By Alex Richards
With the collapse of the Saxon armies in 1639, Banér had removed the last block to an all-out invasion of the Habsburg Crownlands. Yet despite this, it would not be until 1642 that Emperor Ferdinand finally acknowledged that Sweden- as well as France- would have to be included in any large-scale Peace Conference rather than being dealt with separately. With resources of all kinds increasingly tight, the struggles of campaigning in war-ravaged lands were only redoubled as the Northern Front reached its peak.
The struggle for Bohemia
The initial Swedish actions were both swift and decisive, featuring a multi-pronged attack against the Imperial positions that saw more of Brandenburg and most of Silesia occupied by the end of the year. The main focus was Bohemia however, where Banér was initially opposed by 10,000 men under Lorenz von Hofkirchen hoping to bottle up the Swedish forces in the mountains. Hofkirchen was over-eager however, making a pre-emptive attack himself which was easily rebuffed and leaving the Bohemian plain open. Without this mistake, a battle with the Imperials on the defensive would be certain, but considering their performance elsewhere at this time it seems unlikely that this would be sufficient to defeat Banér.
In a reversal of the earlier situation in Pomerania however, Banér was unable to press the advance further. He had insufficient men to either occupy Bohemia or take Prague, and having killed a number of Bohemian exiles in his earlier battles due to poor discipline there was little local support forthcoming. Meanwhile Emperor Ferdinand III withdrew troops from both Westphalia and Swabia, giving his younger brother the Archduke Leopold Wilhelm 30,000 troops to defend Prague. By October 1639 the strategic situation was such that Banér decided to attempt to intimidate the Emperor into negotiating by pillaging a third of Bohemia, inflicting some of the worst devastation to date on an area of the Empire that had been largely at peace since the original revolt had been put down. This, more than anything else, indicates the extent to which the conflict had entered into a sort of zombie existence, where the fighting had abandoned any of the original causes in favour of a continuous effort on all sides to simply try and create the best position for themselves.
The following January Ferdinand had managed to assemble an army of 44,000 in Bohemia, mostly by draining the other fronts of troops, although this was only sufficient to allow Archduke Leopold to field an army of 12,400 with the rest tied down in garrison duty. The reserve forces not committed to other fronts consisted of 4,100 under Hatzfeldt in Franconia, about 6,700 Saxons (less than a quarter of their strength the previous year), 7,000 Bavarians in Winter quarters near to Munich, and a near-negligible number of Brandenburger troops. The sole reason, therefore, that Ferdinand could even consider an assault was because Banér was down to only 10,000 effective troops himself and could count on no back-up with the Swedes needing to defend various other locations. Banér thus retreated to Erfurt in March of 1640, with the garrisons in Saxony abandoning their positions after the holding units left to defend Swedish possession of the Electorate were defeated at Plauen on April 20th.
Banér’s final throw
For the remainder of 1640, the position on both sides was one of retrenchment and efforts to secure aid from the less fully committed states of the Empire. For the Swedish, this took the form of a formal alliance with the Guelphs in Lower Saxony, and support for Amalie Elisabeth in Hessen-Kassel- the latter also supported by the French. For the Emperor, a new Reichstag was called in Regensburg – pre-empting Bavarian sponsored peace talks- on September 13th which was to last through to the following year.
The discussions held are startling in comparison to Imperial demands from only a few years earlier- offering to return some monasteries to protestant states and potentially use 1627 as the new nominative year for determining what ecclesiastical territories could be retained. The existing offers of Amnesty in return for fighting for the Emperor were extended to Hessen-Kassel, as well as Karl Ludwig and the rest of the Palatinate exiles while even more extraordinarily a suggestion of a new electoral title for the Palatinate was broached as well.
While it would take until the end of the Reichstag in October 1641 for much of this to emerge, the early progress was sufficiently alarming for both France and Sweden to lead the former to send an army into Franconia to extract financial contributions while the local states were weak, and for Banér to choose to launch an attack in an attempt to disrupt the Reichstag. In a daringly rapid march southwards, he reached Regensburg on January 20th 1641 with three Cavalry regiments sweeping across the river and intercepting an Imperial hunting party while he shelled the city with light artillery.
