Freiburg's History for Pedestrians










The Elector of Palatine



The Thirty Years' War


Ever since the burning of the Czech reformer Jan Hus at the Konstanz Church Council in 1415 Bohemia is like a barrel of powder filled with an explosive mixture of nationalism and religious passion. No wonder that the real trouble starts in Prague where the Bohemians are quarrelling with the Habsburgs over religious and national matters. To calm down this early movement for Czech independence Emperor Rudolf II chooses the lesser evil in guaranteeing free practice of the Protestant religion in Bohemia. However, Rudolf's ambitious younger brother Matthias considers this a weakness. He manages to oust Rudolf in 1612 and starts a rigorous Counter Reformation in all Austrian provinces. This leads to the well known Defenestration of two Imperial envoys and their clerk in Prague in 1618.



Defenestration of Prague


When one year later Matthias dies his cousin Archduke Ferdinand follows on the throne only to force the Counter Reformation further. In a desperate move the Bohemian Estates choose the Elector of Palatine and leader of the Protestant Union as their King. This means war. In the famous battle on the White Mountain the Protestant army is beaten. Thus Frederick of Palatine was king for only one winter. In a follow-up of the defeat the Habsburgs make an example in eradicating Bohemia's nobility in streams of blood with the result that this violence only generates more violence.



Freiburg is not Touched by the War until 1632


Freiburg is far away. Nevertheless the people are aware that some dramatic development is going on in the Eastern provinces of the Habsburg Empire. In the Münster the citizens not only remember their beloved Archduke Maximilian (a younger brother of Rudolf and Matthias) when he died an unexplained sudden death in 1618 but also pray that the Bohemian unrest may not develop into war. That however had already started. As usual in those days a meteor announced all the evil.


For years the intensive prayers prove efficient. War rages in the northern and eastern parts of Germany but does not reach Freiburg. In order to promote the Counter Reformation and strengthen the education in the Catholic faith the Jesuits take over Freiburg's University in 1620 to counterbalance the influence of those strongholds of Protestantism nearby, i. e., the Universities of Heidelberg, Basel and Tübingen.



























Johannes Tzerklas

 Graf von Tilly

 Statue in the Hall of Fame in Munich



























Bernhard of



Jan van Werth
on a German stamp





















Franz von Mercy





Maximilian of Bavaria



The Swedes ante portas


When however in 1631 Field Marshal Tilly of the Imperial Forces lost the Battle of Breitenfeld against the Swedes southern Germany is at the mercy of the victorious army. On Christmas of 1632 General Gustaf Horn arrives with his Swedish troops. He starts the siege of Freiburg in plundering and burning the monasteries that are situated outside the city walls. The following bombardment of the city is so effective that the gates open five days later. Professors and students of the Jesuit University flee in fear of the Protestants while the citizens suffer the usual atrocities of war. Soon however the situation calms down and even mixed marriages are celebrated. In spring 1633 a Bohemian nobleman and officer in the Swedish army Friedrich Ludwig Kanoffski von Langendorf marries the daughter Anna Jolantha Stump of a Freiburg nobleman. Their honeymoon, however, is of only short duration when at the end of the same year a Spanish army with 16,000 men under the command of the Duke of Feria marches on to the city.


The Swedes hastily leave Freiburg. Although the arriving Spaniards carry the right prayer-book the city suffers terribly as the liberators are too many. There is not enough food neither for the men nor for their horses. It is cold and all wooden stuff not nailed or screwed down is burned including fruit trees and grapevines, a heavy blow to the city's future supply with fruit and wine.



After the Spaniards the Swedes again


Already the following year the Swedes come back. Again the city being without food and disposing of only a few poorly armed and badly trained soldiers cannot organize an effective defense. The Swedish occupation however is of only short duration because the troops leave Freiburg in a hurry when their army suffered a crushing defeat in the Battle of Nördlingen. However it really makes no difference for Freiburg as now the Catholic troops of Charles of Lorraine roam the country in search for food, wine, and women.



The German Peace of 1635


The Swedish defeat causes panic among the Protestants. In view of the military situation they fear that the House of Habsburg might eventually impose the Catholic religion upon them. Emperor Ferdinand II tired of war takes advantage of the favorable situation but instead of humiliating the Protestants he rather manages in 1634 a Peace Copulation* between him and the leader of the Protestants the Elector Johann Georg of Saxony. This is the so called German Peace concluded in Prague. Should end well in the Golden City what started there sixteen years ago?

* Honi soit qui mal y pense: The Latin word copulatio in the old days and still in 1635 had according to the dictionary only the meaning of chain, tying, knotting, linking and close association.


This German Peace is not at all to the liking of the Bourbons who still have to settle an old score with the Habsburgs. They also take advantage of the situation and so France la fille ainée de l'Eglise supports the frail Swedes not only like in the past with money but enters into combat with fresh troops. Eventually the veil is lifted, the prayer-book serves no longer as a pretext. However for his planned military operations n the Habsburg territories Cardinal Richelieu needs a competent general possibly German speaking.



