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PODs of the Thirty Years War XLVIX

By Alex Richards

Swedes on the Charles Bridge. A diorama created in 1891 by brothers Karel and Adolf Liebscher depicts the highlights of stubborn defense of right-bank Prague by students led by the Jesuit Jiří Plachý. Photo taken by Petri Krohn and shared under the CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.

With Imperial war efforts in the Rhineland effectively ended, the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne’s campaign in Cologne largely ineffective, the Hessian situation resolved and Bavaria mostly under Swedish occupation, it was obvious to all and sundry that the final negotiations of the Peace Treaties in Westphalia were soon to conclude. Yet the desire for better terms, for prestige and most importantly for gold and treasure meant there was to be one final, dramatic confrontation between Sweden and the Emperor before the war finally came to its conclusion.

The Sack of Prague

While Wrangel and Turenne had focussed on occupying southern Bavaria after the Battle of Zusmarshausen, Königsmarck had had a different direction, turning north from the valley of the Lech as early as May 18th. By July 22nd he had arrived at Pilsen with 3,000 troops, and was looking over a Bohemian plain that had been essentially stripped of troops as Piccolomini concentrated men to hold the Danube and prevent an attack into the heart of Austria itself.

While the hopes of splitting Austria’s defensive focus, and of driving a wedge between Austria and Bavaria in terms of priorities which could be exploited by the negotiators in Westphalia, were certainly part of Königsmarck’s strategic thinking, it soon became clear that there was a far more base motive at play. Bohemia had been relatively unscathed by the last decade of the war, and Prague in particular had done well from the early and decisive crushing of the Bohemian revolt to become an oasis of relative peace and prosperity. It was a wealthy city, weakly defended and had a track record of surrendering rather than fighting- having done so in 1620, 1631 and 1632. In short, it was the perfect target for a Swedish army looking to score a final victory, and the wealth that could be gained from that, before the onset of peace meant that paying armies by looting enemy strongholds could no longer be a viable option.

Prague was not so easy a target as was supposed however. While she had surrendered without a fight three times already, the plundering and destruction that followed had convinced the populace that this was not a worthwhile strategy. As such, the populace had been preparing for a potential fight, and strengthening the walls to deter attackers. Perhaps if this work had been completed earlier- or even if it hadn’t actually begun yet- the sack that was to come could have been avoided. As was, a hundred Swedes were led by a disaffected Bohemian Protestant- Ernst Ottovalsky, who had lost an arm and was incensed at the lack of compensation he had received- to a point where workmen had left a pile of earth near enough to the wall to serve as a ramp. Ottovalsky even went as far as to supply a list of the addresses of the city’s wealthiest citizens in order to better assist the Swedes in looting the city afterwards.

As was, the attack on July 25th 1648 was only partially successful. The ‘Little City’ on the west bank of the Moldau, including the citadel of the Hradschin, was captured, but the imperial commander Rodolfo Colloredo managed to escape over the river and raise the alarm, along the Charles Bridge to be blocked and access to the larger new town prevented. Denied an easy capture of the whole city, the Swedes spent the next two days stripping everything of value they could from the eastern bank, resulting in over 7 million Thalers in money, jewelry, books and paintings, some of which was to end up in the Swedish royal collection.

The End of the War

The pressure on the negotiation teams in Westphalia was by this point bearing fruit. Trauttmannsdorf, the Imperial negotiator, gave way on calls for religious parity in all the Imperial administrative bodies, as well as including the Calvinists in the agreement, and despite official protest from Saxony and Bavaria, both moved to begin persuading those smaller Protestant and Catholic states that were still holding out to agree to the terms. By June 12th the Swedes had agreed to the proposal that the constitutional settlement be postponed to the next session of the Reichstag, and by August 6th a settlement had been reached that was essentially identical to that which was to be signed in October.

Ratification was delayed however, officially because France remained at war, but in practice because other Swedish armies, most notably that commanded by Sweden’s future king Carl Gustav von Pfalz-Zweibrücken, were rushing towards Prague in the hope of sharing in the loot that would come from taking the New Town. The city’s populace held out however, even as fighting intensified from 11th October, in the hope that either the signing of the Peace treaties, or the arrival of an Imperial relief force, would prevent occupation.

In the end, it was to be both. Mazarin made demands in June that the Burgundian Circle- comprising the Spanish lands within the Empire- be excluded from any peace between France and the Empire in order to prevent further French action east of the Rhine. Emperor Ferdinand III finally agreed to this on September 9th- much to the frustration of Philip IV of Spain, albeit with the private understanding that there was no real alternative for the Emperor. Both Westphalian Treaties- that of Münster with France and that of Osnabrück with Sweden- were signed on October 24th.

News of the signing of the treaties arrived in Prague on November 5th, increasing the pressure on Königsmarck. He continued his assaults on the defences of the New Town, hoping that he could claim either a fait accompli, or that the news hadn’t arrived yet if questioned. 5 days later, however, the arrival of the Imperial army under Piccolomini finally brought fighting to a close. While the Swedish army would continue to occupy parts of the area until the following September, the last battle of the war had come to a close. The Thirty Years War had ended, as it had begun, in Prague.


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


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