The situation in Europe before the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War had been tense for several years. The most violent strives and wars in Central Europe (e.g. the Schmalkaldic War) between the Protestants and Catholics were settled by the Peace of Augsburg from year 1555 which was pushing through the motto Cuius region, eius religio (Whose realm, his religion). However, the disputes continued even after that. On the basis of the Peace of Augsburg the Habsburgs presented themselves as monarchs whose subjects were supposed to choose the religion practised by them – the Catholic. The problem, however, was the exercise of this right.
In the Bohemian Lands at the beginning of the 17th century the Protestant religion predominated. This, most probably, was the biggest problem and the bone of contention leading to an uprising against the monarch. The Habsburgs, on the base of the Peace of Augsburg brought into the country the Jesuits, who in addition to the effort to bring the people back to the Catholic Church also brought higher education. These, however, became a thorn in the Non-Catholics’ eye and there was more and more hatred towards them, which was nourished mainly with their pastoral success and also with their exceptional position. Nevertheless, the Protestants promised to be given religious freedom, first by Maximilian II in the form of so called Confessio Bohemica (only orally not in a written form) and then by Rudolf II in the form of so called Rudolf’s Imperial Charter (Czech: Rudolfův Majestát), which only sharpened the situation and thanks to which Rudolf was forced to abdicate.
Another bone of contention which led to the uprising was the freedom of the estates. More precisely its loss and the transition from the estate state to the absolute monarchy. The Estates Community tried to keep their positions and rights which were, already since Ferdinand’s I accession to the Bohemian throne in year 1526, gradually restricted. This, however, was a logical movement. Since the reign of the Jagiellonian dynasty was the power in the Bohemian Lands mainly in the hands of the nobility and the monarch’s power was significantly restricted. On the other hand, the Habsburgs were trying to change this trend, to centralize the power and to get a firm grip on it.
The time was on their side. After the Thirty Years’ War only those states remained powers which were absolute monarchies. This movement of the power naturally caused considerable indignation among the estates. In Europe at the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War there was a range of coalitions put together, e.g. in the Holy Roman Empire the Protestant Union and the Catholic League, which were unions of the lands united by the same confession. Europe was extensively polarized. However, as it later turned out, it was not only religious polarization but it was mainly the effort to win on the field of the power. For instance Catholic France entered the war on the side of mainly Protestant lands because they wanted to weaken the power of Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs.
The Bohemian Uprising of the Estates began on 23rd May 1618 with the so called Second Prague Defenestration. From the windows of Prague Castle two vicegerents Vilém Slavata of Chlum and Jaroslav Borzita of Martinice and their secretary Fabricius were thrown out. It was a miracle that they survived the falling and that they were not even hit by the bullets which were fired by those who threw them out of the windows. This rather unsuccessful attempt to settle accounts with the hated administration of the monarchy, however, started the uprising which for two years took over mainly Bohemia and a year later also Moravia and Silesia and both parts of Lusatia. At the beginning the Estates officially remained loyal to the monarch; however, they then took advantage of his death and refused to acknowledge his successor Ferdinand II as the Bohemian king.
Instead of him they elected from several candidates as the Bohemian King young Frederick I (Czech: Fridrich Falcký), who had a great advantage for the estates – his wife was a daughter of the English king. However, there was no help, neither financial nor military, from England; it was only the Netherlands, which was getting ready for another war against the Spanish relatives of Ferdinand II, which sent a considerable amount to Bohemia intended for gathering the mercenary army. Also the help of the Protestant Union, on which the estates counted when electing Frederick, turned out to be not really strong. As Ferdinand II was already from 1619 elected the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, the Protestant Union did not dare to oppose him at the early phase of the war.
The estates achieved some military successes at the beginning, when they managed to get on their side till that time undecided Moravian estates and to move in across Moravia to Vienna. There they got together with the army of the Prince of Transylvania Gabriel Bethlen, who was fighting against the Habsburgs, which then was for the Bohemian Estates the biggest, though often controversial, military help. However, the shelling of the capitol of the monarchy did not last long, because the imperial army of Count Buquoy won at Záblatí (near Prachatice) and forced the army of the estates to return to defence of Bohemia.
