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The origins and effects of the thirty years war in the early 17th century

Europe, 1450 to 1789: The Thirty Years' War was one of the greatest and longest armed contests of the early modern period. Some historians have argued that it was a series of separate wars that happened to overlap in time and space rather than one coherent sequence of military campaigns in which a clearly defined set of issues was at stake throughout.

If one looks at the Thirty Years' War in a European context, there is some truth in this argument. However, in central Europein particular in the Holy Roman Empirethe military and political events of the thirty years between the defenestration of Prague in May 1618 and the signing of the Westphalian peace treaties in October 1648 formed one continuous conflict and were in fact already perceived as such by most contemporaries.

The crisis had a constitutional and political as well as a religious dimension. The emperor's prerogatives had never been clearly defined; a ruler who knew how to exploit his considerable informal powers of patronage could enjoy a great deal of authority, but a weak monarch could easily be reduced to a mere figurehead. This was very much Rudolf II 's ruled 1576—1612 fate during the last decade of his reign. The aging emperor, who was increasingly mentally unstable, was distrusted by both Catholics and Protestants.

Moreover, he had managed to antagonize his own family. The power vacuum created by the collapse of his authority enabled ambitious princes such as Maximilian I, the duke of Bavariaor Frederick Vthe elector palatine, to pursue their own agenda. Their attempts to exploit the simmering religious conflict in Germanywhich found its expression in the foundation of the Protestant Union, led by the Palatinate, in 1608 and the Catholic League Ligaled by Bavaria, in 1609, were bound to undermine peace and stability.

Germany had in the past been largely spared the horrors of religious warfare, thanks to the Religious Peace of Augsburg 1555. However, many problems had been left unresolved in 1555, such as the status of the ecclesiastical principalities that were ruled by Protestant the origins and effects of the thirty years war in the early 17th century, and of ecclesiastical property confiscated and secularized after 1555. The status of the Calvinists, who almost all Catholics and many Lutherans wanted to exclude from the benefits of the peace settlement as heretics, was also controversial.

Initially the Imperial Chamber Court Reichskammergericht —one of the two highest law courts in Germany—had managed to settle disputes between the religious antagonists, but from the 1580s onward it became increasingly paralyzed, and the Imperial Diet Reichstag equally failed to provide a forum for compromise. The confessionalization of politics, culture, and society in the later sixteenth century had in fact created a climate of all-pervasive distrust that made such a compromise almost impossible.

The enthusiastic adherents of both Counter-Reformation Catholicism and the eschatological worldview that most Calvinists and some Lutherans subscribed to saw the outbreak of armed conflict in the long run as both inevitable and even to some extent desirable. However, whereas such mental attitudes were an important ingredient in the generally belligerent atmosphere that formed a crucial precondition for the outbreak of hostilities, their more immediate cause was the confrontation between the emperor and the Estates of Bohemia and its neighboring principalities, in particular Moravia and Upper Austria.

Whereas Emperor Matthias ruled 1612—1619 and his advisers wanted to recover the ground that had been lost by the Catholic Church and the ruling dynasty alike in the preceding years of domestic crisis, the Protestant opposition emphasized the elective character of the monarchy in Bohemia and its subjection to the control of the Estates.

They vigorously defended the privileges of the Protestant Church that had been confirmed and extended during the last years of Rudolf II 's reign. Reacting to the relentless Counter-Reformation offensive, which had, by a combination of missionary activity, generous imperial patronage for converts, and brute force already been successful in StyriaCarinthia, and elsewhere, they decided to kill the emperor's governors in Prague in the spring of 1618 by throwing them out of the windows of the imperial palace during a meeting of the Estates.

The governors miraculously survived this defenestration, but armed conflict had now become unavoidable. Soon both sides tried to find allies both in Germany and in Europe.

In Spain the fall of the duke of Lerma as royal favorite in 1618 marked the victory of those factions at court that favored a more assertive and warlike policy in central Europe, whereas at the same time in the Netherlands the adherents of rigid Calvinism and of an aggressively anti-Spanish policy gained the upper hand in 1618—1619 during and after the Synod of Dort Dordrecht.

Thus a renewal of the twelve-year truce between Spain and the Netherlands that had been signed in 1609 became unlikely at the very moment when the Bohemian Estates rose against the Habsburgs.

A war in Bohemia and Germany was therefore bound to become part of a wider European the origins and effects of the thirty years war in the early 17th century sooner or later. However, Frederick's rule was short lived. In November 1620 his army suffered a crushing defeat in the Battle of the White Mountain near Prague against the emperor's army, which had been reinforced by troops from the Bavarian-led Catholic League and by Spanish regiments. Whereas the Catholic League had decided to support Ferdinand, the Protestant Union preferred to stay neutral and was soon dissolved.

