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PoDs of the Thirty Years War - Part VII

By Alex Richards

The 17-year-old Christian IV received the keys to the vault where the scepter and crown are kept, from the dying hands of the chancellor

In the last article I gave an overview of the Danish Phase of the War, and the way how it, eventually, ended with Denmark removed from Imperial affairs but without territorial losses. While this represents a moderate victory for the Imperial side, it naturally leads to the question as to whether the Danish side could have won, and what this would have looked like. It is here that we run into one of the fundamental power differences exposed by the war, and the implications this has for potential PoDs.

A Danish Victory

Denmark's war aims were at once defined and nebulous. Christian IV had entered the war with the vague declaration that he was protecting the rights of the Protestants of northern Europe, but in many ways this concealed (and only thinly at that) the more brazen territorial ambitions of the Danish monarchy.

It's worth examining the wider strategic picture for Denmark at this point. For centuries the chief concerns of the Danish monarchy had been a lengthy struggle with Sweden to control trade in the Baltic, particularly the rich export of timber, ropes and other shipbuilding provisions that helped support the large navies of the major states of western Europe.

Denmark's chief advantage had, for many years, been the fact that possession of both Scania and Sjaelland gave the nation control of the crucial straights of the Kattegat through which all ships leaving the Baltic for the wider world had to pass, allowing them to levy the so called Sound Tolls on all trade passing through the region, enriching the Danish monarchy to the point where, by the early 17th century, they could operate on a relatively large scale without having to call on the domestic Estates or nobles for finances through new taxes.

However, by this point the power of Sweden was on the rise, threatening Danish control over Scania and the Sound Tolls. Denmark thus sought new allies against Sweden, and also to secure her own position by exerting ever greater control over the Free Cities in the north of the Empire that represented the only other major rivals in the Baltic Trade, as well as a crucial source of additional ships and men. Key among these were the cities of Hamburg, Lubeck and Bremen, all of which were equally zealous in defending their own independence.

Denmark's territorial ambitious as expressed immediately before the war make this clear. Christian IV had already secured Imperial blessing for a claim of feudal overlord-ship over the city of Hamburg by right of his title in Holstein, and his family had become hereditary administrators of the Prince-Bishopric of Schwerin in Mecklenburg. Now he sought to install his dynasty as administrators of the crucial Bishoprics of Osnabrück and Halberstadt- which effectively marked the western and southern boundaries of the area where influence could be easily exerted from Hamburg, and most crucially the Bishopric of Verden, occupying a swathe of territory between Bremen and Hamburg and essentially surrounding the latter city with Danish controlled lands.

A Danish victory in the war is likely, therefore, to be a limited affair when it comes to the Empire. Christian IV might have ended up agreeing to some additional territorial demands for any allies he happened to use to secure his victory- most likely Brandenburg or Brunswick-Lüneburg, but overall the political influence of the Danish monarchy is likely to be restricted to the Lower Elbe valley and the Baltic coast, an extension and consolidation of existing control rather than a true expansion. The sole exception to this might be if a victory significant enough to ensure that Denmark is recognised as a guarantor of the rights of Lutherans under the Peace of Augsburg is agreed, as would later be organised for Sweden at Westphalia. Even with this, however, Denmark is unlikely to have looked deeply at Imperial politics, with a victorious Christian IV likely turning his attention back towards his true rival- Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, offering opportunities for local dissent or an Imperial recovery.

Winning the Danish Phase

The biggest question, however, truly lies in how such a victory could be achieved. This is a far more difficult question to answer, for the four pitched battles of the Danish phase, and the overall trend beyond them, demonstrate just how outmatched Christian IV and his allies were militarily.

The Battle of Dessau Bridge, etched swiftly by our war correspondent

The earliest battle of this phase of the war is the Battle of Dessau Bridge, where Ernst von Mansfeld attempted to force a crossing of the Elbe in April of 1626. Unknown to him, the forces he was facing under Albrecht von Wallenstein represented the vast bulk of the Imperial army that had been mobilised, and held off all attempts at forcing a crossing with comparative ease. Half of Mansfeld's army was destroyed, forcing them to retreat northwards, and though reinforced it marked the effective end of Mansfeld's career. He made one last attempt to shake up the course of the war, marching through Silesia to Hungary in an attempt to link up with Bethlen's Transylvanian forces, but this too ended in failure and his flight south led to an ignominious death just outside of Sarajevo while attempting to reach Venice.

Mere weeks after the disaster at the Dessau Bridge, Christian IV received a severe defeat at the hands of County Tilly at the battle of Lutter. Christian managed to repel the first assault by Tilly's forces, but proved unable to impose organisational order over his mixed army of Danes and Low Saxons when it came to attempts to dislodge the last of the advancing forces and returning to their original position. Disorganised and somewhat demoralised, the army collapsed to the point where Christian's flight became an inevitability.

Though the war dragged out for two further years, Danish operations were reduced first to a rear-guard action on the Jutland peninsular, and then to amphibious operations that took advantage of their control of the seas. While these were successful in destroying a string of port facilities across Mecklenburg and Pomerania- all in Imperial hands by 1627- and assisted in preventing the fall of Stralsund From May 1628 (of which more will be discussed later), the attempted landing at Wolgast in august of that year proved the final nail in the coffin for Danish involvement. There, even after an alliance with Sweden in the first half of the year had secured both Scania and additional manpower for the timebeing, Wallenstein once again dealt a heavy defeat to the Danish army, cutting Christian IV from either resupply or escape and forcing his surrender. The Treaty of Lubeck followed followed 8 months later, with the Danes having refrained from major activity since.

Here then lies the great dilemma for utilising a Danish Phase PoD in this way- Christian IV, along with his allies and sub-commanders, was decisively outmatched in terms of tactical skill and strategic thinking when compared to both Wallenstein and Count Tilly, and as such it seems likely that only an accident of war- a stray cannonball, or bout of illness or the like- that takes out at least one, and probably both, of these generals would be required to secure a Danish victory.

But if a Danish victory was remote, this simply calls into question the prospects for an Imperial Victory, and the potential effect this might have had.


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


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