Military history




The Bohemian Revolt 1618–20


The Bohemian Revolt was the first serious clash over the political and religious issues facing the Empire. Unlike the Jülich crisis, or the Donauwörth incident, it proved impossible to contain the violence which kept drawing in outsiders. The rapid internationalization of the conflict is deceptive. Europe was not poised for war in 1618, as all the major powers remained afflicted by their own problems. Therein lay the danger. With their rivals apparently preoccupied, each power felt safe to intervene in the Empire. Few intended their involvement to lead to a major war, and no one thought of a conflict lasting thirty years. The revolt is generally considered a discrete phase of the war, ending with the Bohemians’ defeat in 1620 and the shift of the conflict to the Rhine until 1624. There is some merit in this standard periodization that highlights what made each stage distinct, but the approach is also a product of German and Czech national perspectives. Events unfolded together, as the revolt exposed the emperor’s weakness and emboldened the elector Palatine to join the Bohemians.

An Aristocratic Conspiracy

Only with hindsight does the revolt seem obvious. Contemporaries were caught unprepared. To explain this, we need to return briefly to the situation in Bohemia after Rudolf II’s death in 1612. The revolt was not a popular uprising, but an aristocratic coup led by a minority of desperate militant Protestants. Though Matthias had confirmed the Bohemian and Silesian Letters of Majesty, Protestant institutions rested on insecure foundations. Their leaders sought to anchor these more firmly on the kingdom’s constitution by widening their share in foreign policy and control of the armed forces. Matthias and Klesl had countered by giving greater coherence to Rudolf’s existing policy of preferring Catholics in crown appointments, isolating the Protestants in their parallel institutions. Chief among these institutions was the committee of thirty ‘Defensors’ established in 1609 to uphold the constitution. This body lacked executive authority which remained in the hands of the ten Regents appointed by the Habsburgs. Elected by the Estates, the Defensors claimed to speak for the country, yet the Estates were split between a Catholic minority that regarded the Defensors with suspicion and a Protestant majority itself divided by confession and political opinion. Since the Catholic crown appointees were also Bohemians, ‘they were immune from the allegation of being alien stooges of the dynasty’.1 Politics polarized along confessional lines, since religion was the only ground on which to attack royal policy.

Matthias believed the Bohemian Letter of Majesty had been unfairly extorted from his brother and felt obliged to respect only its formal provisions. Some crown land was transferred to the Catholic church to reduce the area covered by the grant of toleration. Crown peasants were prevented from attending church services on neighbouring private estates, and in 1614 Protestant worship was banned in two German-speaking towns in north-east Bohemia on the grounds that Braunau (Broumov) fell under the jurisdiction of the Catholic Brevnov abbey, while Klostergrab (Hroby) was under that of the archbishop of Prague. Ferdinand confirmed these measures when he became king of Bohemia three years later. They suited his legalistic approach and were technically correct, but their implementation by Archbishop Lohelius was deliberately provocative. Ferdinand compounded the mistake by arresting petitioners complaining that the archbishop’s agents had demolished Klostergrab church, and then ordering royal judges to supervise public funds in an effort to cut financial support to Protestant parishes.

These measures featured prominently in the rebels’ Apologia published after the Defenestration to justify their violent action.2 The rebels no doubt saw them as the thin end of the wedge, yet they were no worse than the usual Habsburg chicanery and, on their own, not sufficient to spark a full revolt. That lay in the Habsburgs’ failure to appreciate the level of dissatisfaction among the Protestant Bohemian aristocracy. This is unsurprising, given that the dynasty had got its way with minimal opposition: only two delegates at the 1617 diet opposed the accession of Ferdinand as king. Ferdinand had confirmed Protestant privileges and, in his mind, was still respecting these. The Habsburg court returned to Vienna, adding further distance at this critical juncture. Despite Rudolf’s aloofness, the Bohemians had grown used to having their king in their midst. Though the ten Regents included three Protestants, the others were known Catholic hardliners like Chancellor Lobkowitz, Jaroslav Martinitz and Vilém Slavata.

The opposition was led by Count Thurn, one of the two dissenting voices in 1617, who had subsequently been deprived of his post as castellan of Karlstadt and replaced by Martinitz. This simply reversed Rudolf’s act six years earlier when the job had been taken from Slavata to win Protestant support. Yet it was highly symbolic, because the castellan was in charge of the royal regalia and Ferdinand wanted to ensure these were not removed to crown a rival. Thurn was compensated with the post of senior feudal judge that paid considerably less and necessitated his resignation from the Defensors committee. The move was interpreted as a deliberate attempt to undermine the Protestant leadership that now rarely spoke to their Catholic counterparts in the kingdom’s formal administration.

The division deepened as Thurn’s allies among the Defensors summoned a special Protestant assembly in March 1618 to press their grievances over the perceived infringements of their rights. Many of the towns did not send representatives, but the leadership remained determined. In the absence of dissenting voices, it proved easy to convince those present that the entire Letter of Majesty was under threat. A petition was despatched to Emperor Matthias and the assembly agreed to reconvene on 21 May to discuss his reply. Klesl saw Thurn’s relative isolation as a chance to demonstrate royal resolve, writing a sharp reply forbidding the assembly from reconvening. While Klesl wielded the stick, Matthias offered the carrot, promising to return to Bohemia to discuss the situation. Klesl’s letter was delivered through the Regents as the crown’s local representatives.

Thurn seized on this to rally wider support, since it was easier to attack the Regents as ‘evil advisers’ than to openly defy either Ferdinand or Matthias. He persuaded the Defensors that Klesl’s prohibition breached the Letter of Majesty, and ensured pastors used the Sunday sermon to announce that the delegates would reconvene to debate the Catholics’ ‘secret tricks and practices’ that were undermining the unity of the kingdom. The assembly duly met on 21 May and though attendance by the nobles had improved, many burghers still stayed away. Undaunted, Thurn and his associates defied another, more conciliatory order from the Regents to disband, and whipped up passions by claiming the Regents intended to arrest them. It was time, Thurn declared on 22 May, to ‘throw them out of the window, as is customary’.3 This was a clear reference to the defenestration of 30 July 1419, when the Prague mayor and councillors had been murdered at the start of the Hussite insurrection. He met his closest supporters that evening in Albrecht Jan Smiřický’s house near the castle to coordinate the plot for the next day. It seems likely he planned to repeat the action of April 1609 when the Protestants had forced their way into the Hradschin and compelled Rudolf to grant the Letter of Majesty. This time, however, the conspirators were fully prepared to use violence to cut through the slow pace of negotiations and radicalize their supporters.

Summoned by Thurn, the city councillors joined the conspirators and other delegates early on 23 May and sang hymns to bolster their spirits. They were let into the Hradschin by pre-arrangement with the Catholic (!) captain, and went up the narrow staircase to the room where the Regents were meeting, but found only four of them, together with their secretary. The conspirators wanted to prove the Regents had been responsible for Klesl’s inflammatory letter and demanded they admit their guilt. Pinned against the wall, the first two denied responsibility and were bundled out of the room, leaving Slavata and Martinitz who had been the intended victims all along. Both thought they were simply going to be arrested. As it dawned on them that death was to be their fate, it was already too late, because Thurn’s seconds had whipped the meeker Defensors into a frenzy; however, it is likely that many in the room were still oblivious to what was planned. Certainly, Count Andreas Schlick had objected to Thurn’s plan, but it was difficult to see what was going on by the window. Once the two victims had disappeared headfirst, there was no going back and poor Fabricius was despatched after his masters.

Thurn had achieved his objective of radicalizing the situation, but the failure to kill the intended victims was an inauspicious beginning for the revolt. Protestant propagandists sought to mask the debacle by reporting the victims had landed in rubbish piled in the castle ditch – an interpretation that gained wide currency after its incorporation by Schiller into his history of the war.4 Martinitz had called on the Madonna’s protection as he fell. Seeing him stagger to his feet, Ulrich Kinsky, a leading Defenestrator at the window above, exclaimed ‘By God! His Maria has helped him!’5 This gave rise to the myth that the Virgin had unfurled her cloak under the falling men, encouraging the Catholic identification with her in battle-cries and columns to celebrate their victories. Cloaks probably played a part, but they were the victims’. It had been a cool morning and with typical Habsburg parsimony the room had been unheated, obliging the Regents to retain their thick cloaks and hats. With rather greater generosity, the dynasty ennobled Fabricius as ‘von Hohenfall’ (of the high fall).

The Rebel Leadership

The conspirators moved swiftly to convert their parallel institutions into an interim government. The Protestant assembly declared itself a diet on 25 May and elected twelve Directors from each of the three Estates of lords, knights and towns to replace the Regents and the functions of the Bohemian Chancellery. Otherwise royal administration was left intact, though Habsburg loyalists were replaced. For the moment the rebels refrained from deposing Ferdinand. Instead they simply ignored him by addressing their demands directly to Matthias, to whom they maintained a show of deference. The situation resembled the opening stage of the Dutch Revolt when the rebels had presented themselves as loyal patriots opposing a corrupt local government, not the king himself. The result was a lack of direction as moderates sought to steer the movement away from a clear breach with the Habsburgs.

No one of the stature of William of Orange emerged to provide inspiring leadership. The Directory was headed by Vilém Ruppa, a compromise candidate who was unable to reconcile the factions. Rivalry within the Bohemian barons prompted Thurn, the real leader, to spurn a directorship in favour of army command, with his friend Colonna von Fels as deputy. Concerned to prevent Thurn becoming too powerful, the Directors appointed Count Georg Friedrich of Hohenlohe as a kind of defence minister. Though Hohenlohe had been well-rewarded by the Habsburgs for his service in the Turkish War, his religion and kinship ties placed his family in the radical Protestant camp: his mother was a relation of Maurice of Nassau and his wife, Eva, came from the extensive Bohemian Waldstein family. Hohenlohe soon criticized Thurn and the other senior officers, and insisted on a share of the command in the field.6

Indecision was reflected in policy. The rebels’ manifesto hinted darkly at Jesuit plots against the Letter of Majesty. Thurn ordered their expulsion from Prague, but they were a very soft target as they were widely resented even by Catholics. A Catholic was appointed to the Directory, which initially refrained from confiscating church property. Indeed, it now proved impossible to push faith to the fore without opening a Pandora’s box concerning what constituted true religion in a country of many faiths. Constitutional issues played better to more moderate outsiders, most of whom believed the Defenestrators had broken the law. The Directory called up every tenth peasant and eighth burgher at the beginning of June, and diverted existing taxes away from the Habsburg treasury to fund a professional army. However, Thurn mustered only 4,000 mercenaries in June, a total that eventually rose to 12,000 by September, while the militia call-out proved a failure. These numbers were scarcely adequate to defend an area of nearly 50,000km2, let alone take the war to Vienna. Thurn opened offensive operations in late June, but talks continued, partly to gain time, but also to convince potential supporters that the fault lay with the Habsburgs.

