The Protestant Bohemian Revolt against the Catholic Holy Roman Empire was crushed at the Battle of White Mountain in late 1620. Frederick V of the Palatinate, known contemptuously as the “Winter King” for the brevity of his Protestant reign in Bohemia, fled west to find his lands around Heidelberg under occupation by Spanish forces of the Catholic League. With the disintegration of the Protestant Union, he fled to the only place he could find refuge, the Dutch city of The Hague.
The next year, the Dutch United Provinces were nearing the end of their twelve year truce with Spain after their semi-successful revolt in the first half of the Eighty Years War. Spain had no intention of losing the lucrative Dutch Provinces permanently and planned on continuing the war from Spanish Netherlands (modern Belgium) upon concluding the truce. The Protestant Dutch expected as much, and agreed to fund Frederick V’s attempt to reconquer his lands and hopefully bring about the restoration of the Protestant Union to occupy the Spanish and the Catholic League and divide their forces. Frederick V used the Dutch backing to support three great mercenary armies. Two were already close to the Palatinate, that of Frederich Georg, the Margrave of Baden-Durlach, and the unscrupulous General Ernest Von Mansfeld whose unemployed army was looting and raping its way across Alsace. While the third, led by Christian of Brunswick, was considerably further away in Westphalia.
The two armies of Frederich George and Mansfeld when combined outnumbered the Spanish and made the Palatinate untenable for the Catholics. Catholic League forces under Johan Tzerclaes, Count of Tilly, rushed to the area to reinforce the Spanish because a Protestant victory in the Palatinate would most likely resurrect the Protestant Union, which would seriously diminish the war effort against the Dutch. Mansfeld and Frederich George had a chance to defeat the Catholics in detail before they linked but the two men despised each other and refused to work together.
Without waiting for Frederich Georg to agree, Mansfeld struck at Tilly while he waited for Spanish troops under Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba. Frederich Georg had no choice but to follow. They reached the bridge at Mingolsheim on 27 April where Tilly was dug in on the far bank. Mansfeld torched the town to use the smoke to conceal his dispositions but Tilly thought he was just sacking the town (as he was wont to do, whether the town was Catholic or Protestant mattered not to Mansfeld) and withdrawing. So Tilly attacked across the bridge into Mansfeld’s musketeers and cannon preparing to do the same. The attack failed but neither side had the weight of men and arms to force the bridge. Not to be outdone by Mansfeld, Frederich Georg split in search of his own victory. He prepared to defend the crossing over the Neckar River at Wimpfen against the approaching Tilly (who abandoned the Mingolsheim position when Frederich Georg left Mansfeld) while Mansfeld crossed the Neckar farther north.
Frederich Georg couldn’t actually defend the river crossing, but he could establish a strong defensive position on a low hill which would prevent Tilly from advancing on Heidelberg. Córdoba took advantage of the split Protestant army, and immediately marched to Wimpfen to concentrate not on the nearer Mansfeld, but on Frederich Georg, who was then outnumbered by the combined Catholic army.
Frederich George was not worried because he was in a strong position with experienced and zealous troops. Furthermore, his battle wagons served as impromptu fortifications on the low hill, dubbed “The Wagonburg”. The Wagonburg bristled with cannon, guns, and pikes, and was anchored by two thick woods to each flank.
On 5 May 1622, the two sides pounded each other with their cannon most of the morning. About 10 am Tilly and Córdoba’s tercios assaulted the Wagonburg without success and with heavy casualties. In the early afternoon both sides reorganized, but one of Frederich Georg’s units withdrew from a strong position in the woods guarding his right flank, and Córdoba seized the moment and occupied the position. Frederich Georg was now forced to recapture the position as it allowed the Spanish to bypass the Wagonburg. Additionally, to prevent Tilly from exploiting Córdoba’s success, Frederich Georg launched his cavalry around Tilly’s flank. He was gambling that his attacks on the flanks would occupy the Catholics long enough so that the meat grinder in front the Wagonburg would break the assaulting tercios.
For four hours the battle raged with the lines bending on each flank moving clockwise on the Wagonburg in the center. Tilly’s cavalry on the Catholic right bent back, with the energetic and fiery Cordoba advancing on the left. At one point, Córdoba’s exhausted and bloodied cavalry refused to charge the Protestant musketeers and Cordoba didn’t even notice until he found himself inside the Protestant lines alone. He managed to cut his way out, but the incident was indicative of the state of the Catholic troops. A supposed vison of the Virgin Mary rallied the Spaniards of the tercios assaulting the Wagonburg, but passion and inspiration faded quickly in the face of accurate and murderous fire by the defending musketeers and cannon.
Frederich Georg was a hair’s breath away from his victory when an errant cannonball ignited a store of powder in the Wagonburg. The resulting explosion didn’t do much damage, but it shocked the defenders and opened a small hole in the so far impregnable fortifications. One of Tilly’s tercios swarmed into the gap and overwhelmed the dazed defenders. With both flanks engaged in the attacks, Frederich Georg had no reserves left to seal the breach. Once it was obvious Tilly began systematically isolating and clearing portions of the Wagonburg, the Protestant army disintegrated.
After the Battle of Wimpfen, Tilly and Córdoba checked Mansfeld at the Battle of Höchst, who then fell back to protect Heidelberg (much to his distaste, Frederick V accompanied Mansfeld, as he was the least trustworthy and reliable of the three), and instead of pursuing, unexpectedly turned on the approaching Duke of Brunswick. At Sossenheim just west of Franfurt am Main, the Protestants were again defeated. With two of Frederick V’s three armies effectively neutralized, Tilly then besieged his capital of Heidelberg. After a short 11 week siege, the castle of Heidelberg fell on 12 September 1622. The “Bohemian Revolt” phase of the Thirty Years War was over.