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Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly

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Johann Tserclaes

Count of Tilly
Count Tilly on a portrait
Nickname(s)The Monk in Armor
BornFebruary 1559
Castle Tilly, Duchy of Brabant, Spanish Netherlands, Holy Roman Empire
Died30 April 1632 (aged 73)
Ingolstadt, Electoral Bavaria, Holy Roman Empire
AllegianceSpain Spain
 Holy Roman Empire
Service/branchArmy of Flanders
Army of the Catholic League (German)
Imperial Army (Holy Roman Empire)
Years of service1574–1632
Bronze statue of Count Tilly in the Feldherrnhalle on Odeonsplatz in Munich
Statue of Tilly in Altötting
Statue of Tilly in the hall of fame of the Museum of Military History, Vienna
Portrait of Johann Tserclaes after Nicolaas van der Horst

Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly (Dutch: Johan t'Serclaes Graaf van Tilly; German: Johann t'Serclaes Graf von Tilly; French: Jean t'Serclaes de Tilly ; February 1559 – 30 April 1632) was a field marshal who commanded the Catholic League's forces in the Thirty Years' War. From 1620–31, he had an unmatched and demoralizing string of important victories against the Protestants, including White Mountain, Wimpfen, Höchst, Stadtlohn and the Conquest of the Palatinate. He destroyed a Danish army at Lutter and sacked the Protestant city of Magdeburg, which caused the death of some 20,000 of the city's inhabitants, both defenders and non-combatants, out of a total population of 25,000.

Tilly was then crushed at Breitenfeld in 1631 by the Swedish army of King Gustavus Adolphus. A Swedish arquebus bullet wounded him severely at the Battle of Rain, and he died two weeks later in Ingolstadt. Along with Duke Albrecht von Wallenstein of Friedland and Mecklenburg, he was one of two chief commanders of the Holy Roman Empire’s forces in the first half of the war.

Early years[edit]

Johann Tserclaes was born on February 1559 in Castle Tilly, Walloon Brabant, now in Belgium, then the Spanish Netherlands. Johann Tserclaes was born into a devoutly Catholic Brabantine family; and, after having received a Jesuit education in Cologne, he joined the Spanish Army at age fifteen and fought under Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma in his campaign against the Dutch forces rebelling in the Eighty Years' War and participated in the successful Siege of Antwerp in 1585. After this he joined in the Holy Roman Empire's campaign against the Ottoman Turks in Hungary and Transylvania as a mercenary in 1600 and through rapid promotion became a field marshal in only five years. When the Turkish Wars ended in 1606, he remained in the service of Rudolf II in Prague until he was appointed commander of the Catholic League forces by Bavaria under Maximilian I, Duke of Bavaria in 1610.[1]

Campaign in Bohemia[edit]

As commander of the forces of the Catholic League he fought against the Bohemian rebels following the Defenestration of Prague, by which time he had trained his soldiers in the Spanish Tercio system, which featured musketeers supported by deep ranks of pikemen. A force of 25,000 soldiers, including troops of both the Catholic League and the Emperor scored an important victory against Christian of Anhalt and Count Thurn at the decisive Battle of White Mountain west of Prague on 8 November 1620. Half of the enemy forces were killed or captured, while the Catholic League lost only 700 men. This victory was vital in crushing resistance to the Emperor in Bohemia, as it allowed Prague to be captured several days later.[2]

Campaign in Germany[edit]

Next he turned west and marched through Germany, but was defeated at the Battle of Mingolsheim on 27 April 1622. He then joined with the Spanish general Duke Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba – not to be confused with the famous Spanish general of the same name from the Italian Wars in Italy at the end of the 15th century – and was victorious at the Battle of Wimpfen against George Fredrick, Margrave of Baden-Durlach on 6 May; this victory occurred after the enemies’ ammunition tumbril was hit by cannon fire and exploded.

He was successful again at the Battle of Höchst on 20 June and was made a count (Graf in German) for this victory. These three battles in two months allowed him to capture the city of Heidelberg following an eleven-week siege on 19 September. Christian the Younger of Brunswick, whom he had already defeated at Höchst, raised another army, but again lost to him at the Battle of Stadtlohn, where 13,000 out of his army of 15,000 were lost, including fifty of his high-ranking officers. Together with the complete surrender of Bohemia in 1623, this ended virtually all resistance in Germany. This caused King Christian IV of Denmark to enter the Thirty Years' War in 1625 to protect Protestantism, and also in a bid to make himself the primary leader of Northern Europe. Count Tilly besieged and captured Münden on 30 May 1626, whereupon local and refugee Protestant ministers were thrown into the river Werra, but could not lay a siege to Kassel.[3]

Tilly fought the Danes at the Battle of Lutter on 26–27 August 1626, in which his highly disciplined infantry charged the enemy lines four times, breaking through. This led him to win decisively, destroying [clarification needed] more than half the fleeing Danish army, which was uncharacteristic of the warfare of the time. Denmark was forced to sue for peace at the Treaty of Lübeck. This disrupted the balance of power in Europe resulting in Swedish involvement in 1630 under their redoubtable leader, the brilliant King and field general Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, who had been trying to dominate the Baltic for the previous ten years in wars with Poland, then a continental power of note.[2]

Sack of Magdeburg[edit]

While Gustavus Adolphus landed his army in Mecklenburg and was in Berlin, trying to make alliances with the leaders of Northern Germany, Tilly laid siege to the city of Magdeburg on the Elbe, which promised to support Sweden. The siege began on 20 March 1631 and Tilly put his subordinate Gottfried Heinrich Graf zu Pappenheim in command while he campaigned elsewhere. After two months of laying siege, and after the fall of Frankfurt an der Oder to the Swedes, Pappenheim finally convinced Tilly, who had brought reinforcements, to storm the city on 20 May with 40,000 men under the personal command of Pappenheim. The assault was successful and the walls were breached, but the commanders supposedly lost control of their soldiers. A massacre of the populace ensued in which roughly 20,000 of the 25,000 inhabitants of the city perished by sword and the fire which destroyed most of the city, then one of the largest cities in Germany and about the size of Cologne or Hamburg.

