The Thirty Years War
When people talk about the wars that have occurred in Europe, most often they are referring to World War II, sometimes to World War I, and rarely to the Napoleonic Wars. What many forget, however, is that there was another war that saw widespread devastation in Europe. And it started in 1618.
Labeled the 30 Years Wars, on account that it was finally settled in 1648, in many ways this war would set the stage for the emergence of the modern world we live in today. But that is an article for another time. Today I will simply be introducing you to the war itself, that you might understand why one battle, and the King that won it, are so important to history. In reading this article you might perhaps even see why it is worthy of remembrance some 388 years later.
The 30 Years War was a conflict that ravaged the Holy Roman Empire for thirty years, directly contributing to the deaths of some 8 million people, and saw the population of what is now Germany reduced by 20–50% in most areas. Indeed, it was not until World War II in 1945 that a similar level of death and destruction were to occur.
Initially it was a war that resulted from a struggle between the different Protestant and Catholic states that composed the Holy Roman Empire (HRE). The Protestants fought for the right of religious expression after the new Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand II, attempted to impose Roman Catholicism on the entirity of the HRE. Over time this evolve into a dynastic struggle between the French and the Habsburg dynasty for political control over Europe. The war itself would really spill over into the rest of Europe upon the intervention of the Swedish under King Gustavus Adolphus in 1630.
King Gustavus Adolphus
Ascending to the Swedish throne at the tender age of 16 in 1611, Gustavus Adolphus inherited not one, not two, but three ongoing wars from his father. Barely did he rise to power before he had to find a way to end the border conflicts with Russia and with Denmark, while also ending the conflict with King Sigismund III Vase of Poland, who happened to be his second cousin.
Called “The Golden King” and “The Lion in the North,” King Adophus has been praised as a man with great personal charisma and one of the greatest military commanders of all time, particularly due to his effective use of combined arms. Not only was he an effective commander, he believed that any army should operate with great discipline and respect to high moral standards, such as no looting, raping, or torture. As such, he fielded a national standing army at a period in time when most of Europes leaders relied on mercenary forces. He was not only a great military strategist, however. It was through his efforts alongside his Lord High Chancellor, Count Axel Oxenstierna, that the administrative structure of Sweden becomes more modernized, and saw the implementation of parish registration in order to more efficiently tax and conscript people for military service. Ultimately it was through these kinds of efforts that Sweden emerged as a great power in Europe. That being said, his role in the 30 Year’s War, especially at the Battle of Breitenfeld, is perhaps what he is most known for outside of his native country of Sweden.
1631: The Battle of Breitenfeld
By 1630, the Protestant Princes were having a rough time against the Catholic forces arrayed against them. Even when Gustavus Adolphus landed in Peenemünde with a force of 13,000, many of the Protestant Princes showed little interest in attaching themselves to the Swedes, and the Catholic forces largely saw him as a minor annoyance.
Things changed once the sack of Magdeburg by Imperial mercenaries occurred, at which point the Swedes began producing broadsides and pamphlets to send throughout Europe, presenting the Holy Roman Emperor as not caring about his Protestant subjects. With this propaganda building momentum for his cause, King Gustavus Adolphus eventually marched with more than 23,000 to Saxony to confront the Imperial Army of Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly. A giant of warfare, the Count of Tilly had an unmatched list of important victories over Protestant forces, including the battles at White Mountain, Wimpfen, Höchst, Stadtlohn, and his conquest of the Palatinate.
Initially neutral, due to largely being spared from the predations of the war to this point, Elector John George I of Saxony denied the Count of Tilly access to his lands to march north to confront The Golden King. Unfortunately since Saxony was the shortest distance between the two forces the Count of Tilly ended up invading, which resulted in pushing John George I into combining forces with King Gustavus Adolphus against the Catholic invaders.
Arriving outside Breitenfeld, the Protestant Coalition ended up numbering about 42,000 to the 35,000 of the Imperial Army. Though the Swedes and their allies had advantages in numbers, a significant portion was composed of untrained levies. Overall the forces were roughly evenly matched.
The battle itself started in the middle of the day on September 17, and would go on to last six hours. Following a two hour exchange of artillery, during which the Swedes fired between three and five times more often than their Imperial counterparts, the Black Cuirassiers led by Pappenheim charged against the Swedish right. Six times they charged but ultimately they were not able to rout the line. After a seventh charge, Pappenheim’s forces were forced to retreat from the field in the face of a sally by General Banér’s forces.
The Count of Tilly’s remaining cavalry routed the Saxon cavalry, at which point the Imperial infantry marched at an angle to engage the remaining Saxon forces. Ultimately the entire Saxon force was routed, leaving the left flank of the Swedish forces dangerously exposed. Victory was almost at hand for the Imperial forces.
