arrest the course of Spanish progress', and 'protect her neighbours from Spanish oppression'. With French resources tied up in Italy, he helped negotiate the September 1629 Truce of Altmark between Sweden and Poland, freeing Gustavus Adolphus to enter the war. Partly a genuine desire to support his Protestant co-religionists, like Christian he also wanted to maximise his share of the Baltic trade that provided much of Sweden's income.
With Swedish-occupied Straslund providing a bridgehead, in June 1630 nearly 18,000 Swedish troops landed in the Duchy of Pomerania. Gustavus signed an alliance with Bogislaw XIV, Duke of Pomerania, securing his interests in Pomerania against the Catholic Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, another Baltic competitor linked to Ferdinand by family and religion. The Smolensk War is considered a separate but related part of the Thirty Years' War.
Expectations of widespread support proved unrealistic; by the end of 1630, the only new Swedish ally was Magdeburg, which was besieged by Tilly. Despite the devastation inflicted on their territories by Imperial soldiers, both Saxony and Brandenburg had their own ambitions in Pomerania, which clashed with those of Gustavus; previous experience also showed inviting external powers into the Empire was easier than getting them to leave.
However, once again Richelieu provided the requisite support; in the 1631 Treaty of Bärwalde, he provided funds for the Heilbronn League, a Swedish-led coalition of German Protestant states, including Saxony and Brandenburg.  Payments amounted to 400,000 Reichstaler, or one million livres per year, plus an additional 120,000 Reichstalers for 1630. While less than 2% of the total French state budget, it made up over 25% of the Swedish, and allowed Gustavus to support an army of 36,000. He won major victories at Breitenfeld in September 1631, then Rain in April 1632, where Tilly was killed.
After Tilly's death, Ferdinand turned once again to Wallenstein; knowing Gustavus was over extended, he marched into Franconia and established himself at Fürth, threatening the Swedish supply chain. In late August, Gustavus incurred heavy losses in an unsuccessful assault on the town, arguably the greatest blunder in his German campaign. Two months later, the Swedes won a resounding victory at Lützen, where Gustavus was killed. Rumours now began circulating Wallenstein was preparing to switch sides, and in February 1634, Ferdinand issued orders for his arrest; on 25th, he was assassinated by one of his officers in Cheb.
Phase II; France joins the war 1635 to 1648
Defeat at Nördlingen threatened Sweden participation, leading Richelieu to intervene directly. After tense negotiations with Swedish Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna, in the April 1635 Treaty of Compiègne Richelieu agreed to provide additional subsidies, and declared war on Spain in May, beginning the 1635 to 1659 Franco-Spanish War. A few days later, Ferdinand withdrew the Edict and signed the Peace of Prague, dissolving the Heilbronn and Catholic Leagues, and creating a single Imperial army, although Saxony and Bavaria retained control of their own forces. This is generally seen as the point when the conflict ceased to be primarily a German civil war.
After invading the Spanish Netherlands in May 1635, the poorly equipped French army collapsed, suffering 17,000 casualties from disease and desertion. A Spanish offensive in 1636 reached Corbie in Northern France; although it caused panic in Paris, lack of supplies forced them to retreat, and it was not repeated. In March 1636, France finally joined the Thirty Years War in alliance with Sweden, launching offensives in Germany and the Low Countries. At the same time, the Swedes under Johan Banér marched into Brandenburg; victory at Wittstock on 4 October 1636 regained most of the ground lost after Nördlingen.
Ferdinand II died in February 1637 and was succeeded by his son Ferdinand III, who faced a rapidly deteriorating military situation. Dutch leader Frederick Henry recaptured Breda in October, and three months later Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar destroyed an Imperial army at Rheinfelden. Although von Hatzfeldt defeated a Swedish-English-Palatine force at Vlotho in October 1638, Breisach's surrender to Bernhard in December secured French control of Alsace and the Rhineland, severing the Spanish Road. Spain was now forced to resupply their armies in Flanders by sea, making them vulnerable to the Dutch navy.
