For someone who was involved in the Thirty Years War a mere two years, Gustav Adolf left an oversized impression. But that was par for for course for a man who spent his life virtually racing from one unqualified success to another.
Commonly known in the English-speaking world as Gustavus Adolphus, the Swedish king came to the throne at age sixteen, and within a few years had turned Sweden from a relatively insignificant backwater into a power to be reckoned with. If most contemporary (and subsequent) accounts can be believed, the man was practically flawless. He was tall, good-looking, highly intelligent, fun to be around, pious without being stuffy, incredibly brave, an inspiring speaker, and to top it all off, a military genius.
The only flaws that anyone seems to acknowledge is that he put on a few pounds in his thirties, and was physically brave to the point of insanity. This last flaw was a huge one because complete lack of care for his own safety led to his untimely death and created huge problems for his family, his country and his allies.
By 1629, the Protestant cause in Germany was in dire shape. Protestant generals like Christian of Brunswick, Christian of Anhalt, Ernst von Mansfeld and the Danish king, Christian IV, had suffered almost constant defeat. After Christian of Denmark was chased back to his country by the generals Tilly and Wallenstein, Emperor Ferdinand II came down hard on the Protestant territories with the infamous Edict of Restitution, effectively rolling back many of the material gains made by Protestants in the preceding century.
Right around that time, Sweden finally made peace with Poland after a lengthy war, and Gustav could turn his attention toward Germany. A staunch Protestant, he was concerned at the possibility of Catholicism once again dominating Germany. He found an unlikely ally in the great French statesman, Cardinal Richelieu. In a secret treaty, Gustav Adolf agreed to enter the war on the Protestant side, aided by a generous French financial subsidy. Though France was Catholic, Richelieu was very interested in curbing the influence of the Habsburg empire and saw a Swedish invasion as the perfect distraction to keep the empire from menacing French territory.
Gustav Adolf landed in the German kingdom of Brandenburg with only 4,000 troops, confident of gaining German support. The Germans proved to be a huge disappointment in this respect. Even though the ruler of Brandenburg was Gustav’s brother-in-law, he was terrified of the empire and reluctant to publicly support Sweden. The same went for John George of Saxony, who feared Swedish influence in Germany. For a while it looked as though the Swedish king would get no local support. But then General Tilly besieged and sacked the important city of Magdeburg. Terrible atrocities were documented during the sacking, which ended when the entire city was destroyed by fire, killing virtually all of its inhabitants. This terrified the Germans and they turned to Gustav Adolf without further protest.
In September of 1631, the combined Swedish and Saxon forces met Tilly outside Leipzig at the Battle of Breitenfeld. Using innovative tactics and weaponry , Gustav dealt Tilly a crushing defeat, killing half his force and capturing all of his artillery. Breitenfeld is considered one of the most important battles in modern warfare and forever changed the way wars were fought.
After that, there was no stopping Sweden.Gustav Adolf rapidly marched his armies across Germany, establishing winter headquarters at Mainz while he planned the final defeat of the imperial forces. In the spring of 1632, he invaded Bavaria, the home of imperial ally Maximilian I, and General Tilly’s employer. Tilly himself was killed at the Battle of Lech (another great textbook study for modern warfare) and Gustav went on to victories at Munich and Augsburg.
After that, he ran into trouble. Emperor Ferdinand had wisely called back General Wallenstein, who now menaced Gustav’s untrustworthy Saxon ally. Gustav failed to take Regensburg, then headed north to help Saxony.
Wallenstein then threatened Nuremburg and Gustav duly came to the rescue. Wallenstein picked an excellent position at Alte Veste, and Gustav failed to take it, in spite of several inspired attacks. This greatly dampened the enthusiasm of his soldiers, but Gustav was undeterred. He called in his generals, by now scattered all over Germany, and chased Wallenstein back into Saxony, where he had already taken Leipzig.The two great military leaders finally met head-on at the Battle of Lutzen. As usual, Gustav Adolf rode at the head of his cavalry, wearing no armor. In 1627 he’d been wounded in the shoulder and wearing a cuirass would have aggravated the wound, which had never properly healed. So he was unprotected when he was separated from the rest of his force in the fog and stumbled onto the enemy. He and his horse were shot several times and he finally fell to the ground, dead behind enemy lines.
When his bloody, riderless horse was spotted by his side, his army was first despairing, then enraged. The king had been much loved, not just by his generals, but by the common soldier and everyone in between. At the critical moment, the young German general, Bernhard of Weimar stepped up, rallied the forces and led the Swedish army to an ultimately costly victory.
The kings’ death did not end Swedish involvement in the war, though it was never again to dominate as it had during the brief period the king had led his armies across Germany. There’s no easy way to summarize everything he accomplished in this war, and I’ve barely done that here. I highly recommend Theodore Aryault Dodge’s military biography if you really want to get into the details.
As far as I’m concerned, the short period of Gustav Adolf’s involvement was the most interesting part of the Thirty Years War, so I’m going to take the next two books to cover it. Another joy of writing historical fantasy-bending the timeline to my wishes!