“Lion of the North” Gustavus Adolphus and the Thirty Years’ War: Fighting the Holy Roman Empire – Part I


On 9 December 1594, Gustav II Adolf was born. From the time of his birth until his coronation, his upbringing involved many lessons in politics, literature, military science, and physical development, making him physically and intellectually rounded. In 1611, his father, Charles IX of Sweden died, leaving the Swedish crown to the young Gustav who was sixteen at the time.

When Gustav was crowned king of Sweden, there was no celebration for the sixteen-year-old had inherited from his father three bloody wars against Denmark, Russia, and Poland, along with financial troubles. However, the boy king would not let these incredible challenges stop him from restoring stability to Sweden and leading his country towards military innovation and glory.

This is the recounting of the dramatic life of the “The Golden King” and “The Lion of the North” Gustav Adolf and the Swedish Empire during stormaktstiden – “the Great Power era”.

Gustav Enters the War

In 1629, the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II of Bohemia made a drastic move without consulting the electoral princes, his advisors, and the imperial diet as a whole when he announced the Edict of Restitution. This edict took 500 abbeys, two archbishoprics, and two bishoprics that had been “secularized” since 1552 by Germany princes and returned them back to the Catholic Church.

Ferdinand II of Habsburg, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, King of Hungary and Bohemia with his court dwarf.

Ferdinand II of Habsburg, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, King of Hungary and Bohemia with his court dwarf. (Public Domain)

This not only threatened the Protestant princes who sized church land, but indicated how far the emperor would go with his authority at the expense of his own subjects. Ferdinand’s expanding sphere of influence not only threatened the Protestant authorities within his realm, but also Sweden, for they shared a presence on the Baltic, which eventually induced Gustav to invade Germany.

Before Gustav could set off for war against the Holy Roman Empire, he needed to calculate the costs of the war and the amount of supplies the army would need. Upon examination, the Swedish exchequer concluded that it would cost the taxpayer 2,800,000 silver dalers. While the money was being carefully calculated and banked, the spending started immediately to pay the producers to manufacture the supplies and an army to use them. To get an idea of the amount of supplies needed, an infantry regiment of 576 muskets would need 3,000 pounds of gunpowder, 2,400 pounds of lead, and 3,400 pounds of match each month while campaigning.

Early spring 1630, Gustav mustered 13,641 soldiers and placed them to a fleet consisting of 25 major warships along with 75 smaller units and transports. With troops assembled, they boarded the ships.

The Vasa, early 17th century warship, was ordered by King Adolphus and built at the Stockholm shipyard by Henrik Hybertsson - an experienced Dutch shipbuilder. Vasa was to be the mightiest warship in the world, armed with 64 guns on two gundecks.

The Vasa, early 17th century warship, was ordered by King Adolphus and built at the Stockholm shipyard by Henrik Hybertsson – an experienced Dutch shipbuilder. Vasa was to be the mightiest warship in the world, armed with 64 guns on two gundecks. (Dennis Jarvis/CC BY-SA 2.0)

However, the winds were unfavorable, and it took the fleet a little longer than hoped to arrive. On June 25, the Swedish forces quickly disembarked at Peenemunde, which is located on the northern end of the island of Usedom, sent reconnaissance parties out, built field fortifications, and began sweeping the island clean of enemy forces. By July 4, the island was under Swedish control. With a base established, the Swedes could now receive supplies and troops and when news reached the German interior that Gustav had arrived, the Protestant powers of Europe, such as the elector Palatine and Landgrave (Duke) of Hesse-Cassel, saw opportunity arriving, as he had had much of his land stripped away by the emperor.

The prow of the Vasa. “During the 1961 recovery, thousands of artifacts and the remains of at least 15 people were found in and around the Vasa's hull by marine archaeologists.”

The prow of the Vasa. “During the 1961 recovery, thousands of artifacts and the remains of at least 15 people were found in and around the Vasa’s hull by marine archaeologists.” (Jorge Láscar/CC BY-SA 2.0)

On July 18, Gustav mustered 8,723 men who boarded fifty-one ships suitable to sail up the Oder River. On July 19, the Swedish forces set sail down the Oder. By noon on July 20, the Swedish forces had arrived at Stettin. Gustav ordered that part of his troops land near the Oderburg castle where he took up position, and after some deliberation with the authorities, the city of Stettin surrendered. Gustav not only established a foothold in the interior of Germany, but also gained a major economical artery.

Before pushing any further south, Gustav decided to stay put in Pomerania to strengthen his position. However, Protestant support was still lacking. Many began to view his arrival with suspicion instead of opportunity—except for one.

