The Fall of the Winter King


It was a time of blood. The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) consumed the middle of Europe in bloody conflict which devastated the nations and principalities of the whole continent and claiming, including civilian casualties, an estimated 8 million lives. The armies marching across the continent ravaged the countryside, destroying agriculture and bankrupting nations. The legacy of the war was directly felt into the 20th Century. The spark that lit this flame occurred in the Kingdom of Bohemia due to a dispute about the crown.
For a time after the martyrdom of John Huss in 1416, ironically, the churches in Bohemia enjoyed more autonomy from the Papacy than anywhere else in Europe. In 1609, Emperor Rudolf II issued a Letter of Majesty purported to guarantee religious freedom in the kingdom, an edict which his brother Emperor Matthias (Rudolf’s brother) would subsequently reverse. In May of 1619, delegates from Bohemia met with imperial representatives to protest the change. The meeting ended with the intransigent imperial representatives being thrown out of a third-story window and seriously injured. (It was claimed by the Bohemians that the emperor’s delegates’ lives were spared be-cause they fell into a large pile of horse manure—no one knows for sure.) The Bohemians, realizing that their cause would have to be defended by another king, chose Frederick V, Elector Palatine as their king.
Initially, the young elector (the great-grandson of the famous Frederick III of Heidelberg Catechism fame) hesitated. The new emperor, Ferdinand II was, according to tradition, considered to be the King of Bohemia. Elector Frederick knew that accepting the throne of Bohemia would bring him into conflict with the powerful, Catholic emperor. Nevertheless, after consulting with his father-in-law King James I of England, who opposed his acceptance, and thinking that he had more support than he actually did, he accepted the crown on September 25 and was crowned on November 4, 1619.
Frederick had counted upon the support of German protestant princes and the Protestant Union. But the Protestant Union met in September (before his coronation) and did not support him and neither did he have the broader support of the nobles. This makes his agreement to accept the crown even more puzzling. Nevertheless, after Ferdinand was deposed, some allies did come to his aid and Bohemians answered the call. Within a short time, the Imperial Army was chased across the Danube and forces sympathetic to the cause came from Transylvania. The success was such that the combined army chased the emperor from Vienna to Gratz and the city of Vienna was put under siege in late November.
It was at this point that the tide began to turn. The leader of the army from Transylvania, Bethlen (or Bethlem) Gabor, heard that his lands were under attack and he began to take his army home. The siege of Vienna was lifted and Ferdinand now had time to prepare his counterattack. Eventually, Gabor made a separate peace with the emperor in exchange for lands and title and completely withdrew his army. The forces loyal to Frederick were compelled to withdraw and made their way back toward Prague.
Ferdinand now began to consolidate his support. Maximilian I, King of Bavaria, raised an army from the Catholic League; Philip III of Spain sent 12,000 veterans; Pope Paul V supported Ferdinand with 20,000 florins a month. Ferdinand also convinced many of the protestant princes in Germany to withhold support. The Protestant League agreed only to defend Frederick’s lands in the Palatinate if they were attacked. So by May of 1620, Ferdinand’s diplomacy and intrigue had removed the possibility of any Protestant help to the Bohemians. The stage was set and the emperor’s plan was executed. Now, Ferdinand marched with his army against Frederick.
Sensing that he was now in the stronger position, on May 30, 1620, Ferdinand issued an ultimatum to Frederick. He decreed that Frederick must return to the Palatinate or be subjected to the Imperial Ban. Of course, Frederick refused. On July 24, 1620, the Catholic League under the command of Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly, quickly advanced on the Bohemians. He captured the city of Linz on August 4. On September 8, Tserclaes joined forces with the Imperial Army under the command of Charles Bonaventure de Longueval, Count of Bucquoy. The combined army invaded Bohemia on September 20, 1620 and soon began marching toward Prague. (At the same time, with Frederick away and weakened, the Spanish army from Flanders invaded the Rhineland Palatinate and easily brushed aside any opposition. Only Heidelberg, Frankenthal and Mannheim remained in Protestant hands.)
