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PODs of the Thirty Years War XVIII

By Alex Richards

Carl Gustaf Hellqvist: Embarkation of the body of Gustavus II Adolphus at the Port of Wolgast 1633

With the death of Gustavus Adolphus, Sweden’s actions in the Thirty Years War were inevitably to become more constrained - if only because few shared the late monarch’s combination of ego, drive and ambition. The years between Lützen and the Peace of Prague were, however, crucial for shaping not just Sweden’s future position in the conflict, but the shape of the war to come, and the way in which the Thirty Years War became firmly entangled in the ancient rivalry between France and the Habsburgs.


The loss of Gustavus’s leadership proved the most immediate issue for the Swedes. The domestic front was relatively straightforward - Gustavus’s daughter Christina was named Queen, a 10-man regency council was established and, despite some personal dislike or rivalry with him, confirmed Oxenstierna as both Chancellor and Legate with overall authority over the German campaign. Military matters were not so straightforward. Oxenstierna was, by his own admission, no general. Gustav Horn was too cautious to successfully assert himself over other generals; Johan Banér had yet to prove himself; Lennart Torstensson had yet to recover from the effects of his capture and imprisonment at the Battle of Alte Veste; Johann Georg of Saxony was viewed as unreliable; and Wilhelm of Weimar, despite an attempt to use the army at Erfurt to shoulder his position, had lost influence after leaving the army after Alte Veste in annoyance at not having received any conquered land.

Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar

Instead it was his younger brother, Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar - the youngest of 11 brothers and with ambitions for his own Principality - who emerged as the biggest personality on the Swedish side for the time being, a situation which only made Oxenstierna’s task of trying to manage the army more difficult. Bernhard’s suggestion was for all of Sweden’s armies to be combined under his command for a direct strike against the Emperor- a suggestion that Oxenstierna dismissed, instead sending him to command the armies in Swabia and Franconia. Whether Bernhard could have managed a decisive victory at this point is an open question - his defeat in the 1634 campaign suggests otherwise, but there he also had the Spanish to contend with - but the military question here is arguably of secondary importance to the political situation within Sweden’s coalition.

If Oxenstierna had one concern above all others, it was the prospect of his German allies agreeing a separate peace with the Emperor - a worry not without foundation for the immediate aftermath of Lützen. Johann Georg of Saxony and Landgrave Georg of Darmstadt undertook negotiations for just such an agreement, though Brandenburg was not persuaded to join. Ferdinand in fact displayed a rare moment of magnanimity, offering a suspension of the Edict of Restitution, a guarantee of all Protestant property from before 1612 (thus appeasing the Lutheran administrators) and merely claiming Magdeburg and Halberstadt for his younger son the Archduke Leopold Wilhelm.

Oxenstierna’s positioning of his troops- the prestigious but unskilled Thurn in Silesia, the best of the troops in Mecklenburg and Pomerania, ‘support’ troops to ensure the loyalty of Saxony and Brandenburg- thus served to counteract any risk from such defections, and it would be a plausible situation for any attempted attack by a Swedish force under Bernhard to be undermined by the defection of the key allies guarding Sweden’s supply lines, especially if he leads the Swedish army to defeat rather than victory.

Oxenstierna had more success in the political sphere however- first managing to corral most of Sweden’s German allies into the new League of Heilbronn who agreed to continue fighting until Sweden had received her ‘proper’ compensation, then securing the extension of French subsides to the new League. Despite the undoubted diplomatic coup of this achievement, however, it rested on poor foundations- not only was the future success of the League of Heilbronn predicated on further military victories to gain more land and title for her various leaders, but Sweden’s desires to keep Pomerania in particular (Bremen, Verden and Mainz were still desired goals at this point as well) meant Brandenburg and the Lower Saxon princes remained outside the formal organisation.

The Spanish Arrive

Gustav Horn (1592–1657), Swedish commander

By April 1633 the combined forces of Horn and Bernhard had gathered 42,700 men at Augsburg for a renewed attempt at securing southern Germany, where most of the Swedish garrisons had been swept away in the aftermath of Alte Veste and Lützen. The campaign was not to get off to an auspicious start however, with the army being immediately beset by a large-scale mutiny by the troops, who by this point hadn’t been paid for almost 3 years. In this they had the support of many of their officers who were, likewise, concerned about receiving the promised rewards they had.

Bernhard turned up at Heilbronn to present the case for the officers, and Oxenstierna’s carefully managed campaign of managed handouts collapsed. The obvious free-for-all nature of the handouts - Bernhard, for example, received the title of ‘Duke of Franconia’ along with Bamberg and Würzburg, while Colonel Brandenstein received (as well as two bishoprics, 4 lordships and an abbey) a financial payment in lieu of the yet-to-be-conquered Bishopric of Konstanz - led to many assuming they would be swiftly lost to Imperial forces and thus near-immediately selling them on.

