Only Thirty Years? Felt Longer: Highlights From History’s Boringest “War”

wedgwood 30 yrs other 30

[For this post I found much more helpful and readable Wedgwood’s book than Wilson’s].

Now I know why in school or afterwards, I have never really absorbed information concerning the Thirty Years War… It is about the boringest chapters of history ever made. It’s not even a proper war, really… more of a series of battles… just piles of soldiers careening around Europe smashing into each other. By the time the prolonged parade of mass-murders have (more or less) ended, not only have the teams changed, but so have the reasons for fighting. Personally, I think some historian along the way was trying his best to sort out this messy period of history so that he could group it all under a chapter title, and came up with The Thirty Years War. And that was the most exciting title choice he came up with.

By the time of the Thirty Years War, Spain, due to dynastic ties, was a locked-in ally of the Holy Roman Empire, both states ruled by members of the Hapsburg dynasty. They were not so united as to form one great super-state… but it was close.

Spain and the Netherlands were taking a time-out after a very rough domestic.  During the 1500s, the Dutch in the northern part of the Netherlands had successfully revolted against their overlord, Spain, uniting several northern provinces to form the United Provinces. The United Provinces signed a treaty with Spain which basically served as a truce and breathing space until the treaty was set to expire in 1621. That’s when everyone expected Spain would come rolling back up to finally teach the rebellious Protestants of the northern Netherlands to mind their Catholic Spanish masters once and for all.

The five southern provinces of the Netherlands, however, remained so much in Spain’s power that Spain was able to give them as the DOWRY of the Spanish King’s daughter, Infanta Isabella, when she married Archduke Albert. That made the southern Netherlands, at the start of the Thirty Years War, technically independent from Spain. However, Archduke Albert and Infanta Isabella produced no offspring… so Spain expected to take back over dominion of the provinces after the death of the Archduke and his wife.

So basically, what we have here at the start of the Thirty Years War is what we might call a “situation” in the Netherlands… You also might call it a time bomb… The Protestant Dutch in the north are clinging to this life raft called the United Provinces, which is due to sink in Spanish waters (so to speak) in just a few years, and the Netherlanders down south are also staring into the gaping Spanish yaw which is set to close around them when their current rulers die.

Meanwhile, as one Hapsburg prepared to gobble-up the Netherlands in two big bites, another was continuing to rule the Holy Roman Empire. The Holy Roman Empire was a sprawling, fundamentally unstable empire, somewhat like a frayed quilt of many different fabrics stretched over numerous powder kegs, fireworks, and containers of dynamite. Several different religions, numerous different languages, and a wide variety of climates existed and overlapped within the domains of the Empire.

The Emperor was elected by the Empire’s seven top princes, known as Electors. There were three clergy-Electors plus the four secular Electors of Bohemia, Brandenberg, Saxony, and The Palatinate. The seven Electors, states Wedgwood, “held the fiefs associated in the Golden Bull of 1356 with the exclusive right to choose each emperor.” However, all the lands of the Electors taken together only amounted to about a fifth of the empire, and a sixth of its population.

The election of the Emperor was little more than a formality by the time the Thirty Years War opens… The Hapsburgs were the only clan powerful and wealthy enough to do the job required, for the Emperor was expected to be responsible for the funding of the court’s expenses, including many military expenses. But despite the fact that the Hapburgs had the Emperorship wrapped up, Wedgwood states that the princes ruling the different regions of the Empire were not a flock of sheep… They “opposed all efforts at centralization,” for they felt the Habsburg Dynasty had become too powerful already (yeah, I keep changing the spelling of that dynastic name, p-to-b and back again; someone told me once that we Americans spell it differently than real people, so maybe that’s the source of my confusion).

Wedgwood tells us that when the German-speaking domains of the Empire (Austria, Bavaria, Prussia, et al) began to grow unruly, the Emperor would appeal to his relatives in Spain for aid in putting down the rebelling German princes… In turn, the German princes would appeal to the enemies of Spain to come to their own assistance. Thus, it is no surprise that the German-speaking areas of the Empire would become, during the Thirty Years War, what Wedgwood calls “the fighting ground” between Spain and Spain’s biggest enemy at the time, France.

