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PODs of the Thirty Years War XIX

By Alex Richards

Albrecht von Wallenstein as painted by Anthony Van Dyck in 1629

The Battle of Lützen had been a punishing affair to both sides but, despite the loss of their monarch, it was the Swedes who were the first to capitalise on the situation, pressing forward towards Bavaria once again. In this they were aided by the curious inactivity of Albrecht von Wallenstein- by now undoubtedly the premiere commander in the Imperial army, and arguably the most controversial. It was an inactivity that would cost him advantage, influence and, eventually, his life.

Overtures for Peace

While Wallenstein had been willing to make diplomatic overtures before Lützen, the immediate aftermath of the battle saw a transformation in his strategy; he remained quartered in Bohemia while attempting to persuade Saxony and Brandenburg to abandon the Swedes. In this he had a somewhat receptive audience, particularly from Johann Georg of Saxony, and he remained encamped in Bohemia until May 1633 carrying out secret negotiations with the Elector, albeit still informing Emperor Ferdinand II of his progress. In this manner, the potential to take advantage of the Swedish mutiny was lost, and even with the formation of the League of Heilbronn the Saxons fundamentally felt too weak to break with Sweden. In June, and under increasing pressure to restart the fight, he began advancing towards Saxon positions in Silesia, but offered a truce for negotiations before beginning the fight. This set the tone for the next couple of months, with Wallenstein making probing attacks to weaken the Saxon army, followed by renewed truces for negotiations.

These were not the only negotiations during this period however, as Wallenstein also sent communications to Sweden in an effort to negotiate an overall end to the war, and in particular offering better terms than the open Danish efforts to do the same. While not much of the content of these negotiations survives, it appears that a genuine compromise was the goal, including a partial revocation of the Edict of Restitution, and granting at least part of Pomerania to Sweden to allow Oxenstierna to claim a ‘Peace with Honour’.

The inevitable question is whether these could have been successful, but here both Wallenstein’s own actions, and the views of the Imperial Court count against it. As with many secret negotiations, Wallenstein attempted to juggle many different private communications to different figures- for example the Swedes at one point intercepted a message to the Duke of Lorraine assuring him that Wallenstein intended to exclude Sweden from Germany altogether. More fundamentally, Wallenstein lacked the clout at the Imperial court to force through a peace treaty without it having the full and complete backing of Emperor Ferdinand II- which must be considered unlikely if it was to involve revoking the Edict, and especially considering that his many enemies had managed to force his dismissal in 1630, only allowing his return to the field after the Death of Tilly.

A return to Arms

If peace was, however much he wished otherwise, an unlikely prospect for Wallenstein, the alternative question which much be asked is whether a more active return to war could have fared Wallenstein better. Certainly this was the desire of the Spanish who offered him a sizable subsidy and the Lordship of West Frisia to bring the war to a speedy conclusion- a rather cheeky offer considering the latter was under the control of the United Provinces, and one which Wallenstein saw (probably correctly) as an attempt to force the Empire to become involved in Spain’s war with the Dutch. Much like Sweden’s offer of the Bohemian Crown for his defection, Wallenstein was either too loyal or too astute (or indeed both) to consider leaving Imperial service even in disfavour.

Come October 1633, Wallenstein pressed forward in earnest, raiding Lusatia, securing large parts of Silesia, Frankfurt-on-Oder and much of eastern Pomerania and Brandenburg. While this was against the weaker armies and poorer Generals of the Silesian front- such as the unimaginative Count Thurn- such energy applied earlier when the main bulk of the Swedish army were in disarray could have prevented the advance south to Konstanz or into Bavaria, and potentially offered the prospect of linking up with the Spanish, as was to prove so valuable for the Imperial forces at Nördlingen. It is equally possible that with a weakened army and supply issues any attempted advance by Wallenstein against the main Swedish army would have been ineffective.

The Downfall of Wallenstein

Portrait of Ottavio Piccolomini by Anselm van Hulle

The siege of Regensburg changed matters. Wallenstein was ordered south from Silesia, approaching the mountain pass to Passau as winter approached. When the city fell however, he chose to hold off making a full crossing and instead pulled back to over-winter in Pilsen. It was the final straw for his enemies and a new campaign gathered steam to have him dismissed once more. It was at this point that Wallenstein’s personal distaste for court life brought its grim harvest. He had few allies at court, had made little effort to cultivate support either among the Austrian nobility or among the wider army, and increasingly even the pro-peace and compromise faction did not believe he could deliver on this. To make matters worse, his deliberate avoidance of the Imperial court, the rumours of his desire to defect and careful spreading about rumours his inexplicable behaviour was due to an obsession with Astrology meant that even Emperor Ferdinand was growing more suspicious about his true intentions. Closer to home, Wallenstein had lost the loyalty of Ottavio Piccolomini, who had played a crucial role holding together the Imperial army in the battle of Lützen, by promoting the Danish commander Heinrich Holk to Field Marshall ahead of him- a matter that had soon proven moot given that Holk had died of the plague during the summer.