The Habsburg Response

With Spanish support for his succession secured in the Oñate Treaty, Ferdinand had been biding his time until the sickly Matthias died. As the Bohemian crisis deepened, however, it appeared the entire monarchy might disintegrate before he could inherit it. Ferdinand became increasingly impatient with Klesl who had conceded virtually all the rebels’ earlier demands in the hope of defusing the situation quickly. But Thurn and his supporters had gone too far to accept these generous terms now and used Klesl’s condition that they lay down their arms as an excuse to reject his offer. Klesl had already resolved on using force by the middle of June, but it would take time to assemble a sufficient army.7

Ferdinand saw the cardinal rather than the lack of soldiers as the primary obstacle to decisive action. Even some moderates now felt Klesl was so discredited among the Protestants that his continued presence was inhibiting a compromise. A succession of plots since 1616 had failed to unseat him, and a bullet narrowly missed his head during the banquet celebrating Ferdinand’s coronation as king of Hungary on 1 July 1618. Fearing for the church’s reputation, the papal nuncio persuaded Archduke Maximilian to ensure he was removed by less dramatic means. Maximilian invited the cardinal to meet him, Ferdinand and Oñate at the Hofburg on 20 July. When Klesl arrived, he found the three already locked in discussion and was ushered into an antechamber by the archduke’s servant. There, he was seized by Colonel Dampierre and whisked away to Innsbruck. His cash and jewels worth 300,000 florins disappeared into the virtually empty imperial war chest. Bedridden, Matthias could do nothing. His loyal wife rounded on Ferdinand: ‘I see clearly that my husband is living too long for you: is this the thanks he gets for having given you two crowns?’8 Klesl was eventually put on trial in June 1619 and made the scapegoat for Habsburg failures, including the Letter of Majesty and the Uskok War. After the College of Cardinals ratified the guilty verdict, he was moved to Rome in 1622 under house arrest, until Ferdinand allowed him to return to Vienna three years later where he lived out his life in comfortable retirement.

Archduke Maximilian’s death on 2 November 1618 left just Matthias between Ferdinand and the imperial succession. The initiative nominally remained with Matthias, whose condition worsened notably after his wife’s death on 15 December, and he spent the last three months of his life worrying about astrology and looking at Rudolf’s vast collection of curios.

Within days of the Defenestration, the local Habsburg commander rushed all available men to Budweis and Krumau, securing the Linz–Prague road. Together with Pilsen, Krumau and Budweis remained the only loyal towns in the kingdom. Some men were withdrawn from the Military Frontier to reinforce the 1,000 soldiers retained by Ferdinand after the Uskok War, but even with additional recruits, there were only 14,200 available by 21 July in Lower Austria. Count Bucquoy, kept on retainer since 1614 after he had served with distinction in the Army of Flanders, arrived a month later to assume command, but Thurn had already repulsed Dampierre’s attempt to break through to the three towns from Lower Austria.9

The Scramble for Support

Both sides appealed for assistance. The Bohemians employed confessional and constitutional arguments, depending on their audience. This inconsistency also reflected deep divisions over objectives. Many saw military preparations as a means to force the Habsburgs to confirm the concessions already granted in 1608–9. Others wanted to go further, though few at this stage contemplated rejecting the dynasty entirely. The Habsburgs presented themselves as patient patriarchs confronted by wilful, rebellious children. As military operations began, the dynasty stressed their opponents’ radicalism, claiming they intended to establish a Swiss- or Dutch-style republic.10 There was no rush to back either side. Pope Paul V’s response in July was lukewarm and the first instalment of his subsidy did not reach Vienna until September. Paul remained convinced the Habsburgs were exaggerating the danger and that it would all be over by Christmas.

Spain was preoccupied with other matters and had not expected trouble in the Empire. The question of intervention became entangled in moves to oust the duke of Lerma, fracturing opinion. Lerma had recently been made a cardinal and wished to retire from court. He urged caution and even some of his critics believed involvement would distract Spain from the Mediterranean and allow Venice and Savoy to make more trouble. Others felt the country’s proper role was fighting the Ottomans, not heretics. Zúñiga was almost alone in arguing for intervention in June and July, but he managed to convince the Council of State that Spain’s deepest humiliations had been inflicted by Christians, not Muslims, and that the country should address these first to restore prestige. His argument was that if Austria lost Bohemia, and with it their vote in the imperial election, the electors might chose a member of another German dynasty as Matthias’s successor, to the detriment of the entire Habsburg family. Yet, Zúñiga had no desire to widen the war and rejected a call from Philipp von Sötern, bishop of Speyer, to revive Charles V’s Catholic front of 1546 and extinguish Protestantism in Germany. Intervention was simply to nip trouble in the bud, stabilize the Empire and stop its troubles complicating Spain’s position elsewhere. Spain sent money from July onwards, but much of this had already been promised to Ferdinand to disband his army after the Uskok War. Instead of paying the soldiers off, it was now used to rebuild his forces and by October Spain was maintaining around 3,000 soldiers, largely German.11

The Habsburgs also appealed to Protestants for support. Johann Georg of Saxony immediately summoned his militia to seal off the frontier with Bohemia. Having watched developments and listened to envoys from both sides, he concluded in August that the Bohemians were misrepresenting events as a religious struggle. Saxon policy remained one of defusing tension on the basis of the existing constitution and the elector invited all interested parties to join him in the Bohemian town of Eger for talks.12 The Union’s response was similarly disappointing for the Bohemians. News of the Defenestration caught its leadership completely unprepared. Frederick V and Anhalt were busy provoking a dispute with Bishop Sötern on the ground that his construction of a modern fortress at Udenheim on the Rhine represented an unacceptable threat. The Union leadership hoped the crisis would rally flagging support to renew the organization’s charter. Backed by Württemberg and Baden-Durlach, the Palatinate sent 5,200 militia and peasant pioneers to demolish Udenheim on 15 June. The coup backfired by alarming the other members of the Union, who now trusted the leadership even less.13 In an effort to retrieve the situation, Frederick sent his own offer to mediate that Matthias politely declined.14 The Union congress convened in October to discuss the situation. All bar three imperial cities accepted Anhalt’s argument that it was a religious issue, but undermined this by failing to vote for positive action. Anhalt continued to work behind the scenes to promote intervention, but realized England and other powers were unlikely to help unless the Bohemians could persuade the kingdom’s other provinces to join them.15

Moravia occupied a pivotal position. Though only around half the size of Bohemia, it lay between it and Lower Austria, Silesia and Hungary with relatively good access through Znaim over the mountains to Vienna. Lack of Moravian support had contributed to the defeat of the 1547 Bohemian rebellion. The senior figure in the Moravian Estates was Cardinal Dietrichstein, bishop of Olmütz, a Counter-Reformer whose loyalty to the Habsburgs was unsurprising. Less expected was the support of Karel Zierotin whose tireless efforts for peace had continued despite Habsburg ingratitude. As an adherent of the Bohemian Brethren, Zierotin enjoyed wide respect among the local Protestants, most of whom wanted to retain the existing balance between the crown and the Estates. Rebel sympathizers persuaded the Moravian diet to mobilize 3,000 men in August, but Zierotin and Dietrichstein ensured they remained in the province to maintain neutrality, while also granting transit to Habsburg forces. Protestants elsewhere hesitated to join the rebellion without the Moravians, while the Hungarians remained aloof.

The War Begins

Bucquoy decided to bypass Thurn’s army and head for Prague through Moravia, collecting Dampierre’s detachment on the way. Thurn abandoned his fruitless sieges of the three remaining Habsburg strongholds and entrenched at Cáslav to block Bucquoy’s way into the Elbe valley. Peasant guerrillas cut the Habsburg supply lines. Having destroyed 24 villages around Cáslav looking for food, Bucquoy retired south-west to be closer to Budweis in September. The military situation moved in Thurn’s favour as Count Mansfeld arrived to besiege Pilsen with over 2,000 Swiss mercenaries, retained after the fighting in Italy, who had been waiting in Ansbach. They were joined by 3,000 Silesians under the margrave of Jägerndorf, despatched in October after the radicals finally gained the upper hand in that province’s diet. Pilsen surrendered on 25 November and became Mansfeld’s primary base. Bucquoy and Dampierre fell back separately to Budweis and Krems respectively, having lost half their men to disease and desertion.

The relatively easy success encouraged Thurn to split his forces. Hohenlohe was left to besiege Bucquoy, while Thurn headed east to bully the Moravians, and Heinrich Schlick marched on Vienna. The division rendered these moves largely ineffective. Schlick reached Zwettl in Lower Austria on 25 November, but had only 4,000 men and they lacked winter clothing and could march no further. Numbers fell again over the winter, and by February 1619, only 8,000 remained in total in all three detachments. The Imperialists used the lull to regroup. Though the Upper Austrian Protestants barred access through their province, Mansfeld had failed to block the Golden Track across the southern Bohemian mountains from the Danube at Passau. The route was swiftly secured by the Habsburgs with blockhouses and used to feed reinforcements as they arrived along the river. A new cuirassier regiment of 1,300 Walloons, raised by Lieutenant-Colonel La Motte for Colonel Wallenstein, crossed to break through Hohenlohe’s crumbling blockade and reinforce Bucquoy.

With neither side able to gain a clear advantage, both consented to the Saxon-sponsored talks. Just as the envoys were assembling, news arrived of Matthias’s death on 20 March 1619. Habsburg Austria now passed to Ferdinand who was already king of Bohemia and Hungary. His position remained uncertain, however, until he had been accepted by his subjects through the formal homage of his Estates. The Upper Austrian radicals clung to the fiction that Matthais’s brother Archduke Albert, not his cousin Ferdinand, was their ruler, while they waited for the situation to improve. Ferdinand moved swiftly to seek his subjects’ approval, reluctantly confirming Bohemian privileges and offering an amnesty if the rebels laid down their arms. By rejecting this, the rebels committed themselves to open defiance, as they could no longer maintain the pretence they were opposing merely Ferdinand, not the entire dynasty.

