By 1648, Europeans were tired of the Thirty Years War. What started as a religious war between Catholics and Protestants in the Holy Roman Empire turned into a power struggle between the Bourbons and the Hapsburgs, and then into national struggles between the Spanish, French, Austrians, Czechs, Poles, Swedes and Dutch. Semi-autonomous bands of soldiers and mercenaries roamed the countryside, especially but not exclusively in the German and Italian lands of the Holy Roman Empire, looting, foraging and raping while they waited for the summons to battle. What separated them from brigands *spit* was whether or not they responded to the call.
The Thirty Years War had taken its toll and all of the major and many minor belligerents were involved in the peace negotiations at Muenster and Osnabruck in Westphalia. Despite some small setbacks, the victories at Rocroi (1643) against the Spanish, and Nordlingen (1647) against the Bavarians cemented French power on the continent. However, Cardinal Mazarin continued Richelieu’s policy of centralization of French royal power at the expense of the nobles, the effects of which came to a head in 1648.
In the spring and early summer of 1648, the exhausted parties pushed the negotiations forward, but each jockeyed for a better position in the final treaties. Unfortunately for France, Mazarin levied a tax on the judicial officers of the Parliament of Paris which finally pushed the parliaments and the French gentry to take action in opposition to Mazarin. Taking advantage of France’s domestic troubles, and seeing an opportunity to regain territory lost after Rocroi, a Hapsburg Army under Austrian Archduke Leopold Wilhelm invaded the French occupied Spanish Netherlands in August 1648.
Leopold Wilhelm was successful in recapturing several towns and fortified cities before the French could respond. However, Louis II de Bourbon Prince de Condé, known as “the Great Conde” and one of Louis XIV’s best commanders, was recalled from the failing campaign in Catalonia. Condé cobbled together an army from French Lorraine, Champagne, and Paris as he marched to meet Leopold Wilhelm. On 20 August 1648, Leopold Wilhelm was besieging the city of Lens. Condé’s smaller army arrived to the west but the Archduke’s Spanish/German/Walloon army was in a strong position on the heights outside the city. Condé feinted a withdrawal and the proud Spanish officers, led by the commander of the Archduke’s center, the Governor of Luxembourg General Jean de Beck, persuaded the cautious Leopold Wilhelm to attack and avenge Rocroi.
At dawn, the impetuous Hapsburg army initially overwhelmed the French rear guard, and almost killed Condé, but the situation stabilized as Condé spread his troops into a battle line. Nonetheless, de Beck’s assaults into the French center were successful and the deep Hapsburg infantry formations, a habit born from the tercio, threatened to break the pike blocks and musketeer lines of the French center. However, in Leopold Wilhelm’s quest for overwhelming mass and depth of attack, he placed too much cavalry in the center. They were wasted waiting to break through, or even worse, just functioned as mounted carbineers who could not charge, took up too much space, and could not provide the requisite firepower to break an infantry formation. Both sides had cavalry in the center, but part of the Hapsburg’s mass was desperately needed on the wings.
On the Spanish right, the notoriously unreliable Walloon cavalry fired, then broke, under a French cavalry charge. (The Catholic Walloons, French speaking Belgians today, had much more in common with the French than they did the Flemings and Protestant Dutch just to their north. Needless to say they didn’t think much of their distant Spanish and Austrian overlords, certainly not enough to die for.) On the French left, Condé led the cream of the French cavalry, personally leading the regiment of his mentor Jean de Gassion, who died the year before. Over the last several years, Condé became impressed with German cavalry’s fire discipline. In the standard cavalry battle tactics of the day, both sides would ride up to each other and stop to fire. Whoever fired first usually lost as they’d be charged while they were concentrating on reloading. What usually happened was a standoff where each sides’ officers would cajole the other side to fire first, sometimes very politely, as most horsemen were aristocrats. Condé knew he could easily break the Hapsburg Lorrainer cavalry to his front with a charge, but only if his cavalry was able to get over the dead and dying men and horses of those who received the volley before they charged. If the French cavalry charged before receiving the first volley, the casualties of the first two lines, when the Hapsburg did eventually fire, would break the momentum of the charge.
So Condé waited to give the order until the Lorrainers fired first. And for the next long minutes, they stared at each other.
Events in the center forced the issue, but it was the Lorrainers who eventually fired first. They saw de Beck’s successful assaults and didn’t want to lose out on the glory of victory. So they fired and instantly charged. And though they killed, wounded or incapacitated the first two French lines, they couldn’t withstand the French countercharge led by Condé himself, ever the cavalryman, and followed up by the entirety of the French reserve. With complete success on both wings and a center that held out just long enough, the French encircled the remains of the hitherto successful Spanish center under de Beck. However, unlike Rocroi, there was no Spanish last stand: the Hapsburg army of Leoplod Wilhelm was not cut of the same cloth as the Army of Flanders under de Melo and de Fountaines five years before. The Spanish had had enough: Thirty Years War had taken its toll on the men.
The Battle of Lens was the last major action of the Thirty Years War. (Technically, the “Battle of Prague” was the last battle of the war, but it has more in common with a smash and grab art heist than a battle) Condé’s victory at Lens cemented the French position and forced the Hapsburg’s to seek peace at the negotiations in Westphalia, which was agreed upon soon after. The battle ended the war and brought peace between most of the major belligerents, though not to France and Spain whom would continue their war until 1659, eleven year later.
Finally, five days after the battle, the parliaments of Paris rose up against Cardinal Mazarin who, upon hearing the news of the victory, arrested parliamentarian leaders. Taking advantage of the army’s departure to fight at Lens, the parliaments and their supporters through barricades and forced the child-king and cardinal to flee the city. However, Condé returned with his victorious army and besieged Paris, ending the “Fronde Parlementaire” in March.
Young Louis XIV would not forget.