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Walter Krüssmann, Ernst von Mansfeld (1580-1626), Grafensohn, Söldnerführer, Kriegsunternehmer gegen Habsburg im Dreißigjährigen Krieg, 742 pp (paperback), Duncker & Humblot, Berlin, 2010

Walter Krüssmann is an honorary official of the German Red Cross and an historian. Mind you, he is the real thing – not all German PhD’s are plagiarists!

Gratuliere, Herr Doctor!

When he wrote the fourteenth volume of his monumental history of France, a volume dealing mainly with the Thirty Years’ War, Jules Michelet started it with a description of the European ‘marchés d’hommes‘, the ‘human markets’ where those who were either desperate enough or simply eager to kill could sell themselves.

There was one in Hungary where the veteran Calvinist ruler Bethlen Gábor faced the onslaughts of two hostile empires; there was a small, high-end market in affluent Holland, and a bigger one up North where men roamed the Baltic plains and forests in the service of Gustav Adolph. And then there was Germany, ‘an immense, a monstrous market which by 1628 would absorb all others and to which the continent’s entire soldiery, regardless of nationality or creed, would gravitate’. By that time the first mercenary leader who had made his mark on German soil, Count Peter Ernst II von Mansfeld, had already died and become the stuff of legend and propaganda.

Ernst, Prince and Count of Mansfeld, Marquis of Castellum Novum and Butigliria, Baron of Heldrungen, General, etc, by Robertus van Voerst after a painting by Sir Anthonis van Dyck (1599-1641), date unknown. Source: Museum-digital, Sachsen-Anhalt

Until recently most of what we knew about Mansfeld was derived from two diametrically opposed nineteenth century biographies. In the blue corner we had Ernest de Mansfeldt, Volume I (1865) and Volume II (1866), by Count Antoine Charles Hennequin de Villermont, an Ultramontane propagandist who vilified the ‘bastard’ Mansfeld for his betrayal of the Imperial cause and extolled the legacy of his devoutly Catholic opponent Johann t’Serclaes of Tilly. In the red corner we had the Hessian Count Ludwig Wilhelm Sigismund Ütterodt zu Scharffenberg, Honorary Knight of the Evangelical Order of St. John, who in a hastily compiled reply to Villermont, Ernest Graf zu Mansfeld (1580-1626). Historische Darstellung. (1867), praised him as the ‘defender of the German freedom of religion and conscience, justice and light’. In essence both men recaptured the partisan views of seventeenth century pamphleteers.

Only the late German-American historian Fritz Leonhard Redlich in his seminal work The German Military Enterpriser and his work force (two volumes, 1964/65), observing the necessary impartiality, wrote that as far as early German military organisers and entrepreneurs went ‘Mansfeld excelled them all’. The need for a scholarly biography was finally answered in 2010 when Krüssmann devoted a 742-page doctoral thesis to his life and times. It costs a hundred euros and it’s worth the price. It’s comprehensive, it’s a first, and it deserves a detailed review, if only because it dispells a lot of the nonsense that has been written about Mansfeld.

Peter Ernst I von Mansfeld-Vorderort, Graf von Mansfeld, Engraving, 17th century. Author unknown. Source: Library University of Regensburg

So who was Mansfeld, what made him turn to soldiery, how did he learn his craft and what made him tick? It turns out that a crucial fact of his life was his birth, and not just for biological reasons. Ernst was an illegitimate son of Count Peter Ernst von Mansfeld-Vorderort, Governor of Luxembourg on behalf of the Spanish Crown, Knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece since 1546 (he is wearing the distinctive chain and pennant in the engraving above), a veteran general whose bravery in the battle of Moncontour (1569) had left him with a shattered right arm, ‘gefürstet‘ (elevated to the rank of Fürst or non-dynastic Prince of the realm) since 1594 and a pillar of the Habsburg dynasty. Von Mansfeld senior had married twice, but the untimely deaths of both spouses had ruined his appetite for wedlock and he had chosen the ‘free and nubile damsel’ Anna von Bentzerath as his companion during the last years of his life. Anna gave birth to three children: Peter Ernst, Anna and Karl.

Mansfeld père looked relatively well after all three of them: they were raised at his court alongside his seven legitimate children and he even applied for the legitimisation of Anna’s offspring by the Spanish Crown. In 1591 the lettres patentes were duly issued in Brussels, but they were conditional on the payment of a fee. Since the Count was perpetually out of funds (upon his death in 1604 he left a huge estate and an equally huge financial debt) payment of the fee was postponed. Krüssman estimates that it was finally paid around 1607, after which all Anna’s children signed (and were recognized in official documents) as ‘count’ and ‘countess’.

Château La Fontaine (a.k.a. ‘Palais Mansfeld’) by Joachim Laukens, 1656

Meanwhile Ernst grew up at his father’s huge, impressively decorated castle La Fontaine in Luxembourg, where daily life was a mixture of German protocol, Burgundian opulence and Italian artistry. The old man was no less forbidding than his surroundings; a staunch Catholic and a stickler for privilege and social hierarchy, he held that until further notice Ernst’s place was with the pages and that he couldn’t attend the nearby Jesuit College. Once, after it was discovered that Ernst had jotted the Mansfeld device ‘Force m’est trop!‘ (‘Never short of force’) underneath his autograph in a book, his father had him horse-whipped to remind him of his position. If anything, Krüssmann writes, the incident will have strengthened his desire for recognition and reinforced the pugnacious streak that is evident in most of his later life. Nonetheless the young Mansfelder received a proper education in Latin and the classics. He probably picked up his knowledge of geometry – indispensable for the successful deployment of artillery – later on in the field.

By the end of the 16th century the feudal horseman with his levy of unskilled peasants had become obsolete. Even the proud Landsknechte had been replaced by Kriegsknechte (‘war hands’). Modern weaponry was expensive, battle formations and tactics had become more complex and the only way to master them was through practice, drill and personal experience in battle. Soldiery had become a profession.

Mounted arquebusier drill, illustration from Johann Jacobi von Wallhausen, Kriegskunst zu Pferd, 1616

Since the early modern rulers had neither the administrative apparatus nor the military expertise to match their ambitions, private enterprise stepped in. By 1615 a breed of military entrepreneur, not unlike the Italian condottiere of an earlier age, had sprung up in Germany – men who possessed the experience, venture capital and recruitment network to raise trained armies. Although they were indispensable, they were also wildly expensive and notoriously fickle when not paid. They began to be phased out by the end of the seventeenth century, but during the Thirty Years’ War more than 300 of them were active in Germany.

They provided all kinds of services to their masters, including the raising of taxes, accomplishing financial transactions and diplomatic missions, crushing jacqueries or dissenting nobility and manning colonial expeditions. There was no judicial authority to which they could appeal in case of payment arrears (an endemic problem) or unjust demotion or dismissal, but they were a law unto themselves and if need be would procure their income from the local populace in keeping with Cato the Elder’s adage that “war feeds itself”. The origin of the modern armies of the absolutist era must be traced not to the feudal levy, but to these private military entrepreneurs.