These setbacks put increasing pressure on both Ferdinand and Spanish minister Olivares to make peace. The Dutch destroyed a large supply convoy at the Downs in October 1639, while Madrid's inability to prevent attacks on Portuguese possessions in Africa and the Americas caused increasing unrest in Portugal, then part of the Spanish Empire. In 1640, the French captured Arras, and over-ran the rest of Artois, while protests against heavy taxes led to revolts in Portugal and Catalonia. Many Spanish officials felt it was time to accept Dutch independence, but despite these challenges, their Empire remained a formidable power.
Richelieu died in 1642, and was replaced as chief minister by Cardinal Mazarin, followed on 14 May 1643 by the death of Louis XIII, leaving his five-year-old son Louis XIV as heir. Five days later, the Prince de Condé won a decisive French victory at Rocroi, although he was unable to take full advantage. Mazarin began seeking a negotiated peace; 25 years of constant war had devastated the countryside, forcing armies to spend more time foraging than fighting, and drastically reducing their ability to sustain campaigns.
After Wittstock, the Swedish army regained the initiative in Germany; at Second Breitenfeld in October 1642, Swedish commander Lennart Torstenson defeated an Imperial army led by Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria and Ottavio Piccolomini. Leopold suffered 20,000 casualties, including 5,000 prisoners and 46 guns, compared to Swedish losses of 4,000 killed or wounded. With Saxony occupied by Sweden, Ferdinand III accepted the need to include them in peace negotiations.
In 1643, Frederick III of Denmark re-entered the conflict as an Imperial ally, threatening the Swedes with a war on two fronts. Torstensson expelled the Danes from Bremen-Verden and occupied Jutland; after a decisive naval defeat at Fehmarn in October 1644, the Danes sued for peace. The Imperial army under Gallas retreated into Bohemia, pursued by Torstenson, whose victory at Jankau in March 1645 allowed him to threaten both Prague and Vienna.
In May, a Bavarian army under Franz von Mercy destroyed a French detachment at Herbsthausen, but he was defeated and killed at Second Nördlingen in August. As with Rocroi, Condé was unable to fully exploit this success; his losses shocked the French court, while 25 years of constant war had devastated the countryside, forcing armies to spend more time foraging than fighting, and drastically reducing their ability to sustain campaigns.
In September 1645, the Swedes agreed a six-month truce with Saxony; Ferdinand accepted a military solution was no longer possible, and in October ordered his diplomats to begin serious negotiations at Westphalia. However, fighting continued as both sides tried to improve their bargaining position; suffering from ill-health, at the end of 1645 Torstenson was replaced by Carl Gustaf Wrangel, who over-ran Bavaria in the autumn of 1646. Maximilian was desperate to end the war he was largely responsible for starting, while Mazarin feared Sweden becoming too strong; on 14 March 1647, Bavaria, Cologne, France, and Sweden signed the Truce of Ulm.
During the winter of 1647, Mazarin suggested to the Spanish they exchange Catalonia, currently occupied by France, for the Spanish Netherlands; angered by this, in January 1648 the Dutch signed the Peace of Münster, ending their war with Spain. In May, a combined Franco-Swedish army destroyed the last major Imperial army at Zusmarshausen, while a second Swedish force besieged Prague. On 24 October, Ferdinand finally signed peace treaties with France and Sweden; the Swedes retreated from Prague, but not before looting many valuable treasures, including the Codex Gigas, today preserved in Stockholm.
The conflict outside Germany
War of the Mantuan Succession (1628–1631)
Northern Italy had been contested by France and the Habsburgs for centuries, since it was vital for control of South-West France, an area with a long history of opposition to the central authorities. While Spain remained the dominant power in Italy, its reliance on long exterior lines of communication was a potential weakness, especially the Spanish Road; this overland route allowed them to move recruits and supplies from Naples and Lombardy to their army in Flanders.
French policy was to seek to disrupt this road wherever possible, either by attacking the Spanish-held Duchy of Milan, or by blocking the Alpine passes. The strategic importance of the Duchy of Mantua meant when the direct male line became extinct in December 1627, both powers became involved in the 1628 to 1631 War of the Mantuan Succession. The situation was complicated by Savoy, which saw an opportunity to gain territory; in March 1629, the French stormed Savoyard positions in the Pas de Suse, lifted the siege of Casale and captured the strategic fortress of Pinerolo.
