1534 Death of Count Wallenstein
The Thirty Years War (1618-48) is a phenomenon not nearly as well-known as it ought to be. It was the last of the great European religious wars and the Treaty of Westphalia which brought it to a close marked the beginning of the age of nation-states.
One of the most significant figures of this conflict was the champion of the Catholic cause, Count Albrecht Wenzel Eusebius von Wallenstein who rose from being a mercenary captain to be an Imperial generalissimo, a prince, and one of the richest men in Europe. He was successful in all but one of his battles but was suspected (quite rightly) of overweening ambition and treachery, suspicions which led to his assassination.
I had long been aware of Wallenstein’s military genius but not until reading this passage in Chambers’ Book of Days did I learn of the man’s astonishing grandiosity.
Born of high rank in 1583, Wallenstein found himself at forty chief of the imperial armies, and the possessor of immense wealth. Concentrating a powerful mind on one object, the gratification of his ambition, he attained it to a remarkable degree, and was for some time beyond doubt the greatest subject in Europe. In managing troops by a merciless discipline, in making rapid marches, in the fiery energy of his attacks upon the enemy, he was unrivalled. In but one battle, that of Lützen, where he met the Protestant army under Gustavus of Sweden, was he unsuccessful.
Wallenstein’s immense riches, his profound reserve, and theatrical manners, were the principal means he employed to exalt the imagination of the masses. He always appeared in public surrounded by extraordinary pomp, and allowed all those attached to his house to share in his luxury. His officers lived sumptuously at his table, where never less than one hundred dishes were served. As he rewarded with excessive liberality, not only the multitude but the greatest personages were dazzled by this Asiatic splendour. Six gates gave entrance to his palace at Prague, to make room for which he had pulled down one hundred houses. Similar chateaux were erected by his orders on all his numerous estates. Twenty-four chamberlains, sprung from the most noble families, disputed the honour of serving him, and some sent back the golden key, emblem of their grade, to the Emperor, in order that they might wait on Wallenstein.
He educated sixty pages, dressed in blue velvet and gold, to whom he gave the first masters; fifty truants guarded his ante-chamber night and day; six barons and the same number of chevaliers were constantly within call to bear his orders. His maître-d’hôtel was a person of distinction. A thousand persons usually formed his household, and about one thousand horses filled his stables, where they fed from marble mangers. When he set out on his travels, a hundred carriages, drawn by four or six horses, convoyed his servants and baggage; sixty carriages and fifty led horses carried the people of his suite; ten trumpeters with silver bugles preceded the procession. The richness of his liveries, the pomp of his equipages, and the decoration of his apartments, were in harmony with all the rest. In a hall of his palace at Prague he had himself painted in a triumphal car, with a wreath of laurels round his head, and a star above him. [See above for a mural from his palace.]
Wallenstein’s appearance was enough in itself to inspire fear and respect. His tall thin figure, his haughty attitude, the stern expression of his pale face, his wide forehead, that seemed formed to command, his black hair, close-shorn and harsh, his little dark eyes, in which the flame of authority shone, his haughty and suspicious look, his thick moustaches and tufted beard, produced, at the first glance, a startling sensation. His usual dress consisted of a justaucorps of elk skin, covered by a white doublet and cloak; round his neck he wore a Spanish ruff; in his hat fluttered a large red plume, while scarlet pantaloons and boots of Cordova leather, carefully padded on account of the gout, completed his ordinary attire. While his army devoted itself to pleasure, the deepest silence reigned around the general. He could not endure the rumbling of carts, loud conversations, or even simple sounds.
One of his chamberlains was hanged for waking him without orders, and an officer secretly put to death because his spurs had clanked when he came to the general. His servants glided about the rooms like phantoms, and a dozen patrols incessantly moved round his tent or palace to maintain perpetual tranquillity. Chains were also stretched across the streets, in order to guard him against any sound. Wallenstein was ever absorbed in himself, ever engaged with his plans and designs. He was never seen to smile, and his pride rendered him inaccessible to sensual pleasures. His only fanaticism was ambition. This strange chief meditated and acted incessantly, only taking counsel of himself, and disdaining strange advice and inspirations. When he gave any orders or explanations, he could not bear to be looked at curiously; when he crossed the camp, the soldiers were obliged to pretend that they did not see him. Yet they experienced an involuntary shudder when they saw him pass like a super-natural being. There was something about him mysterious, solemn, and awe-inspiring. He walked alone, surrounded by this magic influence, like a saddening halo.
The end of Wallenstein was such as might have been anticipated. Becoming too formidable for a subject, he was denounced to the Emperor by Piccolomini, who obtained a commission to take the great general dead or alive. On the 25th of February 1634, he was assailed in the Castle of Eger by a band, in which were included one Gordon, a Scotsman, and one Butler, an Irishman, and fell under a single stroke of a partizan, dying in proud silence, as he had lived.