However, before the Imperial could dress their lines to charge en-masse at the Swedes, the commander of the Swedes left flank, a Marshal Gustav Horn, counter-attacked and the Imperial’s suffered the full might of Swedish firepower for the first time. With the Imperials stalled, the rest of the Swedish army pivoted themselves, moving to engage their flagging enemy. The final nail in the coffin was when King Gustavus Adolphus mustered General Banér’s cavalry to seize control of the Imperial artillery, which were quickly redirected against the Imperial infantry in a crossfire with the Swedish guns. Several hours later the Catholic forces finally shattered, fleeing as quickly as they could into the darkness of the coming sunset.
All told 13,600 Imperial forces were killed and captured, all the Imperial guns were seized, and 120 regimental flags were taken by King Gustavus Adolphus’ forces. Following this great victory, the Protestant Princes of the HRE began to take the Swedish invader seriously, leading to much more support of his cause. In the longer term, the flagging struggle against the Catholics was reinforced and steadied, with the result that The 30 Year’s War would go on to last another 17 years, even though The Lion in the North himself would die in battle at Lützen in 1632.
Where to See the Battlefield
Today the battlefied is bisected by the A14 autobahn, which cuts across the fields where the majority of the battles action occurred. That being said, in the eastern portion of the village of Breitenfeld stands a monument to Gustavus Adolphus and the victory he seized in 1631. To stand there in front of this work of stone is to feel the reverberations of the significance of the battle through hundreds of years. Thousands of men struggled on this field and died in one of the most important wars in European history, one that would have significant impacts on the future of the continent, and by extension the world itself. After this war the European wars of religion would largely end and the modern international system would itself be born.
The words on the monument are themselves very powerful:
Freedom of belief for the world,
saved at Breitenfeld,
Gustavus Adolphus, christian and hero.
For More Information
- The Royal Armory (Swedish: Livrustkammaren) is a museum in the Royal Palace in Stockholm, Sweden. Founded in 1628 by King Gustavus Adolphus, it is the oldest museum in Sweden. Presented here are many artifacts of Swedish military history and the Swedish royalty. You can even see the clothes that Gustavus Adolphus wore during his campaign in Poland. If you are considering a visit to Sweden, this is one stop that anyone who enjoys history, military history, or the history of royalty will not want to miss!
- The Bundeswehr Museum of Military History in Dresden, Germany. The museum itself is broken up into three periods (late Middle Ages to 1914; Age of the World Wars; 1945 to the present). While The 30 Year’s War is covered, there is a bit more focus on more recent wars, but all in all it is a very good museum worth the visit if you are on a trip to Germany.
- The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy: One of the most comprehensive examinations of the Thirty Years War that I have come across. Peter H. Wilson does a wonderful job in examining the conflict. Understanding this war is key to comprehending modern European history.
- Gustavus Adolphus: A History of the Art of War from Its Revival After the Middle Ages to the End of the Spanish Succession War: Written by Theodore Aryault Dodge, it provides an amazing account of the understudied military figure Gustavus Adolphus, while also providing keen insight into how warfare developed more generally from the end of the medieval period up to the beginning of the 18th century. He also takes time to examine the consequences of the invention of printing, the introduction of gunpowder into European warfare, and the Reformation itself.
- 1632 (Ring of Fire Series Book 1): An alternate history book series in which King Gustavus Adolphus plays a major role. Personally, I have enjoyed each and every new book that has been released in this series written by Eric Flint and his coauthors. Here is the blurb about the book from Amazon:
In the year 1632 in northern Germany a reasonable person might conclude that things couldn’t get much worse. There was no food. Disease was rampant. For over a decade religious war had ravaged the land and the people. Catholic and Protestant armies marched and countermarched across the northern plains, laying waste the cities and slaughtering everywhere. In many rural areas population plummeted toward zero. Only the aristocrats remained relatively unscathed; for the peasants, death was a mercy.
In the year 2000 Things are going OK in Grantville, West Virginia. The mines are working, the buck are plentiful (it’s deer season) and everybody attending the wedding of Mike Stearn’s sister (including the entire membership of the local chapter of the United Mine Workers of America, which Mike leads) is having a good time.
THEN, EVERYTHING CHANGED….
When the dust settles, Mike leads a small group of armed miners to find out what’s going on. Out past the edge of town Grantville’s asphalt road is cut, as with a sword. On the other side, a scene out of Hell; a man nailed to a farmhouse door, his wife and daughter Iying screaming in muck at the center of a ring of attentive men in steel vests. Faced with this, Mike and his friends don’t have to ask who to shoot. At that moment Freedom and Justice, American style, are introduced to the middle of The Thirty Years War.
This article contains some affiliate links to books that I recommend as references to The 30 Years War and the life of the Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus, as well as an amazing alternative history book series set in The 30 Years War. If you choose to purchase these books via my affiliate links, you will help support my writing and research at no additional cost to you.