Saturday, 31 May 2014

WDF: 1638-1645. Years of Decay, Defeat and Decision

In the years 1638-1645 the Habsburgs suffered a virtual nosedive in fortunes.

Forced to battle against their own provinces, in the case of Spain, or to endure a Swedish enemy without the resources to combat it, in the case of the HRE, neither Philip IV of Spain or Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand III appeared to have much left in the tank.

Philip IV of Spain was tasked with maintaining and safeguarding his family's fortune's across Europe even while both branches of the Habsburg family endured a notable decline. 

Spain was in turmoil in 1640 because it had to combat a simultaneous breakaway of Catalonia in the North East and Portugal to the West. Neither of these campaigns could be dealt with quickly; both were long drawn out affairs, with heavy French presence in each. In fact, in the case of Catalonia, French forces combined with Catalans to largely occupy the region and name Louis XIII of France as Duke of Barcelona. It was a boon for Richelieu's fortunes, and perhaps the clearest example that his war by proxy and years of undermining his Spanish rival had paid off. Richelieu would die just after learning of the news that the Spanish king Philip IV had been humiliatingly defeated outside of the walls of his own city by rebels supported by the French, in Barcelona. I think we can safely bet that he died a happy man.

Louis XIII meanwhile can be credited with negotiating his country through some pretty tough times since his succession in 1610. Taking over from his father Henry IV, Louis may have had some ideas about the nature of French foreign policy and its need to combat the Habsburg influence, but such notions would only be realised once his tag team partner in Richelieu came onto the stage in 1623. Louis relied on Richelieu heavily, but it was this pairing that enabled to France to endure some of its most challenging domestic issues, as well as some of its most dangerous foreign threats.

Louis XIII of France guided his state through a critical time in Europe; his son Louis XIV would rule France for over 70 years and dominate Early Modern European narratives indefinitely.

Though Richelieu and Louis were essential to explaining French policy, when the two died and the next tag team took over the results would be even more spectacular. Louis XIII had been reliant on Richelieu, but Louis XIV, raised by his determined mother Anne of Austria, Philip IV of Spain's sister, would encapsulate everything absolute about monarchy in time. It was Cardinal Mazarin who made sure that Louis would get there though, because without that statesman's guiding hand in French policy one wonders at what would have become of the French efforts. In the event, Mazarin's rule began well with the French victory at Rocroi, but he would have his share of tough times thanks to the much criticised nature of French military inconsistency, which is an unfavourable trait we'll come to know well in the next batch of episodes.

Rocroi was a French military triumph of the highest order and illustrated just how far French arms had come since the disasters of 1635-37. Though consistency was not their strongpoint, French military endurance proved decisive over the by now exhausted Habsburg duo.

Johan Baner of the Swedish Empire can certainly be credited with having steered Sweden through some of its toughest and most uncertain times following the exit of Gustavus Adolphus from the scene. Baner's persistence and refusal to capitulate to Habsburg bribes and threats ensured that the Swedes lingered on as a thorn in the side of their fortunes until meaningful French agreements and finance enabled the kind of army Baner required. His efforts were bookended by an unsuccessful but incredibly symbolic siege of Regensburg in late 1640/early 1641 while the princes and key figures of the HRE sat in a long running conference there. Upon his death and the passing of his command to Lennart Torstensson, Sweden's fortunes continued to rise. Torstensson had the task of furthering Sweden's case in the HRE, but after a few months he was to be recalled to Sweden to prepare for an attack on Sweden's longtime enemy and Baltic rival, Denmark.

Torstensson's campaigns rattled Habsburg endurance, and the Empire proper was only momentarily spared from ruin when he was recalled to invade Denmark in late 1643.

The pre-emptive Swedish attack on Denmark took Sweden's allies and enemies by surprise. France wasn't happy because Axel Oxenstierna was using French subsidies to pay for a war against the Danes, which wasn't part of the plan. The Dutch were unhappy, at least initially, because they worried it would either grant Sweden in victory too much Baltic power, or in defeat and distraction would ruin the allied fortunes. Denmark and its king Christian IV were obviously unhappy because they were being invaded, but Christian remained calm and prepared his state for its second wholscale occupation in 20 years.

