High Tide of the Hapsburgs

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Olivares in full armor points to his inadverdant legacy of fire and destruction. Photo Credit: Diego Velazquez

For the Hapsburgs at least the late 1620’s seemed triumphant. Olivares gleefully declared in 1625 that “God is Spanish and fights for our nation these days”.[1] It probably seemed that way to the shellshocked and humbled Danish King. Everywhere the house of Austria’s enemies seemed to be in full retreat by 1627. The French were once again fixated on their own Protestant problems, with the major Huguenot port fortress of La Rochelle under a full siege. Foreign policy from the English remained as fickle as ever, and Charles’ favorite at court the Duke of Buckingham had attempted a disastrous relief of the fortress.[2] Often in command on site at La Rochelle, Richelieu had even entertained a possible Franco-Spanish alliance against the English.

Even better for Olivares was the news out of the United Provinces. The Gordian knot that was the Dutch Problem was the focus of all of Olivares’ designs, and he felt he was finally closing in on a solution. The fortress of Breda had fallen in 1625, and Dutch attempts to widen the war had thus far been beaten back.[3] While pulling the Dutch back into line was a lost cause to Olivares, forcing a pro-Spanish, and permanent peace seemed like it might be possible. To get to this solution, the Spanish minister began to spin ever grander designs.

But many of Olivares’ wackier schemes to end the Dutch problem would create new problems of their own. His biggest idea centered on the Baltic, which his enemies kept treating like their own personal lake. The Danes, Swedes, and Dutch all utilized the Baltic Sea as a hub for commercial trade and resupply, and thus far it had been out of either Hapsburg’s reach. At long last Spain and the Empire felt confident enough to try. They began to work on constructing a combined Hapsburg navy between Wallenstein, the Polish, and the somewhat reluctant network of northern German merchant cities known as the Hanseatic League.

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One contemporary map of the siege. Straslund effectively existed on a sandbar and turned into an island during high tides. Attacking the city without control of the surrounding waters in Northeastern Germany proved effectively impossible. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The idea was complemented by Wallenstein’s newest title, Prince of Mecklenburg. Titles tend to breed titles, and Wallenstein’s rapid promotion from nobody mercenary to high nobility was causing more than a little grumbling in Ferdinand’s court. Now that he was being called Admiral of the Baltic Sea, some voices began to wonder if he would ever stop growing in power. Regardless, for Olivares’ Baltic strategy to work, Wallenstein needed ports for the 24 ships he had promised to build. One of the ideal spots was the city of Stralsund, and Wallenstein began to push towards the Baltic port. One of the last holdouts in Protestant Germany, the city began receiving gifts from influential friends to help them endure the inevitable siege.[4] One of these was the Danes, even as Christian frantically searched for a ladder to climb out of the hole he’d dug for himself. The other was Christian’s most tenacious enemy, King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden.

Everything on paper had suggested Adolphus’ reign would be a disaster when it started. The Swedish king was just a boy when he inherited the throne, they were essentially always at war with Poland and Denmark, and even his own nobility had jumped at the crisis to blackmail the imperial crown. Fortunately for Adolphus he had a genius advisor named Axel Oxenstierna in his corner. Rather than fight his own nobles, Adolphus unilaterally accepted all of their demands, winning them over and earning the undying loyalty of the country. Within a few short years he was able to reform his state economically, refurbish trade, assess his own tax base, fend off his foreign enemies with more success than failure, and had even built up a thriving arms industry with Dutch help. Fiery and decisive, Adolphus was balanced by Oxenstierna, a moderating and tempering influence. By the time of the Thirty Years’ War, Adolphus had been spending his time kicking the Polish around, conquering portions of Livonia[5], and several major east Prussian ports that essentially doubled his national revenues. He also saw himself as something of a Protestant champion, and had been outraged at the lack of support Frederick had gotten from the other German Protestants. When the Elector of Brandenburg had declined to help Frederick defend the Palatinate, Adolphus sent him a prophetic note that read, “first him, then you”.

