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Andreas R. Hofmann, Leipzig


While attempting to drive a wedge in between two armies of the Emperor and the Catholic League, duke Christian of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel (known as the ‘Mad Halberstädter’) was defeated by Johann t’Txerclaes von Tilly, military commander of the League, at the village of Merode near Hersfeld in April, 1626. Christian had to withdraw back into Brunswick territory. On his way, he detached 800 men from Count Solms’ Regiment to occupy the town of Münden. Moreover, he ordered to supply the town with sufficient ammunition as well as lifestock and grain pillaged from the nearby catholic Eichsfeld. Christian himself went on to Wolfenbüttel, where he was to die by mid-June.

Münden is situated at the confluence of the Werra and Fulda Rivers, from where they form the Weser River. Back in 1626, it was a small town of some 2,000 people, being a regional administrative centre and having gained affluence through trade and the staple right. With the other towns in the southern part of Lower Saxony, Münden had been staving off the demands of Danish king Christian IV and his condottiere Halberstadt, trying to stay out of the war and maintain a precarious neutrality.

Thus the occupation force left behind by Christian of Halberstadt was a mixed blessing. The town had to provide quarters and food for those 800 men. Furthermore, the citizenry was very aware that these soldiers in the pay of the Danish king would give Tilly a pretext to lay siege to Münden. Located at the foot of the Weser Hills and the Eastern Hesse Range, protected by obsolete medieval walls only, Münden was unable to withstand any attacking force equipped with siege artillery and decided upon conquering the town. Tilly knew this as well. For in August 1624, when he met Halberstadt’s brother, duke Frederick Ulrich of Brunswick-Lüneburg, in the Münden castle, he used the opportunity to have the town fortifications reconnoitred. Since Christian had been recruiting in Hesse-Cassel, officially a neutral state, and catholic troops had been attacked from Brunswick territory time and again, Tilly had additional excuses to bring the war there.

On May 26th, 1626 old style (i.e. according to the Julian Calendar, still widely used in protestant regions), June 5th new style (according to the Gregorian Calendar), Tilly arrived at Münden with an army of allegedly 24,000 troops. This was presumably the authorised strength, the actual number being more likely in the region of 16,000. He immediately surrounded the town and cut it off from its hinterland. It is not exactly known how many people were still in Münden at this time. Apart from the Danish occupation force of 800, there was supposed to be a town militia of 600, which was, however, badly trained, without discipline and almost certainly understrength. Contemporary accounts suggest that a large part of the population had fled from Münden prior to Tilly’s arrival.

Tilly deployed his eight regiments in three camps around the town: one of these was at Blume, a northern suburb, which had been burnt down by the defenders; the second camp was on the headland formed by the confluence of the Werra and Fulda Rivers; the third one was on Gallows Hill. There, Tilly himself took quarters during the siege. The camp at Blume on the northern bank of the Werra River was commanded by Count Fürstenberg, who was also in charge of the siege artillery.

Sources on the siege and storming of Münden are contradictory; more often than not their bias depends on the chronicler or historian taking sides with the catholics or the protestants. This is why all the known facts are to be treated with caution. Presumably, many details cannot be established any longer with any amount of certainty.

As was the custom, Tilly first sent envoys into the town to demand a surrender. Some catholic sources purport that these envoys were subsequently murdered, but most likely that was a propaganda lie, because in that case Tilly would not have dispatched further envoys later on. The town council, led by the mayor, Christoph von Mengershausen, was well aware of the uselessness of any resistance. Also, a pledge for help had been sent to Göttingen (c. 15 miles from Münden), which went unanswered. Thus it was clear that help would not come and the Münden town council had not choice but to surrender. One Sevis von Lawis (called Lauch in some sources), who commanded the Danish force, then proceeded to intimidate the town and its elders, invoking his alleged oath to the Danish king to defend the place. In reality, Lawis obviously had a personal reason for his behaviour; being a deserter from the Imperial army he had to expect court martial and capital punishment.

