“I came, I saw, and God conquered”, they say that Emperor Charles V pronounced after the overwhelming victory of his troops over the Schmalkaldic League in the battle of Mühlberg, fought on April 24, 1547.
Since Luther expounded his famous 95 theses in 1517, the Holy Roman Empire had hopelessly split between those who chose to follow the new religion and those who, along with the Emperor, decided to remain faithful to the Holy See and Catholicism.
Despite several initially hopeful attempts at conciliation and mediation both by the emperor in the Diets and by the Roman Church in a Council, the situation became entrenched and ended up opting for the resolution through the military route. The Lutheran princes, led by the Elector Frederick III of Saxony and the Landgrave Philip I of Hesse, eventually formed a league or military alliance in 1531, to which they gave the name of the town in which they had held the meetings for their creation: Schmalkalden. They immediately began to establish alliances with the Emperor’s enemies: France and Denmark.
After a promising start of the hostilities for the Protestants, with the occupation in 1546 of various Catholic territories and the expulsion of the imperial armies to Bavaria, came the forceful response from the King of Romans.
A series of armies were sent from the different boundaries of the Habsburg territories: Spanish Tercios from Italy and Hungary, led by the Duke of Alba, French Catholic troops, who until very recently had been enemies in Italy, Papal troops commanded by Ottavio Farnese, and a good contingent of Bohemians and Austrians led by the Emperor’s brother, Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria and King of Bohemia, and the Emperor himself at the front of the whole group.
Most of the League troops chose to lay down their weapons and ask the Emperor for mercy, but Johann Frederick I, Elector of Saxony, decided to tempt fate. The clash between the two armies took place on April 24 near Mühlberg, on the banks of the Elbe.
The battle of Mühlberg
The Lutheran troops expected that the great difficulty of crossing the river would allow them to withdraw in time and escape the Imperial army, which doubled in size, although on this occasion the Hispanic courage was going to ruin this idea:
A handful of Spaniards threw themselves into the water with swords in their mouths in one of the first “encamisada” actions [night skirmish action in which the attackers wore white shirts –”camisas”– over their clothes and armour to distinguish themselves] of which we have news, which will become so famous during the subsequent campaigns during the Eighty Years War.
Not only do they cross the river despite enemy fire, but they capture a pontoon bridge and move it to the other shore, allowing the entire Imperial army to pass freely, who put the shocked Protestant troops to flight.
After crushing the remains that were still in the vicinity of the river, the allied contingent began the persecution of Johann Frederick and the remains of his army. In a desperate attempt to delay the enemy advance, the Elector of Saxony ordered his cavalry to make a desperate charge against the Imperial contingent, the result of which was as catastrophic as might be expected given the overwhelming enemy superiority, so that, after hundreds of deaths, the Saxon cavalry ended up turning back and fleeing. With everything lost, the remnants of the Schmalkaldic League army, along with their leader, were captured.
The estimated casualties were between a third and almost half of the Protestant army dead or wounded, apart from almost all captured, compared to about twenty deaths on the imperial side. The Schmalkaldic League was dissolved and its leaders, imprisoned; Maurice of Saxony was given the dignity of Elector of his rebellious cousin for his support of the Imperial cause, despite being also a Lutheran, and Charles V emerged triumphant and reinforced in his Imperial power.
The Emperor could be satisfied: practically all of the enemy army, destroyed or captured, and the main leaders of the League prisoners. The victory was total, although the facts would show that this war of religion was far from over. Soon the Lutherans allied themselves with the French, who occupied the Imperial cities of Metz, Toul and Verdun, who added to a new Turkish campaign against the Austrian territories and the treason of Maurice of Saxony, the new Elector, breathed new forces into the League.
By Vicente Moreno