V. The final French phase

Henri de la Tour d'Auvergne, Viscount Turenne (1611-75)
Henri de la Tour d'Auvergne, Viscount Turenne (1611-75)



Since the days of Emperor Charles V (1519-58), the prospect of Hapsburg encirclement gave French statesmen their worst nightmares. Fear of fighting alone against Spain and the Empire, led first Henry IV and then the ministers of Louis XIII to conclude alliances with Denmark, Sweden, England, and Bavaria.
But by 1635, the policy of fighting the Hapsburgs by proxy was collapsing.

On 6 September 1634 at the Battle of Nördlingen the outnumbered Swedish troops, commanded by Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar, were soundly defeated by the Imperial forces under the joint command of Ferdinand II's son, Ferdinand, and General Matthias Count Gallas (1584-1645). Within months, Saxony had agreed terms with the Emperor. In May 1635, Ferdinand agreed in the Peace of Prague to modify the Edict of Restitution, effectively granting Lutherans renewed toleration.

Although Sweden's army in Germany was defeated at the Battle of Nördlingen, the Swedes retained many heavily fortified citadels in Germany. In 1648, the Swedes were able to obtain favorable peace terms because of the 70,000 soldiers and 127 fortresses they still possessed.


Sweden's setbacks and Saxony's withdrawal made a complete Hapsburg victory seem likely, so France declared war (May 1635). France was wealthy and its troops fresh, but they were also inexperienced. France was forced to turn to the Lutheran prince and mercenary Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar (1604-39) - recently defeated at Nördlingen. Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar brought with him a personal army of 18,000.


French and Dutch troops jointly invaded Franche-Comté and the Spanish Netherlands, but met with little success. Indeed, the Spanish army counter-attacked and entered France in 1636.
The French also attacked in North Italy. In 1635 they sent troops under Henri (Henry), Duke of Rohan (1570-1638) to help Swiss Protestants seize the Valtelline.

The Valtelline (or Valtellina) was an area of great importance to both France and the Hapsburgs and they had long contested for its control. Situated to the north of Lombardy and south of Switzerland, the Hapsburgs saw it as a vital link in the movement of their troops between Italy and Central and Western Europe; the French saw it as the final block in a wall of Hapsburg encirclement. In the 1620s Spain and France fought a number of engagements for control of the area, and in 1626 France had been forced to agree to its free use by Spanish troops.


15 August 1636, the invading Spanish army captured the French town of Corbie on the River Somme, just eighty miles from Paris. The Spanish held the town until 9 November, when the French managed to regain possession.

The Swedish troops in North Germany were under the command of Johan Banér (1596-1641) whose drunken, depressive, plundering habits did not prevent him being a very competent soldier.
24 September 1636, Johan Banér's troops attacked an Imperial army now supported by Saxon troops in hilly wooded country near Wittstock. Banér won a decisive victory, and seized field guns, equipment and supplies.


After initial setbacks, Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar achieved success over Imperial forces. Reinforced by Henri (Henry), Viscount Turenne, in 1638 he laid siege to Breisach, a massive fortress overlooking the Rhine. Imperial forces sent to relieve the garrison were defeated and in December 1638, the starving defenders were forced to surrender.

Medallion struck to commemorate the seizure of Breisach.
[The legend reads Brisiaco capto coelis victoria venit Bernhado tulit ex hoste trophaea duci]


1640, The French and Swedes mounted an ineffective joint campaign in North Germany. The revolts in Portugal and Catalonia against the Spanish crown proved a far greater setback to the Hapsburg cause.


Lennart Torstensson (1603-1651)

Johan Banér died in May 1641, but he was soon replaced by an equally able Swedish general Lennart Torstensson (1603-51). Torstensson rapidly defeated the Saxon army at Schweidnitz and marched on Vienna. Ferdinand assembled a large army to defend his lands and Torstensson's outnumbered army was forced to fall back to Breitenfeld.
On 2 November 1642, the Second Battle of Breitenfeld took place. With great daring Torstensson attacked the Imperial forces before they could organize and inflicted a major defeat - half the Imperial forces were killed or captured.


France had two talented Generals in Henri de la Tour d'Auvergne, Viscount Turenne (1611-75) and Louis II de Bourbon, Prince of Condé (1621-86). Aged only 22, Condé defeated the Spanish army at Rocroi, 19 May 1643.

Highly trained Spanish tercios (combined units of pikemen and musketeers) had dominated European battlefields for over a century. Their decisive defeat at the Battle of Rocroi marked the end of an era.

The massive loss of trained infantry that the Spanish suffered here allowed France to invade Germany later in the year. In November 1643, the French were themselves defeated at Tuttlingen by a Bavarian army commanded by Franz von Mercy. Mercy followed up this victory by taking Freiburg in July 1644.

The French sent reinforcements and Turenne moved them into the Lower Palatinate. Fighting between the French and Bavarians ended in the Second Battle of Nördlingen (3 August 1645). Von Mercy was killed and the Imperial forces obliged to withdraw. The following year, the French invaded Bavaria and ravaged its lands so badly that Maximilian agreed to the Peace of Ulm (March 1647) essentially capitulating to France.

The French army was enabled to move north against the Spanish and inflict a massive defeat on the Spanish army at Lens (20 August 1648).
The Swedish army was being equally successful against Imperial troops. 17 May 1648, the Swedes destroyed the Imperial army at the Battle of Zusmarshausen (near Augsburg) marched into Bohemia and reached the outskirts of Prague (July 1648).

The assault on Prague


Before Prague could fall, the Emperor agreed to sign the Peace of Westphalia. A devastated Germany finally knew peace.


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