Wallenstein: A Scene of the Thirty Years War by Ernest Crofts (1847-1911)

The great mercenary commander of the Thirty Years War, Albrecht von Wallenstein went from soldier of fortune to supreme general to hunted outlaw

by Don Hollway

Originally published in the Late Spring 2013 issue of Military Heritage magazine

Gustav II Adolphus at Breitenfeld, 1631

Albrecht Wenzel Eusebius von Wallenstein

As of September 17, 1631, half of Germany feared God was Protestant. The other half was sure of it. At Breitenfeld the revolutionary musketeer brigades and antipersonnel cannon of the “Lion of the North,” Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus II, had demolished the outdated pike squares of the Holy Roman Empire. With no army, no commander, Emperor Ferdinand II had nothing to stop Gustavus and his Protestant allies from marching on Vienna and making all of Germany part of Sweden.

Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II (1578-1637)

Secure in his Bohemian estates, midway between battlefield and capital, Duke Albrecht Wenzel Eusebius von Wallenstein could be forgiven some schadenfreude. As imperial generalissimo—commander of mercenaries—he had raised Ferdinand to supremacy, only to be sacked for his efforts: outcast, ostracized, all but banished. Now, thanks to the King of Sweden, he was about to become the most powerful man in the empire. Again.

But to whom was Wallenstein loyal? Over the centuries historians, strategists and writers have often answered too simply: a mercenary, he was on no one’s side but his own. But when a man has enough power, and money, and war, what’s left worth fighting for?

Wallenstein, circa 1620

In a world transitioning from the Renaissance to the Baroque, feudalism to absolutism, perhaps no man better personified such contradictions than Albrecht von Wallenstein. Often described as cold and aloof, he was capable of both great warmth and great rage. He could speak and write fluent German and Italian and was literate in Spanish, French and Latin, but swore in Czech. He was a prolific letter writer, churning out dozens each day on matters ranging from military to politics to estate management, but was a terrible punctuator and sometimes spelled his own name as Waldstein and Wallenstein in the same document. He admired Italian architecture and Italian officers, but had little use for Italians, or Hungarians, or Poles. When bathing was considered a luxury or even unhealthy, he enjoyed frequent baths in custom-made gold and silver tubs. He was a connoisseur of wine but a lover of beer, especially wheat beer; didn’t mind getting drunk, but abhorred drunkards. In dress he favored dark colors, in later years always with a sash or plume or other touch of bright red. He loved animals and was a renowned horse breeder who once claimed, “I value a single foal more than two farms,” yet he disliked dogs. (Ferdinand loved them.) The Holy Roman Empire in 1618: roughly, modern Germany He would be one of the richest men in Europe, but fretted constantly about bankruptcy and was never as interested in making war as in making money; the former was just a means to the latter. That pragmatism would make him one of the great military commanders of the age, but he was less a battlefield tactician than strategist and logistician; he fought only a few open battles, preferring to defend prepared positions.

Wallenstein’s 1608 horoscope

A Protestant turned Catholic who had fought Muslim Turks in Hungary, Wallenstein cared less for religious quarrels among imperial nobles than that the emperor ruled only by their consent. His political philosophy was imperialism, absolutism, Habsburgism, and he believed it time for the empire to dispense with electors altogether: “Germany ought to be governed like France and Spain,” he beleived, “by a single and absolute sovereign.” And though Europe would war for thirty years over religion, Wallenstein preferred astrology, then thought to be a rigorous science; his personal horoscope, cast by no less than the astronomer Johannes Kepler, proved surprisingly accurate. His primary belief, however, was simply in himself. Even as a young son of Czech gentry he declared, “If I am not yet a prince, I may yet live to become one.”

Defenestration of Prague by Václav Brožík: Bohemian Protestants throw imperial agents from a window of Prague Castle, triggering the Thirty Years War

In 1618 he was 34, a rich widower who had hired and led a troop of mercenaries for Ferdinand, and was military governor of Moravia when Protestant Bohemia rebelled. With just 6,000 soldiers of his own, Ferdinand’s power rested on the army of his Catholic nobles, under Maximilian I, Elector of Bavaria Duke Maximilian of Bavaria. Their interests did not always coincide. “The emperor does not have the means to wage war,” Wallenstein knew, “and without money this is something that cannot long be maintained.” When Moravia joined the uprising he absconded to Vienna with its entire national treasure, forfeiting his estates to the rebels but gaining imperial favor.