German soldiers and commanders of the 1600’s, as depicted on a nineteenth century uniform plate. Legend: 1. Mercenary, 2. Musketeer, 3. Artilleryman, 4. Arquebuseer, 5. Captain, 6,9. Standard bearers, 7,8. Dragoons, 10,11,12. Musketeers, 13,14. Cuirassiers, 15. Wallenstein, Generalissimo, 16. Octavius Piccolomini

Hungary (1595-1604)

With hindsight it seems almost inevitable that Mansfeld would strive be one of them. In 1595 his older half-brother Karl (1543–1595) was given command of the Imperial army in Hungary with orders to fight the Turks and it was decided to send 15-year-old Ernst along with him. ‘His father, himself a man of many wars, must have known what he was doing,’ writes Krüssmann. Since Ernst had little prospect of following in his father’s dynastic footsteps, his next best option was to try his luck as a professional soldier. Karl’s mission was, literally, the chance of his lifetime to observe war at close quarters and to watch and learn from his half-brother who was an accomplished warrior.

It meant that the boy had to grow up fast, and he probably did. On the way to Hungary he witnessed the hanging of deserters. Once there he took part in the digging and building of ditches, sconces and fortifications and learned to cope with the drudgery and gratuitous violence of camp life. The war in Hungary was cruel without reserve and Ernst was present when one of three Turkish prisoners was hacked to death to make the other two talk.

Siege of Gran 1595, author and date unknown, source: Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

In May 1595 Karl laid siege to the Danube fortress of Gran (Esztergom), which gave Ernst a chance to familiarise himself with the uses and limits of artillery. During his later career he would be a past master in the art of fortification. In August they defeated a Turkish relief army in the open field. It was the first battle of his life and an extremely bloody one. Gran was captured, but all that was left of it was a smouldering ruin. His half-brother died from dysentery shortly afterwards, giving rise to a second decisive moment in his life. Ernst could have gone home on a variety of excuses, but he stayed on for another nine years to become a consummate cavalry officer. Soon military life held no more secrets from him.

Obrist in the Low Countries (1604-1610)

Back in Luxembourg the impoverished Mansfeld (being illegitimate, he had inherited a small sum of irretrievable money and no land) served till 1607 as Obrist (Colonel)with the Governor of the Spanish Netherlands, the Archduke Albrecht. Several times he was commissioned to raise cavalry units in his native Luxembourg, an expensive undertaking for which he received little gratitude or compensation. After he had been summarily dismissed, mistakenly arrested and demoted, he tried to impress the Habsburg authorities once more by enlisting with the Emperor’s cousin, the Archduke Leopold, Bishop of Passau. The Archduke had been appointed High Commissioner for the Lower Rhine with orders to recapture the Duchy of Jülich and Cleves which had been occupied by Protestant forces.

Mansfeld’s ‘desertion’

But Leopold’s finances and administration were a shambles and Mansfeld was held once more at bay by his superiors. When he was forced to swear an oath of loyalty to his commanders on the basis of a mere promise of half-pay for himself and his men, his anger drove him into the arms of an enemy of the Habsburgs, the Calvinist Joachim Ernst, Count of the neighbouring principality of Brandenburg-Ansbach. On a fine morning in August 1610 Mansfeld marched his unit to the Jülich border, ostensibly on patrol for he had left his personal belongings behind. At a pre-ordained spot they were ‘ambushed’ by the Ansbachers, Mansfeld immediately gave himself up and the next day he and his men were hired by their captors.

A sudden switch of allegiance was no exception among mercenary soldiers at the time, but Mansfeld was a commissioned officer. To tear up an Imperial commission without warning and desert to the enemy in the midst of war was tantamount to treason. In an apology which he published shortly afterwards, Mansfeld avoided all personal recrimination, defended his action on the purely legal ground that there had been a repeated breach of contract, and declared that rather than being led by the nose (‘sich bey der Nasen rumbführen zu lassen‘) any longer, he preferred to be his own man again.

So much for his public defense. Krüssmann however confirms a long-standing suspicion of historians that Mansfeld was really motivated by a deep-seated desire for restitution of the territorial rights and aristocratic privilege due a man of his noble status, honours which the Habsburgs had so far denied him. He might be a bastard, but he was the legitimate bastard of a ranking Fürst and military hero of the Empire. Owing to circumstance he had become – in Schiller’s words – ‘ein Glücksritter, dessen einziger Besitz sein Degen war‘ (‘a knight of fortune, whose only possession was his sword’), but with a bit of patronage he would have proven himself as a military leader and a faithful servant of the Empire like his father. The scant regard in which he was held by Brussels and Leopold had offended his sense of dignity beyond repair. As a result he had, according to Krüssmann, ’embarked on a personal war against the casa d’Austria‘, though at this stage he wasn’t beyond redemption and could still envisage going back in his tracks if the Imperial authorities relented.

It has been suggested that at some time after his desertion Mansfeld converted to Calvinism or Lutheranism, but Krüssmann has found no indication whatsoever of his religious leanings. Throughout his career Mansfeld studiously avoided any display of piety, although he would occasionally take part in the religious services of his hosts and paymasters. Krüssmann quotes his long-time aid and head of his bodyguard Bernardino Rota as saying that Mansfeld had always conformed to the local religion (‘conforme il costumo del Paese‘), thus fooling both friend and foe. A prudent policy, since among his later paymasters he counted powers both Protestant (Palatinate, States General) and Catholic (Savoy, France).

Anhalt’s Agent (1610-1618)

Christian von Anhalt-Bernburg (1568-1630). The text insert says: “B:G:G: Christian I. Fürst zu Anhaldt. 1617″. Source: Museum Schloss Bernburg

Mansfeld was more than welcome at the Ansbach and also at the allied Palatine court. He was promoted to Obrist again, granted ample pay and a seat on the Ansbach War Council. No sooner had he settled in his new position, then he came under the spell of the hair-brained chancellor of the Palatinate, Christian von Anhalt-Bernburg, an ardent Calvinist who imagined himself the spider in a powerful web of alliances against the Habsburgs. One of his elusive allies was Karl Emmanuel, Duke of Savoy and Piedmont, a Catholic with the practical sense to understand that the huge Habsburg dominion in Italy would swallow him whole if he didn’t seek anti-Habsburg allies. He found them in France and in the Protestant Union in Germany, which was the brain-child of Anhalt. Soon Mansfeld became Anhalt’s go-between with the Duke. He even raised an army for Karl Emmanuel and fought for him against the Spanish Habsburgs in the Montferrat war in Northern Italy.

