Sparked by a revolt in Bohemia, the Thirty Years’ War should have ended on a mountaintop near Prague in 1620, yet it dragged on another 28 years
In 1618, on the cusp of the scientific revolution in Europe, both astronomy and astrology were respected scholarly pursuits, and the stars foretold war. That spring Johannes Kepler, astronomer and astrologer to the Holy Roman court, predicted, “May will not pass without difficulty.” Sure enough, on the 23rd of that month in the Bohemian capital of Prague a mob of disaffected Protestant lords seized two regents of their king and Holy Roman emperor-elect, the devoutly Catholic Ferdinand II, and pitched them out a third-floor window of Prague Castle, their secretary after them.
Yet when the would-be killers looked to the ground, they found that all three men were not only alive but also relatively unharmed. From this “Second Defenestration of Prague” Catholics across Europe would proclaim the Virgin Mary had rescued her servants; Protestants, on the other hand, would insist the trio had simply landed in a manure pile. What mattered most was that royal couriers quickly covered the 150 miles to the imperial capital in Vienna to spread the alarm: Bohemia, the richest kingdom in the Holy Roman empire, was in open revolt.
Two centuries after Bohemian priest Jan Hus first questioned the doctrines of the Catholic Church, the Reformation had riven the empire into rival coalitions: the Catholic League and the Protestant Union. The Spanish Habsburgs—whose pike- and harquebus-armed infantry formations, the tercios, had dominated European battlefields for a century—supported their Catholic cousins in Austria. The Protestant Dutch—whose new musketeer-oriented battalions were having some success against the Spanish in Flanders—empathized with their fellow rebels. The rest of the Continent duly chose up sides, setting the stage for the first of the great pan-European conflicts. “Believe me,” wrote a Dutch agent to an envoy of the Protestant Union, “the Bohemian war will decide the fates of all of us.”
For long months warring imperial and rebel armies marched to and fro between Vienna and Prague. Imperial commander Charles Bonaventure de Longueval, Count of Bucquoy, was too cautious to wrest a decisive victory; Protestant commander Count Heinrich Matthias von Thurn, primary instigator of the Bohemian Revolt, too impulsive. So their soldiers fought, besieged cities, razed villages and laid waste the countryside, but nothing was decided.
Then Holy Roman Emperor Matthias died, and Ferdinand took the throne, doubling down on his efforts to quash the revolt. The entrenched Bohemians instead invited young Frederick V of the Palatinate to rule the kingdom. “If it should be true that the Bohemians have in mind to set aside Ferdinand and to choose instead a counter-king,” wrote the horrified elector of Cologne, “then one would have to make oneself ready for a 20-, 30- and 40-year war, for the Spaniards and the House of Austria would rather put into play everything that they possess in this world than give up Bohemia.” In November 1619 the Bohemians elected Frederick. War it would be.
Frederick V had troops—German, Austrian, Hungarian and Dutch mercenaries—but he lacked money to pay them. He also needed a more effective commander. Over Thurn he promoted Prince Christian I of Anhalt-Bernburg, who reorganized the army into Dutch-style battalions.
Ferdinand, on the other hand, had confidence in Bucquoy as commander, but he lacked soldiers. In return for a claim to Frederick’s Palatinate lands, Duke Maximilian I of Bavaria agreed to bring in the army of the Catholic League under veteran commander Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly. A pious “monk in the garb of a general,” Tilly had spent the better part of two decades fighting the Dutch on Spain’s behalf, then the Turks for the Habsburgs, rising to field marshal along the way. He was familiar with the battalion concept but preferred the tercio.
Ferdinand ceded field command to Maximilian, meaning of course Tilly. The Catholic forces—Germans, Spaniards, Tilly’s fellow Belgian Walloons, Italians, Irish and Poles—were imbued with a Crusader zeal and named their dozen biggest cannons after the Twelve Apostles. Four Capuchin monks and 11 Jesuit priests accompanied the column, led by Maximilian’s confessor, Friar Dominicus à Jesu Maria, superior general of the Discalced Carmelite order.
By the fall of 1620 their combined forces had pushed Anhalt out of Austria. Bucquoy wished to give chase, but Maximilian and Tilly favored marching on Prague and ending the war. Winter was coming on, and several soldiers had already frozen to death overnight. “Hungarian fever”—typhus or cholera—was rife in the imperial camp. Food was so scarce that Maximilian himself was down to eating black bread, while Tilly reportedly stole an apple from a Dominican friar on the march.
