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PODs of the Thirty Years War XLVII

By Alex Richards

Pau Claris, one of the leaders of the Catalan Revolt

If the Peace of Ulm had allowed Elector Maximilian of Bavaria to, ultimately, reorient his attentions towards Bohemia and the Swedes, for the French it was an opportunity to focus once more on the Spanish Netherlands. The actions here of Turenne and d’Enghien would come to shape the end of not just the Thirty Years War, but also the Dutch Independence War. Yet despite this, France’s own war with Spain was to continue long past the Treaty of Westphalia. The reasons for this lie in the interplay between the battlefield and the French Court under Mazarin.

The Spanish-Dutch Truce

While the Franco-Dutch alliance had been renewed in 1644 with a commitment that neither side should make peace without the other, the years since the Battle of Rocroi had been relatively quiet in the Spanish Netherlands. Both the French and the Dutch had made advances, successfully capturing dozens of towns and fortresses, but the focus of the senior French generals had moved elsewhere. While Turenne remained based in Southern Germany, d’Enghien’s position was to be more complicated. With the death of his father Henri in 1646, d’Enghien inherited both the title of Prince of Condé and he vast and wealthy lands associated with it, which when combined with his military successes made him a highly significant figure in French Court Politics. Mazarin’s response was to send him out of Paris, directing him to lead the French armies attempting to invade Spain to support the Catalan Revolt.

Condé was to find little success in the Pyrenees however. The Catalan Revolt, which had begun in 1640, had become a complex multi-sided affair, in part due to efforts to impose French Law in the County of Rousillon after the French had occupied that area. Between the divided loyalties of the Catalan leadership, the distractions of the multi-sided war, and the replacement of the Count-Duke of Olivares with his more conciliatory nephew Luis de Haro y Guzmán in 1643, France soon found herself unable to overturn the slow Spanish reconquest of Catalonia south of the Pyrenees. Condé himself made a failed attempt on Lleida in June 1647, but by the time Tortosa was captured the following summer he had been recalled once more.

The reason for this was the decline in the situation in the Netherlands. While Franco-Spanish peace talks had stalled since the initial exchange of negotiators, the Dutch capture of ‘s-Hertogenbosch in particular had precipitated a move to open formal negotiations for first a truce in January 1646, and then the draft for a permanent peace on January 8th 1647. It was effectively an agreement to grant the Dutch independence within the lands they had conquered, including Maastricht and those other areas south of the Rhine. Meanwhile concerns that Emperor Ferdinand may agree to neutrality in the Franco-Spanish War as a condition for his own peace led Peñaranda, the main Spanish negotiator with the French, to increase the concurrent offer to include the cessation of the County of Roussillon and an amnesty to the Catalonian Rebels still aligned with the French.

Mazarin, however, was overconfident, believing that both Artois and the whole of Catalonia could be ceded with another year’s campaign. In this he was allowing the apparent facts on the ground- French troops were in control of most of Artois and Barcelona after all- to distract from the wider strategic matters. The Neapolitan Revolt was a dismal failure of a distraction; French centralising efforts had alienating the majority of the Catalan leadership; only Modena of the Italian principalities had joined the French alliance and with the Dutch and Spanish now marking out a border along the former front-line, the Spanish armies in the Netherlands were free to turn south. Armentiéres was retaken in June, Landrecis in July, and Lens put under siege in August, and while the latter would be relieved, it came with the loss of Marshall Jean de Gassion who had been skilfully consolidating French rule in the area. Still worse, Turenne’s attack into Luxembourg was ended before it could even truly begin with first the mutiny of his German officers, and then the collapse of the Peace of Ulm.

The Battle of Lens

The Grand Condé at the battle of Lens, 20 August 1648, victory over the Spanish troops commanded by archduke Leopold as depicted by Jean-Pierre Franque,

The declining situation allowed a Franco-Venetian-Dutch team to restart the flagging Franco-Spanish peace talks in April 1647, and by November they had come to an agreement on the majority of matters, albeit with the all-important question of territorial demands unresolved. A year of attempting to mediate between France and Spain proved to be the final trigger needed to convince the Dutch that the Spanish were serious about their intentions- not least when Spain ratified the draft deal in an attempt to gain leverage on France. The Dutch ratified themselves on January 30th 1648 and the final signing occurred in Münster on 15th May.

