The Ferdinands of Nördlingen

The future Ferdinand III in 1620. Seeing him in his youth is a reminder of how defining the War would have been to the new generation.

In a rare moment of unity, the death of Wallenstein brought a surge of optimism from all sides in the Thirty Years War. To the Swedes and their strongarmed Protestant allies, Wallenstein’s initial replacement was their ideal pick this side of a suicidal mayfly. Matthias Gallas was amiable, experienced, cautious, and a chronic alcoholic. In the early days when he held the bottle rather than living in one he had been a decent subordinate and coordinator for Wallenstein. Later he had been the least offensive choice to the various factions plotting to depose the wily Duke of Friedland, and they had settled on him to lead the rump of the imperial army alongside the untested son of the Emperor, the future Ferdinand III. That army had already dwindled from its high of over 100,000 to just around 16,100.

Another note of optimism emerged from the latest catastrophe for the Spanish. The Dutch continued to make merry hell for Olivares, and the early 1630’s had nearly forced the Spanish to sue for peace. After years of stonewalling along religious grounds, the Prince of Orange had finally forced the United Provinces to proclaim toleration for Catholicism in the areas their armies might conquer in 1632. The same year, the Dutch detonated a series of mines under the walls of Maastricht, sealing it as a part of the southeastern Netherlands to this day. Forced to the negotiating table, the Spanish were only saved from a final surrender by the fickle tides of internal Dutch politics. Hoping to reverse their fortunes, Olivares sent an army north along the road to secure a route through Germany and Switzerland. The army was split between the leadership of the Duke of Feria, a competent general, and the more interesting if redundantly named Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand.  After an early success the Spanish split their forces, to a decidedly mixed fate. Feria and his half stumbled into Germany, only to discover a landscape barren of available resources. Food was hard to find, and no one was willing to give it freely. Harried by the Swedish forces under Marshall Gustav Horn, Feria’s portion disintegrated and the general died of disease before he could return home. However, the Cardinal-Infante’s forces entered Germany relatively intact, and began to coordinate a joint response with Austrian heir Ferdinand.

The Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand, looking much less priestly, and much more soldierly. Photo Credit: Anton van Dyck.

And it was here that the Protestant cause began to come apart. The Swedes were facing personality problems of their own. In the absence of King Gustavus Adolphus, the Protestant forces fielded four armies. Of these, Marshall Horn of Sweden was the most trusted pick from Oxenstierna’s perspective, but the German lord Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar had his own ideas. The resulting feud was born as much out of Bernhard’s ambitions to be Protestantism’s answer to Wallenstein as it was drawn along the native distrust between the Germans and Swedes. In the end, Horn and Bernhard split the army and reluctantly settled for a compromised joint command that left both of them unhappy and frequently at odds.

Topping this off, Oxenstierna’s financial struggles made the threat of mutiny grow louder by the day. Disaster had only been narrowly stayed off by a partial funding package provided by the French. That too, had come at great cost to the Swedes. Initially thrown off kilter by Adolphus, the French diplomatic corps was now using every underhanded trick in the book to tie the German Protestants ever closer to them, and ever further away from their erstwhile allies. It was a lot for the Swedish command to consider. So much, in fact, that a terrible strategic error was about to be made.

While the Protestant forces split their armies to assail several key targets, including Prague and southern Bavaria, Ferdinand III showed that he was nowhere near as green as was thought. With powerful enemies on all sides, he marched in the opposite direction and seized back the key city of Regensburg, nestled on the supply and communications line the Swedes depended on. As the Protestants struggled to reorient themselves, both Austrian and Spanish Ferdinands saw a golden opportunity to link up and crush their enemies. Apparently, rather than leaving the Imperial side disorganized, Wallenstein’s death had left a leadership vacuum that the new generation was ably filling.

Horn and the Protestants he could muster tried to interfere, but to no avail. Four separate armies combined into two camps on September 5th, 1634. The battle was in front of the town of Nördlingen, a modest city built into the crater of a meteor in south central Germany within modern Bavaria, and it would change the course of the war all over again. Nördlingen’s success was partly due to the instincts of the Ferdinands and partly due to the almost Stoogian level of disaster suffered by the Protestants.

Nordlingen final phase
The final phase of Nördlingen, as the Protestant forces reel away from a general counterattack.

Reconnaissance suggested the Protestants outnumbered the Hapsburgs, when in fact the inverse was true.[1] Horn’s first cavalry charged was launched early and uphill, then somehow two of his brigades took one another for enemy troops and opened fire on one another in a wooded zone on the left flank of the field. In the chaos Horn’s plan, to seize a flanking hill and cover it with artillery, was undone entirely and Spain’s famous veteran Tercios raced to the summit. 15 times the Swedes attacked the line, and 15 times the Spaniards held. Exhausted by the assaults, Horn attempted to fall back, only for the Hapsburgs to roar down the hill into a startled Bernard’s flank. The results of the rout were reflected in Ferdinand’s report to Vienna. The enemy was “scattered in such a way that ten horses are not found together. Horn is taken, [Bernard] Weimar-no one knows whether he be dead or living”.[2]

The Ferdinands were elated with themselves as only young men can be, and flush with their victory they both pledged to fight each other’s enemies wherever they were. With that, the two men parted ways, the Cardinal-Infante bound to Brussels, and Austrian Ferdinand to reclaim his Empire with fire and sword. They would never meet again in person.

Already a shadow of the disclipined army Adolphus had taken south, the Swedes collapsed in disarray and retreated towards Pomerania, Horn himself now a prisoner of the Hapsburgs. As at Breitenfeld, many of the German mercenaries in the Swedish army were only too happy to flip their colors back to the Imperial Eagle. Oxenstierna could only watch with paralyzed horror as his armies dissolved, his hard won cities like Nuremburg were besieged and ground to powder. His allies like the Electors of Saxony and Brandenburg, already the most fair weather of friends, also quickly abandoned the Heilbronn League for a more amicable peace agreement with the Emperor. Exhausted by the conflict, the Emperor had ceded much of the negotiations to the younger Ferdinand.

Nordlingen Cousins Peter_Paul_Rubens_121
The cousins greet one another in triumph, in a slightly embellished version painting after Nördlingen. Photo Credit Peter Paul Ruben

The heir apparent was of the new school. Unlike his father, Ferdinand put the Empire before his faith, burned out as many like him were by the past century of religious bloodshed and iconoclasm. It was enough to make him offer the returning Protestants a truly tempting deal with the 1635 Peace of Prague, open to anyone willing to take up the quill. In exchange for recognizing all of the gains made up to 1627 by the Catholic states, the Edict of Restitution was to be delayed by 40 years. Clemency was granted to everyone except the Winter King’s heirs, the Edict was delayed by 40 years, the Protestants were allowed to keep some Bishoprics in their land, and the Saxons got to keep that nice chunk of Bohemia they had taken a decade ago as a severance package. In exchange, Ferdinand demanded the loyalty of the Saxons militarily, and control over their foreign affairs. There was to be no peace in Germany until the entire matter was settled to the Emperor’s satisfaction, at least not if he could help it, and he hoped to build a united German army to help him end this. If Prague was allowed to stand, then the Empire would likely emerge badly damaged, but more internally unified than it had been since the Reformation began.

[1] 25,000 foot and cavalry with around 60 guns against 34,000 foot and cavalry with 30 guns, respectively. Frightening artillery advantage notwithstanding, the odds were long from the start for the Protestants.

[2] Wedgwood 2005


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