The Thirty Years War was one of the most destructive wars in European history – a vicious struggle between 1618 and 1648 which devastated large parts of the Continent. Part of the European Wars of Religion, it began when the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II of Bohemia attempted to curtail the religious activities of his subjects, sparking rebellion among Protestants. The war quickly came to involve the major powers of Europe, with Sweden, France, Spain and Austria all waging campaigns, primarily on German soil. Known in part for the atrocities committed by mercenary soldiers, the war ended with a series of treaties that made up the Peace of Westphalia, which reshaped the religious and political map of central Europe, setting the stage for the old centralized Roman Catholic empire to give way to a community of sovereign states. It was a horrific war – entire regions were laid waste, famine and disease swept the land, and lawless mercenary armies rampaged without check.
England was on the very edge of Europe at this time and King Charles I was regularly low on funds, with a Parliament wary of him becoming embroiled in costly European wars (especially if the King chose to side with Catholic Spain), so the country mostly remained a bit-player. Aside from the Duke of Buckingham’s disastrous intervention in the Anglo-French War of 1627 to 1629 (which hastened both his end and the slide into the English Civil War), England’s involvement was almost purely diplomatic and economic.
So why would this conflict have such an effect on the English Civil War?
The answer is that it introduced many in England to the concept of war without restraint.
The Sacking of Magdeburg in 1631 was perhaps the most notorious incident in this brutal conflict. Imperial Catholic troops under the Count of Tilly, Johann Tserclaes, stormed the Protestant German city and slaughtered about 20,000 inhabitants before burning it to the ground. After the war, the once thriving ancient town had a population of no more than 450 people. Magdeburg became a by-word for total destruction, rape and pillaging. It also became a rallying cry for Protestant soldiers, and was often a rebuttal for when condemned Catholics begged for quarter.
When the English Civil War broke out, the devastation of Europe was very much on the minds of many who were fearful that such hideous excesses could be unleashed on the country by the conflict between King Charles and his Parliament. So when on Easter Monday, 3 April 1643, the forces of the King’s nephew, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, attacked and then pillaged the Parliamentarian town of Birmingham, it was easy for people to see the parallels. Slighted by the Parliamentarian militia’s surprisingly stout fight, the victorious Royalists pillaged the town. Inhabitants were indescriminately cut down, houses were fired and women raped.
While pillaging and firing an unfortified town in retaliation for resistance was common in Europe, it was not so in England. News of the aftermath of the battle spread and became an early propaganda victory for the Parliamentarians. Although Rupert was later said to have tried to prevent the slaughter, many thought that he had now brought the horrors of Magdeburg to England.
A popular woodcut showing Rupert from the pamphlet “The Cruel Practices of Prince Rupert” (1643), depicting him attacking Birmingham from his base in Daventry.
Another consequence was that these incidents seemed to harden the resolve of many troops, and there are examples of garrisons fighting with incredible vigour and bravery – they all knew the potential consequences of defeat.
Less than a year later, another notorious incident occurred when the Royalist Lord Byron launched an offensive to mop up Parliamentarian garrisons in Cheshire. Most of these were quickly captured but his troops, recently returned from fighting in Ireland, behaved with a degree of ruthlessness not previously displayed. At Barthomley Church on 26 December, the Parliamentarian garrison surrendered and at least twelve of the prisoners, mostly local militia, were executed in cold blood, with Byron’s approval. “Remember Barthomley” quickly became a popular war cry of the Parliamentarians.
Such actions were not isolated to the Royalist side of the conflict either. After their victory at the Battle of Naseby in 1645, Parliamentarian troops fell onto the Royalist baggage train in an orgy of rape and destruction. Much of Charles’ infantry were Welsh and had brought their wives on campaign and Parliament later justified the brutality by explaining that the ‘foreign-sounding’ accents of the women meant the soldiers thought they were Irish Catholics.
During the third English Civil War, after victory the Battle of Dunbar in 1651 Cromwell followed Charles II’s invasion into England, leaving George Monck to subdue Scotland. Monck took Dundee on 1 September and allowed his troops free reign to rape and pillage. They reportedly killed 2,000 of Dundee’s 12,000 population in a brutal sacking and destroyed every ship in the city’s harbour. Even Monck was sickened by what he saw, one account recorded him witnessing a baby still suckling its dead mother in the burning ruins of the town.
And, of course, there were the many sieges and sackings committed during Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland.
While incidents such as Birmingham, the aftermath of the Battle of Naseby, and the conquests of Scotland and Ireland are brutal and shocking to modern eyes, the true horrors of the Thirty Years War were mostly absent during England’s strife in the 1640s. Yet the terrible Sack of Magdeburg of 1631 remained a constant spectre, long looming over the conflict.