Vlotho: A Bridge Too Far

Nadine Akkerman

A little-known clash in mainland Europe had ramifications for the English Civil War years later.
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When it comes to a battle, size does not always correlate with importance, nor is it necessarily won or lost entirely on the day itself. A small but significant action that may also have influenced another, later engagement occurred outside the town of Lemgo in 1638. While it only saw the defeat of a force of some 5,000 men under the command of Charles Louis, son of the late Frederick V, Elector Palatine, and Elizabeth Stuart, sometime King and Queen of Bohemia, it marked the end of the deposed queen’s personal campaign to regain the Palatinate, and may also have affected the outcome of the Battle of Marston Moor, six years later.

Heidelberg Castle, prize of the Palatinate

Elizabeth was not the spendthrift history makes her out to be, and was in fact extremely skilled at keeping up appearances while not exhausting her own funds; her late husband had invested their money carefully. Maintaining financial independence from her brother King Charles I was vital to her ongoing campaign to regain the lands and titles lost to Spain and Bavaria in the 1620s. By 1638, desperate to find an army for her son Charles Louis, she was presented with what appeared to be a relatively risk-free opportunity to do so. Her patience exhausted, she decided to finally commit her own money. True to her motto ‘tout ou rien’, she put all her eggs in the one basket, and bought the town of Meppen.

Meppen was the perfect place to billet Charles Louis’s new force, and came with enough weaponry to equip it, too. What was more, it was worth some £10,500 in annual revenues, which made the £9,500 Elizabeth paid for it (including a generous gift of £5,000 from her friend Lord Craven), something of a bargain. The purchase has always been assumed to have been made with ‘English gold’, but an account book I ‘rediscovered’ at the Geheimes Hausarchiv (literally ‘the secret house archive’) in Munich plainly shows that Elizabeth not only stumped up half of the initial costs, but also the remaining £20,000 it took to make the army battle-worthy. Arguably, this was her last throw of the dice.

Though it sounds strange to give one’s 20-year old son an army of 4,000 men, neither he nor his 18-year old brother Prince Rupert lacked military experience, and the Swedish commander Johan Banér contributed a further 1,000 men under the command of the highly experienced Scot Lt-General James King and the German Hans Christoff von Königsmarck. The plan was simple. Charles Louis’s men were to meet with the Swedish contingent, advance to the Palatinate via Hesse, and retake his ancestral lands by force. Banér, however, wanted them to first lay siege to the minor fortress of Lemgo, as it held strategic value for the Swedes regardless of what might happen thereafter in the Palatinate. King, who had been appointed governor of Lemgo in 1632, was suitably minded to persuade Charles Louis to change his plans accordingly.

When a large force of Imperial troops appeared intent on relieving Lemgo, they abandoned the siege and made for the nearby Swedish fortress of Minden. The cavalry-rich Imperial force, however, was faster and more mobile, and gave chase, cutting Charles Louis’s men off near Vlotho bridge. What followed was nothing less than catastrophe. Diplomat Sir Thomas Roe told Elizabeth that ‘neuer greater vertue, and valour is recorded in any historye; and all impartiall penns doe celebrate, the renowned of two so braue Princes’, when reporting the heroic deeds of Rupert and Charles Louis, but no amount of valour could save the day. Elizabeth’s army was shattered. To make matters worse, Craven and Rupert were taken prisoner. The battle had gone awry not merely because of the disparity in numbers, but because on first contact with the Imperial forces, the Palatine/Swedish forces were not in battle array. King rode to the rear of the column to gather up the infantry, expecting the cavalry to hold off their attack. Königsmarck, however, had other ideas, and by the time King returned much of the Palatine cavalry was trapped by the Imperial forces. It was all that King could do to extract Charles Louis and his remaining troops. Opinions, naturally, differed as to who was at fault, with King blaming Rupert’s impetuosity during the battle, even though his action had almost turned the tide, and Rupert in turn blaming King’s conservative approach. King subsequently found himself facing an accusation of treason, something he vehemently denied, and of which he was soon cleared.

Rupert of the Rhine, by van Dyck.

The battle of Vlotho exhausted Elizabeth’s financial reserves, and, with her favourite son now in the hands of the Emperor (with whom he spent much of his time playing tennis and painting), and Meppen itself having fallen to Imperial forces, her campaign to regain the Palatinate by force was all but over. Rupert did gain one benefit from his three years of incarceration, namely his most famous companion, Boye, a hunting poodle. Boye would later fight beside his master as Rupert made his name as a buccaneering cavalryman during the Civil wars in England. It would be six years before Rupert tasted another defeat, and this, the Battle of Marston Moor, was even more catastrophic than Vlotho.

It is invariably difficult to pinpoint a single reason that causes a particular battle to be won or lost, but when the Royalist army under the command of Rupert was soundly beaten by the allied parliamentary forces under Alexander Leslie, Lord Leven, at Marston Moor in 1644, it appears that the animus remaining between Rupert and King, now Lord Eythin, played its part.

One of the more commonly cited reasons for this animus was the much-reported late arrival of troops under King’s, i.e. Eythin’s, command, which some sources suggest prevented Rupert from seizing the initiative as he had desired. Either Eythin’s tardiness or Eythin himself is then supposed to have persuaded Rupert that the day’s action was done, leading to his standing down to take supper. Leven, spotting this relaxation of the Royalist line, attacked.

Whether or not Rupert was upset by Eythin’s alleged tardiness or whether he simply wanted to show him who was boss, his placing of such an experienced cavalryman in charge of the infantry in the centre rather than of cavalry on one of the wings was a serious misjudgement that contributed greatly to the defeat. Rupert, instead, put the cavalry not under his own command under that of George Goring, an infantry commander. After initial success, sweeping aside the Earl of Manchester’s troops, Goring failed to press home his advantage, and lost control of his men who headed straight for the baggage train. This mistake unbalanced the royalist lines, and eventually allowed for Leven to prevail. Eythin would not have made such a tactical error. This, ultimately, was what led to Rupert’s cavalry retreating through the lines of Eythin’s infantry, leaving them exposed and unprotected. Eythin was left with no option but to withdraw, and the battle was all but over. Rupert barely escaped the field with his life, and, to make matters worse, Boye was one of the day’s casualties.

Ultimately, it was Rupert’s mismanagement of his forces that decided the battle, and these may well have been influenced by his longstanding dislike of Eythin, the man he held responsible for his three-year imprisonment at the Emperor’s pleasure. What followed was a virtual carbon copy of the recriminations that had followed Vlotho: Rupert blamed Eythin, accusing him of treason, while Eythin blamed Rupert’s ill-discipline. The Battle of Vlotho did much more than end Elizabeth’s campaign to regain the Palatinate, it also drove a large nail in the coffin of her brother’s attempt to hold onto his kingdoms.

Nadine Akkerman is the author of Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Hearts, published by Oxford University Press.

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