The late seventeenth century saw a series of wars from the 1650s through the 1680s between two great European Powers, England and the Dutch Republic, for control of the world’s seas. Although victorious in the First Anglo-Dutch War, by 1667 the English couldn’t prevent a Second.
England had just experienced the Great Plague of 1664 and the Great Fire of London in 1666. When combined with the extravagant spending of King Charles’ court, the English Parliament had had enough. They simply couldn’t afford the navy anymore despite the Dutch threatening a grand alliance between itself, France, and Spain. The English decided to rely on diplomacy alone. The English Navy went into dock until it could be afforded again. The Dutch struck.
The English laid up their best and largest ships at Chatham on the Medway River south east of London at the mouth of the River Thames. On 9 June 1667, Admiral Michael De Ruyter led the Dutch fleet and the very experienced Dutch Regiment De Marine up the heavily fortified river on a daring raid to destroy what was left of the English Navy.
The Dutch marines stormed the surprised defenders of the fort at Sheerness, protecting the Mouth of the Thames. The actual anchorage at Medway was protected by a great chain at Gillingham, supported by a few warships and two hastily constructed gun batteries. But they did little to stop the determined Dutch. The only factor preventing the complete destruction of the entire English fleet was unfavorable winds, which prevented the fireships from closing the distance to the docks at Gravesend and Hope.
Fifteen of the last eighteen English ships of the line were destroyed, and the two largest, the HMS Royal Charles and HMS Unity, were towed back as trophies. It was the worst defeat in English naval history and they sued for peace soon after.
The Treaty of Breda was a great victory for the Dutch. They received many territories in the Caribbean and the Pacific, includingrecovering most of what they were forced to cede in the First Anglo-Dutch War. The only piece of former Dutch territory the English kept was a small island they captured in North America: New Amsterdam. They promptly renamed the town on the island after James Stuart, Duke of York and governed it as the Province of New York.
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.
In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenburg castle church and began the Protestant Reformation and over the next 15 years, many Germans inside the Holy Roman Empire converted to Lutheranism. In 1531, several of the small principalities and electorates forged a defensive alliance, the Schmalkaldic League (named for the town in Thuringia where the pact was signed) against the inevitable backlash by the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.
In the early to mid sixteenth century, Charles V was the most powerful man in Europe. In addition to being the Holy Roman Emperor which conferred significant authority over most of Central Europe, he was the sole inheritor of three of the largest dynasties of Europe: Hapsburg Austria, Valois-Burgundian Netherlands, and Trastamara Spain, including most of Italy, the Balkans, and the New World. To keep these possessions, he was constantly at war with his archenemies Francis I of France and the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, among many others in this age of rapidly shifting alliances.
However, as long as the Schmalkaldic League confined its activities to matters of religion, e.g. converting the population, confiscating Church property, murdering priests, nuns, and monks etc., Charles had little issue with Protestantism. He had fought more than one war against the Pope. However, by the mid-1540s, the defeated and humiliated Francis I was actively supporting the Schmalkaldic League even as he was slaughtering Protestants in France. Eventually, the League turned political with the goal of creating a Protestant entity to supplant the Holy Roman Empire. This Charles could not tolerate. In 1547, Charles V invaded Saxony to capture the ecclesiastical center of Lutheranism, Wittenburg, and defeat the League’s army under the Elector of Saxony John Frederick I, and Landgrave Philip I of Hesse. The rest of the free cities and smaller states of the League would then fall into line.
The League’s army was small, unprofessional, inexperienced, and lacked any unity of command as each contributing state, no matter how small, had an equal say in command. Charles’ army was the exact opposite. His army was composed of veterans almost to a man. They had fought nonstop for twenty years. They halted the Ottomans at the Gates of Vienna, threw the French out of Italy, and nearly captured Paris. Furthermore, his was a multicultural army that reflected his dominion: He had German landsknechts and Catholics, Protestant soldiers from loyal Imperial electorates, Italian condottieri, and Dutch musketeers and armsmen, all centered around and organized by the steely and tough Duke of Alba, the commander of the premier shock troops in the early Age of Pike and Shot: the Spanish tercios.
The tercio was the first formation in Europe specifically designed to combine the firepower of gunpowder in the form of arquebuses, the defensive power of the pike or polearm, and the counteroffensive power of a heavily armed swordsman to defeat a charge of armoured knights, like the French gendarmes. Named a “tercio” because theoretically it was composed of 1/3 of each, the formation mixed companies of each of the three arms into combined columns, or in Italian, “colonna”, led by a “coronel”, which is Spanish for a senior (and noble) commander of a column of companies. (The combination of the two words gives us the modern word “colonel” and its unique pronunciation.) The Spanish tercios were the most feared, dangerous, and professional heavy infantry on the planet in the 16th and early 17th centuries, and they were led by arguably the best commander of the age, Fernando Alvarez de Toledo, the Duke of Alba. The army of the Schmalkaldic League didn’t stand a chance.
On 24 April, 1547, the ailing Charles V (who was carried into battle on a litter, not majestically on a horse as in Titian’s famous portrait) and his Imperial army led by the Duke of Alba reached the Elbe River opposite Muehlberg. Elector John Frederick with the Schmalkaldic Army outside the town, thought he had time to organize. But his pickets on the far bank were forced to retire by the longer range of the Spanish and Dutch arquebuses and his men lost visual contact with Imperial Army, though this wasn’t reported to him.
While he went about attempting to assemble his bickering army, the Duke Alba was well on his way to crossing the river without using the obvious stone bridge. Some enterprising Spanish veterans swam the river and collected boats, which they used to build another bridge. Additionally, Maurice of Saxony, a Protestant who hopped to gain from John Frederick’s loss, convinced a discontented peasant to identify a ford. Maurice then took all of the cavalry across the river, with each rider carrying an additional arquebusier. By the time John Frederick knew what was happening, he had light cavalry behind him, was under fire from the woods to his flank, with the tercios approaching from the front, and missed the only opportunity to even conceivably win the battle by attacking the vulnerable river crossing. The Schmalkaldic Army broke after a quick fight and the cavalry ran down the defenders, killed thousands, and captured the leadership.
John Frederick and Philip lost their electorates, and the rulers of the other states were replaced. Wittenerg was captured and the majority of the influential Protestant thinkers fled to other parts of Europe, where they would continue to proselytize. The Battle of Muehlberg and the end of the Schmalkaldic War shattered Protestantism, but inadvertently caused it spread, most notably to England, where German refugees became influential members of the English Reformation under King Henry V. Protestantism would not only spread but fragment as a result.
The sick and exhausted Charles eventually settled for the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 with the Protestants, which allowed each electorate to choose its own religion as long as they accepted the Holy Roman Emperor’s authority. After the Peace of Augsburg, Charles V ruled over the largest (mostly) willing multicultural European empire not seen until 458 years later with the signing of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009 which established the European Union as a legal entity. He would die shortly afterwards and wouldn’t live to see it fall apart.