On that credit Wallenstein raised a regiment of cuirassiers, though less for glory than gain; in that brutal age, looting soldiery could make their officers rich without ever fighting, let alone winning, a battle. In June 1619, at Theyn (modern Týn nad Vltavou) in Bohemia, he led his mercenaries against those of Count Ernst von Mansfeld, a Catholic serving Protestants who was not above haggling with an enemy over the price of withdrawing his troops before battle. Barricaded inside their own wagon train, the count and his men might have negotiated surrender had not Wallenstein personally led a breakthrough. Mansfeld escaped, but a few days later and 25 miles to the southwest was defeated again, at Sablat (Záblatí). And in November 1620 the rebels were decisively defeated at White Mountain, outside Prague.

Battle of White Mountain, 8 November 1619

Wealthy Isabelle von Harrach became Wallenstein’s second wife in 1623

Wallenstein not only regained his family properties, he bought up over sixty confiscated estates at steep discounts, and through a second fortuitous marriage acquired even more, enough for his own little fiefdom. Now with something to lose, and never in the best of health—he was plagued all his life by gout—he advised Ferdinand, “With the advantage and the renown, you now have the best opportunity to negotiate a peace.”

Making peace failed, perhaps because profits could still be made at war. In 1625 France hired 20,000 mercenaries to join Denmark’s 15,000-man peasant army, and England paid Mansfeld to lead 15,000 more. Planning to crush the Catholic forces between them, they instead ran into Albrecht von Wallenstein, with an army the size of all of theirs combined—an imperial army, but raised at his own expense. Ferdinand had thought 25,000 men sufficient, but 50,000, Wallenstein pointed out, could not only take whatever they needed from enemies, they could demand it from allies. Call it war taxes, call it protection money; an imperial army meant riches for its commander and power for the emperor, and over the protests of Maximilian and his other nobles Ferdinand not only agreed to Wallenstein’s terms, he named him Duke of Friedland and imperial general. It’s hard to say which of the two signed a greater deal with the devil.

During the Thirty Years War, the presence of even a friendly army meant murder, rape and pillage for local peasantry. A Landscape with Travellers Ambushed Outside a Small Town by Sebastiaen Vrancx (1573 – 1647)

The prospect of legalized pillage attracted every soldier of fortune in Europe. Croatian light cavalry. Polish heavy cavalry. Hungarian hussars. Swiss pikemen, German musketeers. Dutch and Belgian cuirassiers. English and Irish dragoons. Protestants, Catholics, marauders, murderers, loyal to neither emperor nor empire, worshipping only gold and the god of war. Wallenstein welded them into an army. Now, could he lead it?

Battle of Dessau, 1626, by Franz Hogenberg studio, c. 1626–1628

Mansfeld advanced to cross the Elbe at Dessau. Wallenstein held the bridge. His problem was getting his vast forces across it into action and, if the fighting went badly, back across again. On April 25th, 1626, screened by a cross-river artillery barrage, he sneaked a cavalry unit over into an unguarded wood to launch a surprise flanking attack. Count Ernst von Mansfeld Believing themselves surrounded, Mansfeld’s mercenaries chose to fight another day (many of them for Wallenstein). “God,” he reported, “…has today given me the good fortune to smite Mansfeld upon the head.” The count fled toward Hungary, within the year fell ill and died.

With victory gilding his recruitment pitch, Wallenstein built his army to 100,000 men, Europe’s largest, yet still mercenaries, loyal only to their paymaster, threatening friend and foe alike. “I have had to make enemies of all the electors and princes, indeed everyone, on the emperor’s account,” the duke admitted. “That I am hated in the Empire has happened simply because I have served the emperor too well.”

Foot soldiers in a battle, a burning village beyond, by Sebastian Vrancx (Antwerp 1573-1647)

But serve he did. Like a chess master converging his pieces check by check toward mate—and with each piece leaving death and devastation in its wake—by the end of 1628 Wallenstein had rolled the Danes out of Germany into Norway. “Whatever is now done, must be done by sea,” he wrote Ferdinand. The emperor titled him “Admiral of the Oceanic and Baltic Seas” and bid him start building a fleet. But Gustavus, desiring the Baltic for a Swedish lake and already dabbling at conquest in Poland, took a dim view of such aspirations. “We shall certainly have the Swedes landing on the coast of Pomerania or Mecklenburg,” Wallenstein warned. “Gustavus Adolphus is a dangerous guest, who cannot be too closely watched.”

Playing his own game of chess, Ferdinand paid off his warlord with Mecklenburg itself: the fourth-largest dukedom in the Empire, not coincidentally lying in Sweden’s path to Germany. Furthermore he promoted Wallenstein to the unprecedented rank of generalissimo, Wallenstein’s palace in Prague, built 1623–1630, today serves as home to the Senate of the Czech Republic empowered “to ordain and command, orally and in writing, ordinarily and extraordinarily, even as if We in Our Own Person did ordain and command such.”

