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|“May 20, 1631” • May 16, 2006|
Meredith’s first history lesson!!
I really love reading history — that is, I like reading about all the screwy things you DNA’s have done! Some are tragic, some are comical, and some are just plain weird! And a few are like the events of May 20, 1631 and the DNA world is a different place because of it!! Some of the fascination is how minor events can have major results! Sort of like the old quotation:
For want of a nail a the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
I’ve been trying to find out exactly who first said that without much luck. Benjamin Franklin said PART of it. Maybe he left off some of the original quotation or maybe someone added on to it later. If anyone knows for SURE — let me know!
Anyway, May 20, 1631, was one of those days that started a chain of events that really did change the course of western civilization. And while there are a lot of things that went wrong and right, the eventual outcome hinged on a few very “trivial” details. SO — let’s hop in Meredith’s Magic Time Machine and take a quick cruise back to the village of Madgeburg, (which is now in Germany,) and figure out what the dickens was going on!
What is going on is the Thirty Years War and Madgeburg is stuck right in the middle of it!!! YIKES!!! You could, (and many have,) make a career of studying everything about this little 30 year conflict, but in a nutshell, most of Europe was fighting over whether it was going to be Protestant or Catholic. Our particular concern revolves around Graf von Johann Tserclaes Tilly who was leading an army for the Catholic League and Holy Roman Empire and the Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus who was leading an invading Protestant army. The area of modern Germany was a protestant stronghold and Tilly had set out to win it back and was more or less on a roll until Gustavus Adolphus invaded to try to stop him.
Anyway, here we are at Madgeburg and Madgeburg is in BIG trouble!! (We’re gonna keep the time machine WAY up high and out of harms way!) Tilly has previously laid siege to Madgeburg back in November of 1630 and finally captured it on May 20, 1631. The subsequent burning of the city and killing of the inhabitants had profound repercussions both then and are still being felt to this very day!!
First off, burning the city seriously degraded Tilly’s tactical situation. Madgeburg was an important strategic location on the Elbe river from which Tilly should have been able to prevent Gustavus Adolphus’ advance into central Germany. By burning Madgeburg, Tilly was deprived of both a base and a source of food and shelter for his army — armies of the day tending to live upon the spoils of conquered territory. It also provided the protestant forces a powerful propaganda rallying point against the “Butcher of Madgeburg” which Gustavus Adolphus’ forces used to good advantage.
Tilly was able to take Madgeburg in the first place because George William of Brandenburg was unwilling to go along with Gustavus Adolphus’s invasion plans — he feared the interference from a Swedish King. George William was as afraid of a “Holy Swedish Empire “as he was a Holy Roman one — and probably with good reason. If Old Gustav had stayed out of the fog and not gotten killed at Lutzen, it might well have happened, although I might question his ability to actually establish a viable empire. It would have required him to learn to stop micromanaging — like he did in the Vasa sinking — and permit the development of an effective bureaucracy.
Anyway, since Tilly had deprived himself of a strongpoint at Madgeburg, and because of political differences and conflicting orders between Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II and Elector Maximilian I, Tilly wavered, but eventually acted on the emperor’s orders and invaded Saxony.
At Breitenfeld on September 17, 1631, he was caught by a series of events that led to a crushing defeat for the Catholic League forces. He had arranged his army on the outskirts of Breitenfeld on more or less unprotected ground to confront the combined Saxon and Swedish forces.
Tilly was initially effective against the Saxon front, but then Gustav Karlsson Horn shifted his troops on the left to form a new front on his flank. This was the first time such a maneuver had ever been accomplished in the heat of battle and was possible because of the new fighting formations instituted by Gustav Adolf.
After a counterattack led by Gustav Adolf, Tilly’s army broke and ran from the battlefield with losses well over 10,000. Tilly was seriously wounded and escaped with only a few thousand of his army.
Tilly’s selection of a battleground was not to his advantage, and coupled with the excellent tactics used against him, helped lead to his defeat. Another important factor was Gustav’s light cannon — only about four hundred pounds, and easily and quickly relocated with a four horse team and limber. On any reasonably level ground they could keep up with heavy cavalry. Tilly’s unwieldy tercio formations were no match for Gustav’s lightweight artillery. The effectiveness of Gustav’s artillery is well illustrated by the fact that they were able to beat off seven hours of cavalry attacks by Tilly’s forces. If Tilly had fought from the protection afforded by Madgeburg, a great deal of Gustav’s artillery effectiveness would have been negated. The artillery was after all only about 4 pounders.
The loss at Breitenfeld opened up southern Germany to the protestant forces. Later, Tilly tried to prevent the invading forces from crossing the Lech River at Rain into Bavaria and was killed.
This is a very brief and hurried summary of the recorded events, but suppose Tilly had not have burned Madgeburg back on May 20, 1631.
First this was dumb thing to do even in those days! If Tilly had just taken the town and used it as a base, Gustav would have had a much more difficult invasion. Without the “Butcher of Madgeburg” as a propaganda and rallying point, Gustav would have enjoyed much less support — after all he was a foreign king that just might take over once the dust settled. Tilly’s butchery moved public opinion over to Gustav’s side.
With Tilly entrenched in the protection of Madgeburg, (and provisioned by Madgeburg, too,) most of Gustav’s artillery superiority would have been lost. Also, Tilly’s forces would have been fighting from inside the city, rather than on the open ground later at Breitenfeld where their Spanish tercio formations were cut up by Gustav’s cannons and his new column type formations.
So a reasonable possibility, if not probability, is that Gustavus Adolphus’s protestant forces might have been defeated if the battle had been at Madgeburg instead of Breitenfeld. With Gustav Adolph’s invasion stopped, the Catholic League and the Holy Roman Empire might well still be around — after all, they did have a viable empiral structure — complete with church sanctioned bureaucrats.
It is certainly conceivable that the counter-reformation might have destroyed Protestantism —after all, Germany was the protestant strong point. If that had happened, then continental Europe might well be all Catholic — to this very day!!
Under such conditions, English history would be particularly interesting. With a solid Catholic continent, the English Civil War and the Commonwealth might have turned out very differently. The monarchy and the Church of England might never have been restored in 1660. It is certainly possible, if not likely, that the Oxford Movement and the High Church might have reunited with Rome — particularly with all the rest of Catholic Europe bearing down on their neck.
And a century later, what chance would a fledgling collection of colonists in America have stood against a united Roman Catholic Europe?
The multiplied consequences and repercussions that began on May 20, 1631, in Madgeburg, when extrapolated forward to now would make interesting reading. Would we still have had two world wars? Or none? Or a dozen? While we can’t reasonably project exactly what our world would be like, there is no question that it would be significantly different!!!
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Last Updated: May 2006
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