The War Spreads 1625 -1648

THE BLOOD-LETTING in Germany aroused new ambitions in many of the kings of Europe. In Denmark and Sweden, the strong Protestant king: who were taming opposition at home began looking to Germany as a land ripe for conquest. Furthermore, in attacking Germany they were also attacking the hated power of Roman Catholicism. Quickest of all to act was Christian IV, king of Denmark.

Christian did not doubt that he was equal to the task. At the age of five he had learned fencing and the use of firearms‚ waking at five each morning and practicing long hours. He became king when he was eleven, but did not really rule Denmark until he was fully grown up. Then he held a glorious coronation to celebrate his manhood. Surrounded by his courtiers and the ambassadors of the Protestant princes, he was proclaimed king. With his royal sword, he hacked at the air in four directions to show how he would protect the four corners of his kingdom and he grasped the Bible to show that he was a defender of Protestantism.

Christian had a wild zest for life and loved a good fight, but he refused to allow too much disorder in Denmark. He ordered bishops and clergymen not to break their beer cups on their neighbour’s heads during funerals; noblemen who broke the heads of royal guards had to pay the damages. To keep order, Christian raised the hangmen’s pay, to a dollar a head, with an extra dollar for torture and four dollars for burning a witch. He also laid down laws to protect the Danes against the plague. Mothers were not to throw their babies in wells, lice-infested heads were to be washed in strong lye and children were to drink beer instead of water.

Altogether, Christian proved to be a strong ruler. He built up the Danish navy, melting down church bells to get good brass for ships’ cannon. He sent expeditions to increase trade with Ireland and rediscover Greenland, founded a Danish East India Company and sent ships to trade with Ceylon.

Planning his invasion of Germany, Christian decided to seize the Oder and Elbe river mouths from the Catholic rulers and to tax the rich trade on the rivers to obtain wealth. At the same time he would strike a blow for Protestantism. He gathered his troops‚ loaded wagons with stone cannon balls and marched on to take the Hamlin fortress.


Although Christian had won an easy victory, he knew there would be heavy fighting ahead. The man who would be leading the emperor’s soldiers against him was a Catholic nobleman of Bohemia named Albrecht von Wallenstein. Tall, lean and expressionless, Wallenstein had a long nose, a terrible temper and no money of his own. He believed completely in astrology and in himself. He married a rich widow who could help him make his way in the world; he treated her coolly but politely and watched for his opportunity.

During the Bohemian revolt, Wallenstein had become a leader of the Moravian militia and had remained loyal to the emperor. His cold determination succeeded. After the war he was so rich that he bought a fourth of Bohemia. He was made prince of Friedland by the emperor, who also made Friedland an independent state within Bohemia. As prince, Wallenstein made nobles of the men he thought worthy and, in general, ruled like a king. He hired armourers and blacksmiths from the Netherlands, bred horses from the finest stables in Europe, raised timber and cattle and built saltpeter works and gunpowder mills. He made Friedland the greatest centre of war production in Europe. While the emperor spent his gold on the war and finally was forced to seek loans, Wallenstein grew immensely rich and powerful. When the emperor’s army had become weak, Wallenstein raised a huge force for the empire under his own command and marched against Christian.

Christian retreated over half of Germany, with Wallenstein and Tilly, the Monk in Armour, in pursuit. He knew that his small, inexperienced army, with only stone balls for cannon shot, was no match for Wallenstein’s. Christian hated to retreat and he was miserable at seeing his reputation as a general collapse. At night he drank away his misery until he was stone drunk. Finally he could beat it no longer and he made a desperate stand near the village of Lutter.

Scattering his infantrymen through the woods, massing his cannon and cavalry to sweep down on the advancing Imperial soldiers, Christian fought for his religion and his reputation. His infantry soon fled, outnumbered, but he rallied the cavalry again and again to charge the Imperial troops. Christian’s line was broken, his cannon captured, 6,000 of his Danes taken prisoner and 3,000 slaughtered. Some of his cavalry tried to make a last stand at Lutter castle, but they were bombarded into surrender.

Pursued by twelve Imperial cavalrymen, Christian fled from the field. A shot felled his horse, but a lone Dane near him gave up his own horse and quickly helped him mount. While the loyal Dane was swallowed up in a Cluster of Imperial swordsmen, Christian raced away, his face and body spattered with dirt and blood.

