The Battle of White Mountain - arguably the most decisive battle of the Thirty Years War

The Battle of White Mountain, photo: public domain

On November 8, 1620, a major clash took place outside Prague between the Imperial Army of Emperor Ferdinand II. and those of the Bohemian Revolt. It would become known in history as the Battle of the White Mountain (Bílá hora). In a relatively short time the battle decided the fate of the Czech lands for the next three centuries. It was also the first clash between Protestant and Catholic armies in what would become a continent changing European conflict. 

To find out more about the battle’s significance I spoke to Peter H. Wilson, Oxford University’s Chichele Professor of the History of War, who is one of the foremost specialists on the Thirty Years War era.

The Battle of White Mountain, photo: Pieter Snayers (1592-1666) public domain

Could you describe the political context in Central Europe before the defenestration of Prague? I understand there was actually quite a long period of peace in the Holy Roman Empire.

“Yes, that is right. From 1555 to 1618 the Empire was essentially at peace. There are disturbances, but nothing like the civil wars that are going on in France and the Netherlands at the same time. The key point to make is that the Thirty Years War is by no means inevitable.

“However, there are two sets of related problems. Namely that the Habsburg dynasty ruled both its own lands and held the position of emperor.  So there is a buildup of some tensions within the empire which manifests itself into rival leagues headed by rival branches of the empire’s second family - the Wittelsbachs. These were going to play an important role in the events in Bohemia. You have the Protestant League headed by the Palatine Wittelsbach family and then the Catholic League led by the Bavarian Wittlesbachs. You have that going on in the empire.

Rudolf II

“At the same time, the Habsburg monarchy itself had been weakened by internal squabbles within the family which led to various concessions being made to the Protestant nobles within their holdings. The most famous of these is the Letter of Majesty issued for Bohemia.”

The Letter of Majesty granted by Rudolph II.?

“Yes, which basically allows the protestant nobility to set up a parallel government of sorts.”

The Defenestration of Prague

I understand that in Bohemia you had a situation where the protestant nobles are benefiting from the Letter of Majesty, but at the same time the Habsburgs (now led by Emperor Ferdinand I) are trying to reinforce their power which they had lost under Rudolph II. Could you explain how this situation developed into the defenestration in Prague on May 23, 1618?

“For a period of about forty years, so from the late 1570s, the Habsburgs had been trying to claw back power across their various provinces using religion as a sort of definition of loyalty. In the very religious age that this period was it was quite inconceivable that your servants would have a different belief than the one you held. Catholicism was thus a sort of natural test for political loyalty.

The defenestration (1618), photo: public domain

“Therefore, they were restricting court appointments, titles, positions in the government and the army to Catholics. Whereas the Protestant nobility and those nobles who had converted to protestantism had been making gains and acquiring greater influence, by around 1600 they were much more on the back foot and several leading nobles were converting to Catholicism.

“You get this minority that is afraid about losing their position and is at the same time religiously more radicalised. They see their fellow nobles either siding more with the Habsburgs or remaining indecisive. The defenestration [of 1618] is therefore an attempt of sorts to force the issue, to force people to take a side. Of course they are gambling on the hope that the main bulk of the nobles and the population will support them. That turns out not to be the case.”

In light of these dynamics, is it possible to gauge to what extent this was a result of religious differences or of a power contest?

“The Bohemians initially offer very strong resistance, but then some of the units begin to break and very rapidly thereafter the army collapses...The entire Bohemian army disintegrates after that.”

“That is of course the perennial question that everyone asks about the Thirty Years War and it is very difficult to answer, because it is hard to disentangle religious motivation from other motives which could include personal ones. People at the time did not really make these distinctions. There was no purely secular viewpoint.

“However, I think we can distinguish between a small minority on both sides that was theologically and politically militant, willing to undertake whatever means, including violence, to achieve what they saw as justifiable goals and then the majority within both camps who did think these were major issues, but were much more reluctant to use violence as a means to achieve their ends.

