PoDs of the Thirty Years War: Part V

By Alex Richards

Battle of Stadtlohn, the final battle of the Palatinate Phase of the Thirty Years War, oil painting by Peter Snayers

One of the joys of studying history is the way in which you can find your expectations waylaid by a unexpected discovery. This article is one these as, rather than the first piece on the Danish Phase of the war as I indicated in the last article, I'll instead be looking at perhaps the least discussed period of the war- the Palatinate Phase.

A Forgotten War, A Missed Peace.

Marquis Ambrogio Spinola, by Rubens

Usually treated a mere adjunct of the Bohemian Revolt, the Spanish-Imperial Palatinate Campaign was a slow grinding conquest of Frederick V's ancestral territories in the Upper and Lower Palatinate in the manner typifying the campaigns of the time. Its start can be dated to August 1620 when the Spanish general Ambrosio Spinola marched south from Flanders and swept through most of the Palatinate west of the Rhine. From there, a series of sieges and battles gradually saw the Lower Palatinate whittled down and finally conquered entirely by the Spanish, the Upper Palatinate having fallen with only minor action to the Bavarians.

While somewhat lacking in the grandeur or drama of other periods of the war, the Palatinate Phase heralded several of the long-term questions that would shape the war to come- Frederick V's intransience and his arguments of mistreatment, Spain's involvement in the Thirty Year's War and its intersection with the ongoing Dutch Revolt, the somewhat tepid English involvement in the conflict, the collapse of the Protestant Union and Bavaria's long-term success in the conflict.

And yet the oddest thing is how unnecessary it was for the Palatinate phase to occur at all. The war had begun in Bohemia, on an essentially Bohemian manner, and with Frederick V getting involved due to a combination of personal ambition and millenarian Calvinist beliefs. While Spinola's attacks in August of 1620 predated the Battle of White Mountain, the scale of that defeat convinced virtually all of Frederick's foreign sympathisers and supporters- including the Elector of Brandenburg and James I of England- that the war had been lost and it was time to make terms. Historically Frederick refused, setting himself on a course of action that would eventually see him dying in exile in the Netherlands with the end of the war and the restitution of his lands nowhere in sight.

To think that Frederick would have accepted a reasonable peace is, however, sufficiently out of character to be ruled out as a likely possibility- we are after all talking about a man who's offer to Ferdinand III in early 1621 was to renounce his claims to Bohemia in return for Ferdinand agreeing to maintain the Confederation, let all of Frederick's supporters keep their land and pay for the Palatinate's war expenses and the debts Frederick had incurred from them. Matters become even less likely after Frederick was placed under the Imperial Ban in 1621- with his lands subject to confiscation, the only way to prevent this would have been a humiliating homage to Ferdinand in person.

This assumes that Frederick is still alive of course. While 17th Century life, even for a nobleman, is replete with the sort of activities that could result in a fatal accident, there's a potential PoD already on the historical record. During the flight from Prague after White Mountain, the carriage carrying Elizabeth Stewart- the erstwhile Queen of Bohemia- was almost struck by a falling rock while making its over the mountains towards Brandenburg. Had Frederick's been taken out by this, Elizabeth would have arrived in Berlin as Dowager-Electress, and likely regent for the young Frederick Henry. With ensuring inheritance a priority, and the Imperial position now seemingly unassailable, it's near certain that the new Regency in the Palatinate would have sued for peace, quite possibly managing to come out of it without significant territorial loss.

The Fall of Oppenheim

Capture of Oppenheim.

Of course even without removing Frederick in this way there are potential PoDs aplenty. Most notable must be the fall of Oppenheim. Spinola, having swept south from Jülich with the 22,000 troops of the army of Flanders, had within a matter of days taken Bad Kreuznach and Alsheim. In opposition to him, Joachim Ernst of Brandenburg-Ansbach commanded 24,000 troops camped in and around Oppenheim, with an additional 1,000 serving as the city garrison. In the event, Spinola successfully feinted towards Worms drawing Ansbach's troops out of the city, and was able to take Oppenheim with ease.

Had the feint failed, and battle ensued, it's possible that the Spanish advance would have been blunted. Anhalt was a respected, though largely untested commander, and historically would withdraw from the war entirely after the collapse of the Protestant Union in 1621 over their support for Frederick V, disavowing himself of his former allies. While Spinola, a highly competent commander, would likely have emerged victorious in the battle, Oppenheim itself may have been able to hold out long enough to force Spinola to retreat back to Alsheim for the winter.

Prolonging the War

In time the numbers game favours the Spanish-Imperial side- the Palatinate just didn't have the manpower or the finances to compete with them in isolation- so the question becomes whether the Palatinate could hold out until securing a foreign intervention- most likely the Dutch, Danish or Swedish. Of the three, a resumption of the Spanish-Dutch war shortly after the Twelve Year's Truce is almost certain to happen, but also likely does little other than force the Spanish to split their attention between the Palatinate and the Netherlands. Danish intervention at its historic point in 1625 is not guaranteed as that was as much a consequence of the Imperial successes in Bohemia and the Palatinate, but may still occur as a consequence of their ongoing rivalry with Sweden. Other less likely candidates are England- which had domestic issues hindering an intervention- a coalition of Protestant states in the Empire- who would take time to assemble and would be reluctant to get involved- and France, who might have offered subsidies but which Frederick may well have not accepted.

Battle of Wimpfen, by Sebastiaen Vrancx

Regardless of who might eventually intervene, the crucial period for the Palatinate began in April 1622 when Count Tilly moved from Bavaria towards the Lower Palatinate. The first test came to the south of the Palatinate, when Georg Friedrich, the Protestant Margrave of Baden-Durlach declared for Frederick and met Tilly at Wimpfen. The battle itself was a catholic victory, but only after a fortunate shot caused the Protestant powder magazine to explode, injuring the Margrave himself. The battle was a disaster sufficient to cause him to abdicate in favour of his son, despite which some of his territory was assigned to the Catholic Margraves of Baden-Baden as punishment.

With either a protestant victory, or less costly defeat, at Wimpfen, Baden-Durlach could have provided a southern flank for the Palatinate, tying Count Tilly down for longer and potentially giving Frederick a chance to secure outside help, particularly considering the success Mansfeld historically had at Mingolsheim a few weeks earlier. In particular it may have allowed Charles of Brunswick to link up with Mansfeld and the Margrave without losing his guns as he historically did at the battle of Höchst. PoDs for substantial change diminish after Höchst however, as the successive defeats led to Mansfeld declining to press the Spanish further. The last major strongholds of the Palatinate fell in short order- first Heidelberg, then Mannheim where the English commander Horace Vere distinguished himself, and only the English garrison at Frankenthal held out until the armistice of 1623.

The last battle of the Palatinate Phase was the near destruction of Mansfeld's army at Stadtlohn on 6th August 1623, but even if Mansfeld had successfully escaped and remained in the field, the effects would be far more significant for the events which historically would lead up to the Danish intervention.


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