The Iron Princess: Amalia Elisabeth and the Thirty Years War.
Imagine the Thirty Years' War has been going on for over fifteen years and you are a territorial sovereign in rebellion against the empire. You are Landgravine Amalia Elisabeth, the widow and regent of a small territory in Protestant Germany, and the Catholic imperial army has just issued the 1635 Peace of Prague as an attempt to end the war in Vienna's favor. Your territory, Hesse-Cassel (or Hessen-Kassel), is divided by two rival hereditary lines, and while your line is firmly Reformed or Calvinist, Hesse-Darmstadt is led by a Lutheran faction eager to make peace with the Holy Roman Empire. As a Calvinist ruler you have no legal right in the imperial courts' eyes to worship as you please. You have a young son as the future landgrave, but as a female and regent you are vulnerable to a coup. Your privy council and estates usually oppose you. Militarily, much of your land is occupied by imperial troops and your main allies, Sweden and France, can hardly be trusted.
In spite of this going against Amalia Elisabeth, she rose above it all and thrived. This narrative is part of the rich history of the life and times of Landgravine Amalia Elisabeth of Hesse-Cassel, told very compelling by Tryntje Helfferich in her book The Iron Princess: Amalia Elisabeth and the Thirty Years War. Helfferich tells the remarkable story of how this woman managed to survive the war, rule well, keep and even increase her land holdings, pacify her estates, and play a decisive role in the Peace of Westphalia's legal recognition of the Reformed faith in the empire.
The book is mostly a biography of Amalia Elisabeth from the time of her husband Wilhelm V's death in 1637 until the Westphalian peace in 1648 and its German-based aftermath. The author explains the Lutheran-Calvinist split in Hesse and the Cassel-Darmstadt turf battles. The reader receives a careful history of one territory during the seventeenth century, especially in terms of the tensions between the rival Hessian dynastic lines and between the sovereign and the local estates. Telling either story well is hard, but she told both very well.
Helfferich also clearly explains the multifaceted political history of the Europe-wide war itself, such as the sometimes helpful and sometimes meddling situation of Sweden in the northern areas, the French motivations along the Rhine (partly occupied by Amalia Elisabeth's forces), the Dutch interest in Hesse-Cassel's Calvinism, the role other Calvinist regions played in the war (such as the Palatinate), and the emperors' (Ferdinands II and III) own concerns. Surveys exist that present the overall story, but, as Helfferich states in the Introduction, none of them are comprehensive. It is just too big. Scholars must narrow their focus, she says, and focus locally, and pivot from local to imperial to European issues when necessary. This book accomplishes that goal.
The thesis of the book is that Amalia Elisabeth was a politically-savvy, deeply pious, manipulative, and strong woman who, despite the odds against her, worked the political system to her advantages and obtained nearly everything she wanted for her beloved children, her land of Hesse-Cassel, and her deeply-held Reformed faith. As other sovereigns capitulated to the empire when it looked bad for the Protestants (Saxony's John George is one foil in the book), Amalia Elisabeth stood firm. She refused to soften her Reformed theology and align her Calvinist faith with the 1530 Augsburg Confession and the pro-Lutheran 1555 Religious Peace of Augsburg (still recognized by the empire as legally binding), which might have been an easier route to confessional recognition by the empire. It was all or nothing for Amalia Elisabeth.
Gender-specific issues arise only a few times (mostly by her rival Georg II of Hesse-Darmstadt, who kept calling her stupid and weak). This is not a book on gender roles but rather treats gender issues as a proper category of analysis.
Here is one example of the leadership of Amalia Elisabeth: Imperial troops invaded, occupied, and quartered themselves in much of Hesse-Cassel, and she and her children fled out of the territory. Poverty was rampant. Her estates were nervous and wanted peace with the imperial army. Georg II of Hesse-Darmstadt had already promised to comply with the empire's demands in exchange for peace. Amalia Elisabeth, however, from exile in East Frisia, took advantage of military victories by her army in Westphalia and the Rhineland to win support from the French (who coveted this region), and promises of huge financial support, to make Vienna nervous enough to eventually compromise on nearly all of its demands for Hesse-Cassel. Amalia Elisabeth used contributions on occupied land and real and imagined subsidies from the French to pay the army and pacify the estates, and used the threat of larger French and Swedish invasions to compel Vienna to give her what she wanted. She negotiated, threatened, and temporized, and came out on top nearly every time.
Is the story a hagiography of Amalia Elisabeth? It does not read that way. Helfferich points out the landgravine's more "Machiavellian" moments, also. The Iron Princess is an exemplary study of one territory and its female regent during a tumultuous time in its history, and from which students of the early modem German history can benefit.
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|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2014|
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