Thirty Years War

Thirty Years War

Before you read this post take a few minutes to read about the Prague Defenestrations and specifically the third one. This sets the political tone.

You might think that this is just history but in fact it has a direct impact on your tourism today. Look in your guidebook and it will talk about the Kinsky Palace, the Wallenstein Palace, the Rosenberg Palace the Kolowrat Palace, the Sternberg Palace etc etc. These are all families that fought on the winning side in the Thirty Years War. You may not realize it but we are reminded of this war in many different ways, family names, monuments, memorials, Coats of Arms, drain covers, black eagles on buildings. If you are interested in learning more check my other site at https://www.livingpraguetours.com.

The Thirty Years War was a religious Catholic vs Protestant war but it was a wider European conflict and it was also a civil war where the powerful families of the day had to choose a side. It would last 29 years, 11 months, 3 weeks and 1 day and in the process cause by war or breakdown in society the deaths of over 8 million people.

map showing dispositions and locations of opposing forces at the battle of white mountain during the thirty years war
The Battle of White Mountain Early in the Thirty Years War

And So It Begins

If you’ve read about the Prague Defenestrations then you’ll arrive at May 23rd 1618. Two royal regents had been thrown out of a window in the Old Royal Palace in Prague and later that year the Catholic Emperor Ferdinand II had been deposed. On November 4th 1619 a new Protestant Emperor was installed. He was Frederick V and was to become known as the Winter King (fun fact – his wife was Scottish).

So the Thirty Years War really starts in May 1618 and for the following year both sides tried to form alliances. The Protestants got off to a bad start because the royal families of the surrounding countries were either pro-Catholic or were Protestant but did not approve of the way that Frederick V had come to power and would not support it.

In the 17th Century the “Austrian Empire” stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Adriatic Sea but central Europe was largely a collection of self-controlled regions. Although the borders of Spain, France and Italy were largely as they are today, Germany was comprised of many “free” states with different religious affiliations (the Peace of Augsburg treaty in 1555 allowed the rulers of the free states to choose their own religion). The Thirty Years War caused these religious splits to widen until conflict decided their future. In my generation the closest comparison is the split of Yugoslavia in the 1990s i.e. a country with loosely defined ethnic areas but in this case it was religious differences. Towns and villages coalesce support, fighting breaks out but the stronger and more well armed factions win causing population movement to find safety.

Thirty Years War – Battle of White Mountain

As far as Prague was concerned it was all over the following year when Protestant forces were defeated at the Battle of White Mountain north-west of the city on November 8th 1620. Bila Hora (White Mountain) isn’t a mountain, it’s just a high area but it’s only 3km from Prague Castle. Now the battleground pictured above is largely residential but Brevnov Park and the Star House were there at the time and many protestant soldiers died at the Star House. In the picture the red forces are Protestant defending Frederick V at the castle. The blue forces are Catholics. The Catholics at twice the force size, more experienced and with better tactics won this battle dispatching a quarter of the Protestant forces in only 4 hours whereupon they simply manoeuvred around and captured the castle. So it meant that the Bohemian revolt was crushed, Frederick V was deposed and Ferdinand II was reinstated. Frederick spent the rest of his life living in Germany. The fact that he only was king for a year gave Frederick V the name “the Winter king”.

Not Finished Yet

Fighting continued in South Bohemia and Austria in a limited form for 5 years and to be honest it should have then finished. But wider European interests took over and I’ll note a few below:

1) France is a Catholic country but was against the Catholic Austrian Empire with whom it had a border. Between 1625 and 1630 it was fighting wars with Spain and England.
2) Denmark (Protestant and aligned with Norway) entered the Thirty Years War on the Protestant side in 1625 as it felt threatened by the Catholics but were defeated by 1630.
3) England entered the Thirty Years War in 1625 on the Protestant side but had little impact and after the Anglo-French war 1627-1629 it took no further part (note that Scotland also entered in the same year and eventually many Scots allied with Sweden – remember the king Frederick V’s wife was Scottish).
4) With the defeat of Denmark this put Catholics on the border of Sweden. Sweden (Protestant) signed a treaty with France (Catholic) and the French basically paid the Swedes to enter the Thirty Years War against the Austrian Empire.
5) Spain, already at war with France aligned with the Austrian Empire and entered the war on the Imperial side.
6) France formerly joined the Thirty Years War in 1635 and fought against the German Catholics.

So pretty much, without going into individual battles (I must mention the fact that Denmark entered the war in 1625 and was defeated by the Austrian empire, then it rejoined the war in 1642 this time on the side of the Austrians, only to be defeated again this time by the Swedish), the fighting was largely driven by the French and the Swedish on one side and the Austrians, Catholic Germans and Hungarians on the other until 1648.

Wars end in one of two ways, either one side has an overwhelming victory causing unconditional surrender or neither side can win outright and there is a treaty. Following the failed siege of Prague in 1648 the Swedish forces withdrew. In this case several treaties were signed to stop the fighting between various countries and factions. On May 15th 1648, 29 years, 11 months, 3 weeks and 1 day after the Thirty Years War started, it effectively came to an end. Two years later the Catholics in Prague commemorated the war by building the Marian Column and the city got a new Coat of Arms.

Thirty Years War

time to read: 4 min