By Alex Richards
While the strategic situation within the Empire changed after the start of the Franco-Swedish phase of the war, the effect of this on the northern front- be it for Sweden or the Guelphs- was largely tangential- the same forces fought over the same areas to much the same effect, both sides gradually exhausting each other of any available troops for large-scale action. By contrast, the direct intervention of the French led to a fundamental change in events in the Upper Rhineland, both during the war, and beyond.
The Swabian Situation
Throughout the Thirty Years War, the fate of Swabia can be characterised as one of being fought over by others rather than driving her own fate. For the most part, this was due to the heavily fractured nature of the area- which had been the powerbase of the Salian Emperors and thus had seen much smaller territories be recognised as possessing Imperial Immediacy. In part, however, it was down to the consequences of those few efforts undertaken by local Protestant leaders early in the war. Both Magnus of Württemberg and Georg Friedrich, Margrave of Baden-Durlach, had joined the Palatinate cause only to come to a disastrous end at the Battle of Wimpfen- leading to the death of the former, and the latter losing Baden-Baden to a pro-Imperial cousin and being forced to abdicate in his son’s favour. He went on to briefly serve in the Danish army before retiring to his home in Strasbourg where he would die in 1638.
Despite Baden-Durlach and Württemberg both seeing large territorial losses to the restored monastic grants of the Edict of Restitution in 1629, a distinct difference in strategy was expressed by the two. Württemberg accepted this as a fait accompli for the moment, favouring peaceful negotiations with Austria essentially until the very moment Gustavus Adolphus arrived in southern Germany and forced the state into the Swedish block. While Gustavus both reversed the Edict and granted additional Catholic lands to Württemberg, the assumption from Julius Frederick, Duke of Württemberg-Weiltingen and Regent for the underage Duke Eberhard III that the territories would end up needing to be returned. While Eberhard himself was more eager to regain the lost lands after he reached his majority in 1633, he remained inclined to be more cautious and willing to compromise.
By contrast, Margrave Frederick V of Baden-Durlach, already short of funds for having to repay his cousins in Baden-Baden for the thirty years the Durlach branch of the family had held their lands, viewed the Edict as a mortal wound to the realm’s prosperity. Frederick V was thus an enthusiastic supporter of the Swedish efforts- which initially saw his not just regain the monastic lands and Baden-Baden, but also gain the Austrian Breisgau as well. However, the Swedish defeat at Nödlingen proved disastrous for both realms- Württemberg was extensively sacked by Imperial forces, Baden-Durlach completely overrun and given to the Margrave of Baden-Baden to administer, and both the Duke and the Margrave ended up in exile in Strasbourg, explicitly excluded from the Peace of Prague but invited to negotiate a separate agreement.
France meanwhile had been consolidating her position on the Left bank of the Rhine, expanding from her existing bases in the Three Bishoprics of Metz, Toul and Verdun to first occupy Lorraine and then in 1634 to establish military positions in Mömpelgard (now Montbéliard), Hagenau, the Bishopric of Basel and the Alsatian possessions of the Count of Hanau. Combined, these posed a serious threat to the Spanish Road allowing the Habsburgs to resupply the armies in Flanders from Savoy, Milan and Tyrol. After the disaster at Nördlingen, this position rapidly expanded through convincing the Swedish Resident in Alsace- Friedrich Richard Mockel- to surrender some 17 towns, while the Duc de La Force moved a force of 19,000 men into the area.
The Bernhardine Connection
La Force soon found himself bogged down, however, unable to successfully attack across the Rhine at Mannheim, then rushing to the defence of Alsace when Duke Charles of Lorraine returned to attempt to regain his lands. Reduced to only 9,000 effective troops by the summer of 1635, and with the war with Spain requiring that troops be sent to assist the war effort in Flanders, La Force and Cardinal La Villette in Lorraine were essentially forced into the defensive in Alsace, and were unable to prevent Imperial troops from gradually mopping up the remaining Swedish garrisons on the Upper Rhine.
For Richelieu, it was clear that some remnant of the Swedish army in the Rhineland needed to be brought onside to support her efforts in Swabia- a situation clear to Emperor Ferdinand II as well as he took efforts to remove that army from play. It was into this situation that Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar came to the fore. While diminished in influence since Nördlingen, Bernhard still possessed significant influene and loyalty in the Swedish army leading to efforts from both Vienna and Paris to recruit him to their side. Ferdinand pressed upon the ideals of patriotic duty, but this was never likely to succeed when Richelieu offered to compensate Bernhard for his loss of the Bishoprics of Bamberg and Würzburg by granting him Alsace as a French fief, as well as 12,000 men to support his efforts as an essentially autonomous commander.
Despite these assurances, it was only with the explicit commitment of 10,000 troops under La Valette to relieve the Bernhardine garrison in Mainz in August 1635 that Bernhard himself was finally convinced that Richelieu’s offer was serious. He agreed a formal alliance on October 27th, which included a secret clause guaranteeing him a pension and the Austrian lands in Alsace as a fief, and formally abandoned the essentially defunct League of Heilbronn. La Valette meanwhile had lost two-thirds of his troops to desertion, and was forced to retreat to Metz, followed by facing off against a third attempt by Duke Charles- now with assistance from Gallas- to retake Lorraine that, though unsuccessful, saw further French losses to plague, malnutrition and starvation.
1636 was not to be an auspicious year for France. First Mainz fell in January, then while the Prince of Condé was attacking the Spanish at Dôle successful attacks on the northern front saw the capture of Corbie and resultant panic in the French court- which will be covered when we look at the war in Flanders. The results meant that while by the end of the year the French remained largely in control of Alsace, Gallas had been able to rebuild his army and entrench himself into Breisach with 40,000 men, while Duke Charles launched a series of raids and counter-raids in Lorraine.
Most importantly, however, it had become clear to the French court that their war against the Emperor was going to be as involved as the war against Spain.
Alex Richards is the author of Tippecanoe and Wallace Too, published by SLP