“Ah my Wallenstein! They painted him blacker than he was” were the words cried aloud by Ferdinand II the Holy Roman Emperor. He reputedly exclaimed this phrase when he received the commander’s collar of the Golden Fleece that had been worn by his greatest general, Albrecht von Wallenstein. The collar provided final verification of Wallenstein’s assassination. Wallenstein had defeated numerous Protestant armies opposed to the Counter-Reformation during the first half of the Thirty Years’ War. These victories secured Ferdinand’s rule over much of East-Central Europe. Now Wallenstein, a name loathed by those who had once feared it, was dead. After his cry of anguish, Ferdinand ordered 3,000 masses spoken so that Wallenstein’s soul would rest in peace. Something he cultivated very little of in a life marked by conflict.
Was Ferdinand’s grief genuine? Despite the histrionics, it is doubtful. He was likely just crying crocodile tears. After all, he had been the one who ordered Wallenstein’s murder. The two men had not spoken to one another for six years. During that time Wallenstein had fallen out, then in and back out of favor. Once the emperor lost confidence in him Wallenstein’s fate was foresworn. It led to a blood-soaked climax in a bedroom at Eger (present day Cheb, Czech Republic) in northwestern Bohemia on a winter night in 1634. That incident was the final act in Wallenstein’s precipitate fall from power.
“Difficult Times” – the Power Of Predictions
Despite his martial exploits, Wallenstein had been forced into retirement in 1630 by opposition from the Imperial Diet. He was a polarizing figure that managed to unite the Catholic and Protestant princes in German territory against him. Pressure was exerted on Ferdinand to remove him from command. For the next two years, Wallenstein spent in an inordinate amount of time dabbling in astrology. He hired Johannes Kepler, the famed astronomer to provide him with horoscopes. One of Kepler’s predictions proved uncannily prescient. In March 1634, the horoscope warned of “difficult times” ahead for Wallenstein. Truth be told, Wallenstein had already been suffering through many years of “difficult times” long before that prediction. During retirement he had fallen into heavy debt, to the point where he sold off much of his large landholdings, yet even then he was still forced to take out loans with very high interest rates. His inability to pay these back, pushed him to the edge of bankruptcy.
Wallenstein needed money, as much as he needed power. Both were connected, battlefield victories brought him power and money. One could be used in the service of the other, but only for so long as constant campaigning would allow. In 1632, after Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden dealt the Emperor’s forces several resounding defeats, Wallenstein was called back into service. The Generalissmo, as he was often called, proceeded to win several important victories. In 1632 he faced off against Adolphus and his army at the Battle of Lutzen. Adolphus was killed, but the battle resulted in a stalemate. Wallenstein had been unable to finish off what would have been a critical victory. He then searched for scapegoats, finding many among both his officers and common soldiers. Seventeen of them, including twelve officers, were executed. This only served to lower morale in the army and increase resistance.
Listlessness & Lassitude – Losing It & Then Losing It All
Wallenstein had lost his nerve on the battlefield. While off it, he was succumbing to a dreadful lassitude and became increasingly listless. He also betrayed the emperor’s trust, not allowing Ferdinand’s son to command armies in the field. This was a level of insubordination that Ferdinand could not tolerate. It was in direct contravention to Imperial authority. The Monarchy was greater than any one man, a fact that Wallenstein, swollen with pride and arrogance had long since forgotten. Meanwhile Wallenstein had not only been losing the Emperor’s trust, but he had also been plotting a separate peace with the Monarchy’s enemies. At one time or another he was in peace talks with the Swedes, Saxony, Brandenburg and France.
Meanwhile his army took up what looked to be permanent residence on the Ferdinand’s territory. While all this was occurring, Wallenstein became increasingly reliant on astrology in the conduct of his affairs. In other words, he was losing it and was on the verge of losing it all. In 1634, during the second week of January, Ferdinand and his advisors met in Graz. There they decided Wallenstein would have to be brought in dead or alive. The former was certainly preferred over the latter. On the 24th of January, Ferdinand issued the order that relived Wallenstein of his duties and ensured that army officers were no longer under his command. Exactly a month later, a group of Scottish and Irish mercenary officers caught up with Wallenstein and his most trusted officers in Eger. Wallenstein had fled there, in hopes of making a deal and going over to the Swedish side.
Unwittingly, several of his most trusted officers agreed to a dinner invitation at Eger Castle (Cheb Castle). They were subsequently murdered about an hour into their meal. This left Wallenstein all alone at the burgomaster’s (mayoral) residence except for a nominal guard and servant who were quickly dispatched by the assassins. Wallenstein awoke before they made it into his room, but not in enough time to adequately defend himself. He was approached by Walter Devereaux, an Irish captain. Reports relate that Wallenstein attempted to ask for quarter, but Devereaux ran him through with a halberd, shouting “Faithless rebellious old villain” just before he committed the final act. With that, the most brilliant and faithless general in the Thirty Years’ War was dead.
Looked Down Upon – “The Mighty From their Seat”
The final word on the fate of Wallenstein lies in the memoirs of a contemporary observer, Michael Heubel, a commissioner of war and judge for the monarchy. “I saw the room in Eger with two side doors bearing the ineradicable stain of Wallenstein’s blood, and also the staircase down which his corpse was dragged feet first, he who only an hour before had been a great duke and is now become the least and most unworthy of all men – so swiftly can the Lord put down the mighty from their seat.” Wallenstein who had once aspired to be the most powerful man in the Holy Roman Empire – and may well have been – was now history. He would become a byword for egoism, vanity, megalomania, superstition and treason. Wallenstein, who had once brilliantly commanded armies that reordered the map of central and eastern Europe, was just a bloody corpse. His most lasting legacy would be Wallenstein Palace, forever standing in the shadows of the great Prague Castle. From where it would be looked down upon for centuries to come.