Lectures on Modern History/The Thirty Years' War

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Lectures on Modern History by John Acton
X. The Thirty Years' War

X

THE THIRTY YEARS' WAR

The last and most important product of the Counter-Reformation was the Thirty Years' War. In Germany the rights of the churches had been defined by the Peace of Religion, and the principles of the settlement were not seriously contested.

When the Archbishop of Cologne married and became a Protestant, he endeavoured to retain his political position as one of the electors; but the Catholics were strong enough to prevent it, as a thing foreseen and clearly provided against by law. There had been a constant propaganda on both sides, each gaining ground in some direction, the Lutherans losing much by the extension of Calvinism at their expense. By operation of the accepted maxim that the civil power shall determine which religion may be practised within its territory, Lutheran governments becoming Calvinist carried their subjects with them, weakening the Protestant cause, and presenting a divided front to opponents. In this matter there was one significant exception. The House of Brandenburg became Calvinist, the country remained Lutheran, while the minister, Schwarzenberg, was a Catholic. To this timely divergence from the ideas and customs of the sixteenth century, to this fundamentally different view of the function and uses of the State, the Hohenzollerns owe no small portion of their greatness in history. The Protestants were in the majority, but the Imperial government was still in Catholic hands.

In the hereditary dominions of the House of Habsburg the situation was different. Under Maximilian II. Austria had been the least intolerant of European governments. Equal toleration prevailed at that time in Poland, and led to the growth and prosperity of the Socinians; but the Austrian policy aimed at a compromise between the churches, and at a system of concessions which made them much alike.

Under Maximilian's inefficient son, the country went asunder. One branch of the family carried out the Counter-Reformation in Styria; while, north of the Danube, the majority of the inhabitants was either Lutheran or Utraquist, that is, attached to Communion under both kinds, which had been the germ of Hussitism, and was the residue that remained after the fervour of the Hussite movement had burnt itself out. In 1609 Bohemia and Silesia obtained entire freedom of religious belief; while in the several provinces of Alpine Austria unity was as vigorously enforced as the law permitted—that is, by the use of patronage, expulsion of ministers, suppression of schools, confiscation of books, and, generally, by administrative repression, short of violence.

It was not stipulated in the Majestätsbrief as the instrument of 1609 was called, which was the charter of toleration under the Bohemian crown, that Protestants might build churches on the domains of the Catholic clergy; but this they claimed to do, inasmuch as the right was conceded to them on the crown lands, and in Bohemia these were technically considered to include Church lands. Accordingly, one was built at Braunau, and was stopped by authority; another at Klostergrab, and was pulled down. At the same time, the intention to reverse legislation and repress Protestant religion on both sides of the Danube alike was openly confessed.

The Styrian archduke, the head of the clerical party, became King of Bohemia and Emperor-elect, the kinsmen who were nearer the succession withdrawing in his favour. The Habsburgs felt strong enough to carry forward the Counter-Reformation even in Bohemia and the dependent lands, where nine-tenths of the people were Protestants, with rights assured by a recent and solemn instrument. They had in their favour the letter of the Peace of Religion, by which no prince could be required to rule over subjects differing from him in religion, and the more probable reading of the rule as to the building of places of worship. Against them was the unquestioned text of the Majestätsbrief, not yet nine years old. The new emperor did not meditate a breach of faith. Real violence was unavailing where the opponents were in a large majority. The Counter-Reformation had produced in Central Europe a scheme of mitigated persecution, which stopped short of tragedy, and laboured to accomplish, by infinite art and trouble, what the readier methods of the Holy Office and the Penal Law were expected to do. Ferdinand II. was a slow, laborious, friendly man, with a sense of duty and a certain strictness of private life, but without initiative or imagination.

The Bohemian leaders saw the danger of submitting to a man who, without being a persecutor like Henry VIII. and Philip II., would know how to oppress them wisely. Their crown had once been elective; and the ceremony of election had been revived ten years before when the last king ascended the throne. They resolved to resist Ferdinand, and to call another in his place. War would inevitably follow; and in order that the country might be committed to their quarrel, as there was no strong popular movement at first, and no national or political issue, they judged that they must begin by giving proof of their deadly meaning. The conspirators, with Count Thurn at their head, made their way into the Hradschin, the gloomy palace that overlooks Prague, and deliberately threw two hostile members of the government, Slavata and Martinitz, out of window. It seems that there is a contagious charm about that sort of exercise which is not evident to those who have not practised it. For seeing an inoffensive secretary, Fabricius, who was trying to make himself as small as possible in the crowd, they threw him after the others. The victims had a fall of fifty feet. None of the three was much the worse for it, or for the shots that were fired at them; and it is difficult to account for their escape.