In his new position he learned to balance the dynastic and political ambitions of his masters with his personal interest. His diplomatic role gave him an excellent insight into the inner workings of the Empire and the European alliances of the day. He used it to gather a competent staff and build a new and larger network for recruitment whilst gracefully accepting the title of ‘Deß Hertzogs zu Saphoyen Teutscher Compagnyen General‘ (Company-General of the Duke of Savoy’s German Companies) as well as a modest fief in Piedmont which earned him the title of Marquis de Castel Novo et Boutigliere, and meanwhile he pocketed every penny of ransom, loot, bribery or surplus pay that he could lay his hands on. From now on Ernst von Mansfeld was in business.

Pilsen (1618-1620)

When the Bohemian Revolt erupted in 1618, the Estates in Prague had only a rag-tag militia to defend themselves. The Protestant lords in Germany lacked either the army and financial means or the political will to come to their aid. But Karl Emmanuel didn’t. The Duke also secretly had an eye on the Bohemian Crown and even on the Emperor’s, an illusion which Anhalt was perfectly willing to entertain as long as Karl Emmanuel would come up with troops for Bohemia. Indeed, in the summer of 1618 the Duke dispatched Mansfeld at the head of 2000 troops in Savoy pay to aid the Bohemian Estates, to which Ansbach and the Palatinate added several thousand more. Officially Mansfeld went to Prague on behalf of the Protestant Union. Once there he enrolled in the the service of the Bohemian Directorate as supreme commander of artillery, so that he now served three powers, one of them (Savoy) in total secret. Upon his arrival Mansfeld captured and garrisoned several fortified places and eventually decided to secure for himself the strategically important town of Pilsen, about ten leagues (90 kilometers) west of Prague.

To pull it off, he had only 9 cornets (600-800 horse), 2.500 foot and five guns, the biggest of which was a five-pounder. Pilsen was a well-fortified town nestled in the confluence of two rivers, with double walls and several large towers – ein solcher Ort / der sich gegen Gewalt wol uffhalten kann (‘such a town as can well withstand violent onslaught’), as Mansfeld later put it in his Apology (1622).  He wanted to make Pilsen his headquarters and was careful not to destroy it or antagonise the inhabitants for years to come. By cutting it off and gradually increasing his own forces, he wanted to intimidate and demoralise the population and leave the rest to starvation.

On a side note, amateurs with a sound knowledge of German will find that the digital collection of the University Library of Augsburg contains some real gems on the subject. One is the Warhaffter Bericht Von der Belaegerung vnd mit gestuermter hand Eroberung der Stadt Pilsen, an anonymous pamphlet published in Prague in 1619 by an ‘impartial witness’ who was neither impartial nor (as he frankly admits) a witness to everything he describes in his spicy German. The pamphlet gives a good impression of the pace of siege warfare at the time, of the high degree of superstition among the population and of the strategic importance of information in an age that lacked any kind of independent news source.

The townspeople had been stirred up by traveling Jesuits and led to believe that Mansfeld’s soldiers were possessed by the devil and given to black magic (‘bullets simply bounced off them because they had bewitched one another’). The wily Mansfeld gradually tied the noose around the town without destroying too much of its walls and sconces, to the point where the opponents could ‘touch pikes’ and shout eachother down from their walls and ditches as traitors, ‘Deevil’s breed’ and ‘sons of whores’.

When the town finally caved in (as announced by the sight of a ‘frightful comet in the skies’) Mansfeld stopped his troops from ransacking it, an exceptional feat, according to Krüssmann, which reflected his extraordinary authority over his men. Not a bullet was fired, according to the anonymous pamphleteer, nor a ‘Papist’ harmed, and the inhabitants were allowed to conduct a thanksgiving service in their church under the watchful eye of Mansfeld’s troops. The 38-year-old warlord was now master of a well-fortified town with a catholic population that was apparently resigned to its fate. Over the next two years however, the continuous hardship of being in the front line of the Bohemian war caused Pilsen to become practically depopulated.

Engraving from Warhaffter Bericht Von der Belaegerung vnd mit gestuermter hand Eroberung der Stadt Pilsen, Prague, 1619

And money was short in Bohemia as well. The Duke of Savoy and Ansbach were soon broke and Mansfeld had to fend for himself in the chaotic politics of the headless kingdom where fiscal control was non-existent, military command was split between various leading personalities (Thurn, Hohenlohe, Fels), and where he was personally distrusted as a foreigner and a covert ‘Papist’. It was here that Mansfeld’s genius as an organiser came to the fore, writes Krüssmann. By the end of 1618 the Bohemian Directorate went bankrupt and hung him out to dry, yet Mansfeld would rarely be short of men and never short of the means to replace them.

Battle of Sablat (1619)

As a tactician he was less successful. In the summer of 1619 Mansfeld marched headlong into an ambush prepared for him by Imperial Field Marshall Charles Bonaventure, Comte de Bucquoy, near the town of Sablat or Záblatí (present-day Budějovice in Czechia). Through the offices of a spy in Mansfeld’s chancellery, Bucquoy knew about his whereabouts and intentions. Mansfeld’s army, which suffered from a severe shortage of cavalry, was routed and thoroughly defeated. Mansfeld had counted on the aid of Hohenlohe and Fels in case of an emergency, but it didn’t materialise. His colleagues even failed to warn him of the impending danger even though they must have been aware of it, an omission which would cause even more acrimony among them.

Battle of Sablat, by Abraham Hogenberg, circa 1630. Source: Hogenbergsche Geschichtsblätter

In the ensuing chaos Mansfeld and a handful of his officers escaped to Prague, but part of his chancellery was captured by the enemy and his secret correspondence with the Duke of Savoy, the would-be ‘King of Bohemia’, made public. Karl Emmanuel, who feared Habsburg reprisals in Italy, immediately cut him off from all further subsidies. However on his flight Mansfeld had miraculously managed to hold on to his coffers with 30.000 florins and within weeks raised another army in Prague. Chaos was already descending on the Bohemian capital and when a group of mercenaries threatened Mansfeld over payment arrears, he and some of his captains and footmen came to blows with them and killed several of the ringleaders in a nightly street battle.

There was now no way back for him. The Emperor Ferdinand II hit him with the Reichsacht, the Imperial Ban which left him vogelfrei (“free as a bird’), dispossessed and legally dead. The Ban wasn’t recognised by the Protestant side and it wasn’t strictly observed elsewhere in the Empire. Mansfeld could still do business with the free cities of Germany and even negotiate with the Imperial authorities. But from now on he was in constant danger of being captured and summarily executed. The only promising circumstance was that he received a new overlord.

