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PODs of the Thirty Years War XXXV

By Alex Richards

Equestrian Portrait of the Count-Duke of Olivares by Diego Velázquez

The events of 1640 would prove in the long run to represent the beginning of the end of Spain’s position as the pre-eminent power in Europe, but for the moment the fighting continued in the Spanish Netherlands. It was the events the 1640s, however, that would demonstrate why the end of the Dutch war of Independence was to be resolved at Westphalia, while the Franco-Spanish war was not.

The Unquiet Court

The potential threat to Paris that the defeat at Corbie had been sufficient to temporarily bring Gaston d’Orléans into accord with the King and Cardinal, yet this proved to be a fleeting reprise from the continuous plotting against Richelieu. Even before the year of 1636 ended, another plot to murder Cardinal Richelieu had been foiled, with the usual suspects- Gaston, the Comte de Soissons, and the Comte de Montrésor- being identified as the ones responsible and forced to flee to the Duc de Bouillon’s independent principality of Sedan.

Gaston himself soon returned to France having officially reconciled with his royal brother, but Sedan remained the home of Soissons, Bouillon and Henri II de Lorraine, 5th Duc de Guise who now claimed that Richelieu’s continuation of the war was a method of perpetuating his own rule, claiming themselves to be the ‘Princes of Peace’ in contrast. As such, for the Gaspar de Guzmán, the Count-Duke of Olivares and Spanish Chief Minister, this group proved the ideal way of responding to French support for the revolts in Portugal and Catalonia.

With both the French and Spanish armies increasingly dispersed and decreasing in quality as experienced troops were either killed, injured or diffused between armies, it was possible for relatively small armies to have significant impacts on the wider cause of the conflict. Olivares lent his support to another attempt by Soissons to depose Richelieu in 1641, lending 9,000 troops under Guillaume de Lamboy to launch an insurrection based out of Sedan while the main French army was in the south of the country, though the planned simultaneous Gascon uprising failed to materialise. Gaspard III de Coligny, duc de Châtillon moved to respond with about 7,500 troops, but was soundly defeated at the Battle of La Marfée on 6th July 1641, seeing 4,000 men captured in the process.

Soissons himself died shortly after the battle- supposedly from accidentally shooting himself while raising his visor using a loaded pistol- and the revolt itself collapsed, but it was successful in pulling French troops away from reinforcing the position in Flanders, and thus the battle at La Marfée is likely responsible for the French failing to prevent the fall of Aire-sur-la-Lys on December 7th. Even had Soissons lived, however, it is unlikely that he would have been able to leverage his army into successfully carrying out his aims- most likely he would merely have done yet more to help the Spanish as Olivares intended, and the French almost certainly would not have captured Lens or La Bassée as they did historically in the attempt to save Aire. With this, the Spanish position before their already successful 1642 campaign would have begun on a better footing.

Indeed 1642 had the prospect of being a second Year of Corbie. With the French army once more campaigning in the south, and Richelieu engaged in the foiling of the Conspiracy of Cinq-Mars throughout the period of April-June 1642, the Spanish retook Lens, then La Bassée, then decimated the French defensive forces in the north at the battle of Honnecourt- the Army of Champagne in particular losing 40% of its strength. The north of France lay open for another rapid advance, but the Spanish general Francisco de Melo preferred caution and chose not to advance at this point.

The Battle of Rocroi

Painting of the Battle of Rocroi by Augusto Ferrer-Dalmau as photographed by Augusto Ferrer-Dalmau and shared under the CC BY-SA 3.0 licence

The year 1643 was a momentous one for France. Richelieu died on December 4th 1642, having named his protégé Cardinal Jules Mazarin as his choice of successor in the role of First Minister of State. Then Louis XIII himself died on May 14th 1643, leaving his wife- Anne of Austria- and the Cardinal as the duumvirate heading the Regency council for the 4-year old Louis XIV. Equally significantly, the intervening months had seen the 21-year old Louis de Bourbon, Duc d’Enghien, appointed as General of the French army in Amiens.

He was almost immediately tested as de Melo, now backed with the 27,000 men of the Spanish Army of Flanders, advanced into French territory and laid siege to the town of Rocroi in the hope of relieving pressure on Catalonia and the Franche-Comté. Enghien gathered 23,000 men and advanced to relieve the town, learning of the King’s death on May 17th- though he chose to keep this secret from the troops- at almost the same time that word reached him of a further 6,000 Spanish reinforcements approaching. Against the advice of his subordinates, he decided to force a battle before these could arrive, both sides lining up on May 18th.

The battle itself took place the following day. An initial advance by the French right was hindered when Enghien’s left-flank cavalry made their own unprompted attack and were repulsed with ease. With his left and centre under increasing pressure from the larger Spanish army, Enghien ordered the cavalry on the right to carry on forward in a risky manoeuvre that resulted in a complete encirclement of the Spanish army. A subsequent misunderstanding during Enghien’s attempt to receive the army’s surrender formally led to yet further Spanish losses in the ensuing fighting, and the Spanish ended the day having lost perhaps 15,000 men.

Rocroi was to prove a victory in many respects. It opened up the Spanish Netherlands to a new French advance that saw dozens of fortified towns fall over the next few years- culminating in Dunkirk, the last major route of resupply for the Spanish army, in 1646. To the north, the decline in the Spanish position allowed the Dutch to take Hulst in 1645, as well as exerting pressure on the Spanish colonial empire. The confluence of these pushed Spain to finally agree to acknowledge the independence of the Netherlands, and to lend her support to the general efforts to ending the Thirty Years War in an attempt to reduce the number of fronts she was fighting on. And while for the Dutch this achieved their goals, Enghien’s string of victories- confirmed in 1648 with the Battle of Lens- convinced the French court that given time significant concessions could be gained from the Spanish- a belief which ensured that the war would continue through the years of the Fronde until 1659. Meanwhile domestically the victory strengthened the regency council and was seen as an auspicious omen for the reign of the new King.

A French defeat at Rocroi would have been transformative on this front. The Spanish would likely have taken the town and potentially been able to advance into Champagne depending on how much of an army Enghien had left to his name. More significantly, the shock of the defeat coming so soon after the death of the King would have dealt a significant blow to the Regency council. It’s quite feasible that a panicking French court would now have chosen to back Gaston d’Orléans and a pro-peace faction assuming power, at least in the short term.

Alternate Historiography

It’s worth considering at this point how such an event could have fundamentally altered our conceptions of this conflict. While Richelieu’s engagement of Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar and the subsequent actions in Swabia would always have been viewed as part of the Thirty Years War, a world in which France has signed an earlier peace treaty with Spain and exited the conflict in 1643-4 may well be one in which the actions in Flanders are considered a definitively separate conflict from the Thirty Years War that intersected with it, much as the Eighty Years War and the French occupation of Lorraine are historically. Still further, while the confluence of the Portuguese and Catalonian revolts would likely mean the Spanish would have conceded on recognising Dutch independence, this may not have occurred until several years after the Peace of Westphalia, potentially downgrading its importance in the historical narrative as the moment at which the new European order of state building was established. France’s grand narrative arc of the 17th Century is also fundamentally disrupted if the transition from Richelieu to Mazarin becomes disrupted, much to the detriment of the reputations of both Cardinals.

What might have happened beyond this would depend on many things- the evolution of the French court through the 1640s, whether Portugal succeeds in gaining her independence, whether Dutch Brazil survives in this situation, the ongoing effects of the likely Spanish bankruptcies and the course of the Anglo-Spanish and Anglo-Dutch wars of the Commonwealth. What is certain, however, is that some of the fundamental foundations of later history would have been greatly altered.


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


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