In fact, some Protestant rulers, in particular John George of Saxony, openly supported the emperor. The fact that Ferdinand had managed to have himself elected emperor in the summer of 1619 gave him an authority that few German rulers dared to challenge openly for the time being.

The next years were marked by an almost unbroken series of Catholic victories in central Europe. The Palatinate was occupied by Bavarian and Spanish troops in 1622, the palatine electoral dignity was transferred to Maximilian of Bavaria, and the army of the Catholic League led by Count Johann Tserclaes of Tilly threatened to dismantle the remaining Protestant strongholds in northern Germany.

The troops of the Dutch Republic were too busy defending their own country to intervene in Germany. However, King Christian IV of Denmarkwho was also, as duke of Holstein, a prince of the empire and who hoped to acquire various prince-bishoprics in northern Germany for members of his family, decided to stop Tilly's advance in 1625.

Hoping for financial and military support from the Netherlands and England —Charles I of England was the exiled elector palatine's brother-in-law—he mobilized the Imperial Circle Reichskreis of Lower Saxony for the Protestant cause. However, he had not anticipated that the emperor would raise an army of his own counting initially 30,000 soldiers and growing fastcommanded by Albrecht von Wallenstein, a Bohemian nobleman and the greatest military entrepreneur of his age.

Christian's troops were routed at Lutter am Barenberge 1626. Christian's ally Charles I of England was equally unsuccessful in his fight at sea against Spain, and Francewhich might have given support to the opponents of the Habsburgs, was paralyzed by a Protestant revolt during the years 1625—1628, in which England became involved in 1627. Thus Ferdinand II was able to crush his enemies.

However, Ferdinand failed to exploit his success adequately. His allies in Germany, in particular Maximilian of Bavaria, were, in fact, increasingly apprehensive about the predominance of Habsburg power and the close cooperation between Ferdinand II and Spain. Moreover, they resented the arrogant and ruthless behavior of Ferdinand's commander-in-chief, Wallenstein, who had imposed enormous financial burdens on friend and foe alike, raising contributions for his 100,000-man army almost everywhere in Germany.

Wallenstein had to resign in 1630 under pressure from Maximilian of Bavaria and other princes. The potential consequences for Protestantism were disastrous.

Protestantism was not outlawed but was likely to be reduced to the status of a barely tolerated and marginalized religious community in Germany. France was now free to intervene in central Europe. Here they defied Spanish attempts to occupy the Duchy of Mantua after the main line of the native dynasty, the Gonzaga, had died out in 1628.

Causes of the Thirty Years’ War

The emperor had sent troops to northern Italy to help Spain, but withdrew these troops in late 1630. Sweden felt threatened by plans to build an imperial fleet in the Baltic and by Habsburg support for its old enemy Poland. Moreover, the fight for Protestantism was an essential part of the claim to legitimacy of the Swedish dynasty, the Vasas, which had won the crown in the 1590s by ousting the older, Catholic branch of the family, which continued to rule in Poland. The Edict of Restitution had antagonized even those Protestants who had preferred to stay neutral or had in fact supported the emperor for most of the 1620s.

Their last doubts were dispelled when Magdeburg, a town of great symbolic importance to Protestants it had resisted a long siege by Catholic armies in the late 1540s was besieged by Tilly, taken by assault, sacked, and set on fire in May 1631.

Thirty Years' War

Brandenburg and Saxony now joined the king of Sweden in the fight against the Catholic forces. Having lost the battle of Breitenfeld in Saxony in September 1631, Tilly retreated to southern Germany and was decisively beaten at Rain am Lech in April 1632. Even Munich was now briefly occupied by Swedish troops, and an army from Saxony evicted the imperial garrisons from Silesia and Bohemia.

In despair Ferdinand II decided to recall Wallenstein to reorganize his army. Sweden, however, maintained its superiority for a further two years. In February Wallenstein, who was reluctant to cooperate with Spain and was suspected of treasonous dealings with the enemy, was assassinated in Eger on the emperor's orders. Ferdinand II did not repeat the mistakes he had made in 1629 by pursuing an Ultra-Catholic policy.

Instead he reached a compromise with the moderate and essentially loyal Lutherans led by Saxony. The Peace of Prague 1635 did not revoke the Edict of Restitution, but suspended it for forty years. The position of Protestantism in northern and eastern Germany was now reasonably safe once more. In constitutional terms the emperor's authority had been considerably strengthened. He was now officially commander-in-chief of all armed forces in the empire.

The Catholic League was dissolved, and only Saxony and Bavaria continued, with the emperor's permission, to maintain armies, which remained semi-independent. This change in the constitutional balance, however, was silently resented by many German princes and duly revised in 1648.