Crowning of Friedrich V of the Palatinate as King of Bohemia, anonymous engraving, 1619. Source: Herzog-August-Bibliothek of Wolffenbüttel

On 26 August, 1619, the Palatine Count Friedrich Wilhelm V was elected King of Bohemia, in direct defiance of Ferdinand II of Habsburg whose election had been declared null and void. All-out war was now a certainty and in the course of 1920 Bohemia felt the full brunt of Habsburg wrath. The Palatine “Winter King”, his Chancellor Anhalt and the Bohemian Directorate in Prague were either incompetent, divided or powerless and by the end of the summer of 1920 Mansfeld had enough of the constant payment arrears, lack of supplies and infighting among commanders. He gave word that, unless sufficient payment and arms deliveries were forthcoming, he would terminate his service by the end of October. Before the ultimatum was up though the Imperial army under Bucquoy, reinforced by troops from the Catholic League under Duke Maximilian of Bavaria and his Marshall Johann t’Serclaes von Tilly, altogether 36.000 men strong, besieged Pilsen. The politically isolated Mansfeld had to hold out with 4.000 underpaid men.

It was here that Mansfeld threatened to switch sides once again, although afterwards he maintained that he was only playing for time when he started negotiations with Bucquoy and Maximilian. He was willing – or so he told the Imperial envoys – to surrender Pilsen, but his demands were steep: 400.000 florins in compensation, the lifting of the Imperial ban, forgiveness for his 1610 decision, full legitimisation by the Emperor of his person and his hereditary title as Count of the Empire, plus a personal fief in Luxembourg.

Mansfeld obtained a cease-fire, cashed a 100.000 fl. advance and then let the talks drag on till Maximilian and Bucquoy ran out of time. The Bohemian main army was marching on Prague and they wanted to catch up with it and defeat it before the onset of winter. By the end of October they lifted the siege of Pilsen and moved on. Mansfeld immediately (“strack drauff“) set off for Prague on horseback and handed in his resignation. At the same time he dispatched 400 horsemen and a foot regiment to join the Bohemian army under Anhalt, who was now its commander on behalf of Friedrich V. He even offered Anhalt his personal service on condition that he would be instated ‘als eyn General-Feldmarschalck’ in Hohenlohe’s place. Mansfeld must have know that under the pressing circumstances and in view of his impopularity in Bohemia this was an impossible demand.

Mansfeld probably reckoned that by personally withdrawing from the hostilities he would end up being the “laughing third”, writes Krüssmann. No matter how the upcoming battle would end, both sides would come out greatly weakened and Mansfeld with his 100.000 fl. would be able to easily secure his own foothold in Pilsen.

Battle of White Mountain, 1620, by Peeter Snaijers

He didn’t foresee the crushing defeat of the Bohemian army at the Battle of White Mountain on the 8th of November. Anhalts measly 13.000 troops were thoroughly beaten and dispersed by 39.000 Imperials. Both the “Winter King” and Anhalt fled the country and Mansfeld was now the only (erstwhile) Bohemian commander left with troops under his command: 3000-4000 foot and 500 horse.

Bucquoy however had to ward off Bethlen Gábor in the south-east. He left Tilly behind with only 8.000 men. Since Tilly had supply problems and was too busy securing Prague and other spoils of Imperial victory, the ceasefire around Pilsen held and negotiations were resumed. Soon after the battle an Imperial agent named Papazoni had arrived in Prague to convey the Emperor’s consent to all of Mansfeld’s demands, but Bucquoy had held him back; the price for Pilsen had plummeted. Once more Mansfeld succesfully played for time: he increased his demands, procured food and military supplies from the nearby Upper Palatinate (allied territory) and sent letters offering his services to Savoy and even to Venice.

In Bohemian service (1620-1622)

In late November of 1920, to his surprise, Mansfeld received a letter from Friedrich V appointing him General of the Palatinate, asking him to recruit on Friedrich’s behalf and promising to provide the necessary funds. The letter came in the nick of time, for Tilly was beginning to close in on Pilsen, cutting it off from the Upper Palatinate and attempting to bribe Mansfeld’s disgruntled officers into surrender. Mansfeld simply left the city and traveled to Germany, never to return to Pilsen. He had already hatched a new plan: he would raise a large army in the Upper Palatinate out of his own funds and with the support of the Protestant Union and the States General (Netherlands). This army would protect the Upper Palatine and only later, if possible, reconquer Bohemia for Friedrich V. He pulled his troops out of Bohemia and withdrew to the Upper Palatinate, pillaging every town along his way to save money.

Bohemia was now lost and the Protestant Union was coming apart at the seams, but the free city of Neuremburg, several German Protestant courts as well as the States General were willing to advance funds for his new army provided that Mansfeld had something to show for. So he needed cash for the initial stage of his recruitment drive. Conscription was unknown and pressing or “crimping” recruits, as was customary in England at the time, was considered useless since the men would desert at the drop of a hat. Prospective recruits had to be enticed with cash. After they were hired and put under oath their payment could wait, but a recruiter had to offer a sum up front or they wouldn’t budge. Mansfeld used all his cash to hire about 9000 men, in the knowledge that he wouldn’t be able to pay them for any length of time. In his reports to Friedrich V and the States General though he claimed to have recruited 21.000 mercenaries in order to impress them and extract more money.

The provisioning of his troops was another obstacle. An army needed daily bread and wine – called munition de bouche (‘mouth bullets’) in military slang – even more than regular pay. Under the outdated Imperial rules going back to Maximilian I, troops had to procure their needs out of their own pay and if that was in arrear they should borrow from the locals – an impractical arrangement if any there was. And it had become downright absurd after 1615 when the average size of armies had dramatically increased. Commanders tried raising local or regional contributions for their war efforts, but these were rarely met. Mansfeld couldn’t afford to raise punitive contributions on Palatine territory, but he introduced “loans” and “voluntary contributions” obtained through virtual black-mail of the locals.

The alternative was pillage, preferably of the enemy’s territory and subjects, which had the added advantages of depriving the opposition of his (future) means of subsistance and heightening one’s own morale. A soldier’s pay around 1620 was considerably higher than a peasant’s or craftsman’s income, but the real attraction of the military trade was the prospect of loot. It was this prospect which he counted on to keep his troops together. Unfortunately, his paymaster Friedrich V was now controlled by the Dutch (he lived in The Hague as a guest of the States) and by his father-in-law, King James of England and Scotland. The latter wanted to settle the causa Palatina through negotiations and in May 1621 Friedrich V ordered Mansfeld to avoid any hostilities.

So Mansfeld – and outlaw – had now hired more men that he could afford, claimed to have hired even more to extract money from the Dutch paymasters, and counted on an eventual success against the Imperial army and the pillaging of Imperial territory to make up for the difference. If he failed, he would sooner be betrayed by his own men than shot by the Emperor’s. In short, he was playing va banque in a manner that makes present-day financial speculators look like boy-scouts. To his relief his army in the making was reinforced over the summer by well-trained units under the command of the staunchly Calvinist Dukes Friedrich and Wilhelm of Sachsen-Weimar, whose 17-year-old brother of later fame, Bernhard, rode with them as a cavalry captain.

