By Alex Richards
While neither the scale of the Swedish defeat at the battle of Nördlingen, nor indeed the battle itself, were inevitable in themselves; the overall arc of the events of 1634 almost certainly could not have been avoided. With her German allies getting increasingly nervous and chafing under ever-more restrictive Swedish demands, the Swedish army was fundamentally forced into a position where anything less than successive victories would have resulted in the unravelling of her position. With both the more dynamic Imperial Army under Ferdinand of Hungary, and the Spanish Army of the Cardinal-Infante in the field, it was all but guaranteed that there would, instead, be at the very least a steady chipping away of Swedish positions until the League of Heilbronn became untenable. And yet both the war in general and Sweden’s involvement in it were to continue for a further 13 years as events already in motion moved out of all ability of the Empire to control them. The End of the religious War While in many ways the culmination of the diplomatic efforts of Elector Johann Georg of Saxony, the Peace of Prague could not have come into being were it not for the fact that Lützen had, if nothing else, proven to Ferdinand II that the war could no longer be won through simply imposing the Catholic vision of the Empire on her opponents. Meanwhile the increasingly overt French involvement in the Rhineland and death or social isolation of the majority of the Protestant Ultras meant that an argument could easily be made that the overtly religious character of the war had come to its natural end, replaced instead with a power struggle against foreign influence from Protestant and Catholic powers alike. Ferdinand used this influence to craft a rather irregular peace- rather than calling a full Reichstag, as would arguably have been required to properly settle all outstanding matters, he instead conducted close negotiations with the Electors (which of course now included Bavaria rather than the Electoral Palatinate) before presenting the result of these talks to the rest of the Imperial Estates. In part this reflected Ferdinand’s desires to increase his own power in the Empire’s complex systems, in part the concerns about his failing health and the perceived need to ensure a swift resolution that made negotiating through Saxony easier than the alternative.
The biggest stumbling block, however, was not to be found among the Protestants but the Catholics. While the Pope was vocally against any agreement that would see the surrender of ecclesiastical land regained by the earlier Edict of Restitution, most within the Empire (including the Elector-Archbishop of Mainz) agreed with Ferdinand that ground would need to be given here. Where agreement was not forthcoming, however, was in Ferdinand’s desires to dissolve the Catholic League- the Bavarian led organisation of Catholic estates within the Empire- based on both a desire to centralise control of the various armed forces allied with him, and as a good-will gesture to Protestants still concerned about Catholic domination. Bavaria would, in the end, be bought off with a distinct corps in the new Reichsarmada (the unified armed forces) under his control, and a marriage between the still childless Elector Maximilian of Bavaria and Ferdinand’s daughter Maria Anna after the death of the Elector’s first wife shortly before. The terms were in many ways generous towards the Protestant side- the Liga was dissolved, the Dukes of Mecklenberg were pardoned and restored to their estates (a situation made easier by Wallenstein’s death removing the need to accommodate his claims to the territory), as were Saxony, Brandenburg and the majority of the German Princes and The Archbishopric of Magdeburg and Lusatia were conceded to Johann Georg in return for Halberstadt going to Archduke Leopold Wilhelm. Meanwhile the Edict of Restitution remained technically in force, but implementation was delayed for 40 years and its re-imposition dependant on the Emperor securing the agreement of a cross-confessional group of major Princes, effectively suspending it indefinitely. In return, the Emperor was able to ensure that, apart from in parts of Silesia, the rights of Protestants were revoked in the Habsburg lands, the Elector Palatine was explicitly excluded from amnesty or the restitution of his lands, and Saxony and Brandenburg defected to the Imperial side against Sweden and France. A doomed Effort? While the exclusion of France- who were only beginning to seriously flex their muscle in the Empire- and Sweden- who maintained their demands for Pomerania, Bremen and Verden as the price for ending hostilities- from the Peace of Prague was both understandable and, arguably, manageable, there were fundamental issues underlying the very foundation of the agreement. The first of these was in the north, where the exclusion of Sweden meant that many of Sweden’s former allies remained cautious about entering into actual hostilities on the Emperor’s behalf. The dynastic politics of the Lower Saxons- where Duke Georg of Lüneburg had secured a new large Principality incorporating Calenberg, Göttingen and Imperial claimed Hildesheim- could have been managed by itself, but Elector Georg Wilhelm of Brandenburg was sufficiently concerned about Swedish reprisals to effectively maintain neutrality, essentially securing the Swedish bridge-head in Pomerania and restricting operations to the Elbe and Oder valleys. More problematic however was the decision to exclude several leading members of the League of Hildesheim from the amnesty of the Peace. Here an earlier death of Ferdinand II may well have proven better for the Empire- Ferdinand of Hungary was willing to offer a general Amnesty (although this would likely have still excluded the Elector Palatine due to needing to keep Bavaria on side), but Ferdinand II remained resolute when it came to his staunchest enemies. The Bohemian Exiles, most prominently Count Hohenlohe, were easy to exclude, but the decision to use Württemberg’s territory as a fund for rewarding those who required land and title simply created both an entrenched enemy and new, loyal allies who had a vested interest in ensuring the new situation endured. It was a pattern that repeated across the Rhineland with the Elector Palatine, the Duke of Pfalz-Zweibrücken (Gustavus’s brother-in-law), the four Nassau-Walram Counts and the Counts of Solms and Isenburg-Büdingen.
