The Season of the Winter King

Perpetual gadfly Bethlen Gabor of Transylvania and leader of the Hungarian nobility in exile. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

With the passing of Matthias, central Europe abruptly dissolved into a war zone. With no way out in sight, the more moderate Bohemian Protestants fell in line behind Thurn. Then, from bad to worse for Ferdinand, the remaining and long oppressed Protestants in his Austrian backyard of Lusatia and Moravia revolted.

Yet at the start it looked like a general insurrection might prove unnecessary. In June 1619 while still in Vienna, Ferdinand learned that Thurn and some 10,000 men were on their way. The newly crowned emperor suddenly discovered that not only was his capital surrounded, but the last Protestant member of the Vienna City Council abruptly declared his support for the rebels. In Catholic legend, mere moments before Ferdinand would have been sent sailing out of the window in a thematically appropriate ending, dragoons led by Ferdinand’s brother broke the siege lines, stormed the palace, and saved his life. Lacking siege weaponry and hearing nothing from his men in the city’s fifth column, Thurn was forced to fall back in the face of oncoming winter. No one knew it yet, but the high water mark of the revolt had already passed.

Especially clueless of the implications was Frederick himself. The stars still seemed aligned that summer. The rebel leaders in Austria and Bohemia had announced an alliance, which, Frederick noted to his wife “will hardly please Ferdinand”.[1] Better still, the Hungarian nobility, led by the Prince of Transylvania Bethlen Gabor announced the same. With that, the first foreign power had joined the war. Stifling their laughter at the sheer mayhem of it all, the Ottomans also gleefully recognized the Protestant Bohemians, and offered troops to support their efforts.

However, the broader response from the other domestic powers seemed a bit more muted, and that should have given Frederick more pause. That same July even as Frederick awaited his Bohemian crown, the Elector’s representatives assembled to vote on the next Emperor. It put the Palatine leader and his advisor Christian in an awkward spot. They simply had no alternative candidate to Ferdinand for the job. [2] Of the seven voting Electors, Bohemia was vacant, and the other two Protestant Electors in Saxony and Brandenburg had little interest in helping Calvinist Frederick. In fact they even openly wondered whether the Palatinate was busy conflating the cause of Protestantism with his own quest for power. Lacking another choice, even the Palatinate awkwardly voted for Emperor Ferdinand.

Propaganda of Frederick V in front of his short lived kingdom, also perpetuating our ‘guy on horseback’ theme this post. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

At the same time, word finally arrived from Prague. The Bohemians offered the Crown of Wenceslas to Frederick. The same crown they had just torn from Ferdinand, who Frederick’s representatives had also just named Emperor. Tangled up in a knot of his own hypocritical votes and against the advice of Maximilian, the other Protestant Electors, the allied states of his pet alliance the Evangelical Union, and his own mother, Frederick accepted the Bohemian offer and was crowned Frederick I, King of Bohemia on August 26, 1619. Just 22, Frederick was bound for the romance and righteousness of it all. Explaining himself to his uncle he termed the crown “a divine calling which I must not disobey”.[3]

Now King, Frederick put out the call to allies and was met with a resounding “meh”. Domestically the Union states accepted the French mediated Treaty of Ulm with Maximilian’s Catholic League and declared they would remain neutral in the coming war. Even worse, Saxon Elector Johann Georg actively moved to invade rebel held Lusatia as part of his own brokered deal with the Emperor. Internationally only the Dutch really answered. With their own resurgent war with Spain on the horizon, it was clear that Amsterdam would need friends, and Frederick seemed like a decent bet. Unfortunately, the English were a much harder sell, in part because King James was a bit easy to mislead.

King James I of England will be the Protestant wet blanket for the duration of his life. He had urged Frederick to refuse the crown, in part because he detested rebellions in general. In one of his more condescending exchanges, James also urged Frederick’s messengers to refuse the crown and listen to James because “your master is young and I am old”. Another reason was his rather hubristic desire to play arbiter to the religious conflict in Europe. His daughter had married Frederick, and he now spent years shopping his son Charles around looking for a suitable Spanish princess to marry. The prospect of such a match made him at once hesitant to support his actual allies, and easy prey to any fake offers the Spaniards would periodically dangle in front of him at critical moments in the early phase of the war.