Ferdinand, who possessed no army, and was not safe in his palace at Vienna from the insurgents who sympathised with Prague, had no means of coping with the insurrection. He turned for aid to his friends in Germany. There, defensive confederacies had been formed both by Protestants and Catholics. The Catholics, consisting chiefly of ecclesiastical princes with the Duke of Bavaria at their head, composed what was known as the League, to protect their interests against more aggressive adversaries. And the aggressive adversaries, chiefly Calvinists, for Lutherans combined more easily with Catholics, constituted what was called the Union. For some time they had expected hostilities, and were preparing recruits. There was no lack of fighting material; but the nation was poor in organisation, and ill supplied with money, and was therefore insufficiently armed. They looked abroad for auxiliaries,—the Union, to Savoy and Venice, Holland and England; the League, to Spain. Henry IV. had been on the point of seizing the occasion of this open rivalry, and of a disputed succession, to invade the Empire in the summer of 1610. After his death France dropped for a time out of European complications, and thereby helped to postpone the outbreak of expected war. After the insane and stupid outrage at Prague it became an immediate certainty, and Maximilian of Bavaria, the ablest prince who ever reigned in that country, came to the aid of his cousin the emperor, with his own statesmanship, the forces of the League, and an ever-victorious general. The Bohemians had the support of the Union; and the chief of the Union, the elector Palatine, was elected to be their king. As his wife was the Princess Elizabeth, king James's only daughter, there was hope of English aid. Without waiting to verify that expectation, the elector quitted his castle at Heidelberg, and assumed the proffered crown. But the coalition between Rhenish Calvinists and the Lutherans of Prague did not work. The new subjects exhibited none of the warlike vigour which, under Ziska, had made the Empire tremble; and the Scottish father-in-law was too good a conservative and professor of kingcraft to abet revolution.

When the army of the League, under Tilly, appeared before Prague, on the slopes of what is called the White Mountain, there was no real resistance, and the new king became a fugitive and an exile, dependent on friends. As he spent but one winter in his capital, he is remembered as the Winter King. For us, he is the father of Rupert and of the Electress Sophia, from whom the king has his crown. Bohemia was treated as a conquered country. The Protestant religion was gradually suppressed, and the insurgents punished by immense confiscations. The country, which had been civilised and prosperous, was the first portion of the empire ruined by the outbreak of hostilities. Ferdinand made the most of the Catholic triumph. Tilly led his victorious army across Germany, from the Moldau to the Rhine. The Palatinate was conquered. Frederic was outlawed, and Maximilian of Bavaria became an Elector in his stead, so that the Catholic Electors, who had been four to three, were now five to two. The Heidelberg Library was removed from the castle, then the finest in Germany, and was sent as a present to the Pope.

Tilly was a Belgian, born in the town of that name, near Waterloo, to which Blucher retreated after Ligny. He had learnt war under Farnese, and served with the League at Ivry. He fought against the Turks on the Danube, and became a marshal in 1605. He was a soldier of the Spanish school, rigid and severe; but he was no criminal, like Alva and Farnese, and was the best and most trustworthy servant of the Catholic cause in Germany. For ten years, from the White Mountain, he carried all before him. The Union was dissolved. But German princes and adventurers took arms one after the other, and dashed themselves to pieces against him. When he was master of the valley of the Rhine, foreign Powers, alarmed at his progress, began to intervene. France, England, Holland advanced funds, and Christian IV. of Denmark led an army into Northern Germany. Tilly defeated him, as he had defeated every other enemy. His incessant success strengthened the Catholics, the League, the Duke of Bavaria, more than the emperor.

Ferdinand's allies served him so well that they threw him into the shade. The losses of the Protestants were not directly his gains. For that, in order that he might reap the full harvest which others had sown, he needed a great army commanded by a general of his own. In due time he acquired both one and the other. He commissioned Wallenstein to raise an Imperial force, independent of the League, and to complete the conquest of Germany.

Wallenstein was a Bohemian noble, a convert and pupil of the Jesuits, better known for his success in finance than in war. When the confiscations were going on, he speculated in land. Having thriven greatly, he lent large sums to the emperor. He gave valuable assistance in debasing the coinage, and became by far the richest man in the country. Watching the moment, he was able to offer Ferdinand an army of 24,000 men, to be raised by himself, paid by himself, commanded by himself, and by officers appointed by him. The object of the armament was not to save the empire from the foe, for the foe was being perpetually defeated; but to save the emperor from the League, and the oppressive superiority of Bavaria.