As far as France was concerned, Europe would have looked much rosier if the German peoples broke away completely from the overly powerful Holy Roman Empire. So, year by year, writes Wedgwood, “the German princes laid their country open as a battlefield for foreign rivals” in the proxy war between Bourbons of France and the Hapsburgs of Spain.

Some historians like to characterize the Thirty Years War as the war which transitioned bleeding Europe out of the religious war phase and into a phase of more purely POLITICAL wars. Of course, the two types of motivations have always been intertwined in the wars of the world, and they have remained so to this day.  Nevertheless, the idea that the Thirty Years War contained Europe’s last series of battles motivated largely by religious hatred rings with enough truth to keep the idea in mind.

In 1555, nearly three-quarters of a century before the start of the 30 Years War in 1618, the Holy Roman Emperor, in the Settlement Of Augsburg, had agreed to allow his German subject-princes to choose from one of two religions to make the official and tolerated religion within his princely domains. The prince could choose to have his people follow either that old time religion, Catholicism, or the new upstart, Lutheranism. Any subjects chosing not to conform to the religion chosen by their prince would be allowed — nay, required– to emigrate elsewhere.

By the start of the Thirty Years War, it had been almost exactly a century since Martin Luther began his protests against the policies of the Pope and the Catholic church (he and other such protestors began to be called “Protestants”). Northern Europe, being farther away from the seat of Church power in Rome, tended to be more open to the Protestant cause than Southern Europe.

Since the Settlement Of Augsburg, many a German prince had chosen the Lutheran (or Protestant) faith for his princedom. Some princes may have chosen Lutheranism due to pressure from their subjects… yet, many princes assuredly did not mind using the religious choice as a means of cutting into the power of their Hapsburg Emperor– who, apparently, was a sincerely devout Catholic.

Religion also comes into play in the Netherlands, for the inhabitants of the breakway United Provinces in the north were largely Protestant– and Spain was most definitely Catholic.

So which land would erupt into rebellion first– the Protestant Dutch from Spain or the Protestant Germans from the Emperor?

Actually, it was Prague…

Prague was the leading city of Bohemia. The King of Bohemia also served as sovereign lord of several nearby lands… Moravia (where the people spoke Slovakian), Silesia (where they spoke Polish), and also Lusatia. The King of Bohemia was under the de facto control of the Holy Roman Emperor, though Wedgwood remarks (without explaining farther) that “it was doubtful” whether any or all of his domains were actually located within the boundaries of the Holy Roman Empire.

The Bohemians (who spoke Czech) were a people apart. Wedgwood tells us that “the Czechs were divided from the Germans by language, and from the Slavs by religion and character.” When Prague finally burst into rebellion against the Emperor, it began a thirty-year-long cascade of conflicts spanning Europe.

One thing I find interesting about the Prague uprising of 1618 was that rebels bothered issuing an Apologia for what they were doing. Within the Apologia, Wedgwood tells us, they set forth the causes of their revolt. This Apologia would serve as a precedent for an even more famous list of grievances offered to the world by a region rebelling against their king over a hundred and fifty years later– the English colonists in America in 1776.

Exploring this complex, hydra-headed thing that historians taxonomize as “the Thirty Years War,” one could easily get lost in the forest of the general trend due to the tree-fuls of details… For our purposes, suffice it to say that Bohemia did NOT ultimately succeed in its rebellion. Once the Bohemians lost the Battle Of The White Hill, the idea of independence was realistically over.

Between breaking away from the Empire and being re-subjugated, the Bohemians had invited the ruler of the Palatinate, Elector Frederick to be their regent, and he had accepted. This left a power void back in the Palatinate, which the Spanish Hapsburg ruler gladly gobbled. When the Bohemian cause proved lost, the United Provinces of the Netherlands decided to back Frederick in his attempt to re-establish his control of the Palatinate, which was now held by a new Elector, Maximillian.

