Schmalkaldic War (1546–1547)

views updated


SCHMALKALDIC WAR (15461547). The Schmalkaldic War (fought between July 1546 and April 1547) was a short-lived military victory by the Holy Roman emperor Charles V (ruled 15191556) over the forces of the Lutheran princes and cities of the Schmalkaldic League (15311547). The history of the league and the survival of Protestantism after such decisive military defeat reflect both the strengths and weaknesses of the Holy Roman Empire.


The Schmalkaldic League was a German Protestant military federation based on an agreement made at Schmalkalden in Thuringia in December 1530 and ratified in February 1531. The original members of the league included the two military commanders Elector John Frederick of Saxony and Landgrave Philip of Hesse; the northern princes of Anhalt-Bernburg and Mansfeld-Hinterort; the northern cities of Lübeck, Magdeburg, and Bremen; and the southern cities of Strasbourg, Ulm, Memmingen, Konstanz, Biberach, Lindau, and Isny. The presidency of the league alternated between the elector and the landgrave.

The league differed from previous federations, including the Swabian League (14881534), in both its defined purpose and scope. The purpose of the league was the defense of religion in addition to traditional aims of mutual defense. The defense of the evangelical movement brought together powers, such as the ruling families of Strasbourg and the elector of Saxony, who had no other interests in common. Unlike the Swabian League with its strictly upper German focus, the Schmalkaldic League was imperial in scope, eventually stretching from east to west from Pomerania to Strasbourg and from north to south from Oldenburg to Konstanz. Although the league tried to break out of the imperial borders through attempted alliances with Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France, these efforts ended in failure.

The league, originally formed for six years, ratified a fixed constitution at Schmalkalden on 23 December 1535, which was almost immediately revised in October 1536 because of the growth in league membership. The cities of Esslingen, Brunswick, Goslar, Einbeck, and Göttingen all joined the league between 1531 and 1535. In 1535 the dukes of Pomerania and Württemberg, the count of Pfalz-Zweibrücken, two princes of Anhalt-Dessau, and the cities of Frankfurt am Main, Kempten, Hamburg, and Hannover all joined the league. Under the new constitution the league was divided into two "circles": a northern, "Saxon" circle and a southern, "upper German" circle.

The league faced the same political and constitutional problems that plagued the empire. The league's tax structure and sole means for financing its military force mirrored the imperial tax structure. Despite the efforts of many leaders from the southern cities (in particular, Jakob Sturm von Sturmeck [14891553]), the league consistently defeated proposals to reform and streamline its collection of revenue.

The principle success of the league was its defense of the Protestant cause against the emperor, the Imperial Diet, and the Imperial Chamber Court. The league's first victory was its successful campaign to suspend all suits by Catholic clergy for the restitution of ecclesiastical property seized by evangelical cities and territories. Charles V's policy of toleration, however, required the league's support for and participation in his wars with the French and the Ottoman Turks as well as a series of theological colloquies at Hagenau, Regensburg, and Speyer.

The league had no fixed seat but it did meet some twenty-six times over the course of its sixteen-year history, over a more extensive area than did the Imperial Diet (which met only once in the same period). The league also had no chancery or league court or any official means of mediating disputes among its members and was, therefore, unable to agree upon a common ecclesiastical constitutional, or liturgical, policy for ecclesiastical properties.

The politics of particularism also hindered the league's effective unityespecially in the case of the northern cities (the southern cities largely continued their long-standing practice of mutual consultation). Originally possessing four of nine possible votes and later six of thirteen votes in the league, the cities in general also found themselves in a long familiar position of minority status in relation to the princes. The confessional nature of the league, based as it was upon the religious conflict between the Catholic and Protestant camps within western Christianityand the distractions of Charles V in the Mediterranean and of Ferdinand I of Austria with his Jagellon territories and Turkish incursionsestranged the cities from their traditional alliances with the crown against the princes. For example, in 1534 Philip of Hesse was able to restore the (Lutheran) duke Ulrich of Württemberg in his territories with the support of Bavaria, France, and Strasbourg, over the opposition of the Saxon elector and most of the imperial and free cities.