It was the beginning of the Austrian army. The regiments that followed Wallenstein to the sea still subsist, and are the same that fought under Eugene and the archduke Charles. They were quickly victorious; they overran Silesia, and at the bridge of Dessau they gained a victory over Mansfeld.

Mansfeld was one of the mere adventurers who disgrace the war. But he was a born soldier. Repulsed on the Elbe, he made his way through the hereditary provinces, intending to embark at Venice for England. In a Bosnian village his strength gave out. His death was nobler than his life, and is a legendary reminiscence in Germany. For he buckled on his armour, made his companions hold him upright, and met death standing, with his drawn sword.

Wallenstein was rewarded by being made Duke of Mecklenburg and admiral of the Baltic. He governed his principality well; but his fleet and his docks were destroyed by the Danes, and he was forced to raise the siege of Stralsund. He was unable to act in combination with Tilly and the League. They wished to make their religion dominate, without detriment to their position in the empire. Wallenstein meant that the emperor should dominate, at the expense of the princes, whether Catholic or Protestant, between whom he made no distinction. The very existence of the force under his command implied that the purpose and policy of the Habsburgs were not those of their allies, and that, after profiting by their services, he meant to rob them of their results. His imperialism was so dazzling, his success so unbroken, that Ferdinand would not check him, but strove to appease the League with fair assurances, and to induce its efficient leader Maximilian to trust the commander-in-chief.

Ferdinand had now reached a degree of power that Charles V. never enjoyed. He had crushed the revolution at home, the opposition in Germany, and Lutheran loyalty was still unshaken. In his desire to conciliate the League, while he made their conquests serve his power, in March 1629 he published an edict restoring to the clergy all the Church property in Protestant hands. The Lutherans would have to give back two archbishoprics, twelve bishoprics, innumerable abbeys; while the Calvinists were to lose the benefit of the Peace of Religion. The Edict of Restitution gave up the immediate purposes of the empire for those of the Church, and drove all Protestant forces to unite in resistance to it. And it extended the rights of conquest over princes who had taken no part in the war. It was the repudiation of Wallenstein's policy, and of his schemes for regenerating the Empire, and he caused it to be known that he would not execute the new orders. Ferdinand had to choose between Wallenstein and the League. By the advice of France, represented by a Capuchin, who was the ablest diplomatist then living, he dismissed his generalissimo, and accepted the dictation of the Catholic League. He had to face the consequences of his Edict of Restitution at the moment when he disarmed.

Just then, when all the Protestants were roused to anger and alarm, and when Wallenstein had laid down his sword, Gustavus landed in Rügen. He had been fighting in Poland for the Baltic coast, and there he had encountered an imperial force. Richelieu aided him in making peace with the Poles, and he went forth with a trained army, assured that he would unite all the Protestants of Germany against the Habsburgs. He spent many months in securing his base of operations, by onerous alliances imposed on Pomerania, and on his reluctant brother-in-law, the elector of Brandenburg.

When at length the way through Silesia to the heart of Austria lay open before him, Tilly arrested his march by laying siege to Magdeburg, which commanded the Elbe, and was a Protestant stronghold in the North. The King of Sweden made no attempt to relieve the besieged city; and in May 1631 Pappenheim, the hardest hitter among the German commanders, took the place by storm. The defenders deprived him of the fruits of victory by setting fire to Magdeburg, and burning it to the ground. Tilly, with difficulty, saved the Cathedral, and handed it over to the Catholics. He then took Leipzig without resistance, hoping to coerce Saxony; but the Elector, in this extremity, abandoned the neutrality he had maintained throughout the war, and went over to the Swedes. At Breitenfeld, a few miles out of Leipzig, Gustavus, feebly aided by the Saxons, defeated the Imperialists in the greatest battle of the war. It was a victory of the musket over the pike, and the beginning of the long struggle between line and column. Tilly's ranks were ten deep, and the Swedes only three, so that every musketeer fired. The world now perceived that the tardy, patient soldier, who had seemed too cautious about his retreat to prepare his advance, was a mighty conqueror, full of invention and resource and untold design.