In any case the Peace of Prague was deficient because it had failed to make provision for buying off the Swedes, who still maintained troops in many parts of Germany—in particular in the north—with territorial or financial concessions. In fact, the settlement of 1635 proved abortive, as it was rejected by both Sweden and France.


With the emperor's own declaration of war on France in March 1636, the war in Germany had, it seemed, finally fused with the all-European conflict between Spain and its enemies, which had already decisively influenced events in the empire in the past.

Spain suffered important naval defeats against the Dutch off the English coast in 1639 Battle of the Downs and near Recife in Brazil in 1640. Moreover, in 1640 both Catalonia and Portugal revolted against Castilian rule in an attempt to shake off the fiscal and political burden imposed on them by warfare. Spain did not recognize Portugal's independence until 1668 and managed to reconquer Catalonia in the 1650s.

Nevertheless, it was no longer able to launch major offensive operations in central Europe. Emperor Ferdinand III ruled 1637—1657reluctantly supported by the majority of the German princes, was now virtually on his own in his fight against both France which had committed a major army to operations in southern Germany and Sweden. Nevertheless, the war dragged on for another eight years. The logistics of warfare in a country that had been utterly devastated by continuous fighting and lacked the most essential provisions proved a major obstacle to large-scale offensive operations.

For this reason, victories won in battles could rarely be fully exploited. Moreover, a war between Denmark and Sweden 1643—1645 gave the emperor's army time to recover after the devastating defeat it had suffered in the second battle of Breitenfeld in November 1642. However, in March 1645 the Swedes beat the imperial army decisively at Jankov in Bohemia.

Although Ferdinand III was able to buy off Sweden's ally Transylvaniawhich had once more, as in the 1620s, intervened in the war supported halfheartedly by the sultanby territorial and religious concessions in Hungaryhe was now forced to come to terms with his opponents. His allies in Germany became increasingly restless and either withdrew from active participation in warfare altogether or insisted on ending the war.

Against his wishes, the German princes and Estates were allowed to participate in the peace conference, sending their own envoys to Westphalia.

  1. With religious and political tensions in the latter regions remaining high, fighting continued.
  2. The following year, in 1619, Emperor Matthias passed away and things began to complicate.
  3. Spain initially had a fairly sophisticated state-controlled system of organizing and financing warfare, but gradually more and more responsibilities such as the recruitment of soldiers were delegated to local magnates and urban corporations, and thereby decentralized. The confessionalization of politics, culture, and society in the later sixteenth century had in fact created a climate of all-pervasive distrust that made such a compromise almost impossible.
  4. In 1640, the Portuguese began to revolt against their Spanish rulers, thereby weakening their military efforts on behalf of the Holy Roman Empire. The position of Protestantism in northern and eastern Germany was now reasonably safe once more.

Partly because Ferdinand hesitated to abandon his old ally Spain, it was nevertheless three years before a settlement was reached. Peace between France and Spain proved elusive.

The treaties, known as the Peace of Westphaliatherefore failed to provide the basis for a truly European peace. The complicated legal arrangements that dealt with the various constitutional and religious problems of the Holy Roman Empireon the other hand, proved remarkably long-lasting and stable, being invoked right up to the end of the empire in 1806. Some countries such as Sweden nevertheless managed to finance their armies for long periods of time primarily out of contributions raised in areas under military occupation.

Others tried, with limited success, to rely on taxation. France, for example, managed to double its income from domestic revenues in the 1630s and early 1640s. However, the enormous fiscal pressure provoked a series of popular revolts in France that prevented further increases in taxation and finally led to bankruptcy and civil war in 1648—1652.

Most participants in the war entrusted the raising and maintaining of troops at least to some extent to military entrepreneurs who had their own sources of income and credit, thereby complementing the insufficient resources of the state. These entrepreneurs hoped to recoup their investments and to make a profit by extorting payments, not to mention downright plunder and confiscation, from occupied provinces. The hardship this involved for the civilian population was considerable.

France, however, which was reluctant to rely on military entrepreneurs because of the dangerous domestic implications of such a system, was hardly more successful in asking noblemen to pay for the units under their command partly out of their own pockets without giving them, in compensation, full legal ownership of their regiments.

Spain initially had a fairly sophisticated state-controlled system of organizing and financing warfare, but gradually more and more responsibilities such as the recruitment of soldiers were delegated to local magnates and urban corporations, and thereby decentralized. This phenomenon may be seen as a wider-ranging process of administrative refeudalization, as some historians have argued.

The often chaotic way the origins and effects of the thirty years war in the early 17th century which armies were recruited and financed was at least in part responsible for the widespread lack of discipline among soldiers often remarked upon by contemporaries.