While Gustav remained in Stettin, the large prosperous city of Magdeburg on the Elbe River, in August 1630 rose up against imperial authority and joined Sweden. Not long after the city came under siege and asked Gustav to alleviate them.  However, Gustav could do little to help. The reason for this is that if he were to rush to their assistance, he would have to lead his army though the neutral territories of Brandenburg and Saxony. Moreover, he would also have to pass though enemy territory. However, Gustav knew that Magdeburg was under siege by a small imperial force, which could hold out for some time. Of course, it could hold out for a considerable amount of time so long as Count Tilly and his powerful Catholic forces did not aid the besiegers. Magdeburg would have to wait. Gustav had other problems to deal with; the winter and supplies.

The winter of 1630-31 slowed not only the forces of Tilly but also the enemy forces stationed at Gartz and those east and west of Gustav along the coast. The reason for the stagnation of the imperial forces was due to not having the proper attire for the winter, thus causing them to stay put in their winter camps. The Swedish forces on the other had been equipped for the winter with fur-lined coats, boots, head covers, and gloves.

Kyller - It was worn by military men, mainly cavalry in the 1600s and 1700s under armor.

Kyller – It was worn by military men, mainly cavalry in the 1600s and 1700s under armor.  (Livrustkammaren (The Royal Armoury)/CC BY-SA 3.0)

While the winter did not stop the Swedish troops, it did slow them down. The reason for their sluggish movement was due to logistical issues. However, logistical issues were not going to stop Gustav when he saw opportunity, as intelligence reports indicated that the imperial forces at Gartz were reduced from 6,000 men. Gustav mustered his forces and moved his troops by foot and flotilla on the unfrozen Oder River on Christmas Eve, and attacked the 4,000 imperial forces remaining at Gartz. The Swedes were victorious. However, victory came due to the garrison being undisciplined and most importantly, many had been out searching for food, thus leaving only a small force to resist.

With Gartz under Swedish control, Gustav now had a firm hold on Pomerania with the exception of a few smaller besieged garrisons. With success came issues in early 1631, for Gustav lacked the money needed to pay his troops. A man by the name of Armand Jean du Plessis, better known to us as Cardinal Richelieu, came forward and offered Gustav a proposal that would greatly help the Swedish forces continue the fight.

Cardinal Richelieu, French Money, Religion and Politics

The citizens of Sweden were poverty-stricken, and further war at their expense threatened the infrastructure of Gustav’s kingdom if the war became protracted. Furthermore, he had no allies. Denmark could have provided assistance but they remained neutral and were still viewed as untrustworthy by Gustav (even though King Christian publicly expressed friendship, it did not sway Gustav).

Portrait of Cardinal Richelieu

Portrait of Cardinal Richelieu (Public Domain)

One would think that other Protestant kingdoms outside of Germany would have mustered their forces and pushed on into Germany. Unfortunately, many of them were already in war or coming out of a war against a powerful Catholic state. England could have helped but they had just signed a peace treaty with Spain. The Netherlands could have helped, but were busy fighting Spain. As mentioned, Denmark remained neutral; this was due to being beaten into submission and afterwards paid off to remain neutral. Inviting the Ottomans into the war was a possibility but was looked upon as an uncertainty. As for all the Protestant princes within Holy Roman Empire, they either stayed neutral, looking for ways to find peace, or sought outside help to fund their military endeavors. Because of this, the only two powers one could look to help their religious cause were France and Sweden.

France could have entered the war on the side of the Catholics. However, politics was thicker than religious similarities. Because of this, King Louis XIII of France’s chief minister Cardinal Richelieu proposed an entirely different approach. Instead of aiding the Catholic nations in their war, why not aid the Protestants? Richelieu’s thinking was politically strategic. Richelieu understood that if France were to support Emperor Ferdinand II, they would be helping to further politically and territorially suffocate themselves for the powerful House of Habsburg. The only nation and leader battle-hardened and strong enough to curtail the Catholics was King Gustav of Sweden.

Cardinal Richelieu at the Siege of La Rochelle, a result of a war between the French royal forces of Louis XIII the Huguenots of La Rochelle, at the height of the tensions between the Catholics and the Protestants in France.

Cardinal Richelieu at the Siege of La Rochelle, a result of a war between the French royal forces of Louis XIII the Huguenots of La Rochelle, at the height of the tensions between the Catholics and the Protestants in France. (Public Domain)

Richelieu approached Gustav with the proposal to enter the war with the aid of subsides. Gustav had no issue with this and greatly accepted. However, it came down to ‘name your price’. Gustav asked for six hundred thousand rixdollars (silver coinage used throughout the European continent) a year but Richelieu quickly declined, for it was too much. However, Richelieu concluded that money well spent is money well-earned and agreed to Gustav’s terms with the signing of the Treaty of Bärwalde 23 January 1631. After the parties agreed to the terms, Gustav had one more favor to ask, and that was to make the agreement public. Richelieu disagreed, but understood the circumstances at hand. By agreeing to make the treaty public, this was making a statement that showed Catholic France and Protestant Sweden were united and most importantly, the treaty itself was an invitation to the Protestant states to join the war against the Holy Roman Empire.