France and Savoy made peace in the April 1629 Treaty of Suza, which allowed French troops passage through Savoy, and recognised their control of Casale and Pinerolo. Possession of these fortresses gave France effective control of Piedmont, protected the Alpine passes into Southern France, and allowed them to threaten Milan at will.
An outbreak of plague in Milan and the diversion of Imperial resources caused by Swedish intervention in 1630, led to the June 1631 Treaty of Cherasco. The French candidate, Charles I Gonzaga, was confirmed as Duke of Mantua; although Richelieu's representative, Cardinal Mazarin, agreed to evacuate Pinerolo, it was later secretly returned under an agreement with Victor Amadeus I, Duke of Savoy. With the exception of the 1639 to 1642 Piedmontese Civil War, this secured the French position in Northern Italy for the next twenty years.
Catalonia; Reapers' War
Throughout the 1630s, attempts to increase taxes in order to pay for the costs of the war in the Netherlands led to protests throughout Spanish territories; in 1640, these erupted into open revolts in Portugal and Catalonia, supported by Richelieu as part of his 'war by diversion'. Prompted by France, the rebels proclaimed the Catalan Republic in January 1641. The Madrid government quickly assembled an army of 26,000 men to crush the revolt, and on 23 January, they defeated the Catalans at Martorell. The French now persuaded the Catalan Courts to recognise Louis XIII as Count of Barcelona, and ruler of the Principality of Catalonia.
Three days later, a combined French-Catalan force defeated the Spanish at Montjuïc, a victory which secured Barcelona. However, the rebels soon found the new French administration differed little from the old, turning the war into a three-sided contest between the Franco-Catalan elite, the rural peasantry, and the Spanish. There was little serious fighting after France took control of Perpignan and Roussillon, establishing the modern Franco-Spanish border in the Pyrenees. In 1651, Spain recaptured Barcelona, ending the revolt.
Portugal; Portuguese Restoration War
In parallel, in December 1640, the Portuguese rose up against Spanish rule and once again Richelieu supplied aid to the insurgents. The ensuing conflict with Spain brought Portugal into the Thirty Years' War as, at least, a peripheral player. From 1641 to 1668, the period during which the two nations were at war, Spain sought to isolate Portugal militarily and diplomatically, and Portugal tried to find the resources to maintain its independence through political alliances and maintenance of its colonial income.
The war also had consequences abroad, as the European powers extended their rivalry via naval power to overseas colonies. In 1630, a Dutch fleet of 70 ships took the rich sugar-exporting areas of Pernambuco (Brazil) from the Portuguese, though the Dutch would lose them by 1654. Fighting also took place in Africa and Asia.
Phillip II and Philip III of Portugal used forts built from the destroyed temples, including Fort Fredrick in Trincomalee, and others in southern Ceylon such as Colombo and Galle Fort, to fight sea battles with the Dutch, Danish, French, and English. This was the beginning of the loss of Ceylonese sovereignty. Later the Dutch and English succeeded the Portuguese as colonial rulers of the island.
Peace of Westphalia (1648)
Preliminary discussions began in 1642 but only became serious in 1646; talks were split between the towns of Münster and Osnabrück. The future Pope Alexander VII and the Venetian Republic acted as mediators, with a total of 109 delegations attending at one time or other. The Peace consisted of three separate agreements; the Peace of Münster between Spain and the Dutch Republic, the treaty of Osnabrück between the Empire and Sweden, plus the treaty of Münster between the Empire and France.
The Peace of Münster was the first to be signed on 30 January 1648; it was part of Westphalia because the provinces that made up the Dutch Republic were still technically part of the Spanish Netherlands and thus Imperial territories. The treaty confirmed Dutch independence, although the Imperial Diet did not formally accept that it was no longer part of the Empire until 1728. The Dutch were also given a monopoly over trade conducted through the Scheldt estuary, confirming the commercial ascendancy of Amsterdam; Antwerp, capital of the Spanish Netherlands and previously the most important port in Northern Europe, would not recover until the late 19th century.