Bernhard of Saxon-Weimar


 In 1631 the Swedes grant to their ally Bernard of Sax-Weimar a territory combining the previous Catholic bishoprics of Bamberg and Würzburg. However, as a consequence of the Battle of Nördlingen Bernhard loses his Franconian Duchy. Estimating the Duke's experience as a general and knowing his hunger for land Bernhard Lackland is the Cardinal's ideal choice. In the Treaty of St. Germain Richelieu transfers to him the Alsace, a Habsburg possession, in 1635 . This dowry makes Bernard a loyal French ally. With an army of 18,000 men paid by France he immediately starts to enlarge his, as he calls it, Imperial Principality on the right banks of the Rhine. Soon the cities of Säckingen, Waldshut, Rheinfelden and Laufenburg belong to him.


Freiburg is afraid to be next on his list and calls the experienced Imperial General of the Cavalry Jan von Werth for help. Until 1638 Jan's operations against the Weimarian forces are successful but when Bernhard inflicts a crushing defeat to the Imperial troops in 1638 the Duke appears ante portas. On God Friday he takes Freiburg's suburbs in a lightning attack. Vienna is far away and a call for military help is hopeless. The well known Kanoffski is among the besiegers and sends a peasant into the city to pass on the message that he wants to eat Freiburg Cookies* soon. After eleven days of intensive bombardment the city surrenders. Kanoffski not only gets his homemade cookies but in addition Bernhard appoints him City Commander.

*Scientists still have not found out what Kanoffski meant by Freiburger Küchle



The Atrocious End of the Breisach Fortress


Bernard's next target is the Imperial fortress of Breisach. This really is a strong place for during the whole war the city had always been in the hands of Imperial forces. To build up an effective siege Bernard demands the Freiburg's City Council for help with the civil engineering work. A delegation from Freiburg lead by Kanoffski sees Bernard but instead of consenting support the delegation rather complains about plundering, robbery and arson committed by the Bernard's troops. The Duke flies into rage shouting and calling his visitors names in an interesting mixture of German, French and Latin.


It is not known whether Freiburg's help would have considerably shortened the siege. It takes Bernhard eight months before Breisach opens its gates. Of the 4000 inhabitants only 200 survived who at the end were fighting among themselves for the few rats left over as their only food. Richelieu is full of joy: Brisach est à nous.* Bernhard however proclaims Breisach as capital of a Royal Saxon Government. To mark the festivities Freiburg has to ring all the church bells until the clapper of the biggest bell brakes into pieces.

*Breisach belongs to us


Bernhard's sudden death one year later gave rise to a hotbed of rumors. Friedrich Schiller in his History of the Thirty Years War assumes the Duke had been poisoned. In spite of his last will and testament France annexes all of Bernhard's territories. Kanoffski too is against French predominance but in vain: After having paid tribute to the Swedish Queen, and later taken oath on the Royal Saxon Government, in 1642 Freiburg eventually has to proclaim its loyalty to Louis XIII, King of France.



The Battle of Freiburg I


Meanwhile preliminary talks for a peace settlement had started in Osnabrück but for many rulers the war is far from being over as they hastily try to improve their territorial positions. In 1644 the Bavarian General Franz von Mercy together with an army 10,000 musketeers and about the same number of horsemen under the command of Jan von Werth marches westward. With this advance Elector Maximilian of Bavaria would like to prevent further Protestant invasions of his territories. In view of the upcoming danger Commander Kanoffski prepares Freiburg for its defense cleaning the city's field of fire. On the order of the Royal Saxon Government in Breisach he has Freiburg's suburbs burned and all buildings located outside the wall pulverized.


Mercy starts Freiburg's siege in June. Soon the city runs out of provisions. Occasional sorties to improve the situation are unsuccessful as Jan's cavalry drives Kanoffski's troops back into the city walls. Losses among the civilians are high as citizens are forced to help the defenders in the front line handling ammunition and filling breaches. However all efforts are in vain. Freiburg surrenders to Mercy the end of July. Kanoffsky is allowed to retire under honorable conditions with his remaining 1000 men to Fort Breisach with the band playing, flying colors, glowing fuses and bullets in their mouths*. 

*I. e., the retiring men are ready for action. With both hands busy when charging their muzzle-loader with gunpowder soldiers used to keep the bullet in their mouth for the lead had to enter the gun barrel last. In olden days all fighting men eventually died of lead either in action or through poisoning. 




 Marshal of France






































Prince de Condé





Cardinal Mazarin






















































































Stonemasons' sign of Freiburg's Münster
on Schlosscafé 

The Battle of Freiburg II


Meanwhile French-Weimarian troops, about 10,000 men, are camping on the Batzenberg near Pfaffenweiler within sight of Freiburg. This Armée de l'Allemagne is under the command of Turenne, Marshal of France. Although knowing that Kanoffski is under pressure Turenne avoids attacking the Bavarian circumvallation around Freiburg. Being prudent he prefers waiting for reinforcement by the Prince de Condé and his Armée de France. When in the beginning of August Condé eventually arrives with his men Freiburg was already lost.