General Maximilian von and zu Trauttmansdorff was dispatched to Pilsen to get an explanation out of Wallenstein for his actions since October, to which Wallenstein displayed his typical lack of political skills by giving probably accurate but decidedly unhelpful answers. To the question of why he had released Count Thurn after capturing him in Silesia, he replied that it was better to let such an incompetent general lead the enemy than keep him prisoner; while his return to Pilsen was explained by not wanting to risk the health of the army with a December crossing. At any other time this might have proven acceptable to the Emperor, but now it merely seemed to confirm that he was planning to defect, or was at the very least no longer reliably following orders. Compounding matters, Wallenstein- aware of the growing efforts to remove him- summoned his colonels to Pilsen on January 12th and threatened to resign unless he got signatures of loyalty from them, then sent his own trusted subordinates to gather signatures from the army in Silesia and Vienna itself.

It was the final straw for Ferdinand. Arrangements for a replacement were made, and on Janaury 24th 1634 he signed a decree releasing officers from their loyalty to Wallenstein and to follow Count Matthias Gallas instead. This was followed on February 18th by a latter patent accusing Wallenstein of conspiracy- in effect a death sentence. For the moment this was not publicised due to concerns about the loyalty of the army, but it seems likely that the sole effect of an immediate publication would have been Wallenstein’s earlier flight from Pilsen as the vast majority of the army even in Bohemia deserted him for the Emperor once the first decree was read out. General Scherffenberg was arrested in Vienna on February 17th, and that evening the first officers left the army in Pilsen.

Piccolomini meanwhile had begun preparations to assassinate Wallenstein should it prove necessary- with the somewhat distant backing of the Emperor who had indicated in a private meeting with Trauttmansdorff that he cared little whether Wallenstein was stopped dead or alive. Walter Butler and a small group of fellow Irish and Scottish officers in the Eger garrison were contacted, and indicated they would be willing to do the deed if required (presumably among others who have not been recorded to history) while Piccolomini continued to feign loyalty to Wallenstein.

On February 20th, Wallenstein again summoned his colonels to pledge their loyalty to him, with only two thirds of those who had signed in January repeating the move. This, combined with desertions from the ordinary soldiers in the Pilsen barracks, convinced Wallenstein the army was no longer with him, and he left the city 2 days later in an attempt to meet Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar in Thuringia, having apparently made a spur of the moment decision to actually defect. The army would continue to lose troops on the march to Eger- including Piccolomini who appears to have hung back in order to avoid being directly involved.

The Death of Wallenstein

By the time he arrived in Eger on February 24th, Wallenstein had only 1,300 men with him- who were then required to camp outside the walls as Butler’s troops effectively filled the city. Butler surrendered his own headquarters to Wallenstein, and he was artfully separated from his Inner circle by inviting the 5 of them- Wallenstein himself, Adan Trczka, Vilém Kinský, Christian Ilov and Henry Neumann- to a feast in the city’s castle, knowing the general would refuse. All four would by assassinated at dinner by a squadron of dragoons under Butler’s command, and at 10PM the conspirators made their way to Wallenstein himself- who supposedly was run through with a half-pike having just undressed to go to bed. Piccolomini would arrive the next day to secure the loyalty of the army, and eventually was to be richly rewarded with land and a Marshall’s baton for his part in the deed.

The question of what might have happened had Wallenstein made it over the border is an interesting one. While the Saxons were convinced of his intentions, Bernhard remained unconvinced that Wallenstein truly wished to defect, and without a significant army with him it’s possible that even had his efforts not proven futile he would have been seen poorly by the Swedish forces. Had Wallenstein ended up in command for Sweden- or possibly France depending on the course of things to come, it’s likely that the same arrogance and lack of political skills that doomed him historically would cause him considerable difficulties with any army he happened to command, especially considering the general lack of enthusiasm towards his defection in the Swedish army.


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


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