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PODs of the Thirty Years War XXV

By Alex Richards

1635 saw, at last, the full entry of the Kingdom of France into the war

While the start of 1630 saw France funding the Swedes against the Emperor, and the Dutch against the Spanish, Richelieu had been assiduous about avoiding direct intervention in either the Thirty Years or the Eighty Years Wars. Only five years later, however, she had directly intervened in both conflicts and begun a war with Spain that would carry on for a decade beyond the Treaty of Westphalia. While such a conflict was arguably inevitable considering the strategic threats Spain posed to France illustrated in my last article, the exact course of events depended on both the improving Spanish-Imperial position in the Germanies and the fall-out from the Day of the Dupes.

Gaston and Lorraine

While Richelieu had managed to use the Day of the Dupes to secure his position in court indefinitely, the results for Marie de’ Medici were politically disastrous. Initially leaving the royal court for the Château de Compiègne, she soon went further, leaving France altogether on July 19th 1631 and taking up residence in Spanish-ruled Brussels- a course of action that saw her stripped of title and monetary support by Louis XIII.

It was not only his mother that the king had to contend with, however, as his younger brother (and heir presumptive) Gaston Duc d’Orléans was also a firm opponent of Richelieu out of desire to increase his own standing and get revenge for perceived slights by Louis XIII, and he was to prove frequently willing to take direct action against the King and Cardinal. He too fled the royal court after the Day of the Dupes, but in his case it was to Lorraine, where the court of Duke Charles IV was already a haven for Richelieu’s opponents in the nobility- most notably Marie de Rohan, better known as Madame de Chevreuse, who had been involved in both the Buckingham Affair and an extremely ill-planned plot to replace Louis with his brother in 1626. While Gaston soon joined Marie de’ Medici in Brussels to pursue the prospects for Spanish support for his goals, he had fallen in love with the duke’s sister, Marguerite, and secretly married her in January 1632.

Gaston of France as painted by Anthony van Dyck in 1634

By itself, this probably would not have been sufficient to bring about further conflict, but by the early 1630s, Charles IV’s efforts to secure his position and assist the Imperial actions in the Thirty Years War intersected with French politics and Spanish strategic designs. Ever since the French occupation of the three Prince-Bishoprics of Metz, Toul and Verdun, the Duchy of Lorraine had found herself almost split in two by French territory, with the capital at Nancy now lying perilously close to the French border. In February 1630, therefore, he invited Imperial-supporting forces to occupy the small enclaves of Vic and Moyenvic, which while surrounded by Lorraine almost entirely cut Nancy off from the northern provinces of the Duchy while simultaneously nearly linking Metz to her large exclave around Hattigny. Coming as it did at the height of the succession crisis over Mantua, Richelieu took it as a signal that a full invasion of France was about to begin, and while Emperor Ferdinand II had no intention of going further, Olivares in Spain was willing to fund Charles if he was to launch an attempt to place Gaston on the throne as part of efforts to distract attention away from supporting the Dutch.

However, while Charles did raise an army, and Gaston relocated himself to Mömpelgard (now Montbéliard) in the Alsace, Richelieu’s positioning of a large army in Champagne gave him sufficient concern to instead turn east, seeing his army decimated in a futile attempt to prevent the Swedes from occupying the Palatinate. Then, with the duke distracted, Richelieu sent the army in, retaking the excalves in October 1631 before retreating, then launching a second brief intervention the following year after a further attempt to reduce France’s influence in the area. The result of that treaty was the loss of some border territories, an agreement for free transit for the French army to the enclaves, and a requirement to pay homage for the Duchy of Bar to Louis XIII.

Only three days later, Gaston launched his attempt for the throne, but despite many of the underlying causes of the later conflicts of the Fronde already being present- concern from the nobility for the loss of status, the increasing centralisation of Royal power, and the unresolved tensions between the Crown and the Huguenots- at this stage only Henri, 2nd Duc de Montmorency and governor of the large southern province of Languedoc would join the rebellion. As a result, it was a damp squib- Montmorency was defeated in battle on September 1st 1632, captured, and executed for treason at the end of October, and a temporary reconciliation was reached between Louis XIII and Gaston in October 1634.

Entering the War

By 1633, however, the strategic situation France had been propping up financially was beginning to decline. Gustavus Adolphus was dead, robbing Sweden of the dynamism that had kept the Imperial armies on the back foot, and while the Dutch had succeeded in capturing Maastricht, the Eighty Years War was still effectively stalemated. Worse still, news had come to the French court that Spain was planning to use the decline in Swedish capabilities to send an army through Alsace to support the army of Flanders against the Dutch. Charles IV meanwhile was pushing the boundaries imposed on him by the earlier interventions, and making a name for himself as a potential bulwark against France if given enough support.

