A Lion’s Death

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Frederick in 1630. He would outlive the King of Sweden by just a few weeks. Photo Credit: Michael van Mierevelt

In spite of the carnage many of the Empire’s leading Protestants were overjoyed at the reverse in Imperial fortunes, none more so than the former Winter King Frederick V. The one time ruler of Bohemia had been cooling his heels in the Netherlands for some time now, alternately writing letters to anyone he thought would listen and passing the time with games of tennis. With Adolphus now rampaging[1] southwards into the relatively unspoiled central Germany Frederick packed his bags and met up with the King of Sweden in newly conquered Frankfurt am Main by February 1632. It was clear that Frederick, like everyone else, had placed a great deal of stock in Adolphus. In an extremely premature gesture he had even named his newly born eighth child Gustavus. But Frederick had failed to consider what King Gustavus Adolphus actually wanted.

Though Adolphus was nominally here to champion Protestant causes like Frederick’s, the actual war had long since moved on from the Palatinate. To divert his attentions to the region, Adolphus insisted the British provide a matching army, or else Frederick would have to accept becoming a Swedish fief as compensation for his lands. Given that Britain’s King Charles was in the midst of a financially disastrous and egotistical play at self rule without a Parliament, Charles had no way of actually helping his nephew even if he had been interested in bogging himself down in another European adventure. As a result Frederick was left despairing over the devil’s pact he would have to sign. Permanently disillusioned and old before his time, Frederick left the army again that year, and died in Mainz of the plague. He had gambled everything on a series of alliances stacked as precariously as any house of cards, and had lost.[2]

Frederick was far from the only one realizing the Swedish King was no one’s instrument, but instead a dangerous new player in the war. Both Johann Georg and Cardinal Richelieu had hoped to use Adolphus for their own ends, namely to force the Emperor to the negotiating table and to ensure that French interests were protected and enhanced respectively. Unsurprisingly now that both men had committed their resources to Adolphus’ cause he saw little reason to pander to either of them. Johann Georg especially found that his currency in the alliance worth less after his disgraceful retreat from Breitenfeld.[3] Instead, Adolphus, with the assistance of the ever essential Axel Oxenstierna had begun the process of rebinding the Protestant states to him in a new coalition of the somewhat unwilling dubbed the Corpus Evangelicum. This coalition of willing and somewhat Shanghaied Protestant leaders were supposed to be a domestic Hapsburg counterweight, but whether that was as independent states or Swedish protectorates was unclear.

Richelieu too had been caught off-guard by the independence of his ally, but the situation was more manageable. A healthy pretext had allowed him to invade Lorraine in 1631 after the Duke there attempted to ally himself with Louis XIII’s estranged brother Gaston, and Richelieu’s hold on the Rhine was stronger than ever. More annoying though was the clear flaunting of Richelieu’s own discrete treaties with the various Catholic princes of Germany, Adolphus made no secret that his target in 1632 was Bavaria, and no amount of French entreaties could stop the Swedish juggernaut from rolling towards Maximillian.

If none of his contemporaries could anticipate what Gustavus Adolphus would do, historians find themselves equally lost over his motives in these final years. In a rare moment of open reflection, Gustavus mused that he himself might seize the Imperial Throne, but it was hardly clear how this would play out. While he would indulgently declare he had done this for the sake of Germany’s beleaguered Protestants, he treated every attempt by those same Protestants to open side channels to negotiate with the Emperor as something close to betrayal. Any path to the crown would rely on goodwill, but as Adolphus himself viewed the Protestant rulers, “I fear stupidity and treachery more than force”.[4] The situation was little helped by the king’s habit of distributing German land and titles to his Swedish marshalls. As far as motives went, Adolphus was likely there to conquer Germany, and little else would assuage him.

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The battle of the Rain am Lech in 1632. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In the field, Adolphus and a reinforced Tilly continued to grapple on the edge of Bavaria. The imperials had managed to stall Adolphus at one early encounter, and then planned to block him as he moved south along the Lech River. Rivers could prove a major challenge, and Adolphus had to find a way to get his army across without getting shot to bits if he wanted to get at either Munich or the Emperor’s own hereditary lands. Proving that Breitenfeld wasn’t a fluke, Adolphus launched a complex assault to clear the river. Wet straw was burned for a smokescreen, a diversionary attack to the north drew Tilly’s attention, and then Adolphus’ elite engineers constructed a series of pontoon bridges under cover of a heavy barrage. As Tilly struggled to pull his army together, a small group of Finns stormed to the other side and provided cover as the entire Swedish force rushed the imperial army. Trying to avoid another rout as his enemies swarmed in, Tilly’s right leg was essentially blown off by a three pound cannonball. An admirer of his nemesis, Adolphus sent his personal physicians to try and save the general’s life, though given medical knowledge at the time one hopes that was the point of the gesture. Tilly thanked Adolphus for the gesture, and praised the Swedish king as a true knight, but there was no saving him. At a respectable 73 Tilly died fifteen days later. Maximilian and what was left of his army fell back to prevent Adolphus from advancing towards Bohemia or Vienna, and sacrificed Munich to its fate.

