War on the Rhine, in the Palatine

Imperial pamphlet mocking the Winter King, with Frederick getting vigorously stomped on by the Hapsburg Eagle. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

From White Mountain, Frederick’s decline continued at near terminal velocity. Not only was his correspondence being used by Catholic investigators to damn all of his contacts, but as an added humiliation his garters had been found in Prague Castle by Maximilian’s soldiers.[1] Vicious as always, political cartoonists took to depicting him with his pants down in flight. Bouncing to Silesia, he was just as quickly forced out by the Silesians themselves who were hurriedly distancing themselves from the scent of failure surrounding the Bohemian rebellion. Returning home was not an option either, Emperor Ferdinand had declared his assets were forfeit as the price of treason, and Spanish troops were already moving to attack his possessions along the Rhine. Piling in at the first excuse, Maximilian also used an incursion by Mansfeld as an excuse to carve off a slice of the Upper Palatinate for himself.

It was not a total loss for Frederick. The Dutch had finally shamed James into noticing the dire peril his son in law was in, and the British King agreed to deposit some troops in cities like Worms. Moreover the Dutch themselves offered to foot the bill for a new mercenary army under the command of 18 year old Christian of Brunswick. Another second son, Christian was Protestant not only out of devotion but out of a burning hatred for the opposition.[2] A third army of men from Baden was raised by Georg-Friedrich, one of the few Evangelical lords to answer the plea of their ally now that the Bavarians had clearly voided the Treaty of Ulm. But the major lords, like Electors of Saxony and the Brandenburg, remained conspicuously silent.

The “lower” (left) and “upper” territories of the Palatine in the 17th Century Empire. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Nor could the Dutch really offer more than some tangential assistance. By 1622 the Low Countries had gone back to full scale war, with the Dutch receiving the worst of it by far. Even the decision to return to war had prompted a major falling out between the hawks and doves in Holland, climaxing in the literal beheading of civil government leader and political dove Johan van Oldenbarnevelt. Shaken but now committed to the war effort, the Dutch were being steamrolled by the brilliant Spanish general Ambrosio Spinola. The militarily crucial fortress at Bergen op Zoom was put under siege, though the Dutch held on.

Stuck in exile in the Hague, Frederick decided he would take a more active role in defending his lands. Leaving in disguise, he smuggled himself across Germany and joined Count Mansfeld in the Upper Palatine. The mercenary had proven himself resourceful, and had managed to dodge multiple attempts to pin his army down. This wasn’t to say Mansfeld was winning, but at this point the Winter King was hoping to latch onto any noble champion out there fighting for the Cause.

What Frederick found was quite a shock.[3] Through his writings it’s hard not to see Frederick as a bit of a romantic. He loved his wife, he was a passionate Calvinist, and his desire to protect Bohemia seemed born out of a sort of painfully naïve belief in his own higher calling. All of this must have clashed sharply with the callous Mansfeld and the reality of his scavenger hunt for loot and food. As one of his men admiringly put it, “our general does not wish for a treaty or for peace. He laughs at the enemy. All his thoughts are fixed upon the collection of money, of soldiers, and of provisions.”[4] Even as Manfred’s forces pulled off a tactical victory over Tilly, a rough winter in Alsace that saw the army burn thirty villages or more eroded whatever remaining moral high ground Frederick hoped to claim.

When the Protestants moved to combine their three disparate armies Tilly quickly smashed them each in turn. Georg-Friedrich was crushed at Wimpfen, and was so horrified by the carnage that he withdrew from the war. Christian of Brunswick was waylaid at the battle of Höchst, losing most of his own hard won booty. The war had not been going terribly well for the youth in general, as he had to have part of his left arm amputated after a particularly brutal confrontation with the Spanish.[5] With his armies disintegrating and only a winter spent burning Alsace for fun and profit to look forward too, Frederick was despondent. Writing of his own men:

“As for this army it has committed great disorders. I think there are men in it who are possessed of the devil, and who take a pleasure in setting fire to everything. I should be glad to leave them. There ought to be some difference made between friend and foe but these people ruin both alike”.[6]

Another painting by Sebastien Vrancx captures the scene as soldiers pillage a peasant’s house. The scene captures the arbitrary horror of the incursion.

By 1623 Frederick smuggled himself out again and rejoined his wife Elizabeth Stuart in the Hague. He would spend the rest of his life trying to rally support for his lost titles and crown.[7]

It did not have to end this way. By this time the Spanish Court was under the leadership of the energetic Gaspar de Guzman, Duke of Olivares. While Olivares suffered from the same problem as Christian of Anhalt and was nowhere near as clever as he thought he was, he still saw ideas everywhere for reversing Spain’s declining fortunes. Priority one in his book was curbing the Dutch threat forever, and that meant keeping the English happy and freeing up the imperial court to lend a hand. The easiest solution to both problems was to place Frederick back in the Palatine, chastened and with some losses, but under Spanish protection. King James loved the idea, and the two courts attempted to bully Ferdinand into acceding. But both Emperor and Frederick refused. The latter’s sputtering cause would limp on as a result, casting about in Europe for the would be Protestant savior.

No one answered Frederick’s call that year, and soon even Mansfeld and Christian were brought to heel. At the Battle of Stadtlohn Christian’s army was wiped out, with many of the survivors opting to join the Catholic League and its offer of steadier pay. Mansfeld himself disbanded his forces, and Calvinism’s unofficial capital of Heidelberg was sacked.

Elsewhere the fortunes of Protestantism were equally dim. The Dutch were still very much on the back foot. Spanish privateers based in Dunkirk were burning Dutch commerce, and militarily the key fortress of Breda was under siege by Spinola. The latter was an especially remarkable achievement, as Breda was a towering fortress in the middle of a giant wetland. Any invading army that successfully waded over to the walls had to contend with Dutch reinforcements utilizing their local knowledge of the canals to flank the besieger and reinforce the besieged. Spinola took the whole situation in stride by draining the most problematic waterways with a series of his own trenches and sluices. The only saving grace for the Dutch had been that the Catholic League’s army had declined to invade the Netherlands, as Maximilian wasn’t in the mood to jeopardize his new lands with new enemies. Regardless of what Maximilian wanted, new enemies were piling in.

[1] Note from the Author. Googling “Frederick V” and “Garters” does not help with fact checking this tidbit. It is apparently the same name as a USA based lingerie company.

[2] As an added bonus, Christian was one of those rare creatures that loved war in all its forms. He was a violent young man, and from his own writings he expressed awareness that it would be the death of him.

[3] It was also a shock to Mansfeld, who had been in the process of accepting hefty cash bribes to leave Catholic and Hapsburg possessions alone. Having his employer onhand sort of bound the mercenary in place.

[4] Wilson 2009

[5] He took the loss in good spirits though, commissioning a medal for himself with the phrase: “I’ve still got the other one”

[6] Wilson 2009

[7] Mansfeld, for his part was happy to be rid of his employer. He immediately offered his services to the Dutch. At times his forces were the only nominally Protestant army in the field.


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