In late October Anhalt blocked their way at Rackonitz (present-day Rakovník), a road junction two days’ march west of the capital. The Protestants had dug in on a wooded slope halfway up a mountain and could not be driven from it. Complicating matters for the Catholics, Bucquoy took a musket shot to the groin while skirmishing and retired to his coach to recover. For more than a week the opposing armies did little more than glare at one another.
Taking advantage of a morning mist on November 5, Tilly slipped away. Skirting around the mountain, he led the imperial and Bavarian armies on a beeline for Prague. Anhalt again had to force-march his men to get ahead of them. Harassed by Bucquoy’s Polish Cossacks, he arrived an hour after midnight on Sunday the 8th at Bílá Hora, or White Mountain, a 1,250-foot chalk ridge a few miles west of the capital. At its foot the Scharka, a marshy creek crossable only by one small bridge, barred the Catholics’ approach. Atop the steeper north ascent at the heart of a walled game reserve stood the Star Palace, a stout hunting villa in the shape of a six-pointed star—a natural fortress. “If we had fallen from Heaven into formation,” Thurn told Anhalt, “we could not have found a better spot.”
The Protestants numbered some 23,000, evenly split between cavalry and infantry. Anhalt spread his battalions two deep across the 1½-mile crest of the ridge: Thurn on the left, Count Georg Friedrich von Hohenlohe in the center and Count Heinrich von Schlick on the right. Colonel Kaspar Kornis’ 5,000 Hungarian and Transylvanian hussars lined up in reserve and backed two regiments under Duke Johann Ernst of Saxe-Weimar in the Star Palace. Anhalt still held out hope the Catholics would decline to assault the mountain. “I was well aware that the Count Bucquoy, who was an experienced and wise captain, would never advise to start battle under such circumstances,” he recalled. “This made me quite sure I was able to hope for ultimate victory.” Given his commander’s assurances, Frederick rode off to Prague to visit his queen and raise cash to pay his mutinous mercenaries.
Tilly and Bucquoy fielded almost 25,000 men, including 6,000 horsemen, 40 percent of whom were heavy cuirassiers. Despite their manpower advantage Bucquoy, painfully recalling the difficulty of driving the Protestants off high ground, favored bypassing them again. Tilly overrode him. “Whoever wants to fight the enemy in open battle can do this in no other way than by turning his face toward him and exposing himself to the danger of his shots.”
Another propitious morning fog covered Maximilian’s army as Tilly filed it over the Scharka bridge. The Bavarians arrived disorganized, unsupported and alone at the foot of White Mountain. From atop the ridge the rebels saw the chance to destroy half the Catholic forces before the rest could even join battle. Moravian Colonel Hans von Stubenvoll sought Anhalt’s permission for his cavalry to charge. “Attack, attack—you always attack!” Hohenlohe snapped in ire. “It cannot be done by attacking. We thank God that we hold this position.”
Anhalt agreed. “The enemy coming so fast,” he reasoned, “had to have lost order and was going to find us standing firm, in good order, our chiefs in agreement and ready to fight them.”
His officers continued to bicker. “The day is lost,” Stubenvoll muttered. But in the end they obeyed Anhalt’s orders, permitting the Bavarian tercios to square up and move left, making room for Bucquoy’s imperials to cross the Scharka and come up beside them. Their disposition gave Tilly, who faced the fortified Star Palace, the steeper slope to climb, but still Bucquoy dithered. At that moment Friar Dominicus stormed into the imperial camp in high histrionics, waving an icon of the Madonna from which, he cried out, Protestants had gouged the eyes of Mary. He exhorted the men to trust God and walk boldly into battle.
“The chaplains were hearing confessions most zealously,” declared Father Henry Fitzsimon, a Jesuit ministering to Bucquoy’s Irish troops. “Many of the bravest soldiers were saying their beads and kissing their crucifixes.” To distinguish one another in battle, the Catholics tied strips of white cloth around their arms and hats. At a quarter past noon all 12 “apostles” fired at once, signaling the advance.
On the right, the imperial side, the German regiment of General Rudolf von Tiefenbach, a Protestant in the Catholic service, and that of Colonel Hans Philipp von Breuner led the way, the Walloons of Spanish Colonel Don Guillermo Verdugo on their right flank. The tercios started up the slope, pikes bristling and matchlock musket muzzles spitting flame. Walloon cuirassiers and harquebusiers rode ahead to soften up the rebel lines.