Any hopes this might have precipitated a Franco-Spanish peace were dashed by the domestic situation in Paris. Both the young Louis XIV and his brother Phillipe, the Duc d’Anjou, had recently contracted smallpox, and while the monarch had recovered it had created an opening for Mazarin’s political enemies. As such, the senior French negotiators to the peace talks left for Paris, and by the end of June Peñaranda had secured permission from Madrid to follow suit.

Two months later, on August 27th 1648, the Archduke Leopold Wilhelm recaptured Lens for the Spanish. Condé had been moved north from Catalonia in the spring and, taking into account reinforcements from Alsace, had an army of 16,000 men – of which 9,000 were cavalry, and 18 guns. The Spanish army under the Archduke both outmanned and outgunned him with 18,000 men- of which 9,000 were cavalry- and 38 guns. Worse still, the slow grind of minor losses combined with the typical supply issues that plagued armies of the time meant that the French army was both demoralised and in poor condition to fight. The situation as the two sides met on August 20th, 1648, thus distinctly favoured the Archduke.

With the Spanish drawn up on a ridge West of Lens and the French facing them on the plain, even Condé, with all his youthful willingness to charge into battle regardless, determined that the position was too difficult to attempt a direct assault. He began a retreat- which some contemporaries have claimed was a feint but was more likely a genuine repositioning- only to end up drawing the attention of Jean de Beck, the Governor of Luxembourg who was in command of the centre of the Spanish army. He launched an attack, routing the French rearguard troops and leading to the Archduke, under heavy encouragement from Spanish officers seeking to avenge the defeat at Rocroi, to commit the rest of the army to a general attack.

Condé showed some of his characteristic daring and skill, as well as taking advantage of the Spanish decision to weight their cavalry towards the centre rather than the flanks, using his own cavalry to rout his opponents left and turn the front, exposing the infantry to a two-sided attack. Worse still, the rout of the Spanish cavalry led to the Archduke himself being carried away from the field of battle, while Beck was hemmed in on the front lines, robbing the army of strategic oversight.

The result, as at Rocroi, was a stunning French victory pulled from potential defeat. For the loss of 1,500 men, the French had killed twice that number and captured 5,000 men, General Beck and the Spanish guns, though Beck died of his wounds soon afterwards. Lens was soon back under French control and, more significantly, the battle was to prove the final nail in the coffin for Emperor Ferdinand III’s hopes that the Spanish could create an opening for an improved peace deal in the Rhineland.

But while the French may have secured the end of the Thirty Years War, a less decisive victory- or even a mild defeat- may have proven to be more beneficial to France in the long term. Mazarin, emboldened by the news, rejected yet another Spanish peace offer that autumn and also attempted to capitalise on the situation by ordering the arrest of three of his chief domestic opponents in the Parlement de Paris. The result was the Day of Barricades, where the Parisian militias and the Parlement rose in revolt against Mazarin, and the existing political struggle tumbled into the 5 year civil war of the Fronde.

That conflict, which would end up with Condé fighting against the king, Mazarin and Turenne from 1651, delayed any efforts to resolve the war with Spain and it would take until 1659 for the Treaty of the Pyrenees to finally end that conflict. France would gain Roussillon and Artois, but had to surrender Lorraine once more and the Catalan revolt was, unlike that in Portugal, decisively crushed. More significantly in the long term, Louis XIV and Mazarin’s victory in the Fronde both enabled the young monarch to reshape French governance as he saw fit, and fuelled his desire for a more centralised, absolutist administration, pushing the French monarchy on a road that would end in the Place de Concorde and the Guillotine 150 years later.

Yet while Lens proved the decisive matter for the Peace between France and the Empire, it would be events closer to home that would precipitate Peace with Sweden.


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


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