As a result, Richelieu forced a confrontation- demanding Charles accept French involvement in the governance of Bar- then when he inevitably refused declared the Duke a rebel against the French crown. Charles was militarily battered by decisive defeat attempting to relieve the Swedish siege of Hagenau in Alsace on 11th August 1633, and France invaded three days later, occupying Nancy on September 25th and taking Nicole, Duchess of Lorraine, as a hostage. Charles abdicated in favour of his brother Cardinal Nicolas-François, who promptly resigned from the Church to marry, and was equally promptly required to sign a treaty allowing France to occupy the whole Duchy. After less than four months, Nicolas-François fled the Duchy and abdicated himself allowing Charles IV to retake the throne, though for the moment in name only. Charles entered into Bavarian service- serving at the Battle of Nördlingen the following year, while France began occupying many of the smaller states of Alsace in order to cut the Spanish off from the Netherlands.

While there had been growing calls in the French court for war with Spain since 1633, Richelieu wanted to wait until the ideal moment to launch one- particularly as it would require a formal alliance with the Dutch who retained a strong pro-peace faction. The Battle of Nördlingen, however, precipitated a collision between three distinct factors to bring France into open conflict. First, the chaos of the Swedish positions led to a rush by various powers to seize Swedish assets, which for France began with Freidrich Richard Mockel handing the Swedish garrisons in Alsace over to the French, and soon saw Marshal Armand Nompar de Caumont, Duc de la Force crossing the Rhine to relieve Imperial efforts to retake Heidelberg from the Swedes.

The first months of 1635 thus saw a series of a running battles in Alsace. First Jan van Werth took Speyer on February 2nd, then la Force withdrew across the Rhine to retake the territory- effectively abandoning the Palatinate, and finally Duke Charles made an attempt to recover Lorraine which was not repulsed until June. Meanwhile Spain had persuaded Emperor Ferdinand II to accept their interpretation of the 1548 Burgundian treaty which would require the Emperor to directly assist them against the Dutch, expanding this to include all of Spain’s enemies. Ferdinand chose to interpret this agreement equally broadly- as just allowing more Spanish recruitment in the Empire- but was happy to use this as a way of getting Spanish support for efforts to retake Alsace and fight the increasingly French-aligned Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar in his Swabian stronghold. Finally, to the north, Frederick Henry of the Netherlands circumvented the formal government of the United Provinces, where the Peace faction was strong, in favour of gaining support for war by direct appeal to the provinces themselves. As such, the existing informal agreements were converted to an alliance on 8th February 1635, aimed firmly against the Spanish Netherlands- they were to be occupied and given 3 months to declare independence if they wished to avoid partition.

Philipp Christoph von Sötern as portrayed by Wolfgang Kilian

The Dutch treaty had not even been ratified when the final trigger for open conflict with Spain- which by this point would inevitably mean conflict with the Emperor as well- occurred. Since 1630, the Electorate of Trier had been a bit of a minor political football, resulting from the unpopular domestic policies of Archbishop-Elector Philipp Christoph von Sötern. First the public had invited the Emperor to remove the Elector from office, then in 1632 the French had intervened to reinstate him, with Sötern going so far after this as to support the election of Richelieu as coadjutor Archbishop, effectively making him the heir apparent. With the Duke of Feria’s efforts to force the passage of Alsace having ended so disastrously, Spain now authorised the governor of Luxembourg to expel the French garrisons from Trier, which was quickly accomplished, and followed by the arrest and imprisonment of Sötern. Give how much of his support rested on displaying French strength, Richelieu had no choice but to respond with war- though the arrest did allow him to portray this as a defence of German liberty.

Avoiding French Entry

The logical question at this point is whether the French intervention could have been prevented. Sötern’s arrest was carried out without direct orders from Madrid, but if Cardinal-Infante Fernando had been trying to precipitate a conflict deliberately, it’s only because he was almost certainly correct in his estimation that such a war was inevitable. France simply couldn’t afford to allow either Sweden or the Dutch to bow out with the risks this action could create for a strengthening of Spain’s position around the kingdom. She had become increasingly involved in the fringes of the Thirty Years War, and Spain’s own actions were increasingly aggressive- up to and including a new secret agreement with Gaston in 1634. The Franco-Spanish war had been a long time coming, and it would take a major issue to significantly delay it.

There does exist one such potential issue however. Louis XIII died at the age of only 41 in 1643 from some combination of tuberculosis, inflamed intestines and habitual ill-health. The possibility of him dying a decade earlier is, while unlikely, something which cannot be discounted, and as this would be before the birth of the future Louis XIV in 1638, the throne would fall to Gaston, Duc d’Orléans instead. We can assume two events at this point- the dismissal of Richelieu and the return of Marie de’ Medici from exile, while a halt on centralising efforts is also likely. While war with Spain may still come about regardless, it’s likely that in the short term at least the political disruption of the succession would result in some form of accommodation with Spain. The results for the Dutch are hard to determine, but it’s likely that Sweden would have been forced to come to terms with the Emperor soon afterwards, effectively drawing the Thirty Years War to a close.


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


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