The destruction of the Golden Horde in the 15th Century by the Timurid Empire virtually swept from the map the last remnants of the Mongols’ conquest of northeastern Europe. All that remained was the Tartar Khanate of Crimea and a vast and deserted steppe that stretched from the Carpathian Mountains in the west to the Urals in the east. Into this void stepped two powerful kingdoms, the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Russian Kingdom of Muscovy.
Where the frontiers of the two states met opposite the Crimean Tartars along the river basins of the Dnieper, Don, and Donetz, the Poles and Russians encouraged settlers to the area to provide a bulwark against the slaving raids of the Muslim Tartars and Ottoman Turks. The settlers were not an ethnic group but fiercely independent homesteaders, frontiersmen, and adventurers known as Cossacks. The Cossacks formed “Sichs” (literally “cuts”, either of land or the logs that formed their stockades and forts) and were expected to defend the area in exchange for land and fealty.
By the 17th century, the Zaporizhian Sich along the Dnieper River was a semi-autonomous part of the powerful Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth. However, the Orthodox Cossacks begrudged their Catholic Polish and Ruthenian (Russified Lithuanians) overlords, then at the vanguard of the Counter-Reformation. Additionally, they despised the increasing number of Poles, Ruthenians, and especially Jews who were settling the Sich. The Cossacks felt that the Szlachta, the pervasive nobility of the Commonwealth, and the Jews, which unlike the rest of Europe were welcomed in the Commonwealth, had more rights than the Cossacks (They were correct). Finally, the Cossacks resented the Polonization of their own quasi-nobility, particularly those that converted to Catholicism. Whenever the situation demanded or the Cossacks showed signs of rebellion, the Polish king usually declared a war against their Muslim neighbors. The war kept the Cossacks busy, and the loot kept them appeased. The Cossacks loved the king because he showered them with privileges as a counterbalance against the nobility.
In 1647, King Wladyslaw IV Vasa, the Swedish king of the Commonwealth (the Commonwealth elected its king, usually a foreigner to keep him weak; it’s complicated) ordered the Cossacks to prepare for a new war against the Ottomans. However, the Sejm (the parliament of nobles) vetoed the idea and ordered the Cossacks to prepare for a new war against the growing power of Muscovy’s successor, the Tsardom of Russia. This sent the Cossacks into a rage. The Russians were coreligionists and used Cossacks themselves. More importantly, those Russians on the Steppe were poor and the Ottomans were rich. Moreover, piracy on the Black Sea, contemporary pirates in the Caribbean had nothing on Cossacks in the Black Sea, was infinitely more lucrative and enjoyable than marching around the cold and endless Steppe. The Cossacks were on the edge of revolt, they just needed a leader.
Enter Bohdan Khmelnitskiy, a respected Ruthenian noblemen and veteran of nearly countless wars against the Ottomans and Crimeans. In 1645, Khmelnitskiy had a land dispute with a powerful Polish magnate (the upper tier of the Szlachta). The magnate’s starost (like a county commissioner) Daniel Czaplinski raided and seized Khmelnitskiy’s land. Khmelnitskiy protested to the king, but the king couldn’t take on such a powerful magnate. So Khmelnitskiy stole Czaplinski’s wife and was arrested. In late 1647, he escaped and fled to the Zaporizhian Sich with his Registered Cossack regiment. (A “Registered Cossack” was a Cossack that was officially in the pay of the king or a magnate.) With the Sich on the brink of rebellion, the charismatic Khmelnitskiy pushed them over. On 25 January, 1648, Khmelnitskiy had the Commonwealth’s administration in the Sich killed. The next day, Bohdan Khmelnitskiy was elected Hetman (warlord) of the Zaporizhian Sich.
Cossack rebellions had been attempted before, but were always crushed by superior heavily armoured Polish cavalry. Unlike in Napoleonic times when Cossacks were known for their superior light cavalry, in the 17th century they constituted the light infantry par excellence. They were akin to tens of thousands of Robert’s Rangers roaming the Steppe. The Poles and Ruthenians always provided the cavalry. So when the Cossacks did revolt, they were always crushed by a massive charge of Husaria and Panzerini, against which they could not hope to stand. In a tribute to Khmelnitskiy’s charisma, he convinced the Sich to make an alliance with their archenemy, the Crimean Tartars, who could provide the cavalry necessary to defeat the Commonwealth. The Crimean Khan dispatched his best general, Tugur Bey, with 18,000 Tartar horsemen to assist the uprising.
