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The Thirty Years War 1618 – 1625

EMPEROR MAXIMILIAN I of the Holy Roman Empire walked up to a wild lion and pulled out its tongue; his enemies set his house on fire, tried to poison him and ambushed him twenty times; wild bears attacked him three times, stupid servants ignited powder kegs near him and five boats capsized under him, but always he escaped unharmed. He was a greater general than Julius Caesar, a brilliant musician, scholar and inventor.

All these stories were proof that Maximilian was a great hero — but they were written by authors whom Maximilian himself hired to do the job. He supplied some of the plots himself and he made sure the stories were properly heroic. Then he had them illustrated by the finest artists of Europe. In real life, Maximilian was indeed a bold soldier and a fine hunter and he was also a shrewd emperor. He did not have much power and one reason he had tales written about him was to encourage the German princes and dukes to give him more authority.

Maximilian’s powers were weak because the Holy Roman Empire — Germany as it was later known — was a freak among European lands. The empire was as wealthy as other lands. It had a great trading league, the Hanse; the wealthiest bankers in Europe, the Fuggers; and more people than any neighbouring land. It even had fierce professional soldiers, the Landsknecht‚ who were feared throughout Europe. The empire was made up of scores of petty governments — principalities, dukedoms, margravates, landgravates and cities — which were united under the emperor only in the loosest way. Even its name was freakish, for the Holy Roman Empire was not particularly holy, it was far from Rome and it was so divided into tiny kingdoms that it was almost a joke to call it an empire.

Maximilian tried to increase his powers. In 1307 he told an Imperial Assembly, “In me there shall be no want of fortitude to expose myself to any danger, nor strength of body hardened by continual exercise, to endure any fatigue. And . . . the more authority you bestow on your king and the greater the power and force with which he is invested‚ the more easy will you render the defense of the Roman Church, our common mother…”

Maximilian tried to persuade the German rulers to follow him in wars against France or in a great crusade against Suleiman the Magnificent, but they refused. They knew that if they made war they would have to increase Maximilian’s powers. So perhaps Maximilian himself was surprised when the German princes did agree to form an Imperial Tribunal to deal out justice, to impose a tax to provide him with a strong army and to write a proclamation of eternal peace to outlaw feuds. To Maximilian’s dismay, the rulers controlled the Tribunal themselves, failed to pay the tax and kept armies just as strong as Maximilian’s. There were too many ambitious men in Germany; it did not become the land of eternal peace.

Maximilian could hardly blame the princes for sabotaging his reforms. As head of the Hapsburg family, he was bent on gobbling up lands for his own, on extending his power from Austria and southern Germany through all Europe. But he cleverly took the advice of his family’s motto: “Let others clash in war. You, happy Austria, marry!”

Maximilian married off his children so well that his long-jawed grandson Charles of Ghent became king of Spain and ruler of the Netherlands and many other lands. Maximilian made sure that Charles succeeded him as Holy Roman Emperor. “Send money,” he wrote to Charles, “more and more money.” Charles sent more money than any other candidate and as a result he was easily elected Emperor Charles V. Maximilian had made the Empire a Hapsburg family possession. Even so, he and his descendants had only the weakest control over it.

Religion made control even more difficult. Maximilian had spoken of the Roman Church as “our common mother,” but mother and children quarreled bitterly. A papal legate called Germany “one great den of thieves.” When Maximilian asked his friend Wimpheling, a leading theologian to list the abuses by the Church, Wimpheling wrote that the pope could not be trusted, pastorates were given to worthless men, the church was too greedy for money, the upper clergy used money for luxuries and the friars got drunk in taverns. Wimpheling concluded, “If such things continue with the drain of German gold to Rome . . . the common people, unable to bear . . . this grievous burden, may . . . rise in arms and separate from Rome.”

One German ruler said that priests “preached water and drank wine.” Another said that Saint Peter had ordered fasting only to raise the price of his fish. A famous scholar, who tutored Martin Luther, proclaimed, “I scorn the Pope. I scorn the Church and its councils and praise Christ. . . . The Pope is only an ape dressed in purple.”


