The Death of Albrecht von Wallenstein

Kreuzlingen Cloister occupied by Swedish troops. Churches and monasteries were often converted into camps for Protestant and Catholic forces. After they were looted, naturally. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Much like his kneeing down in Germany in 1629, the death of King Gustavus Adolphus leveled the playing field of the Thirty Years War once again. The problem was that while Ferdinand again had a fighting chance at reimposing his will over the Holy Roman Empire, Adolphus had shattered the ascendancy the Emperor had enjoyed prior to Breitenfeld. Any victory for the Hapsburgs would now be measured in inches, not miles. Moreover it was a battle Ferdinand was increasingly having to fight on a diminished pile of resources. Spain and Olivares were still confronting their Dutch problem with a side of bankruptcy, and similarly the Polish were tapped out. Pious Catholic that he was it must have been particularly frustrating when the Pope informed Ferdinand that he did not consider the war in Germany to be religious one and therefore would only give the smallest of donations after much coaxing. Moreover, even his ally Maximilian’s Bavarian lands had been set alight from end to end. Writing in despair to his brother, “your grace would not recognize our poor Bavaria”.[1]

If there was any comfort for Ferdinand, it was that his enemies were even worse off. Adolphus’ pincushioned fate had taken most of the wind out of the Swedish sails, though their ship of state was still afloat and in firm hands. Axel Oxenstierna was still in Frankfurt, and three of Adolphus’ sub commanders, Gustav Horn, Lennart Torstensson, and Johan Baner were all near genius soldiers in their own right. It was enough of an intellectual powerhouse to carry on the war without Adolphus, and Oxenstierna tethered whatever Protestant German states he could to the Swedish cause with his now reformed Heilbronn League. Even this modest gain had been hampered somewhat by renewed French meddling in their ally’s affairs.

But the driving fury and overwhelming charisma of the king was sorely missed. This was especially true among the rank and file. The army had suffered a traumatic loss from attrition and combat leading up to Lützen. Just breaking out of the trenches at Nuremburg had cost Adolphus “at least” 29,000 men to disease, skirmishes, and famine, plus another 11,000 in desertions.[2] Lützen alone had netted another 5,000 casualties on top of the day to day losses.[3] No army could absorb that kind of hammering for long, least of all sparsely populated Sweden’s. Even worse for the long term viability of the force, most of Adolphus’ legions had not been paid since 1631. Promises of bonuses for bravery at Breitenfeld, Rain, and Lützen had also not been honored. IOUs were fine when the king had been alive, but with his death, no one, least of all the German mercenaries, were confident in their eventual payday. Mutiny was in the air.

An English painter attempting to capture Wallenstein in the war. Photo Credit: Ernest Croft

Speaking of mutiny, the victory at Lützen had come at a steep mental and physical cost for Albrecht von Wallenstein. For all of Wallenstein’s gifts as an administrator, his chief character flaw was his utterly impersonable and introverted nature. He was short tempered, sarcastic, slept badly, and often troubled by chronic pains like gout that kept him from leading the way a normal commander might. He also hated company. At the best of times he was still known to shut himself in his rooms and demand absolute quiet while he wrote out orders and correspondence.[4] When confronted by an ambassador from Brandenburg while lying in bed, Wallenstein had literally buried his face in a pillow and groaned until the man had left. Such was the typical response of Wallenstein to anyone he disliked, and as a consequence the overwhelming majority of Europe reciprocated the feeling. All of these traits had only been exacerbated by his abrupt termination and return to imperial service in 1630. Not only had the new campaign damaged his health, some of his most loyal officers like Pappenheim were dead on the field.

One scene from a similar 1626 peasant’s uprising against Bavarian rule in Upper Austria. Maximillian was clearly and painfully aware of how dangerous his own subjects could be. Photo Credit: Gerhard Angziger

Wallenstein had flown too close to the Imperial sun on the wax wings of war, and it was time for the fall. Following Lützen there had been several avenues open to the Imperial and Spanish forces. The Swedish forces under Marshall Horn were speeding westwards to threaten the crucial Rhine fortress of Breisach,[5] and Bernard of Saxe-Weimar was still lurking with what remained of Adolphus’ army to the north of Bavaria. Ostensibly pursuing and smashing either of the recovering Swedish and Saxon forces could again lurch the war towards conclusion. But Wallenstein opted for neither, and marched out to set Bohemia and Saxony on fire. Even worse, he continued to quarter his troops on imperial and Bavarian lands. The results spoke for themselves. By the end of 1633 close to 30,000 Bavarian peasants revolted, and a frantic Maximilian only narrowly talked the revolution down from a cliff.

