A Christian War

King Christian IV, playing up the marshall aspects of his reign. While one of the stronger and clearheaded monarchs in Europe, militarily he would come up short. Photo Credit: Pieter Isaacz

By the mid-1620’s, the Palatine phase of the War was all but over. The Imperial and Catholic League forces had essentially concluded their game of Protestant mercenary whack-a-mole, but peace remained elusive. Frederick and the remnants of the Evangelical Union began cast about more broadly for a new Protestant champion in Europe.

Both the King of Sweden and Christian IV of Denmark offered their assistance for a price.[1] Christian in particular saw intervention as a chance to reverse the slow decline his Danish empire seemed to be spiraling towards. For years the Danes had held all of Scandinavia in their grip, but Sweden and Finland had recently rebelled and reformed a long dormant independent state. While he had successfully beaten down the Swedes in the recent Kalmar War of 1611-1613, going south seemed more practical. The German Protestants agreed, and felt that Christian’s holdings in the Empire at least gave him a technical claim that this was not outside intervention. In 1625, Christian IV formally intervened in the war with more than 35,000 mercenaries and Danish soldiers, albeit technically in his capacity as the Duke of Schleswig and Holstein.

Nor was the King of Denmark alone. Spurned again by the Spanish after his proposal to marry his son Charles had been turned down flat, King James was finally roused to take a tougher stance in the war. More than 3,000 Scotsmen under Colonel Robert Munro grabbed their kilts, broadswords, and muskets and sailed to join the fray; soon to be followed by thousands of their countrymen.[2] James promised an additional 6,000 Englishmen, and unlike previous times these men were actually permitted to join the fray; rather than staying in their barracks to die of disease like the garrisons sent to defend Frederick’s lands. Further south, Savoy and Venice had also agreed to distract the Spanish. Even Bethlen Gabor was back, like some pillaging form of boomerang. But the key wind in King Christian IV’s sails was the promise of money. Not just enough to pay his men, but cash enough to help Mansfeld and Christian of Brunswick raise one final round of armies for the Protestant cause.

Cardinal Richelieu towards the end of his life. At time he’s been played by such mustache twirling luminaries as Tim Curry, Vincent Price, and Christoph Waltz. Photo Credit: Phillippe du Champaigne

While James was footing some of the bill for Mansfeld, the big spender and negotiator behind all of this was French King Louis XIII. Or more accurately Louis’ advisor, the legendary Armand Jean du Plessis, better known to history as Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642). The nominal Cardinal had actually started his life pursuing a military career, and had been forced to don the cloth to protect his family’s assets on church lands. His background showed, and Richelieu never quite shakes the impression of a French Bismarck in fancier robes. The parallel was especially strong in Richelieu’s approach to realpolitik. Unlike Ferdinand and Frederick, Richelieu reflected a shifting pragmatism that prioritized nations over faith. As he ascended to power, Richelieu had been forced to confront Louis’ mother, Marie de Medici, who had long since grown comfy to serving as Queen Regent. Marie seemed less than concerned about the assassination of her husband, and had been happily squandering the royal treasury and handing appointments to her toadies for years. With Richelieu’s help, the young Louis finally threw off her influence in 1630, ultimately banishing her and his own rebellious brother Gaston from France entirely in a bait and switch known as the Day of the Dupes. Needless to say, it never pays to underestimate a man who can turn someone against their own mother.

Cardinal Richelieu inherited a state just coming to grips with the idea of being one, and he was determined to deal with all of France’s enemies both foreign and domestic. At times these two goals ensured France had the strangest of bedfellows, sometimes contradictory ones. Coinciding with Christian IV’s planned invasion of Germany, the French began to meddle in a portion of Italy’s Lombardy region known as the Valtelline, a crucial segment of the Spanish Road. While all of this collaboration with foreign Protestants was occurring though, domestically Richelieu was turning his gaze on the Protestant Huguenots. Resting on a knife edge of security, the Huguenots had begun to rebuild their own parallel armies and fortresses to protect themselves should the Edict of Nantes be revoked, and Richelieu was just as determined as Emperor Ferdinand was to stomp out this kind of militant dissent. Ideally for Richelieu he could get his own house in order while giving the Danes the boost they needed to poke the Hapsburgs in the eyeball.