In order to help the Imperial army the commander of the Catholic League, General Tilly with his army came and greatly increased the army. The army of the estates managed to gather about 20,800 men for the defence of the uprising. The army of the League, which in the end actually did not fight in this battle, amounted about 12 to 13,000 men, and the Imperial army is then estimated to 14,140 men, altogether amounted the Imperial-League army approximately 26 to 28,000 men.
Course of the Battle of White Mountain
Both armies encountered on 8th November 1620 on White Mountain, only several kilometres far from the City Walls of Prague. A two-hour battle was because of its quick course rather a small clash, yet it decided about the fate of the whole uprising of the estates. The army of the estates took a substantially better position because they settled on the knoll and a part of the troops was hardly accessible, another reason being deep defensive fosses dug during the night before the battle. It had, unlike the Imperial-League army, some other advantages because they were fresh, well-fed, and there were firm Prague walls behind them in case they had to pull back.
However, the nearness of Prague turned out to be not so advantageous in the end, because many of the commandants did not come to the army and rather spend their time in pubs. This was not the main problem, though. More important turned out to be the money, or more precisely not paying the soldiers of the army of the estates. Hand in hand with the idleness of the recruited troops went also the lack of the money in the rebels’ safe, which led to dissatisfaction of the soldiers and their unwillingness to fight. On the other hand, the situation of the Imperial-League army was not ideal either, because they were exhausted after the clashes against the enemy and a fast march towards Prague. The troops got really weaker from the beginning of the campaign and some parts of the army were far in the rear and they were getting to the spot of the battle only little by little.
The armies of the estate lined up according to a more modern Dutch military tactics which was used for several years by the Protestant armies, the Imperial-League army used an older Spanish model. Although the Dutch tactics guaranteed a better ability for action and movement while using smaller number of men, in the end it was the Spanish tactics based on the mass of the troops which were arranged in three rows into the depth. Even though the Dutch tactics during the Thirty Years’ War proved to be more effective, it was not so advantageous for the army of the estates which was spread too much and not used to this scheme.
The Battle of White Mountain itself did not have to happen, because both commanders of the Imperial-League army were aware of the fact that the time was on their side and that in the spring their position would be significantly better than in that time in the autumn. They were persuaded to change the strategy and to start the battle by Bavarian Prince Maximilian leading the Catholic League who wanted a fast and decisive victory. Count Buqoy in the end agreed that they would test the power of the enemy in a “big clash” and then from its course they would come to the conclusion whether to attack or withdraw.
For the attack the left wing of the army of the estates was chosen, as it seemed to be easier to access thanks to the terrain. Short after twelve o’clock nearly two thousand pikemen and musketeers and about 1,800 riders started their advancement against the left wing where there were some of the elite troops in order to strengthen the defence, these were the foot troops of the commander of the Bohemian Estates Jindrich Matyas Thurn. These, however, started to flee already during the second attempt of the Imperial armies to attack actually before the enemy reached their positions. They were then followed by other troops and the chaos was getting bigger and bigger. Although, the general Thurn in the lead of the cavalry of the estates managed to hold back the advancement, there were more and more troops who without any fighting turned and ran away from the battle field.
The Imperial leaders soon decided to support the attack with other troops. Yet, the battle was still not lost for the rebelling estates and the “winter” king. From the centre of the squad the son of the second leader of the Bohemian army of the Estates Christian I, Prince of Anhlat-Bernburg, Christian of Anhalt the Younger, set out with his rather small cavalry. He surprisingly succeeded in breaking through the lines of the Imperial cuirassiers and later also several foot troops. This attack stopped the advancement of the Imperial, but also the League armies and brought chaos to some troops. This, however, was only a short episode.
Soon the cavalry of Christian of Anhalt the Younger, a young boy only 21 years old, was smashed by larger League cavalry. In that moment the rear of the strength losing southern wing of the estate armies was attacked by Polish Cossack cavalry which was supposed to stop the Hungarian riders from the connection with Anhalt the Younger. The Hungarian cavalry, after the first clash with the enemy, fled in all directions, which was the last signal of the fall of the left estate wing and immediately after that also of the centre of the whole squad.