Even beyond a marital alliance, Spain’s occasional hints that James could serve as mediator only left James feeling embarrassed when Frederick and others had to explain that Spain really had no right to offer something like that. It also didn’t help that James and the Dutch were busy squabbling over fishing rights, something that regularly threw a wrench in Dutch diplomacy at the worst possible times. Occasionally, James would look up and notice just how badly things were going for his son and law, and he would fling some nominal sum of money or troops into the fray but rarely enough to count for much. Perhaps full commitment would have saved Frederick, or at least severing the alliance might have discouraged his son-in-law from acting, but a tepid middle ground did little but give Frederick false hope.

‘Guy on Horse’ exhibit Three Count Tilly. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

For their part, the Spanish and Phillip didn’t plan on underestimating the seriousness of the crisis in Germany. They immediately identified the same kind of disastrous endgame that Thurn and Christian were seeking, and moved to disrupt it by sending the Spanish general the Count of Bucquoy.[4] Likewise, Maximillian in his Bavarian castle saw the opportunity of a lifetime, and secretly negotiated a deal with Ferdinand.[5] In exchange for the military support he could muster from the Catholic states in his League, Maximilian would be given the electoral title of the Palatinate and a healthy chunk of its territory when all was said and done. To free himself to act without reprisals from the Protestants, Maximilian’s brilliant Treaty of Ulm had pledged the two sides to keep from fighting, but notably omitted Bohemia from the agreement. With Frederick isolated, Maximilian dispatched his best general Johannes Tserclaes, the Count of Tilly[6] to lead the Catholic League in the upcoming war.

With the odds now stacked firmly against them, the rebellion’s days were numbered. More Spanish and Catholic League forces were pouring in by the day to balance out the poorly trained Bohemians. To complicate matters further, Poland had been talked into attacking the Ottomans, and an overly zealous French Catholic diplomat had personally recruited a force of Cossacks to raid Transylvania. As suddenly as they arrived, the Ottomans and Bethlen Gabor both bowed out and hurried off to deal with the new monkey wrenches. Though Gabor would bounce back into the fray before too long and the Polish would come out the worse for tangling with Constantinople, the delay bought Ferdinand the time he needed.

By this point somewhere between five and six armies were now meandering around Bohemia, most of them relying entirely on the forced generosity of the locals for income. Into this mix Frederick, his advisor Christian of Anhalt, and his young English wife arrived, just in time to learn that military and financial support from the local Bohemian Protestants fell far short of Thurn’s expectations. To his credit Frederick didn’t immediately turn his royal carriage around, but the imperial forces were already closing in on his new capital.

The order of battle for White Mountain. It almost looks like an ordered game of chess from this perspective. Photo Credit: Matthaus Mauran

It’s almost embarrassing to call the battle of White Mountain a finale; it’s more like the final putter of air escaping a punctured balloon. Christian of Anhalt had taken command of the largest rebel force of roughly 15-30,000 men, with advice from Count Thurn. Opposing them were Tilly, his deputy Count Wallenstein, General Bucquoy for the Spanish and Imperial forces, and Maximilian of Bavaria who had come along for the show. Not only was the Imperial army nearly twice size of the Bohemian force, but most of the men were hardened veterans from Flanders and Wallonia.[7] The same could be said of the officer’s corps, and Tilly had already been shoving the rebel forces back towards Prague without breaking a sweat. Christian knew he had to stop the retreat somewhere, and he picked a sloping ridge not far from the city where he could make a decent stand on November 8, 1620. The position wasn’t bad, but the Protestant soldiers weren’t having it. Few of them cared about the cause at hand, and most hadn’t been paid in months. Even the equipment needed to dig the trenches was missing. While Frederick literally ran off to buy or beg for shovels in Prague he could ship back, the imperial army arrived. Initially though, Tilly hesitated. Uphill frontal assaults weren’t exactly his style, as such attacks were usually a very bad idea against men with guns. Yet Maximilian insisted, arguing correctly that Protestant morale was in the pits. Just giving the enemy a brief nudge was all Max thought it would take.