Generally speaking, most of his officers were Lutheran or Calvinist aristocrats and other high-placed men who were either idealistic or desinherited and in more than a few cases motivated by sheer greed. They were effectively Mansfeld’s subcontractors and some of them would go on to make a name for themselves during the war. As co-investors in his undertaking they also had a voice in the war council and according to some observers Mandfeld’s army had the trappings of a ‘military republic’.

But Mansfeld himself was in control; he had grown from a military entrepreneur into a mercenary tycoon with court access and diplomatic and commercial connections that others could only dream of. Compared with the notorious Wallenstein, who in years to come would create an even larger military business, Mansfeld was in an infinitely more difficult position since he had no sovereign backing or personal fiefs to fall back on. And if it was up to him, the war wouldn’t stop until he had been granted those, whether by the Habsburgs, by Friedrich V or by some other authority.

By the late summer of 1921 Mansfeld did not yet have a complete army (exercitus formatus) of 25.000 men, the standard number at the time, but he was getting close and Tilly and Bucquoy were getting worried. Mansfeld’s main worry was his persistent shortage of cavalry; he still had only 3000-4000 horse. His other worry was that the relatively small Upper Palatinate couldn’t support his men much longer. He warned Friedrich that he might be forced to dismiss his army entirely or look for another paymaster. Having thus covered his back, he massed his troops near the Waidheim pass which led into Bohemia. The move was not an act of war, but it was a clear provocation and Tilly had to follow suit on the other side of the border. When the Dutch finally decided to send Mansfeld money, he was already embroiled in serious skirmishes with Tilly. Meanwhile Duke Maximilian of Bavaria, who had the Emperor’s permission to occupy the Lower Palatinate, was gathering a second army in Bavaria with the intention of joining with Tilly and crushing Mansfeld in a pincer movement.

Mansfeld couldn’t wait any longer; he would have to engage Tilly before the Bavarians arrived. On July 14, 1921, he crossed the border into Bohemia with some troops. Tilly counterattacked with his entire army, but the Bavarian attacks foundered time and again on the clever fortifications which Mansfeld had prepared around Waidheim. The outlaw commander turned out to be an innovator in other respects as well. Krüssmann mentions a highly original tactic, ‘ein sonderliches Stratagem’, in which Mansfeld hid a number of musketeers within a cavalry unit. He knew that his freshly raised cavalry wouldn’t cut it (‘den Stich nicht halten’) against Tilly’s, so when the enemy cavalry closed to engage the unimpressive looking Mansfelder horse, their ranks opened and the musketeers, holding their fire till the last moment, pumped a devastating volley into Tilly’s cavalry – a clear precursor of the commanded muskets later used by the Swedes under Gustav II Adolph.

Despite his dynamic approach, the skirmishes around Waidheim petered out and the two armies reached a nervous stand-off. Mansfeld once again proved his negotiating acumen. He approached the Bavarian Duke as well as the Spanish Habsburg regent in Brussels, the Infanta Isabella, with ceasefire proposals and held out the prospect that he would disband his army in exchange for a considerable sum of money. During such negotiations Mansfeld could always bank on his vile reputation in Habsburg circles: the other side invariably believed that he was ready to betray his present allies and paymasters at the slightest excuse.


The wager on Maximilian paid off: Mansfeld obtained a ceasefire with the Bavarians and used it to withdraw his troops from the Waidhaus pass. Whilst the Bavarian Duke sat on his hands, eagerly awaiting Mansfeld’s promised surrender, his opponent was already marching to the Upper Rhine. The last months of 1621 were spent pillaging and blackmailing that area, which was virtually undefended by the Imperial side. Mansfeld’s soldiers got their loot and Mansfeld himself acquired huge sums which he would use for further recruitment. War was finally feeding itself.

The hapless Bohemian King and Palatine Count Friedrich V joined Mansfeld in the field and promoted him to General-Fieldmarshal, but the royal presence didn’t make much of an impression on anyone and it was obvious that Friedrich’s days as a force in European politics were over. Mansfeld decided the time had come to carve out a principality for himself around the town of Hagenau in the Alsace. Hagenau lay at the strategic crossroads of Europe, Krüssmann notes: between France , the Austrian Habsburg possessions and the Spanish Low Countries, and also very close to the ‘Spanish Road’, the main artery through which fresh Spanish troops from Italy flowed almost yearly into Luxemburg and Flanders.

To consolidate Hagenau, Mansfeld went back to his Doppeltaktik (Krüssmann) of negotiating and raising new troops at the same time. He corresponded with the Habsburgs, the French, the English, the Venetians and the States General. And all the while his market value went up, as attested by the pensions he was granted by Paris and Venice. All European capitals acknowledged that Mansfeld and his army were a formidable obstacle to a peaceful settlement in Germany, but at the same time they wanted the obstructor to be on their side, not the enemy’s.

Even so, the combined forces of Mansfeld, the gentleman-warrior Markgraf Georg Friedrich von Baden-Durlach and the evangelical fanatic Duke Christian von Braunschweig, administrator of the bishopric of Halberstadt and nick-named der tolle Halberstädter (‘the mad Halberstädter’), couldn’t match the combined forces of Tilly and the Spanish General Don Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba that were building up along the upper Rhine. A short-lived success at Mingolsheim (27 April, 1622) was off-set by the complete destruction of Baden-Durlach’s army at Wimpfen (6 May, 1622).

Mansfeld managed to hold off an attack on Hagenau by Archduke Leopold, but in June his health deteriorated. On June 5, 1622, he suffered a collapse. According to his enemies God had smitten him with epilepsy; the real cause, says Krüssmann, was more likely podagra or gout. For the time being the Bohemian General-Fieldmarshal had to be transported in coaches and was incapable of commanding for several weeks. By the time he was up again, his weak employer Friedrich of the Palatinate and Friedrich’s only slightly more powerful father-in-law James I were negociating a truce with the Habsburgs, threatening once more to cut Mansfeld off from main source of income: war. It became clear that he would have to leave Hagenau behind. At his own request, Mansfeld and his underpaid army were released from duty by Friedrich V in July, 1622.

Mansfeld’s Apology

Meanwhile Mansfeld’s chancellery had produced a full-flung apology, the Mansfeldische Apologie, which was published in the spring of 1622. As a literary self-portrait of a mercenary leader it is practically the only document of its kind. It was also part of his marketing strategy to uphold his good name and reputation as well as to impress prospective paymasters with his military experience and acumen. Amateurs can find an original version in the digital library of the University of Augsburg, entitled Relation deren Geschichten, Ritterlichen Thaten und Kriegßhandlung, So Herr Ernst Graff zu Manßfeldt […], 1622.

