PODs of the Thirty Years War XII​

By Alex Richards

The Battle of Rocroi - where Spanish fortunes went from bad to worse

So far we’ve looked at the possibilities of the Stuart Realms and the Dutch becoming more involved in the Thirty Years War, the prospects of an earlier Swedish intervention and the historical involvement of Denmark-Norway in the early phase of the war. For the moment, our perambulation around the borders of the Empire will skip France, who we will cover in detail when we reach the French Phase of the War, and move instead to the southern flank of Europe – Spain, Italy and the Ottoman Empire.

Spain: The Fall of the House that Phillip II built

As far as the Thirty Years War is concerned, Spain is the mirror of the Dutch in terms of involvement. Like the United Provinces, Spain was concerned first and foremost with the resumption of the Eighty Years War in Flanders, and the majority of their actions in the Empire were focused around the securing of supply routes from the Spanish territories in Italy – chiefly Milan- north to Spanish Burgundy (the Franche-Comté) and onwards to Luxembourg and Flanders. The chief distinction with the Dutch is that the Spanish also had vested interests in ensuring the strength of the Austrian Habsburgs as Emperors which the Dutch did not at this stage have with regards to the Protestant powers of the Empire. In part, this was due to long-standing dynastic links extending back to the Empire of Charles V and beyond, and in part it was simply the pragmatic need for a strong Empire to be able to act against France and open up a potential additional front in any wars between France and Spain.


Portrait of Johann t'Serclaes von Tilly

As such, Spain was active in supporting the Empire in every manner possible. Spanish money helped fund the Emperor’s armies, Spanish generals led some of them (most notably Count Tilly), Spanish armies took a direct role in the Rhineland and, after the great crescendo of Spanish power that was to come in 1634, it was Spain who took the lead against France by land and sea in the closing phase of the Thirty Years War.


In the end, the effort to find the money and men for such extensive military operations led to Spain first declaring bankruptcy to escape her Genoese creditors, then a series of disastrous attempts to raise taxes leading to simultaneous revolts in both Catalonia and Portugal. By the 1660s France had definitively taken the position of premiere land power in Europe.

It is hard, indeed, to see how Spain could have done more.

Italy: The Shadow of the Sixteenth Century

If the Thirty Years War marked the start of Spain’s decline, the lack of involvement from the states of Italy is characteristic of the extent to which the peninsula had already declined since her glory days of the Renaissance. Starting in 1494, a series of wars between France and the Austrian Habsburgs had devastated northern Italy as each sought to block the other out of the area against a backdrop of the end of such storied dynasties as the Sforzas and the Borgias.

Vincent Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua

The War of the Mantuan Succession, while taking place during the period of the Thirty Years War, is illustrative of the effects of this. In 1627 the last Gonzaga Duke of Mantua in the main line died, leading to France and Austria going to war backing different distant cousins for the throne. After three years of conflict, France had occupied Suza in the Alps, Savoy had acquired part of Montferrat, Milan had been struck by bubonic plague, Mantua had been besieged by the Emperor, near totally destroyed in a brutal sack, and then handed over to the French backed victorious candidate for the throne. Meanwhile France reneged on all agreements made not to ally with Imperial enemies in Germany, Austria had been weakened by the distraction, and the majority of the famous Mantuan art collection had survived only because it had been sold to Charles I of England in 1625 to form the core of the Royal Collection.

The pattern across Italy was broadly the same. Naples and Milan were appendages of the Spanish state. Venice had fought a brief war with Austria over Gradisca between 1613 and 1617 but had been focussed on the threat of the Ottoman Empire ever since the loss of Cyprus in 1570. Tuscany had been retreating increasingly into provincial politics since the death of Cosimo de Medici as her rulers chose frequently to focus on scientific and cultural matters rather than governance. The Papacy meanwhile spent the majority of the Thirty Years War under the rule of Urban VIII, who divided his time between enriching other members of the Barerbini family and expanding the political power of the Papacy in Italy through the annexation of Urbino and Castro. It is possible an explicitly pro-Habsburg or pro-French Pope could have been elected in 1623, but that conclave was particularly closely divided and Urban VIII emerged as a compromise candidate after both main camps had seen their own candidates rejected. Genoa meanwhile had tied her star to Spain and would suffer both French attack and economic decline as a consequence, being largely unable to act beyond her borders as a consequence.

