The Era of Gustavus Adolphus

Religious division, dynastic ambition, and national rivalry were all parts of the political context of warfare in the seventeenth century.

Political Considerations

Religious division, dynastic ambition, and national rivalry were all parts of the political context of warfare in the seventeenth century. These factors overlapped, often in complex ways. For example, the Thirty Years’ War Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648);religious vs. political impetus(1618-1648) began as a revolt by Protestant Czechs against the German Catholic Habsburg Habsburg EmpireDynasty. Later, France and Spain, the two leading European powers, joined the war on opposite sides. Although both countries were ruled by Catholic Religion and warfare;Catholicismdynasties, the Bourbons and the Spanish branch of the Habsburg family, respectively, they and their ruling houses were also vying for European hegemony.Gustavus II AdolphusGustavus II Adolphus (king of Sweden)[Gustavus 02]

Gustavus II Adolphus is mortally wounded in battle at Lützen in 1632.

(Library of Congress)

As religious passions cooled after 1630, Nationalism;Europeannational rivalry moved to the forefront. Whereas European princes in the sixteenth century had looked upon war as a private affair, they now increasingly viewed it as a public affair involving the whole state. This change in attitude led to higher military spending, not only for wartime expenditures but also for the funding of large peacetime military establishments, which appeared for the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire. Thus, a new political attitude toward war does much to explain how European military burdens rose dramatically in a century of generally low or even stagnant economic growth.

In the Netherlands and England, higher military spending and standing armies came at the price of granting political control to representative institutions. More commonly, enhancing the political power of the Monarchymonarch seemed the best way to promote the strength and stability of the state. Strong monarchies of this sort became known as absolute monarchies, and the seventeenth century is known as the Age of Absolutism. It must be remembered, however, that the federal republic of the Netherlands set the pattern for large peacetime militaries later copied by the absolutist states.

Military Achievement

The NetherlandsNetherlands forced SpainSpain to grant a truce in 1609, which tacitly recognized Dutch independence after over thirty years of revolution of Dutch Protestant provinces against Spanish Dutch Wars of Independence (1566-1648)occupation. The ability of the tiny Dutch republic, with a population of only 1.5 million, to fight to a standstill what was then the strongest military power in Europe represents one of the greatest military achievements of the century. The Dutch army, commanded by Maurice of Maurice of NassauMaurice of NassauNassau (1567-1625), became the wonder of Europe.

The Thirty Years’ War: Battle Sites

The Sweden;seventeenth centurySwedish king Gustavus II Adolphus (1594-1632), who ruled an even less populous and much poorer country than the Netherlands, copied and improved upon the Dutch model. By defeating the hitherto unbeaten Catholic armies of Bavaria (Battle of Breitenfeld, 1631) and the Austrian Habsburgs (Battle of Lützen, 1632) during the Thirty Years’ War, he established Sweden as one of the greatest military powers in Europe, a position the nation would hold until its defeat by the Russian army at Poltava in 1709. Furthermore, Sweden replaced the Netherlands as the military model for Europe.

France, France;seventeenth centurythe most populous and wealthiest country in Europe, proved to be a military underperformer in the first part of the century due to aristocratic and religious factionalism. Matters began to improve only in the 1630’s and 1640’s, thanks to the efforts of the statesman Armand-Jean du Richelieu, Cardinal deRichelieu, Cardinal dePlessis, cardinal et duc de Richelieu (1585-1642) and commanders such as Louis I de Bourbon, prince de Condé (1621-1686), known as the Great Condé, Louis I de Bourbon, prince deCondé, Louis I de Bourbon, prince de[Conde, Louis 1 de Bourbon, prince de]Condé, whose victory over the main Spanish army at the Battle of Rocroi (1643) marked the end of Spanish claims to European hegemony. However, it was not until after 1660, when French king Louis XIV (1638-1715) consolidated absolute monarchy, that the French army became the most powerful and admired in Europe. By the 1680’s, France had also amassed the largest navy in Europe. French military and naval ascendancy, coupled with Louis’s aggressive use of his military forces, stimulated the formation of powerful military coalitions led by England, the Netherlands, and Austria, which fought France to a standstill in the War of the Grand Alliance Grand Alliance, War of the (1688-1697)(1688-1697) and again in the War of the Spanish Succession Spanish Succession, War of the (1701-1714)(1701-1714).