There was no turning back. On 18 April the Directors authorized Thurn to invade Moravia. Having added 5,000 new militia to his 4,000 mercenaries, he crossed the frontier five days later, advancing on Znaim where the province’s Estates were still in session. Dampierre had only 2,000 men in Krems. He raced north, but was too late as Moravian neutrality was torn apart. One of the three Moravian regiments defected to the invaders. The foot regiment under Wallenstein also mutinied. Wallenstein killed their major, and marched with the reliable soldiers to Olmütz where he seized the Estates’ treasury, and then escaped south over the frontier.16 Ferdinand’s response seems surprising, but illustrates his legalistic view of politics. Arguing that Wallenstein had acted without orders from his employers, Ferdinand sent the troops home with the cash in the hopes of bolstering the loyalists under Cardinal Dietrichstein who were now negotiating with Thurn in Brünn. Thurn used Wallenstein’s action to discredit the cardinal, marching into his house and pointing to the window, suggesting that a similar fate to that of the unfortunate Prague Regents awaited him. Dietrichstein resigned his Estates’ functions, but Zierotin refused to endorse an alliance with the Bohemians. His opposition undermined Protestant unity and Thurn secured only a four-month truce. Dietrichstein took the opportunity to escape, disheartened at the Estates’ army that drank the contents of his wine cellar, worth 30,000 fl. His bodyguard held out in the episcopal castle of Nikolsburg until 3 February 1620.17

The ‘Stormy Petition’

Thurn gambled on attacking Vienna to persuade the Moravians and others to commit themselves, crossing the frontier at Znaim with 10,000 men at the end of May. The last remaining Protestant on the Vienna city council was poised with a group of conspirators to seize control once Thurn breached the city’s defences. A local noble had collected boats at Fischermend east of the city, enabling Thurn to cross the Danube and drive off the few Hungarian light cavalry screening the capital. The inhabitants fled the suburbs as Thurn reached the village of St Marx, just outside the city to the south on 5 June, where he waited for a signal from the conspirators inside.18

Thurn’s advance forced the Lower Austrians to take sides. The Protestants had stormed out of a diet summoned by Ferdinand the previous month, but had reconvened on 4 June. They were emboldened to walk out again at 10 a.m. the next morning and march into the Hofburg palace to see Ferdinand himself. Legend has it that one grabbed Ferdinand in an attempt to force him to grant their demands. He took shelter in the castle chapel where, clutching a crucifix, he prayed for deliverance. At that moment, five companies of Dampierre’s new arquebusier regiment clattered into the courtyard dispersing the protesters. In fact, Ferdinand had summoned the Protestant deputies himself to facilitate reconciliation with their Catholic colleagues. They indeed left after Dampierre’s arrival, but returned that afternoon for further talks when Ferdinand apologized for the cavalry’s sudden appearance. The arrival of the 400 horsemen nonetheless boosted Ferdinand’s morale. The unit, surviving until 1918 as dragoon regiment number 8, received the unique privilege of being allowed to enter the Hofburg with its own band playing, while the crucifix Ferdinand had held is still preserved in the chapel.

Other reinforcements, together with mobilized students, brought the defenders up to 5,000. Some held the Prater islands, while four gunboats crewed by haiduks threatened Thurn’s communications across the river. Without siege artillery, and with no signal from the city’s fifth column, Thurn retreated northwards on 12 June. As soon as he had gone, Archduke Leopold supervised a house-to-house search, rounding up subversives and seizing weapons. The episode convinced the Lower Austrian Catholics to ignore their doubts about Ferdinand and accept him as ruler. The Protestant nobles had been exposed as conspirators and fled to the small fortified town of Horn, where they established their own Directory and began levying troops on their estates.

The rebels’ failure before Vienna was compounded by a reverse in Bohemia in the war’s first pitched battle. Receiving word that Mansfeld had abandoned his attempt to cut the Golden Track and was moving with 3,000 troops to join Hohenlohe, Bucquoy led a sortie of about 5,000 men to intercept him. Mansfeld blundered into the trap at Netolitz on 10 June, and fell back to Záblati where he barricaded himself in the outskirts of the town and appealed for Hohenlohe to join him. Having sealed off the possible escape routes to the north, and driven in Mansfeld’s outposts, Bucquoy set fire to the town which largely consisted of wooden houses with thatched roofs. The fire spread rapidly, igniting an ammunition dump. Most of Mansfeld’s troops were cut down by the imperial cavalry as they tried to escape. As an outlaw since February 1619, Mansfeld could not afford to be taken, and managed to cut his way through with fifteen followers. With his typical bad luck, the Bohemian garrison of Moldautein mistook him for an imperial officer and opened fire, before finally letting him in. Around half his forces were cornered in a wood by Bucquoy’s men. Unpaid, they changed sides in return for a month’s pay. Though only 7km away, Hohenlohe failed to intervene and had to lift his blockade and rejoin Thurn as he retreated from Vienna. The feuding Bohemian commanders regrouped, still outnumbering Bucquoy whose troops now overran southern Bohemia. The war continued, but Bucquoy’s victory provided a timely boost as Ferdinand presented himself in Frankfurt for election as Matthias’s successor.


The Imperial Crown

Unlike the Brothers’ Quarrel, the dispute over the Habsburg succession was no longer confined to the dynasty. For Ferdinand, the Bohemian Revolt was a distraction from his primary goal of securing the imperial crown. He had written to the imperial Estates on 12 April 1619, stressing how the rebels had rejected his efforts to resolve matters peacefully.19 The improving military situation allowed him to set out for Frankfurt on 10 July where the electors were gathering. The election revealed the bankruptcy of Palatine policy. Frederick V’s failure to win Saxon support frustrated his hopes of using the election to bargain for concessions. Unable to find a viable alternative to Ferdinand, he was forced into the paradoxical position of proposing Duke Maximilian of Bavaria as a candidate. Plans to use Union troops to seize Frankfurt were aborted when the landgrave of Hessen-Kassel refused to cooperate. Rumours of a Protestant coup merely added to an already tense situation. The Frankfurt civic guard mistook the elector of Mainz’s bodyguard for an invasion force and opened fire. The Mainz troops retreated to avoid provocation, but the guards still killed the elector of Cologne’s courier as he tried to leave the city.20

Ferdinand was eventually able to enter to join the electors of Mainz, Cologne and Trier, while Saxony, Brandenburg and the Palatinate sent representatives. The Bohemians were not admitted, but the electors also ruled that Ferdinand could not exercise the Bohemian vote. Ferdinand did himself no favours, accidentally shooting the elector of Cologne’s page while out hunting during a break in the deliberations.21 Nonetheless he was the only candidate, and any discussion of alternatives was purely for form’s sake. As it became obvious he would be chosen, the Palatine representative gave his assent as well, fearing an objection would merely isolate his master still further.

The Bohemian Confederation

Ferdinand’s unanimous election as emperor on 28 August was offset by his opponents’ moves to deprive him of his existing Bohemian and Hungarian crowns. The five Bohemian provinces agreed a Confederation on 31 July 1619, a week after their representatives met in Prague. The Upper and Lower Austrian Protestant radicals joined as allies on 16 August in a special ceremony in the Hradschin.22 The 100 articles of confederation replaced government through the republican Directory with a mixed monarchy based on the Protestant institutions created under the Letter of Majesty. The Defensors were re-established as constitutional guardians and now extended to all provinces along with the religious privileges they were to uphold. Catholic spiritual jurisdiction over Protestants was abolished, and though Catholics could hold junior offices in the administration, they were expected to swear loyalty to the articles of confederation. The monarchy was confirmed as elective, but in a more significant move Bohemia accepted the right of the other four provinces of Moravia, Silesia, and Upper and Lower Lusatia to participate, merely retaining the deciding vote in the event of a tie. The Confederation represented an attempt to organize a state along aristocratic principles, similar to those guiding the Venetian Republic or the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Its true potential can never be known because it was born and destroyed in battle, but it is significant that, unlike the Dutch and Swiss systems, it failed to defeat the Habsburgs.

The Protestant Austrians remained allies, rather than full partners, because Tschernembl opposed membership, seeing cooperation simply as a means to force Ferdinand to grant local concessions. Since the majority of the Estates in both Austrian provinces refused to back even an alliance, support for the Bohemians ran solely through the radicals’ own ad hoc institutions.23 Many of the actual members felt coerced into the Confederation, notably the Moravians. The Silesians joined in return for special concessions intended to enhance their administrative autonomy, while Moravia was also given its own consistory and university. Some effort was made to establish central coordination, but each province retained its own diet and distinct laws.

The establishment of the Confederation prior to settling the matter of the Bohemian crown indicated the rebels’ determination to assert control over the monarchy. The assembled delegates formally ‘rejected’ Ferdinand as king on 19 August, claiming that the 1617 procedure had been unconstitutional and that he was never officially their monarch. Most hoped Johann Georg of Saxony would present himself as candidate, but he only entertained the idea to keep the Bohemians interested in his peace proposals.24 The second favourite was Bethlen Gábor who had emerged as prince of Transylvania after renewed unrest there in 1613.25 From the poor Calvinist Magyar nobility, Bethlen had been raised by his Szekler mother and educated in Germany. Some have accepted his claims that he sought a federation of east Central European provinces, but it is more likely he just aimed to demonstrate Transylvanian independence from both the Habsburgs and Ottomans. Habsburg diplomats convinced the sultan that Bethlen could not be trusted, removing the possibility he could attack Hungary with Ottoman support and weakening his influence in Prague. Carlo Emanuele of Savoy’s candidacy was even more improbable. Like Bethlen, he saw a royal title as a means of underpinning his country’s precarious independence, but he was even less choosy where he found it, having already offered to liberate Albania from the sultan if its inhabitants made him king. Though a Catholic, he had already demonstrated his anti-Habsburg credentials in the fighting in Italy and was believed to be very rich. He had helped fund Mansfeld’s expedition, but was compromised when this was discovered when Bucquoy captured documents at Záblati that incriminated him. Carlo Emanuele quickly back-pedalled, and by 1620 was offering Ferdinand 12,000 men if he was given a royal title. This left Frederick V as the only viable option and he was duly elected king of Bohemia by 144 votes on 26 August, his twenty-third birthday, though six delegates voted for Johann Georg despite his refusal to stand.26

A Fateful Decision

Naturally indecisive, Frederick was sufficiently intelligent to realize the enormity of the consequences of accepting this offer. His advisers spent the next month arguing what he should do. His mother and the native Palatine officials urged rejection since it would obviously lead to war; Anhalt and Camerarius, another influential outsider, advocated acceptance. There seems little reason to accept the old tale of a hen-pecked elector bullied by his ambitious English wife eager to be queen, but Elizabeth certainly encouraged false expectations that James I would provide support. James had renewed his alliance with the Union in January 1619, while the Dutch promised a modest subsidy for Bohemia the following month. Frederick found it hard to distinguish between the possible and the probable, mistaking vague expressions of goodwill for firm commitments. Another suggestion has been that Anhalt urged Frederick on because he had invested heavily in the Upper Palatine sheet-metal industry that was increasingly dependent on Bohemia for imports.27 It is, however, very unlikely this weighed heavily in the final decision, which combined a heady mix of long-standing dynastic ambitions with a conviction that God had summoned Frederick as his instrument on earth. Militants across the Palatinate, Silesia and Lusatia prophesied a golden age with Frederick as the ‘last emperor’ before the Day of Judgment. A truer guide to Palatine ambitions was the elector’s decision to name his fourth child, born in Prague on 17 December, Ruprecht. Better known in later British history as Prince Rupert of the Rhine, his name referred to the only emperor from the Palatine dynasty, who had ruled in the early fifteenth century. Dynastic ambitions were confirmed when the Palatinate Estates accepted his first son, Friedrich Heinrich, as his successor designate in April 1620. Frederick’s public explanation naturally omitted these objectives, and merely restated the complaints raised in the Defenestrators’ Apologia, along with the standard reference to the need to stabilize the Empire in view of the Ottoman menace.28

Entrusting Palatine government to Johann Casimir of Zweibrücken, Frederick left Heidelberg on Monday 7 October 1619 with the more gung-ho of his officials and a cavalcade of 153 wagons that included boxes of toys for his eldest son, as well as a coach with his heavily pregnant wife. A landslide en route almost removed the future Prince Rupert from history as a rock landed on Elizabeth’s lap. Anhalt joined them with 1,000 troops in the Upper Palatinate and, with no imperial troops able to bar their way, they entered Prague at the end of the month. The cheering crowds included 400 citizens dressed as Hussite revolutionaries. Just in case Frederick had not got the point, the commemorative medal struck for his coronation bore the inscription ‘King by the Grace of God and the Estates’.29

The Bohemian War Effort

The Bohemians expected their king to bring solid international support. They were bitterly disappointed. The Union congress met in September but, as the Strasbourg representative put it, could not decide whether ‘God means to punish us or reward us’ by Frederick’s election.30 They reconvened in November once it became obvious he had accepted, but were fearful of the experience of 1546–7 when the Schmalkaldic League had been crushed at the same time as a Bohemian rebellion. Only Ansbach and Baden backed Frederick, while Hessen-Kassel resigned in protest. The Union assembled troops but these were intended to deter Catholic reprisals. The Dutch allowed two regiments to be recruited from Britons and Germans serving in their army, but refused to become involved and in August 1620 even stopped their subsidy, which they had never delivered in full in any case. Protestant disunity was crassly revealed when Lutheran fundamentalists in Berlin provoked riots by claiming the British troops marching to assist the Bohemians were really intended to impose Calvinism on the Brandenburgers.