Khmelnitskiy’s Uprising would bring fire and sword to the Steppe, and eventually to the Commonwealth itself. Hundreds of thousands of Ruthenian, Polish, Jewish, and Cossack peasants, burghers, and nobles were killed, or sold into slavery to pay for Tugur Bey’s cavalry. Sensing Commonwealth weakness, by 1655 all of its neighbors, Russia, Prussia, Austria, Sweden, and the Ottoman Empire invaded in what is now known in Polish history as “The Deluge”. In 1654, Khmelnitskiy ceded the Zaporizhian Sich to Russia in the Treaty of Pereyaslav for continued military support against the Commonwealth.
By 1648, Europe was ravaged in the religious civil war known as the Thirty Years War which initially pitted the Catholics against the Protestants, but eventually devolved into a power struggle between the French Bourbon and the Austrian/Spanish Hapsburg dynasties. Since 1618, foraging armies crisscrossed Poland, the German principalities, and the southern Netherlands, massacring those of another faith and looting their towns and cities. The Seven United Dutch provinces were for all intents and purposes independent as the Dutch Republic, but had been in revolt since 1568 against the Hapsburgs of Spain. To the Dutch, the Thirty Years War was just another phase of the Eighty Years War. On 30 January, 1648, as part of the ongoing negotiations to end all of the destructive conflicts in Europe, Dutch and Spanish officials signed the Treaty of Munster which formally recognized the Dutch Republic. Though fighting would continue for three more months until the treaty was approved by the Bourbon and Hapsburg monarchs.
The Treaty of Munster was the first of a series of treaties over the course of 1648 known as the Peace of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years War. The Peace of Westphalia elevated and established the sovereign state over the sovereign dynasties (Spain and France as opposed to Bourbon and Hapsburg) which would cement a principle of non-intervention in another state’s affairs, particularly religious affairs. It also established the legal precedent of state equality in international law, no matter how large or small the size of the states, which is the foundation of our modern international system. In doing so, the Peace also effectively ended the Holy Roman Empire as a major political entity. Most importantly though, the Peace of Westphalia ended intra-faith warfare among Christians, and they would no longer go to war strictly for theological reasons. Finally, the Treaty of Munster gave us the Netherlands.
At the end of the 16th and early 17th century, three or four small pox epidemics wiped out the majority of the Native American population in what is now known as New England and created a power vacuum. Into this void came the first English and Dutch settlements such as the Plymouth, Saybrook, Connecticut, and Massachusetts Bay Colonies. Of the remaining tribes, the Pequot Indians (Mohegan for “destroyers”) warred on the other regional tribes, the Mohegan and Narragansett, in order to aggressively expand their hunting grounds and secure a monopoly on the lucrative fur and wampum trade with the settlers.
In the spring of 1636, the Pequot killed John Stone, an influential English trader, smuggler, and privateer, for the death of one of their traders by the Dutch. The Pequot paid a blood debt for the mistake, but didn’t hand over the culprits for trial, as demanded by the English. A few weeks later, a Narragansett hunting party killed John Oldham, a respected trader from the new Puritan colony of Connecticut for trading with the Pequot, which they wanted to discourage. After an English raid on Block Island the Narragansett offered to turn the wrongdoers over to the English but before that could happen they sought sanctuary with the Pequot. When the English tracked the murderers down, they demanded not only Oldham’s but also Stone’s killers. The Pequot stalled to evacuate the culprits, so the English attacked. They torched the village but didn’t catch them. The Pequot War had begun.
The Pequot called all their clients and allies to war, including the Nehantic, close neighbors of the Mohegan and Narragansett, whom joined the English. The offensive minded Pequot immediately went on the attack, and raided towns, villages, and farmsteads all across New England. In the autumn and winter of 1636. they besieged Fort Saybrook.
On 13 December, 1636, the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony ordered the formation of three regiments of infantry from the existing militia companies of the colony, and any remaining able bodied men between the ages of 16 and 60. They were to protect the towns from Pequot raids and assist the Connecticut Colony in relieving Fort Saybrook.
In 1636 while Germany was ravaged by the Thirty Years War, the Dutch Netherlands were relatively untouched as they continued their on and off fight for complete independence from the Spanish Empire. In 1636 the Dutch were beginning their Golden Age. The Merchant Republic of the United Provinces of the Netherlands had a far flung trading empire with colonies and trading posts in the Americas, Africa, Ceylon, India, the South Pacific, and Japan. The Netherlands was easily as powerful as its much larger neighbors, Great Britain and France. As the Dutch slowly asserted their own foreign policy, they sent ambassadors around the world; one of them returned from the Ottoman Empire with bulbs from a plant hitherto unseen in the Provinces – the tulip.