Thurn could have stood his ground, using his musketeers to rake the cavalry and Anhalt’s cannon to plow furrows in the tightly packed enemy squares. Instead, he sent 1,000 German and Bohemian cavalrymen thundering down the hill. Rather than charge headlong into each other, however, the opposing cavalrymen performed the caracole—front ranks firing, then wheeling back around to reload as the next rank moved up. It sacrificed the momentum of an all-out charge for firepower, but in this initial exchange the Protestants triumphed, driving back the imperials. So Thurn raised the wager with his infantry, ordering the 1,300 men of his regiment downslope. The mercenaries in their thin battalion formation looked on Verdugo’s pike square—3,000 men of the Walloon tercio, Flanders veterans all—and realized they weren’t being paid enough. “As soon as the enemy arrived at about 300 to 400 paces from Count Thurn’s infantry,” Anhalt recalled in disgust, “our soldiers started to shoot without order or sense and, even against express orders, shot in the air and immediately started to flee, seemingly in the grip of fear.”
To finish them off, von Tiefenbach waved forward the German cavalry of Colonel Count Ferdinand Helfried von Meggau. The count was killed, but his riders brushed aside Thurn’s cavalry and charged after the fleeing Bohemians, capturing two flags and an entire company of infantry while driving the rest before them. “Everybody was fleeing,” Anhalt observed.
At that critical juncture Anhalt’s son, 21-year-old Prince Christian II, at the ready with two cavalry squadrons behind Schlick in the second rank, informed veteran Lt. Col. Wolf von Löben it was time to attack. Their 700 German and Bohemian horsemen carried wheellock pistols and harquebuses, though only a few wore armor. At von Löben’s suggestion, Christian ordered his men not to fire until the colonel himself triggered the first shot.
Facing them, Captain Don Felipe de Areyzaga, whose Spanish cuirassiers formed the imperial left wing, had the same idea. One observer recalled the opposing regiments held fire “so long it seemed as if they were good friends.” Suddenly von Löben’s shot rang out, and both sides unleashed a point-blank blast of ball and smoke, and what the pistol had begun, the sword finished. The rebels hammered back the Spaniards. Christian’s riders were eager to follow and finish them off, but von Löben reined them in, biding his time.
His tercio unable to move under cavalry threat, von Tiefenbach ordered four squadrons of German harquebusiers to sweep the enemy out of the way. Before they could act, however, Christian’s troopers resumed their attack, plunging through the imperial riders into the infantry. They killed 40 of von Tiefenbach’s regiment and 150 of von Breuner’s, including all his officers, and captured three standards and von Breuner himself.
The imperial advance ground to a halt. To the north Tilly’s Bavarians were still slogging up the steep side of the ridge. Again came the chance to defeat half the Catholic army before the other half engaged.
Maximilian and the wounded Bucquoy commanded from the count’s coach down in the valley. Indecision was no longer an option. “Some cowards informed the Duke and Bucquoy that their men were giving way,” Fitzsimon recalled. “Both got on horseback. Though Bucquoy’s wound pained him…he wanted to show his soldiers that he did not intend to retreat.”
The Catholic commanders unleashed the Cossacks, who circled Anhalt’s left flank and charged into his hussars. “The Poles, howling like wolves, were hurled on the flying Hungarians,” recalled Fitzsimon. Clinching the reins in their teeth and swinging a saber in each hand, the Cossacks drove the hussars from field.
Leading the Bavarians from the front, Tilly kept an eye on the melee to his right. Noting the confusion between the Catholic armies, he sent five squadrons of cavalry crashing into Christian’s flank. Catching the prince’s preoccupied horsemen by surprise, the Bavarians captured a rebel flag and wounded von Löben.
“Our left wing lost a standard, but de [Areyzaga] restored it to the ranks,” Fitzsimon recalled. “His horse fell under him, he jumped on another and, rushing on the enemy, got back the flag. He took four standards and wounded the young Prince of Anhalt in the right arm.” Shot in the armpit, Christian tumbled from the saddle and was taken alive by Verdugo’s Walloons.
At that the Bohemian counterattack collapsed. Bucquoy, leading three regiments of cavalry with 300 of Colonel Carlo Spinelli’s Neapolitan musketeers, chased them back upslope and recovered von Breuner. Meanwhile, Verdugo overran the battery on the rebel left. “Among all other things,” a contemporary German report noted, “the greatest praise belonged to Wilhelm Verdugo.…He had, with his Walloons, opposed them with cavalry, taken the prince of Anhalt prisoner, captured a standard with his own hands, seized the first three artillery pieces of the Bohemians and then turned to face them directly, bringing the entire Bohemian army into disarray.”