Negotiations with France and Sweden were conducted in conjunction with the Imperial Diet, and were multi-sided discussions involving many of the German states. This resulted in the treaties of Münster and Osnabrück, making peace with France and Sweden respectively. Ferdinand still resisted signing, but after France gained a crushing victory over Spain at Lens in August, and with Swedish troops attacking Prague, he finally did so on 24 October 1648.
Taken as a whole, the consequences of these two treaties can be divided into the internal political settlement and external territorial changes. Ferdinand accepted the supremacy of the Imperial Diet and legal institutions, reconfirmed the Augsburg settlement, and recognised Calvinism as a third religion. In addition, Christians residing in states where they were a minority, such as Catholics living under a Lutheran ruler, were guaranteed freedom of worship and equality before the law. Brandenburg-Prussia received Farther Pomerania, and the bishoprics of Magdeburg, Halberstadt, Kammin, and Minden. Frederick's son Charles Louis regained the Lower Palatinate and became the eighth Imperial elector, although Bavaria kept the Upper Palatinate and its electoral vote.
Externally, the treaties formally acknowledged the independence of the Dutch Republic and the Swiss Confederacy, effectively autonomous since 1499. In Lorraine, the Three Bishoprics of Metz, Toul and Verdun, occupied by France since 1552, were formally ceded, as were the cities of the Décapole in Alsace, with the exception of Strasbourg and Mulhouse. Sweden received an indemnity of five million thalers, the Imperial territories of Swedish Pomerania, and Prince-bishoprics of Bremen and Verden; this gave them a seat in the Imperial Diet.
The Peace was later denounced by Pope Innocent X, who regarded the bishoprics ceded to France and Brandenburg as property of the Catholic church, and thus his to assign. It also disappointed many exiles by accepting the restoration of Catholicism as the dominant religion in Bohemia, Upper and Lower Austria, strongholds of Protestantism in 1618. Fighting did not end immediately, since demobilising over 200,000 soldiers was a complex business, and the last Swedish garrison did not leave Germany until 1654.
The settlement failed to achieve its stated intention of achieving a 'universal peace'; Mazarin insisted on excluding the Burgundian Circle from the treaty of Münster, allowing France to continue its campaign against Spain in the Low Countries, a war that continued until the 1659 Treaty of the Pyrenees. The political disintegration of the Polish commonwealth led to the 1655 to 1660 Second Northern War with Sweden, which also involved Denmark, Russia and Brandenburg, while two Swedish attempts to impose its control on the port of Bremen failed in 1654 and 1666.
It has been argued the Peace established the principle known as Westphalian sovereignty, the idea of non-interference in domestic affairs by outside powers, although this has since been challenged. The process, or 'Congress' model, was adopted for negotiations at Aix-la-Chapelle in 1668, Nijmegen in 1678, and Ryswick in 1697; unlike the 19th century 'Congress' system, these were to end wars, rather than prevent them, so references to the 'balance of power' can be misleading.
Human and financial cost of the war
Historians often refer to the 'General Crisis' of the mid-17th century, a period of sustained conflict in states such as China, the British Isles, Tsarist Russia and the Holy Roman Empire. In all these areas, war, famine and disease inflicted severe losses on local populations. While the Thirty Years War ranks as one of the worst of these events, precise numbers are disputed; 19th century nationalists often increased them to illustrate the dangers of a divided Germany.
The war has been described as one of the greatest medical catastrophes in history. Well into the 19th century, the leading cause of mortality even for soldiers was disease; of an estimated 600,000 military deaths between 1618 to 1648, only 200,000 were killed in combat. Based on analysis of contemporary reports, less than 3% of civilian deaths were the result of military action; the major causes were starvation (12%), bubonic plague (64%), typhus (4%), and dysentery (5%).
Parish records show regular outbreaks of these were common for decades prior to 1618, but the conflict greatly accelerated their spread. This was due to the influx of soldiers from foreign countries, the shifting locations of battle fronts, as well as the displacement of rural populations and migration into already crowded cities. Poor harvests throughout the 1630s and repeated plundering of the same areas led to widespread famine; contemporaries record people eating grass, or too weak to accept alms, while instances of cannibalism were common.