He struck at once for the heart of the empire, made himself master of Würzburg, and overran the ecclesiastical principalities of the Rhine, which were the basis of Catholic power. At Mentz Gustavus held his court, treating the princes as his inferiors, endeavouring to conciliate the population. He did not live to declare his schemes of policy; but all men knew that he meant to be the head of a great Protestant Confederation, and to disarm their adversaries by secularising the dominions of the clergy. He had made no settlement for the future when he marched against Bavaria, the other stronghold of the League. Below Augsburg Gustavus forced the passage of the Lech, which Tilly disputed, and where the latter received the wound of which he died soon after, in the impregnable fortress of Ingolstadt. For more than two centuries his remains were so perfectly preserved that I have looked on his austere features. Down to the last months of his life he had been victorious over every foe, and was the most dangerous enemy of the Protestant cause. Legend took possession of him, and down to the last generation he was accused of being the destroyer of Magdeburg, and of having, from mere fanaticism, deprived himself of his prize. All that he had achieved in incessant triumph fell to pieces at his first defeat; and the armies of the League no longer stood between Gustavus, now at the head of 100,000 men, and the Austrian capital. But his career of success ended with the fall of his great rival.

When Tilly was defeated, the despairing emperor appealed once more to Wallenstein, who was living in great splendour, aloof from affairs, and showing as much capacity in the administration of his domains as he had shown in war. It was not two years since he had been deposed in disgrace, at the instance of the German princes. Therefore when, in their extremity, they turned to him for protection, they placed themselves in the power of an enemy on whom they had inflicted a mortal injury. He had felt it so deeply that he was in actual treaty, at the time, with Gustavus, for an expedition against Vienna. As Duke of Mecklenburg he was an independent potentate, and he regarded himself as released from the allegiance of a subject. Before breaking off his negotiation with the Swede, he beheld his enemies at his feet. Wallenstein was able to dictate his terms, and to make himself secure against a second dismissal. His army was his own. He meant to obey while obedience suited his purpose, and to act for himself when it did not. Unlike Tilly, the aims of his life were political, not ecclesiastical. With so many reasons for distrust on one side and resentment on the other, a catastrophe could hardly be averted. With Saxony and the Saxon general Arnim, who had been one of his colonels, he kept up an understanding; and they evacuated Bohemia, which they had occupied after Breitenfeld.

Wallenstein's new battalions came into line, and he took up a strong fortified position near Nuremberg, with 60,000 men; while Gustavus stood at the foot of the Alps, and his adherents wondered whether he meant to cross them, and to attack Catholicism in its centre. When the king knew that the imperial army had risen again, and threatened his communications on the road through Franconia, he hurried to measure swords with Wallenstein. He was heavily repulsed, and moved once more towards the Danube, expecting to be followed. He was still the dominating force in Germany, supported, if not trusted, by Lutheran and Calvinist alike. At that moment Gustavus committed a fatal mistake. If, as Oxenstiern advised, he had descended the valley of the Danube into the hereditary provinces, the Imperialists must have pursued him at a disadvantage, and could not have reached Vienna before him. But Gustavus turned westward, towards Suabia, and Wallenstein disregarded his movements. Gathering his forces, he threw them upon Saxony, which had refused to give up the Swedish alliance. The King of Sweden hastened to the rescue, while the Saxon army stood apart, waiting the event. Pappenheim had been detached, and the Swedes, in superior force, found a great opportunity before them. But Wallenstein sent an order in good time to his famous Lieutenant-divisionnaire, telling him to give up everything and join at once. That paper, which saved the empire, one of the most memorable autographs in the world, can still be seen, darkened with Pappenheim's blood, in the Museum of the Austrian army. He rode into battle at Lützen with eight regiments of horse, seeking Gustavus. They never met, for they were both killed, and as the king's charger flew in terror along the line, the empty saddle told his soldiers of their loss. It was an indecisive day, leaving the balance of forces nearly as they remained, until Moltke, in one pitched battle, succeeding where Gustavus, Turenne, Frederic, and even Napoleon failed, overthrew for ever the military power of Austria.

Neither the Duke of Weimar nor Oxenstiern enjoyed the personal ascendency of Gustavus Adolphus. The minister could not deal as he did with German princes, nor the German prince with German territory. The Swedish cause was very seriously weakened, and as the emperor gave up the idea of restitution, which was hopeless, and which had done so much to intensify animosities, and as Wallenstein commanded and Tilly was dead, it became possible to discuss terms of peace with the Saxons, who dreaded the moderated emperor less than the formidable Swedes. That situation gives the basis of the tragedy that followed. Wallenstein enjoyed undivided command. If the enemy accepted his proposals, he thought himself strong enough to compel their acceptance at Vienna. He opened two negotiations, one with the Saxons, to get rid of the Swedes, the other with the Swedes themselves. The latter was promoted by his friends, the Bohemian exiles; but Oxenstiern was reluctant, and required that Wallenstein should declare against his master. If he would do that, he should have the crown of Bohemia. Wallenstein refused, and the matter was allowed to drop.

