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A conflict beyond peacemakers: James I and the Thirty Years’ War


400 years since the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War, John Matusiak discusses King James I of England and VI of Scotland’s relationship with one of the bloodiest conflicts in European history.

The moral aversion to warfare so glibly evinced by most modern-day leaders was hardly so commonplace among their earthier, more forthright predecessors. To most of our forebears, indeed, as Machiavelli made clear in his Art of War, the handling of arms was a ‘beautiful spectacle’, while others like the seventeenth-century soldier-poet Georg Greflinger openly embraced their own martial excesses with an ardour largely incomprehensible to more recent generations:

I roared, loved and romped, and what I lauded most was sin . . .
Seeking common whores, vagabonding, picking quarrels, cursing,
Drinking away money and blood,
Everything was splendidly good.

Yet even early modern Europe had its champions of peace as an ideal state in which men might live in Christian fellowship. Not long after the announcement of a new military alliance in November 1511, for example, Desiderius Erasmus caught sight of Julius II in the midst of a procession at Bologna - a noisy spectacle of ‘troops under arms, generals prancing and galloping, lovely boys, torches flaming, spoils, shouts that rent the heavens, trumpets blaring, canon thundering’ – and reflected wistfully upon the Continent’s future as the warmongering pope was borne aloft in a gorgeous litter. ‘I was dreaming of an age that really was golden’, wrote the Dutch humanist, ‘and isles that were really happy . . . when that Julian trumpet sounded all the world to arms’. And one century later England, too, was to boast its own apologist for the virtues of peace: a king, no less, who proudly presented himself as the personal guardian-in-chief of concord among all God’s nations.

Best known today for his quarrels with Parliament, writings on witchcraft, and, of course, the Gunpowder Plot, King James I of England was nevertheless widely represented by his apologists, as well as himself, as ‘Rex Pacificus’ or ‘peacemaker king’ – an epithet, indeed, that he seems to have valued above all others, and an image that he spared no opportunity to promote. ‘I have ever, I praise God, kept peace and amity with all’, he told his first English Parliament before informing MPs how of all ‘the blessings which God hath in my person bestowed upon you, the first is peace’. The marriage of his daughter Elizabeth to Frederick V of the Palatinate on St Valentine’s Day, 1613 – an event that would eventually result in the creation of the Hanoverian dynasty a hundred years later – would, moreover, carry his island kingdom into the very heart of European politics, just as he intended. ‘Come they not hither,’ inquired a tract entitled The Peace-Maker, or Great Brittaines Blessing and written mainly by Lancelot Andrewes with small additions by the king himself, ‘as to the fountain from whence peace springs? Here sits Solomon and hither come the tribes for judgement. O happy moderator, blessed Father, not father of thy country alone, but Father of all thy neighbour countries about thee.’

Yet the King of England’s posturing, like so many of his high-flown aspirations, conformed poorly with the harsher realities of practical politics. Friendly with all nations, allied with Protestant states while on peaceful terms with Spain and her overseas territories, James fondly intended to survey from on high an imposing vista of goodwill and harmony on a European scale fashioned by his own hand. But no champion of Protestantism could realistically hope to flirt with Spain, and while James, as monarch of Scotland, might previously have succeeded with such diplomatic promiscuity, he could not hope to do so in his southern realm, where both people and Parliament were hostile to a strategy that was never adequately explained, and at a critical juncture when the impending convulsions on the Continent were beyond all hope of mediation. ‘He could not,’ wrote the country gentleman Oglander, ‘endure a soldier or to see men drilled’ and ‘to hear of war was death to him’. But now, as Counter-Reformation Germany fractured into armed religious camps, hard-headed Dutchmen pursued their implacable enmity with Spain, and Spain herself assumed the offensive after the assassination of the French king, Henry IV, in 1610, war was not merely the best but the only policy available in the longer term. Indeed, having chosen ‘Beati Pacifici’ – ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ - as his personal motto, James would swiftly discover that peacemakers like himself were much more likely to feel themselves accursed rather than hallowed, since the marriage alliances he had arranged with amity in mind had actually linked the English crown to the very ruler who would now become one of the main protagonists in the outbreak of Thirty Years War.

