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PODs of the Thirty Years War XVII​

By Alex Richards


Gustav II Adolph at the Battle at Breitenfeld

The death of Gustavus Adolphus at the Battle of Lützen brought to an end both the most successful period for the Protestant cause since the Thirty Years War, and Sweden’s larger ambitions within the Holy Roman Empire. While the conflict between the two was to continue until the Peace of Westphalia some 16 years later, Sweden’s goals within the Empire- both constitutionally and territorially- became far more modest than had been apparent in the clash between Gustavus and Ferdinand.

Yet as my last article demonstrated, Lützen is replete with potential moments of change which could have saved the Swedish King’s life, or turned it from a Pyrrhic Victory to a decisive one. For the sake of convenience, I’ll be using perhaps the best option for the latter: Gustavus is not delayed at the Ripparch stream and falls upon Wallenstein on the afternoon of November 15th, preventing Pappenheim from arriving in time to be of assistance and meaning Wallenstein’s defensive positions were less well prepared. From there, it’s time to look at perhaps the most ephemeral of the major differences that could have emerged from the Thirty Years War- the World Gustavus Adolphus might have made.

After Lützen

A decisive victory at Lützen wouldn’t immediately lead to a Swedish overall victory in the war of course. However rather than 1633 being a year of Swedish inactivity allowing the Imperial side to recover, it’s near certain that Gustavus would be on the offensive - quite possibly pushing into Bohemia over the summer to take advantage of the collapse of Wallenstein’s army and Arnim’s victories in Silesia. From there he’d have been in a position to strike at either Bavaria or, more likely, to repeat count Thurn’s advance on Vienna from the start of the war. Whether this would be more successful than that attempt is another question, but certainly an overall victory in the war for Sweden cannot be discounted under these circumstances.

Gustavus would by no means be unopposed. Unless a later PoD during Lützen than the Ripparch stream is chosen, Pappenheim is likely to remain in the field taking action in Lower Saxony against Gustavus’s supply lines and the Hessians, or potentially recalled to Bavaria to lead the defence there. Wallenstein may still be an active participant in the conflict at this stage, but between his inability to secure the loyalty of his own army and his many opponents within the Imperial court (who would undoubtedly be emboldened by his defeat) it’s likely that for a few years at least he would have been effectively neutralised.


The Battle of Nordlingen, by Jan van den Hoecke

While historically the Spanish were able to move a sizable force into the theatre in 1634, leading to the major Swedish defeat at Nordlingen and the Peace of Prague the following year, it might have been possible for Gustavus to bring the Imperial side to the table before this could be achieved. If not, the exact circumstances of the defeat at Nordlingen would be unlikely to be replicated, but a sizable Spanish army would represent perhaps Gustavus’s greatest challenge to date, and it could be at this point that his luck and success would finally run out in any case. If he could escape defeat without losing his army however, it could be that this would be the final element needed to bring the war to a negotiated end some ten years before it historically did. In such circumstances, Sweden would likely have their claim to the whole of Pomerania (forced out of the childless Bogislaw XIV essentially at gunpoint) upheld, together with the restoration of the Dukes of Mecklenburg and the Lutheran administrator of Bremen-Verden, albeit likely under Swedish overlordship.

The Lion’s Dream

While the immediate priorities for a negotiated peace (being essentially a question for Sweden of securing the Baltic Coast) are relatively straightforward to work out, it’s far more difficult to piece together Gustavus’ plans for a total victory, largely because these were ad-hoc and often based on the deals required to bring new allies on side. We know that his priorities were not actually religious in nature (he supposedly once remarked to Axel Oxenstierna that if he had wanted to go to war to fight the Catholic church he’d have declared war on the Pope) but at the same time he wasn’t shy about using the aims of Lutherans and Calvinists in the empire to further his own interests.

Sweden’s conduct in the war offers suggestions for the basic framework however - a tiered structure of control consisting of a core bridgehead of German territory on the Baltic, forward bases positioned further south into the Empire, and a looser, less reliable collection of allies and collaborators from within the Empire. Pomerania, in particular the key port of Stralsund, was the lynchpin of the former element, but the Mecklenburger port of Wismar was also desired for annexation, as well as securing influence over the Mecklenburg duchies and Bremen-Verden.