The underlying causes of the Schmalkaldic War were the ambitions of the leading princes of the league, particularly Landgrave Philip of Hesse and Elector John Frederick of Saxony, and the imperial effort to bring the territories and cities of the league to heel confessionally. The ambitions of the nobles and their limitations as political and military strategists can be clearly seen in the political offensive led by Elector John Frederick to secure the North German prince-bishoprics for the evangelical cause.

In 1542 the league successfully invaded the last remaining Catholic lay territory in northern Germany, the Duchy of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, but in 1543 the league failed to come to the aid of the elector's brother-in-law, Duke William of Cleves-Jülich, against Charles V. The southern cities of the league viewed these campaigns as of little lasting value and approved the Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel campaign reluctantly. The perception among the cities that they were bearing more than their fair share of the costs of the league's military operations began to foment open dissent, and left the league in enough political disarray that its reratification would have been in doubt even without its military defeat by the imperial forces.

The need to justify resistance to imperial authority was a standing issue for Protestant rulers and their advisers. As a result, beginning with Martin Luther's own volte-face in 1531 in favor of active resistance against an unjust emperor, Lutheran theologians, lawyers, and counselors were under constant pressure to portray their resistance against the empire in a positive light. By the time the city of Minden was outlawed in the autumn of 1538, Wittenberg theologians judged that a preemptive attack by the league in defense of Minden would be a "defensive" first strike under the terms of the league's charter.

The Schmalkaldic League did not intend to undermine any territorial sovereign. In 15431544 the Protestant community of Metz in Lorraine petitioned the league for admission. Although Martin Bucer and the senate of Strasbourg supported the Metz Protestants, Elector John Frederick, on the advice of the Wittenberg theologians, blocked their bid for admission on the grounds that they were dissident subjects of a legitimate government. Nonetheless, the league ignored concerns for legitimacy in the case of the city of Brunswick when it admitted that city as a member even though it was still ruled by Duke Henry the Younger, a Catholic.

The proximate cause of the war was the rejection by the members of the league of the conditions under which Charles convened the Diet of Regensburg in June of 1546. The immediate circumstances that finally allowed Charles to act against the Lutherans were the conclusion of peace treaties with France (the Peace of Crespy on 18 September 1544) and with the Ottoman Turks (on 10 November 1545), the successful negotiation of the participation of papal troops in a campaign against the league, as well as free passage for these troops through the Bavarian territory of Duke William, and the tacit support of Duke Maurice of Saxony against his cousin John Frederick upon Maurice's withdrawal from the league in 1542. Despite careful imperial preparations for a confrontation with the league, the initial league offensive caught Charles off guard in Regensburg with only a small number of Spanish and German troops.


Among the league's initial advantages were successful attempts to reinforce its field army with experienced mercenaries, who had been released recently from French service, and the recruitment of the famous mercenary captain Sebastian Schertlin von Burtembach as a field commander. Official command, however, remained in the inexperienced and clumsy hands of the princes, especially Elector John Frederick. The elector's imperial counterpart, Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, duke of Alba, was one of the finest military commanders of the sixteenth century. In short, John Frederick was no match for Alba or Charles.

There were two distinct phases to the war. In the first phase, in the south, the imperial troops under Charles and Alba escaped from Regensburg by outmaneuvering the league's forces and then joined forces with papal troops from Italy via Bavaria and with heavy cavalry from the Netherlands under Egmont, count of Buren. The indecisiveness of the league's war council caused Schertlin to be called off just when he could have cut off the papal reinforcements in the mountains and destroyed them piecemeal. The ability of the imperial troops to avoid a decisive engagement along the Danube, coupled with the failure of John Frederick to seize the initiative, precipitated a financial and political crisis within the leadership of the league.