When the childless Holy Roman Emperor, Matthias, who also held the electoral throne of Bohemia, instructed in 1617 that his Catholic Habsburg cousin, Archduke Ferdinand of Styria, should be nominated his successsor to the Bohemian throne, the native Protestant lords were committed by May of the following year to rebellion. And when the King of England’s son-in-law, Frederick of the Palatinate, pitched into the struggle with wild-eyed promises of support and hopes of wrecking Habsburg power throughout Germany, the blue touch paper was finally lit for the renewal of a fearsome war of religion that had been suspended in 1555 through nothing more than mutual exhaustion of the contending parties. Since the Spanish Habsburgs were bound to come to the rescue of their cousins in Vienna, the danger was already critical, and when Frederick himself subsequently accepted the crown of Bohemia from the rebels in October 1619, he not only unleashed a catastrophic conflict that had been looming for at least a decade, but at once plunged his father-in-law into the thick of what would prove to be an unimaginably destructive political maelstrom.

For the six remaining years of his life, James would alternately agonise and dabble, always hesitantly and invariably vainly, as his son-in-law’s deposition unfolded inexorably before him and the Catholic and Protestant princes of Europe progressively entered the abyss of a conflict like none previous: one rendering Germany in particular what the contemporary Englishman, Edmund Calamy, would describe as ‘a place of dead men’s skulls’. ‘Some nations,’ Calamy reflected in 1641, ‘are chastised with the sword, others with famine, others with the man-destroying plague. But poor Germany hath been sorely whipped with all these three iron whips at the same time and that for above twenty yeers space.’ By 1648, indeed, as the contending parties finally reached a state of terminal depletion and stalemate, the war had become the greatest man-made calamity to befall Europe before the twentieth century, claiming far more lives proportionately than either the First or Second World Wars. That spring, the Augustinian abbess Clara Staiger surveyed the devastation at her convent of Marienstein just outside the Bavarian city of Eichstätt, and lamented the loss with a deep sense of gloom and foreboding that mirrored the sentiments of so many survivors of the shipwreck of the previous thirty years. ‘May God come to our aid like a father,’ she wrote, ‘and send us some means so we can build again.’ In her particular case, the perpetrators had been the Swedish-French armies of Generals Wrangel and Turenne, but before them countless other soldiers had been visited upon the abbess’s homeland from the four corners of the Continent – Spanish, French, Swedish, Danish, Italian, Croat, Scottish; Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist; conscripts, mercenaries and freebooters alike – all bringing plague, poverty and destruction in their wake and spawning a death toll that the most reliable estimates now set at some 8 million souls. One soldier alone, Peter Hagendorf, had marched more than fifteen thousand miles over the course of his service, travelling with his family in tow and enduring not only robbers, foul weather, gunshot wounds, scant food and scarcer pay for his trouble, but also the deaths of his first spouse and children. ‘At this time my wife went into labour,’ he wrote after he had been ordered to Stade, downriver of Hamburg, early in 1628, ‘but the child was not yet ready to be born and so shortly died. God grant him a joyous resurrection.’ Three daughters – Anna Maria, Elisabeth and Barbara – would also be entrusted to the consolations of a merciful Creator over the next five years before their mother, Anna Stadlerin of Traunstein, herself succumbed in Munich, some days after the birth of Barbara.

And the outcome of such suffering was a peace that contained all the seeds of future conflict. As negotiations wound on interminably over two years, the death toll continued to mount inexorably as each side quibbled over minutiae and waited for some semblance of military advantage amid the ongoing hostilities. Forced by circumstance to make impossible choices, allies, on the one hand, frequently found themselves threatened more by each other than their common enemies, so that when the Peace of Westphalia finally became a reality on October 24, 1648 - amid ceaseless bell-ringing and countless services of thanksgiving, and as poets wrote of swallows nesting in soldiers’ helmets – it was only fitting, perhaps, that one anonymous observer would reflect how the fighting had once again been concluded ‘more out of exhaustion than from any sense of right behaviour’. True, the old controversies combining territorial and religious interests and equating religion with power politics were gone forever. But in their place emerged a newer, perhaps more naked form of international aggrandisement as the prospect of Habsburg hegemony vanished once and for all, only to be replaced in due course by the ambition of Louis XIV and the alternative prospect of domination first by France and later a newly resurgent Prussia.

By John Matusiak

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