“This is of course what the defenestrators are trying to push back against. They are trying to radicalise the population, especially among the nobility. That does not happen, especially because the moderate majority, the mainly Lutheran group within the Empire led by Saxony, see this act as an illegitimate revolt. They do this for political reasons, but also for religious ones, because they feel that by supporting something illegitimate they would be endangering their immortal souls.”

The battle

Frederick V. of the Palatinate, the man whom the Bohemian revolt elects as its king is also a Calvinist, not a Lutheran, so Iimagine they were not too happy about that either. After the defenestration, the sides were readying themselves for two years and then on November 8, 1620 the battle took place on Bílá hora  (White Mountain), outside Prague. Could you explain how this battle came about?

"Yes. First of all, this is a really major event. There are about 45,000 men involved altogether. The Imperial and Bavarian forces are slightly larger than the opposing Bohemian forces. Furthermore, we have to add to this the relatively large number of civilian camp followers accompanying both armies. We are talking about upwards of 60,000 people, which is equivalent to the entire population of Prague.

The Battle of White Mountain, photo: public domain

“The two armies meet outside the city on the White Mountain hill. The Bohemian forces had been retreating for a while. It was also winter, they were demoralised and had not been paid. They took up a strong position on the hill to make a stand and not retreat any further.

“The battle is by no means a forgone conclusion, because the position the Bohemian forces had taken up was a strong one. The Imperial commander actually did not want to fight. He was trying to outmaneuver the Bohemian army on its flank and get it to retreat further. However, the commander of the Bavarian forces, Count Tilly, is determined to finish the now caught Bohemians off. Therefore, the Imperial and Bavarian forces attack up the hill.

“The Bohemians initially offer very strong resistance, but then some of the units begin to break and very rapidly thereafter the army collapses. They lose well over 2,000 men, which is three times the casualty rate on the Imperial side. The entire Bohemian army disintegrates after that. It is a very decisive outcome.”

The battle took just two hours. It is often said in Czech popular history that one of the main reasons was the fact that the Bohemian army was underpaid. That the Bohemian nobility was not prepared to invest much money in paying the troops, even though ironically cartloads of gold and silver would get plundered out of Bohemia after the battle. What would you say is the reason why the battle ended so quickly?

The Battle of White Mountain, photo: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

"As with any battle, the explanation is a variety of causes. There is no single cause.

"Certainly many of the units were demoralised, because they had not been paid and had also been retreating. A significant portion of them are light cavalrymen that had been provided by the Transylvanians, who were an ally. However, these were unreliable, because they wanted to go home. The war is going badly, there is no prospect of booty and there are problems in Transylvania, so they all want to go home. About a third of the army is not really prepared to fight. They are posted at the rear where they can't really do very much to be helpful and they turn tail and run. Of course, that adds to the sense of panic.

“Furthermore, a significant portion of the Imperial troops are hardened Spanish veterans. Then there are also the Bavarian forces which are very well organised, so there are experienced forces attacking fairly unreliable troops on the Bohemian side that are defending."

Is it true that Rene Descartes was present at the battle?

Albrecht von Wallenstein, photo: public domain

“Yes. He is in the Bavarian forces as a junior officer. However, very little is known about that.

“Albrecht von Wallenstein [the Catholic commander who would later become one of the iconic military commanders of the conflict] is not there, but a regiment he raised for the emperor is present. The battle does read like a roll call of all the great commanders. Gottfried Heinrich Count of Pappenheim [an important Bavarian commander and field marshal of the Empire who would later die at the Battle of Lutzen] is present at the battle for example. The battle brought together the main armies on both sides.”

Have you ever visited the site of the battlefield yourself and, if so, what were the most important aspects that you were interested in?

Summer pavillion /The star palace, photo: Štěpánka Budková

"Yes I have. A lot of it was built over in the late 1960s, so it is quite hard to imagine the battlefield. However, you have the star palace [Hvězda], around which the Bohemian right flank would have stood, that is still very evocative of what it may have looked like. You also have a semblance of the slope and the open ground as well. You certainly learn a lot.