Modern Reenactors in the Czech Republic at White Mountain. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Though skeptical, Tilly agreed and sent a cavalry probe forwards to start things off. It was a dance all experienced generals knew at the time. There would be a little back and forth, the two cavalry forces would flirt at a distance with pistols, then skip around each other looking for a weak spot. Only this time instead of the full routine the Protestants skipped right to the part where their entire flank disintegrated and ran away. From there the entire situation snowballed as the Bohemian musketeers fired one volley at extreme range then legged it for the hills.[8] But for the mopping up, Bohemia’s rebellion was over after just two years. Caught like Ferdinand in the midst of lunch when he got the bad news, Frederick fled Prague so quickly he left behind his own crown and his personal correspondence. Frederick would become mockingly known as the Winter King for his brief time as a monarch. As for the Bohemians, their desperate jab at revolution earned them near three hundred years of Hapsburg occupation, and a religious purge of its Protestants.

Though Ferdinand had assured Lutherans like the Saxons that their kin would be left alone, the new emperor really had no intention of tolerating anyone he saw as heretical in his own backyard. Fully two thirds of the minor nobility found themselves evicted, and even remaining neutral during the rebellion was grounds for expulsion or worse. Over time Protestant administrators, town councilors, and teachers were all removed from their jobs. As for the rebellion’s leadership after a night or two of wrestling with his conscience Ferdinand opted for an extremely harsh but restricted vengeance. In a series of trials dubbed the Court of Blood, the lead conspirators and defenestrators were condemned to death. One suicide and four axes later, 27 men had been decapitated, typically with either their right hand or in one case their tongue removed first to really emphasize the point. Others were sentenced in absentia like Thurn, who had hitched up his robes and fled for Constantinople by this time. All of these expulsions, purges, and decapitations created quite a few new opportunities for any ambitious Catholics, and none took so full advantage of them as Count Albrecht von Wallenstein.

A contemporary rendering of The Court of Blood. Specifically the execution of Joachim von Andreas, Graff von Schlick. His severed head and right hand were staked on the Town Bridge of Prague. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Wallenstein is probably the most controversial figure of the war, and he begins to step forward in the aftermath of the revolt. Born into a poor Protestant Lutheran family in Bohemia, Wallenstein had converted to Catholicism while fighting the Turks in Rudolf’s hapless crusade. Discovering that killing heathens wasn’t just fun but profitable, Wallenstein had stayed in imperial service afterwards, and was now reaping the rewards of loyalty. Thanks to a title grant here, a land grab there, Wallenstein quickly built up a tidy kingdom for himself near the Elbe River known as the Duchy of Friedland. Just to emphasize the kind of killing to be made in real estate after the actual killings were done, Wallenstein went from essentially nothing to control of almost 2,000 square miles in a few years. Just what he was going to do with his own personal manufacturing hub, breadbasket, and recruiting center was going to become clear soon enough.

Medieval Christianity loved the concept of the Wheel of Fortune. Rather than the tacky game show, the Wheel is usually represented as a water wheel, showing the circles of success and failure. Kings are at the top and beggars at the bottom, but the wheel is always turning. If Wallenstein was on his way up, then the Winter King was certainly on his way down.

[1] Wedgwood 2005

[2] Maximilian was one of the proffered alternatives. Max, whose sister was actually married to Ferdinand, was understandably reluctant. Incidentally in 1635 Maximilian and Ferdinand would redouble their alliance when Max married Ferdinand’s daughter Maria Anna. As in, Maximilian’s own niece. For those wondering why Europe’s heritage charts resemble the folk ditty “I’m my own Grampa”, this seems like a good place to start.

[3] Wedgwood 2005

[4] Or Charles Bonaventure de Longueval, Count of Bucquoy for the longer version. The Count would command the imperial forces at White Mountain, and had already sent Mansfeld packing once. But he will die less than a year after in western Bohemia. His name will not be on the test.

[5] C.V Wedgwood in her excellent history of the conflict suggests that Max had gone in for Ferdinand in the hope of ending keeping the conflict an exclusively German one. In addition to the obvious financial and titular rewards.

[6] Tilly from now on.

[7] Nowadays Belgium isn’t really the place modern leaders go when they’re looking for stone cold killers.

[8] Shrieks of Monty Python-ish “Run Away” optional.


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