10 Violent Battles that Defined the Holy Roman Empire
10 Violent Battles that Defined the Holy Roman Empire

10 Violent Battles that Defined the Holy Roman Empire

Patrick Lynch - December 11, 2017

10 Violent Battles that Defined the Holy Roman Empire
Maximilian I – The Famous People

5 – Battle of Dornach (1499)

Dornach was the decisive battle in the Swabian War of 1499 which took place between the Swabian League (with the aid of the Holy Roman Empire) and the Swiss Confederacy. The House of Habsburg had gained the throne of the Holy Roman Empire in 1438 and had a long history of hostility and conflict with the Swiss Confederacy. Once the Habsburgs were on the throne, the Swiss knew they could no longer rely on the empire for support.

The Swiss clashed with the Habsburgs at different times during the rest of the 15th century. In 1488, a mutual defense and peacekeeping force called the Swabian League was formed, but when the Swiss were invited to join, they refused. What was once a local conflict got out of hand as concerns over territory led to an outbreak of war. The Swabian War was mainly a collection of skirmishes, but the Battle of Dornach was a disaster for the Holy Roman Empire.

While the Swiss only had 6,000 men, the empire had 16,000 under the command of Heinrich von Furstenberg. The first attacks occurred on July 22, and the Swiss was beaten back at first. However, reinforcements arrived and turned the tide of the battle. Von Furstenberg was killed in action early on, and his death clearly affected the performance of his army. The total number of losses is unknown, but both armies suffered heavy casualties.

Emperor Maximilian I of the Holy Roman Empire was said to have been devastated when he heard the news of his army’s defeat. It was the last time that the Swiss were engaged in armed conflict with any member of the empire. The Swabian War came to an end on 22 September with the signing of the Treaty of Basel. The treaty ensured the Swiss enjoyed far-reaching independence from the Holy Roman Empire even though the Confederacy was officially part of the empire until 1648.

10 Violent Battles that Defined the Holy Roman Empire
Suleiman the Magnificent – The Famous People

6 – The Battle of Mohacs (1526)

The Battle of Mohacs was one of the most pivotal conflicts in the history of Central Europe. It involved the Kingdom of Hungary, with the aid of allies such as the Holy Roman Empire, against the Ottoman Empire led by Suleiman the Magnificent. While the Turks had a capable commander, the Hungarians and their allies did not. King Louis II was a weak leader, and his disastrous battlefield tactics led to a massacre and the end of the Kingdom of Hungary.

In 1522, Louis married Mary of Habsburg, and the Ottomans were concerned about the Hungarian’s alliance with the Holy Roman Empire. The previous year, the Turks had taken modern-day Belgrade and Szabacs which greatly weakened the defense of the south of Hungary. After failing to raise an army to take back Belgrade, it was clear that Louis was not up to the job of repelling the Ottomans. Matters were made worse when King Francis I of France allied with the Ottomans after losing to the Habsburgs at the Battle of Pavia in 1525.

Louis’ inaction enabled the Turks to take Petervarad. It was an easy win for the Turks since the Hungarians had a huge lack of castle garrisons. Indeed, there wasn’t a single Hungarian town, fort or even a village for 400 kilometers along the Danube from Petervarad to Buda. Eventually, the Hungarian nobles provided the king with troops and ultimately split into three groups. Rather than wait for the Transylvanian and Croatian troops to arrive, the Hungarian war council elected to meet the Turks on a marshy battlefield near Mohacs.

The Hungarians had perhaps 25,000-30,000 men against the Ottoman force which numbered at least 50,000 although modern estimates put the figure closer to 100,000. The Hungarians could have attacked the tired Turks who had just embarked on a march of several hundred kilometers in the searing heat. Instead, they waited for the Ottomans to march through the swampy terrain because attacking them too early wasn’t chivalrous.

It was a dumb move as the Hungarians were utterly routed. They lost at least 14,000 men including Louis II (and over 1,000 nobles) and Suleiman supposedly waited for a few days because he couldn’t believe the pathetic resistance he met was all the once mighty Hungarians could muster. The Ottomans didn’t take Buda until 1541, but Hungary had ceased to be an independent kingdom after the defeat at Mohacs. While the Ottomans held central Hungary, the Habsburgs were in charge of the northern and western parts of Hungary.

