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PoDs of the Thirty Years War - Part XIV

By Alex Richards

Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden at the Battle of Breitenfeld. Note - he may not actually have gone into battle armed just with a small stick.

Turning at last to the Swedish Intervention in the Thirty Years War, we come to the most famous and celebrated part of the whole conflict- the clash between Albrecht von Wallenstein on hand, and Gustavus Adolphus (alternatively Gustav II Adolph of Sweden) on the other, arguably the two foremost military commanders of the period. At its heart is what can inarguably be called the most well known PoD of the entire conflict- the death of Gustavus Adolphus in what came to be known on the Protestant side as the Disaster at Lützen. We will come to that soon, but first it’s worth examining the potential PoDs in the period leading up to Lützen.

Avoiding the Intervention

I’ve already covered most of the possibilities here in previous articles, but to summarise there are three main ways that Swedish intervention in the Thirty Years War could have been averted:

  • Through the death of Gustavus Adolphus before he could intervene in the war, either through illness or in battle. The easiest PoD here is probably to have the near miss where an enemy soldier- loaned from the Habsburgs in fact- nearly grabbed his horse during the 1626-29 siege of Danzig. While theoretically Sweden may still have intervened, it’s likely that the regency council for Queen Christiana- who was after all only born in 1626- would have decided against such a venture, especially when considering that the alternatives were the future Charles X – himself only 4 in 1626 – or Gustavus Adolphus’s illegitimate son Gustav Gustavsson who had just entered the University of Uppsala, assuming that the Polish Vasas were unacceptable.

  • Through the removal of a justification for an intervention, such as through a swift fall for the city of Stralsund in 1628. This may prove to be a futile endeavour as Gustavus Adolphus, was seriously considering an intervention as early as 1627 and was likely to find an alternative such as publically backing the restoration of the Palatinate, or the Dukes of Mecklenburg, or the independence of Pomerania.

As such, the more likely prospect is:

  • Through maintaining Swedish attention elsewhere, most likely in a longer war in Poland should Gustavus Adolphus have managed more success there than historically. Historically Axel Oxenstierna, the Swedish Lord Chancellor, was able to persuade the king to focus on securing peace with Poland before intervening in Germany, and had the war being going better (therefore pushing peace to a later date), Gustavus Adolphus is likely to have been receptive to continuing to hold off on any form of formal involvement.

The Swedes arrive in Germany

Gustavus Adolphus' landing in Pomerania, near Peenemünde, 1630

Gustavus Adolphus’s intervention began slowly, following up the Stralsund garrison with a landing at Usedom on July 6th 1630, and a swift advance to Stettin, the capital of the Duchy of Pomerania. Always poor and having been occupied by Imperial forces for several years, Pomerania was all-but conquered by the Swedes, her foreign policy suborned to Stockholm’s and demands placed for both men and finances. Despite this however, existing issues with troop payment combined with the meagre resources on offer meant that for the moment Gustavus Adolphus remained confined in that part of Pomerania between the Oder and the border with Mecklenburg.

Meanwhile the Electors of Saxony and Mainz were making efforts to secure a compromise on the Edict of Restitution, with Johann Georg of Saxony uniting the majority of the protestant princes of the Empire- including Brandenburg and Wurttemberg, into a sort of ‘League of Armed Neutrality’ who’s members withdrew their funding for the Imperial army and raised their own troops. Had Emperor Ferdinand II either showed the uncharacteristic desire for compromise at this time, it’s possible that this would have led to the Swedes remaining isolated from potential German allies, eventually forcing them to retreat from lack of funds. Alternatively, it’s possible that this would simply have led to a delayed expansion once French funds were secured as historically.

The Fall of Magdeburg

The first half of 1631 bought three decisive moments for the course of the war. First Richelieu agreed to a 5 year subsidy of 400,000 talers a year in return for guarantees that Bavarian neutrality and religious tolerance for Catholics would be respected, then Gustavus Adolphus managed, finally, to break out of Pomerania, liberating most of Mecklenburg and marching down the Oder to seize the City of Frankfurt-on-Oder. Preventing either of these- either through the Swedes refusing some of the conditions France was demanding leading to the collapse of negotiations, or through the potentially risky assault on Frankfurt after only two days of siege failing, would have severely hampered Sweden’s efforts, either through lack of funds or by leaving the supply lines through Pomerania too vulnerable to risk an extended campaign. However, with France eager to provide a counterweight, and the defenders of Frankfurt being underpaid and lacking in unity, it is perhaps unlikely that either of these would have proven to be more than a short delay for the Swedes.

Sack of Magdeburg 1631

Far more important in the longer term was the third event of that spring- the Sack of Magdeburg in May 1631. Magdeburg had been an independent Archbishopric since 968, and a Protestant state since 1524, run by a series of administrators from Brandenburg. However, Administrator Karl Wilhelm had entered into alliance with Denmark in 1626 before moving to Sweden after the Battle of Dessau Bridge, and in his absence the Edict of Restitution called for Magdeburg to be returned to the Catholic Church. Karl Wilhelm was sent back to the city in November 1630, managing to sneak in and take control leading to Count Tilly laying siege on March 20th, placing control of the troops with his subordinate Field Marshall Gottfried Heinrich, the Graf zu Pappenheim. Despite the populace’s efforts and the hopes of a Swedish rescue expedition, Tilly successfully kept potential attackers at bay while Pappenheim persuaded him to storm the city on May 20th.

The ensuing chaos saw the near-complete destruction of the city through fire and pillage. Out of 1,900 buildings in the city, 1,700 burned to the ground, with 20,000 of the city’s population of 25,000 surviving- the vast majority by taking shelter in Magdeburg’s Cathedral which Count Tilly ordered protected from the flames (though this did not prevent it from being thoroughly looted afterwards). Magdeburg would take over a century to recover from the disaster, with extensive areas of rubble still being visible in the 1720s.

The War Expands

In the short term however, the main effect was to hand Gustavus Adolphus the biggest propaganda victory he could possibly have had. Johann Georg’s middle-line attempts at peace collapsed as Ferdinand demanded a complete resumption of the army payments, followed by a series of campaigns that forced Wurttemberg and Franconia into compliance. Once again a more conciliatory path by the Emperor, had he recognised the anger Magdeburg was bound to create- could have put the attention onto Gustavus Adolphus as a ‘foreign invader’, though likely only at the cost of dismissing Count Tilly from command. In this he would have been strongly supported by Maximilian of Bavaria- who would have brought the rest of the Catholic powers in the Empire along with him.

Compromise was not a term that Ferdinand believed in however. Attempts to bring Johann Georg back on side led to delays in further action in the north- a decision that undoubtedly prevented Hesse-Kassel from being overrun like Wurttemberg before it- but the devastation of Magdeburg ultimately proved the efforts at negotiating a settlement futile. Having effectively destroyed the local supply chain, been prevented from advancing north by defeat at Werben, and with funds short from the earlier actions of the protestant powers, Count Tilly found himself increasingly short of food and chose to invade Saxony, forcing the city to surrender on September 15th. Saxony responded by declaring for Sweden, a move which Hesse-Kassel had already made and which added significant weight Gustavus Adolphus’s power base beyond the existing collection of deposed leaders and exiles he had started the campaign off with. Meanwhile Brandenburg heavily pressured by Sweden- up to and including threats to bombard the Electoral Palace - into agreeing to offer her own support.

The stage was now set for one of the fastest changes in fortune in the whole war.


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


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