Most serious however was Hesse-Kassel, which saw an attempt by Hesse-Darmstadt to claim the entire territory. Unlike the rest, Hesse-Kassel still had troops in the field and a desire to not just maintain her territory but to expand it. Landgrave Wilhelm V thus reassured Oxenstierna that he would remain loyal to the Swedish cause, while under the influence of his wife Amalie Elisabeth, countess of Hanau he ended up repudiating the Peace and rushing to the relief of Hanau. Ferdinand responded by ordering troops to sequester Hesse-Kassel in its entirety. Between this and the irregular means of organising the Peace without reference to the Reichstag, Sweden and France were able to characterise the entire effort as an attempt at Imperial aggrandisement and centralisation of power- they would go on to characterise their efforts over the next 13 years, driven as they were by a desire to prevent the Emperor from gaining too much strength in the Empire, as a defence of ‘German Liberty’. Johann Georg of Saxony’s grand plan failed before it ever really started, though it did fundamentally alter the alliance structure of the war. A road to Lasting Peace? A lasting Peace of Prague would have required bringing three states on side- France, Hesse-Kassel and Sweden. France is the most difficult to accomplish, and it is distinctly possible that at this stage the best that could be hoped for is a fully unified Imperial front against her. Hesse-Kassel would have been almost as difficult to accomplish- even with removing Sweden from the equation, William V would likely have just sought backing from France for his historic actions instead. The next two articles will examine both these areas in more detail.
Sweden was another matter however. Militarily defeated, suffering from four successive failed harvests and struggling for money, men and leadership, Sweden viewed herself as being on the brink of outright collapse. Oxenstierna was willing to reduce his territorial demands to a few token ports in Pomerania in order to achieve the merest semblance of Peace with Honour, and the German contingent of the Swedish army was in great disquiet about the likelihood of their being given the promised rewards for their service- eventually reaching the stage of outright mutiny. Meanwhile the truce with Poland was due to expire at the end of September 1635, and while Sigismund had been succeeded by his more pragmatic son Wladyslaw IV, the latter was still eager to secure either financial gain or a retreat from what he regarded as Polish-Lithuanian territory from Sweden. In the end, the failure of Sweden to come to terms was reliant on two acts of diplomacy. Johann Georg of Saxony’s efforts to persuade the Germans in the Swedish army to defect en masse failed due to a muddled ‘carrot and stick’ approach that simply meant that the officers were neither persuaded that they would secure payment for their efforts, nor concerned about being branded traitors. Meanwhile the French secured a 26-year extension to the Polish truce in the Treaty of Stuhmsdorf which saw Sweden retreat from Prussia. From the point of view of Swedish historic interests, this was a humiliating retreat- allowing the ongoing war in Germany to deleteriously affect her position in her more traditional area of influence, and it may be taken as indicative that an actual offer from Ferdinand including the Pomeranian ports would have been accepted, regardless of whether the French attempted to apply their own influence financially. This may have induced Hesse-Kassel to seek peace herself, but it’s equally plausible that Sweden would have just left the latter to her own devises. There is a final twist to the tale however. Prague may have been failure, but in both contents and method it laid the foundations for the eventual Westphalian Treaties that were to finally end the war.
Alex Richards is the author of Tippecanoe and Wallace Too, published by SLP