Many historians consider it unlikely that he ordered the city torched. Magdeburg was a strategically vital city of the Elbe and was needed as a resupply center for the looming fight against the Swedes. Although extremely opposed to the Reformation movement, Tilly was an experienced commander and would have recognized the strategic importance of the city. Additionally, he sent a proposal of surrender to Magdeburg days before the final assault, after the capture of the Toll redoubt. However, the city's mayor rejected the offer, expecting a Swedish relief force to arrive soon. When the slaughter began, and no escape was possible, the children of the city were formed in procession and marched across the marketplace singing Luther's hymn Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort whose opening verse translates as "Lord keep us steadfast in thy Word, Curb Pope and Turk who by the sword, would wrest the kingdom from thy Son, and set at naught all he hath done." The children were slain without mercy, but whether by order from Tilly or not remains debated in some quarters.[4] Tilly afterwards reportedly wrote to the Emperor,

Never was such a victory since the storming of Troy or of Jerusalem. I am sorry that you and the ladies of the court were not there to enjoy the spectacle.[5]

Campaign against the Swedes and death[edit]

Following Magdeburg, Tilly engaged the army of Gustavus Adolphus at the Battle of Breitenfeld on 17 September 1631, near the city of Leipzig, which he had reached after laying waste to Saxony. In the battle he was outmaneuvered by King Gustavus Adolphus and suffered 27,000 casualties. The Swedes’ maneuvering and accurate, rapid artillery fire caused his troops to break and flee. He withdrew, and political rivalries prevented Wallenstein from coming to his aid, so he turned to defence. He defeated the Swedes at Bamberg on 9 March 1632. While attempting to prevent the Swedes from crossing into Bavaria over the Lech near Rain am Lech, he was wounded early in the Battle of Rain on 15 April by a 90-gram arquebus bullet[6] (not, as erroneously reported, by a culverin cannon ball), which shattered his right thigh, and died of osteomyelitis (bone infection) fifteen days later in Ingolstadt at the age of 73 on 30 April 1632. His tomb is in Altötting, Upper Bavaria.[1]


Fraternal descendants include Antonio Octavio Tserclaes de Tilly (1646–1715) and Claude Frédéric t'Serclaes, Count of Tilly (1648-1723). Antonio was a general and nobleman in service of Spain, while his younger brother Claude fought in service of the army of the Dutch Republic. A sister or daughter, Albertina, of this Prince Antonio Octavio, would be the first root for the Spanish ducal title, Dukes of Tserclaes, bestowed in July 1856 by Queen Isabella II of Spain to members of the Pérez de Guzmán family, living in Jerez and Seville, Spain.[citation needed]

Fictional appearances[edit]

  • Tilly is mentioned in Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children: in the scene in which his funeral is held, Mother Courage famously says "I don't care if this funeral is a historical event, to me the mutilation of my daughter's face is a historical event."
  • Tilly and the sack of Magdeburg are mentioned in the novel The Hangman's Daughter.
  • Tilly is depicted in First Breitenfeld and in the Battle of Rain in the novel 1632.


  1. ^ a b Chisholm 1911.
  2. ^ a b Spahn 1913.
  3. ^ Willigerod, Geschichte von Münden (Göttingen, 1808).
  4. ^ C. L. Herm Fick (1854). "Die Magdeburger Schulkinder". Die Märtyrer der Evangelisch-Lutherischen Kirche, Volume 1. p. 144.
  5. ^ Samuel Gardiner; Charles Horne (1919). "The "Defeenestration" at Prague, The Thirty Years War". In Johnson, Rossiter (ed.). The Great Events by Famous Historians, vol XI, A.D. 1609-1660. The National Alumni. p. 72.
  6. ^ In his work Magnus Tillius Redivivus (1632), the Jesuit priest Jakob Balde incorrectly reported that a "one-pound cannon ball [...] from a Swedish gun, a so-called Falken", by which he means a culverin, caused the injury. However, in a letter dated 15 April 1632, Elector Maximilian I correctly stated that Tilly had his thigh "shot into two pieces with an arquebus." (Albert Beierlein: Die Schlacht bei Rain am Lech 14. und 15. April 1632, page 50 in Reichenau (ed.): Schlachtfelder zwischen Alpen und Main, Munich 1938). An examination of the skeleton during a Tilly exhibition in Altötting in 2007 confirmed the arquebus wounding. The ultimately deadly 90-gram bullet had been laid in the coffin with the corpse, but was apparently lost during the Second World War. Cf. Marcus Junkelmann, Historical Association Alt-Tilly, et al. Der du gelehrt hast meine Hände den Krieg: Tilly – Heiliger oder Kriegsverbrecher?, Altötting 2007 (publication accompanying the exhibition by the Historical Association Alt-Tilly and the Bavarian Army Museum in Altötting, 1 May to 30 July 2007) page 38; Bericht des Jesuitenpaters Jakob Balde, page 96; commentary on Fig. 59 (photograph of the skeleton's shattered thigh) page 173.


External links[edit]

Titles of nobility
New title Count of Tilly
1622 - 1632
Succeeded by