Worse, James declared himself ‘most afflicted’ that his son-in-law had failed to wait for his advice before accepting the crown. ‘England mystified contemporaries and, after them, the historians.’31 Matters are not helped by the controversy surrounding James himself. Complacent, pompous and escapist, James often contradicted himself, and yet sincerely sought peace by navigating the rival factions at home and abroad. The central plank of this policy was to find a suitable Catholic bride for his son Charles to counterbalance his own marriage to a Danish princess and his daughter’s match with Frederick V. Most Britons saw continental affairs in simplified, confessionalized terms and could not understand why their monarch was not rushing to help the oppressed Protestants in the Habsburg lands. They looked back nostalgically to the Elizabethan golden age, when Britons had vanquished the Armada and seemingly saved the Dutch and French Huguenots. Whereas disputes had then been about the means, not ends, there were now serious disagreements over national objectives. A small, but influential faction shared their king’s belief that their country’s proper role was as European arbiter, above the individual factions.

British mediation stood very little chance, however. The principal mission led by the earl of Doncaster exposed the basic problems that would frustrate all Stuart efforts to shape the war. The British were poorly informed and their ambassadors arrived too late. Doncaster’s departure was delayed by James falling ill and he did not set out until May 1619. The practice of lavish, old-style embassies – he travelled with 150 companions in an expedition costing £30,000 – further impeded progress. Above all, Britain had nothing to offer. The Habsburgs were interested only if James could restrain his son-in-law, which he obviously could not. They only entertained future embassies so as not to give fuel to the faction in London demanding full-scale military support for the ‘Protestant Cause’. Meanwhile, Frederick wanted men and money, not more advice, and could not understand why his father-in-law was not honouring his renewed commitment to the Protestant Union. James even refused a loan, though the Palatine envoy raised £64,000 in public subscriptions to recruit Sir Andrew Grey’s regiment of 2,500 Britons.32 James’s Danish in-laws remained aloof, while Gustavus Adolphus’s wife-hunting trip to Heidelberg in the spring of 1620 reinforced his convictions of German Protestant disunity (see Chapter 6, p.191). Europe joked that Frederick would be saved by the Danes who would send 1,000 pickled herrings, the Dutch would supply 10,000 boxes of butter, while James would despatch 100,000 ambassadors.33

With Palatine resources fully committed to defend its own exposed territory, Frederick looked to his new Bohemian subjects when he returned from the disappointing Union congress at the end of 1619. He set out on a royal progress through his new domains until this was cut short by military events in March 1620. His noble bearing and powers of public speaking ensured a warm reception, but his subjects were less impressed with his wife thanks to her daring French fashions and failure to learn German. Frederick’s view of Catholic rights was as narrow as Ferdinand’s of Protestant rights. Frederick claimed he would accept Catholics provided they remained loyal, but did little to stop local harassment. Chronic shortage of cash soon forced the seizure of Catholic estates and church property.34 Such actions did not worry the Bohemian rebels, but Frederick’s policy towards local Protestants soon caused concern. The new king and his entourage showed little understanding for the complexities of Bohemian Protestantism. The Calvinist court preacher, Abraham Scultetus, regarded the Utraquists as crypto-Catholic subversives. Ignoring his own failure during Brandenburg’s second Reformation, he launched an assault on all he held in contempt. His efforts to remove the religious statues from Prague’s Charles Bridge were thwarted by popular opposition, but Palatine Calvinists vented their iconoclastic fury on St Vitus Cathedral at Christmas 1619, removing or destroying priceless medieval art works, tearing down the great crucifix above the altar, poking through paintings, and breaking open saints’ tombs. The Bohemians were deeply offended, not so much for confessional reasons but because the Cathedral symbolized their distinct identity.

Such action reduced the general willingness to make sacrifices on Frederick’s behalf. The Bohemian Confederation relied on methods of military recruitment used during the Brothers’ Quarrel, with each province raising its own regiments and sending some or all to join the common army. The soldiers are often described in secondary accounts as militia, but were mainly mercenaries recruited by officers commissioned by the Estates. The Bohemians summoned a general levy of 30,000 subjects in September 1618, but only 10,500 assembled and they were sent home a month later. The experiment was repeated in March 1619, summoning 12,000 in the hope that by being more selective, the force would be more willing and effective. Feudal obligations were invoked to call out the nobility, even though the rebels lacked a king at that point. These militia soon dispersed, or were absorbed into the regular units. Moravia and Silesia later mobilized militia for their own defence, but otherwise also relied on professionals. Numbers fluctuated considerably, but Bohemia itself generally fielded around 12,000 men, Moravia and Silesia around 3,000 each, while Lusatia paid cash in lieu. The Upper and Lower Austrian Protestants only began mobilizing during 1619 and never completed their preparations, sending only a few thousand to the Confederate army. Foreign assistance was concentrated in Mansfeld’s army that operated separately in western Bohemia and was easier to reach from outside the country. This included the two British regiments and at least seven German, one Dutch and fourWalloon units, together totalling around 7,000 soldiers.35

The Confederates failed to match the Dutch, or later English and Scottish parliamentarians, who organized potent ‘new model’ armies to defeat their royalist opponents. Thurn and the other Bohemian commanders relied on their previous experience against the Turks, copying the organization and tactics of the imperial army. Dutch methods were advocated by the growing number of Protestant Germans and other volunteers and were eventually implemented when Anhalt assumed command in the spring of 1620.36However, many Bohemians opposed the changes and disagreements over organization added to those over command. The problems were partly structural, stemming from the system of separate contingents, each under its own general, answerable to the Estates that raised and paid for them. Major operations required extensive consultation, but the likelihood of agreement was also frustrated by the clash of personalities, notably among the Bohemians and between them and Anhalt and Mansfeld. Thurn was unable to balance his political and military roles, and favoured operations most obviously linked to furthering the rebellion. This necessitated relinquishing command in one area and travelling considerable distances to assume responsibility elsewhere, as at the end of 1618, when he left Hohenlohe in south-western Bohemia and went to deal with the Moravians. He repeated this in October 1619, again allowing Bucquoy to escape and regroup. In addition, operations were delayed for two months from March 1620 while the Confederates waited for Anhalt to arrive.

Paltry foreign support, combined with the leadership’s reluctance to abandon established practices, ensured the Confederation remained chronically underfunded. The Bohemians eventually agreed taxes twice the level of the previous (1615) grant, while the other provinces also added new levies, but even the official amounts were considerably short of what was required. Those of Moravia covered only 60 per cent of actual costs, even assuming it had been possible to collect all that was owed. The war, along with growing popular discontent, ensured substantial arrears. The Directors and individual nobles made substantial loans, or sold their estates to raise regiments, while Prague’s Jewish community was coerced into providing additional money and more came from property confiscated from Habsburg loyalists who had fled. However, the Directors decided against selling Rudolf’s art collection, because they did not think they could find a buyer, and it even proved difficult to sell the confiscated land, some of which was simply given away to settle some of the Confederation’s mounting debts. The poor response, together with the reluctance of creditors to advance loans, indicates widespread scepticism over the Confederation’s future.

The Hungarian Crown

The Bohemians increasingly looked to Bethlen Gábor to save them. The Transylvanian prince had his eyes set on the Hungarian crown, always a more realistic prospect than the Bohemian one. He wrote to the Bohemians on 18 August 1619, announcing he would soon join them in Moravia. This was a ploy to win their support, which would improve his position in negotiations with the Hungarians who were meeting in Pressburg. A wave of re-conversions among the leading Magyar nobles of the western and north-western counties since 1608 had given the Catholics a majority in the diet again. However, neither they nor the Protestants wanted to be drawn into the Bohemian conflict. Bethlen posed as mediator, winning backing from disaffected Upper Hungarian Protestant magnates, like György Rákóczi and Counts Szaniszló and Imre Thurzó. His envoy persuaded the Ottoman grand vizier, Mehmed Pasha, to sanction war against the Habsburgs and promise Turkish infantry as auxiliaries.

Bethlen’s intervention betrayed the problems that would bedevil all Transylvanian involvement in the war. He was convinced Frederick and the Bohemians were rich and would provide the subsidies he needed to keep his largely irregular cavalry army in the field and pay for the infantry and artillery required to take the Habsburg fortresses. For their part, Frederick and his advisers saw what they wanted: a man who claimed to have read the Bible 26 times had to be a crusader of the righteous against Habsburg Catholic tyranny. Bethlen had already demanded 400,000 talers and all of Inner Austria in June, but decided to start operations before Frederick agreed, since he needed a tangible success to convince the Bohemians and the sultan to back him. He left Cluj (Klausenburg) on 26 August with 35,000 men, while Rákóczi entered Kassa unopposed with 5,000 Upper Hungarians a week later. György Széchy and other Upper Hungarian supporters threatened Pressburg to disrupt the efforts of the loyalist Hungarian palatine, Sigismund Forgách, to organize resistance. The Upper Hungarian mining towns declared for Bethlen, but he delayed his own advance to convene a special assembly of supporters at Kassa who declared him ‘Protector of Hungary’ on 21 September, effectively deposing Forgách. Ferenc Rhédey was sent with over 12,000 horsemen across the Little Carpathians into Moravia, while Bethlen resumed his advance with the rest of his army towards Pressburg, destroying a Habsburg detachment sent to save it.

The situation looked dire for the Habsburgs. Garrisons along the Military Frontier declared for Bethlen, leaving only Komorn, Raab and Neutra loyal. Forgách could muster only 2,500 men in the field, while a mere 2,650 under Archduke Leopold held Vienna with a further 560 in Krems and the other Danube towns. Bucquoy and the main army of 17,770 was away around Tabor and Pisek in south-west Bohemia, with Dampierre and 8,600 along the Moravian frontier.37 The timing was significant. Ferdinand was still on his way back from his coronation in Frankfurt, while the Bohemians had just declared their Confederation and elected Frederick. Bucquoy was obliged to abandon his advance against Prague, leave 5,000 men to hold his current positions and race with the rest to save Vienna.