10 Violent Battles that Defined the Holy Roman Empire
Emperor Ferdinand II – Wikipedia

7 – The Thirty Years’ War (1618 – 1648)

The entire conflict was critical in the history of the Holy Roman Empire, and since there was no standout battle, I decided to include an overview of the Thirty Years’ War instead. The war was one of the most protracted in history and also one of the deadliest with an estimated 8 million deaths. It devastated vast regions of Europe and led to famine and disease. At its end, the war had changed the political and religious landscape of Central Europe.

It was caused by the actions of Emperor Ferdinand II of the Holy Roman Empire. He tried to limit the religious activities of his subjects which led to an uprising by Protestants. It was initially a religious war between the Catholics and Protestants within the empire. However, it escalated into a war that spanned much of the continent as major European powers such as France, Spain, Austria, and Sweden, all waged wars on German soil at some point during the war.

The Reformation and Counter-Reformation of the 16th century ensured that Germany was divided into hostile Catholic and Protestant camps. Therefore, when Ferdinand started to curtail certain religious privileges of people in Germany in 1618, they appealed to the rest of the Protestants in the empire. Meanwhile, Ferdinand requested help from major Catholic states. The result was three decades of bloodshed with the first major victory of the war occurring in 1620 when Ferdinand’s forces won at the Battle of White Mountain.

The emperor turned his attention to Bohemia’s Protestant supporters in Germany, and his imperial armies overran Protestant Germany and much of Denmark by 1629. King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden turned the tide of the war when he intervened on the Protestant side in 1630. He defeated the imperial army at Breitenfeld in 1631 and drove them out of most of Germany. The war briefly turned again in 1634 with Spanish intervention on the Catholic side, but most of the rest of the conflict occurred in Germany.

The Protestants finally gained the upper hand with wins at Rocroi in 1643 and Jankau in 1645. The Hapsburgs made concessions which led to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. The conflict ended the age of religious wars in Central Europe as the role of religion in European politics receded. The Holy Roman Empire suffered significant losses which made it vulnerable when the Ottomans came knocking on their door.

10 Violent Battles that Defined the Holy Roman Empire
John III Sobieski – Wikipedia

8 – Battle of Vienna (1683)

Much has been written about the Battle of Vienna which was a crucial battle in the Ottoman-Habsburg Wars that had begun at Mohacs in 1526 and ended with the Treaty of Sistova in 1791. Some historians claim that the Christian Coalition’s victory at Vienna saved Western civilization from Islam and marked the beginning of the Ottoman Empire’s decline. While it was unquestionably a pivotal moment in European history, it is important to note that the Ottomans were able to remain competitive in a military sense until the middle of the 18th century.

The Peace of Vasvar in 1664 had ended hostilities between the Ottomans and the Holy Roman Empire, but the Ottomans once again declared war on their old enemy in August 1682 as Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha mobilized an army. However, he had to shelve any plans for a siege of Vienna since winter was approaching and it would have been a logistical nightmare to attack the Austrian capital in August or September. The Ottomans didn’t launch a full-scale offensive until April 1683, and they reached Belgrade in May. Part of the army laid siege to Gyor while 150,000 men moved on Vienna.

Meanwhile, Emperor Leopold, I left for Passau along with 60,000 residents of Vienna. Now, the city was defended by Count Ernst Rudiger von Starhemberg and 16,000 men, 5,000 of who were volunteers. The Turks officially began laying siege to Vienna on July 14, 1683, and for almost two months, they bombarded the city. At one point during the siege, Kara Mustafa demanded surrender, but von Starhemberg replied: “Let him come; I’ll fight to the last drop of blood.” It seemed as if the garrison was about to be overwhelmed by early September.

They had bravely fought off 18 Turkish assaults, but there were only 3,500 men fit for combat plus their munitions were almost gone. Leopold appealed for help while in Passau and finally, a relief force was on its way. By September 7, John III Sobieski was in the Tulln Valley with an army of 18,000 while there were also armies led by Elector Max Emmanuel of Bavaria, Prince George Friedrich von Waldeck, John George III von Wettin, Prince George of Hanover, and Duke Charles of Lorraine. Together, the allied army numbered close to 70,000.

The Battle of Vienna began at around 4 am on September 12 and raged on until the late evening. By 4 pm, Kara Mustafa had retreated to his HQ, and a number of Ottomans were leaving the field. The Allies were ready to deliver the final blow, and it came in the form of history’s largest cavalry charge which began at around 6 pm. Sobieski led the charge which featured 18,000 horsemen and it completely overwhelmed the Ottomans. Within three hours, the Battle of Vienna was over, the coalition had saved Vienna, and some say they also saved the West.

