By Alex Richards
Having examined the Northern campaign immediately after the Peace of Prague, the war in Lower Saxony, the war in Hesse and Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar’s campaigns in Swabia, we turn now to the last of the great theatres of war to emerge from the decision by Richelieu to begin direct French intervention- that of the Spanish Netherlands. It is also here that we enter into an area where the greatest overlap with other conflicts, as both the Eighty Years War and the Franco-Spanish War of 1635-59 can lay better claim to these battles than the Thirty Years War. Nonetheless, the fortunes of the fighting here were to prove pivotal in preventing either France or Spain from being able to bring their armies into Germany and providing potentially decisive support for their respective allies.
From Leuven to Corbie
While Spain had seen initial success after the end of the Twelve Years Truce in 1621- most notably in the capture of Breda in 1625 after a lengthy siege- the intervening decade had seen the Spanish position gradually worn down by the Dutch, the latter successfully taking a string of major fortresses in eastern Groningen, followed by the catholic stronghold of ‘s-Hertogenbosch in 1629 and finally Maastricht in 1632. Spanish-held Breda thus represented a major hole in Dutch defences which were otherwise creating a strong frontier south of the Waal.
Spain can thus said to have been on the back foot at the time of the French intervention- something which would have certainly played into Richelieu’s considerations for launching a large-scale invasion of the Spanish Netherlands- and when the 27,000 men under Marshall Urbain de Maillé-Brézé defeated the Spanish at Les Avins on May 20th 1635 allowing them to link up with the Dutch, this appeared to be justified.
However, this was something of a mirage. The many different French armies in the field- numbering 100,000 men in an arc from Flanders to Italy- were poorly co-ordinated between eachother and each individual one tended to be poorly supplied. The initial French attacks at Les Avins had been repulsed with heavy losses, the artillery had been taken by pure weight of numbers and the majority of French losses had come when the Prince of Carignano had assumed that the French reserve was another army approaching and called a retreat. As such, the siege of Leuven was an unmitigated disaster for the Franco-Dutch force. France suffered heavy desertions from lack of food or pay leading to an effective force of only 17,000 at the start of the siege, and the effects of disease and further desertion made this a mere 8,000 effective troops. As such the arrival of a relief force of 11,000 under Piccolomini forced the siege to be abandoned.
The Spanish advance was immediate, first striking northeast towards Cleves, capturing the key fortress of Schenkenschans, where the Rhine and Waal forked. While the Dutch immediately attempted to retake the fort, and succeeded nine months later, the resultant breathing room led to the Spanish turning south. The Prince of Carignano invaded Picardy with 25,000 men, easily defeating the French army under Louis, Comte de Soissons to cross the Somme on 5th August 1636 – though the reported loss of only 35 Spaniards killed to 800 Frenchmen is almost certainly an exaggeration. Meanwhile Piccolomini and Werth conducted extensive raids into Champagne, pressing as far as Compiègne, and on August 15th the key fort of Corbie, just 17km from Amiens.
The French court and the populace of Paris greeted the news with Panic. Richelieu’s foreign strategy appeared to be in tatters; 10,000 Spaniards had just crossed the Pyrenees; the Prince of Condé abandoned the siege of Dôle; the way to Paris was thought to be wide-open; and matters were so dire that even Gaston d’Orléans rushed to assist his brother. As it was however, the speed of the advance had been a surprise to the Spanish as much as anyone else and despite Piccolomini’s desire to advance the Spanish armies did not have the resources to do so- especially when the Dutch moved to attack themselves as a distraction.
The Decline of Spain
If 1636 had demonstrated the limitations of French military abilities at this point- and thus the need to recruit the Swedish armies on the Rhine- the following years demonstrated the limitations of Spain’s ability to wage war in the long term. Bernhard’s conquests in Swabia combined with the French occupation of Alsace cut the land-route for Spain to resupply the Netherlands via Milan or Savoy. Spain was forced to rely on naval resupply, leaving her increasingly more vulnerable to the Dutch navy and her colonial possessions started to fall victim to English, Dutch and French raids. Already burdened with the financial difficulties of supporting the war effort in Germany, Spain was unable to afford to replace the ships lost to the Dutch, the losses in the 1639 Battle of the Downs being particularly acute.
On land however Spain was for the moment faring better. While Breda had been recaptured by the Dutch in 1637, the summer campaign in 1638 saw a Dutch attempt at encircling Antwerp decisively defeated in the Battle of Kallo followed a month later by the French being rebuffed from Saint-Omer. Then on June 6th the following year the French were decisively defeated at Thionville, a victory significant enough to see Piccolomini granted the title of Duke of Amalfi.
However from 1640 matters began to break down for the Spanish. The ongoing severity of the financial shortages led to a new programme of tax rises being implemented, sparking revolt in both Portugal and Catalonia. João, 8th Duque de Bragança was acclaimed King of Portugal on December 1st in a direct attack on the 60-year old union of the thrones of Spain and Portugal. The Catalonian States-General meanwhile proclaimed Louis XIII Count of Barcelona on January 21st 1641, though the equally exploitative French regime that was implemented meant the situation quickly devolved into a three-sided conflict between France, Spain and the Catalan peasantry.
In Flanders, 1640 saw the French capture of Arras and subsequent overrunning of the majority of the Artois- though once again the difficulties of supplying the 32,000 strong army that France employed for this campaign raised their heads, the French army at one point running shorter of food than the garrison they were besieging. While France’s army was increasingly made up low-quality troops from the difficulties of fighting in Flanders, Swabia, the Pyrenees frontier and also northern Italy, this was thus becoming increasingly counterbalanced by Spain’s difficulties with replacing losses in Flanders while attempting to hold on to her increasingly fraying Empire.
The events of 1640 were to spark chains of events that saw Madrid decide to negotiate terms for recognising the independence of the Dutch Republic; shaped many of the modern grievances of Catalonia; and eventually lead to the marriage of Charles II of the Stuart Realms with the Portuguese Catherine Braganza, in the process introducing tea to the British public and marking the beginnings of the British Empire in India. In the course of all this, the Thirty Years War became increasingly a side-show for the two players- Spain saw the Peace of Prague as an opportunity to get Austrian help for her war effort in Flanders, and was disappointed to find that Emperor Ferdinand III was not interested in getting involved. France meanwhile wanted the Austrians distracted and to keep the Spanish resupply routes from being blocked, and thus geared all her involvements in the conflict around these two fundamental points.
Alex Richards is the author of Tippecanoe and Wallace Too, published by SLP