The bright flowers took to the Dutch soil like peanut butter to jelly, or corruption to politics. With war with Spain winding down, economic resources poured into commerce, and Dutch cities became unimaginably wealthy. Grand city houses were used by the newly rich merchants to display their wealth, and the tulips gracing the small yards and windowsills became the centerpieces of their new status. The more exotic and multicolored the tulip, the higher the price, and thus the greater status accorded to its owners, the only exception being any dark violet bulb close enough to the elusive and coveted Holy Grail of the Netherlands – The Black Tulip. The trade in tulip bulbs had occurred for decades, but only during the months from April (when they bloomed) to October (when they had to be replanted). On 12 November 1636, the Dutch created the first formal futures market for the soon-to-be symbol of the country. Buying and selling of the next season’s tulip bulbs began five months earlier than normal, and without the bulbs actually trading hands.
The Dutch merchants went insane for the new bulb contracts. In taverns and salons across the Provinces, tulip contracts changed hands at a frenzied pace. Speculative buying pushed the prices higher and higher. The entire population dabbled in the tulip market as a quick way to get rich. Within a month, tulip bulb “exports” became the fourth most profitable product in the country without a single bulb actually leaving the ground. Some bulbs went for as much as 3000 guilders, at a time when a skilled craftsman made 300 guilders a year.
Just three months later on 3 February 1637, one of only two Semper Augustus bulbs in existence was used to purchase 12 acres of land. With a fixed supply, the bulbs had gotten extraordinarily expensive. Very soon, the prices for the bulbs had gotten so high that buyers became scarce, then nonexistent. The Tulip Market crashed and the speculative bubble burst. Fortunes were made, but debts more so. France threatened to invade to collect.
By the April tulip bloom in 1637, the prices were back to what they were on 12 November. Tulipmania had run its course, and nearly destroyed the new country.
Monsieur Dalerac was the secretary of King Jan Sobieski’s wife and despised everything Polish. However just after the Battle of Vienna in 1683, even he said the Husaria were, “without a doubt, the most beautiful cavalry in Europe”. Poland’s famed Husaria were also the most deadly. From 1570 to 1690, 120 years, the Husaria never lost a major battle. They were the shock troops of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and only the best equipped and best trained of the Polish and Lithuanian nobility could provide them and afford their equipment. The Husaria were equivalent of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard – their charge decided battles.
The Husaria were a product of the peculiar nature of the Polish and Lithuanian nobility. The “Szlachta” in the centuries up to and including the 17th were a unique curiosity and stood apart from the nobility of most countries in Europe. The nobility of England, France, Germany and the rest of Europe made up about 2% of the population; in the Polish, Lithuanian, and Ruthenian lands, the Szlachta made up about 10% of the population. They were known as the “petty gentry”, and filled the role of the middle class before there was even such a thing in Europe. In addition to the magnates and traditional nobility, the Szlachta were the small landowners in the towns and the property owners in the cities. And woe betide any who insinuated that the owner of a small manor who worked his land no different than the peasants beside him was in any way less of a man than the magnate of great estate whose hands didn’t know the scythe.
The Szlachta were inextricably and symbiotically linked to that other middle class, the Jewish merchants and businessmen, whom were welcomed with open arms in Polish and Lithuanian Kingdoms when they were persecuted and murdered elsewhere. Together they formed the threads from which the Polish and Lithuanian tapestry was woven. Though the Szlachta’s origins are shrouded in myth, they claimed to be descendants of the Sarmatian horsemen who banded together in the 5th century with the Slavic tribes in the Oder, Vistula, and Nieman river valleys to defend against the depredations of the Huns. Whether that is true or not is lost to history, but one fact of life remains unchallenged among those who lived on the Ukrainian Steppe or the eastern edge of the Northern European Plain during the Middle Ages or the Renaissance – to be a member of the Polish or Lithuanian nobility, one must go to war on a horse.
But not all of the Szlachta could afford the heavy and expensive panoply of the medieval knight, such as those that broke the Teutonic Knights at the battle of Grunewald in 1410. The lower nobles armed and armored themselves as best as they could afford, and formed a mass of light cavalry behind their richer and better equipped counterparts. By the end of the Renaissance, the “Pospolite ruszenie” or levee en mass of the Szlachta had been called so often to repel invaders that the nobles began to standardize equipment. They were known as “Kozacy” from the freewheeling mounted adventurers then beginning to populate the man made desert known as the Ukrainian Steppe, but out of necessity they armed themselves as that light cavalry from Poland’s interminable friend to the south, the Hungarian hussar.
