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PoDs of the Thirty Years War: III

By Alex Richards

Over the last two articles, I've discussed the potential consequences of the biggest potential PoD of the first phase of the Thirty Years War- Emperor Ferdinand II dying in Vienna in 1619. While arguably the most interesting scenario that could have emerged from the Bohemian Revolt (as the first stage is usually referred to), naturally this is only one of many PoDs that can be readily identified in this period. For this next article, I'll be turning to other potential moments where things could have gone differently in the Political sphere.

A different King?

While Frederick V, as a millenarian Calvinist, confident in his own abilities and driven by the belief that he was an instrument of divine will, was the most likely candidate to end up as King of Bohemia once asked, he wasn't the only person who the leaders of the revolt approached. Three others appear to have been serious contenders, though only from the point of view of who was offered the crown rather than who would necessarily have accepted. Leaving that issue to one side for the moment, the potential alternatives are:

-Charles Emmanuel I, Duke of Savoy. Perhaps a surprising choice given he was a firm Catholic, Charles Emmanuel was ambitious, militarily capable and regarded at the time as something of a rash hot-head. His reign as Duke was one of continuous efforts to expand Savoyard territory at the expense of her neighbours with the hope to eventually gain Royal status, and any personal union between Bohemia and Savoy would have faced significant difficulties from the fact that the two territories were on opposite sides of the Holy Roman Empire and separated by the Alps. That he was considered as a potential candidate at all can presumably be put down to his close links with the French monarchy- his son Victor Amadeus was to marry Louis XIII's sister in 1619- and strong anti-Spanish stance. It may also have been influenced by the fact that the Great Conspiracy- a plan for a mass uprising of Christians in the Ottoman Balkans to be allied with a new Crusade of Christendom- suggested Charles Emmanuel as one of the top candidates for the proposed Kingdom of Serbia, providing he converted to the Orthodox Church.

-John George I, Elector of Saxony. Needing little introduction to those who read the last article, John George was pragmatic and level-headed where Charles Emmanuel and Frederick were rash and self-assured. This, more than anything, suggests he would have been the least likely to have accepted the crown, but Saxony-Bohemia may well have been a more powerful and stable union than the Bohemia-Palatinate union that emerged historically, not least because Austria's efforts to crush the Bohemian revolt relied in granting Saxony the two Lusatias in return for Saxon troops suppressing the revolt in Silesia.

-Gabriel Bethlen, Prince of Transylvania. Another figure we've mentioned before, Bethlen historically spent the period of the Bohemian Revolt making a reasonably successful effort to conquer Habsburg Hungary. A union with Bohemia gives few immediate advantages beyond better co-ordination with this ongoing revolt, but may bring funding from the Ottoman Empire, though whether this would be desirable to the leaders of the revolt is another question.

The many issues evident with accepting the crown of Bohemia were perhaps as good a reason as any why none of these went through with it, and if Frederick V had been a bit more savvy he may well have done the same, leading us to the next question.

Who needs a King anyway?

The Bohemian Revolt's failure naturally lends itself to comparison with the ongoing Dutch revolt against the Spanish which had begun in 1568 and would not be fully resolved until the Peace of Westphalia. Like the Bohemians, the Dutch Provinces had had some pre-existing rights and liberties, saw a Protestant local elite attempt to throw off a Catholic rule seen as oppressive, and in several cases saw some of the same military leaders opposing them. Unlike the Bohemians, the Dutch chose a republican form of government with the estates of Each province appointing a Stadtholder to serve as leader (both militarily and political), with one figure usually holding the position for several provinces at once and serving as effective head of state for the fledgling country.

While obviously requiring adapting to the local situation (which ironically may best translate as just electing a local magnate as King), the possibility of a republican Dutch-style revolt offers at first glance the most interesting potential long-term change if it translates to a successful uprising. However, the chief difficulties here would be the reduced ability to attract outside support in the crucial early stages of the revolt (an issue which was already severe historically), and the interpersonal disputes among the magnates of Bohemia which would make any one local noble taking control a difficult affair. The compromise political leader of the revolt, Vilém Ruppa, was unable to manage competing factions in court. Count Thurn was viewed as too powerful and with too much direct support in the military to be entirely trusted by the more politically minded leaders of the revolt, and his direct rival in the military, Georg Freidrich von Hohenlohe, had already demonstrated that he had little desire for a political position rahter than a military leadership role. Faced with this internal division, indecision was the standard course for the rebellious estates all too frequently.

Securing Outside Help

If there is one thing in common with both the candidates being considered and the views of the domestic leaders of the Bohemian Revolt, it was the importance of trying to secure outside assistance. This was, however, hindered by Vienna intercepting almost all the communications coming from Prague and releasing the fact that the crown was being offered to multiple people simultaneously. Tarred with the brush of dishonesty, its telling that even Frederick V's father-in-law, James I of England, offered only to serve as a mediator in obtaining a peaceful end to the revolt.

It's perhaps doubtful whether England, who's chief advantage was, after all, her navy, could have provided enough assistance in a timely manner to do more than hold off the Habsburg attacks for a few months- not that this didn't mean many in Parliament were in favour of making the effort. More crucially would have been securing the earlier intervention of Demark or Sweden, which might have managed to exert sufficient pressure to prevent the wholesale defeat and confiscation of territory that Frederick V suffered historically. Beyond these however, the biggest impact would have come from a direct and early intervention by France, who had every reason to want to reduce Habsburg power but would likely have wanted to wait until the revolt had proven itself capable of success beyond an initial lucky spurt. And it is this subject of military matters that we will turn to in the next article.



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