The combined French forces start their operations in the morning of August 4, from two directions trying to encircle the Bavarian army. Mercy however avoids the trap in retiring his troops to the Slierberg and the adjacent Wonnhalde. There he orders his men to dig trenches anticipating an enemy attack. The Bavarians are really lucky when a cold rain moves in: while they can finish their muddy trenches the French musketeers cannot keep their gunpowder dry.




The following morning under clear skies Condé again tries to fool the enemy by attacking the Bavarian fortifications on the Slierberg with his advance guard only. In the meantime Turenne approaches Mercy's positions on the Wonnhalde with his Armée de l'Allemagne.  However his move ends in a disaster as the Bavarians not only hold position but even start a counter attack that only Condé's personal intervention can stop. During that morning battle the French lose 1100 men, the Bavarians only 300.


 Demoralized the Armée de l'Allemagne is only useful as flank protection when in the afternoon of the same day Condé starts the main attack on the Slierberg. Again and again the French infantry runs up the hill only to perish in the fire of the Bavarian artillery. Shouting encore mille* Condé personally drives his men into death. During the fourth attack the French troops eventually reach the Bavarian trenches. Franz von Mercy's brother Caspar notes the deadly thread and orders his horsemen to dismount and support their hard pressed comrades using their sabers. In the following turmoil Jan van Werth only loses his horse but Caspar von Mercy his life.

*another thousand


Ignoring the approaching night Condé immediately launches a fifth attack. Desperately Mercy makes a vow: Holy Virgin I shall have built a chapel to Your honor on this very mountain should I succeed in repulsing the enemy. And the people of Freiburg watching the battle from the city have a vision: Mary hovering over the gun smoke in the light of the muzzle flashes catching the French canon balls with her blue coat. Demoralized the French army retires under the cover of darkness.


During the battle the Bavarians lose 1100 men mostly injured but Condé slaughters 6000 of his troops. When Cardinal Mazarin hears about the losses of the Armée de France he weeps but Condé only answers: One night in Paris gives live to more people than this action has killed. Jan van Werth commented: In twenty-two years of my bloody trade I have never seen such a slaughter.



Longing for Peace


After five sieges in 16 years with hunger and diseases Freiburg's population is reduced from 14,000 to a mere 2000. The few remaining citizens are longing for a lasting peace when in 1648 on the orders of Cardinal Mazarin and without any warning Breisach's commander General von Erlach approaches Freiburg with an army. Mazarin wants to force the city under French rule again in view of improving France's position at the peace talks in the cities of Münster and Osnabrück. The weather however has mercy with the poor people as the projected siege drowns in rain and sticks in mud.


When the news of the signature of the Westphalian Peace Treaty eventually reaches Freiburg the oldest and mightiest bell of the Münster, the Hosanna of 1258, sounds its message: O King of Glory come and bring us peace. When my deep voice rings out, help thy people, Mary. Go to Münsterplatz on a Friday at 11 a. m. and listen to Hosanna's exhortation for peace.


The Peace Treaty of Münster and Osnabrück presents a disaster for Germany. The Empire is only a shadow of its former self. The Netherlands and Switzerland become independent. Emperor Ferdinand retains the Breisgau with Freiburg but loses Fort Breisach and all his possessions on the left bank of the Rhine to France although the Imperial Cities in the Alsace and Sundgau are supposed to keep their independence. The French envoy to the Peace Conference writes to his King: Sire, one has to be content that everybody explains the Treaty as he understands it. Sweden gets Pomerania and the former bishoprics of Verden and Bremen. What remains of the Empire is split into nearly 300 single territories and thus becomes ungovernable. Cities and villages are in ruins with the German population reduced to half of what it used to be before the war. The religious question still divides the Empire and the only remaining common trait among the people their German language is spoiled due to the many nationalities that had left their marks fighting and dying on German territory.


 Central Europe after the Westphalian Peace Treaty of 1648. Note the many territories colored in violet belonging to Catholic archbishops.



The Loretto Chapel


What happened to Mercy's vow? Only in 1557 the Master of Freiburg's Merchant's Guild Christian Mang has built a chapel on the Slierberg modeled on the church in Loreto, Italy. The legend says that in 1294 angels had moved St. Mary's Home the casa sancta from the Holy Land to the city of Loreto around which the faithful erected a magnificent church. The Loretto Chapel on Slierberg now rather called Lorettoberg actually consists of three separate rooms. The exterior ones are consecrated to St. Joseph and Mary's mother St. Anna respectively, whilst the central room is devoted to the Mother of Christ.



Louis, le Roi Soleil
Frederick the Great





For a visit take streetcar number 3 to Vauban or 5 to Rieselfeld. Get off at Reiterstraße and walk down the street to Johann-von-Weerth-Straße. Turn left and walk up to Lorettostraße where you turn left again. Cross the street at Mercystraße. There at the small fountain turn right and follow the small foot path up the hill that will carry you directly to the Lorettokapelle. Watch out for stonemasons' signs as on your left hand side the original quarry for the Münster was located. After the physical effort enjoy your coffee and cake at the terrace of the Schlosscafé next to the Chapel.


This page was last updated on 22 June, 2022