With the situation defused Horn and Bernhard renewed active campaigning in July 1633, but the situation was now more precarious for Sweden. Despite early successes in the Rhineland for both Sweden and Hesse-Kassel, the withdrawal of troops to southern Germany and failure of Hesse, Sweden and the Netherlands to come to common cause in Westphalia were creating a power vacuum that was increasingly filled by the French directly. Meanwhile the combination of the collapse of Peace Talks between Spain and the Netherlands (sponsored by the Estates of the Spanish Netherlands) after the death of Isabella of Austria in 1633, and Wallenstein’s military inactivity as he attempted to negotiate a peace deal with Sweden led to Spain taking direct action.

Gómez Suárez de Figueroa, 3rd Duke of Feria

Gómez Suárez de Figueroa, 3rd Duke of Feria was thus dispatched to cross the Alps, force the Spanish Road and escort the Cardinal-Infante Don Fernando of Austria to replace Isabella in Brussels, though the latter aspect was reduced to merely clearing the way after Fernando fell ill. In this he was aided by two things - disagreements between Henri de Rohan and Cardinal Richelieu that left the Valtellina temporarily undefended; and that the Emperor Ferdinand had become so concerned with Wallenstein’s behaviour that he began detaching troops to serve under Maximilian of Bavaria, securing the latter’s support for direct Spanish involvement. Even had the Valtellina been defended, however, it’s likely that Feria would have been able to overcome this and cross the mountains regardless, given the difficulties that both Rohan and the Swiss Protestants had in organising a coherent response against the Habsburgs in the Three Leagues.

The Rhine Campaign

Horn and Bernhard now split their forces - a situation undoubtedly made more desirable by the fact that they were on increasingly bad terms since the mutiny. Bernhard continued the attack against the Bavarians under Johann von Aldringen, while Horn moved south to take Konstanz and close the Alpine passes from the northern end. While Bernhard’s campaign was initially a failure - resulting in him being forced to retreat even from earlier conquests like Eichstätt - Horn had more success, laying siege to Konstanz and coming close to taking the city on several occasions, but despite several costly assaults he was unable to accomplish this in time and was forced to retreat mere days before Feria arrived. The Protestant radicals in Switzerland were comprehensively discredited and the Catholic cantons re-established the traditional Spanish transit agreement and brought the Franche-Comté under the protection of their neutrality.

Horn retreated across the Rhine and into Alsace, with Feria and Aldringen in pursuit, but it was here that the expansion of French power in Alsace made its mark- the route north to the Netherlands was closed to the Spanish. Bernhard meanwhile succeeded in taking Regensburg, allowing him to ravage previously untouched parts of Bavaria. Between the need to send troops back to Bavaria, the onset of winter, an outbreak of the plague and the lack of food in Alsace for the Imperial forces, the Spanish were forced into an ignominious retreat- companies at half strength, the men marching back emaciated and half-dressed in rags or scraps of stolen women’s clothing. Even contemporary audiences noted the difference between this spectacle and the splendour and pomp with which their officers still presented themselves.

As I’ll be discussing in an article to come, the Spanish reverse was to be temporary, but considering the deteriorating situation elsewhere its fascinating to considering the situation if Horn had been able to take Konstanz. This was well within the realm of possibility- his initial move had been to advance through the Swiss cantons in order to attack from the South (thus violating their neutrality) and if he had followed through with an immediate assault on the lightly defended southern side of the city it would have been quite feasible for him to take it. With a strong Swedish garrison ensconced in Konstanz, Zürich enthusiastically supporting them and the other Protestant radicals in Switzerland energised and potentially rallying under Rohan- who even historically mounted a successful campaign to secure the Valtellina against the Spanish in 1633 - it could be quite plausible for Feria to find himself with a choice between a costly assault on Konstanz, a costly retreat back over the Alps, or to abandon the advance north and link up with the Bavarians. The latter would probably have been the most profitable for Feria - offering the prospect of an earlier version of the Battle of Nördlingen - but it’s likely he would have at least attempted to force the Rhine route first, potentially severely weakening his force.

Even with these successes, however, it is probably only a matter of time before the fundamental weaknesses of the Swedish army in this period would have shown. Bernhard and Horn were competent commanders, but with the Swedes outnumbered, reliant on capturing more territory to pay their troops and with the leadership increasingly divided with the death of Gustavus Adolphus any advances in 1633 would have been created more by the inactivity of Wallenstein than anything else.

It is to this inactivity that I shall turn in the next article.


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


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