Panic again gripped the Lower Austrian population as Bethlen’s light cavalry crossed the Danube at Pressburg and swarmed across the area to the south during late October. Refugees crowded into the city, while the rich fled over the Alps. Bucquoy had joined Dampierre, but decided not to risk the emperor’s only army as it was outnumbered three to two by Hohenlohe, Thurn and Rhédey approaching from Moravia. He retreated across the Danube at Vienna, burning the bridge on 25 October. Though they controlled the entire north bank, the Confederates could not reach the city on the other side, and were obliged to march east to cross downstream at Pressburg. Bethlen used the lull to consolidate his position in Hungary. Having captured Forgách at Pressburg, he forced him to convene a diet on 18 November to start the process of deposing Ferdinand as king. The Confederates finally crossed the river on 21 November, and moved west again on the south side, defeating Bucquoy’s attempt to delay them at Bruck five days later. The Lower Austrian Protestants moved 3,000 men east towards Krems, cutting the Habsburg forces off from the other side.

For a third time within a year, the enemy was at the gates of Ferdinand’s capital. Undaunted, the emperor dodged snow, refugees and Transylvanian marauders to re-enter the city. Leopold had made careful preparations since the last attack, stockpiling enough food to feed the 20,000 soldiers and 75,000 civilians who were now inside the city. The besiegers again appeared without heavy artillery and Bucquoy had torched the surrounding countryside so that it could not now sustain the 42,000 troops ringing Vienna. Heavy rain worsened their plight, especially among the Bohemians who had gone months without pay. The promised Turkish auxiliaries had yet to appear. The mutual disillusionment between Bethlen and his allies added to tensions in the Confederate camp where disease halved their effective strength. The final straw was news on 27 November that Transylvania had been attacked. The siege was abandoned a week later, with all the contingents hurrying home except the Bohemians, who remained in Lower Austria.

Polish Intervention

The attack on Transylvania followed long Habsburg efforts to enlist Polish support. Poland was potentially a more important ally than Spain, and Sigismund III was as devout a Catholic as Philip III. Poland’s military power was to be demonstrated in 1621 when it was to raise an army of 45,000 backed by 40,000 Cossacks.38 More significantly, Poland bordered on Silesia and Hungary, placing it in a direct position to help, and it had signed a mutual assistance pact in 1613 promising aid against rebellions. As Emperor Ferdinand’s sister, the Polish queen naturally championed intervention, but the king remained undecided. His own ambitions remained firmly fixed on the Baltic and he was disappointed at his in-law’s lack of assistance when Sweden invaded Livonia in 1617–18. (Ferdinand would again fail to help against a second invasion in 1621.) Sigismund also had to consider his nobles who preferred raiding against their traditional targets, the Turks and Muscovites. However, the Russians had made peace in December 1618, widening Sigismund’s options.

Many Polish clergy were receptive to Habsburg arguments that the Protestant Bohemians posed a common threat. Sigismund had instructed his son Wladyslaw to decline a Bohemian invitation to stand in their royal election.39 As the situation worsened during 1619, Ferdinand held out inducements, including an offer to relinquish the bishopric of Breslau to Poland. Many Polish historians regard the Thirty Years War as a lost opportunity, arguing that Sigismund should have accepted this offer, or grabbed Silesia by playing the role later adopted by Sweden and joining the German Protestants.40 Sigismund had no such plans. Instead, he sought a way of satisfying the Polish pro-Habsburg lobby without committing himself to a long war that would distract from his primary objective of recovering Sweden. The leaders of the Sejm agreed, because limited intervention provided a way of removing the 30,000 unpaid Cossacks. These troops had been discharged after the recent war with Russia and their raiding across the southern frontier risked provoking a new conflict with the sultan. The Cossacks have entered history as the Lisowczycy, after their original commander, Aleksander Lisowczycy, a Lithuanian veteran who commanded a regiment in the Russian war. The Lisowczycy were the kind of cavalry that ‘God would not want and the Devil was afraid of’.41 Unlike the traditional Polish cavalry, they wore no body armour, relying on speed and fake retreats to lure opponents into traps. They were happy to be paid, but also fought for booty, deliberately terrorizing civilians into submission.

The Habsburg ambassador intended to recruit the Cossacks to reinforce the imperial army, but they were reluctant to serve too far from home in a land they considered full of impregnable fortresses where plunder would be hard to take. Plans were changed so that 4,000 Lisowczycy joined 3,000 other Cossacks recruited by György Homonnai, an Upper Hungarian magnate who was also a member of the Transylvanian Estates and a personal enemy of Bethlen, who he believed had cheated him in that country’s election of 1613. Having been driven into exile, Homonnai had already fostered two failed rebellions. He now struck across from his estates in Podolia at the end of October 1619. Bethlen had left Rákóczi with only 4,000 men in Transylvania, refusing to believe Homonnai posed a threat. The two armies met near Ztropka (Stropkow in modern Slovakia) on 22 November, where Rákóczi’s men were routed after they mistook the classic feigned retreat for the real thing.42

Homonnai’s attack fuelled an already volatile situation in east Central Europe. Despite the grand vizier’s promise, the Ottomans had hesitated to break their truce with the Habsburgs. Nonetheless, they regarded Bethlen as their client and did not want him driven from Transylvania, especially by the Poles who were already interfering in neighbouring Moldavia. Peace had just been concluded with Persia, allowing the sultan to send the Tartars, backed by Ottoman regulars, into Moldavia where they routed a Polish relief force at Cecora in October 1620. Sigismund sent a huge army the following year that entrenched at Chocim (Hotim) on the Dneister and managed to repel almost twice its number of Tartars and Turks. Fresh problems with Sweden forced Sigismund to agree peace later in 1621, restoring the pre-1619 situation, though Poland had to accept the sultan’s candidate as prince of Moldavia. This conflict was separate from the Thirty Years War, but nonetheless proved significant for the Empire in preventing Poland and the Ottomans from intervening.

The threat to Bethlen was already receding before he left his camp outside Vienna. He had arrested most of Homonnai’s supporters after the earlier rebellions. Finding few willing to support him, Homonnai was already in retreat by 2 December. With the wider situation remaining unclear, Bethlen was nonetheless forced to accept the mediation of the Hungarian diet, agreeing an eight-month truce with Ferdinand on 16 January 1620. Bethlen remained a threat to Ferdinand, but the immediate danger had passed.

Sigismund refused to allow the Lisowczycy back into Poland, and redirected them along the mountains into Silesia to join the imperial army. Five detachments totalling 19,000 fighters set out between January and July 1620, though some were intercepted by the Silesian militia. The steady reinforcement enabled Bucquoy to resume the offensive, launching three attacks from Krems in March, April and early June against Thurn’s Bohemians and Austrians entrenched around Langenlois to the north. The Silesians and Moravians returned, bringing the Confederate army up to 25,000 by May when Anhalt arrived to take command.43 They were joined by 8,000 Hungarian and Transylvanian cavalry sent by Bethlen who, despite Ferdinand’s generous terms, still distrusted the emperor and decided to re-enter the war. Bethlen and Frederick had already sent a joint delegation to Constantinople in March 1620 to seek Ottoman assistance for the revolt. Mehmed Aga reached Prague in July to deliver the sultan’s belated congratulations on Frederick’s coronation. He asked to see where the Defenestration had taken place and enthusiastically promised 60,000 Ottoman auxiliaries for Bohemia. Many in Prague were deeply uncomfortable with courting the Ottomans, yet the leadership was seduced by the fantastical scheme of a grand alliance smashing both Poland and the Habsburgs. Scultetus did a theological somersault to stress common ground between Calvinism and Islam, while Baron Tschernembl argued any means were justified provided they saved the true cause from the papists. Despite misgivings, Frederick wrote to the sultan on 12 July, making Bohemia a tributary state of the Ottoman empire in return for assistance.44 A delegation of a hundred Bohemians, Hungarians and Transylvanians set out for Constantinople with 70,000 fl. in bribes to seal the deal. Meanwhile, Frederick promised 300,000 fl. to Bethlen, even pawning his jewels to raise the first instalment.

With support growing, and having easily repulsed another attack by Homonnai in August 1620, Bethlen seized control of the diet at Neusohl in Upper Hungary. This had convened in May at Ferdinand’s request to broker peace among all Hungarians. Bethlen’s supporters declared the abolition of the clerical Estate and the confiscation of the property of all who opposed them. Ferdinand ordered the diet to disband on 13 August. Twelve days later, Bethlen’s supporters elected him king of Hungary. Throughout, the solidly Catholic Croatian diet (Sabor) rejected the Hungarians’ overtures and aligned itself with its Inner Austrian neighbours, still loyal to the Habsburgs.


The deteriorating situation throughout 1619 at least encouraged Ferdinand’s potential supporters to accept his appeals as serious. The Habsburg monarchy was at breaking point. Ferdinand found himself with 20 million florins of debts on his accession. Crown revenue was only 2.4 million, but much of this was now controlled by the rebel Estates whose taxes, worth 3 million fl. annually, he was also denied. The imperial army consumed 5 million fl. in pay, provisions and munitions in the ten months to June 1619, whereas revenue, forced loans and Spanish and papal subsidies provided just 3 million. When pay arrears and other liabilities were included, the military deficit reached 4.3 million fl., in addition to the monarchy’s existing debt.45

Ferdinand might struggle on with further expedients, while the Poles might yet eliminate Bethlen, but he could never defeat all his opponents without substantial additional help. From his imperial coronation he launched a concerted effort to secure this. Spain, France and the papacy were approached for cash and diplomatic assistance in deterring the Protestant Union from intervening, while Bavaria and Saxony were asked to provide direct military support.


Duke Maximilian saw his chance to achieve his long-cherished ambitions. He ignored Habsburg appeals for help throughout 1618 while quietly preparing to re-establish the Liga they had forced him to disband. Frightened by the Bohemian crisis, the former members welcomed the chance to strengthen their security. Maximilian was careful not to show his hand, allowing Mainz to take the lead in reviving the organization that was essentially active again from August 1619.46 Ferdinand’s visit to Munich in October on his way back from Frankfurt and his election enabled Maximilian to move to stage two, seeking not merely confirmation for the Liga but the promise of concessions at the Palatinate’s expense. The growing crisis at Vienna forced Ferdinand to accept ‘the Bavarian devil to drive out the Bohemian beelzebub’.47 In the Treaty of Munich of 8 October 1619, Ferdinand recognized the Liga and requested its assistance, thereby establishing the legal basis for all future Bavarian action. As the emperor’s auxiliary assisting to restore the imperial public peace, Maximilian was entitled to proper compensation. Though the entire Liga would assist, only Bavaria’s expenses were covered, in a separate arrangement that promised the duchy part of Austria until Ferdinand could repay Maximilian.48

The Liga met in Würzburg in December, its first congress since 1613, and agreed to raise an army of 25,000 funded by members’ contributions. The previous organization was re-established, with south German and Rhenish Directories under Bavaria and Mainz respectively. Membership was exclusively Catholic and predominantly ecclesiastical, as the smaller imperial counties and cities abstained or only participated intermittently. Salzburg learned from Raitenau’s fate in 1611 and cooperated, but still refused formal membership.49 Maximilian secured exclusive direction of the Liga’s military affairs, underpinned by his efficient bureaucracy and Jean Tserclaes Tilly as an experienced field commander. Mainz declined to replace Bavaria when Maximilian’s term of office expired at the end of 1621, leaving the duke in charge of the general direction of the Liga throughout its remaining existence. Ferdinand of Cologne, Maximilian’s brother, refused to join, but nonetheless cooperated with the Liga and became the real head of the Rhenish members.