The Hungarian nobility and cavalry paralleled the Polish and Lithuanian, and their wars with the Ottoman Turks in the 15th and early 16th century standardized the petty gentry’s equipment in the form of the hussar. The destruction of the Hungarian nobility by the Turks at the Battle of Mohacs in 1526 put the hussar on two separate tracks of development. In the West, the hussar became the lightly armed and unarmored cavalryman “par excellence”, exemplified by Frederick the Great’s Prussian light cavalry used for reconnaissance and raiding, or Napoleon’s well-dressed and dashing foragers, scouts, and wooers of ladies. But in the East during the Golden Age of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, firearms made the knights’ heavy armor obsolete, but the hussars of the Szalchta became better equipped. With the development of gunpowder and pikes in Western Europe in the 16th and 17th century, the charge of heavy knights became ineffective. However, in the freewheeling and open battles of Eastern Europe where arquebusier fire could be avoided and pike phalanxes out flanked, not so much.
By 1570, not all of the Szlachta could call themselves Husaria, but many could. Poles and Ruthenians who were different ethnically but equipped the same as unarmored Cossacks were all still known as “Kozacy”, and this term for light cavalry would continue well into the 19th century. Those Szlachta who could armour themselves in chainmail, still effective against the saber slashes of the Tartar and Turk of 16th century Eastern Europe, were known as “Panzerini”. The rich nobles who could afford the firearms, long lances, heavy horses, and the plate cuirasses patterned off their Sarmatian forbears were known as the Husaria.
By the time Stephen Bathory was elected King of Poland in the 1570s and definitely by the time the Poles captured Moscow in 1610, the Husaria formed the heavy shock cavalry of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The less well equipped Szlachta of the Kozacy and Panzerini performed the traditional cavalry roles while the Husaria existed for one reason and one reason only – to break an enemy formation on the field of battle.
For honors’ sake, the upper strata of the Szlachta wanted to be at the forefront of battle and they armed and equipped themselves as such. Husaria had the heaviest warhorses in Europe, and Poland forbade their export for just that reason. Not wishing to change what was already good enough, Husaria were equipped with a Sarmatian style Roman breastplate and a composite German/Romano helmet, akin to a Spanish conquistadores’ with cheek and nose guard. Their arms consisted of a long 18ft lance topped with a pennant for identification, a straight long sword on the left of the saddle, an axe or war hammer on the right of the saddle, a sabre at the hip like any good noblemen, a brace of pistols like their contemporaneous musketeers, and a carbine for good measure.
But it was neither their arms nor armor that set the Polish Husaria apart. It was their accoutrements that garnered much attention. On his back, the Husaria could afford a bear, lion, tiger, or even an exotic leopard or jaguar skin. The exotic cape fluttered between wooden poles from which fluttered hawk, eagle, falcon, and even ostrich feathers: The “wings” of the Polish Hussars.
The purpose of the Husaria’s wings are a subject of much scholarly debate. Originally it was thought that the whistling of the wings unnerved enemy troops and horses. Also, the wooden uprights to which the feathers were attached were thought to prevent Turkish lassos from pulling riders from their saddles. More recent scholarship has accepted that that they just looked bad ass and scared the living shit out of those they were about to break. Whatever the reason, when the Polish Husaria charged, the enemy that survived took notice and usually fled – that is a historical fact.
On September 12th 1683, Poland’s King Jan Sobieski emerged from the Vienna Wood and his men fought their way through the Turkish lines to relieve the city which was about to fall to a Turkish siege. All morning and afternoon, his Panzerini and Kozacy pounded over the Turkish trenches until they came to the flat terrain that permitted a proper charge. That evening, 1,100 Polish Husaria charged the remaining 90,000 Turkish besiegers. The Husaria didn’t stop until they reached the Gates of Vienna and the Turks never threatened Central Europe again.
“Za wolność Waszą i naszą!”, “For your freedom and ours!”
On All Hallow’s Eve, 1517, local teacher, professor of theology, and Augustinian monk, Martin Luther posted a proposal for a public debate on the door of Wittenberg castle’s church regarding the sale of indulgences by traveling Dominican friars. In 1517, indulgences were certificates guaranteed by the Pope that the bearer would not have to spend time in Purgatory for their earthly sins. Luther had drawn up a list of 95 theses which were his concerns, not specifically against indulgences themselves, but with their sale without any true contrition. He wanted to provoke debate, something he was very good at, and reform the Church, not break with it.
