The Thirty Years War

Introduction to the Thirty Years War

This website provides summaries, in varying degrees of detail, of the military and diplomatic developments of the Thirty Years War.

The Thirty Years War is one of the great conflicts of early modern European history.

The Thirty Years War consisted of a series of declared and undeclared wars which raged through the years 1618-1648 throughout central Europe.

During the Thirty Years War the opponents were, on the one hand, the House of Austria: the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperors Ferdinand II and Ferdinand III together with their Spanish cousin Philip IV.

During the long course of the Thirty Years War the Habsburgs were opposed by various international opponents of House of Austria: the Danish, Dutch and, above all, France and Sweden.

In addition to its international dimensions the Thirty Years War was a German civil war. The principalities which made up Germany took up arms for or against the Habsburgs or, most commonly, both at different times during the war’s 30 years.

The Thirty Years War was also, at least in part, a religious war among Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists. Ferdinand II and, to a lesser degree, his primary ally Maximillian I represented the re-Catholicizing zeal of the Jesuit Counter-reformation, while Frederick V of the Palatinate represented the equally militant forces of Calvinism.

The series of conflicts, military and political, which make up the Thirty Years War are highly complex.

Background to the Thirty Years War

Under the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 Lutheranism had been given official recognition in the Holy Roman Empire. Lands of the Roman church which had previously been taken by secular powers were retained by them. German rulers could also impose their religion on their subjects.

However, the Peace did not provide a permanent framework for religious settlement in Germany. A number of rulers became Calvinists and thus at least arguably outside the pale of the Peace. Protestants continued to take over Catholic properties, particularly in North Germany. The Catholics commanded a majority in most of the organs of government; the Protestants came to distrust these bodies and the machinery of government began to break down.

The Catholics and Protestants formed armed alliances to preserve their rights: the Catholic League under Maximilian I of Bavaria and the Protestant Union under Frederick V of the Palatinate.

Meanwhile, in Bohemia, Moravia and Austria dissension between the Habsburgs had enabled the local elites to extort religious freedom from their rulers. The Habsburgs gradually began to chip away at these concessions.

The Bohemian Phase of the Thirty Years War

This phase of the Thirty Years War encompassed the years 1618 through 1621.

Faced with increasing pressure from the Habsburgs, the Bohemians rose in revolt. They deposed the Habsburgs and crowned Frederick V of the Palatinate as their King.

Initially, the revolt seemed destined for success. However, Ferdinand II struck back, subsidized by his Spanish relatives and in alliance with the Catholic League and with Lutheran Saxony. The Bohemians were utterly defeated near Prague at the White Mountain.

Simultaneously the Spanish had invaded and conquered the Lower Palatinate, Frederick’s territories on the Rhine. This enabled the Spanish to secure the land route from their territories in Northern Italy to their lands in modern-day Belgium.

Follow these links for more information about the Bohemian Phase of the Thirty Years War:

The Palatinate Phase of the Thirty Years War.

This phase of the Thirty Years War encompassed the years 1621 to 1624.

Frederick V of the Palatinate and other Protestant rulers sought to regain the Rhenish Palatinate from the Spanish and the Catholic League. These efforts were supported by the Dutch who had been battling the Spaniards for independence since 1568. A strong Spanish presence on the Rhine was a strategic peril they could not ignore. All of these efforts were dismal failures.

Follow this link for more information about the Palatine Phase of the Thirty Years War:

The Danish Phase of the Thirty Years War

This phase of the Thirty Years War encompassed the years 1625 to 1630.

Foreign powers opposed to the Habsburgs could not look with equanimity on the developments in Germany. The French, English and Dutch formed a league to oppose the Habsburgs. They found their champion in Christian IV of Denmark, who also had extensive possessions in northern Germany. Christian invaded, but was crushingly defeated by the army of the Catholic League and a new Imperial force under the enigmatic Bohemian condottiere Wallenstein.

Emboldened by victory, the Emperor issued the Edict of Restitution, requiring the return of all lands expropriated from the Roman church since the 1550’s.

Fearing Wallenstein’s power, the territorial rulers forced the Emperor to remove him from power and reduce the size of the Imperial army.

Follow these links for more information about the Danish Phase of the Thirty Years War:

The Swedish Phase of the Thirty Years War

This phase of the Thirty Years War encompassed the years 1630 through 1634.

Concerned by growing Habsburg power along the Baltic, Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden invaded northern Germany. He was not welcomed by his fellow Lutherans: his sole significant ally were the French, who subsidized his army.

After the Swede’s allied city of Magdeburg was destroyed by an Imperial army, the Protestants grew concerned and began to arm.

When the Imperial forces moved against Saxony, the Elector of Saxony threw in his lot with the Swedes. The Swedish army met the Imperials at Breitenfeld near Leipzig and annihilated them.

The Swedes promptly took over most of southwest Germany. The Emperor had no choice but to recall Wallenstein. The Swedes and Wallenstein’s new army met near Leipzig at Lützen. The battle was a draw, but Gustavus was killed.

Fearing Wallenstein’s power, and concerned by his intrigues with hostile powers, the Emperor had him killed.

The Imperial and Spanish armies joined and inflicted a crushing defeat on the Swedes at Nördlingen. All the Swedish gains in southern Germany were lost.

Follow these links for more information about the Swedish Phase of the Thirty Years War:

The French Phase of the Thirty Years War

This phase of the Thirty Years War encompassed the years 1634 through 1648.

After Nördlingen most of the German territorial rulers made their peace with the Emperor. Under the resultant Peace of Prague most of the church lands in Protestant hand in 1627 were allowed to remain so.

The French declared war on Spain and increased the scope of their interventions in the Empire.

Gradually the Imperial forces were weakened. France took control of Alsace and much of the Rhineland while the Swedes took over or neutralized northern Germany and carried the war into Bohemia.

Follow these links for more information about the French Phase of the Thirty Years War:

The Peace of Westphalia

Over the last four years of the war, the parties were actively negotiating at Osnabrück and Münster in Westphalia. On 24 October, 1648 the Peace of Westphalia was signed, ending the Thirty Years War.

The Swedes received a large cash indemnity and control over western Pomerania, Bremen and Verden. The French recieved rights (nature unclear) over Alsace. The control of the Emperor over the German territorial rulers was reduced to a nullity.

Within the German portion of the Empire, private exercise of non-conforming religion was permitted and the organs of government were rendered religiously neutral. Lands secularized by the Protestants in 1624 were generally allowed to remain so. However, in the Habsburg territories of Bohemia and Austria the Emperor was given a nearly free hand to re-impose Catholicism.

Follow these links for more information about the Peace of Westphalia and the end of the Thirty Years War:

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Site Last Updated 14 December 2005