Yet as Christian IV marched south the grand plan he envisioned dissolved like a mirage. Things had started acceptably. Christian’s army had made landfall, and with a bit of threatening lean on the lords of the lower Saxon Circle in eastern and northern Germany he had free reign to recruit and bolster his forces further.

Wallenstein, sporting the Mephistophelian facial hair and lacy collar of the time. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

Then a joker entered play. Albrecht von Wallenstein had been biding his time for a few years now, and suddenly offered to raise an army on Ferdinand’s behalf. Friedland would provide all of the men and materiel Wallenstein would need, all the Emperor would have to do was sign off on the project. Deciding a foreign invasion was not the time to look this gift horse in the mouth, Ferdinand agreed. Though a reasonably talented general, Wallenstein’s bigger innovation was in the realm of finances. The current mercenary approach of stealing everything but the kitchen sink from the locals was inefficient. It was much better to leave that as an option of last resort, and to work out a “negotiated” payment from locals. In his own words, to “pluck the goose with a minimum of screeching”.[3] His men stayed supplied from his own stores, and were paid promptly by the locals as thanks for leaving their homes intact. Faced with a second major force on the board, Christian IV struggled to maneuver as his allies deserted him or died.

At Dessau Bridge in 1626 Wallenstein’s army faced down Mansfeld’s and obliterated the wily mercenary’s troops in a furious cannonade. Falling back, Mansfeld would eventually make his way south to link up with Bethlen Gabor with Wallenstein in pursuit, only to find that the Transylvanian had gone home. Mansfeld would die in November 1626 in modern day Croatia. The same year Christian of Brunswick, feeling far older and sicker than his 28 years suggested, also died alone and far from home. Even the money funding Christian IV had dried up swiftly. The English and the Dutch having given less than he needed.

A Catholic pamphlet details the victory at Dessau Bridge. Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Hoping for a decisive stroke in Wallenstein’s absence, Christian struck out at Tilly. Well aware of his rival’s approach, Tilly set his stage carefully and smashed Christian’s army at the Battle of Lutter on August 27, 1626. While Christian tried to pull his lines together, fully half his army was wiped out or deserted the cause. The whole mess was dreadfully embarrassing for the German Protestants, who had staked their hopes on Christian’s intervention. Deciding a packet of wet tissues might have been more effective they quickly closed their doors on his retreating army when it came calling for fresh supplies. From bad to worse for Denmark, Wallenstein followed the Danes home and began to rip up the Jutland Peninsula.

To cap the whole disaster off, King James had died and passed the throne to his son Charles. Never the best ruler, Charles and his favorite minister the Duke of Brunswick decided to shred the last two years of diplomacy and backed the growing Huguenot revolt in France. Richelieu, practical as ever, switched gears and made his peace with the Spanish. Christian was left to fend for himself against the now ticked off Ferdinand, and the average German was left to suffer the consequences of the ongoing war.

The 1620s were an especially bad time to be a German in many areas. Previous years of bumper crops had caused a population explosion, helping to provide the bodies that now marched for one power or the other. That growth had now whiplashed back on itself as war, environmental degradation, and a series of bad growing seasons triggered a widespread famine. Faced with misery on all sides, the local peasants often fought back where they could. In 1626, the same years as Lutter, the peasants of Upper Austria rose up in a rage against the Hapsburgs resigned to death and marked by the black banners they flew. Though they were quickly put down, more revolts and guerilla campaigns became increasingly common. For many Germans the prospect of peace must have been enticing no matter the religious strings attached.

[1] King Christian IV (1577-1648, appropriately enough) is our third Christian in a story of Christians killing each other, so here’s a helpful guide to remembering him. Christian IV is 1, Danish, and 2, the only one so far with an unhealthy interest in burning people for witchcraft. As an unhealthy and ironic mark of the times, Christian was still considered a sophisticated and intelligent monarch for his time. His fault was never to shine as brilliantly, nor flare out as quickly as some of his rivals. Also burning witches.

[2] The 17th Century marked a brief window where Scottish troops were among the most dangerous fighting men in Europe. The 1-2 combination of a close range musket volley followed by a furious charge with their broadswords made them valued allies and mercenaries.Of course, since WWI German soldiers nicknamed them the “ladies from hell” perhaps it’s always been wiser to avoid picking a fight with a Scottish army.

[3] Wilson 2009


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