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PODs of the Thirty Years War - Part IX

By Alex Richards

Allegory on the Glory of Emperor Ferdinand II, after Antonio Circignano or Circignani (Italian, 1560–1620). Artist: Claude Mellan (French, Abbeville 1598–1688 Paris)

​In 1629, having fought Denmark to a draw and with Sweden not yet the major active player it was shortly to become, Emperor Ferdinand II appeared to have triumphed over his enemies: the definitive winner of the conflict, at this point a 11-years long, that had started with the Bohemian Revolt.

This would turn out to be a mirage, with Gustavus Adolphus about to descend upon the Empire like the wolf on the fold, but the actions that Ferdinand took at this point offer fascinating insights into his end-goals. Today’s article, therefore, is an in depth look into the world that Ferdinand might have made.

The Edict of Restitution

The roots of Ferdinand’s long-term goals at this point lie in the failures of the Imperial Religious Peace of Augsburg in 1555. Signed in the aftermath of the Schmalkaldic War, the Peace of Augsburg was designed to resolve the intermittent conflict that had broken out across the Empire since the start of the reformation. It had established three key elements- the recognition of Lutheranism in the Empire, the preservation of Church properties, and the principle of cuius regio, eius religio- that the monarch would determine the faith of his people.

By 1618 these were looking distinctly battered. For starters, Calvinism had emerged as a third force in the Empire, promoted most strongly by Frederick V of the Palatinate. Secondly, the Counter-Reformation’s successful actions in suppressing Lutheranism in Bavaria and Tyrol were proving controversial, both within states following the same line- most notably Austria itself- and among the protestant states of the Empire. And most importantly the succession of weak Emperors of the late 1500s and early 1600s had seen a steady secularisation of church lands by protestant powers within their own realms, and the replacement of Catholic bishops with Protestant administrators in many of the large Bishoprics of northern Germany.

Edict of Restitution (copy)

By 1629 the first two of these appeared settled. Frederick V was in exile, the Palatinate transferred to Bavaria and the Calvinist powers in decline. Meanwhile the Counter-Reformation was proving a firm success in Austria proper, and the Bohemian Revolt had offered a prime excuse to overturn the Hussites’ pre-existing protections and extend it to Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia. The Edict of Restitution was designed to ‘fix’ the third problem from Ferdinand’s point of view. Promulgated on 6th March 1629, it stated, with remarkable simplicity, that the terms of the Peace of Augsburg were to be restored precisely as they had originally been agreed. Which in practice meant that the Protestant states of the Empire would be required to give all church lands secularised since 1555 back to the Church. Ferdinand envisaged that Imperial administrators would be appointed for the lands in question initially, following which new Catholic archbishops, bishops and abbots could be appointed and begin enforcing the Counter-Reformation in these territories.

The territorial effects of this amounted to nothing more, or less, than the single biggest transfer of territory since the Reformation had begun. Included were the powerful archbishoprics of Magdeburg and Bremen, both over 5,000 square kilometres in size, the 1700 square kilometre Bishoprics of Halberstadt and Hildersheim, 10 further bishoprics and a further 100 monasteries and nunneries. When combined with Wallenstein’s possession of both Duchies of Mecklenberg- which might be expanded to include Stralsund and western Pomerania, or potentially even Holstein should Denmark be decisively defeated, this represented the establishment of a string of strong Catholic and Imperial bases across the very area of the Empire where the Emperor’s writ was weakest.

The Backlash

Unsurprisingly there was great opposition to the Edict- especially from those powers who stood to lose the most.

Both the remaining protestant Electorates- Brandenburg and Saxony- expressed their displeasure by refusing to attend the meeting at Regensburg designed to elect Ferdinand’s son- the future Ferdinand III- as King of the Romans (an essentially Emperor-in-waiting). Historically Maximilian of Bavaria demanded the dismissal of Wallenstein from his army position as the price of the Electors, but this may well be insufficient to assuage the more recalcitrant electors anyway. Absent an immediate Swedish intervention however- perhaps due to Gustavus Adolphus being more involved in Poland- it seems likely that the Edict could be largely implemented before the French could manage to mount a direct intervention, or bribe Denmark or Sweden to intervene.

Ölgemälde von Herzog Bogislaw XIV. von Pommern

Given five to ten years, the Counter-Reformation in northern Germany would have started to get bedded in. Ferdinand could potentially have bribed Brandenburg into compliance by backing their efforts to take control of Pomerania once the childless Duke Bogislav XIV died. Saxony would thus be isolated and outright rebellion is unlikely without wider support. It seems inevitable at this point that a further war would have broken out- probably involving Sweden and France against the Emperor to try and break down the newly established dominance of the Habsburgs. This war would be difficult for the Imperial side, and the probable balance is that with Wallenstein out in the cold- and potentially switching sides to gain more prestige/security- and both Sweden and France on the offensive this period of Imperial dominance would prove short lived. The main effect is likely to be the post-war disposition of territories, with either more Catholic lands in northern Germany, or conversely more effort made to overturn Catholic possession of places like Munster, Erfurt or Osnabrück.

An Enduring Settlement

Should Ferdinand, and his son Ferdinand III, manage to navigate all of this however, the pay-off for the gamble would be immense: a comprehensive rebalancing of power in the Empire away from the Electors and back towards the Emperor.

In this, their chief opponent in the medium to long term would likely have been Bavaria, greatly empowered by possession of the Entire Palatinate, and, given the Witteslbach’s issues with producing male heirs, likely in line to inherit Pfalz-Sulzbach and Pfalz-Neuburg, the latter also including the Westphalian Duchies of Jülich and Berg. The religious argument would have been decisively settled. No futher church lands would be likely to be secularised, the Counter-Reformation would be in full swing in large parts of northern Germany and, when combined with the enduring presence of cuius regio, eius religio, this could well continue and be expanded through conversion of smaller lordships to Catholicism for more status and Imperial promotion. States which historically saw Catholic rulers and Protestant populations - such as Württemberg or even Saxony itself - could see whole efforts made to convert their populations to Catholicism. A future Germany here is would almost certainly be majority Catholic, and probably would have had its political centre further south in Bavaria - or even Austria.

Further afield, Brandenburg-Prussia could have ended up drifting into the Swedish sphere for protection, while Poland-Lithuania, as a strong Catholic power roughly aligned with the Emperor through this period, could have remained the dominant power in Eastern Europe going forward - potentially bringing conflict with the Empire once the immediate threat of Sweden had passed. Conflicts with France - likely in alliance with Bavaria, Denmark, Sweden and/or the Dutch - would almost certainly be inevitable as the French monarchy stretched its muscles and clashed for influence in the Rhineland, while Austria would also be likely to use a secured Empire as a basis for extracting more troops and money into conflict against the Ottoman Empire.

All of these represent potential points where Ferdinand’s grand vision could come apart under the stresses of internal and international politics. The longer it endured, however, the more enduring the chief aims - the re-Catholicisation of the north German church lands, the expansion of Imperial power, and the humbling of the Protestant electorates - would be.

Ferdinand’s vision for the future would likely be too unstable to endure for long, but if he and his successors managed to get everything right, it would have decisively changed the balance of power in Europe through the 18th Century and beyond.


Alex Richards is the author of Tippecanoe and Wallace Too, published by SLP


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