Holy Roman Empire, at the beginning of the 17th century. The ecclesiastical states Cologne, Mainz and Trier in the West and the worldly states in the South were mainly Catholic, the North mainly Lutheran, and Calvinism had spread in the Palatinate, Nassau, Hesse-Kassel, Brandenburg, Switzerland and the Netherlands. The confessions delimited against one another, and so did the states. That led to increasing tensions. Finally, in 1608/1609, the Protestant dukes grouped together into the “Union”, and the Catholic princes into the “League”. Also the War of Independence between Spain and the Netherlands was partly fought on German territory. In 1620, Dutch troops occupied the Rhine island “Komper Werth” close to Bonn.
Emperor Ferdinand I (1556-1564) as well as his successors Maximilian II (1564-1576), Rudolf II (1576-1612) and Matthias (1612-1619) had respected the Augsburg Peace and avoided fights over religion within the Empire. That changed when the staunch Catholic Ferdinand II (1619-1637), Archduke of Austria and Crown Prince of Bohemia, ascended to the throne. He wanted to impose religious uniformity – in order words: Catholicism – on his lands. This greatly upset the Protestant, primarily Hussite Bohemian nobility. On May 23, 1618 Ferdinand’s representatives were thrown out of a window of Hradcany Castle in Prague, and Bohemia was in open revolt. This date, known as the Defenestration of Prague, is considered the outbreak of the Thirty Years War.
Bohemian Revolt (1618-1619)
The Bohemians offered their crown to the Calvinist Elector of the Palatinate, Friedrich V, but already in 1620 he was defeated by the Emperor’s troops. Bohemia was brought back to Catholicism by force, many Protestants were dispossessed and expatriated. The war could have ended here, but the Thirty Years’ War again and again fed itself from itself. It may have broken out as a war over religion, but soon developed into a war over power, influence and predominance in Europe. When mercenaries fighting for the Protestant side marauded through Westphalia, the Catholic military commander Tilly pursued and defeated them. The victorious Catholic army almost in the North alarmed the Protestant princes.
Danish Intervention (1625-1629)
Led by Christian IV of Denmark, who hold large territories in Northern Germany, and supported by Holland and England, they took up the fight. In the mean time, the Emperor Ferdinand II had a second army under General Wallenstein, a war profiteer of the Bohemian revolt who had offered the Emperor his army in return for the right to plunder the captured territories. Wallenstein stands for many of the terrors of the Thirty Years’ War, for ruthless treatment of the civilian population, wild plunders and marauding soldiers. Wallenstein and Tilly defeated the Protestant armies and occupied the entire Northern German, Wallenstein even was about to conquer the North and East See area on behalf of the Emperor.
At the height of his might, Ferdinand II claimed all property back that princes converting to Lutheranism had kept against the Augsburg peace (Edict of Restitution of 1629). It would have been the end of Protestantism in the Empire, and also the Protestant princes’ might. But also the Catholic princes were alienated. They feared the Emperor’s increasing power and resented the way he privileged Wallenstein. Pressed by both sides, Ferdinand II had to revise the edict, and Wallenstein, the hated parvenu, had to go. In Sweden, King Gustav Adolf was alarmed, both because Sweden’s predominance in North was challenged and because Sweden, a Lutheran Kingdom, would not just watch reformation being destroyed in the Empire.
Swedish Intervention (1630-1635)
In 1630, Sweden entered the war, financially supported by France under Cardinal Richelieu. Although the French were mainly Catholics and Richelieu himself was a cardinal in the Catholic Church, he sided with the Protestant Swedish King against the Catholic Emperor, for he would not tolerate Habsburg gaining predominance in Europe. At first, the German Protestant princes did not the support the Swedish invention. Only when the city of Magdeburg fell and went up in flames in 1631, they joined forces. Now Gustav Adolf marched southward, defeated Tilly’s army two times and shortly after stood in Munich. The Catholic “Liga” seemed to be lost. Tilly was mortally wounded, and the Emperor had to call Wallenstein back, but he could not defeat the Swedes either. But then Gustav Adolf fell in the battle of Lützen 1632, and the Protestant side was in a state of shock.
Wallenstein almost died in this battle, too, and that seemed to have changed his mind. He did not pursue the Swedes, but just watched as they conquered further cities, and negotiated with various sides. Whatever his motives may have been – for Emperor Ferdinand II, it was high treason. Wallenstein was removed from command and outlawed, shortly after he was murdered (1634). After Wallenstein’s death, Archduke Ferdinand took over command of the Imperial troops. He re-conquered Southern Germany from the Swedes.
Destruction of the castles on the Drachenfels and the Löwenburg
The Prince-Archbishop of Cologne had sent Tilly three regiments for reinforcements. In 1632, the Swedish General Baudissin marched against the Archbishopric of Cologne. In 1633, Swedish troops under General Baudissin conquered the Drachenfels and destroyed its outer parts; shortly after they were driven away by the Spaniards. About the same time, the Löwenburg castle was destroyed. About ten years later, in 1642, the Archbishop ordered the Drachenfels castle to be demolished. When in the year 1635 it seemed that the country could finally find peace, France entered the war openly, supporting the Protestant side.
French intervention (1635-1648)
Years of terror followed. Many military commanders had taken over Wallenstein’s ruthless approach of forcing off the civilian population what his troops needed. The war lasting for decades already had brutalized the warriors. Mercenary armies with their baggage marched through the lands, among them many adventures or even criminals. Paid lately or not at all, they recouped by theft, robbery and pillage. While people in the cities surrounded by big walls were halfway safe, the people in the villages had no chance. Swedes, Dutch and Hesse marched robbing and plundering through the country.
In the year 1638, Wolfgang Wilhelm, Duke of Jülich-Cleves-Berg (1614-1653), reported that in the County of Berg (Bergisches Land) only 1/6 of the inhabitants had survived. At the end of the Thirty Years War, large parts of the country, entire regions were in ashes and depopulated. Not only the war, famine and epidemics cost many people’s lives.
Peace of Westphalia
1648 peace was finally made in Münster and Osnabrück. The free Netherlands and Switzerland became formally independent. Sweden got extensive territories in Northern Germany, in turn the Empire lost the big harbor cities and its access to world trade. Friedrich Wilhelm (Frederick William), the Great Elector of Brandenburg, represented the Protestant cause. He himself was Calvinist and pushed through that the Calvinists were granted the same rights as the Lutherans. The princes participated in the negotiations and were granted full sovereignty in their lands.
After the war, the Empire consisted of some 300 bigger and smaller duchies and earldoms, and the political map definitely looked like a mosaic. The Empire was destitute: on the countryside, thousands of farms and villages lay in ashes, in the cities business and trade had been badly damaged. As a result of the wars, a new plague epidemic raged in 1666 and brought even more suffering.
The picture is from the German Wikipedia, public domain section.