Relation deren Geschichten, Ritterlichen Thaten vnd Kriegßhandlung, So Herr Ernst Graff zu Manßfeldt […] ins Werck gesetzt […] anno 1618 biß auff ietzige Zeit in An. 1622 …

The tone of the apology is that of a soldier, a cool professional who speaks in a succinct manner and with a degree of sarcasm, even of superficial rationality, about battles past and his own violent and often bloody part in them. Most remarkable about the apology is Mansfeld’s cynical but pragmatic view of mercenary soldiers, whose loyalty, he says, depends solely on regular payments. As soon as these are withheld, they will ‘take their income where they find it, and once the doors have been opened they will run on and on at the same level of lawlessness. The Germans, Dutch, French, Italians and Hungarians each apport their own national vices and mischief to the mix, so that there is no form or shape of fraud or ruse which they will not practice’. This sentiment was mirrored by Tilly, who made similar remarks in his correspondence. But Mansfeld does not share Tilly’s fatherly attitude; as an aristocrat he rather emphasizes his professional distance from the rabble, ‘much like a tamer of wild animals’ as Krüssmann puts it.

In Dutch pay (1622)

After his dismissal by Friedrich Mansfeld was on his own again. Powerful though he was, he was still hemmed in on all sides. He was not in a position to alienate actual or potential allies like France, the States General or Venice. He still had to play off one side against the other to maintain his position, if only for apprearances’ sake – after all he couldn’t really switch to the Catholic side without alienating the young Duke of Braunschweig and other calvinist commanders in his army. To his great frustration he would have to move again and leave Hagenau behind, once more forsaking the pride and comfort of a recognised territorial base and independent source of income.

Plans of conquest abounded in the Mansfeld war council and the commander himself had one of his brilliant flights of fancy when he threatened to mount every disposable musketeer on horseback and use this armée volante (‘flying army’) together with his regular cavalry to gallop straight through the Duchy of Lorraine and invade Spanish Luxemburg, his homeland. But reality soon knocked and after six weeks of frantic negociations with the States General and the Habsburgs, the French monarch and the French Huguenots all at the same time, Mansfeld settled on the States General as his new paymasters. The Dutch badly needed him because Spanish General Spínola was preparing a massive attack on the strategically important town of Bergen-op-Zoom. They hired Mansfeld and the Halberstädter on 24 August, 1622, though only informally. Their pay would be settled through the Republic’s Venetian accounts in an early modern version of ‘plausible deniability’.

Don Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba, by Wenceslaus Hollar, about 1620. Source: University of Toronto Wenceslaus Hollar Digital Collection

The march to The Netherlands through Lorraine and Habsburg territory with Córdoba on his tail was hazardous, provisions were low, payment was hopelessly in arrear as usual and under the circumstances even Mansfeld’s veteran Garde du Corps under Ortenburg grew mutinous. Draconic measures were necessary to make the army move quicker. In order to create an armée volante 200 bagage waggons were burned and the horses distributed as mounts for one or even two soldiers. During the march more and more soldiers were mounted on sequestered horses. This had the added advantage that they were better suited to quick foraging excursions than if on foot. Only two cannon were brought along, the rest was left behind, and Mansfeld decided on a quick move with his 8.000 men and 6.000 horse north-westwards to Breda in order to shake off Córdoba. On Habsburg territory all vilages were sacked and burned, all reinforced places were avoided to keep up the pace. But as the march reached Fleurus, Mansfeld and Braunschweig discovered to their complete surprise that Córdoba had got there first. The wily Spaniard had marched through Luxembourg and the rocky, inhospitable Ardennes to arrive at the Fleurus crossroads only hours before them. Just short of their target, auff den Frontiren von Brabandt (‘on the very frontier of Brabant’), they were forced to do battle after all.

Battle of Fleurus (29 August, 1622)

The next day witnessed an extremely tough and bloody fight in which Mansfeld’s people finally cleared the road to Holland. The Spaniard lacked sufficient cavalry and had to take a defensive position, but he fully intended to do business. He had formed up his 7.000 foot in 4 escuadrónes in a blocking position beside the road, with his 2.200-2.500 horse divided over both wings which were partly covered by woods, his 7 field pieces integrated into the escuadrónes, and no reserves to plug any gaps. Mansfeld and Braunschweig had to push their way through with 6.000-7.000 foot, 6.000 horse and 2 field guns, and with 300 bagage waggons in tow, while many of their troops were hungry and all of them underpaid. Quite a tall order, even if their men were motivated by the thought of the Dutch fleshpots awaiting them.

Herzog Christian von Braunschweig (1599-1626), by Jan Anthonisz van Ravesteyn, 1620

Mansfeld’s cavalry led the way at the break of dawn. They threw back the Spanish horse on both wings, but his foot came under heavy fire from Walloon and Italian musketeers and some of his victorious cavalry fell upon the Spanish bagage train, thus leaving the enemy precious time to regroup. But then Braunschweig, who commanded the right (cavalry) wing, managed to come round the back of the Spanish formation and charge their musketeers and pikemen five or six times in the rear. And they didn’t just feint their attacks, says Krüssman; they actually drove into them at full strength, but Córdoba’s combined escuadrónes proved a match for them.

Meanwhile Mansfeld moved his own front line to within 100 yards of them, thus forcing the Spanish foot to huddle together in defensive masses, which made easy pickings for his two field guns. He even ordered a full frontal charge on the Spanish lines, but his men refused to obey. A second charge seems to have been successful. In the resulting push-of-pike Mansfeld, who personally led the assault, captured two Spanish guns, but these were lost again to a Spanish counter-charge. This back and forth went on all morning with great loss of life on both sides. In Córdoba’s words: ‘Seven long hours did the battle rage with greater tenacity than has been seen in many years.’

In the early afternoon Christian von Braunschweig finally managed to silence the Spanish guns and break up their front lines. He received a bullet in his left hand and was escorted off the field against his will, but the Spaniards had been driven out of their blocking position and the road was clear for Mansfeld’s train. Mansfeld even captured a couple of Spanish guns as well as Córdoba’s personal belongings, his field chancellery and his coffers, but a tenacious Walloon Cavalry Colonel named Gouchard set after them during the night and recovered the guns the next morning.

Córdoba lost 2.000-3.000 men and several able commanders. Mansfeld had lost 2.000-4.000 men (both dead and wounded) and two young and promising commanders, Duke Friedrich von Sachsen-Weimar and Count Heinrich von Ortenburg. Christian von Braunschweig had his lower left arm amputated a few days later in Breda to the accompaniment of martial music and followed by the minting of a memorial coin with the words Altera restat! (‘I still have the other one!’).

La victoria de Fleurus, by Vincenzo Carducci. Source: Museo del Prado, Madrid

Córdoba claimed victory and had a set of captured Mansfeld colours sent to the Infanta Isabella in Brussels. The Spanish authorities rejoiced – but the fact of the matter was that Mansfeld’s rag-tag mercenary soldatesca with only two field guns had pushed their veteran units aside and forced its way into The Netherlands.