The coins in Erfurt minted during the long Swedish occupation - Christiana, Queen of Sweden, is shown on the obverse of a 1645 Erfurt 10 ducat piece

Whereas the Swedes had occupied the territories of the Baltic Bridgehead with a clear aim for eventual annexation, the disposition of the forward bases in the Empire is more questionable. The first of these to be established was Erfurt (long a distant exclave of the Electorate of Mainz) which the Swedes occupied in 1632 and held for most of the rest of the war. Magdeburg was soon to follow, albeit its highly ruined state meant it was of limited value, with Würzburg, Frankfurt-am-Main, Nuremberg and Augsburg serving as regional hubs.


While Erfurt was the most strategically important, Mainz, supplemented with the huge Gustavusburg fortress on the territory of Hesse-Darmstadt on the opposite bank of the Rhine, became the unofficial capital of the Swedish empire in Germany. The future disposition of these areas would depend greatly on the extent to which Sweden might attempt to maintain permanent bases in the Empire, as opposed to simply securing favourable relations with such key locations for future reference.

Erfurt itself had long had a desire of attaining the status of a Free City, which could lead to clashes with the Swedes should the latter wish to convert their occupation into permanent ownership. Here perhaps either a looser protectorate, or at least a formalised autonomy, might have been able to sooth difficulties in the short term. Magdeburg had been claimed by Johann Georg of Saxony for one of his sons (which would likely cause difficulties for Gustavus as Brandenburg had traditionally supplied the administrators for the city) and Mainz’s fate would depend on that of the Electorate of Mainz as a whole, of which more below, and similarly the disposition of the Prince-Bishopric of Würzburg would decide that outpost’s fate. The remaining free cities (Frankfurt, Nuremberg and Augsburg) would be likely to slip out of outright Swedish control as soon as active military forces were no longer present, particularly given Nuremberg’s ceremonial importance in the Empire and Augsburg’s proximity to Bavaria. Hesse-Kassel might have attempted to exert a claim on Frankfurt, but it’s unlikely this would be enforced considering how extensive the Landgrave’s desires were.

It was not only Sweden’s desires that would have to be considered, of course. Sweden had, by opportunism, ideology or force, acquired a number of significant allies across the Empire, most of whom had been promised land or title in return for their aid. Brandenburg-Prussia was essentially underfoot, and in any case chiefly desired Pomerania, while Saxony had been given extensive freedom and sought only modest gains such as Magdegburg.


Hesse-Kassel meanwhile operated essentially as an independent ally. Gustavus attempted to resolve the long standing family dispute between the branches of the House of Hesse by requiring Langrave Wilhelm V of Hesse-Kassel to cede the disputed area of Marburg in return for being granted the Abbeys of Fulda, Hersfeld and Corvey, as well as the Prince-Bishoprics of Paderborn and Münster- acquisitions which would have at least doubled the size of the Landgraviate. Württemberg, which had to be effectively bullied into switching from neutrality to a pro-Swedish position, was promised not just the ecclesiastical estates lost in the Edict of Restitution but also the Principality of Fürstenberg as a Swedish fief. In this case, Württemberg viewed this as a temporary gain to be used as a bargaining chip against the Emperor. Individual generals also sought their own piece of the territorial pie, though frequently they found they were required to pay for the privilege, as is the case with 18,000 thalers paid by Kraft von Hohenlohe-Neuenstein to acquire the Abbey of Ellwangen in Franconia - and this on top of the troops he’d already raised.

Reshaping the Empire

Landgrave William V of Hesse-Cassel

There are suggestions that Gustavus wished to go further, however. It was frequently rumoured after the capture of Mainz that the Electorate was to be given to Oxenstierna and that the three ecclesiastical electorates were to be transferred to secular entities. Landgrave Wilhelm V of Hesse-Kassel certainly believed he would be one of the beneficiaries (he was ruler of the largest non-Electorate in the Empire even without the Westphalian bishoprics) and if Oxenstierna’s secularised Mainz represents a second one, it’s likely that the third one would have been given to either Württemberg, a secularised Prince-Archbishopric of Cologne, or most likely a restored Electoral Palatinate.


While Gustavus viewed the Palatinate cause as little more than a useful stick with which to beat his enemies and attract allies, the death of Frederick V in 1632 (just 10 days after Lützen) and his claim’s inheritance by the far more level-headed and realistic Karl Ludwig would only have helped lead Gustavus to the decision to make at least a partial restoration of the Palatinate a condition of peace. With Bavaria largely undefeated, it’s likely they would be able to insist on retaining the Upper Palatinate, and the ability to transfer a second Electorate into the mix would resolve the issue of which one was to retain that title. The Prince-Bishoprics of Würzburg and Bamberg may well be used here to ease any deal making, barter back the Upper Palatinate from Bavaria or secure the position of the Electoral Palatinate.