For Maximilian, war was a demonstration of power (potestas), not violence (violentia). He had himself painted as a warrior prince in full armour, but had little interest in personal glory. He dutifully accompanied his army in 1620, but left actual command to Tilly in whom he had complete trust. Operations were to be the legally sanctioned, controlled application of force for precise objectives.50 He refused to move until the emperor took the necessary steps to sanction Bavarian intervention and provide cast-iron guarantees that Maximilian would receive his reward. Ferdinand had already annulled Frederick’s election as Bohemian king on 19 January 1620. At Maximilian’s insistence, he issued an ultimatum to surrender the crown by 1 June or face the imperial ban. This would make Frederick an outlaw, entitling the emperor to confiscate his possessions and reassign them to whoever he chose. Five days after the deadline expired, Ferdinand authorized Maximilian to intervene in Bohemia, which he followed by a similar mandate on 23 July against the Upper Austrian rebels.

With typical caution, Maximilian sought additional confirmation from Spain and the papacy. Frederick’s acceptance of the Bohemian crown finally convinced the pontiff that the situation was serious and he doubled his existing subsidy to the emperor. In all, Pope Paul V sent 380,000 florins between 1618 and 1621, equivalent to a mere single month’s pay for the imperial army.51 He proved more generous towards Maximilian, because the Liga’s existence allowed him to prove his Catholic credentials without directly assisting the Habsburgs. However, he refrained from digging into his own pockets, imposing instead a special levy on the German and Italian clergy that raised 1.24 million fl. across 1620–4. Contributions from the Liga’s other members in the same period totalled 4.83 million, while Paul spent more than six times as much on building projects and nepotism. For him, this clearly was not a religious war.

The approach to Spain had rather more significant consequences. Maximilian generally opposed Spanish involvement, but needed it now. He could not move against the Austrian and Bohemian Confederates without exposing the Liga territories to potential reprisals from the Protestant Union forces. Spanish intervention on the Rhine would pin these down and free the Liga army under Tilly to turn eastwards. Spain had been slow to respond to the situation after Emperor Matthias’s death because this coincided with a long-planned state visit to Portugal intended to bolster the monarchy. Absent since April 1619, Philip III fell ill on his return in September and never fully recovered. Many still opposed intervention in Germany, but Frederick’s acceptance of the Bohemian crown was considered such an affront to the Casa d’Austria that it could not go unpunished.52

The complex nature of Spanish involvement takes some unravelling. Just over 2 million florins were sent in 1619–21 to subsidize the maintenance of the imperial army and help pay the Polish Cossacks. Imperial officers were allowed to recruit new units in Spanish possessions, chiefly 6,000 Walloons raised after January 1619. Some additional help came from Spain’s Italian allies, notably the grand duke of Tuscany who financed Dampierre’s regiment of Germans and Walloons whose arrival in the Hofburg so startled the Lower Austrians. Other units were sent directly under Spanish command and pay, though many of these were newly recruited since the monarchy had only about 58,000 soldiers at this point.53 Like Bavaria, Spain presented its involvement as upholding the imperial constitution. The first column of 6,000 foot and 1,000 horse under Marradas and Johann VIII von Nassau marched from the Netherlands as ‘Burgundian Kreis troops’, ostensibly fulfilling the region’s obligations under the public peace legislation. They deliberately avoided Union territories as they crossed from Alsace to Passau and thence to join Bucquoy in Upper Austria in July 1619. A second column of 7,000 Italians crossed the St Gotthard pass and moved down the Etsch valley to reach Innsbruck on 15 November 1619. Four thousand continued down the Rhine to bring the Army of Flanders back up to strength, leaving only 3,000 under Verdugo and Spinelli to march north over the Golden Track into Bohemia in January. A third column of 9,000 Spanish and Italians marched north from Italy later in 1620, but were sent along the Chérzery valley to reinforce the Army of Flanders. This was the last use of the western stretch of the Spanish Road that had become too exposed through Savoy’s defection to France. It was part of a wider strategy to rebuild Spain’s offensive capacity as the Twelve Year Truce with the Dutch neared its end, and by June 1620 the Army of Flanders mustered 44,200 foot and 7,000 horse.54

The Final Pieces

Failure of Saxon mediation forced Johann Georg to change tack and join Ferdinand in the hope his participation would keep the crisis contained to Bohemia. He used his influence in the Upper and Lower Saxon Kreise to frustrate efforts by Union activists to recruit troops, though he was unable to prevent his Ernestine relations in Thuringia from sending several units to Bohemia. The elector of Mainz and Maximilian refused to drop demands that the Protestants return church land taken since 1552, but they did compromise with Saxony and Hessen-Darmstadt at a meeting in Mühlhausen in March 1620. Johann Georg accepted Bavaria’s interpretation that Frederick had broken the public peace. In return, Bavaria and Mainz promised not to use force to recover the former bishoprics, provided their current Lutheran administrators remained loyal to the emperor.55

Maximilian pressed Ferdinand to complete the process and place Frederick under the imperial ban in March, but backed away once he realized this was blatantly exposing his ambitions to supplant his cousin as elector. It was agreed to wait until a clear victory established a more suitable opportunity. Ferdinand also addressed Johann Georg’s concerns over the legitimacy of Saxon intervention by specifically commissioning him in April 1620 to restore order in Lusatia. The commission was revised in June at his request to include special safeguards for the Lutheran inhabitants, while a month later Ferdinand agreed Saxony could retain both parts of Lusatia until he could refund its expenses.

Neutralization of the Union removed the final obstacle to action. Another Union congress in June 1619 had authorized the mobilization of 11,000 men for home defence. The activists agreed privately to raise more but had still only mustered 13,000 under the margrave of Ansbach at Ulm in May 1620, having failed to intercept the Spanish reinforcements. They had been completely out-recruited by the Liga, now massing 30,000 troops opposite them at Lauingen and Günzburg.56 Nonetheless, Maximilian wanted to be sure the Union would not attack once Tilly headed east into Bohemia. Talks opened on 18 June with the intention of avoiding violence altogether in Germany, and France finally intervened as Louis XIII sent the duc d’Angoulême to mediate. Ferdinand had sought French support, claiming that, like the Huguenots, the Bohemians represented a religious and political threat to Catholic monarchy; however, Louis rejected the call for solidarity in favour of asserting what he regarded as his country’s proper role as European arbiter (see Chapter 11). With Angoulême’s assistance, the Liga and Union agreed a truce on 3 July, promising not to fight each other in Germany but leaving Maximilian free to intervene in Bohemia, while the Union activists could oppose Spain if they wished. Angoulême hoped to extend this into a general peace, but Ferdinand seized the opportunity to attack.


The Habsburg Offensive

Ferdinand’s offensive involved six separate armies. Bucquoy left Dampierre to hold Vienna with over 5,000 men against Bethlen, and advanced from Krems with 21,500 to eject Anhalt from his foothold in Lower Austria. Maximilian placed 8,600 men to guard his frontier with the Upper Palatinate, and accompanied the main army of 21,400 drawn from the troops that had blocked the Unionists at Ulm to enter Upper Austria on 24 July. Spain joined in by invading the Lower Palatinate, leaving Johann Georg no choice but to start operations against Lusatia in September. These moves were the necessary preparatory steps to the final assault on Bohemia itself.

The Confederates’ lacklustre campaign during the first half of 1620 disillusioned the Lower Austrians whose homes were being wrecked in the fighting. Ferdinand split the opposition by giving the verbal assurance he would respect the religious privileges of individual nobles provided they paid homage: 86 Lutheran lords and knights joined 81 Catholics and the representatives of 18 crown towns in accepting Ferdinand as the legitimate ruler of Lower Austria on 13 July. The remaining 62 Protestant nobles fled to Retz on the Moravian frontier from where they issued a declaration of defiance. The peasant militias offered only minimal resistance in the Upper Austrian mountains as the Bavarians poured in, capturing Linz on 3 August. Tschernembl and the radicals fled, leaving the moderates to surrender on 20 August, placing their 3,500 regular troops at the Liga’s disposal. Ferdinand now declared 33 of the Retz signatories outlaws. A couple of Austrian regiments remained with Anhalt’s army, but effectively both provinces had been lost to the Confederate cause. Adam von Herberstorff was left to hold Upper Austria with 5,000 men, while Maximilian and Tilly headed east along the Austrian–Bohemian frontier to join Bucquoy. Despite the Protestant majority among their inhabitants, both Austrian provinces had been recovered permanently for the Catholic Habsburgs without a single battle.

The situation grew even more serious for Frederick along the Rhine where his supporters were collecting to oppose Spain. After leaving Ulm, Ansbach marched north-west to Oppenheim, between Mainz and Worms, to cover the right half of the Lower Palatinate that protruded west of the Rhine. Together with 5,700 local militia, he now mustered 21,800 troops, and was joined by a further 2,000 English volunteers under Sir Horace de Vere in October, convoyed south by 2,000 Dutch cavalry under Prince Frederick Henry, Maurice’s younger brother. Sir Horace was one of the ‘Fighting Veres’ family with long experience of the Dutch wars, including the siege of Jülich. His regiment was the second British contingent, arriving five months after Grey’s regiment.57Despite his numerical superiority, Ansbach was reluctant to fight, pinning his hopes of British mediation.

Luis de Velasco and 18,000 men were concentrated in Flanders to deter the Dutch, while Spinola left Brussels on 18 August with another 19,000, heading east through the electorate of Trier. Having secured Koblenz, Spinola rapidly overran Palatine territory west of the Rhine, taking Kreuznach and Alzey. Apart from brief skirmishes between the cavalry, Ansbach avoided contact. Nonetheless, Spinola remained concerned at the possibility of more substantial Dutch intervention with only a few months remaining until the end of the Truce, while his Italians refused to undertake another siege given the lateness of the season and the worsening weather. Ansbach retained the principal fortresses of Oppenheim, Heidelberg, Mannheim and Frankenthal as both sides retired into winter quarters in December. The Dutch went home, disgusted with the lacklustre Union leadership.