“I published a book on the Battle of Lutzen, where the Protestant Swedish king, Gustavus Adolphus, fell. I went over that battlefield too and you can start seeing how the events unfolded when you visit the site of a battlefield, the terrain and what the people taking part would and would not have seen depending on where they were standing."

A defeat that would set the course of Czech history for 300 years

What happened after the battle is seen in popular Czech historiography as a particularly sad time, perhaps as a sort of equivalent of the Battle of Hastings in 1066 in English history. The Habsburgs consolidated their power and executed 27 Czech nobles, wiping out dissent as well as exiling Protestants. Could you explain the implications of this move and is it a fair analogy?

"As you say, it makes a very deep impact into Czech history. I think that around 150,000 are either voluntarily, or forcibly compelled to leave. That is about 7.5 percent of the population. In terms of the nobles, the proportion is far greater. About one quarter of the 1,400 noble families are exiled.

Peter H. Wilson, photo: Faculty of History  University of Oxford

“Removing these people allows the Habsburgs to go ahead with wide ranging measures. They confiscate their property, so about half the land in Bohemia and Moravia which is owned by nobles, and most of the land is in noble hands at this point. That is an enormous and dramatic shift in terms of the redistribution of property.

“However,  where I would say that there is a difference compared to 1066 is that while in England the Normans come in and only very few of the indigenous Anglo-Saxon nobles survive in any kind of way, in Bohemia after 1620 around more than a half of the redistributed land goes to Bohemian and Moravian families who remained loyal to the Habsburgs. The bulk of the rest of the lands goes to nobles from the bulk of the other parts of the Habsburg monarchy, including Hungarian aristocrats. So it is less of a sort of Austro-German takeover, but rather a redistribution of land to those families that stuck with the Habsburgs even when things looked very shaky and are now being rewarded for their loyalty.

“This helps consolidate and cement Habsburg power and basically creates the alliance that lasts until the dissolution of Austria-Hungary in 1918."

And the religious aspect plays a large role in the separation of the land, correct?

"Yes. The other measure that is basically implemented has a goal to decapitate the Protestant church. In other words, you do not forcibly compel people to become Catholic, but you remove the means through which a Protestant faith can be sustained, so teachers and pastors are expelled.

Austria-Hungary, photo: public domain

“The Habsburgs are very sanguine about this. They basically say: 'Well, the adults are all too obstinate and will not become good Catholics, so we will go for the children,’ which is why orders that place great emphasis on education, such as the Jesuits, become so important. Namely, because they will place great emphasis on cultivating  a new generation of Catholics.

“There is a great flowering thereafter of the Catholic Baroque in Bohemia, which you can see through the building of many churches and the grandeur of Catholicism which is demonstrating the power of the dynasty, but also from their perspective the power of the faith. It was a part of their project to reclaim Bohemia both politically and theologically."

The battle’s effect on the wider European situation

Is it true that this sort of drastic redistribution of power is also implemented by the Habsburgs in the other parts of the Empire that they manage to take over during the initial period of the Thirty Years War and that this led to the escalation of the conflict into what it would later become?

“[The battle] makes a very deep impact into Czech history. I think that around 150,000 are either voluntarily, or forcibly compelled to leave. That is about 7.5 percent of the population.”

“Absolutely. It does that, but indirectly. The Habsburgs do not want the war to escalate at all. In fact, the immediate trigger towards the escalation of the war is the refusal of Frederick V. to give up the Bohemian crown. That means that there cannot be a compromise peace with him. Military operations therefore move into Southern Germany and the Rhineland.

“Thereafter, there is a succession of external powers intervening to try to prevent the Habsburgs from implementing what they did in Bohemia, and to a lesser extent in Austria as well, across the wider empire. There is this fear that the French and later the Swedes and Danes have that the Habsburgs are going to be able to redistribute land by confiscating it from their opponents and giving it to loyal supporters like the Bavarians, which will in turn increase their power in the Empire and enable them to take a more aggressive stance within European politics. In a very basic sense, it is this fear that fuels much of the war.”