By Charles V’s time, the emperor and the pope were actually at war. When the pope made an alliance with Charles’ enemy, France, Charles swore he would have revenge on “that poltroon, the Pope.” In 1527 he sent his soldiers to Rome, where they sacked the city for eight days, kidnapped rich Romans for ransom and killed 4,000 citizens. They humiliated the captive pope until he wandered about almost losing his reason.

Even this was not enough for Martin Luther, the friar from Wittenberg who attacked the Roman Church. Luther became convinced that the Church was rotten to the core and he tried to reform religion. His followers formed the Lutheran branch of the new Protestant faith. Luther called the pope a “wretched, accursed, horrible monster of Rome,” and he demanded that the emperor seize pope, cardinals, priests and string them up on the gallows, skin them alive, or burn them.


Charles remained a loyal Catholic. To maintain the Catholic faith as the only one in the empire, Charles said he would “set my kingdoms, my dominions, my friends, my body, my blood, my life, my soul.” Charles condemned Luther as a heretic, defeated the Protestants’ army in 1547 and tried to impose Catholicism throughout the empire. The Protestant princes and cities raised another army, stormed Charles’ camp and forced him to flee in the snow across the Alps.

Charles’ successors, Ferdinand I and Maximilian II, avoided religious persecution. They realized that it would only further disrupt Germany. By this time the Protestants were doing more to weaken themselves than any emperor could have done. The Protestants were splitting up into many warring sects. There were the Calvinists, spreading southeast from Holland and moving north from John Calvin’s city of Geneva; the Anabaptists, who wished to return to the simple life of the Garden of Eden; and many lesser groups. Luther attacked Anabaptists and others as “wicked heretics” whose beliefs were a disease. Calvin also attacked the Anabaptists and the Lutherans as well. The Lutherans hurled oaths back at the Calvinists. After Martin Luther died, the Lutherans even turned on each other.

Above all, there was the hatred of Catholic for Protestant, of Protestant for Catholic. Among the German princes, these hatreds were political as well as religious. Millions of people who wished to live peacefully had to give way to the thousands who longed for war and conquest. Even the peaceable millions were not above grabbing a neighbour’s land — and they found their best excuse was that the neighbour followed a different religion.

When Rudolph II became emperor in 1576, violence and fear began to rule the empire. Rudolph was mentally unstable and later he went mad. He conducted strange experiments in alchemy and astrology and he left affairs of state to his valet. With Rudolph’s consent, his Jesuit advisers, his Hapsburg relatives, and of course, his troops drove Protestant preachers from Vienna. They crushed a peasant revolt in Austria and restored the Catholic Church there. In Aachen they forced Protestants to flee and in Bohemia Protestants kept their religious freedom only with great difficulty.

After Rudolph became completely insane, his brother Matthias was elected emperor, but his policies were not much better. In 1618 Matthias’s cousin, Archduke Ferdinand, became king of Bohemia and soon the empire was torn by bloody fighting. Beginning as a revolution in Bohemia, the struggle grew into the great Thirty Years War, one of the most terrible wars in European history. In time, half the armies of Europe would be marching across Germany’s ruined lands.

Ferdinand of Bohemia, short, freckle-faced and cheerful, was a sworn enemy of Protestantism. As the young archduke of Hungary, he had sworn to expel all heretics. He sent his commissioners to Syria, ordering them to “beat the townsfolk and peasants to mass.” When he became king, the Bohemians asked him to recognize their charter of religious liberty. He pleasantly agreed, but he was only biding his time.


Perhaps, chatting over cakes in the palace, Ferdinand listened to the emperor Matthias giving his own views of how to deal with Protestants. Matthias had quiet, efficient ways of hacking off an estate here, a town there and putting them under Catholic control. By this method he brought more than a hundred Bohemian parishes under Catholic command. In 1618, he ordered the Catholic governors of Bohemia to use force if necessary to make two new towns Catholic. The governors immediately locked the towns’ Protestant leaders in jail.


