By Alex Richards
While the Thirty Years War was one of the most destructive conflicts in European history, participation from states beyond the Holy Roman Empire remained highly limited with only Denmark, Sweden and France making large scale, formal involvements in the conflict. Yet there was scope for the conflict to spread beyond this, to something that could be termed a truly Europe-wide conflict. In the next few articles, I’ll be examining how countries which largely stayed out of the Thirty Years War could have become major players. We start with the Stuart realms of England, Scotland and Ireland.
James the Peacemaker
In retrospect, it seems almost more surprising that the Stuart realms were not more involved in the Thirty Years War than they were historically. Frederick V, the Winter King, was married to James I and VI’s daughter Elizabeth Stuart; his Calvinist faith resonated with the Puritans and assorted non-conformists of English society; and the Palatinate’s ability to threaten the Spanish Road between Burgundy and the Netherlands played into the strategic scope of England’s long-standing support for the Dutch Revolt.
In addition to this there was significant public support for the Protestant Cause over the cause of the war- as many as 50-60,000 Englishmen volunteered for service in the armies of the Dutch, Danes and Swedes, while almost 50,000 Scots did the same, a truly staggering figure considering the smaller population of Scotland compared to England. These numbers, of course, are for the whole thirty-year span of the conflict, but it is clear that at least initially a royal expeditionary force would have had little difficulty finding new recruits. Indeed, by some estimations the number of English and Scottish men who went to fight for the Protestant cause equalled the number conscripted into the Swedish army over the same period. The Crown also spent £1.44 million (on top of debts already totally £1 million) to support the exilic Palatine court and the mercenary army of Mansfeld from the 1620s onwards.
Yet for all this the actual effect of Anglo-Scottish involvement on the continent was slight, a case that must be put down to a fundamental lack of follow-through from London. As the Bohemian revolt began there was a popular surge of support for Frederick V, but much like Denmark and the Dutch, James I and VI was conflicted about the morality of supporting a usurper, even while feeling a confessional duty to do so.
On top of this, from 1620 James was engaged in negotiations with Spain to marry his son Charles to the Infanta Maria Anna- a niece of Emperor Ferdinand II- as part of his attempts to tie himself to both sides of the religious divide. As a result the King vacillated, allowing the free recruitment of troops in England that saw nearly 8,000 men under the command of Sir Andrew Grey, Sir John Seton and Sir Horace de Vere head off to defend the Palatinate from foreign attack, but remaining officially on the sidelines.
This is not to say that James did nothing however, indeed much diplomatic effort was spent in the last years of his life in proposals to host a peace conference, or at least to serve as a neutral arbiter or mediator between the two sides. For neither the first nor last time, however, a Stuart monarch over-estimated his power and influence. In the absence of a significant military force in the field, or any other mechanism for bringing his wayward son-in-law into line, James found himself ignored by Frederick and Ferdinand alike.
Had James realised this however, a possibility emerges where English involvement early enough into the conflict could have been decisive. Historically the small number of English volunteers in the Palatinate fought a valiant, but ultimately futile, rear-guard action to prevent the total conquest of the Lower Palatinate. A larger army here, better funded and with official support, may have been able to secure at least the territories on the east bank of the Rhine. With this defensive block in place, James may have had the local strength required to both force Frederick V to concede (though this would run hard into the latter’s extreme stubbornness) and give the Imperial and Spanish forces a greater desire for a diplomatic solution. The possibility is slim, but represents the best chance for James to truly make his name as a bringer of at least a short-term peace to the continent.
Charles and Parliament
Charles I’s accession to the English throne in March 1625 occurred in parallel with the arrival of the expeditionary force of Ernst von Mansfeld on the continent. Totalling 13,300 Anglo-Scots troops, this had been lavishly funded by James and was at this point attempting to assist the defence of the key Dutch stronghold of Breda.