Emperor in all but title, Wallenstein soon proved an adept ruler, mostly by virtue of having his army fight and loot on others’ territory. Spoils and tribute from across the empire flowed through his hands. He in turn built his dukedoms into military depots, supplying the army with everything from powder and ball to clothing, bread and beer. Their economies ramped up. His tax base expanded. He funded roads and schools, hospitals and almshouses, even an observatory for his astrologer, Giovanni Baptista Seni. In the midst of one of history’s most savage wars, Albrecht von Wallenstein forged his own thriving, peaceful little domain.

The Four Seasons: Spring by Sebastian Vrancx (1573-1647)

Yet there could be no peace in the empire. Flush with victory, in 1629 Vienna’s Jesuit mission demanded an Edict of Restitution, essentially turning back the Empire’s religious clock to pre-Reformation days. Duke Wallenstein, who permitted Franciscans, Lutherans, Calvinists and even Jews free worship, refused to enforce it. He reported Protestants roused to fresh rebellion, “saying that if only the Swede [Gustavus] would come they would gladly die with him.”

Against the imperious duke priests and nobles found common cause: an imperial army might be a wartime necessity, but it was a peacetime expense, too powerful and dangerous for its commander to go untrusted. Feeling he owed God and his aristocracy before his people or generalissimo, Ferdinand gave in. Wallenstein was informed his services would no longer be required. Those hoping the duke would refuse to step down, or even rebel, were disappointed. “Gladder tidings could not have been brought me,” he wrote. “I thank God that I am out of the meshes.”

April 1631: The Swedes sack Frankfurt an der Oder, slaughtering 3,000 of the defenders. Illustration by Cornelis Danckaerts, 1642

Much of his army was immediately disbanded; much of the rest promptly deserted. With the market awash in unemployed soldiers, Gustavus landed on the German coast to recruit them, calling on the citizens of Mecklenburg to “arrest or slay all the agents of Wallenstein, as robbers, and enemies to God and the country.” Nowadays a veritable cult of Gustavus lauds him as the savior of Protestantism in Germany, but he did not “free” the lands he conquered, instead occupying them and awarding them to his generals. His intent was nothing less than adding a large chunk of Germany to those whole sections of Finland, Poland and Russia he’d already made part of Sweden. The war between Protestants and Catholics was now between imperialists and royalists.

The seige of Magdeburg, November 1630 – 20 May 1631. The Imperials retaliate by burning the city. Only 5,000 of 30,000 citizens survived.

From Breitenfeld the road to Vienna led almost through Friedland, but rather than goad Wallenstein back into the war (in fact, extending feelers to see if he might switch sides), Gustavus turned south, driving Maximilian from Bavaria. By the summer of 1632 Sweden was positioned to take Vienna, and victory. Recruitment of troops, from the suite The Miseries and Misfortunes of War, by Jacques Callot, 1633

Ferdinand’s letters to Wallenstein had gone from apologetic to apoplectic, but the duke was not inclined to resume command. His gout had advanced into his hands; he could barely wield a sword, let alone the reins of empire. He agreed only to raise another army. Some 300 officers answered the call, each bringing his own company or regiment, 40,000 men in all. When Ferdinand’s son, the King of Hungary, was nominated to lead them, Wallenstein declared, “Never would I accept a divided command, were God Himself to be my coadjutant.” Moreover, he insisted on terms precluding another dismissal. It would effectively make him Germany’s first military dictator—at least, after he dealt with the King of Sweden. The Schwedentrunk (Swedish Drink) was just one of the atrocities imposed by both sides on civilians. From The Lamentations of Germany, 1638. More

Following the duke’s example, Gustavus had amassed perhaps 140,000 men of his own, but scattered them to hold conquered territory. With less than 20,000 available for battle, he holed up in Nuremburg and dared the imperials to come in after him.

But Wallenstein also preferred to fight from behind defenses rather than against them. Near a ruined hilltop castle west of town, the Alte Veste (“Old Fortress”), he built a base almost four miles square, from which his cavalry tightened a noose around the city. That summer almost 30,000 Nuremburgers starved. At the end of August Wallenstein allowed enemy reinforcements and their camp followers to pass within the city walls uncontested, giving Gustavus twice the men, but three times the mouths to feed. Sure enough, only a few days later the Protestants were forced out—all 45,000 of them, the largest army Gustavus ever fielded. For days they prowled around the Imperial camp and pounded it with cannon, but Wallenstein held his ground, defying the king to storm the heights of the Alte Veste itself. Which, on Sept. 3rd, is exactly what he did.