The Bohemians realized how little their charter of liberty meant under Matthias and Ferdinand, and they united to fight. On the morning of May 21, 1618, they stormed into Hradschin Castle in Prague. Surging up the stairs to the palace reception hall, they seized the two Catholic governors who were cowering there. The governors clawed, fought and screamed, “Jesus! Virgin Mary! Help!” They were carried to the windows and thrown to the ground far below. The crowd jeered at the stunned governors and then its leaders sat down to write an explanation to the world of the reasons for their revolt.

When Ferdinand learned how the Bohemians had defied him, he shook with fury. He seized active control of the empire from Matthias, gained aid from his relative, the Catholic King of Spain and sent an army across the Bohemian border to put down the rebels. The Bohemians lacked trained soldiers, cannon and ammunition, and Ferdinand was stunned when a Protestant German prince, Elector Frederick of the Palatinate, offered the Bohemians an experienced army under a famous general.

Before Ferdinand could do anything about it, this army and the Bohemians routed his soldiers and swarmed along the Danube to the gates of Vienna. As Ferdinand prayed at his altar for victory, he could hear their guns firing outside the city gates. He was even more humiliated when on August 26, 1619 the Bohemians officially threw him off the throne They elected Friedrick of the Palatinate as their new king.

Then, in 1619, Matthias died and in august Ferdinand was elected the new emperor. He  invited all the German princes to Vienna to see his wealth and power. At his coronation a great banquet was held in a special hall which was joined with the Church of St. Bartholomew. An observer wrote that “a huge spacious kitchen was raised for the boiling of an ox.” The hall was hung with tapestries, the supper table blazed with gold dishes and outside, commoners scrambled to drink the red and white wine that flowed from special fountains. They gaped as Ferdinand passed in the procession with the sword and crown of Charlemagne, which had been brought specially from Nuremberg. Most of the rulers of the empire were at the festival and even Fredrick of the Palatinate sent congratulations.


Ferdinand’s prestige and power increased. The armed Catholic League joined him and he even won some Protestant princes to his side. Cleverly, he played on their fears and jealousies. He won the support of the Elector of Saxony, who was a Lutheran and hated Frederick of the Palatinate’s Calvinism. Ferdinand convinced other Protestant rulers that he was their friend and that the Bohemians were rebels and knaves. His policies triumphed when one Protestant leader said, “Let them fight as much as they like in Bohemia, we others will stay friends.” Encouraged, Ferdinand sent an imperial army and the army of the Catholic League to grind the Bohemian Protestants into the dust.


In Prague, Frederick’s power seemed to be dribbling away. Frederick was twenty-two, boyishly fresh and happy by nature. When he had been offered the Bohemian crown, he had accepted enthusiastically. He wrote to his uncle of his new kingship, “It is a divine calling which I must not disobey. . . . My only end is to serve God and His Church.”

When Frederick arrived in Prague with his beautiful bride, Elizabeth of England, he was given a splendid welcome. The city was draped in blue and silver, and there was an honour guard dressed in colourful uniforms of the past. Frederick’s coronation was magnificent. Like Ferdinand, he had fountains that flowed with red and white wines and if there were fewer princes and no sword of Charlemagne, there was more popular celebration. Pictures were painted which showed Frederick in his coronation robes, guarded by lions‚ while enemy soldiers scattered and Catholic bishops fled. Poems were written telling how Frederick was “dearly beloved.”

Frederick could not find allies who loved him enough to help him. Even his father-in-law, the king of England, refused to help him. In Bohemia itself, Frederick began losing his popularity. When he received courtiers bareheaded, the Bohemians thought him too democratic. When he swam naked in the Moldau River, the Bohemians were scandalized. When he allowed the queen to wear low-cut dresses, the Bohemians were horrified. Perhaps they found it useful to be shocked, for it gave them an excuse to refuse to empty their purses into Frederick’s war chest.

