The Thirty Years War

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Dame Veronica Wedgwood sketches the profile of Awesome Adolphus, King of Sweden, Lion of the North and the scourge of Emperor Ferdinand at the height of the War:

On July 4th, 1630, the King of Sweden landed at Usedom. Stepping from the ship down the narrow gangway, he stumbled and slightly injured his knee, an incident which contemporary historians, with a fine sense of the dramatic, instantly converted into a deliberate act; the Protestant hero, as soon as his foot touched the land, had fallen upon his knees to ask the blessing of God on his just cause. The legend embodies at least a poetic truth, for whatever the forces behind the King of Sweden, his personal belief in his mission never faltered.

At the time of his landing, Gustavus Adolphus was thirty-six years old. Tall, but broad in proportion so that his height seemed less, fair, florid, his pointed beard and short hair were of a tawny colouring, so that Italian soldiers of fortune called him 'il re d'oro,' and his more usual sobriquet 'the Lion of the North,' gained an additional meaning. Coarsely made and immensely strong, he was slow and rather clumsy in movement, but he could swing a spade or pick-axe with any sapper in his army. In contrast his skin, where it was not tanned by the weather, was white as a girl's. He held himself erect, a King in every gesture, no matter to what task he lent himself. As the years went by, he stopped a little forward from the neck, contracting his short-sighted light blue eyes.
The King's appetites were hearty and his dress simple; he wore for preference the buff coat and beaver hat of a soldier, relieved only by a scarlet sash or cloak. He could look as well in the ballroom as in the camp, but he did not on that account evade the toils of campaigning; he would sweat and starve, freeze and thirst with his men, and had stayed fifteen hours at a stretch in the saddle. Blood and filth mattered nothing to him--the kingly boots had waded ankle-deep in both.

This is straight fire--and Wedgewood pours it on through the entire book. Take this for whatever it's worth but she writes better than any historian I've ever read. Like all of my favorite writers she paints in all colors. For the German bluesman Ernst Von Mansfeld she turns a phrase--"The world was his oyster, and the sword the best tool to open it." 

For Adolphus in love, fresh off his victory at Breitenfeld, heroic to the Protestants of Europe, there is romance:

The King's name was spoken from end to end of Germany with joy and fear; he was prayed for in a thousand churches known to great and small by a hundred names, the Golden King, the Lion of the North, biblically as Elias, as Gideon, as the Lion from Midnight. In the winter, his Queen was expected and in her honor he had the initial letters of her name, Marie Eleanore Regina, traced in the brickwork of the fortifications he was building at Mainz. She joined him at Hanau on January 22, 1632; a tall, handsome, slender woman, who, before the whole assembly, putting her arms round the neck of the conqueror, greeted him with, "Now you are my prisoner."

And at those moments when you are feeling too good, when you're caught up in the moment, she reminds you that some one million people died in Saxony, alone, during Adolphus campaign; that whatever the romance of war, remember what it means for humanity:

[German] liberties were the privilege of ruling princes or at most of municipalities, and had nothing to do with the rights of peoples. Popular liberty was unknown, before, during and after the war...No German ruler perished homeless in the winter's cold, nor was found dead with grass in his mouth, nor saw his wife and daughters ravished; few, significantly few, caught the pest. Secure in the formalities of their lives, in the food and drink at their tables, they could afford to think in terms of politics and not human suffering.

This is just a thrilling book. Sometimes it's too pretty, and the details are too on point, but the insights are so thorough and the narrative so gripping that it's hard to turn away. I am not one who believes that the adjective "page-turner" is synonymous with "inferior."

I wish I knew more about Wedgewood's life. What did it mean to be a woman historian in the 1930s? Was she often the only woman in the room? It's always thrilling when you can add another literary ancestor to the tree. Are there any history buffs out there who know something about her life?

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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