By the end of September the army had regrouped and re-armed and was battle-ready again. Maurice of Orange used it to disperse the Spanish troops besieging Bergen under Ambrogio de Spínola – another moral and strategic loss for the Spanish. The States General had their doubts though. They considered Mansfeld’s troops to be goet volck maer buyten discipline (‘good people but without discipline’). The States promised him subsidies till October 1622, but they demanded that the mercenary General seek quarters outside The Netherlands and keep himself available for the duration. Mansfeld decided on neighbouring East Frisia.

East Frisia (1622-1624)

The rustic coastal lands of East Frisia were deeply divided between Calvinists and Catholics and therefore practically defenseless against Mansfeld’s incursion. Once more the mercenary General tried to usurp the local authority of the counry, sich des Landes zu impatronieren, but all his attempts failed. The usual routine of hiring more recruits than his coffers allowed, and ransacking or blackmailing the locals to make up for the difference, made Mansfeld hugely impopular. The mercenary general’s stay in the province came to be called pejoratively the Mansfeldzeit (‘Mansfeld era’).

After October, when his Dutch subsidies ran out, the French King and the French-Venetian-Savoy alliance named the League of Lyon seemed the most propitious choice as paymasters. They were committed to oust the Spanish from the Valtelline and in order to raise the pressure on Spain they were willing to subsidize Mansfeld on condition that he carry out a diversionary attack on the Franche-Comté. In the spring of 1623 Mansfeld had 15.000-17.000 men and dozens of state-of-the-art (Dutch) guns ready, but Louis XIII suddenly stalled. Time and again the French King postponed the diversion into Franche-Comté because he would not alienate the Catholic princes of Germany. Since the French subsidies were conditional on the diversion, Mansfeld was running out of money fast and he found himself in the familiar quandary of having to maintain an army on a war footing with no subsidies, no prospect of loot and no home turf to fall back on. When Tilly appeared to close in on him with a sizeable army, Mansfeld took a resolute step: he disbanded his entire army and withdrew with his most trusted officers to The Hague to take a few months rest.

Private Diplomacy (1623-1625)

The years had taken their toll on the General (the gout was one symptom) but Mansfeld still made a favourable, energetic impression on his contemporaries. A reserved, aristocratic figure with excellent manners and a profound knowledge of European affairs. But his lifelong ambition was still unfulfilled. According to one witness Mansfeld wore an old felt hat without a ribbon which he swore to keep ‘until I have made my fortune’.

He was still banking on France as the most useful opponent of the Habsburgs and the French court was banking on him as their most useful proxy on the ground. But Louis XIII and his ministers wanted to avoid an open confrontation. They wished to drive a wedge between the two Habsburg branches (Austrian and Spanish) as well as between the Catholic Princies of Germany and their Emperor. Therefore they wanted to spare the German Catholic Princes at all costs, most of all the Duke of Bavaria. The fighting, if any, would take place in Northern Italy and the Valtelline where the interests of the League of Lyon were most acutely threatened.

In a brilliant bout of shuttle diplomacy Mansfeld personally brought the English King on board, if only in appearance, in order to acquire the necessary French subsidies. This time he was negociating purely on personal title and his sole aim was to prolong the war in Germany until his ‘fortune’ was made. As a result, by the spring of 1923 he had gathered an army in The Netherlands of 2.000 French horse, 9.000 English and Scottish foot and 4.000 German foot, plus new guns bought from the Dutch. But the quality of the British troops was a bad omen: they had been ‘crimped’ in prisons and on the streets and many became mutinous or committed suicide before they had even crossed the Channel. And not for the first time there were serious political obstacles, too. The French wanted Mansfeld to aid the Dutch against Spain, the English wanted him to avoid any problems with Spain and use his troops only for the liberation of the Palatinate. These demands were irreconcileable. Even after James I died and the anti-Spanish Charles I ascended the English and Scottish throne, he wasn’t granted sufficient subidies by Parliament to continue to support Mansfeld. With no opportunities for loot in the allied Netherlands, his army began to wither away and there seemed only one option left: back to Germany where his army could ‘feed itself’.

Mansfeld and Braunschweig (who had joined him with the 2.000 French horse) entered the Duchy of Cleves where they camped out in the fields in tents. The weather was bad and when it started snowing in mid-June the army was on the point of dissolution. The useless English and Scottish soldiers were gradually replaced by Germans, but desertion and disease further reduced the total to about 5.000 in July. Meanwhile an army under Fieldmarshal of the Catholic League Count Johann Jakob von Bronckhorst-Batenburg, called ‘Count Anholt’, was approaching Cleves. Pillaging the countryside with Anholt around was impossible, nearly all subsidies had run out or been scrapped and Mansfeld’s officers voiced their concern that their own men might deliver them into Anholt’s hands.

Once again fortune came to Mandfeld’s rescue: King Christian IV of Denmark and Norway, who was also Duke of Holstein and as such a German Prince, decided to intervene in the German war. On 17 june, 1625, King Christian invaded Lower Saxony with a small army and almost no allies to cover his back. Mansfeld would be his linch-pin. The Danish King personally despised the mercenary General, but Mansfeld with diplomatic support from the French, the English and the Dutch soon obtained the urgent coniunctio armorum (uniting of forces) of his dwindling and demoralised army (4.000 foot and 500-900 horse) and the monarch’s insufficient troops. The States General provided shipping for Mansfeld’s infantry and artillery to the port of Bremen. Braunschweig with his cavalry took the land route, which was faster; once in Bremen, the Duke used his kinship with Christian IV to secure his own command of 6.000 foot and 2.000 horse under the Danish Crown. The two men may have been close companions for a time, but at heart the Calvinist fanatic Braunschweig didn’t trust the pragmatic Mansfeld. After Bremen Mansfeld and Braunschweig would go their separate ways and neither seemed to regret it.

This time Christian IV and Mansfeld were confronted not only by Tilly but by a new phenomenon, Albrecht Wenzel Eusebius von Waldstejn, called Wallenstein, Duke of Friedland and Imperial General at the head of his own army of 30.000 men. But the Catholic forces were thinly spread over various garrisons; instead of waiting till their enemies could unite, Christian and Mansfeld decided to split up. Mansfeld would create a diversion by entering Silesia and attacking Wallenstein’s Duchy, provoking an uprising of the Protestant inhabitants of Bohemia against the Imperial authorities and calling in assistance from the Transylvanian Prince Bethlen Gábor. Wallenstein would be forced to return and protect his private lands, after which Christian would march on the isolated Tilly and deal him a decisive blow. But first, Christian ordered Mansfeld to take the Dessauer bridge, the strategically all-important crossing of the river Elbe at Dessau, even though it had been heavily fortified by Wallenstein.

Battle of Dessau Bridge (25 April, 1626)

Mansfeld had protested again and again to the Danish King that he wished to do something on his own – für mich Selbsten etwaβ thun – and that it should be etwaβ nahmhaftes – ‘something considerable’. Here was his chance. The bridge was defended by only four Imperial companies, but the attack on the strongpoint had to be well prepared and Mansfeld had no less than 30 guns installed opposite the Imperial sconce. Unbeknownst to him, Wallenstein reinforced the position by sending fresh troops across the bridge which he had covered with canvasses to keep the men out of the enemy’s sight. When Mansfeld finally stormed the bridge, his troops were beaten back by Wallenstein’s superior numbers and within hours Wallenstein’s cavalry was in hot pursuit of them along the Elbe.