Since Schiller wrote a trilogy of dramas about the man, you should probably know one of the most famous names of the Thirty Years War: Wallenstein, the man that Ferdinand (the Holy Roman Emperor) made military governor of re-conquered Prague. I won’t go too much into Wallenstein’s personality here, but I must say, he comes off as one very singular individual. He was a poor, Protestant, Czech-speaking, orphaned boy with a violent streak who grew up to be a rich, Catholic, mercenary warlord dressed in black who wore red sashes and plumes and died a “chaste” man. Emperor Ferdinand used Wallenstein, then grew slightly afraid of his combined wealth and power, then fired him– and then called him back and used him again. Wedgwood credits (or perhaps “discredits” is the better word) Wallenstein with being one of the first European rulers to conceive of the State as an entity “organized exclusively for war.”

Besides giving the Bohemians the gift of Wallenstein, Emperor Ferdinand also forces the country– though not at gunpoint, states Wedgwood, but through civil and economic means only– to convert back to Catholicism.

Meanwhile, a political mastermind in France, Cardinal Richelieu, has come up with a plan to strike at the two branches of the Hapsburg dynasty simultaneously. France, itself, had been worried at home of late by some militarized Huguenots (French Protestants), and Richelieu could not spare many forces for poking at any wounds the Holy Roman Empire may have suffered during their struggle to subjugate Bohemia. However, Richelieu was able to devise a way to recruit for France’s general cause the greatest warrior king of his era, Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden.

Gustavus, whose main political goal seems simply to have been to increase the domains of Sweden by force of arms, had been warring with Poland for some time, but Richelieu was able to broker a peace between the two countries so that Gustavus could bring his formidable warring skills to bear against the forces fighting for the Emperor.  In this way, writes Wedgwood, Richelieu succeeds in “unleashing a Protestant champion” against the major Catholic powers of Europe which would “destroy forever” the dominating power of the Hapsburgs.

Gustavus, his mouth watering for territory, agreed to go to the German speaking world to make common cause with rebellious Germans and go to war against Imperial forces. His most famous victory, perhaps, occurs at the Battle Of Breitenfeld, which popular history views as the wound from which the Holy Roman Empire never recovered. Also, since Ferdinand was so adamant in his desire that all his subjects should follow the teachings of the one true Church, the battle is viewed romantically by many as a victory for freedom of religion. Wedgwood informs us that there is monument commemorating the battle-site still standing there which reads, “Freedom of belief for all the world.”

For the Germans, however, Gustavus was a mixed blessing, and he was seen by many as just another “menacing foreign power.” Whatever the pros and cons of Gustavus relative to the German cause, the Swedish king was eventually killed while fighting the forces of Wallenstein, the Swedish king’s riderless horse running wild and injured through the battlefield.

After both Bohemia and the German-speaking areas of the Empire were at least relatively pacified, Emperor Ferdinand issued the Edict Of Restitution, covering the whole of the German-speaking realm, which gave back to the Church property which had been previously seized from it by local Protestant powers. This Edict further turned German Protestants against the Emperor.

The Peace Of Westphalia ended the hostilities grouped under the heading of the Thirty Years War, but as Wedgwood comments, it was… “like most peace treaties, a re-arrangement of the European map ready for the next war.”


It was during the Thirty Years War that France obtained Alsace— a region which would be a jagged-edged bone of contention between France and the German peoples for a long time.

The Peace Of Westphalia explictly recognized the independence of the United Provinces of the nothern Netherlands, as well as the independence of Switzerland. Switzerland had spent many decades being passed back and forth between powers, including time spent under Italian domination, followed (beginning in 1536) by French control– before existing for a time as an independent Calvinist Republic

During the Thirty Years War and directly after, Emperor Ferdinand began centralizing his rule in Austria in the hopes of using the country for what Wedgwood calls, “a nucleus for the revivified German Empire.” The steps Ferdinand takes begin the movement toward what will become the Austrian Empire. Nevertheless, after suffering through the buffets of the long war– especially the poundings doled-out by Sweden’s King Gustavus– Austria was already beginning to fall into decline… This, Wedgwood writes, opens the door for a new power to come to dominance in German lands… Prussia. It will be Prussia, not Austria, which will– over two centuries later– unite much of the German-speaking world… with Austria purposefully kept out of the power arrangement.

From this point forward until Napoleon finally puts it out of its misery, the Holy Roman Empire slowly disintegrates. Following the Thirty Years War, in fact, the princes of realm begin to make and break their own foreign alliances, thus, as far as international affairs go, reducing the Empire to something less than an effectual State.



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