Frederick pledged his own fortune to raise an army. That still did not give him enough money and he began to persecute Catholics and Jews to squeeze money from them. But he was sincerely shocked when his hungry troops plundered the countryside for food and gold and threatened to mutiny as well. The desperate peasants fought back, slaughtered stray soldiers and resisted the army draft. Yet, even when 20,000 Imperial troops advanced to Prague, Frederick remained in high spirits. He counted on aid from the rebel king of Hungary.

The Hungarian king did send troops. They turned out to be a wild lot who pillaged farms and then burned them down. It was these fires that lit the way toward Prague for the attacking Imperial army. On the night of November 7, the Protestant and Imperial troops searched for each other through woods and fields in a swirling fog that hid everyone. Under cover of fog and darkness, Frederick’s general led the army to the crown of the White Mountain, a large broad hill overlooking Prague, with a stream at its base. Feeling safe in their strong position, the Bohemians and Hungarians slept. At dawn they were awakened by the warning shouts of horsemen riding into camp. The Imperial soldiers, led by Johann Tilly, the “Monk in Armour,” had stormed the Hungarian outposts, crossed the stream and were pressing against the rocks below.

By seven in the morning, Frederick’s general had his 15,000 troops deployed in a mile-long line across the hill. His tough German cavalrymen were set in batches among the Bohemian infantry. These Bohemian troops were peasants, many of whom had been dragged away from their cows and chickens to serve in the army; they wanted only to get back to their farms. In the center of this array the king’s velvet banner was planted, on the left Hungarian cavalry pranced and prayers were mumbled all down the line.

The Bohemians hurled back Tilly’s first onslaught. Then, as the morning mist cleared, they were suddenly blasted by Tilly’s artillery and caught off guard by a swift cavalry charge. The Bohemians were swept back, their line broke and they fled. Then the Hungarians galloped away, plunging into the Moldau in their rapid flight from battle; they were hurrying to gather their loot and return home. The battle became a rout. The king’s cannon and banner were captured and thousands of his soldiers streamed in disorder to Prague with the Imperials hot after them. In Prague, Frederick was happily finishing dinner. He told his companions that there would be no battle — his enemies were too weak to attack.

Then he strolled out to the gates to see what news there was. Troops came dashing in through the gates and Frederick asked what troubled them. They did not answer. Only when his general galloped up, dirty and sweating, did Frederick hear of the disaster. Stunned and sick at heart, he prepared to flee. He scooped up a few crown jewels, gathered his wife and children almost forgetting one in his hurry — and hurried away from Bohemia.

Soon the Imperial troops charged into Prague. For eight days they plundered, stealing and killing as they pleased. Among other things, they seized half a dozen wagons loaded with Frederick’s treasures.

Frederick and his wife worked to borrow money and raise troops. They begged aid from every Protestant court in Europe, writing letter after letter. But they never regained Bohemia and their Catholic enemies mocked them without mercy. During his long exile in Holland, Frederick was often too poor to pay his milk bill.

In Vienna, Ferdinand rode through the streets giving thanks to the Virgin. Soon after the triumph at White Mountain, he heard a sermon in which the priest loudly preached, “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron, thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” This Ferdinand set about to do in Bohemia. He ripped the Imperial seal from the Bohemian charter of religious liberty. The Protestant leaders he condemned to death, mopping his sweating brow as he passed out sentence after sentence. On the Charles Bridge in Prague, to terrify the people, he displayed the head; of a dozen revolutionary leaders. Anyone who spoke out for Protestantism was nailed up by his tongue and burned.

Ferdinand seized the property of revolutionary merchants and nobles. He outlawed the Calvinist religion and had its books burned and he sent Jesuit preachers throughout Bohemia to convert the people. The Protestant religion, the old Protestant nobles and the merchant class of Prague and other towns were all annihilated. Ferdinand created a new Catholic nobility, a new set of landholders loyal to himself, who kept their boots firmly planted on the old Protestants’ necks. Ferdinand grasped more and more power in Bohemia. He ended the custom of electing the king and made the crown a private possession of his family, the Hapsburgs. It looked as though the Hapsburgs and the Catholics were completely victorious but the Thirty Years War had only just begun.

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