In the event, Ferdinand had been delayed in setting out and so was not with the hunt, and for the cost of some prized hawks his decision to remain in Regensburg while it was under fire gained him new respect from the German Princes. Had he been captured by the Swedish army, however, it is likely that this would have led to at least some sort of attempt at negotiations being started, and while the indignity of captivity might harden his resolve, Ferdinand was already willing to offer territorial concessions in return for a lasting peace. Indeed, he had actually secured the backing from Bavaria and Mainz to offer Sweden the whole of Pomerania, and had attempted to offer this in negotiations at the end of 1640, but the sincerity of the offer had not been believed by the Swedes. With the Franco-Swedish alliance due to expire in March 1641, Oxenstierna desiring peace and the precarious strategic situation, it is quite plausible that in these circumstances Sweden’s involvement in the war would have been ended at this time- probably leaving the war restricted to the Rhineland for the remainder of the conflict.
In the event, a sudden thaw meant that Banér was forced to abandon the south bank of the river, and without either French assistance or the artillery to take Regensburg he retreated to the north, hoping to cross into Bohemia at Eger. Ferdinand responded quickly, gathering 22,000 men to attack while they were still camped at Cham in the Upper Palatinate, only being prevented from doing so by a desperate rear-guard action at Neuenburg by Erik Slang on March 19th. The Swedes retreated to Halberstadt, losing their baggage train, 2,000 prisoners and 4,000 to desertion, while Banér himself succumbed to his long-standing illness on May 10th.
The Road to Westphalia
Banér’s death threw the Swedish army into a period of confusion, for while contingency plans were in place, the devolution of power to his three Major-Generals – Count Karl Gustav Wrangel, Avid Wittenberg and Adam von Pfuhl- served only to ensure that the army did not disintegrate rather than firmly establish who was to command the troops. The matter was compounded by the fact that Sweden had become so reliant on German troops and officers that only 500 of the 16,000 men in the army were actually from Sweden, and the army was soon in a state of mutiny seeking better pay and conditions. Emperor Ferdinand III attempted to use this as a means of winning over von Pfuhl and the army with him, which only increased when von Pfuhl joined the mutineers after being passed over for command in favour of Lenart Torstensson, who while Swedish was not only in poor health but not even in Germany at the time.
Von Pfuhl’s negitations- which were held in tandem with August of Wolfenbüttel and even some officers serving under the Comte de Guébriant- might have been able to secure a major coup for Emperor Ferdinand, had it not been for the way how the wider strategic situation in northern Germany still favoured Sweden. Richelieu, concerned that the Emperor might be able to bring Oxenstierna to terms with enough concessions, agreed to a new treaty with yet more financial support for the Swedish war effort on June 30th 1641. Then on July 24th Friedrich Wilhelm agreed to a 2 year ceasefire that allowed Sweden to place various garrisons in place and essentially secured their approaches to Pomerania. Friedrich Wilhelm also agreed to provide financial and material support to the Swedish army, a move controversial enough that he felt it necessary to transfer most of his army to the Emperor’s command in secure his domestic position. The two moves allowed Oxenstierna to deal with von Pfuhl alone, and almost 490,000 thalers were raised in securities on the French subsidies to pay off the majority of the army’s demands.
The focus for the rest of the year was on Lower Saxony, to which we will turn in the next article, but the direction of the conflict meant that Ferdinand III finally conceded that only a joint conference with France and Sweden could end the conflict. On December 25th 1641 he agreed in Hamburg to the form of the negotiations- France and the Catholic powers assembling in Münster, Sweden and the protestant powers in nearby Osnabrück, with the security of both towns, and of any envoys between them, guaranteed. Despite the breach it would create with Spain to undertake separate negotiations with France, Ferdinand ratified the preliminary arrangements in July 1642, but held off on exchanging the necessary credentials in hope that a better position could still be achieved. Nonetheless, the foundations of the Peace of Westphalia- both in form and results- were now firmly in place.
Alex Richards is the author of Tippecanoe and Wallace Too, published by SLP