There is no evidence of Luther actually “nailing his theses to the door”. However, that day Luther did send copies of his 95 theses to Albrecht the archbishop of Mainz and Jerome the Bishop of Brandenburg, who forwarded them to the Pope. The bishops then let the matter drop. Stymied by his chain of command’s inaction, Luther sent his 95 theses to several friends throughout Germany. These friends promptly had many more copies made on one of the newest inventions of the Renaissance, the printing press. Luther gained a following and the Dominicans’ revenue from indulgences dropped. At the powerful Dominican order’s request, Pope Leo X issued a decree demanding the following of the Dominican practice of indulgences, which Luther and his adherents ignored. He wouldn’t give in without his debate.
Prominent German theologian John Eck took up Luther’s gauntlet. In July 1519, the two debated in Leipzig. Eck got the best of Luther, but only because Eck slandered him by pointing out that a century before, Jan Hus also thought indulgences were sacrilegious. This bit of sophistry horrified Luther, who had accepted Jan Hus and his failed Hussite rebellion in Bohemia in 1414, as the height of heresy. There were quicker ways to get burnt at the stake than by being called a “Hussite”, but not many.
Luther dug into Hus’ teachings to refute Eck. However, he found that he was actually fully in agreement with Hus, and speaking to his followers, said, “We are all Hussites without realizing it.” Luther began a proper campaign of book and pamphlet writing espousing and clarifying his thoughts on the Church, which due to the printing press, spread rapidly throughout Europe. It was at this point that Luther began calling for a break with the Church of Rome.
At several points in those formative years of the Protestant churches, Luther could have easily been declared heretical and burned at the stake. However, Luther had a powerful benefactor, the Elector Frederick of Saxony, who did not want his star orator and teacher, and Saxony’s most famous subject, harmed. When Luther was summoned to Rome to explain his views (where he would have almost certainly been killed), Frederick convinced the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximillian, to allow Luther to debate the Dominicans in Augsburg. The ailing Maximillian, who needed Frederick’s vote to get his grandson Charles elected as the next Emperor, was only too glad to accommodate Luther.
After Charles was elected Emperor, the politics of the Holy Roman Empire continued to be more important than the “Monk’s Quarrel”. Under Frederick’s protection, “Lutheranism” spread throughout Europe. In 1521, Luther was at the height of his popularity, and Charles requested that he explain himself at the Diet of Worms, fully expecting Luther to recant. But Luther did no such thing, and many of the members of the Diet called for his immediate execution. However, Charles honored his promise of Luther’s safe conduct. The Diet was called because Charles needed funds to fight the Turks, who had just recently captured Belgrade, which opened up the Hungarian Plain to Turkish raids and incursions. Frederick was by far the richest elector in the Empire, and Charles needed his support.
After securing Frederick’s support, Charles did outlaw Lutheranism, but by then it was too late. Luther translated the New Testament from Latin to German, so that “every man can be his own priest”, which broke the power of the clergy and “democratized salvation”. Due to Luther’s superior rhetorical skills, prolific book writing and pamphleteering, which was compounded by the printing press, Lutheranism could no longer be contained. It had spread throughout Germany, France, the Low Countries, and even England.
The Protestant Reformation would eventually set Europe on fire. It would take over a hundred years of bitter and bloody internecine warfare before most Catholics and Protestants realized religion wasn’t worth killing each other over.
1587 was a critical year in the Counter Reformation. Protestant Queen Elizabeth I of England was funding and supporting the Dutch revolt against the Catholic Spanish in Eighty Years War in Flanders and the Spanish Netherlands. When Elizabeth beheaded Mary Stuart in February, it deprived English Catholics of a leader to rally around, and Phillip II of Spain decided that the only way England could be brought back into the Catholic fold was to invade. Phillip authorized “the Enterprise”, the Spanish Armada, to invade England that summer. The plan was for the Armada to defeat the English at sea, then convoy the Duke of Parma’s army, then in Flanders, to seize London, with the support of England’s beleaguered Catholics. Upon the news, Elizabeth’s most devoted champion, Francis Drake, immediately put to sea, and raided the Spanish anchorage of Cadiz. He destroyed thirty Spanish ships destined for the Armada, including the Marquis of Santa Cruz’ flagship. As devastating as this was, it paled to Drake’s subsequent raids off of Portuagal’s Cape St Vincent where Drake destroyed nearly a year’s production of barrel staves, without which the Armada was delayed a year. But before these consequences were realized, the Duke of Parma masterfully seized the port of Sluys on the North Sea for an embarkation point. But Sluys was suboptimal, what would be even better was a French port on the English Channel.