The modern consensus is the population of the Holy Roman Empire declined from 18-20 million in 1600 to 11-13 million in 1650, and did not reach pre-war levels until 1750. Nearly 50% of these losses appear to have been incurred during the first period of Swedish intervention from 1630 to 1635. It is suggested the high mortality rate compared to the Wars of the Three Kingdoms in Britain was partly due to the reliance of all sides on foreign mercenaries, often unpaid and required to live off the land. Lack of a sense of 'shared community' resulted in atrocities such as the destruction of Magdeburg, while creating large numbers of refugees, who were extremely susceptible to sickness and hunger. While flight may have saved lives in the short-term, in the long run it often proved catastrophic.
In 1940, agrarian historian Günther Franz published Der Dreissigjährige Krieg und das Deutsche Volk, a detailed analysis of regional data from across Germany; membership of the Nazi Party meant his objectivity was challenged post-1945, but recent reviews support his general findings. He concluded "about 40% of the rural population fell victim to the war and epidemics; in the cities,...33%". There were wide regional variations; in the Duchy of Württemberg, the number of inhabitants fell by nearly 60%.
These figures can be misleading, since Franz calculated the absolute decline in pre and post-war populations, or 'total demographic loss'. It includes factors unrelated to death or disease, such as permanent migration to areas outside the Empire, or lower birthrates, a less obvious impact of extended warfare. Although suggested towns over-stated losses to avoid taxes, individual records show serious declines; from 1620 to 1650, the population of Munich fell from 22,000 to 17,000, that of Augsburg from 48,000 to 21,000.
The financial impact is less clear; while the war caused short-term economic dislocation, overall it accelerated existing changes in trading patterns. It does not appear to have reversed ongoing macro-economic trends, such as the reduction of price differentials between regional markets, and a greater degree of market integration across Europe. The death toll may have improved living standards for the survivors; one study shows wages in Germany increased by 40% in real terms between 1603 and 1652.
The breakdown of social order caused by the war was in some ways more significant and longer lasting than the immediate damage. The collapse of local government created landless peasants, who banded together to protect themselves from the soldiers of both sides, and led to widespread rebellions in Upper Austria, Bavaria and Brandenburg. Soldiers devastated one area then moved on, abandoning large tracts of land and changing the eco-system. Food shortages were worsened by an explosion in the rodent population; Bavaria was over-run by wolves in the winter of 1638, its crops destroyed by packs of wild pigs the following spring.
Contemporaries spoke of a 'frenzy of despair' as people sought to make sense of the turmoil and hardship unleashed by the war. Their attribution by some to supernatural causes led to a series of Witch-hunts, beginning in Franconia in 1626 and quickly spreading to other parts of Germany, which were often exploited for political purposes. They originated in the Bishopric of Würzburg, an area with a history of such events going back to 1616 and now re-ignited by Bishop von Ehrenberg, a devout Catholic eager to assert the church's authority in his territories. By the time he died in 1631, over 900 people from all levels of society had been executed.
At the same time, Prince-Bishop Johann von Dornheim held a similar series of large-scale witch trials in the nearby Bishopric of Bamberg. A specially designed Malefizhaus, or 'crime house', was erected containing a torture chamber, whose walls were adorned with Bible verses, where the accused were interrogated. These lasted for five years and claimed over 1,000 lives, including long-time Bürgermeister, or Mayor, Johannes Junius, and Dorothea Flock, second wife of Councilor Georg Heinrich Flock, whose first wife had been executed for witchcraft in May 1628. During 1629, another 274 suspected witches were killed in the Bishopric of Eichstätt, plus another 50 in the adjacent Duchy of Palatinate-Neuburg.
Elsewhere, the persecutions arrived in the wake of the early Imperial military successes. The witch hunts expanded into Baden following its reconquest by Tilly while the Imperial victory in the Palatinate opened the way for their eventual spread to the Rhineland. The Rhenish electorates of Mainz and Trier both witnessed mass burnings of suspected witches during this time. In Cologne the territory's Prince-Elector, Ferdinand of Bavaria, presided over a particularly infamous series of witchcraft trials that included the controversial prosecution of Katharina Henot, who was burned at the stake in 1627. During this time the witch hunts also continued their unchecked growth, as new and increased incidents of alleged witchcraft began surfacing in the territories of Westphalia.