10 Violent Battles that Defined the Holy Roman Empire
Prince Eugene of Savoy – Wikipedia

9 – Battle of Blenheim (1704)

The War of Spanish Succession began in 1701 and ended in 1714, and the Battle of Blenheim is arguably the most famous battle during the conflict. It pitted the Franco-Bavarian army against the Grand Alliance which included the Holy Roman Empire, England, Scotland, Austria and a few other allies. The French King, Louis XIV, made a bold move to remove the Holy Roman Empire, under the leadership of Emperor Leopold I, from the war by taking the Habsburg capital Vienna.

The city of Vienna was under threat from two sides; the forces of Marshal Marsin and the Elector of Bavaria from the west, and Marshal Vendrome’s huge army in the north of Italy. There was also the small matter of a Hungarian revolt in the east. The Duke of Marlborough understood the danger, and the English commander brought his army towards Vienna to assist Leopold. Marlborough used his cunning to march 400 kilometers to the River Danube in five weeks in relative secrecy. He aimed to force the Bavarians and Marsin into battle before Marshal Tallard arrived with reinforcements.

He was unsuccessful as Tallard arrived, but Marlborough was boosted by the arrival of Prince Eugene of Savoy who brought reinforcements. There is some dispute over the respective strength of the armies, but they were probably comparable in size. Modern estimates suggest the French and Bavarian forces had 60,000 men against the 56,000 strong force of the Grand Alliance. In the midst of battle, Marlborough was able to sustain an assault against the French center with the aid of Eugene’s cavalry corps. Tallard was taken prisoner and while the Allies lost 12,000 men, the French and Bavarians lost over 30,000 men; 18,000 died, and the rest were taken, prisoner.

It was the French army’s first defeat in over half a century and proved that Louis’ army was not the invincible force of lore. The victory at Blenheim looked set to turn the tide of the war in favor of the Grand Alliance as it captured several towns in preparation for an assault on France in 1705. However, the French launched a counteroffensive which forced the Allies to defend the city of Liege. The war continued until 1714 when the treaties of Utrecht (1713) and Rastatt (1714) partitioned the Spanish Empire and ended the conflict.

10 Violent Battles that Defined the Holy Roman Empire
Napoleon Bonaparte – Britannica
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10 – Battle of Austerlitz (1805)

Often regarded as Napoleon’s greatest victory, the Battle of Austerlitz marked the end of the Holy Roman Empire. It was also a crucial battle in the Napoleonic Wars and is sometimes known as the Battle of Three Emperors. It featured the Grand Armee of France under the command of Napoleon against a combined force of Russian and Austrian armies led by Tsar Alexander I and Emperor Francis II of the Holy Roman Empire.

Napoleon took Vienna in November 1805, and the Austrians decided not to face the Grand Armee again until they were aided by Russian reinforcements. The French commander was eager for battle and went to great lengths to dupe the enemy into thinking his army was in a terrible state. Overall, he had 65,000 men against almost 90,000 and Napoleon masterfully lured the enemy into a trap.

He abandoned Pratzen Heights which was located near Austerlitz and weakened his right flank on purpose. Napoleon wanted the enemy to launch a massive attack as it would weaken their center. The allies did exactly what he wanted, and Napoleon ensured that his III Corps arrived on time to plug the gap. Meanwhile, the IV Corps under the command of Marshal Soult attacked the enemy’s center and demolished it.

Next, Napoleon ordered attacks on both enemy flanks, and the result was total annihilation. 16,000 allied soldiers died, and 20,000 were captured. 1,300 French soldiers died, several thousand were wounded, and only a few hundred were captured. The allies fled the battlefield in a panic, and within two days, Austria had agreed to an armistice with France. The Treaty of Pressburg was signed on December 26, 1805, and per its terms, Austria agreed to pull out of the war and out of the Coalition.

One of the most important outcomes of the Battle of Austerlitz was the creation of the Confederation of the Rhine, a group of German states designed to act as a buffer zone between Central Europe and France. Its creation ensured the Holy Roman Empire was obsolete and in 1806, its Emperor abdicated its throne and from that point on, he was known as Emperor Francis I of Austria. An empire which began with the crowning of Emperor Charlemagne ended after over 1,000 years.

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