The scheme which he proposed to the Saxons and Brandenburgers was the restoration of peace on the principles of religious liberty; the control of belief by Government abolished; everything rescinded which had been done since 1618 in contradiction with this principle; the departure of the Swedes to be purchased by an indemnity. These are the main ideas. They were reasonable conditions of a lasting peace, and would have saved many years of useless war, and prevented the ruin of Germany. Wallenstein designed that the emperor should be compelled to submit, if necessary, by a display of force. What Ferdinand wished for beyond this, what he had striven for all along, the Catholic domination, was hopeless. And if not hopeless, it was a thing not to be desired, and not worthy of the cruel sacrifice of continued warfare. It was the interest of Spaniard, Bavarian, and clergy to frustrate Wallenstein's scheme. They represented that he was a traitor, that he was plotting with the enemies of the empire, that he crowded his camp with Protestants, that he wanted to be king, and compassed the death of his master. Some of it was plausibly near the truth; and their suspicions were confirmed when the Duke of Weimar took Ratisbon. The Elector of Bavaria had sent full warning; the Aulic Council had sent positive orders. But Wallenstein refused to move.

Fearing that he might be deposed before he could execute what he had long meditated, he summoned his colonels to Pilsen, and threatened to resign. They pledged themselves to stand by him. The clause, saving their duty to the emperor, was struck out of the declaration by him. He still hoped to succeed. But Ferdinand issued orders that he should be no longer obeyed; and these orders, proclaimed at Prague to sound of drum, were accepted by the army. A successor was appointed; Piccolomini, the real victor at Lützen, was made field-marshal; and the officers were drawn away by the prospect of the impending confiscations. They amounted, eventually, to fourteen millions of florins. The Spanish envoy, Oñate, at last sent word in Ferdinand's name that Wallenstein should be mastered, alive or dead. Wallenstein understood that he was in danger, and begged Weimar to come to his assistance with cavalry.

He started from Pilsen, with the remnant of his troops, to meet Weimar at Eger, where two Scotch Presbyterians were in command, who inspired confidence. But on the way he met the Irish regiment of dragoons, with their colonel, Butler, and required them to accompany him. They were going to Prague, to join his enemies, and were the authors of his death. Butler persuaded the two Scotsmen, Lesley and Gordon, and the few officers, known to be Wallenstein's immediate friends, were invited to a banquet in the castle of Eger, and there cut down. When the Countess Kinsky, who was the wife of one of them, learnt her husband's death, she had the presence of mind instantly to destroy his papers, and the secret of Wallenstein's treason was lost in that conflagration. Devereux, one of Butler's captains, went with a handful of men to the general's quarters and despatched him. The deed was approved by the emperor, and the murderers were rewarded. This is the dramatic end of the struggle, so far as it was caused by genuine problems of Church and State.

A war of aggression and desolation ensued, and lasted many years, without higher significance. When the Imperialists had gained another victory at Nördlingen, Lutheran Saxony made its peace, at Prague, in 1635.

Then Richelieu took up the conflict, to carry on his feud with both branches of the House of Habsburg, and the empire sank lower and lower, German princes and generals betraying their country to the national enemy. In 1643, when Richelieu was dead, a chance of peace began. Five years later it was concluded for Germany, at Münster and Osnabrück, not for Spain. The Empire lost much in population and territory, which were taken by France; still more in authority, which fell from the emperor's hands into the hands of the several princes, now virtually sovereign and subject to no control. The peace of Westphalia gave no accession to the Protestant interest.

In extension, the Protestants lost by the Thirty Years' War. They lost one-half of the Palatinate, incorporated in Bavaria; and they submitted to exclusion from the Austrian dominions, all but Silesia. Calvinists were now admitted to equal rights with the rest. Protestants and Catholics recovered what they had possessed in 1624. Therefore the cause of the insurgent Bohemians was abandoned, and the men who were thrown out of the window triumphed in the end. Concerning liberty of conscience not a word was said. The power of the interfering State was not shorn, but the idea that the division of Christendom might be healed by force passed away from the minds of men. It had taken thirty years of incessant bloodshed to extinguish the Counter-Reformation.