The Czech lands are home to many important battles in European history. For example, the Battle of Koniggratz in 1866 during the Austro-Prussian War, or the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805 during the Napoleonic Wars. Where would you place the Battle of White Mountain in terms of importance in wider European history?

Battle of Austerlitz (1805)

“I think it is very, very important. Some of that importance has been rather overshadowed, because it occurred at the beginning of the Thirty Years War. However, it is arguably the most decisive battle of the Thirty Years War in the sense that it achieves something that lasts. Both in terms of the political settlement and the redistribution of property. That redistribution basically lasts until 1948 when the descendants of the beneficiaries are then expropriated by the Communist regime.

“It really is a lasting settlement and one that the Habsburgs are desperate to preserve. It is the reason behind their continued fighting during the Thirty Years War and they achieved that goal in the Peace of Westphalia[of 1648 which ended the war], where this settlement is acknowledged and accepted.

“it is arguably the most decisive battle of the Thirty Years War in the sense that it achieves something that lasts.”

“All the other battles in the war have a more negative outcome in the sense that they stop the Habsburgs from doing that in the rest of the Empire. It is the Battle of White Mountain that actually produces a lasting settlement. Therefore, I think that it is very important.”

If we approach the importance from a different, alternate history angle, is it possible to gauge what would have happened had the Bohemian forces won the Battle of White Mountain? Would there have been a Thirty Years War? And what do you think Czech history may have looked like?

Frederick V.

“Speculation like this is always intriguing, but it is also a bit risky. One has to keep in mind that Frederick V. was an emasculated king. The Bohemian aristocracy had cleverly rewritten the constitution giving them the power and making the king a figurehead, so I doubt he would have achieved very much.

“Bohemia would have remained this sort of early-modern federal structure of different provinces. Whether it would have developed in the same way that the Dutch Republic did is perhaps not the case. The Dutch, after all, had the great benefit of having access to global riches.

“When you enter into the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome, everyone just looks at the Bernini statue at the entrance, but few notice the painted ceiling celebrating the Catholic victory at the Battle of White Mountain.”

“Bohemia was certainly very important economically and populous, so the loss of Bohemia would have been a huge blow to the Habsburgs. Their retention of Bohemia is a major factor in the continued importance of the Habsburg monarchy.”

It should be noted that the Habsburgs are of course also fighting the Turks at this time. The latter were deep in Hungarian territory at the time and would besiege Vienna in 1683, so I guess this loss of resources may have also had an impact.

“Yes. It made up about one-third of the monarchy overall and drawing money and troops from Bohemia is a major factor in the monarchy’s ability to fight Turkish incursions that remain well into the eighteenth century.”

The Battle of White Mountain in art and writing

The Virgin Mary Triumphing over Heresy and Fall of the Rebel Angels, Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome, photo: LivioAndronico / CC BY-SA 4.0

Are there any other aspects of the battle and its importance that you feel are worth noting?

“I suppose I would just reiterate that the battle is not very well known outside the Czech Republic. For example, when you enter into the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome, everyone just looks at the Bernini statue at the entrance, but few notice the painted ceiling celebrating the Catholic victory at the Battle of White Mountain. The church was founded to celebrate that victory.

“I think it deserves to be better known outside of the Czech Republic, because of its deeper and lasting historical significance.”

Was it well known at that time Europe?

“It was very much known. The Thirty Years War also serves as basically the foundation of modern print media as it is the stimulus to regular newspapers. There are also newsbooks which report on events and discuss them. There was a very lively print culture.

“There is a great flowering thereafter of the Catholic Baroque in Bohemia, which you can see through the building of many churches”

“The battle is known for example in England, where there was a big print culture at the time, with books that carried titles such as ‘News from Bohemia’, so people were very much reading about this, or the expulsions of Protestants. This was also the case in other Protestant countries in a similar sense to how we read today about fleeing migrants.

“So yes, I think it had a great resonance. However, because of the duration of the Thirty Years War and the horror of the conflict, by the time we get to the end of the conflict the beginnings, while not forgotten, are seen as less important than within the Habsburg monarchy or in Bavaria where it was perceived as a great victory.”