It was no boast. Verdugo’s square continued to roll up Hohenlohe’s left, ultimately forcing the latter to flee. The panicked Dutch battalion, instructed to train its guns toward the front, turned a few against an approaching tercio on its flank. On the rebel right the Bavarians, despite having taken stiff casualties from the guns mounted before the Star Palace, were about to achieve the crest of the ridge. Lieutenant Colonel Baron Georg von Hofkirchen’s rebel Austrian cavalry rode to meet them, but instead of charging in, his horsemen merely pirouetted through another caracole, firing and retreating. “One of our worst mistakes,” Anhalt wrote in an after-action report, “was that most of our cavalry would not engage properly. The proper way, which I often explained to them, was to reject the bad habit of caracoling when facing the enemy.…I want to stress this point strongly here, so that this custom of charging without properly engaging is avoided like the plague.”
Hofkirchen’s hesitation did open the door for von Stubenvoll to do as he had wanted all along—to lead his cavalry in a decisive charge against the Bavarians, who were “stopped and pushed back,” Anhalt noted approvingly.
Seeing the Bavarian attack falter, Friar Dominicus reportedly mounted a loose horse and galloped across the battlefield waving the disfigured icon of the Madonna. Legend has it rays of divine light shot from the Virgin Mother’s gouged eyes, blinding the Protestants, who scattered in terror. In any case, the Bavarians did rally and return up the hill. Hofkirchen soon fell, fatally wounded. Even the stalwart Stubenvoll retreated. (After the battle he joined the imperial service, and for years he and Hohenlohe fought a war of public letters, each blaming the other for defeat.)
“It was now impossible to stop the troops,” Anhalt admitted. “I didn’t dare to remain, but withdrew toward the main road that goes toward Prague.”
Verdugo’s Walloons, having marched the length of the ridge, enveloped Schlick at the Star Palace. Verdugo and Schlick had spent three years together in Italy, fighting for Spain against the French. Schlick’s loyalties had changed, but not his courage. His Moravians, their backs literally to the walls of the palace, made a desperate stand. There was no escape. At the end the fighting was man to man, Schlick leading, sword in hand. An eyewitness recalled bodies piled 10 and 12 deep. Protestant German historian Julius Krebs reverently referred to that southeastern recess of the Star Palace as “the grave of Bohemian independence.”
Inside the palace in incoming musket ball ricocheted off Duke Johann of Saxe-Weimar’s cuirass and tore off his helmet. His Germans and the remainder of Kornis’ Hussars were soon seeking the exits.
The Battle of White Mountain had lasted about two hours. In the tangled vineyards behind the mountain Cossacks rode down fleeing Hungarians, hundreds of whom leaped into the Vltava River, only to drown in the freezing water. The Protestants lost some 4,000 men; the Catholics, about 800, mostly from the Tiefenbach-Breuner tercio.
In Prague Frederick had finished lunch when the first fleeing Protestant troops arrived. He was about to set off for White Mountain when Anhalt, Hohenlohe and Thurn met him at the city gate. All fled in haste, Frederick leaving behind his crown. For the rest of his short life he was mocked as the “Winter King” for the brevity of his reign.
The Catholic victory was complete. With the Bohemian Revolt crushed, its army scattered and leaderless, Prague capitulated without a shot fired. The war should have ended then and there. In early 1621, however, the punitive Ferdinand convened a “blood court,” which soon rounded up 82 rebel leaders. On May 23, 1621, the third anniversary of the Defenestration, the emperor signed death warrants for 28 of them. One committed suicide in prison. On June 21 in Prague’s Old Town Square the executioner hanged three and decapitated the rest, including the corpse of the one who had killed himself. Ferdinand had a dozen of their heads, two hands and the tongue of one unfortunate mounted atop the city gates. He then oversaw the confiscation of rebel lands and ordered Protestants to either convert or go into exile. A pro-Vienna Catholic aristocracy took over. The European balance of power teetered. England, Sweden, France and Denmark in turn entered the war. Ever-larger armies marched back and forth over the empire, which soldiers again stripped, razed, looted and burned. Three quarters of the Bohemian people lost their lives to war, famine and plague.
In July 1648, despite ongoing peace negotiations, a Swedish army laid siege to Prague. That October the Swedes seized the castle and were fighting to cross the river into the Old City when word arrived the warring nations had signed the Peace of Westphalia. The last battle of the Thirty Years’ War ended a half-mile from the palace window where it started and a few miles from White Mountain, the site of that hard-fought battle 28 years earlier. MH
Author-historian Don Hollway published his first professional article, about the Battle of Hastings, in the August 1992 issue of Military History. For further reading he recommends The Thirty Years’ War: A Sourcebook, by Peter H. Wilson; Thirty Years’ War: A Documentary History, edited and translated by Tryntje Helfferich; and Battles of the Thirty Years’ War: From White Mountain to Nordlingen, 1618–1635, by William P. Guthrie.