The witch hunts reached their peak around the time of the Edict of Restitution in 1629 and much of the remaining institutional and popular enthusiasm for them faded in the aftermath of Sweden's entry into the war the following year. However, in Würzburg, the persecutions continued until the death of Ehrenberg in July, 1631. The excesses of this period inspired the Jesuit scholar and poet Friedrich Spee (himself a former "witch confessor") to author his scathing legal and moral condemnation of the witch trials, the Cautio Criminalis. This influential work was later credited with bringing an end to the practice of witch-burning in some areas of Germany and its gradual abolition throughout Europe.
The Peace reconfirmed "German liberties", ending Habsburg attempts to convert the Holy Roman Empire into an absolutist state similar to Spain. This allowed Bavaria, Brandenburg-Prussia, Saxony and others to pursue their own policies, while Sweden gained a permanent foothold in the Empire. Despite these setbacks, the Habsburg lands suffered less from the war than many others and became a far more coherent bloc with the absorption of Bohemia, and restoration of Catholicism throughout their territories.
By laying the foundations of the modern nation state, Westphalia changed the relationship of subjects and their rulers. Previously, many had overlapping, sometimes conflicting political and religious allegiances; they were now understood to be subject first and foremost to the laws and edicts of their respective state authority, not to the claims of any other entity, be it religious or secular. This made it easier to levy national armies of significant size, loyal to their state and its leader; one lesson learned from Wallenstein and the Swedish invasion was the need for their own permanent armies, and Germany as a whole became a far more militarised society.
The benefits of Westphalia for the Swedes proved short-lived. Unlike French gains which were incorporated into France, Swedish territories remained part of the Empire, and they became members of the Lower and Upper Saxon kreis. While this gave them seats in the Imperial Diet, it also brought them conflict with both Brandenburg-Prussia and Saxony, who were competitors in Pomerania. The income from their imperial possessions remained in Germany and did not benefit the kingdom of Sweden; although they retained Swedish Pomerania until 1815, much of it was ceded to Prussia in 1679 and 1720.
Arguably, France gained more from the Thirty Years’ War than any other power; by 1648, most of Richelieu's objectives had been achieved. They included separation of the Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs, expansion of the French frontier into the Empire, and an end to Spanish military supremacy in Northern Europe. Although the Franco-Spanish conflict continued until 1659 and Spain remained a vast global confederation for another two centuries, Westphalia allowed Louis XIV of France to complete the process of replacing her as the predominant European power.
Although religion remained an issue throughout the 17th century, it was the last major war in Continental Europe with religion as its primary driver; later such conflicts were either internal, such as the Camisards in South-Western France, or relatively minor like the 1712 Toggenburg War. At the same time, it created the outlines of a Europe that persisted until 1815 and beyond; the nation-state of France, the beginnings of a unified Germany and separate Austro-Hungarian bloc, a diminished but still significant Spain, independent smaller states like Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland, along with a Low Countries split between the Dutch Republic and what became Belgium in 1830.
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- Vida y hechos de Estebanillo González, hombre de buen humor, compuesta por él mismo (Antwerp, 1646): The last of the great Spanish Golden Age picaresque novels, this is set against the background of the Thirty Years' War. It is thought to have been written by a man in the entourage of Ottavio Piccolomini. The main character crisscrosses Europe at war in his role as messenger; he witnesses the 1634 battle of Nordlingen, among other events.
- Simplicius Simplicissimus (1668) by Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, one of the most important German novels of the 17th century, is the comic fictional autobiography of a half-German, half-Scottish peasant turned mercenary. He serves under various powers during the war. The book is based on the author's first-hand experience.
- Memoirs of a Cavalier (1720) by Daniel Defoe is subtitled "A Military Journal of the Wars in Germany, and the Wars in England. From the Years 1632 to 1648".
- Alessandro Manzoni's The Betrothed (1842) is an historical novel taking place in Italy in 1629. It treats a couple whose marriage is interrupted by the bubonic plague, and other complications of Thirty Years' War.
- G. A. Henty, The Lion of the North: The Adventures of a Scottish Lad during the Thirty Years' War (2 vol., 1997 reprint). It is available under a number of subtitle variants, including a comic strip. Also Won By the Sword: A Story of the Thirty Years' War
- Gertrud von Le Fort's historical novel Die Magdeburgische Hochzeit is a fictional account of romantic and political intrigue during the siege of Magdeburg.