Moreover, while Wallenstein was curt and rude to Hapsburg missives, he seemed to be maintaining an unhealthy correspondence with everyone else. This wasn’t just men like his old friend Arnim in Saxon employ, but nominal enemies like Johann Georg and even Richelieu. Though Wallenstein insisted he was just negotiating a hopeful end to the war, anyone talking to Richelieu was clearly up to something as far as Ferdinand was concerned. Seized copies of negotiated terms showed that Wallenstein seemed to be offering different things based on the reader, which did little to help him build friends. The Emperor’s suspicions flared further when Wallenstein finally moved against the Swedes and captured dear old Count Thurn in late October, then inexplicably released him. Hilariously Wallenstein justified Thurn’s freedom by pointing out just how useless the Bohemian was, suggesting he was more damaging to the Protestants when he was on the loose.

It was enough, finally, to push the prematurely aged Emperor Ferdinand into action. Whispers that Wallenstein might aim to break out and form his own country were growing ever louder, and while the Emperor still needed Wallenstein’s resources and army, the man himself was now a liability to Imperial eyes. Whatever Wallenstein’s true objective was remains a mystery, perhaps even to himself. Charitably, he could claim he was working towards a just peace that would end the war. Less kindly voices suggested it was more likely that Wallenstein had designs on the crown of Bohemia himself, or even Ferdinand’s. Wallenstein himself seemed to do little more than openly court these rumors. His depression, such as it always was, had seemingly ruined his ability to function at the necessary level to stave off disaster. Ferdinand and his son, also a Ferdinand, had decided they needed to have a firmer hand on the army than Wallenstein offered.

Ferdinand sounded out Wallenstein’s generals, and identified a few likely replacements. General Matthias Gallas was considered the likely successor, and in coordination with another subordinate named Octavio Piccolomini the two plotted their coup. Slowly and carefully they peeled away segments of the imperial army from Wallenstein’s loyalists or swayed key lieutenants to their side. By January 1634 Ferdinand published an imperial decree removing Wallenstein from command and effectively charging him with treason. Desperate to save himself, Wallenstein frantically considered aligning with the Swedes, though he brought only a few hundred men with him as he marched toward their lines in Saxony. At Eger, Gallas’ men caught up with Wallenstein.

As the mercenary brooded in a private chamber, the conspirators ambushed the officers that remained loyal and hacked them down. One of Wallenstein’s colonels fought his way into the courtyard and was abruptly clubbed to death under a hail of musket butts. Wallenstein himself was surprised by his bedchamber and impaled on a halberd after a mumbled cry for mercy. The assassins wrapped the body in the room’s carpet. Gallas now assumed command of the army, serving under the leadership of the younger Ferdinand, son of the ailing emperor.

Wallenstein caught in his final moments. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

With his death, Wallenstein’s menace evaporated, and another key figure of the war’s first phase passed from the stage. It would not be long before Wallenstein reappeared on a different one though; by 1640 he had already become a character in a London stage production. No less a man than Friedrich Schiller would devote a series of three plays to Wallenstein’s life and death, directed in their premier by his close friend Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.[6] Many of the men who had given the first half of the war its spark and dynamism had perished, or like Ferdinand were now exhausted by the stress and pressure of a war that showed no signs of ending. Like the armies of men they had killed in their hubris, so too did Wallenstein and his colleagues meet their own ends. But the war continued on without them.

[1] Wedgwood 2005

[2] Martines, 2013. Also likely not factoring in camp followers or other non combatants.

[3] For context, the “bloodiest day” in American history, the Battle of Antietam in 1862, netted combined casualty figure of 22,717 dead, wounded, and missing from both sides. Since that was higher than every war and battle fought prior to Antietam, it puts context to the kind of erosional horror experienced by 17th Century armies.

[4] One story ran that he had a servant hanged for walking past his door while he was sleeping.

[5] “Break water”, near as anyone can tell. The fortress juts out on a spit of rock overlooking the river.

[6] Nowadays Wallenstein even has his own board game.


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