In 1643, the Thirty Years War raged across continental Europe for the past 25 years. In 1635, Catholic France joined with the Protestant Germans, Dutch and Scandinavians against their political rivals the Catholic Hapsburgs of Austria and Spain. The indomitable Cardinal Richelieu of France had been bankrolling Sweden and the Protestants for years, but after the disastrous Swedish defeat at Nordlingen, entered France into the war directly to prevent Hapsburg hegemony in all of its surrounding lands on the continent. In 1640, Richelieu started war against Spain “by diversion”, funding Catalan, Basque, Portuguese, and Dutch insurgents which he hoped would force Spain to sue for peace. By 1643, the plan was working.
Spain needed to defeat France quickly. Moreover, Cardinal Richelieu died that winter and Louis XIII fell horribly ill. So in the spring, a combined Spanish, German, Italian, and Walloon army marched on France through the Ardennes Forest to avoid the main French armies in Flanders, (I wonder if that would ever happen again…) and capitalize on the political confusion associated with the transfer of power and royal succession in Paris. The Spanish Army of Flanders under Francisco de Melo had invaded France through the Ardennes before and defeated the French at the Battle of Honnecourt in 1642. However, Melo decided not to proceed to Paris due to the training and suspect loyalties of his Walloon cavalry. He vowed not to make the same mistake again.
But this year the French were prepared. Melo stopped and invested the French fortified town of Rocroi to secure his line of communication back to Flanders. The garrison sent frantic messages that they could withstand the siege for but two days. Fortunately, the French army was at Amiens under the young 21 year old Louis II Duc d’Enghien and Prince de Conde, placed just so to stop any future penetration of the Ardennes (…). D’Enghien rushed to Rocroi to break the siege before a reinforcing column of Spanish arrived. During the march, D’Enghien learned via secret courier that the King died that evening, and the throne passed to four year old King Louis XIV and his regent, the Queen-mother Anne of Austria. He wisely kept the news from his men: the death of the king would shatter the morale of his army and a loss at Rocroi would send France into chaos.
On the evening of 18 May, both armies lined up opposite each other outside of Rocroi. That night, Melo infiltrated a thousand arquebusiers under his most trusted subordinate, General Baltasar de Mercader, to ambush the French when they inevitably attacked in the morning. However, D’Enghien might have been young, but he was not inexperienced. The Princes of Condé campaigned for the Bourbons since the day they could keep themselves in the saddle. D’Enghien encouraged deserters and exploited his coreligionist Spain’s use of Catholic Walloons, Germans, and Flemings in invading France, instead of fighting Protestants. The French were neighbors, the distant Spanish were not; one of the first signs of the rise of nation-state codified five years later in the Treaty of Westphalia. Deserters from Spain’s allies were rampant, and Melo’s ambush was discovered and annihilated before dawn. Those troops, and more consequently Mercader, Melo’s best infantry commander, were sorely missed the next day.
At dawn, the battle was joined. D’Enghien attacked with his pikemen, musketeers, and arquebusiers in the center, and with his cavalry on the right. The cavalry on his left he held back due to the marshy terrain. The infantry fight in the center devolved into a stalemate that favored the Spanish tercios. The Spanish tercios were the scourge of Europe for the last 150 years, virtually unbeatable on the battlefield in a head to head melee.
A tercio was a Spanish infantry formation that combined the defensive power of a phalanx of pikes with the offensive power of sword and buckler men and the firepower of protected arquebusiers. But the tercio required professional or highly trained troops to operate effectively, especially on the offense. After 25 years of constant warfare, the Spanish no longer had enough veterans, and had to rely on less disciplined and trained proxies to fill out their formations. This was compounded by technical advances in arquebuses, cannon, and the recent introduction of rifled barrels and early flintlock muskets.
The tercios’ density gave it an unquestionable resilience on the defensive, but that same density limited the amount of troops able to engage the enemy. In contrast, the French, Dutch, and most famously the Swedes, experimented with line and block formations: lines of musketeers supported by blocks of pikemen. The line and block formations were relatively easy to control, and allowed a much greater percentage of the formation to engage, albeit at the expense of depth. The French flexibility and firepower offset the Spanish durability. Unfortunately for the Spanish, the proud commander of the center, Paul-Bernard de Fontaines was bed ridden and had to be carried on a litter. Without an aggressive commander to push them forward, the fight in the center stalemated, something that rarely happened to the tercios. The question became, who would break first?
On the left, the impetuous French cuirassiers attacked without orders through the marsh, became disordered and were smashed by a counter charge of German cavalry. However, the commander of the Spanish right wheeled his men to attack the French center, and exposed his own flank in the process. D’Enghien promptly dispatched his reserve and stabilized his left.
On the right, the French cavalry was under command of Louis XIII’s most experienced, energetic, and finest cavalry tactician, and mentor and kindred spirit to D’Enghien, Jean de Gassion. Gaisson crushed the suspect Walloon horse of the Spanish left. But instead of wheeling to attack the center as the Spanish had, Gaisson and D’Enghien led the superior French cavalry and charged the weak and novice German and Italian tercios of Melo’s reserve. The inexperienced tercios promptly routed and Gaisson seized all of Melo’s cannon. The Spanish center was surrounded.
Melo, rushing hither and yon about the battlefield trying to rally his broken cavalry, had to seek refuge among his tercios lest he be captured by the marauding French cavalry, who had free rein of the battlefield beyond the thrust of a pike around the Spanish center. Melo joined an Italian tercio, where he vowed to “die with the Italian gentlemen.” However, before they broke and he died, he led them away in a fighting retreat, and escaped.
Fontaines and the Spanish center was attacked on all sides by the French and was down to just one Burgundian and four Spanish tercios. Despite the merciless pounding they received from the French musketeers, Fontaines decided to stay and fight. His remaining men were the hard core of the Spanish Army of Flanders and they would die before breaking. Fontaine would fight it out and wait for the reinforcing column. The 6000 fresh troops would break D’Enghien’s weary men and rescue Fontaines. However, the reinforcing column stopped just three miles from the battlefield when it was met by the routed Germans and Walloons who told the commander the day was lost. Instead of confirming the information, the commander withdrew, leaving Fontaines to his fate.
An hour or so later D’Enghien brought forward all of the French and captured Spanish cannon and turned them on the remaining tercios. They pounded the unflinching Spaniards and Bugundians. Fontaines was shot and killed soon thereafter. The senior Spanish colonel offered D’Enghien terms to surrender, but when D’Enghien came forward under a flag of truce to negotiate, he was accidentally fired upon. This enraged the proud French whom massacred the offending tercio to a man. The remaining Spanish and Burgundians quickly surrendered to avoid the same fate.
The Battle of Rocroi signaled the beginning of the end of the Thirty Years War, and the weary belligerents signed the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. More importantly, the battle heralded French dominance in continental European affairs that ended only with Germany’s rise two century’s later. The Battle of Rocroi was seen as a good omen for the new king, the four year old Louis XIV whose ascendance to the throne was announced simultaneously with the victory by Richelieu’s replacement and protégé, Cardinal Mazarin. Fears of the Queen-mother, Anne of Austria being a Hapsburg puppet were ill founded. She was as dedicated to France as she was to her son, the future “Sun King”. Louis XIV would reign over France’s Golden Age. D’Enghien, soon named the “Grand Conde”, was one of his greatest commanders.
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.
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.