What if England had joined the Thirty Years’ War?

Experts among my readers doubt it would have happened, or mattered, or mattered in the expected direction.

Ten days ago I posed the following question:

“What would the religious map of Europe look like today if the English Civil War had taken place a decade earlier, putting well-disciplined English troops into the field on the Protestant side of the Thirty Years’ War?”

I then promptly became too busy to follow up on the interesting answers I got, none of which were what I might have expected. The obvious thought was that a big fresh English army in the field might have led to something like a Protestant victory in place of the bloody draw that produced the Peace of Westphalia. But all of those who have considered such matters more carefully than I, and who bothered to respond, very much doubted it.

They raised four questions:

1. Would a Cromwellian England have intervened at all? Yes, the Puritans in opposition made a great issue of the Stuarts’ failure to support James I’s daughter Elizabeth and her husband Frederick, Elector Palatine, in asserting Frederick’s claim to the Kingdom of Bohemia and in defending his hereditary possessions. But, in power, would they have done otherwise? (As one reader put it, “Having cut off the head of Charles I, would Cromwell have fought to place his sister and brother-in-law back on the Bohemian throne?”)

2. Would the intervention, had it come, been on the “Protestant” side, or would England have taken on Holland and/or France, thus strengthening the Habsburgs by weakening their enemies?

3. What effect would adding England to the mix have had on the structure of alliances?

4. Finally — and this one I admit I had missed entirely — could England have maintained an effective army in Central Europe under the conditions of the time?

John Larew does the diplomatic analysis:

Interesting counterfactual, but I’m not sure the assumption is warranted that England would have intervened in any event, for a couple of reasons.

– Balance of power politics often trumped confessional loyalty in the context of the Thirty Years War (notably in the case of Catholic France intervening on the side of the Protestants when a crushing Habsburg victory looked imminent). As it happened, England stood to gain a lot by standing pat as its continental rivals bled each other white, and a change of confessional outlook would have done little to change that calculus.

– “Protestantism” was hardly a monolithic political force even within England, much less among the various non-Catholic polities of Europe. Theologically speaking, the reformed sects of England were almost as hostile to Lutheranism as to Rome, and sometimes more so.

– Presumably the possibility of territorial aggrandizedment might have enticed England into the war, but I’m not sure what stakes they would have been playing for. Recovery of Calais? Not sure how that would have worked, since England would have been nominally allied with France. Spanish Netherlands? Possibly, but would it have been worth the cost in blood and treasure, at a time when England had already turned its attention to the easier pickings to be had from poorly armed natives on the other side of the world?

Detlef Zander, writing from Germany, has more on this theme:

I don’t know how (Catholic) France would have reacted in such a case. Richelieu was perfectly comfortable supporting the German Protestants and the Swedes. To weaken the Catholic Habsburg rivals in Spain and Austria and because he knew that the Protestants were dependant on French support. A strong English rival might have lead to more “muddied” waters. Not to mention the economic tensions between “Cromwell” England and the Netherlands in our timeline (3 wars IIRC?). For your scenario to work, these tensions have to evaporate.

John Thiebault, who has just written a paper entitled “The Thirty Years War: Between Religious War, Constitutional Conflict, Great Power Struggle and Social Revolution,” adds:

My professional considered opinion on your counterfactual is that the presence of disciplined English troops a decade or two earlier in the Thirty Years War would not likely have had much of an impact on the ultimate religious map of Europe, or indeed on the general conduct and outcome of the war.

Of course, if the English Civil War had preceded the Thirty Years War, the dynastic and reason-of-state motivations of different parties in the war might have been different. Would Richelieu have continued to support Sweden and the German Protestants if he had to fear a militarily powerful Britain across the channel (and this assuming that the outcome of the civil war itself was the same in the different political climate of the 1610s)? Would more German Protestant princes have joined the Habsburgs in suppressing a Bohemian uprising if they knew that regicide was in the cards?

Finally, Detlef Zander points to the primacy of logistics and finance:

It all depends.

How many troops and — more importantly — would they have been paid regularly? Would the English economy have been strong enough to support an English army in Germany? London wasn’t yet the financial center of Europe.

One main problem in the Thirty Years’ War was that mercenaries were expected to buy their food with their own money/monthly payments. Armies didn’t have a supply system. Since most of them weren’t paid regularly, they had to resort to plunder and robbery just to survive. Bad for discipline and not exactly inspiring loyalty.

The initial “core Swedish army” was pretty disciplined too, consisting of Swedish conscripts. But to get enough soldiers (given the small size of the Swedish population) that army was enlarged by using foreign mercenaries, which of course Sweden couldn’t pay for.

Starting around 1628 during its war against Poland, Sweden became incapable of paying for its wars. They needed “the war to feed the war”. In 1628 Sweden had an army of 23,700 soldiers in Prussia. That army needed around 1,700,000 riksdalers a year. Sweden itself could pay around 600,000, another 340,000 were tolls from the occupied Prussian ports. (Notice the numbers! Some few ports paid 50% of the whole Swedish effort.) 280,000 were credits. The rest of the money had to be squeezed out of the occupied country.

It’s estimated that the Swedish army in the German theatre in 1632 needed around 20,000,000 riksdaler per year. (The minimal estimate was around 11,000,000 and not including back-payments.) Sweden paid only around 600,000 riksdaler. Gustav Adolf got an additional 400,000 from France, and around 50,000 from the Netherlands. The whole rest had to come from Germany itself. Nuremberg for example, an allied town, had to pay 100,000 riksdaler. Augsburg had to pay 20,000 riksdaler a month; the tax income of Augsburg at that time was around 50,000 riksdaler a year.

Especially in the last 10-15 years of the war, armies didn’t march somewhere to decisively defeat the enemy. They marched into regions relatively untouched by the war if possible, trying to steal enough food and money so that the army would survive.

So IF your Protestant England could have deployed an army to Germany and kept them supplied with money (keeping them disciplined in other words) then they might have made a difference. Given the huge amounts of money involved to pay for a sizable army, I’m a bit skeptical, though.

Of course it’s hard to do this sort of analysis with anything approaching rigor. But it still seems to me to be useful to ask the “What if?” questions about history, since we need to ask them relentlessly about our own actions in the present.

That’s especially true when, as in this case, the results of some action are not the expected results.

An occasional reminder that winning a political struggle isn’t the same thing as getting the outcome you wanted is a useful corrective to the epistemological overoptimism that is the besetting sin of all of us who participate in politics.

Epistemological pessimism has an important practical implication: Since you don’t really know what “winning” means, “winning at all costs” has known high costs and uncertain benefits, so it’s better, all things considered, to play the game by the rules.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com