It seemed as though perhaps only Ferdinand III saw the Danish war as a positive option, since he hoped it would distract Sweden and enable both a concentrated attack against France and the entry of Denmark into the Habsburg camp by default. Ferdinand in his optimism sent Gallas' 20,000 strong army to aid his new ally, but it would all be for nought. The Franco-Swedish diplomatic cooperative had ensured that an insurance policy in Transylvania was waiting in the wings once Sweden had its back turned, and though it was a time of tension for the two crowns, and though George Rakoczy of Transylvania didn't stick around long, it served its purpose. Ferdinand desperately recalled Gallas to defend the Habsburg heartland, meaning Gallas had to turn back around. Now Torstensson followed Gallas, after months of it being the other way around, and the former defeated the latter in a series of battles that led into Germany. Gallas' forces scattered and that may have spelled the end of Ferdinand had the Ottoman Sultan not recalled his by now tired vassal George back home.

By this time Denmark had effectively fallen. Under fear of occupation amidst Dutch-Swedish naval supremacy, Christian IV signed the Peace of Bromsbro in August 1645, in an internationally mediated treaty that still managed to undesputadly alter for good the Baltic balance of power, and permanently fix the status of Denmark as that no longer of great power status.

The depressing experience of Denmark in Torstensson's war (1643-45) saw it lose key provinces such as (in red) Halland, which granted Sweden access to the North Sea quickly and overland and the Norwegian provinces of Jemtia and Herdalia (in yellow, middle of Sweden) represent a serious widening of the Swedish landmass, in addition to the (in yellow, Baltic Sea) islands of Osel and Gotland. All of these losses emphasised just how much Scandinavia had changed.

Ferdinand would also have been made aware of his own former allies leaving him. There was the issue of the ever-opportunistic Maximilian of Bavaria seeking out ways to exit from the conflict, but the successful exit of Frederick William of Brandenburg, who had inherited a paltry electorate from his father George William in 1640, sent a clear message to the Habsburg camp. In time, Sweden and Brandenburg would divide Pomerania among them, but for now Sweden remained supreme in war torn Northern Germany, as German prince after German prince made peace with them. It didn't matter that this technically violated the 1635 Peace of Prague or that Ferdinand didn't recognise it. The fact was that Northern German Protestant princes could not be protected by Ferdinand, and their realistic interpretation of events; a perspective first adopted by Brandenburg, inspired others to follow suit.

This map shows in dark red Brandendburg in 1600, while the lighter red represents the Prussian portions of territory it would later encompass. Pomerania refers to the land by the sea, and can thus literally mean any land along that top strip of Germany, from Denmark's southern tip to the edge of East Prussia.

The Dutch had had their share of domestic issues, but considering the fact that they had been at war with the Habsburgs since 1621 this was to be expected. Indeed the war was going in their favour by the early 1640's, to the extent that an exhausted and beleaguered Spain could not launch any further offensives following its failed ambitions in the disastrous campaign across the sea in 1639; which saw the Dutch violate English territorial waters so as to destroy once and for all the Spanish fleet and the Habsburgs last gasp to reconquer the Dutch Republic. In fact it was the very truth that the Dutch were no longer adverse threat of occupation and defeat that created tensions between the ruling dynasty led by Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange, and the Estates General of the Netherlands.

The latter argued that since the war was going well, the pressures put on the country could be mostly lifted, and that normal life could resume gradually until an eventual peace was forthcoming. But Henry's rule depended on the presence of crisis within the state; it was how he had thus far so effectively turned the Dutch political groupings against one another and claimed additional powers for their own protection. With his family at the height of their powers in 1644, perhaps it was a symbol of just how far the Dutch had come that their biggest concerns now switched to domestic issues. The 17th century would undoubtedly be the year of the Dutch Republic; a feat all the more impressive when one considers their humble origins.

Frederick Henry of the Dutch Republic effectively oversaw the defeat of Spain alongside French and Swedish help, while his efforts to undermine Spain overseas led to Iberian chaos during 1640 and beyond.

As we draw to the end of our TYW special I am struck with how much Europe and its powers have changed since I began. I always found it interesting to see how powers interact with one another, but I also loved seeing the balance of power gradually change in this special. The Habsburgs are mostly a second rate power in my episodes that look at the later periods of history, but we have seen them here at their most powerful, and in the episodes before this special we even saw them take their place as Europe's foremost dynasty. Their decline went hand in hand with the rise of France, Sweden and the Dutch, and just as the rise of these powers is certainly fun and intriguing to watch, it is also somewhat nostalgic as a moment for me, because I know that it means that the era I began over a year ago with the War of the League of Cambrai will soon be over, and I will soon be moving onto bigger and better things.

What exactly those things are you will soon discover, but let's just say I have been planning it for a long time. Stay tuned next time for the Westphalian negotiations, a truly fascinating period in of itself and a great way to end the diplomatic fest that has been the Thirty Years War.


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