Tremors in Bavaria, War in the Palatine

Maximilian of Bavaria. More than any other figure he will serve as the Baelish-esque survivor of the War. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The internal squabble in the Hapsburg family came at the worst possible time. The Dutch and Spanish had both exhausted themselves and in 1609 had agreed to a 12 year peace so they could take a few years and pick up their teeth from the gutter. Yet both sides knew the war was going to come back around and had embarked on a quest for allies. They also began building new fortresses parallel to each other in a dark echo of the First World War’s trenches. In the absence of Austrian leadership, the battle lines were beginning to stretch into the Empire. Perhaps a different set of leaders could have fostered a sense of unity against the conflict, but the two primary voices for Catholic and Protestant Germany had their own agendas that pulled them slowly towards conflict.

The first incident to really ratchet up the tension occurred in Donauwörth, a city in Bavaria. The Lutheran town council decided in 1607 to ban a Catholic parade, and when the protesting cries of the local Catholics reached the Duke of Bavaria’s ears he came down hard on the council. Of all the belligerents in the coming war, Maximilian would prove to be the most persistent and the only major player to remain in power for the duration of the war. His survival was also not an accident; unlike many other figures in the war the Duke paired his large ambitions with a dangerous intellect and a survivor’s instinct that was second to none.[1] Although Jesuit educated and devoutly Catholic, Max had the added wrinkle of ruling the largest non-imperial Catholic territory. As a result, while the Duke could sometimes be relied on to stand up for German interests over Hapsburg ones, he could just as easily be distracted by his own greed. What he wanted was also a poorly kept secret, as in spite of its largesse Bavaria could not claim one of the seven electoral titles.

Donauwörth helped mark Maximilian’s character. Prior to 1607 he had mostly left his Protestant faction alone, but here he moved on a perceived threat with an aggressive show of force. The city was occupied by Bavarian troops, and Donauwörth’s town council was immediately deposed for a more hardline Catholic one.

Frederick in 1613. The portrait hammers home how young the man was when his crowded hour arrived. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In response to the crackdown, the Protestants fell back on their old favorite and began to build a defensive alliance led by the Electors of the Palatine in 1608. In contrast to the old Lutheran alliance established by the Saxon electors, the new Evangelical Union hinged on the openly Calvinist Elector Frederick V. Just 14 when he ascended the throne in 1610, Frederick was, like his father before him, reliant on his chief adviser Christian of Anhalt.[2] Christian in turn did not so much oppose the concept of an international religious war as welcome it. Cursed with the gift of being clever but nowhere near as clever as he thought he was, Christian had carefully engineered a network of alliances around his young master. Frederick was married to the daughter of King James I of England, and by dint of the Palatinate’s location along the Rhine were a vital ally to the Dutch. Now with the Evangelical Union clustering around the Palatine’s forces, Frederick must have felt like the heir apparent to all of Protestantism. Certainly many in Bohemia and elsewhere thought of him this way, and more lordlings began to flock to him over the stodgy and moderate Lutheran Saxon Electors. The hardline stance also prompted the Catholics and Maximilian to ratchet things up themselves, and the year after the Evangelical Union was formed they banded together in the Catholic League. They wouldn’t have long to wait for their first scuffle.

In 1610 the lord controlling a territory called Jülich-Cleves keeled over and died. As he left behind no children, his next two closest relatives immediately fell to squabbling over who could claim the territory.[3] To complicate the civil war, still Emperor Rudolf moved imperial forces into the region and seized the fortress at Jülich. Both claimants quickly settled their differences and agreed to rule jointly rather than cede the entire grounds to the Hapsburgs, and invited the Dutch and Palatine forces to assist in reclaiming their lands. However, Jülich-Cleves was another cobblestone in the Spanish road. While this explained the Dutch interest, the Spanish were also keenly watching the confrontation. In 1613, one of the claimants abruptly converted to Catholicism, making a bid for sole power. With Spanish help he forced a favorable partitioning of Jülich-Cleves, obtaining the larger portion for himself. While this was the end of the feud for now, both the Dutch and the Spanish had laid their marker on intervention. It would not take much for both powers to intercede a second time.

Ferdinand the soon to be II, with a jaw as Hapsburg as can be. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Brother ousting notwithstanding, Emperor Matthias was considered a decent emperor. He had succeeded in building a somewhat stable peace with the Ottomans, and had mollified the Bohemians by agreeing to uphold the gains they made in the Letter of Majesty. But he was getting old, and he had no heirs. He could hand things off to his next younger brother, but that was only going to stall things again for another five years. The person that the Spanish wing of the family really wanted was Matthias’ cousin Ferdinand. Unlike his cousins, Ferdinand had no awkward fetishes or occult tastes, and he had studiously kept his distance from the internal feud between Matthias and Rudolf. Even better from the Spaniards’ view, he was relatively young, energetic, and best of all a no compromise Catholic raised on a steady diet of red meat Jesuit teachings. When he was 18 he had traveled to Rome and the holy city, and upon assuming control of Hapsburg possessions in modern Austria and Slovenia he had immediately launched an extensive purge of Protestant leaders in his area. Now in his late 30’s, Ferdinand’s offer to the Spanish Hapsburgs was more of the same on a grander scale.[4] The problem for Ferdinand was that the Protestants had noticed this too, especially the Bohemians celebrating their tenuous new freedom. When they moved to act, it would upset the tenuous balance that remained in the Empire.

[1] His micromanagerial tendencies were also notorious. At one point he banned carriages for anyone under 45, to encourage his nobles to become better horsemen.

[2] Frederick IV had died at a relatively young age. The first ruler in this story to fall prey to alcoholism, but certainly not the last.

[3] Both Protestant, naturally. “Thou shalt nots” notwithstanding few noble Christians have ever abstained from a good fratriciding if it gave them more power.

[4] And Alsace, by way of the treaty of Onate. Few places in Europe have changed hands as many times.


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