These wars also established England;seventeenth centuryEngland as the principal rival to France. The foundations of England’s Naval power;Englandnaval and military power had been laid during the First English Civil English Civil Wars (1642-1651)War (1642-1646), which saw the creation of the English Republic (1649-1660). The army and navy of the Republic briefly became the terror of Europe, defeating the powerful Dutch navy and savaging the decaying Spanish Empire. However, not until after the War of the Glorious Revolution Glorious Revolution, War of the (1689-1692)(1689-1692), which established the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, could the English government harness its country’s commercial wealth and thereby establish its military strength on a firm foundation. During the 1690’s, the English navy surpassed the French navy as the strongest in Europe, a position it would hold into the twentieth century.

Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

For much of the seventeenth century, the heavy matchlock Musketsmusket and the long Pikespike were the dominant infantry weapons. By the end of the century, both had been largely replaced by a single weapon system: the flintlock musket fitted with a socket bayonet.

Although the matchlock Muskets;matchlockMatchlocksmusket was effective against body armor, it was unreliable, with a misfire rate of about 50 percent. Its operation depended on a continuously burning “slow” match, which could easily be extinguished by rain and wind. Furthermore, the rate of fire was slow. Soldiers could fire about one shot every two minutes, even after the development of drills to teach loading. Although more sophisticated ignition systems, such as the wheel lock and the flintlock, were available, they were often prohibitively expensive. In addition, the wheel lock, although widely used in cavalry pistols, proved too fragile for infantry use.

A skirmish before the Battle of Poltava in 1709. Only after the Russian forces had maneuvered into a favorable position did the entire army engage in battle.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

The sturdier Flintlocksflintlock began to be issued in Muskets;flintlockmusket form to elite infantry units around the middle of the seventeenth century, by which time flintlock pistols had largely replaced the wheel lock among cavalrymen. By 1700, flintlock muskets had become the most common infantry firearm, allowing a significant improvement over the matchlock in both rate and reliability of fire.

Plug Bayonets;plugbayonets, so named because they were inserted directly into the muzzle, were used throughout the century but were never very popular, because, when mounted, they blocked the gun from being fired. In 1687 French Engineers;Frenchmilitary engineer Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, Sébastien Le Prestre deVauban, Sébastien Le Prestre deVauban (1633-1707) invented the far superior socket Bayonets;socketSocket bayonetsbayonet. Because the socket bayonet fitted around, not inside, the muzzle, the gun could be both loaded and fired with the bayonet attached. Socket bayonets were soon adopted throughout Europe. By effectively converting every musket into a spear, socket bayonets also rendered the pike obsolete.

Steel Armor;steelarmor, widely worn by infantry into the mid-seventeenth century, was largely abandoned by the 1690’s, because it offered too little protection against gunfire to justify its weight and cost. Only heavy cavalry continued to wear armor, but only breastplates and backplates, and not the helmets or the arm and thigh protection that had been carried into the 1640’s.

Grenades Grenadesbecame popular in the waging of siege warfare, and special units of infantry known as Grenadiersgrenadiers appeared. Although the grenade was their main weapon, the term “grenadier” soon came to be used as a general designation for elite troops.

Standardized Uniforms;standardizeduniforms became increasingly common in the seventeenth century. Early in the century, colonels often outfitted their regiments with uniforms of a single color, but the English adopted the first armywide standard uniform color when they introduced their famous red coat in 1645. By the end of the century, uniforms of a single color for whole armies had become the norm, with individual regiments distinguished by different-colored lapels and cuffs.

Artillery also tended to become standardized around weapons of a few calibers rather than the miscellaneous collection of guns that had characterized sixteenth century artillery. Artillery also became lighter and more mobile during the seventeenth century.

