Mercenary conduct – An Irishman’s Diary on two Wild Geese and the murder of Albrecht von Wallenstein
One of the hidden treasures in Prague is the Wallenstein Palace, an enormous Baroque palace now housing the Czech senate. Access is limited to the palace gardens, laid out in the Mannerist style with a wonderful stalactite wall. While enjoying the beauty and tranquillity, Irish visitors might reflect on the links between the death of its creator, a pair of unscrupulous Irish mercenaries, and their immortalisation in one of the greatest works of German theatre.
The palace was built by Albrecht von Wallenstein, the most effective, ruthless and charismatic general of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). From a modest Protestant family in Bohemia, he reflected the cultural mélange of central Europe, speaking German but cursing in Czech, and converting from Lutheranism to Catholicism. His wealth came from serial marriage to two very wealthy women and the extensive spoils of war.
In many ways his status approximated that of a warlord: he famously coined the phrase “war feeds itself”, reflecting his exactions from friend and foe alike while campaigning. His successes in the field unnerved Ferdinand, the Hapsburg emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, who perceived him as an emerging rival: for this and other factors, he dismissed Wallenstein in 1630.
However, advances of the Northern forces, headed now by Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, led to his reinstatement and a string of victories. By 1633 it was becoming clear to the emperor and his confidants that Wallenstein was displaying reluctance to engage with the enemy.
Their concerns were not without cause. Wallenstein was increasingly unhappy with the Edict of Restitution, a measure enforcing Catholic hegemony over Protestants and fuelling this devastating war raging up and down central Germany. His negotiations with the northern Protestant allies for a more ecumenical vision of Germany became known to the imperial court, and the emperor signed an order for his arrest and return to Vienna, dead or alive.
The final act shines a light on the darker side of the Wild Geese, whose exploits and derring-do we usually view through a sympathetic lens.
For many younger members of the lesser and dispossessed Irish nobility, fighting as a mercenary across Europe was an escape from penury and boredom. Irish mercenaries fought on both sides in the Thirty Years War, their presence and costumes in European wars immortalised in etchings by Albrecht Dürer a century previously.
Among the officers in Wallenstein’s small corps in what is now the Czech town of Cheb were Walter Devereux of Ballymagir in Wexford, and Walter Butler of Ballinakill Castle near Roscrea. Our accounts of their action stem from two main sources, the first a contemporary account by an Irish priest, Thomas Carew, chaplain sequentially to Butler and Devereux in the imperial army.
More vivid is their portrayal in Schiller’s The Death of Wallenstein, one of a trilogy of plays about the general which holds a place in German culture akin to that of Shakespeare’s history plays in English culture.
It is a pity that these dramas are not often staged in the Anglophone world, as they remain gripping, a mix of treachery, romance, action and reflection bringing to mind a sophisticated version of Homeland meeting the West Wing. Butler and Devereux emerge badly, the former as a duplicitous, impetuous and fiery opportunist, the latter as a dull and facile mercenary whose objection to murdering Wallenstein is easily overcome by threatening to offer the task to another mercenary.
The final sequence of events was disheartening. Butler was the commander of the squadron of dragoons supposedly protecting the general, and arranged for Wallenstein’s confidants to be murdered when they were at dinner. Then Devereux and other mercenaries broke into Wallenstein’s bedroom and the Wexford man killed him with a halberd, despite Wallenstein asking for quarter.
Although the emperor had not specifically asked for Wallenstein to be murdered, it is widely regarded by historians to have been his intention, and he awarded riches and honours to the two Irish mercenaries. The benefit to Butler was short-lived as he died of the plague later that year. The command of his regiment passed to Devereux, of whom we know less, although he did not survive to the end of the Thirty Years War.
As we near the anniversary of Wallenstein’s death on February 25th , 1634, one reflection might be on the parallels between this ferocious European sectarian war and the current conflicts in Iraq and Syria.
We might also take the opportunity of rethinking our romantic view of the Wild Geese through the insights of Schiller’s masterpiece.