Duke Maurice's attack on electoral Saxony began the second phase of the war and shifted the front to the north. Electoral troops broke off contact with imperial forces along the Danube and marched home, where they successfully counterattacked and overran much of Maurice's ducal Saxony and defeated an imperial relief force under Albert of Culmbach. During this phase of the war, however, the revelation of Philip of Hesse's scandalous bigamy effectively removed him from the military and diplomatic fray. Meanwhile, since most of the league's forces were defending electoral Saxony, Alba and Charles were unopposed as they neutralized the southern cities and then moved north to reinforce Maurice on the northern front.

John Frederick's fatal strategic miscalculation of advancing to the south away from easily defended locations proved to be the beginning of the end for the league. Upon realizing his error, John Frederick attempted to keep the Elbe River between the league's forces and the imperial forces, but Alba's scouts discovered a ford and the imperial infantry was able to force its way across the Elbe, across the Protestant line of retreat. During the battle on 24 April, now known as the Battle of Mühlberg, the imperial troops gradually destroyed the scattered Protestant formations and captured John Frederick.


In the aftermath of his victory, Charles stripped both John Frederick and Philip of Hesse of their domains, installed Maurice as ruler of all of Saxony, and proclaimed the institution of Catholic religious conformity with the Augsburg Interim. However, Charles's triumph proved to be short-lived. After sixteen years of protection provided by the Schmalkaldic League, the Protestant cause was now strong enough to survive politically even after a sound military defeat.

The Gnesio-Lutheran stronghold of Magdeburg was a center of resistance after the league's defeat. Lutheran clergy (led by Nickolaus von Amsdorf, Matija Vlačic [Matthias Flacius Illyricus], and Nikolaus Gallus, among others) continued to develop a constitutionalist theory of resistance by socalled inferior magistrates against the empire. In both formal publications and pamphlet campaigns this political innovation proved to be influential in other confessionally based political resistance movements, such as the Huguenot Monarchomachs and the Reformed Dutch revolt against the Spanish, and among the English Marian exiles and political theorists opposed to the claims of absolutism, such as Johannes Althusius (Althaus).

The so-called Prince's Revolt and the Treaty of Passau in 1552 ensured the survival and even official recognition of the Lutheran cause. These events culminated in the Religious Peace of Augsburg (1555), which placed a territory's confessional allegiance squarely in the hands of its ruler.

See also Alba, Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, duke of ; Augsburg, Religious Peace of (1555) ; Charles V (Holy Roman Empire) ; Lutheranism .


Brady, Thomas A., Jr. "Phases and Strategies of the Schmalkaldic League: A Perspective after 450 Years." Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte 74 (1983): 162181.

. Protestant Politics: Jacob Sturm (14891553) and the German Reformation. Atlantic Highlands, N.J., 1995.

Fischer-Galati, Stephen A. Ottoman Imperialism and German Protestantism, 15211555. Cambridge, Mass., 1959.

Hartung, Fritz. Karl V. und die deutschen Reichsstände von 1546 bis 1555. Darmstadt, reprint 1971; original edition 1910.

Haug-Moritz, Gabriele. Der Schmalkaldische Bund, 15301541/42: Eine Studie zu den genossenschaftlichen Strukturelementen der politischen Ordnung des Heiligen Römischen Reiches Deutscher Nation. Leinfelden-Echterdingen, 2002.

Held, Wieland. 1547, Die Schlacht bei Mühlberg/Elbe: Entscheidung auf dem Wege zum albertinischen Kurfürstentum Sachsen. Beucha, 1997.

Maltby, William S. Alba: A Biography of Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, Third Duke of Alba, 15071582. Berkeley, 1983.

Oman, Sir Charles. A History of the Art of War in the Sixteenth Century. Repr. Elstree, U.K., 1987.

Schlütter-Schindler, Gabriele. Der Schmalkaldische Bund und das Problem der causa religionis. Frankfurt am Main and New York, 1986.

Wunder, Gert. "Sebastian Schertlin: Feldhauptmann und Kriegsunternehmer, 14961577." In Lebensbilder aus Schwaben und Franken. Vol. 13, edited by Robert Uhland, pp. 5272. Stuttgart, 1977.

Thomas E. Ridenhour, Jr.