Military Organization

Although Standing forcesArmies;standingsixteenth century peacetime standing armies were small, consisting chiefly of royal guards and fortress garrisons, the seventeenth century was characterized by large standing armies and navies. The Dutch republic set the example, keeping some 30,000 men under arms after its truce with Spain in 1609. In contrast, France, with ten times the population of the Netherlands, had only 10,000 soldiers at that time. The Dutch, and later the Swedes, also pioneered the creation of a Professional militaries;Dutchprofessional, long-service officer corps. The Dutch also led the way in creating a professional Navies;Dutchnavy, although the English had surpassed them by the 1650’s.

Standing forces with professional officers could be far more effectively drilled and disciplined than forces raised, or hired as units under the contract system, for a single conflict. The dangers of Mercenaries;dangers ofmercenaries are well illustrated by the career of Count Albrecht Wenzel von Wallenstein, Albrecht Wenzel vonWallenstein, Albrecht Wenzel vonWallenstein(1583-1634). Wallenstein’s position as a military contractor on a grand scale allowed him to pursue policies so at odds with those of his nominal employers, the Austrian Habsburgs, that they felt compelled to assassinate him. By the end of the century, all major powers maintained standing armies, divided into regiments, the basic military administrative unit. Some countries, notably Sweden, even began to employ Drafts;sixteenth centuryconscription as a means of raising armies.

Standing forces, whether composed of volunteers or conscripts, were expensive. The creation of new military agencies was required to administer and supply these standing armies. Bureaucratic development reached a peak in France in the second half of the century, as the nation’s peacetime army expanded to around 165,000 men, with a maximum wartime strength of nearly 400,000 men. France also established the first professional military Engineers;Frenchengineering corps in Europe and created a huge military support structure, featuring a system of supply depots or “magazines,” hospitals, barracks, and naval arsenals, which provided a model soon copied by the other powers.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

The seventeenth century was an age of Siege warfare;seventeenth centuryFortresses;seventeenth centurysieges. Fortresses played a critical role in the domination of territory. If a hostile fortress were in the area, a substantial body of troops would be required to surround it fully. Otherwise, units sallying out of the fortress could disrupt supply lines and foraging parties, preventing offensive operations. A fortress could completely block the use of a river on which it was stationed, a crucial defensive factor, because rivers were far and away the best lines of supply, given the poor state of roads throughout Europe in the 1600’s. A fortress built on hostile territory could serve as a supply magazine and a secure jumping-off point for offensive operations.

It is not surprising that much effort went into the design of better fortresses and siege techniques. From the 1660’s onward, the French, under the guidance of Vauban, led the way in fortification design and siegecraft. Vauban devised a new system of advancing in successive parallel trenches, which sealed off the fortress and allowed the relatively secure deployment of devastating artillery fire against the fortress walls.

If the assault and defense of fortresses increasingly ruled strategy, it by no means eliminated battles between field armies. Interest in the improvement of battlefield tactics remained high throughout the century. Infantry were traditionally deployed in squares of Pikemenpikemen, fifteen ranks deep, surrounded on all sides by musketeers. Although this formation was defensively effective, it was inefficient in the use of manpower. Beginning in the 1590’s, Maurice of Maurice of NassauMaurice of NassauNassau replaced these square formations of around 1,500 men with a more linear formation of about 800 men as the basic tactical building block. The new formation was still composed of pikemen and musketeers, but these were now deployed in only five ranks, with the pikemen in the center and the musketeers on the wings. Because the formation was more shallow, it could actually occupy a longer front and bring more muskets to bear to the front. To make this musketry effective, Maurice developed elaborate Drills (marching exercises)drills to allow some men to reload while others fired, permitting a continuous fire. These new tactics required almost mechanical discipline, something best achieved by professional forces.

Successfully tested at the Battle of Nieuwpoort Nieuwpoort, Battle of (1600)(1600), Maurice’s new “linear” formations were copied and improved upon by Gustavus II Adolphus, beginning in the 1620’s. By the end of the century infantry formations had become increasingly linear, typically only three ranks deep.

As infantry formations became less capable of all-around defense, cavalry played increasingly decisive roles in battle. The mark of a superior tactician, such as the Great Condé, came to be in timing the launch of a decisive cavalry charge. Cavalry;seventeenth centuryCavalry required reforms to become truly effective in this newly decisive role. At the beginning of the century, most cavalry in Western Europe had abandoned the heavy lance and adopted the pistol as their principal weapon. Instead of charging in lines, they attacked in a snakelike formation, the Caracolescaracole, designed to facilitate the reloading of pistols.