The battle was actually decided. It was only the right wing of the estate army where there were several troops remaining as they did not flee, but mostly only because they could not flee. A later legend describes dramatically the last heroic resistance of the Moravians who refused to give up. The reality was different. First of all these were not Moravians because these were only mercenary troops hired by Moravian estates from all over Europe, most of them were thought to be from Germany. The important resistance of this troop was caused by the fact that they had nowhere to flee and because they were surrounded and in their back there were walls of the Star Summer Palace (Czech: letohrádek Hvězda). Some troops badly placed among the walls were not able to leave the battle field quickly either and were either killed or captured. That is why the losses on the side of the estates reached about 1,500 to 1,800 killed and several thousands of injured, as well as 700 captured. It is also claimed that there were several hundreds of dead allied Hungarians who are thought to be killed on the run or to get drowned in the Vltava river.
On the side of the winners there were about 1,000 Imperial-League soldiers killed or injured. This fast victory of the Imperial and League armies was surprising for both parties. The Imperial party quite often attributed it to God’s will, whereas the estates and Protestants were not able to find anyone to blame. In the end, they suspected of betrayal or at least cowardice the Hungarian cavalry. This, however, is a rather twisted idea, as there was a strong tendency, as usual, to find the mistake by the foreigners. The fall of the estate army, which did not even try to fight, illustrates the situation in which the whole uprising ended up.
The winter king Frederick V fled from Prague and then also from the Bohemian Lands back to Pfalz. On the following day after the battle the city fell. Nobody was able to defend it any more, some leaders of the uprising fled to Silesia in order to try to set up new positions against the Imperial there. They only managed to slow down the historical development which brought their political end. Also the Bohemian king did not stay for long at his homeland because he was soon forced to leave Pfalz by Spanish and League armies. The rest of the Protestant forces withdrew to the Netherlands and this was the end of the first phase of the Thirty Years’ War called Bohemian (1618 – 1620) and Pfalz.
The Catholic League and Austrian as well as Spanish Habsburgs were the winners. This victory, however, poured oil on the fire and in the future there were other alliances to follow which were aimed mainly against the Habsburgs and their power in Europe. There were several following wars: Danish War (1625 – 1629), Swedish War (1630 – 1635) and Swedish-French War (1635 – 1648) called after the main forces fighting against the Habsburgs which led in the particular time the war. The war was long and the consequences were devastating mainly for the lands of the Holy Roman Empire, but also for the Bohemian Lands. The decrease of the inhabitants was huge, in some places it was up to a half of the whole population which was in part killed off during plundering, in part succumbed to diseases and hunger or fled to the areas which were not affected by the war.
The end of the war was brought fist by the peace concluded in year 1648 in the cities of Münster and Osnabrück in Westphalia. The war meant mainly strengthening the power positions of France and Sweden and on the contrary weakening Spain which lost several areas, including Portugal which was temporarily united with it. For the Austrian Habsburgs was the end of the war much better, but still not positive. Yet, they managed to keep their position in the hereditary lands; among these there were also the Bohemian Lands which compensated the loss of the influence abroad.
For Bohemian Lands the most important event was the Battle of White Mountain. Although there was some other fighting taking part on the home area, it was not so important from the point of view of the following development of the land. The Bohemian Kingdom lost Upper and Lower Lusatia in 1635, which was on the basis of the agreement between the emperor and Saxon elector given to Saxony. Thanks to the victory over the rebelling estates the monarch managed to strengthen his power and on the contrary to largely weaken the authorities of the estates. The Jesuits were also coming back to the land and they were on the lead of the changes called recatholisation, Catholic reformation or Catholic Renaissance. The Catholic religion once again becomes the major one and alongside with it after the war the cultural renewal in the form of Baroque which healed many of the wounds caused by the long war.
This feature, however, is currently quite often ignored because (as was already mentioned at the beginning) until now by many authors and even historians this period has been seen as the so called period of Dark Age and the suppression of the population. The Battle of White Mountain also meant remaining as a part of the Habsburg monarchy until the year 1918, with all its positives and negatives. Among the personalities who took part in the Battle of White Mountain we cannot forget the important French philosopher who was fighting on the side of the Catholic troops. It was René Descartes. After the battle he took part in the war for another year but then after the death of his commander general Buquoy in Hungary he left back for France where he gained much more fame thanks to his philosophical activities than he would have in a military uniform.
Author: Mgr. et Mgr. Jan Rája