The Bohemian army harassed the Imperial Army as it marched toward Prague, but it could not stop the advance. Realizing the intent of the emperor, the commander of the Bohemians, Prince Christian of Anhalt, force-marched his troops to a low plateau outside of Prague in order to make a stand there on White Mountain. Sadly, when the Imperial Army arrived, Prince Christian did not have time to prepare any significant defenses.
By this time, the Bohemian army had shrunk to about 15,000 demoralized men plus mercenaries who had not been paid. They had about 30,000 total men under arms facing about 27,000. On November 8, when the imperial commander ordered a small probe of the Bohemian flank, the Bohemians re-treated without a fight. At that point, the Count of Tilly pressed his advantage and after a short battle of about an hour, the Imperial Army had defeated the army of the King of Bohemia. The Protestant Bohemians lost around 4,000 dead and wounded and the Imperials about 700. With the defeat of the Bohemian Army, the Count of Tilly marched into Prague and the reign of Frederick, King of Bohemia came to an end. His reign lasted a little over a year and the short, inglorious reign of Frederick would give him the nickname of The Winter King. But this is not the end of the story.
After the retreat from White Mountain, Prince Christian fell back to Prague and told Frederick of the loss of the battle and the impending fall of the city. The only option for Frederick was flight. And so, on the next day, Frederick fled Prague with his wife and child and little more than the clothes on their backs (and the Crown Jewels). But flee to where? He headed for Silesia.
The loss of Prague and the flight from the city were disasters for Frederick. The imperial troops are said to have found his garter in the city and the pamphleteers were merciless in portraying him on the run with his stockings falling down. It was a public relations nightmare. He had been defeated and humiliated. But what of the people of Bohemia?
Forty-seven Bohemian nobles were tried and 27 were executed on what became known as the “Day of Blood”. The heads of twelve of them were nailed to a bridge as a warning and left there for ten years. Almost all of the other nobles of Bohemia fled the country and their lands were confiscated. Over the course of the next 30 years, the population of Bohemia will drop from 3 million to 800,000. The elective monarchy will be abolished and the imposition of the Roman Church will continue with great zeal. Only Lutheranism will be tolerated in the kingdom and the kingdom will become part of the Hapsburg dynasty until 1918 and the conclusion of the first World War. The Catholic lands celebrated what they thought was a great victory. (Pope Paul V died leading a victory parade.) But this was just the beginning of sorrows.
By January of 1621, the emperor decreed that Frederick and Prince Christian were traitors and that all of Frederick’s lands in the empire were forfeited. In the summer of that year, Frederick attempted to retake his lands in the Palatinate. There, he met his familiar enemy, the Count of Tilly. In this case though, Frederick had some success in battles early on. But by the summer of 1622, it was apparent that he could not prevail and established a government-in-exile in The Hague. Attempts at reconciliation with the emperor failed due to Frederick’s insistence that his lands be restored. In 1630, he even admitted his “wrongdoing” in accepting the crown of Bo-hemia in an at-tempt to pacify the emperor, but to no avail.
The year 1630 also saw the entry of the Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus in the war on the continent and it appeared that Frederick might be re-stored. An ag-reement could not be reached, and so Frederick left the Swedish king in Bavaria. By the end of the year, and less than two weeks apart, both Gustavus Adolphus and Frederick were dead. The former in battle and the latter of fever. Eventually, Frederick’s second son, Charles Louis, returned to the devastated Palatinate after the end of the Thirty Years’ War and reigned as elector. The Peace of Westphalia, which brought an end to the war, created a Europe much different than the one of Frederick V. The decision of Elector Frederick, his defeat at the Battle of White Mountain, and the thirty years of war that followed brought great persecution, suffering, death and destruction. Protestant refugees migrated to America by the tens of thousands, perhaps, the only positive legacy of Frederick’s ambition.