Nearly all of Mansfeld’s army was slaughtered by Croats or taken prisoner and immediately incorporated into Wallenstein’s army. The remaining 2.000 odd soldiers, profoundly demoralised, ransacked the area and vented their anger by burning a number of towns and villages. But Mansfeld wasn’t beaten. Once again he demonstrated his extraordinary talent for recovery by reorganising and replenishing his forces. Within six weeks – and almost from scratch – he built a new army of 4.000 foot, 2.000 horse and 8 guns.

Silesia (1626)

Once again he proposed to Christian the original plan of an attack on Bohemia and Silesia. Christian agreed and sent him 7.000 extra men under Duke Johann Ernst von Sachsen-Weimar, but he demanded that the two generals share the command of the army between them. In an age that awarded huge importance to matters of protocol, rank, privilege, honour and respect, this was a recepe for disaster.

On 22 July , 1626, Mansfeld and Sachsen-Weimar crossed the border into Lower Silesia and marched up the river Oder on both shores. Wallenstein was well aware of their intentions and prepared to set after them, but rumours of an impending Swedish invasion of Pomerania (which proved untrue) momentarily tied his hands. He sent a cavalry detachment after the two mercenary Generals with orders to prepare the Silesian defense and meanwhile harass their stray units wherever they could.

Sachsen-Weimar proved to be totally insensitive to the need to win native hearts and minds. He broke up a gathering of local noblemen at sword-point, imposed contributions on the towns he captured, stole horses and forced some inhabitants to swear an oath of loyalty to the Danish King – behaving in every way as if the two Generals had come as conquerors. In a further complication it appeared that Bethlen Gábor was not ready to attack and that the two Generals couldn’t join him because the Hungarian border was tightly guarded on the orders of Vienna. The two commanders now fell out completely. Sachsen-Weimar wanted to stick to the original plan and join Bethlen Gábor. Mansfeld was far more ambitious: he wanted to strike out through Bohemia into the heart of Germany, into Bavaria and finally into the Alsace, harking back to his previous desire to settle in Hagenau and turn it into his own principality. A war council (gathering of Colonels) was called to settle the matter. Even though Mansfeld’s officers were in the majority, the council supported Sachsen-Weimar. By the time the decision fell, Wallenstein had caught up with them and cut off their passage to Bohemia anyway. And then, in the first week of September, news reached them of the decisive defeat of Christian IV by Tilly at Lutter am Barenberge.

Hungary (1626)

The only way left to them was now the way forward, through Hungary to Bethlen Gábor. Mansfeld’s dragoons led the way along a barely negociable pass across the snowy Carpathian Mountains into Upper Hungary, where they hid in the so-called ‘Mountain Towns’ and awaited Gábor’s arrival. Wallenstein, pursuing them, stuck to the valleys and built his camp in the Hungarian plain near Hlohovec. In a letter to Maximilian of Bavaria he announced that he was zu schlagen resolviert (‘resolved to do battle’) because if he didn’t, Mansfeld would ‘as before’ use his light cavalry to cut him off from his supplies and starve his army.

But at this stage, having lived through thirty years of almost continous service and military adventures, beset by the physical exertion of the Carpatian crossing, the ruckus caused by Sachsen-Weimar’s obstinacy and the depressing news of King Christian’s defeat, Mansfeld’s health was finally failing him. It appears that he suffered from tuberculosis, although Krüssmann finds little to corroborate the diagnosis apart from sources close to Mansfeld who described him as ‘very weak’ and, in the autumn of 1626, even as ‘consumed’, a ‘small, weak old chappy with a hare-like face’ as one Hungarian observer wrote of him.

The only bit of good news was that Bethlen Gábor was finally making his way into the Hungarian plain with Turkish auxiliaries, which forced Wallenstein to deal with the Transylvanian Prince first. But the Turkish aid was bluff; the Sultan was at war with the Persian Empire and preferred to prolong his armistice with the Austrians to cover his back. Bethlen drew the only possible consequence from the Danish defeat and the retreat of the Ottoman Sultan by cancelling his own offensive and withdrawing his support from the two German Generals. Mansfeld and Sachsen-Weimar were on their own, and as winter set in Mansfeld’s health went from bad to worse.

Death in Bosnia

His only chance to get away and regain both his health and his influence would be to travel to Paris and London, renew his contacts with his paymasters and lay new plans for 1627. Whether he foresaw his approaching death is unclear, but his last weeks went spent in feverish activity. In the first week of November, 1626, he left for Venice, leaving his remaining troops in the care of Sachsen-Weimar and Bethlen. From his field bed he wrote to the French ambassador in Constantinople that he intended to raise money and troops for a landing in Dalmatia in 1627. This army would fight its way throughto  the Emperor’s homeland of Steyermark, for which purpose he would need right of passage across Turkish territory.

On 29 November, near Sarajevo on his way to the coast, Mansfeld suffered a tremendous blood loss. He was hastily moved to a nearby house where he dictated his last will, his testament militaire as he called it, a soldier’s will in which, in accordance with military custom, many of the usual formalities were skipped. In his testament he arranged for the payment of various outstanding commitments to his creditors and employees. In an attempt to pursue his war on the casa d’Austria even after his demise, his testament demanded that his three most capable officers convey his military plans for the next year to Savoy, France and England. He was unable to sign the document, but his personal physician and a Colonel signed as witnesses. Ernst von Mansfeld died in the night of 29 to 30 November, 1626, in the Bosnian village of Ratona.


Almost immediately, rumours were spread and obituaries published in which Mansfeld was said to have died standing, in full armour and with his sword drawn; that he had reconverted to Catholicism on his deathbed; that he had died in the arms of his most loyal servants, or that he had left hidden treasures (‘relicto magno thesauro‘) behind. In reality, the circumstances of his death were grim enough and fitting for a man who, in Krüssmann’s words, had broken the law, used violence and subterfuge to appropriate other peoples’ possessions or destroy their livelihood, and undermined every kind of moral or worldly authority as he saw fit. In the end all that remained of Mansfeld’s last ambitious plan of attack was the burial of his remains in Dalmatia on the orders of the Venetian Republic.

Just as Mansfeld kept his distance from the rabble who served him, Krüssmann manages to keep his distance from his ‘hero’; throughout the book he never attempts to romanticise the man, his exploits or his era, and no detail, however unpleasant or secundary to the subject, seems to have escaped him. Unwittingly, he has also written a page-turner. Upon his death, says Krüssmann, Ernst von Mansfeld didn’t bequeath any lasting legacy to mankind. That may be so, but he left a story behind. And what a story it is.