The Battle of Sablat

With most other states too small to effect much even if they had become involved, only Savoy can truly have been said to have been involved in the wider war. Even here, however, it was as a proxy for the Franco-Spanish rivalry, with the Dukes of Savoy pursuing a historically anti-Habsburg policy, save for the occasional moment when they switched sides to force the French from strategic points within Savoy, as happened in 1629. Nonetheless, Savoy was a major funder of Frederick V and the Bohemian Estate, only being forced to bow out after this was revealed by the Protestant defeat at Sablat. It is likely that a more successful Frederick would have continued to receive this support, potentially leading to an open alliance.

While not strictly part of Italy, it is worth looking at this point at the position of Switzerland. Historically expansionist from its creation in 1291 until 1536, the reformation had all but destroyed the collective responsibility of the Old Swiss Confederacy, creating fresh divisions and conflicts between the Cantons and paralysing efforts to act in unity. This was to have a devastating effect on the Three Leagues- an allied non-voting member of the Confederacy- where a local revolt of Catholics against the Protestant leaders in 1618 led to Catholic and Protestant cantons taking sides in the conflict. With the Three Leagues in control of the Valtellina- one of the key passes over the Alps- the Spanish and Austrians intervened to occupy the Leagues, supported by the Catholic cantons of the Confederacy. In response, the Protestant Cantons invited the French in to expel the Spanish, the Papacy was invited in to occupy the passes as a neutral party, and eventually the Three Leagues agreed to respect the rights of the Catholics to worship in return for getting their land back.

Considering their lack of involvement in the Thirty Years War, it should come as no surprise that the Treaty of Westphalia finally formalised what had long been the actual situation and removed Italy and Switzerland from the Empire.

The Ottoman Empire: The Turks at the Gate of the Empire

From the point of view of Austria, the biggest worry both historically and during the Thirty Years War was the threat of open war from the Ottoman Empire, potentially in direct alliance with either the French or her enemies in the Empire. Early on in the war, at least, this seemed to be born out as Osman II, in part through his determination to prove himself after coming to the throne on the deposition of his uncle, pursued an aggressive policy on the northern border. Providing 60,000 cavalry troops in support of Frederick V and offering financial and military support for Transylvania in their revolt against the Habsburgs.

The young Osman II

Had Osman endured as Sultan, it is quite possible that such a policy would have been continued, a continuous harassment of Hungary and Austria proper that would have necessitated Ferdinand II keeping troops back and taking a more cautious approach, albeit probably with the benefit of getting more support due to fighting against the age-old enemy of the Empire. It was not to be however, as Osman II was himself deposed and murdered in 1622 after closing the coffee shops of Constantinople in the first step of an attempt to curb the power of the Janissaries.


His uncle was briefly restored to the throne, and then a cousin Murad IV was enthroned at only 11. Even then the possibility of gaining territory at the expense of Vienna may have been promising, but the Safavid Empire in Persia chose this moment to attack during a revolt in Erzurum, and the resulting war would drag on to 1639 with a decisive Ottoman victory and the last gasp of Persian rule over Iraq. Closer to home, Murad IV also focussed on reducing the power and influence of the Janissaries that Osman II had attempted to do, leaving little left over for action against the West.

Osman II’s reign lasting for the duration of the Thirty Years War might well have been the catalyst needed for greater Ottoman intervention, but it is perhaps just as likely that either the Janissaries or the Safavids would have provided sufficient distraction to prevent much action here. Ironically the biggest effect might have been the need for Osman’s successors to carry out the reforms that Murad IV historically accomplished- and Suleiman II may well have found himself turning East towards Baghdad rather than north to Vienna as he historically did in 1689.


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

© 2019, Sea Lion Press.

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