Wallenstein now moved north toward Denmark, perfecting a new kind of war. His army sacked cities, looted the countryside, murdered peasants, burned homes, and ruined fields. He marched his pillaging soldiers through the Protestant German lands of Silesia and Moravia, leaving them stopped bare. Wallenstein’s victories made it possible for the emperor to demand that all German lands and cities that had been Catholic in 1555 become catholic again or be severely punished. The Catholic cause seemed triumphant and Wallenstein travelled about Germany like a great ruler. He marched from Munich to Augsburg in royal splendour, surrounded by a bodyguard of 600 men. A prince who saw him pass wrote in amazement that their “clothes are thickly sewn with gold thread, bandoliers studded with embossed silver and the points of their pikes made of silver, so that no emperor ever had a like bodyguard.”

While Wallenstein lived grandly at Augsburg, the jealous German princes began making the emperor fear him. They told Ferdinand of Wallenstein’s ambition, his rages and his cruelty. They soon persuaded Ferdinand that Wallenstein might even overthrow him, to become emperor himself. Finally the emperor sent two emissaries to Augsburg to demand that Wallenstein resign. When they arrived, Wallenstein told them that he had been reading the stars and already knew why they had come. “Though it grieves me that his Majesty shows me so little grace,” he sighed, “yet I will obey.”

The mighty general still had many tricks to win back his power. Although Tilly, the Monk in Armour, now commanded Wallenstein’s troops‚ they still depended on Wallenstein’s storehouses and arms factories in Friedland. Wallenstein raised the price of grain, demanded payment in cash and told his officials to make the quartering of Tilly’s men as difficult as possible. “I have never seen an army.” Tilly finally wrote, “so lacking in everything. . . no draft horses, no officers . . . no powder, no ammunition, no picks or shovels, no money and no food.” Germany was already stripped bare, so it was hard for the soldiers to live off the land.

Hungry soldiers pillaged and sacked wherever they went, even in the lands they were supposed to protect. They stole the food from the very mouths of the peasants. They swooped down on fleeing peasants and carried off their beasts, their goods and their women. In winter after winter, refugees streamed from province to province. Trapped in fields by unexpected cold weather, they froze to death. One year snow fell in June and destroyed all the crops that the soldiers had not trampled or eaten.

Bubonic plague raged from the Alps to the Baltic Sea. In Prague alone 16,000 persons were carried away in one summer and in the country side bodies rotted among the daisies. The soldiers continued to murder peasants for a few coppers, ransacked graves and broke down churches. Near Magdeburg one brave pastor tried to bar the soldiers at the church door. They chopped off his hands and legs and threw him on his own altar.

To feed his hungry and tattered soldiers, Tilly attacked the city of Magdeburg for its rich stores. After three days his soldiers breached the city walls and stormed in, viciously looting and killing. Unable to control his troops. Tilly tried to save the women and children by herding them into a cathedral. Clasping a baby he had rescued from a dead mother, he bawled commands to a monk to rush the babies and the girls to safety.

Then, to Tilly’s horror, black smoke began rising in twelve different parts of the city. Fire roared through Magdeburg for three days, leaving it a smoldering heap of ashes and dirt, with 25,000 of its 30,000 citizens dead. For fourteen days wagons carried the charred bodies to the Elbe River, where they were dumped to prevent an outbreak of plague. A number of them floated in to shore downstream, and were eaten by flocks of buzzards.


The sack and burning of Magdeburg was perhaps the most terrible event of this terrible war. Tilly realized its effect would be disastrous. “Our danger has no end,” he wrote, “for the Protestant estates will hate us only more strongly for this.” After years of suffering, the Protestants of Germany finally began to unite and the man who united them was Gustavus Adolphus, the king of Sweden.


Gustavus was tall and broad-shouldered, with a round face and dark blond hair and beard. In his nineteen years as king of Sweden he had made it a strong nation. He built schools, roads, armaments factories and hospitals. He dealt sternly with Catholics but he was fair, according to the ideas of the times. “This religion, if I may call it so,” he said of Catholicism. “is idolatry, the invention and fancy of men — clean contrary to the word of God in the Holy Scriptures.”

Gustavus was a military genius. He armed his soldiers with muskets at a time when many European soldiers still carried pikes and he trained them until their musket fire became deadly. He dressed them in blue and yellow so that they would know each other and not fire on their own comrades by mistake. Gustavus was horrified by the doings of the German emperor. Soon after he heard of the emperor’s edict to restore Catholicism, he told the Swedes. “in Germany the whole country is oppressed and enslaved.” He also said, “Whosoever had a heart honest in devotion to God, religion and liberty, his eyes must weep, his heart bleed to hear of such sorrow and misery among his friends and those of his faith.” Gustavus gathered his army to invade Germany, determined to free Protestantism and build a Swedish empire there.