Meanwhile, lurking to the north, Wallenstein finished equipping his army and forced the Emperor into an unknown concession. Though these final years of his life would prove immensely controversial, there was no arguing with his results against the Swedes and their reluctant allies. As a first order of business, he promptly ejected the Saxons from Bohemia, and then dispatched some of his forces on a concerted campaign of terror throughout Johann Georg’s lands.[5] With the rest of his forces the Duke of Friedland turned south to besiege Nuremburg. The city was a crucial link in Adolphus’ supply chain, and losing it would be a serious blow to his own personal myth as well. With that in mind the Swedish king raced north to shoo away the mercenary overlord.

Unfortunately, Wallenstein had been paying attention to his enemy’s tactics, and showed himself to be a quick learner. By late August he had dug a serious network of fortifications around the city almost 16 kilometers long. Even as disease ripped through the city and his own camp, Wallenstein and his enemy both clung on bitterly. Finally, Adolphus launched his troops at the trench lines. In a parallel to later trench wars, the charge across no man’s land ended when his troops slammed into rudimentary barbed wire made out of felled and sharpened trees called abatis. A second battle at Fürth again met the same result, and Adolphus was left licking his wounds. Now willing to discuss terms, Adolphus was rebuffed by Wallenstein. For fifteen years now, neither side had considered an equitable peace when they held the stronger position, and both had ultimately paid the price when the situation reversed itself.

By November Wallenstein was retiring towards his winter quarters made at the expense of Saxony, a position he knew would sever the Swedish supply lines north and dissolve Adolphus’ army through attrition. It must have come as a nasty shock when he learned the Swedes had been storming north after him, well aware that Wallenstein had just despatched a portion of his army under General Pappenheim to another target. On November 16th, 1632 at Lützen the two generals met for what was to be the final time. The battle was to be fateful and decisive.

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The fatal moment at Lützen. Photo Credit: Jan Asseljin.

After a series of wild charges, Adolphus’ Swedes broke the Imperial trench lines, only to be surprised by the sudden return of General Pappenheim roaring in to their left flank and forced back. Yet even as Wallenstein jubilantly cried out “I know my Pappenheim!” The hot blooded Pappenheim was shot through the lung and staggered off to die. Just as defiant and confident as ever, King Gustavus Adolphus led the countercharge himself and the Swedes surged forwards anew, until an imperial musketeer caught sight of the king and shot him in the neck.

Adolphus had lived a charmed life. He had been shot once fighting the Danish in his youth. At Breitenfeld he had galloped along the frontlines barking orders and encouragement. At Fürth just a few weeks before he had his horse shot out from under him. When his officers chided him to be more careful, he had scornfully dismissed it. What use, he asked, was a king in a box? Even to the observers what stood out the most of Adolphus was his almost frightening confidence. One English observer quipped that, “he thinks the ship that carries him cannot sink”.[6]

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Gustavus’ body returned to Sweden. Photo Credit: Carl Gustaf Hellqvist.

All of the luck and near misses were now paid back with interest at Lützen. Lost in the smoke, the king’s honor guard promptly blundered straight into a fresh line of imperial horsemen as they tried to rush their leader to safety. Shot a second time and then stomped on in the melee, Adolphus fell from his horse. His body would be found later that evening, stripped naked and shot at least four times in the side, face, back, and neck. For good measure, someone had stabbed him with a dagger. In their shock and grief, Bernard of Saxe-Weimar had somehow still driven the furious Swedish army to victory and shattered Wallenstein’s army. King Gustavus Adolphus died as dramatically as he lived, claiming a final pyrrhic victory at Lützen on the way out the door.

[1] Rampaging was indeed the word at points. When Adolphus’ forces stormed Erfurt “Magdeburg Quarter” was offered to the garrison. Which is to say everyone was butchered in the streets. At other times, like Frankfurt, Adolphus carefully accepted a ransom and restrained his men from ransacking the place. Effectively the King offered mercy and terror in equal measure to get maximum value from both.

[2] One shouldn’t feel too badly for the family of the Winter King though, we know his descendant better as Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom.

[3] Attempting to look tough, Johann Georg at one point declared his intention to hang any deserters from the battle. The snarky reply from one English soldier was that the Saxon Elector would have to start with his own neck.

[4] Wedgwood 2005

[5] To at least some degree, Johann Georg’s halfhearted enthusiasm for the war likely sped up this process.

[6] Wedgewood 2005.

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