- Der Wehrwolf (1910) by Hermann Löns is a novel about an alliance of peasants using guerrilla tactics to fight the enemy during the Thirty Years' War.
- Alfred Döblin's sprawling historical novel Wallenstein (1920) is set during the Thirty Years' War; it explores the court of Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand.
- The Last Valley (1959), by John Pick, is about two men fleeing the Thirty Years' War.
- Das Treffen in Telgte (1979), by Günter Grass, is set in the aftermath of the war. He implicitly compared conditions to those in postwar Germany in the late 1940s.
- Michael Moorcock's novel, The War Hound and the World's Pain (1981), features a central character of Ulrich von Bek, a mercenary who took part in the sack of Magdeburg.
- Eric Flint's Ring of Fire series of alternative history novels, deals with a temporally displaced American town from the early 21st century that occupies territory in the early 1630s in war-torn Germany.
- Parts of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle are set in lands devastated by the Thirty Years' War.
- In The Hangman's Daughter (2008) by Oliver Pötzsch, the protagonist, hangman Jakob Kuisl, and other prominent characters have served in a General Tilly's army and participated in the sacking of the city of Magdeburg during the Thirty Years' War. "The Great War" and Swedish incursion into north-central Germany are frequently referenced.
- Friedrich Schiller's Wallenstein trilogy (1799) is a fictional account of the downfall of this general.
- Edmond Rostand's play Cyrano de Bergerac (1897) (act IV is set during the siege of Arras in 1640.)
- Bertolt Brecht's play Mother Courage and Her Children (1939), an antiwar piece, is set during the Thirty Years' War.
- Queen Christina (1933), a film starring Greta Garbo, opens with the death of Christina's father, King Gustavus Adolphus, at the Battle of Lützen in the Thirty Years' War. The plot of the film is set against the backdrop of the war and Christina's determination as queen, depicted a decade later, to end the war and bring about peace.
- A Jester's Tale (1964) is a Czech film directed by Karel Zeman. Described by Zeman as a "pseudo-historical" film, it is an anti-war black comedy set during the Thirty Years' War.
- The Last Valley (1971) is a film starring Michael Caine and Omar Sharif, who discover a temporary haven from the Thirty Years' War. it was adapted from the novel The Last Valley.
- Simplicius Simplicissimus (1934–1957) is an opera adaptation of the novel of the same name, with music by Karl Amadeus Hartmann.
- The Thirty Years' War is briefly referenced in the survival horror game Amnesia: The Dark Descent. The common enemies in the game are former soldiers of the war that abandoned their duty, died and became cursed to roam the woods they died in.
by Sebastian Vrancx
Battle of Sablat,
10 June 1619
Battle of Wimpfen,
6 May 1622
Battle of Fleurus,
29 August 1622
Battle of Stadtlohn,
6 August 1623
Siege of Stralsund,
May to 4 August 1628
A cavalry battle
between 1626 and 1628
Battle of Frankfurt an der Oder,
Death of Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden at the Battle of Lützen,
6 November 1632
The capture of Rheinfelden by the troops of the Duke of Feria,
Battle of Rocroi,
Unsuccessful Swedish-Transylvanian siege of Brno, 1645
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- Wilson, Peter H. ed. The Thirty Years' War: A Sourcebook (2010); includes state documents, treaties, correspondence, diaries, financial records, artwork; 240pp
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- Denmark–Norway fought Sweden and the Dutch Republic in the Torstenson War.
- Reconciled with the Emperor and switched sides in the Peace of Prague (1635).
- Protestantism was effectively wiped out in what is now Austria and the Czech Republic, and it was severely damaged in France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Romania, Ireland, Belgium, Poland, Lithuania, Russia, Hungary, Ukraine, Slovakia, eastern Silesia, Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia. Compare the territorial extent of Protestantism in 1620 and 1648.
- Swedish Intervention
- Includes soldiers from the Spanish Netherlands and Spanish Italy.
- Of the 30,000 citizens, only 5,000 survived.