Landing in Germany in 1630, Gustavus immediately began to rally the Protestant princes around him. At first, some muttered about neutrality, but Gustavus burst out. “Neutrality! What sort of talk is that? Either for or against me — there is no middle term!” After the sack of Magdeburg, some of them joined him. Gustavus knew it was no weak starved foe he would meet. His agents told him that Tilly had gathered 15,000 fresh troops‚ who had supplied themselves by plunging into Saxony and taking rich booty.

Finally Gustavus’s army encountered the imperial troops on September 18, 1631, at Breitenfeld, a few miles north of Leipzig. Gustavus formed his lines with the Swedes in the centre. On the left were the Saxons in beautiful uniforms and gay cloaks, “a handsome and happy company to see,” as Gustavus said. His own cavalry and musketeers he formed into small squares, a new formation he had perfected. Early in the afternoon, when the sun shone in the Protestants’ eyes and a dusty wind blew in their faces, the imperial cavalry charged — but the Swedes fended them off. The imperials charged again and captured the Saxon cannon. Straining and struggling they turned the cannon on the Saxon artillerymen and mowed them down. The Saxons fled and only Gustavus’s Swedes were left to face the imperial attack.

Up and down the line Gustavus galloped to rally his men. For hours he could be seen, his tan coat flapping, his hat plume fluttering, as he spurred his horse to wherever the fighting was most frenzied. The soldiers on both sides grew weary from hours of loading and reloading muskets, of smashing swords against armour and flesh. Then, as the sunset and the harsh, sandy wind shifted to beat at the timed Imperials‚ Gustavus brought in his fresh cavalry reserves and attacked. His charge bowled over the enemy. Tilly himself was wounded in the neck, chest and arm, and rode tottering from the field. Gustavus’s men captured 7,000 prisoners‚ after killing 12,000 of Tilly’s soldiers in the battle.


Then Gustavus marched triumphantly across Germany. After a decade and a half of disaster, the Protestants were victorious. They acclaimed Gustavus as a mighty hero, the Lion of the North. Gustavus had great plans to destroy the old crazy-quilt empire and create a new one. It seemed likely‚ for one after another, German princes were deserting Ferdinand to join Gustavus, but first, Gustavus soon learned, he would have another foe to fight. From Breitenfeld the defeated Imperial cavalry commander had written to Wallenstein, “I see no course, but that your excellency again take command of the war to serve God and the faith.” The emperor restored Wallenstein to his command.

While Gustavus marched his army back and forth through Germany, Wallenstein was hard at work. His munitions workers, his bakers, his weavers, and his recruiting agents were busy day and night. In the spring of 1632, Gustavus found that Wallenstein had taken the field with a grand army; in July, news came that Wallenstein had been joined by the Catholic League. Gustavus was outnumbered two to one and near Nuremberg he was besieged by the combined Catholic armies. He could not use his cavalry because of the rough ground where Wallenstein had purposely surrounded him. There was almost no grass and gradually Gustavus’s horses starved. His troops grew hungry, too. His German soldiers stole cattle and mined his reputation for honest dealing. His more timid allies began to melt away.

Then news was rushed to Gustavus that Wallenstein had split his forces, and on a November afternoon, near the village of Lützen, Gustavus attacked. It was too dark for decisive fighting and Gustavus had to retire his men for the night. While they slept, Wallenstein’s troops worked by torchlight to throw up new breastworks. In the misty morning Gustavus led another charge and for hours the armies fought.

Toward noon, Gustavus’s horse was seen plunging riderless through the field and the cry rose that the mighty king of Sweden was dead. The Swedes, desperate with fear that it was true, fought bravely on. Both armies suffered heavy losses; neither won a victory. That night, in a ditch where the battle had raged hottest, the Swedes uncovered the body of their king. The Protestant world mourned the death of their great warrior king. Throughout Europe, pastors and their congregations sobbed. Even Gustavus’s enemy, Emperor Ferdinand, shed tears, though some people said that they were tears of relief.