So on Whit Sunday, May 28th/ June 7th, Tilly ordered to open fire on the recalcitrant town. After the first bombardment, he again sent a trumpeter, who was again told off bluntly by Lawis and sent back. On Whit Tuesday, May 30th/ June 9th, Tilly ordered Fürstenberg to renew the bombardment with even greater strength. On that day one thousand shots are said to have been fired on Münden. By the evening, in the proximity of the Mill Gate a breach had been made, wide enough to let pass an entire regiment at a time. Between eight und nine o’clock Fürstenberg ordered two regiments to ford the Werra and storm the breach.

The defenders made a stand on St. Aegidius Church Square, then withdraw into Münden castle where the last survivors were cut down. The entire storm lasted just about a quarter of an hour. Knowing the futility of any further resistance, Lawis made his manservant shoot him dead. According to martial law the conquerers were allowed to pillage the town until the next morning. In this time, nearly all the surviving defenders were killed; moreover, most of the civilians, among them numerous women, elderly and children were slaughtered. A group of defenders managed to fire a gun, charged with wheel nails, into the attackers who were already within the town walls, thus kindling their rage even more.

One source tells that only twenty civilians survived the sack of Münden, of the defenders no more than one major and eight other ranks. Estimates are up to 2,500 killed, but this number is almost certainly exaggerated. Numbers given by the town council in a report written in the following year are more convincing: 787 citizens killed, 200 wounded, 70 taken hostage. These numbers surely contain members of the town militia who have to be reckoned among the combattants. Including the 800 men of the Danish force there were about 1,600 people killed on the side of the city; however, to this there has to be added an unknown number of fugitives from the surrounding areas, making a death count of 2,000 to 2,200 more likely. In any case, the town had lost over a third of its population, and casualties would have been even higher if people had not fled before the siege.

Tilly’s own report tells of some 100 soldiers killed during the storming, with a further 300 wounded. Nonetheless, the massacre of the civilian population cannot be explained (let alone justified) by thirst for revenge alone. Later on, different explanations have been given to Tilly’s intentions, e.g. that he wanted to intimidate the other towns of the area by making an example of Münden. Whatever may have been the case, neither Tilly nor other commanders of the time were able or willing to contain atrocities after the storming had been ordered.

The storming of Münden in 1626 is known in the town chronicles as ‘Bloody Whitsun’. It was to be overshadowed by the conquering of Magdeburg in 1631, another story of arson and destruction that Tilly is at least in part responsible for. However, the siege of Münden is in many ways typical of the history of the Thirty Years’ War, characterised by so many tragedies: a huge number of lives and material goods were sacrificed to a militarily unimportant purpose.


Recommended Reading

Klopp, Onno 1861: Tilly im Dreißigjährigen Kriege. Erster Band: bis zur Zeit des Friedensschlusses von Lübeck 1629, Stuttgart: Cotta

Kossert, Thomas 2007: „Zu Münden hab ich so gemaust...“ Die Eroberung der Stadt Münden durch den Grafen Tilly im Jahre 1626, in: Marcus Junkelmann/ Ingrid Gardill (eds.): „Der Du gelehrt hast meine Hände den Krieg“. Tilly ‒ Heiliger oder Kriegsverbrecher? Begleitpublikation zur gleichnamigen Ausstellung des Historischen Vereins Alt-Tilly und des Bayerischen Armeemuseums in Altötting, 1. bis 30. Juli 2007, Altötting: Geiselberger, S. 56‒58; online under URL: http://kossert.net/dateien/dok01.pdf (15.11.2013)

Lotze, Wilhelm 21909: Geschichte der Stadt Münden nebst Umgebung. Mit besonderer Hervorhebung der Begebenheiten des dreißigjährigen und siebenjährigen Krieges, Münden: Verlag des Verfassers, 1878; 2. unv. Aufl. Münden: Klugkist

Opel, Otto Julius 1878: Der niedersächsisch-dänische Krieg. Zweiter Band: Der dänische Krieg 1624‒1626, Magdeburg: Faber

Rill, Bernd 1984: Tilly. Feldherr für Kaiser und Reich, München: Universitas

Willigerod, J[ohann] H[einrich] Z[acharias] 1808: Geschichte von Münden, in vorzüglicher Hinsicht auf Handlung und Schiffahrt, Göttingen: Dieterich

Wilson, Peter H. 2009: Europe’s Tragedy. A History of the Thirty Years War, London: Allen Lane



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