PODs of the Thirty Years War XXX

By Alex Richards


Map of Westphalia in 1645. Image made by wikimedia user NordNordWest and shared under the CC BY 3.0 licence.

With the promulgation of the Edict of Restitution, the nature of the Thirty Years War changed for the Guelph principalities from one of differing answers to the political and religious questions of the Empire, to one where the whole dynasty stood united against the Emperor in what seemed like a fight for survival. Yet while the Duchies did survive, their fate as Westphalia illustrates the difficulties inherent from attempting to tread a more neutral course through the later phases of the war.


The Changing of the Guard


The arrival of Gustavus Adolphus, as with so much of the conflict, fundamentally upended the situation in Lower Saxony, transforming it from one where the Imperial forces were in firm control of the whole region, to one where they were essentially exiled from the region attempting to influence it from afar- a situation that would persist for most of the rest of the war. The main exception to this was the fortress-town of Wolfenbüttel itself which despite initial probing attacks remained a secure base of operations. For the moment, however, this was of little concern for the Protestant forces when compared against the much deeper incursions into the Empire prior to the Battle of Lützen.


Nevertheless, this oversight was to shape the form of the war in Westphalia for the remainder of the conflict. It’s capture in 1632 would have robbed the Imperial armies of a significant base in the region, and would likely have ended up being a Swedish base in return, much as Osnabrück would come to serve historically. So situated, the Brunswick Princes may have been as cowed into following the Swedes as Brandenburg- and thus equally likely to defect after the Peace of Prague rather than tread a more middling course- while Hesse-Kassel may have found her attempts at territorial aggrandisement easier.


In the aftermath of Lützen, however, the Guelph princes became increasingly disinclined to tread a close line to the Swedes. Neither of the Brunswick princes joined the League of Heilbronn, instead focusing on trying to reduce local Imperial garrisons to better improve their negotiating position against the Emperor. For Georg of Brunswick-Lüneburg this was the Imperial outposts of Corvey, Höxter and Hameln, while Frederick Ulrich of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel chose to ignore Sweden’s requests entirely and opened negotiations to regain the capital diplomatically.


Sweden’s loss of support here was the Emperor’s gain, with the dispersal in forces allowing Jobst Maximilian von Gronsfeld to gather together a new army based around the troops left in Lower Saxony by Pappenheim in the days before Lützen. Combined with reinforcements from the Spanish Netherlands, they first defeated a probing advance down the Rhine by Swedish forces based in Mainz, then advanced to relieve George of Brunswick-Lüneburg’s siege of Hameln. In response to this, and in a rare moment of unity, both Melander’s Hesse-Kassel forces and a force of Swedish troops under Knyphausen moved to assist George.


The resulting battle at Hessisch-Oldendorf – fought on July 8th 1633 between about 15,000 Imperial troops and 13,000 mixed Protestant troops, was the largest to occur in Westphalia. George of Brunswick had drawn up his infantry in front of a marshy stream, preventing him from advancing but in turn meaning the larger Imperial infantry could not attack him either, and the cavalry on either flank advanced. While on the Protestant left flank Knyphausen found himself facing an Imperial cavalry charge in return – which was repulsed – on the right flank the advance through a wood proceeded without opposition as Galeen’s Imperial cavalry refused to risk becoming entangled in the trees. The result was that both Imperial wings were repulsed, allowing the infantry to be defeated in detail and Sweden to take all the remaining fortresses in Westphalia save for Wolfenbüttel itself. A Protestant defeat here- particularly if the three different forces had been successfully separated beforehand- could have seen Sweden’s already shaky position after Lützen further eroded by the weakening of her rear situation, potentially seeing an earlier collapse of the League of Heilbronn.


George, Duke of Brunswick-Calenberg

Instead, Osnabrück became the main Swedish base of operations in the area- against a firm promise by Oxenstierna to grant the city and Bishopric to George- and 5 regiments of Swedish troops were withdrawn to Franconia preventing any efforts to push across the Weser and link to the Dutch border. Knyphausen resigned in protest- he would not return until after the Peace of Prague- and within 18 months of the battle both Brunswick dukes had died.


It is at this point that the complicated dynastic inheritances of the Guelphs come into play. Following the death of their eldest brother Ernst in 1611, the six younger sons of William the Younger signed a pact agreeing that all of Brunswick-Lüneburg would be inherited by each brother in turn, with them drawing lots to determine which would be allowed to marry a woman of sufficient rank to produce legitimate heirs – which ended up falling on the youngest son, George. As such Brunswick-Lüneburg passed to the 64 year old August the Elder, who was naturally inclined to continue the policies of neutrality. Frederick Ulrich of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel however had left no sons, which meant that his lands were officially indicated as going to August the Younger, whose father had waived his own inheritance rights in 1569 over a marriage dispute allowing William the Younger to take power in the first place. The resulting inheritance dispute was both mediated by George, and used by him to further his own ends, for by the terms of the 1635 agreement August the Elder received Lüneburg, August the Younger received Wolfenbüttel itself, and George secured a new principality incorporating Calenburg, Göttingen and Hildesheim.