It seemed that with Gustavus gone the Imperial armies under Wallenstein would sweep Protestantism out of Germany — but soon the Imperial statesman were quarreling among themselves. Wallenstein again became the centre of secret diplomacy, of plots and counterplots. His enemies said that he treacherously planned to become king of Bohemia. The poisoned tongues of the jealous German Catholic princes whispered against him until finally the emperor declared him guilty of high treason.

Fleeing with some of his officers to the town of Eger, Wallenstein beseeched the commandant for asylum. He did not know that most of the garrison was secretly loyal to the emperor. Some dragoons invited Wallenstein’s officers to a feast and after much drinking and good fellowship, rose and slaughtered them all.

Then the dragoons battered down Wallenstein’s door and charged in at him. Yelling, “Faithless, rebellious old villain,” a dragoon plunged his halberd through Wallenstein’s chest until it stuck out a foot between his shoulder blades. His lifeless body collapsed. “Oh, my Wallenstein,” cried Ferdinand when he learned that Wallenstein was dead. “They painted him blacker than he was.”


After Gustavus’s death, Richelieu, the French statesman, dominated the Protestant councils. “Only no religion,” said one of his aides to suggest Richelieu’s policy. Although he was a Catholic cardinal, Richelieu was coldly determined to ignore the religious issues in order to stop France’s old enemies, the Hapsburg rulers of Germany and Spain. A superb statesman, Richelieu sent envoys all over Europe to build a Protestant coalition.


Even the pope supported Richelieu’s policy. Both Richelieu and the pope feared the Hapsburgs. They were afraid of powerful rulers who might try to dictate to the Catholic Church. With the pope siding with Richelieu and Richelieu with the Protestants, the war became less of a war over religion. It was now a war of ruling families, a struggle of nations, of the Dutch battling Spain for independence, of the Swedes fighting to hold their gains, of the German princes trying to gobble up each other’s kingdoms, while the emperor and Richelieu tried to swallow as many of these little fish as possible.

For a time, Richelieu’s policy met with blow after blow. He had long aided the Swedes with gold, but gold was not enough to avoid a Swedish disaster at Nördlingen in 1634. Richelieu saw that is was necessary to bring French arms into the war. The French army however, was rusty from years of idleness. Colonels and captains lied about the numbers of soldiers under their command, then pocketed the pay that Richelieu sent for their non-existent troops. The nobles who led the army were careless and hard to discipline and they were able to silence their critics.

Richelieu sent his army off to battle and it made a great sight. When cold weather came, an Englishman reported, the French “sneaked and stole away by little and little from their camp” without fighting.

In France, rebellion after rebellion broke out against Richelieu’s war taxes and enemy soldiers poured into Picardy and advanced toward Paris. Terrible reports reached Richelieu, reports that showed France was suffering the same fate that had tortured Germany for so long. “On my estate,” one nobleman said, “all the peasants have been beaten until they are cripples.”

Richelieu was a sick man, but he rushed through the streets of Paris and rallied the Parisians to defend their city and France. Rich and poor alike were stirred and Richelieu became the centre of a great surge of patriotism. The guilds gave gold, apprentices enlisted and the king himself led out the army. The result was that the invaders were forced to flee.

As Richelieu’s armies grew stronger, the Imperial and Spanish armies grew weaker. The French began to win victories and finally, at Rocrois in 1643, the French crushed the Spaniards. Almost all of the proud Spanish infantry was slaughtered. Soon after this, the German emperor sued for peace. In 1648, after long years of negotiation, the Peace of Westphalia ended the war.

The German emperor who made peace was Ferdinand III, who took the throne after the death of Ferdinand II. He found himself little more than a figure-head. Germany was so devastated that it would not recover for years. Besides it was more divided than ever. Each of its more than 300 lands was still governed by its own ruler and under the terms of the peace treaty, the emperor could make no laws and raise no taxes without their consent. These rulers had also gained the right to determine the religion of their lands and much of northern Germany became Protestant — either Lutheran or Calvinist.

Perhaps Ferdinand III did not mind too much when his rule of the empire was weakened. From his family, the Hapsburgs, he had inherited much territory that belonged to him alone. He became king of Austria, Bohemia, Hungary and his Hapsburg successors united these provinces into a powerful state.

Ferdinand’s great enemy, France, also came out of the war a stronger nation. France held the rich province of Alsace and was perhaps the greatest country of Europe. Other nations, too, became stronger after the war, as kings continued to reduce the power of nobles and local assemblies. They all looked to France as their model, for nowhere else was there so much splendour combined with so much power.

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