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Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly ( ) (February 1559 - 30 April 1632), known as the Monk in Armor, was a Field Marshal who commanded the Imperial and Holy Roman Empire's forces in the Thirty Years' War. He had a string of important victories against the Bohemians, Germans and later the Danishmarker, but was then defeated by forces led by the King Gustavus Adolphus of Swedenmarker. Along with Duke Albrecht von Wallenstein of Friedland and Mecklenburg, he was one of two chief commanders of the Holy Roman Empire’s forces.

Early years

Johann Tserclaes was born in February 1559 in Castle Tilly near Nivellesmarker, now in Belgiummarker, then the Spanish Netherlands, (composed of the modern countries of the Netherlandsmarker and Belgium). Johann Tserclaes was born into a Roman Catholic Brabantine family and after receiving a Jesuit education in Cologne, he joined the Spanish army at age fifteen and fought under Alessandro Farnese, Duke of Parma and Piacenza 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 Hungarymarker and Transylvania as a mercenary in 1600 and through rapid promotion became a Field Marshal in only five years.

Campaign in Bohemia

Following this he was appointed commander of the Catholic League forcesby Bavariamarker under Maximilian I, Elector of Bavaria in 1610 and fought against the Bohemian rebels in 1620, by which time he had trained his soldiers in the Spanish Tercio system, which featured musketeers supported by deep ranks of pikemen. With 25,000 soldiers, he moved north and scored an important victory against Frederick V, Elector Palatine at the decisive Battle of White Mountainmarker north of Praguemarker on 8 November 1620, in which half of the enemy forces were killed or captured, losing only 700 men, because his men were so well trained they required only two hours of fighting to break the enemy line. This was vital in crushing resistance to the emperor in Bohemia, as it allowed Prague to be captured several days later.

Campaign in Germany

Next he turned west and marched through Germany, but was defeated at the Battle of Mingolsheimmarker 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, famous from the Italian Wars in Italy at the end of the 15th century), and was victorious at the Battle of Wimpfen against Georg 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 Höchstmarker 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 Heidelbergmarker 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, Johann Tserclaes then fought the Danish at the Battle of Luttermarker on 26–27 August 1626 in which his highly disciplined infantry charged the enemy lines four times whereupon they broke through, leading him to win decisively, and destroying more than half the fleeing Danish army; as was uncharacteristic of warfare of the times. Because of this and other victories by Wallenstein, Denmark was forced to sue for peace at the Treaty of Lübeck, but 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 attempting to dominate the Baltic for the previous ten years in wars with Poland, then a continental power of note.

Sack of Magdeburg

While Adolphus landed his army in Mecklenburg and was in Berlinmarker, trying to make alliances with the leaders of Northern Germany, Johann Tserclaes laid siege to the city of Magdeburgmarker in central Germany on the Elbe River, which promised to support Sweden.

The siege began on 20 March 1631 and he 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 marker to the Swedish, 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 lost control of their soldiers and a massacre of the populace ensued in which 25,000 of the 30,000 inhabitants of the city perished by sword and the fire which destroyed most of the city. The city, then among the major places in Germany and of the size of Cologne or Hamburgmarker, never recovered from this disaster.

This is a highly controversial event in Johann Tserclaes’ career. It still remains unclear how much responsibility he bears for what happened. Many of his enemies quickly blamed him, claiming that the massacre was ordered and used it as justification to enact similar killings. But many historians now see it as unlikely that he ordered the sack. Magdeburg was a strategically vital city of the Elbe River and was needed as a resupply center for the looming fight against the Swedes. Tserclaes was a very 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 proud mayor of Magdeburg rejected any such proposal, expecting the swedish relief force soon. Also the mayor was eager to receive the laurels of heroic resistance for his town, then a star of protestantism.

This would indicate that Tilly was more interested in capturing Madgeburg intact than in slaughtering the inhabitants. However, it must also be remembered that such acts of violence were quite common in the era. Sectarian passions ran deep, and mercenary-swollen army ranks could sometimes not be relied upon to maintain discipline.

Campaign against the Swedish

Following Magdeburg, Johann Tserclaes engaged Gustavus Adolphus at the Battle of Breitenfeldmarker on 17 September 1631, near the city of Leipzigmarker, which Tserclaes had reached by laying waste to Saxonymarker. In the battle he was outmaneuvered by King Gustavus Adolphusand lost 13,000 soldiers in the hard-fought battle. 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 defense. While attempting to prevent the Swedish from crossing into Bavariamarker over the Lech Rivermarker near the city of Rain am Lechmarker, he was wounded by a cannon ball early in the Battle of Rain and died of tetanus fifteen days later in Ingolstadtmarker at the age of 73 on 30 April 1632.

Gustavus sent his own personal physician to tend to his wounds which caused Tilly to tell him, "Your king is truly a noble knight."


A grandson of one of his brothers, Antonio Octavio Tserclaes de Tilly (1646 - 1715) was General of the Spanish Army.

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 Guzman, Perez de Guzman, family, living in Jerez and Sevillamarker, Spainmarker.

Fictional appearances

  • Tilly is mentioned in Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children in the chapter where his funeral is held and where Mother Courage, referring to it, says her famous lines "I don't care if this funeral is historical event, to me the mutilation of my daughter's face is a historical event."

  • Tilly is depicted in First Breitenfeld in the novel 1632

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