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King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, or Gustav Adolf depending on language. Photo Credit: Jacob Hofnagel

Stralsund would mark the foundation of Adolphus’ plans for Germany. The city first received an unsolicited donation of five tonnes of gunpowder to resist Wallenstein’s siege, and as the situation grew more dire Stralsund agreed to a twenty year alliance with the Swedish king. Contract in hand Swedish and Danish forces, including a strong Scottish contingent[6], began to pour in to bolster the city’s garrison. It was enough of a boost to give Wallenstein his first black eye of the war, and after two unsuccessful assaults on the city the Imperial general was forced to scotch the operation and withdraw in August 1628. It was the first good news for the Protestant cause in many years. Pamphlets mocked the retreating general, snarkily noting “the [Hapsburg] Eagle cannot swim”.[7] Toehold secured, Adolphus was content to bide his time, and to start laying the groundwork for a war on his time and terms.

He would not have to wait long. 1628 marked the year Hapsburg fortunes began to take their first dive. Quicksilver brain and no focus, Olivares had managed to get the Spanish army embroiled in a new attack on the northern Italian fortress of Casale at exactly the wrong time. In theory the resulting Mantuan War had been about maintaining control of northern Italy, especially Spain’s proxy state of Milan. In practice, the conflict sundered any budding reconciliation with the French and turned the region into a meat grinder. The conflict also sucked in Wallenstein and Ferdinand’s troops, as Spain called in an ill-timed favor from the Emperor. As an added bonus, even Pope Urban VIII was antagonized by Hapsburg encroachment in Italy.

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The location of Casale and the focal point of an ultimately disastrous dustup for the Hapsburgs. Adapted from Wikipedia Commons maps.

Most important of all the Mantuan War (1628-1631) was the final burden that snapped the flailing Castilian economy. The crisis had been a long time coming, and it was hardly the first nor would it be the last time the Spanish Crown faced a financial catastrophe. The root of the crisis was structural, due to the quirks of the Iberian Peninsula’s conquest through war and marriage the Court of Castile and its territories were the only consistent source of revenue for the Spanish crown. The result was a heavy and uneven tax burden that forced the Spanish to rely on the literal ability to print money from the slave mines and campaigns in their overseas colonies. When the massive influx of minted silver in turn produced runaway inflation, the courts had turned to selling bureaucratic offices and ruinous bank loans to stay afloat.[8] While Olivares had made a few fleeting stabs at addressing the structural problems, nothing could be truly done until the Dutch had dealt with. As the dominoes of inflation, a devalued currency, interest payments higher than Spain’s annual revenues, overwhelming corruption, and ongoing foreign adventures fell it took the entire Castilian economy off a fiscal cliff. Portions of the region actually reverted to a barter system. Entire armies suddenly found themselves without a paycheck, to say nothing of basic supplies like food or ammunition.

The problem had also been exacerbated by the Dutch themselves, who had snuck out enough ships to attack Spanish colonies elsewhere. Near Cuba in 1628 they ambushed a silver convoy, and its accompanying naval squadron, and smashed it to bits. Such incidents seriously rattled lender’s confidence. While Olivares searched furiously for a new line of credit, Spain could do little in the Netherlands beyond shouting insults and holding their ground. Happy for the respite, the Dutch rolled out and besieged a key fortress called s’Hertogenbosch. Momentum was slipping away from the Hapsburgs, and Ferdinand II was about to reenergize their foes.

[1] Parker, G. (2006). The Thirty Years War.

[2] One of many straws that ultimately broke King Charles’ neck in the long term. Buckingham landed a force of 7,000 on Isle de Re, a coastal fortress blocking the port of La Rochelle but had little to no plans for besieging the island. As an example, the siege ladders brought by the expedition were shorter than the fortress walls. By the end, Buckingham had run out of funding, and his men out of food. 5,000 of them would die of disease, starvation, and gunshots. Insult on injuries, most of the survivors were then shortchanged their pay for a year of horror. In a rare case of karma, Buckingham was stabbed to death the following year by a disgruntled veteran of the campaign.

[3] Including a surprise attack on the capital of Portuguese Brazil.

[4] A notable inverse of the usual relationship between classes in a siege. Typically the upper classes would favor prolonging the conflict, expelling or intentionally starving anyone they termed “useless mouths” from the city as food supplies shrank.

[5] The eastern Baltic coast.

[6] Led again by Robert Munro, the 900 man Scots contingent would lose 500 men killed and another 300 wounded holding a breach in the city fortifications against all comers.

[7] Wedgwood 2005

[8] Put another way: More money, more problems.

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