The Death of King Gustavus Adolphus at the Battle of Lutzen

History Hit

3 mins

06 Nov 2015

King Gustavus Adolphus was a renowned military strategist and charismatic leader. He died at the Battle of Lutzen on 6 November 1632, a bloody encounter during the Thirty Years’ War.

The Thirty Years’ War

The Thirty Years’ War of 1618-1648 was one of the most destructive wars in European history. The devastation of central Europe was so severe that some German states saw their population decline by up to three quarters. It resulted in a staggering 8 million deaths.

The conflict began when Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II demanded that all his subjects – who came from many different ethnicities and backgrounds – convert to Catholicism. His northern territories in Protestant Germany rebelled, forming the Protestant Union. They were joined by other Protestant states in a war that escalated over the next decade and became a struggle for European supremacy.

In 1630, Sweden – which was then a major military power – joined the Protestant cause, and its king marched his men into Germany to fight the Catholics.

Gustavus Adolphus by Jacob Hoefnagel

Gustavus Adolphus

Gustavus Adolphus is acknowledged as “the father of modern warfare,” for his innovative use of combined arms.

He inherited the Swedish throne in 1611. At sixteen he contested three wars, against the Russians, the Danes and the Poles. Sweden emerged unscathed. Victories in two of the wars brought new territory, expanding the Swedish empire.

He spent much of his life at war. Sweden’s power grew until it was the greatest of the Baltic nations. But Adolphus was a great statesman as well as a soldier. He comprehensively reformed Sweden’s economy, government and trade during his rare periods away from the front line.

Like England’s King Alfred, he is the only Swedish monarch officially recognised as “the great.” A brave warrior, he went into battle without armour, and was partially paralysed after being shot by a Polish soldier in 1627.

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The Battle of Lutzen

The arrival of the Swedes in Germany revived flagging Protestant fortunes.

Adolphus crushed Imperial forces at Breitenfeld, before invading the Catholic stronghold of Bavaria and adding impressively to his long list of military victories.

In November 1632, the Catholic forces were preparing to retire to Leipzig for the winter. Adolphus had other plans. He launched a surprise attack against the retreating forces, who were under the command of Albrecht von Wallenstein. But Wallenstein regrouped and prepared to defend the road to Leipzig.

The Battle of Lutzen by Jan Asselijn

Dawn on 6 November was cloaked in dense fog. Nevertheless, Adolphus attacked at 11am with a thunderous cavalry charge.

The Protestants gained an advantage, threatening to overrun the left flank of the Protestant army, but a counterattack held them off. Both sides rushed reserves to this crucial sector of the battle and Adolphus himself led a charge into the melee.

The death of Adolphus

Amid the smoke and fog, Adolphus suddenly found himself alone. A shot shattered his arm before another hit his horse in the neck and caused it to bolt into the midst of the enemy. Unable to control it with his mangled arm, he was shot in the back, stabbed, and then finally killed with a close-range shot to the temple.

With much of the army ignorant of their heroic commander’s death, one final assault secured a costly victory for the Protestant forces.

Adolphus’ body was found and returned to Stockholm were it was greeted with a huge display of mourning.

Gustavus Adolphus day is marked in Sweden on 6 November.

Lutzen was a pyrrhic victory for the Protestants, who had lost thousands of their best men and their greatest leader. The Thirty Years’ War resulted in no outright winner when peace was signed between the major belligerents in 1648. The northern German territories would remain Protestant.