August–September 1632: The Swedes (right) fight an uphill battle at Alte Veste.

Unable to use their brigades’ maneuverability or haul their guns up the steep wooded slopes, for twelve hours the Royalists fought a literally uphill battle while the Imperials poured fire down into them. “There was such shooting, thunder and clamor as though all the world were about to fall in,” went one report. “The noise of salvoes was unceasing.” Wallenstein led the defense personally, riding back and forth along the ramparts in a breastplate and scarlet cape, tossing handfuls of gold coins to bolster his troops’ resolve. (They thought him bulletproof.) At the rainy end of the day the Protestants had nothing to show but a thousand dead and twice as many wounded—three times the imperial losses.

Gustavus held on for two weeks, but his starving, plague-ridden mercenaries sought easier employment; one whole cavalry company, 80 strong, killed their captain and rode into the imperial camp. (“More will follow,” Wallenstein said.) The Swedes lost another third of their army before finally slipping away in the night. Wallenstein wrote Ferdinand that Gustavus had been “repulsed and that the title ’invincible’ appertains not to him, but to Your Majesty.” Gustavus at the battle of Lützen

He turned north into Saxony for the winter, dispersing his army around Leipzig to cut off the Swedes from home. Come November, gout flaring, he paused to rest in the little village of Lützen, only to learn Gustavus had gathered reinforcements and was advancing to attack before the imperials could regroup.

The Leipzig road ran between the armies. Outnumbered, Wallenstein’s men spent the night of Nov. 15—16 digging the roadside ditches into trenches, raising the dirt into parapets. By dawn the Swedes faced a line of earthworks a mile and a half across, and behind it Imperial forces arrayed not in pike squares but musketeer brigades heavier than their own. Gustavus was not the only student of warfare on the field.

The Battle of Lützen, 6 November 1632.
Though it conveys the smoke and noise, this 1633 engraving by Matthäus Merian shows several phases of the battle simultaneously, and also incorrectly depicts Imperial forces (bottom) in obsolete tercios, battle-squares.

Thick morning mist delayed the start of battle. To prevent Lützen’s capture Wallenstein had it burned. Acrid smog blanketed the field and the two armies pummeled blindly, all day long, at one point volley-firing muskets into each other from five paces. Royalists poured into the roadside trenches and all but turned both Imperial flanks, but were thrown back again. Death of Gustavus at Lützen, 1632 Gustavus was slain on the field. Wallenstein, so gout-pained that he could not long bear sitting a horse, is said to have led from the comfort of a sedan chair, but at one point a Hessian cavalier missed him with a pistol shot from four paces, and he was hit in the thigh by a spent musket ball, though only bruised under his buff coat. (Maybe he really was bulletproof.) Darkness brought an end to the fighting, leaving both sides on much the same ground as in the morning, but strewn with dead.

Lützen is most often called a Protestant victory. If so, it was pyrrhic. Their advance on Leipzig was blocked; they lost more men, more battle flags, and their king. (“It is well for him and me that he is gone,” remarked Wallenstein on news of Gustavus’ death. “There was no room in Germany for both our heads.”) That night the Swedes were contemplating withdrawal when they learned the Imperials already had. Lützen wasn’t a matter of who won, but of who retreated last.

Wallenstein’s Camp by Rudolf Otto von Ottenfeld

At 49 Wallenstein had already enjoyed, or suffered, a longer life than most men of the age. Often bedridden, he longed just for peace in his lifetime, beginning to see that serving the empire and serving the emperor might not be the same thing. He rebuffed a Swedish offer to betray Ferdinand as “gross villainy,” but in May of 1633 proposed to their Saxon allies that “hostilities between the two armies be suspended, and that the forces should be used in combined strength against anyone who should attempt further to disturb the state of the Empire and to impede freedom of religion.” That this conceivably included the Swedes, French and Spanish, the Jesuits, Maximilian and the emperor himself—and, in the event of peace, even Wallenstein’s own mercenaries—is why everyone was against it. And, eventually, against him.

By 1634 Ferdinand still needed an army, but not his generalissimo. Wallenstein’s fall came by the same way as his rise. He was declared a traitor, his estates forfeit. Lamenting, “I had peace in my hand; now I have no further say in the matter, but God is just,” he found the one thing truly worth fighting for: his life. Wallenstein’s Zug nach Eger (Wallenstein’s Train to Eger) by Karl T. von Piloty (1861)

But could he trust his own men? Escorted by a regiment of dragoons under Irish colonel Walter Butler, Wallenstein and few loyal officers fled to Eger (modern Cheb), on the border with Saxony, held by Scots-Irish troops with nothing binding them to Vienna but their mercenary oaths. Uncertain of whom to obey, garrison commander Lt. Col. John Gordon made the ex-duke welcome. He and Butler swore their allegiance, then went off to choose sides before Imperials or Royalists arrived.