The Battle of Wolfenbüttel


The new situation was significantly more unstable than what had been in place previously. While both August the Elder and his brother Frederick who inherited in 1636 at the age of 62, were inclined to neutrality, they were soon sidelined by the much more militarily aggressive Duke George- who also assumed leadership over the forces of his less experienced relative August the Younger. Furthermore, while all the dukes accepted the terms of the Peace of Prague, this included a provision to return Hildesheim to Ferdinand of Cologne, which George was loathe to do. Emperor Ferdinand II in turn ordered the garrison in Wolfenbüttel to remain in place as security against the return of Hildesheim, which August the Younger then protested as unsustainable- the town’s population having dwindled to a mere 160 with a garrison of 7,000 to support.


Formal neutrality won out for the moment as Duke George established a mutual defence pact with Amalie Elisabeth in Hesse-Kassel and gathered his troops- refusing their use to either Sweden or the Emperor- in an attempt to form a sufficient military deterrent to both (increasingly exhausted) sides to avoid direct intervention. In this manner he was able to rebuff a Swedish attack in 1637- including securing the return of the town of Lüneburg occupied since the previous year- but by August 1639 Emperor Ferdinand III was preparing an invasion of Hildesheim and both George and August the Younger formally declared for Sweden the following year.


While 1640 saw only minor activity in Westphalia- including Banér placing an army of 7,000 to lay siege to Wolfenbüttel- 1641 was to be the pivot of the fate of the Guelph principalities. First Duke George died on April 12th, then Banér a month later, leading to the Swedish army to talk of mutiny and August the Younger to begin peace negotiations with the Emperor. In a desperate need to demonstrate the need for their continued loyalty, Carl Gustaff Wrangel brought 19,000 additional men to the Siege at Wolfenbüttel (bringing the total to 26,000) where the besiegers had copied the successful Imperial tactics of 1627 by building dams on the river to flood the town- improving their defensive position and hoping to force the Imperial garrison to surrender. Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria rushed to rescue the town with 22,000 people, and then finding that the besiegers were too well fortified for a direct attack, attempted a wide flanking manoeuvre on June 29th 1641.


Christian Ludwig Fuerst von Lueneburg - unknown engraver

There followed a particularly brutal fight in the woodland on the Swedish flank that continuously drew in more and more Imperial troops- at times unintentionally as feints became actual engagements- and saw the Bavarian contingent of the Imperial army push forward against the Swedes in a slow grind against their positions. It was not enough, however, and Leopold withdrew his troops having born the worst casualties later that day. It is at this point that the differing character of August the Younger- and George’s successor Christian Louis- from George was to come to the fore. Whereas George would have pressed his advantage- and certainly wouldn’t have given up the siege after a sortie broke the Dam on October 1st- August was uninterested in Hildesheim and instead pressed forward with peace negotiations.


Different Paths to Peace


By the terms of the agreement signed in 1642, Augustus the Younger surrendered both the Bishopric of Hildesheim and the territories which had been gained from the Bishop by Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel in 1523, in return for the return of the town of Wolfenbüttel itself and an amnesty for the Guelph princes. Both were achieved in 1643 essentially neutralising the Guelphs as a significant force and creating a territorial barrier between France and Sweden, and Brunswick’s involvement in the Peace of Westphalia was essentially limited to the Empire wide matters and confirmation of the 1643 agreement. It would not be until 1815 that Duke George’s ambitions to take Hildesheim would be fulfilled.


George was not, however, a particularly old man when he died at 59, indeed only Ernst died at a younger age out of his brothers- and it would be quite possible for him to survive for longer. By 1645 it would have been clear even to August that the war was generally winding to a conclusion, and it’s quite possible that the Peace of Westphalia would have here included a surrender of only the post-1523 Bishopric of Hildesheim for Wolfenbüttel. Had George survived past the end of the war- long enough to inherit the Duchy of Brunswick-Lüneburg from Frederick- he would have been almost certain to press for retaining Hildesheim himself, probably accepting Catholic worship there as a price for it. Potentially France and Sweden may have simply pressed for this as part of the general transfer of territories, but it seems likely that George would have continued to try and capture Wolfenbüttel, to support Hesse-Kassel, and to attempt to capture further territories to exchange for his claim.


In the end, it was George’s decisiveness and ambition that meant that the unified Lüneburg line would become the larger branch territorially- Calenburg would otherwise have passed to August the Younger as well- as the Principality of Calenburg was reforged into the Electorate of Hanover. The Dukes of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel would instead turn their focus to patronising the arts, a path that would see the family found one of the most important Research Libraries in Germany and become patrons of the mathematician (and rival to Newton) Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

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

© 2019, Sea Lion Press.

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