These operations dispelled Johann Georg’s hopes of a mediated settlement and he began his own advance, despite the obvious lack of enthusiasm among his officers. Count Wolfgang von Mansfeld, a distant relation of Frederick’s general, concentrated 8,300 soldiers and 3,000 militia at Dresden, prompting the Bohemians to halt grain sales to Saxony. Having summoned the Lusatian Estates to meet him, Johann Georg finally invaded on 3 September 1620, overrunning the western half of the two provinces. The margrave of Jägerndorf still held the east and had put 2,000 men into Bautzen. A Saxon defeat would destroy Johann Georg’s remaining credit in Protestant Germany and give the Bohemians a much needed boost. Despite obstruction from his subordinates, Wolfgang Mansfeld pressed on, forcing Bautzen to surrender on 5 October after a short bombardment that destroyed most of the town. Most of the Lusatian nobles and towns now accepted the Saxon guarantee for their privileges in return for renouncing the Confederation, but Jägerndorf still held out in Görlitz in the south-eastern corner of the province and it was now too late in the season to begin operations against Silesia further east.58

The main Confederate army had been paralysed by three pay mutinies from the end of June, which finally ended on 2 August when the government extorted more money from the Prague Jews. This denied Anhalt the last opportunity to crush Bucquoy before Maximilian joined him. Abandoning his positions in Lower Austria, he retreated north into Moravia, thinking his opponents were heading in that direction. This had been Bucquoy’s intention but Ferdinand overruled his own general, placing him under the command of Maximilian who followed Tilly’s advice to march directly on Prague. Maximilian had received 5,000 additional Liga troops, but his army already had 500 sick before it left Bavaria and was now gripped by ‘Hungarian fever’, a form of typhus or cholera depending on the contemporary diagnosis, that would kill 12,000 Catholic troops before the year was out.59

The epidemic is an indication that the full horrors of war were present from the outset, and were not a product of escalating barbarity. The irregular forces on both sides were already infamous for their cruelty. The first group of Cossacks crossing Moravia in January 1620 had disrupted a wedding, kidnapping the bride after murdering the groom. Ferdinand informed the Saxon elector after the siege of Vienna that

the Hungarians had devastated, plundered and burned everything where they had stayed, and (it is said), stripped the people to their last threads, ruined, cut them down and dragged a large number of them as prisoners, subjected them to unheard of torture to find money and property, dragged away numerous lads of twelve to sixteen years old, and so ill-treated pregnant women and others, that many of them were found dead everywhere on the roads. They pulled ropes around the men’s necks so tight that their eyes popped out of their heads.

Ferdinand concluded with a remark that became the standard refrain throughout the war: ‘Indeed, the enemy has behaved so terribly everywhere, that one can almost not remember whether such tyranny was ever heard of from the Turks.’60

The Liga troops behaved terribly during their invasion of Upper Austria, despite being well-supplied. The violence may partly have been revenge for the peasant resistance along the frontier, but there was already disorder on the march through Bavaria and the targets were indiscriminate, the men plundering Catholic monasteries and convents as well as Protestant homes. Catholic diarists depict such breaches of discipline as divine punishment for the heretical rebels, and clearly many senior figures used this as an excuse, ignoring the duke’s efforts to maintain order, like his courtiers who helped ransack Schloss Greilenstein in Lower Austria.61 Religious hatred was fanned by a large crowd of priests accompanying the combined imperial-Bavarian army, including the superior general of the barefoot Carmelite order, Domenico à Jesu Maria. Born Domingo Ruzzola in Aragon, he already had a reputation for prophesy and had won Maximilian’s confidence after curing an eye infection and other ‘miraculous’ acts.62

Realizing his mistake, Anhalt hurried west to block the invasion from a position at Tabor as the imperial-Bavarian army reached Budweis. Thurn was still sulking at being replaced by Anhalt, while Count Mansfeld resented Hohenlohe’s promotion to field marshal and refused to cooperate, marching south-west in a futile attempt to distract Maximilian by threatening Bavaria. The duke bypassed Tabor to the west, storming Prachatice on 27 September, and moving through Pisek to reach Pilsen on 5 October. Mansfeld raced back, arriving just in time, while Anhalt followed to Rokycany a short distance to the east. Mansfeld opened the first of what would prove an almost continuous series of secret talks over possible defection (see Chapter 10, p.326). Maximilian and Bucquoy thought it was a ploy to gain time – supplies were running short and the duke was allegedly reduced to eating black bread while Tilly snatched an apple from a passing Dominican friar. It grew so cold that some soldiers froze to death at night.63

Determined to maintain momentum, Tilly had no intention of being stuck outside Pilsen all winter and, backed by Maximilian, overruled Bucquoy to march north towards Prague. Marradas was left to blockade Pilsen, while Wallenstein was sent with a small imperial detachment into north-west Bohemia to establish contact with the Saxons still beyond the mountains. Anhalt dashed north to block the way to Prague, to an important road junction at Rakovnic. Possibly influenced by Maximilian’s example, Frederick now joined his troops, confirming Anhalt’s authority and temporarily boosting morale. The soldiers agreed to suspend another pay protest and dig into a wooded ridge behind a marsh. Maximilian was stuck in front of this position from 27 October. Bucquoy was badly injured in a skirmish on 3 November, but a supply train arrived the following day, reviving morale. Maximilian and Tilly knew they had only a short time to force a battle before winter suspended operations and gave Frederick a reprieve. Covered by morning mist and some noisy musketeers left to distract the Confederates, the army slipped round the ridge on 5 November and raced towards Prague. Anhalt only realized the danger later that evening, but force-marched his men to overtake his opponents and reach the White Mountain, about 8km west of the city, at midnight on 7 November.

The Battle of White Mountain

The coming battle was the first major action of the war and proved to be the most decisive.64 Anhalt’s position was relatively strong. The White Mountain ridge, taking its name from chalk and gravel pits, ran north-east to south-west for about 2km, rising about 60 metres from the surrounding area. It was strongest at the northern (right) end where the incline was steepest. This end of the ridge was covered by a walled, wooded game park containing the Star Palace, a small pavilion where Frederick and his wife had stayed prior to their triumphal entry to Prague a year earlier. The marshy Scharka stream lay about 2km in front of his position, but was deemed too far from the hill to be defended.

Anhalt had 11,000 foot, 5,000 cavalry and 5,000 Hungarian and Transylvanian light cavalry. He wanted to entrench the entire length of the ridge, but his mutinous soldiers were exhausted and said digging was only for peasants. Frederick went on to Prague, persuading the Estates to find 600 talers to buy spades, but it was too late and the soldiers managed to make only five small sconces. Most of the artillery had not caught up, and the ten cannon with the army were distributed along the line. Johann Ernst of Weimar held the Star Palace with his infantry regiment, while the rest of the Confederate army drew up along the ridge in two lines in the Dutch manner, interspersing cavalry squadrons in close support between the infantry battalions. The light cavalry were dispirited, having been surprised earlier that night and most were positioned fairly uselessly as a third line in the rear, while some covered the extreme right. Despite obvious shortcomings, Anhalt remained optimistic, believing the enemy would simply stall in front of his position as at Rakovnic, and Frederick remained in Prague to eat breakfast.

Thick fog obscured the imperial-Bavarian approach on the morning of Sunday 8 November. The advance guard secured the two crossings over the stream, followed by the rest of the army that deployed from 8 a.m. The Liga regiments drew up on the left opposite the northern end of the ridge, while Bucquoy’s Imperialists took station on the right. Together, they had 2,000 more men and two more cannon than their opponents, and they were in better spirits. Both halves of the army deployed in the Spanish fashion, grouping the 17,000 foot into ten large blocks, accompanied by small cavalry squadrons.

The commanders conferred while their men took up their positions and heard mass. Bucquoy wanted to repeat the earlier trick and slip past to Prague, but Maximilian and Tilly were convinced it was time for the decisive blow. The dispute was allegedly resolved by Domenico bursting in and brandishing an image of the Madonna whose eyes had been poked out by Calvinist iconoclasts. If this is true, it was a calculated act, because the Carmelite had found the icon in a ruined house over three weeks before. The Catholic troops were elated when they received the order to attack; they were tired of chasing the Confederates across Bohemia and savoured the prospect of plundering Prague.

The artillery had been firing for some time to little effect. At about

fifteen minutes after midday all twelve guns fired simultaneously to signal the advance. The Imperialists had less ground to cover to reach the ridge than the Bavarians who also faced a steeper climb. Anhalt decided on an active defence, sending two cavalry regiments down the slope to drive off the imperial cavalry screening the flanks of the Italian and Walloon infantry spearheading the assault. Thurn’s own infantry regiment then moved down to engage the enemy foot as they laboured up the slope. Seeing their own horsemen retiring, the Thurn regiment fired a general salvo at extreme range and fled. Anhalt’s son tried to retrieve the situation with his own cavalry regiment from the Confederate second line, his men using their pistols to blast their way into one of the imperial tercios. For a brief moment it looked as if the Confederates might yet snatch victory, but more imperial horse came up, and even Bucquoy arrived, despite his earlier wound, to rally the infantry. Anhalt junior was captured and within an hour of the main action starting the Confederate horse were in full retreat, many units pulling out of the line without even engaging the enemy. The Bohemian foot followed soon after, while the Hungarians fled, some dismounting in order to escape through the vineyards covering the way to Prague. Despite claims of their being spooked by Domenico’s sudden appearance through the smoke, the panic stemmed from reports that Bucquoy’s Polish Cossacks had ridden round the south-west end of the ridge and were already at the rear. Schlick’s Moravians on the right lasted longer, largely because of the time it took Tilly to reach them, but they too gave way around 1.30 p.m. A few survivors resisted for another half hour in the Star Palace before surrendering.

Frederick stayed in Prague all day and was tucking into lunch when the first fugitives arrived. Many drowned in the Moldau in their desperation to escape. The imperial-Bavarian army lost 650 killed and wounded, mostly to young Anhalt’s brave attack. The Confederates left 600 dead on the field, with a further 1,000 strewn on the way to Prague, as well as 1,200 wounded. The losses were severe, but most had escaped. Prague was a large, fortified city and it was unlikely the enemy could besiege it with winter approaching. It was here that Tilly’s strategy of relentless pressure paid dividends, transforming a respectable battlefield success into a decisive victory. Already weakened by Tilly’s vigorous campaign, Confederate morale collapsed. Even Maximilian was surprised at the extent of the enemy’s demoralization, expecting defiance when he summoned Prague to surrender. Confederate leadership was utterly pathetic. Tschernembl and Thurn’s son, Franz, tried to organize a defence on the Charles Bridge to stop the Bavarians crossing the river. Frederick hesitated, but Anhalt and the elder Thurn thought the situation hopeless. Queen Elizabeth, heavily pregnant with her fifth child, left early the next morning. Her husband feared angry citizens might prevent him escaping if he took the crown with him, so he left it behind, along with his other insignia and numerous confidential documents, and joined the refugees streaming eastwards out of the city.

Collapse of the Confederation

Imperialists were already entering the western side of the city, catching the tail of the royal baggage train. Many Confederates were still loitering, demanding their back pay, but they dispersed once Maximilian granted them amnesty on 10 November. Those foolish enough to remain were murdered over the next few days. The city was stuffed full of valuables, cattle and other property brought there for safekeeping prior to the battle and now abandoned in the precipitous retreat. Along with empty mansions and houses, it was too tempting for the victorious troops who began seizing what they found in the streets, then breaking into homes, and finally robbing with violence. ‘Those who have nothing, fear for their necks, and all regret not taking up arms and fighting to the last man.’65

Under these conditions, further pursuit was impossible. The winter was also exceptionally cold, with even the Bosporus said to have frozen over. Mansfeld still held most of western Bohemia, while Jägerndorf was in Silesia and Bethlen in Hungary. Yet nothing could slow the collapse of Frederick’s regime as moderates distanced themselves from the revolt. The Moravian Estates already paid homage to Ferdinand at the end of December. Frederick fled east over the mountains into Silesia in the middle of November, but was given a frosty welcome by a population angry at his perceived Calvinist extremism. Fearing the Saxons would block his escape to the north, Frederick hurried on down the Oder into Brandenburg in December, leaving the Lusatians and Silesians to surrender to Johann Georg after prolonged negotiations completed in March 1621.