Influenced by his experience fighting the Poles, Gustavus II Adolphus, who had never abandoned the traditional cavalry charge, trained his cavalry to charge in lines, using their swords instead of pistols. Another of Gustavus’s pioneering military reforms was his use of more mobile field Artillery;seventeenth centuryartillery, which assisted cavalry shock action by softening up infantry formations in preparation for the cavalry assault. Gustavus based his revolutionary battle tactics on mobility and firepower, arranging his infantry in more shallow formations to fire heavy volleys on command. As successful commanders increasingly came to agree with Gustavus, firepower increasingly dominated infantry tactics, while shock increasingly dominated cavalry tactics.

Naval Naval warfare;seventeenth centurytactics also evolved throughout the seventeenth century, with the development of the line of battle by the English navy in the 1650’s. The line of battle formation, which had become universal by the 1670’s, maximized the importance of broadside firepower and allowed for more effective deployment of shipboard artillery.

Contemporary Sources

Although the seventeenth century witnessed an enormous outpouring of military treatises, memoirs, and histories, only a few are available in modern editions. Robert Monro, RobertMonro, RobertMonro’s Monro, His Expedition with the Worthy Scots Regiment Called Mac-Keys (1637) is an excellent account of the Thirty Years’ War from the perspective of a Scottish soldier of fortune. The works of the Habsburg general Count Raimondo de Montecuccoli, Raimondo deMontecuccoli, Raimondo de Montecuccoli (1609-1680) are generally regarded as the most penetrating of the military treatises written during the seventeenth century.

Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban wrote a number of military works, especially on siege warfare, of which he was probably the greatest practitioner of all time.Gustavus II AdolphusGustavus II Adolphus (king of Sweden)[Gustavus 02]

Books and Articles

  • Asch, Ronald G. “Warfare in the Age of the Thirty Years’ War, 1598-1648.” In European Warfare, 1453-1815, edited by Jeremy Black. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.
  • Brauer, Jurgen, and Hubert van Tuyll. “The 1600’s: Gustavus Adolphus and Raimondo de Montecuccoli.” In Castles, Battles, and Bombs: How Economics Explains Military History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.
  • Brzezinski, Richard. The Army of Gustavus Adolphus (1): Infantry. Illustrated by Richard Hook. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 1991.
  • _______. The Army of Gustavus Adolphus (2): Cavalry. Illustrated by Richard Hook. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 1993.
  • Chandler, David. The Art of Warfare in the Age of Marlborough. 2d ed. Staplehurst, England: Spellmount, 1990.
  • Duffy, Christopher. The Fortress in the Age of Vauban and Frederick the Great, 1660-1789. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985.
  • Frost, Robert I. The Northern Wars: War, State and Society in Northeastern Europe, 1558-1721. New York: Longman, 2000.
  • Guthrie, William P. Battles of the Thirty Years’ War: From White Mountain to Nordlingen, 1618-1635. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002.
  • Lynn, John A. Giant of the Grand Siècle: The French Army, 1610-1715. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  • Parker, Geoffrey, ed. The Thirty Years’ War. 2d ed. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1997.
  • Rothenberg, Gunther E. “Gustavus II Adolphus.” In The Reader’s Companion to Military History, edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.
  • Van der Hoeven, Marco, ed. Exercise of Arms: Warfare in the Netherlands, 1568-1648. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1998.
  • Wedgwood, C. V. The Thirty Years’ War. London: J. Cape, 1938. Reprint. New York: New York Review Books, 2005.
  • Weigley, Russell Frank. “The Return of the Legions: Gustavus Adolphus and Breitenfeld.” In The Age of Battles: The Quest for Decisive Warfare from Breitenfeld to Waterloo. 1991. Reprint. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.

Films and Other Media

  • Alatriste. Feature film. Estudios Picasso, 2006.
  • The Last Valley. Feature film. ABC Pictures, 1970.
  • Marston Moor. Documentary. Cromwell Productions, 1999.

European Wars of Religion

The Era of Frederick the Great

The Era of Napoleon Bonaparte

The Crimean War

The American Civil War