Further English involvement now became fundamentally entwined with Charles’s clashes with Parliament. While the Spanish match had fallen through, Charles now married the French princess Henrietta Maria in a treaty that included a clause agreeing to loan English ships to suppress the protestant Huguenots in La Rochelle. Within months of that, the Duke of Buckingham, architect of the French match, had overseen a disastrous failure in the English expedition against Cadiz, and scant months later. Parliament was already demanding a greater focus on trying to attack Spanish colonies in the new world, for reasons of cost as much as strategic necessity, Cadiz seemed to prove simply that the King and his favourite were either incompetent or actively hoping to aid the Catholic cause in Europe. The failure at Cadiz led directly to Parliament’s attempts to impeach the Duke of Buckingham, the proroguing of Parliament and the first of Charles’s efforts to raise money by other means.
Charles spent the remainder of the 1620s engaged in sporadic half measures to support protestants on the continent- from a disastrous landing on the Île de Ré in support of La Rochelle (the failure of which led to Buckingham’s assassination), to an expeditionary force under the Marquis of Hamilton in support of the Swedish, of which only 6,000 of the promised 20,000 were sent. Small wonder that over 80% of the Anglo-Scottish volunteers for the Protestant cause during Charles’s reign served in the Swedish and French armies. Indeed, the situation was so marked that in 1638 it was Swedish weapons, sold by a government baffled as to why Charles appeared so reluctant to assist his nephew Karl Ludwig in regaining the Palatinate, that Scottish malcontents were to use to spark off the First Bishop’s War.
It is difficult to see how, short of open conversion to Catholicism and support for the Imperial cause, Charles could have handled the situation worse- indeed despite being related only by marriage he and Frederick V were very much of a kind, both innately sure of their own divinely appointed destiny, and both losing life and crown as a consequence. In Charles’s case, however, it is possible that earlier successes could have salvaged matters. An earlier death for the Duke of Buckingham - preferably in combat trying to defend the Protestants - would at least have prevented Charles’s initial hamfisted attempts to protect a close personal friend from the consequences of his failures. Failing this, a large scale effort to support the Danes or the Swedes in 1627 or 1631 may have been sufficient to prove his protestant credentials. Either case would probably have received funding from Parliament, but likely only in return for concessions which Charles, stubborn as he was, would be unlikely to agree to. In the end, perhaps the most likely way the Stuart realms could have become involved in the Thirty Years War is through outside intervention in the War of Three Kingdoms - a situation where we tend to refer to as simply ‘the English Civil War’ goes down as simply one more front in a general European conflict.
The Irish Question
Into all of this it would be remiss not to examine the role of Ireland, both historically and in any potential Stuart involvement. If there’s any period of time that can truly be described as the point where it all went wrong for Ireland, the 17th Century is it. True, her subjugation to England came earlier, and the start of the English Plantations had come under the Tudor queens Mary I and Elizabeth I, but the accession of James I saw the large-scale settlement of protestant Scots to serve as a loyalist population against the Catholic Irish accelerated. From there, through the War of Three Kingdoms, Cromwell, Drogheda and the Battle of the Boyne, the battle lines that were to define Irish history for the next three centuries were largely set in stone.
While most of that was still to come in 1618, it is telling that over the course of the conflict nearly 40,000 Irish Catholics, along with a few thousand additional volunteers from Great Britain, were to sign up in service of the Spanish during the course of the Thirty Years War- all the more so since this was, unlike the protestant armies, without Royal permission. It is near certain that any increased Stuart involvement on the Continent would only heightened this desire, and consequently the likelihood of rebellion or (or more likely and) harsher governance in Ireland. Any such rebellion may then end up receiving Spanish support as a further distraction for the Stuart monarchs, but even without this such a conflict is guaranteed to be bloody, bitter, and ultimately inconclusive in determining Ireland’s future. Such a conflict in the 1620s, coming so soon after the large-scale confiscation of lands in Ulster, may well lead to a similar effort to expand the historic smaller-scale plantations in Munster and Leinster, fundamentally altering still further the demographic balance of Ireland, though whether such an effort could be successfully replicated across such a large swathe of the island is debatable.
Ireland’s potential involvement in the Thirty Years War, though slighter still than either England or Scotland, could well turn out to be the most profound of all of them.
Alex Richards is the author of Tippecanoe and Wallace Too, published by SLP