That stormy Saturday night, Feb. 25th, Gordon invited his guests to dinner in the town castle. Wallenstein was too ill to attend, but his officers were wined and dined to drunkenness, at which point Gordon’s men burst in and cut them down. Meanwhile Butler and a handful of dragoons broke into Wallenstein’s quarters. Capt. Walter Devereux raced up the stairs to kick open the bedroom door. Wallenstein is said to have shouted for quarter. Devereux stabbed him to death with a polearm.

Wallenstein’s Assassination by Matthäus Merian the Elder (1593–1650)
While Scottish Lt. Col. John Gordon’s men slaughter Wallenstein loyalists at dinner (top), Irish Col. Walter Butler and Capt. Walter Devereux break into Wallenstein’s apartments in town to kill him. More

True mercenaries, the assassins profited well by their treachery, though most soon died by war or plague. Ferdinand, forced to abandon the Edict of Restitution and sue for peace with Saxony just as Wallenstein had advised, outlived his generalissimo by only three years, but the imperial army, The room in which Wallenstein was murdered, including the original furniture, is now part of the Cheb (formerly Eger) Museum. Wallenstein’s army, made Austria a world power. European rulers eagerly took Wallenstein’s philosophy of bellum se ipsum alet—war feeds itself—to extreme. By the end of the Thirty Years War Germany lost a third of her population, in some regions more than half, becoming a continental backwater until two centuries later, when long-repressed national pride gave rise to Bismarck, Kaiser Wilhelm, and Hitler.

Allegiance to a lofty ideal, bent to unworthy goals: Albrecht von Wallenstein—the warlord who once said, “when the different countries are laid in ashes, we shall be forced to make peace”—might have foretold as much. No one knows the price of loyalty better than a mercenary.

Ivory memento mori of Wallenstein, ebony and metal stand studded with stones from his tomb. Science Museum, London


Brnardic, Vladimir. Imperial Armies of the Thirty Years' War (1): Infantry and Artillery. Illus. Darko Pavlovic. Oxford; New York, NY: Osprey, Men at Arms series #457, 2009. ISBN 9781846034473
Brnardic, Vladimir. Imperial Armies of the Thirty Years' War (2): Cavalry Illus. Darko Pavlovic. Oxford; New York, NY: Osprey, Men at Arms series #462, 2009. ISBN 9781846039973
Brzezinki, Richard. The Army of Gustavus Aldolphus (1): Infantry Illus. Richard Hook. Oxford; Long Island City, NY: Osprey, Men at Arms series #235, 2005. ISBN 9781855323506
Brzezinki, Richard. The Army of Gustavus Aldolphus (2): Cavalry Illus. Richard Hook. Oxford; Long Island City, NY: Osprey, Men at Arms series #262, 2005. ISBN 9780850459975
Brzezinki, Richard. Lützen 1632 Illus. Graham Turner. Oxford: Osprey, Campaign series #62, 2001. ISBN 9781855325524
Mann, Golo. Wallenstein, His Life Narrated. Trans. Charles Kessler. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976. ISBN 0030918847
Mitchell, Lt. Col. J. Life of Wallenstein, Duke of Friedland London: James Fraser, 1837. http://books.google.com/books?id=1FMEAAAAQAAJ
Mortimer, Geoff. Wallenstein: The Enigma of the Thirty Years War. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. ISBN 9780230272132
Parker, Geoffrey. The Thirty Years' War. London: Routledge, 1988. ISBN 0415025346
Roberts, Keith. Pike and Shot Tactics 1590-1660 Illus. Adam Hook. Oxford; Long Island City, NY: Osprey, Elite series 179, 2010. ISBN 9781846034695
Wedgwood, C. V. The Thirty Years War. New York: Book of the Month Club, 1995.

About the author

Author/illustrator/historian Don Hollway has been published in Aviation History, Excellence, History Magazine, Military Heritage, Military History, Civil War Quarterly, Muzzleloader, Porsche Panorama, Renaissance Magazine, Scientific American, Vietnam, Wild West, and World War II magazines. His work is also available in paperback, hardcover and across the internet, a number of which rank extremely high in global search rankings.

More from Don Hollway:

Comments loading....