France was caught in the middle of the Anglo-Spanish War and the Counter Reformation in general. France’s Catholics were fighting the Protestant Huguenots in France’s “Wars of Religion” but in reality the conflict was a complicated three sided civil war known as the “War of the Three Henrys”. The first Henry was Henry De Guise, an influential French noble and an ardent Catholic. He was France’s most vocal member of the Holy League who took his instructions more from Spain and the Pope than the French monarch. The next was the last of the House of Valois and current French King, Henry III. Henry III was Catholic, and former King of Poland-Lithuania (long story), and a French nationalist. However, he was opposed to Habsburg hegemony through Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, and secretly thought that an alliance with England was the best way to prevent this. However, as a Catholic he had to officially oppose the third Henry, Henry of Navarre, the leader of Huguenot resistance in France. Henry, the King of Navarre, was next in line for the throne, but was a Protestant. In 1587, on behalf of France’s semi-independent Protestant nobles, he fought both Henry III’s ideas of a centralized monarchy and De Guise’s militant Catholicism. On the morning of 20 October 1587, the normally very competent and professional Henry of Navarre found himself surprised by a Catholic army under one of Henry III’s dandies, Anne de Joyeuse.
But Joyeuse wasn’t any ordinary courtier of the French king. Though an amateur, Joyeuse threw himself into warfare with as much enthusiasm as he did court politics. Joyeeuse’s superior force stole a night march on Henry and cornered him at the village of Coutras. The village was in a cul de sac between two rivers and Henry planned only to stay long enough to water his horses and rest for the night. However, he misjudged how far Joyneuse’s army was away, and was surprised to hear his pickets firing on the morning of 20 October 1587. Henry’s first thought was escape as a pitched battle would risk the entirety of the Huguenot leadership. And the village was a decidedly bad place to defend. However, he could possibly get away with the leadership and the cavalry, but the bulk of the army would have to be sacrificed. All he had was his reputation as a leader of men, and if he abandoned his army, that would never survive.
Henry began organizing his men in the field outside the town when Joyeuse’s army broke through the woods into the clearing opposite him. Fortunately both sides were equally disorganized, as the night march wreaked havoc on Joyeuse’s formation. By what seemed mutual agreement, both sides spent the next two hours forming battle lines. Joyeuses’ army was larger and better equipped. She had the crème of Catholic French nobility, the Gendarme, and the best troops De Guise’s money could buy. But Henry’s men were solid professionals and veterans of a hundred skirmishes and battles.
On the left, Henry’s cannon, masked by a marsh, were in place first and savaged the Catholic formation, forcing Joyeuse into a premature attack. Though on Henry’s right the tired light cavalry fell back, any Catholic advance was stopped amidst bitter fighting in the town. On the far right, Henry’s arquebusiers held strong along a shallow ravine. But these didn’t matter, the battle was decided in the center.
A thousand Catholic armoured knights in full plate and mail began at a walk, then a trot, then about a third of the way across the field, at a charge. It was too soon. The timing of a charge is a delicate matter: too late, and the knights were not at full speed, too soon, and the formation was ragged as the lesser horses couldn’t keep up. There was no such problem among Henry’s veteran heavy cavalry. They smashed the Catholic charge with a well-timed counter charge of their own. A massacre ensued. Joyeuse surrendered and offered a hundred thousand gold pieces in ransom, but was summarily shot though the head seconds later.
In 1587, there was no love lost between Catholic and Protestant in France. The Catholic French nobility was slaughtered, and the power of De Guise was diminished. More important, there would be no French Catholic support for a Spanish invasion of England. But Henry was also a nationalist, and didn’t want to see a weak French monarchy at the mercy of powerful French dukes. The slaughter of the radical French Catholics at Coutras directly led to the rise of nationalism at the expense of religion in France during the Thirty Years War (See Cardinal Richelieu). The Battle of Coutras kept France out of the Anglo-Spanish War, and two years later Henry III was assassinated by a Dominican monk who thought Henry III was not doing enough against the Huguenots. By Salic law, Henry of Navarre was crowned King of France, the first of the Bourbon line.
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 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 hoped 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 to 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.