Further afield, many of the Bohemian exiles were willing to moderate in return for the restoration of their lands (historically to the extent of allowing Wallenstein to keep his own newly acquired estates) and are likely to be as pragmatic in this scenario as they were historically. Wallenstein himself might have proven to be the major loser in Bohemia - while historically his position was significant enough that both the exiles and the Swedes offered him the Crown of Bohemia in return for defecting in 1633, a major defeat at Lützen could well sideline him sufficiently that his erstwhile Duchy of Friedland was simply dissolved by Gustavus’s occupying forces to help compensate his own men. Depending on how badly the Austrians were defeated, this could end up being an ephemeral situation - full pardons and restitution of lands for the Bohemian exiles might, in conjunction with a Swedish guarantee on the independence of the Bohemian Estates, be sufficient to allow Ferdinand to retain his throne in Bohemia.


While Gustavus, Johann Georg, Karl Ludwig or Wladyslaw Vasa (newly elected as Wladyslaw IV of Poland-Lithuania in November 1632) might be candidates for the throne, the most likely candidate for an independent Bohemia may well be one of the leading nobles of the Kingdom as a way of resolving Bohemia’s status in the Empire.


The young Christiana as Queen of Sweden following Gustavus' death.

Gustavus meanwhile had vague intentions of marrying his daughter and heir Christiana to Frederick William, the son and heir of the Elector of Brandenburg. Characteristically he viewed this as securing an eventual Swedish inheritance of Brandenburg, in spite of the usual rules of inheritance.

Gustavus’s practices while conquering territory add credence to his desire for radical transformation of the Empire. Beyond his immediate allies, and the Guelph Princes of Lower Saxony, who were required to swear fealty to Sweden, Gustavus treated the lands he occupied as conquered territories - the ownership of which was his to grant or confirm as he saw fit. The Kreis structure was used as a mechanism not just for acquiring funds for troop upkeep, but for administering raised troops as larger units- albeit with limited success in places. By the middle of 1632 Gustavus was talking about creating a new corpus Politicum to serve as an overarching administrative and judicial system for his allies within the Empire, entirely subordinated to his direction and likely only owing the slightest allegiance to the Emperor, if they were to remain with the Empire at all.

A new Coalition? [IMAGE]

None of this was without opposition of course - not just from Catholics but also some Lutherans within the Empire who were fearful of their rights and liberties being lost. Assuming an initial victory sufficient to force Austria and Bavaria to come to peace, it’s likely that Spain would still wish to continue the fight, and could soon bring Austria, at least, back into the conflict if they could provide sufficient troops. Poland-Lithuania, the likely next target of Gustavus after Germany as he sought to continue his dream of making the Baltic a Swedish lake, would have been eager to join any coalition against Gustavus, while even France might find that having funded the Swedish attack they’d have created a far more unbalanced situation that they desired.

Gustavus would find a likely ally in the Dutch, and there would be pressure from figures in Parliament for the Stuart Realms of England, Scotland and Ireland to join him as well, but Sweden would still be isolated and their best chance of an enduring victory lies in France deciding to embrace the new situation, taking as much from Spain as possible (likely triggering the revolts in Portugal and Catalonia a few years earlier than they historically happened) and hoping for the Swedish position to collapse to something more manageable in time. It is the probable fear of this coming to pass that explains why Gabriel Oxenstierna (Axel’s younger brother) viewed the Swedish advance into southern Germany as a needlessly antagonising mistake.

In any case, Swedish domination over Germany would likely be an ephemeral affair in the longer term, and even if Gustavus were able to secure peace, it probably wouldn't long outlast him. Far more likely would be a more dramatic rolling back of the Swedish position at some point in the late 1630s or 1640s as the demands placed on the German states by Gustavus brought renewed discontent. The eventual disposition of lands would likely owe much to who defected early and who remained loyal - the former most likely represented by Johann Georg in Saxony, Eberhard III in Württemberg, the Guelph princes in Lower Saxony and Wilhelm V of Hesse-Kassel, though in the latter case only if his new position was guaranteed by the Catholic powers. It might well be that the cost of expelling the Swedes would be the Habsburg acceptation of the new secular electorates and the Mediatisation of much of the Empire’s church land.

In the end, Gustavus’s German Empire might have proven to be as brief an affair as Napoleon’s, but have resulted in just as dramatic a change in the landscape of Central Europe.

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