Bethlen had finally renounced his truce with the emperor on 1 September, advancing again with 30,000 horsemen to overrun Upper Hungary and retake Pressburg, where he intended to hold his coronation with the St Stephen’s crown he had captured the year before. Most of the Polish Cossacks arriving during 1620 had been attached to Dampierre’s command and deployed to cover the harvest against Transylvanian raiders. A Liga regiment arrived at the end of September 1620, as well as Croats and the private retainers of Magyar magnates tired of Bethlen’s depredations. The Inner Austrian Estates mobilized 2,500 men, while their Lower Austrian counterparts sent a Protestant regiment that had not joined the Confederate army. Dampierre advanced to disrupt Bethlen’s coronation, and though he was to be killed on 9 October he had managed to burn the Pressburg bridge, denying access to the south side of the Danube. Bethlen sent another 9,000 troops to help Frederick, but these arrived too late for White Mountain and retreated rapidly through Moravia in November.

Though the grand vizier ratified the alliance agreed with Frederick in July, it became clear that the sultan was only using this to pressure Ferdinand to adjust the 1606 truce. News of White Mountain reached Constantinople in January, removing any doubts about the wisdom of avoiding a breach with the emperor. Meanwhile, the Ottoman pasha of Buda seized the Hungarian border town of Waitzen long claimed by his master. This alarmed the Magyar nobility, exposing the consequences of their internecine struggle and Bethlen’s inability to protect them from the Ottomans. The leading families either declared for Ferdinand or at least joined the French ambassador in pressing Bethlen to reopen talks at Hainburg in January 1621.


The Confederate commanders sought to exonerate themselves in letters sent to Frederick.66 Thurn echoed the views of Calvinist propagandists, blaming the defeat on the sins of the Bohemian people, comparing their situation to God’s punishment of the Israelites – an argument implying there was still hope since God later delivered them from Egypt. Anhalt was more forthcoming. He cited points raised by others, such as the reluctance of some units to engage, but emphasized the general declining cohesion and growing insubordination. These he blamed on lack of foreign support and the wilful failure of the civil administration to meet the army’s pay arrears, which had climbed to 5.5 million fl. by the time of the battle.

Confederate organization was certainly deficient, and it was not until August 1620 that a war council was established to oversee pay, supplies and fortifications. Poor accounting inflated the total arrears, because few checks were carried out to verify the amounts claimed by the soldiers. However, the defeat was not due to lack of resources. Mansfeld’s men had not been paid for six months when they were defeated at Záblati, yet Bucquoy found 100,000 fl. in gold, along with their general’s own plate worth another 50,000 talers. Bucquoy went on to take castles in south Bohemia, finding further hoards, including 300,000 talers in Frauenberg (Hluboká) alone.67

The aspects highlighted by the commanders were symptoms, not causes of the defeat. Failure to mobilize resources indicated the leadership’s incapacity to develop the revolt’s potential. This lay in a common political culture, not religion, language or ethnicity, all of which divided supporters. Protestants formed the majority across Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, Lusatia and Austria, but lacked a common creed. Even where there were strong theological similarities, as between Palatine Calvinists and the Bohemian Brethren, cultural factors could override this as Frederick discovered with his iconoclastic programme in Prague. The Bohemians were largely Czechs, but many of their nobles spoke German. Some families with German names conversely spoke Czech, while the Moravians spoke Czech or Slovak, the Silesians either German or Polish, and the Lusatians either German or Wendish. Leading Habsburg loyalists like Lobkowitz, Martinitz and Slavata were Czech speakers, while other families such as the Waldsteins, Dietrichsteins, Kinskys, Kaunitz, Czernin and Tiefenbachs had members on both sides. There were common myths of origin, with one presenting Poles and Czechs as descendants of two brothers, Lech and Cech. Yet, Pavel Stránsky, who supported the revolt, denied the Czechs of Bohemia and Moravia were of the same nation. In short, there was no match between confession, language and political loyalty, and attempts to portray events as a national movement against German oppression are anachronistic.68

What united the Bohemian rebels was their cultural and political identification with the crown of St Wenceslas and what this symbolized. Stránsky and other writers linked nation to Estates’ rights, not language or religion, and it was through this political culture that the Confederates forged alliances with the Austrians, Transylvanians and Upper Hungarians.69 The Bohemian magnate Vilém Rozemberk considered it entirely appropriate to present himself as a ‘native’ candidate in the Polish royal election of 1573. Though Stránsky was a burgher and while there were also educational and commercial links across the provinces, the common political culture was primarily restricted to the nobility, and therein lay much of the problem.

The Confederates’ slogan of Estates’ rights represented a form of monarchy, not a rejection of kingship.70 They objected to exclusion from the exercise of royal power, not the presence of a king. The Confederation’s founding diet explicitly rejected Dutch republicanism in 1619, legitimating itself according to existing laws, not new, abstract ideals of liberty or sovereignty of the people. Unlike the Dutch rebels or the English and Scottish parliamentarians, Central European nobles were unable to broaden their movement’s social base. Tschernembl was prepared to abolish serfdom in return for peasant support by 1620, but his colleagues rejected this, preferring an alliance with the sultan instead. Peasant attacks on the invaders were largely self-defence, and they also struck at Confederate troops who, for instance, demolished entire villages in their frantic search for firewood on the eve of White Mountain. The urban burghers were predominantly Utraquists, closer theologically to Catholicism but culturally and politically aligned with the Lutherans and Bohemian Brethren. Already alarmed by the Defenestration, they rapidly lost sympathy with the revolt as the nobles sought to shift the burden of military taxation onto them.71 The aristocrats also marginalized the poorer knights, many of whom were excusing themselves from the Confederate army by 1619, claiming ill-health.

Personal rivalries undermined solidarity even among the aristocrats, as we have seen. However, the personal character of early modern politics exposed a further weakness. The individual character of vassalage offered people the chance to change sides, seeking a pardon in return for an appropriately humble submission. Ferdinand played on this, carefully selecting those he declared outlaws, leaving the majority free to seek his forgiveness.

Far from being the faith of historical progress, Bohemian Protestantism symbolized a fading version of aristocratic corporatism threatened by the growth of a more centralized state. The Habsburgs’ decision to make Catholicism the touchstone of political loyalty gave centralization a confessional character, though there was nothing specifically ‘Catholic’ about it, as indicated by the reverse pairing of Protestantism with the political establishment in countries like England. The limited opportunities for military and political appointments encouraged Protestants to identify with a romanticized world of paternalist landlords, something that found direct expression through their patronage of parish appointments. They remained linked to territorial and provincial politics through their possession of estates entitling them to seats in the diet. However, power was shifting to the centre with the growth of regular taxation that improved the crown’s ability to reward service with salaries, rather than land grants. These relationships were still early modern, since they were mediated through the ruler’s court rather than an impersonal state; and because they remained personal, cultural capital assumed considerable importance. Like other princes, the Habsburgs stressed emotive concepts like trust, fidelity, prestige and honour, rewarding those who displayed these virtues in their service. This social capital was necessary to take full advantage of economic resources, as exemplified by the numerous landless nobles who remained respected ahead of richer burghers.

The underdeveloped nature of communication heightened the court’s significance as the venue to acquire social and cultural capital. It was the place to meet influential people, and gain experience and the skills required to succeed as a noble.72 Patronage was inherently unstable, depending on the patron’s continued ability to meet competing aspirations among his clients from limited resources. The Habsburg court grew from six hundred people under Ferdinand I to eight hundred under Rudolf, while the junior branches added perhaps six hundred more places. These were still relatively few compared to the establishment of Elizabeth I in England who had more courtiers than Rudolf, or even Cardinal Richelieu who maintained an entourage of 480. As emperors, the Habsburgs had to cater to additional clientele from the Empire, leaving too few posts for their own nobles. Patronage also represented only a ‘soft’ form of control. It entailed a reciprocity that was not legally enforceable. The patron had no sanction for disloyalty beyond public disgrace and dismissal. Moreover, by shifting bargaining from the constitutional arena of the Estates to the informal world of the court, patronage arguably retarded political development. It proved divisive, as favouritism concentrated rewards for some, fuelling resentment among others.

The situation was exacerbated by the two relatively close imperial successions. Officials still served a monarch, not an impersonal state. There was no job security, as a new ruler was free to dismiss his predecessor’s advisers and appoint his own favourites. This proved particularly divisive in 1619 as Ferdinand brought his existing, exclusively Catholic Inner Austrian clientele into the Habsburg and imperial government, displacing many of the Protestants still in service.

Nobles faced growing competition for land, which led to falling incomes in some cases, and cultural pressures (partly influenced by the court) entailing expensive grand tours for their sons and elaborate new mansions and country houses. The number of Protestant nobles without land in Lower Austria rose from 61 to 117 across 1580–1620. Only 43 of the 334 Protestant nobles had crown appointments by 1620, compared to 72 of the 123 Catholics. Crown appointments employed over half the landless Catholic nobility, giving them a source of income denied their Protestant counterparts. Moreover, state service rather than wealth increasingly determined admission into the nobility, as the Habsburgs ennobled their servants. This, in turn, gave recipients access to more land, as salaries could be invested in land sold by indebted families. From being predominantly smallholders in the later sixteenth century, Catholics emerged as the major Lower Austrian landowners by 1620.73 Protestants responded by sending their sons to Germany to acquire the university education increasingly required for state employment, but many returned radicalized by the confessional militancy on campus, effectively excluding themselves from the jobs they were seeking.

Confessional differences merely sharpened existing tensions between the horizontal solidarity of kinship and corporate ties among nobles and the vertical relationship between patron and clients. Despite constituting the majority of the nobility in the Habsburg provinces, Protestants failed to form a united front against the dynasty. Of the Lower Austrian Protestants, 77 paid homage to Ferdinand in April 1619, while 121 remained uncommitted and 102 joined the revolt, of whom only 50 actually fought against the crown. The splits across many families may have been due to a deliberate policy of hedging bets, sending sons to serve on both sides while the father or an uncle remained neutral and looked after the property. Nonetheless, the relatively small number of active supporters indicates a high level of distaste for the rebel cause. It was not so much a failure of aristocratic corporatism to defeat monarchical absolutism. Rather, the idealized Protestant version proved less attractive than the alternative, equally corporate identity of a nobility united and rewarded by royal favour.

Other factors played their part. Unlike the Dutch, the Bohemians lacked a natural redoubt into which they could retreat. Failure to take Budweis and Krumau gave the Habsburgs bases across the southern frontier, and once Saxony joined the emperor, the rebels were effectively surrounded. The Bohemians’ failure to achieve any real victories early on deterred others from joining. Nonetheless, England had backed the Dutch in 1585 before it was clear they would defeat Spain. The fact that no foreign power, other than Bethlen, openly supported Frederick indicates attitudes were hardening towards rebels across Europe as a whole.74 This explains the prominence given to religion in pro-Bohemian propaganda, since it was easier to appeal on this basis than champion them as an alternative, federal system of government.

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