The year is 1628. The war has been dragging on for ten years and Ferdinand II — Holy Roman Emperor, King of Germany, Bohemia, Hungary and Croatia, Archduke of Austria — is scheming against Protestant rulers. In less than a year he will force them to restore more than 500 bishoprics, monasteries, abbeys, and other ecclesiastical properties that had been secularized since 1552. And now the Emperor’s undefeated army is at the gates of Stralsund, Germany, a key strategic port city on the Baltic Sea.
The war had officially begun in 1618 with the Defenestration of Prague, when a crowd of Protestants threw two members of the Catholic government and their secretary out the castle window. Encyclopedia Britannica notes that rumblings preceded hostilities.
The underlying cause for the outbreak of a war that would last 30 years was thus the pathological fear of a Catholic conspiracy among the Protestants and the equally entrenched suspicion of a Protestant conspiracy among the Catholics. As a Bohemian noblewoman, Polyxena Lobkovic, perceptively observed from the vantage point of Prague: “Things are now swiftly coming to the pass where either the papists will settle their score with the Protestants, or the Protestants with the papists.”
Ferdinand is 50 years old in 1628, older, wiser, emboldened by successful policies in his homeland of Styria and determined to carry them out in Germany. C.V. Wedgwood describes him in her seminal work, The Thirty Years War.
Ferdinand’s policy combined cunning with boldness; he undermined the Protestants by civil disabilities, seduced the younger generation by education and propaganda, and gradually tightened the screws until the Protestants realized too late that they no longer had the means to resist. …
[He was] a cheerful, friendly, red-faced little man with a reassuring smile for everyone. Frank good nature beamed from his freckled countenance and shortsighted, prominent, light blue eyes. Sandy-haired, stout and bustling, he presented a wholly unimpressive figure …
General and private opinion flattered the archduke’s virtues but not his ability. Kindly contemptuous, the greater number of his contemporaries wrote him off as a good-natured simpleton wholly under the control of his chief minister Ulrich von Eggenberg. Yet Ferdinand’s apparent lack of personal initiative may have been a pose; as a young man he had been taught by the Jesuits to cast the onus of political decisions on to others in order to spare his own conscience. …
Repeatedly in the course of his life he twisted disaster into advantage, wrenched unexpected safety out of overwhelming danger, snatched victory from defeat. His contemporaries, unimpressed, commented on his astonishing luck. If it was luck, it was certainly astonishing.
The Emperor’s general, Albrecht von Wallenstein, says of Stralsund, “The town shall yield, though it were bound with chains to Heaven.”
It is not to be. A spirited defense is raised by Scots, Danes, Swedes, and native Stralsunders themselves. Wedgwood writes, “The show of violence fluttered the Hanseatic League but still had not the desired effect, for, instead of accepting imperial friendship, the deputies of the Hanse merely offered Wallenstein eight thousand talers to withdraw. He proved incorruptible and on July 6 1628 arrived in person before Stralsund.
Imperial General Von Arnim had had provocation enough. He commenced his attack in early May. By day, he subjected the city to artillery bombardment, by night he sent parties to attempt to surprise the garrison. The Stralsunders sent pleas for help to the Northern Kings, and help arrived with surprising speed.
The first help came from the Danes. On the 28th of May (Old Calendar) British troops of MacKay’s regiment under Lt.-Colonel Seaton and Major Robert Monroe made a hazardous sea landing at Stralsund. While approaching the harbor, they came under heavy fire from the culverins (large cannon) in von Arnim’s land batteries. Monroe’s ship had its main mast shot off, and almost grounded in the channel. Despite these dangers the Scots landed safely in Stralsund, accompanied by Hatzfeld’s “Deutch” Regiment . The commander of the relief expedition was Colonel Heinrick Holke, and he became the de facto, if not de jure, Governor of Stralsund.
While Arnim kept up his bombardment and harassing attacks. Wallenstein arrived in mid June, and immediately reconnoitered the city’s defenses. He determined that the defenses before the Frankendore Gate was the best spot for an assault, and prepared several thousand men to attack the outworks.
My own novel is not about the war, but one of the main characters, a boy named James, lives through the siege. He is young, and finds himself on the street with another boy, scrambling to find shelter. St. James Church, near one of the main gates into the city, is close by.
They emerged into a single cavernous room on the third floor, morning light streaming in through twelve very tall, very narrow windows on the eastern wall. The western wall was still standing, but James could not see how. Every window had been shattered completely, and a massive hole in the center of the wall gave an unobstructed view of the besieging army of the Holy Roman Empire.
“Don’t fall through.”
“Yeah,” said James. “What’s your name? I can’t remember.”
“Georg. I’m not surprised. You’re lucky to be alive after that shell hit your house. Anyway, come on! We’re missing the action!”
Georg pulled James to the pile of rubble under the hole in the wall, and they scrambled toward the edge. James pushed a few sharp-edged bricks from under his body and felt a gusty north breeze on his face. He breathed deeply and looked out.
The three western gates were under assault. From behind a shield of thick smoke, moving slowly with the wind across the battlefield, columns of men swarmed across two narrow bridges toward the outer walls. Greater masses of men streamed down the gentle slope and waded across the shallow lagoons. The dead were everywhere, some identifiable only by flashes of color in the churned earth, others in heaps where they had fallen attacking the outer bastions. From the Knipes Gate in the north, to the Tribsee Gate in the south by St. Mary’s, the voices of ten thousand attackers urged one another to victory. Inside the walls, musketeers returned fire, and from every part of town men ran toward the gates.
From the defensive hornworks in the lagoons, musket fire decimated ranks of attacking soldiers. As rows of men fell in the shallow water, those behind stepped on their bodies and continued the charge. The new front row was cut down with the next volley, but it looked to James like an endless supply of men would eventually overwhelm the city walls.
A thousand yards from the city, near the top of the rise, artillery targeted the fortifications between the gates. Some cannonballs bounced off the sloping walls, exploding in the air and raining shrapnel onto defenders and attackers alike. Others detonated inside the walls, throwing dust, bricks and body parts a hundred feet into the air.
Inside the cocoon of his concussion, James was terrified. He wanted to run and hide, but the terror couldn’t find its way outward to his body, and so he lay next to Georg and watched. The other boy had an exultant grin plastered to his face, and every so often James could hear him shout over the terrible sounds of the battle. Time was passing, but he couldn’t tell how long he’d been laying in the rubble. The shadows of the church towers were getting shorter, and the wind had changed direction. The smell of gunpowder dominated the breeze, but underneath it he could taste something dank, moist and almost sweet. From the back of his dazzled mind an image of the local slaughterhouse emerged – he and his friends running, trying in vain to catch the slippery eyeballs of dead cows – and he finally recognized the smell. Fresh blood.