The Battle of Frankfurt an der Oder

Six days after signing the Treaty of Bärwalde, Gustav turned his forces back north and headed towards the fortified city of Demmin. In less than three weeks the Swedish forces had captured six towns including Demmin, which surrendered after a siege of two days. While Gustav moved with fluidity, Tilly had to turn west for a moment before swinging north. As Tilly’s forces continued pushing north, he decided to hit soft targets, like that of Swedish occupied Neu-Brandenburg, whose garrison lacked artillery and was secured by only 750 troops. Gustav was quick to respond by mustering 19,000 men to relive the city but then refrained from doing so. Gustav had the men but his cavalry was largely unpaid German mercenaries who might have proved unreliable.

Therefore, Gustav decided on a far different strategy. He decided that to relieve the city. He would have to move his forces towards Frankfurt. This would distract Tilly and disrupt his communications with the forces besieging Magdeburg. However, when Tilly got word of Gustav’s army moving towards Frankfurt it was too late. Tilly had stormed Neu-Brandenburg and sacked the town. Afterwards, Tilly moved his forces to aid in the siege at Magdeburg in hopes to end it. Unfortunately for Tilly, his forces proved too small to make a difference. To make matters worse for Tilly, Gustav on March 27 had pushed south on the Ober with a force of 14,000 troops and 200 guns, to attack Frankfurt. Gustav also knew that the garrison of Frankfurt consisted of 6,000 soldiers and capable commanders, thus it was imperative to take Frankfurt quickly.

Swedish infantry and cavalry led by the Swedish king Gustav II Adolf march through Frankfurt, 17 November 1631. Cannons firing.

Swedish infantry and cavalry led by the Swedish king Gustav II Adolf march through Frankfurt, 17 November 1631. Cannons firing. (Public Domain)

On March 31, Tilly pulled his forces and headed to relive Frankfurt. However, when he arrived, it was too late. On April 3, the Swedish forces stormed the city, massacred the garrison and sacked the town. Seeing that Frankfurt was lost, Tilly returned to Magdeburg. Tilly’s return was a smart move, for he would have known that Gustav’s forces lay in wait for his arrival. Tilly’s about face from Frankfurt frustrated Gustav. Seeing that Tilly would not take the bait, Gustav tried to negotiate with the electorates of Saxony and Brandenburg that would allow his forces to pass through their neutral territorial in order to reach and relieve Magdeburg of the imperial forces. Finally, on April 20, Saxony and Brandenburg gave permission. Unfortunately, it came too late, for Tilly had assaulted the city and the imperial forces who happened to be unpaid and under-fed, torched the city and killed 20,000 inhabitants. Even though this campaign between Gustav and Tilly was purely defensive maneuvering, the end was clearly a Swedish victory.

The Sack of Magdeburg, 1631.

The Sack of Magdeburg, 1631. (Public Domain)

The Battle of Werben

Three months later, at Werben, near the confluence of the Havel and Elbe, Gustav established his camp, while Tilly had moved into Hesse-Cassel. The reason for Gustav’s establishing himself at Werben was to keep Tilly away from that principality. Tilly chose Hesse-Cassel to provision his forces and attempted to convince the landgrave to join him. However, the langrave decided to put his support behind the Swedes and thus entered into an alliance with Gustav.

As Gustav waited in Werben, Tilly received a message from Field Marshall Pappenheim requesting that he come to Magdeburg and aid in its defense against the Swedes. After some time, Tilly decided to send three cavalry regiments on a recon mission towards Werben on July 27, 1631. After a few days, Gustav received word of the cavalry advance and quickly assembled 4,000 cavalry and led them towards the enemy force and surprised them at Burgstall and Angeren on August 1, 1631. The imperial forces suffered heavy casualties and lost their baggage.

During this engagement, Gustav himself almost became a casualty. Those who were captured provided the Swedish king with valuable information. He soon learned that Tilly was planning to attack his forces at Werben…

King Gustavus II Adolphus statue, Stockholm

King Gustavus II Adolphus statue, Stockholm (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Top Image: The victory of Gustavus Adolphus at the Battle of Breitenfeld (1631) (Public Domain)

By Cam Rea


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