Sack of Magdeburg

Sack of Magdeburg
Part of the Swedish phase of the Thirty Years' War
b/w print showing walled city ablaze in the background; many armed men approach from left; cannons are firing from left foreground; text box in bottom center
Sack of Magdeburg, 1632 engraving by D. Manasser, putting the blame on the citizens' disobedience
Date20–24 May 1631
ResultCatholic victory
Destruction of the city
 Holy Roman Empire
Catholic League (Germany).svg Catholic League
Magdeburg Magdeburg
Commanders and leaders
Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly
Gottfried Heinrich Graf zu Pappenheim
Dietrich von Falkenberg  
Christian William of Brandenburg  POW)
24,000 during the siege
40,000 during the sack
Casualties and losses
  • 300 killed
  • 1,600 wounded[1]
20,000 defenders and inhabitants[1]
Magdeburg is located in Saxony-Anhalt
Location within Saxony-Anhalt
Magdeburg is located in Germany
Magdeburg (Germany)

The Sack of Magdeburg, also called Magdeburg Wedding (German: Magdeburger Hochzeit) or Magdeburg's Sacrifice (German: Magdeburgs Opfergang), was the destruction of the Protestant city of Magdeburg on 20 May 1631 by the Imperial Army and the forces of the Catholic League, resulting in the deaths of around 20,000, including both defenders and non-combatants. The event is considered the worst massacre of the Thirty Years' War. Magdeburg, then one of the largest cities in Germany, having well over 25,000 inhabitants in 1630, did not recover its importance until well in the 18th century.


Archbishopric of Magdeburg

The archbishopric of Magdeburg was established as an ecclesiastical principality in 968. In political respect the Erzstift, the archiepiscopal and capitular temporalities, had gained imperial immediacy as prince-archbishopric in 1180. This meant that the archbishop of Magdeburg ruled the town and the lands around it in all matters, worldly and spiritual.

Protestant Reformation

The citizens of Magdeburg had turned Protestant in 1524 and joined the Schmalkaldic League against the religious policies of the Catholic emperor Charles V in 1531. During the Schmalkaldic War of 1546/47, the Lower Saxon city became a refuge for Protestant scholars, which earned it the epithet Herrgotts Kanzlei (German for Lord's Chancellery), but also an Imperial ban that lasted until 1562. The citizens refused to acknowledge Emperor Charles's Augsburg Interim and were besieged by Imperial troops under Maurice, Elector of Saxony in 1550/51.

Protestant archbishops and Administrators

Administrator Christian William of Brandenburg, engraving by Merian

The Roman Catholic archdiocese had de facto turned void since 1557, when the last papally confirmed prince-archbishop, the Lutheran Sigismund of Brandenburg came of age and ascended to the see.

Openly Lutheran Christian William of Brandenburg, elected to be archbishop in 1598, was denied recognition by the imperial authorities. Since about 1600, he styled himself Administrator of Magdeburg, as did other Protestant German notables assigned to govern principalities that were de jure property of the Catholic church.

Alliance with the Danish king

During the Thirty Years' War, Administrator Christian William entered into an alliance with Denmark. In 1626, he led an army from Lower Saxony into the Battle of Dessau Bridge. After Wallenstein won this battle, Christian William fled abroad. In 1629, he fled to the court of King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden.

As a result of these developments, in January 1628, the Magdeburg cathedral chapter deposed Christian William and elected August of Wettin, 13-year-old son of John George I, Elector of Saxony, as Administrator. This meant little for the moment, however, as Augustus could not assume office due to his father's continued unwillingness to provoke the emperor.

Edict of Restitution

In March 1629, emperor Ferdinand II passed the Edict of Restitution. It was specifically aimed at restoring the situation of the 1555 Peace of Augsburg in ecclesiastical territories that had since strayed from "legal" Catholic faith and rule. Bremen and Magdeburg were the biggest examples of territories to be restituted.

Alliance with the Swedish king

The city's councillors had been emboldened by King Gustavus Adolphus's landing in Pomerania on 6 July 1630[2]: the Swedish king was a Lutheran Christian and many of Magdeburg's residents were convinced that he would aid them in their struggle against the Roman Catholic Habsburg emperor, Ferdinand II.

Not all Protestant princes of the Holy Roman Empire had immediately embraced Adolphus, however;[3] some believed his chief motive for entering the war was to take Northern German ports, which would allow him to control commerce in the Baltic Sea.[4][5]

In November 1630, King Gustavus sent ex-Administrator Christian William back to Magdeburg, along with Dietrich von Falkenberg to direct the city's military affairs. Backed by the Lutheran clergy, Falkenberg had the suburbs fortified and additional troops recruited.

Engraving from Theatrum Europaeum, showing the fighting for Magdeburg's defense works

Magdeburg besieged

When the Magdeburg citizens refused to pay a demanded tribute to the emperor, Imperial forces under the command of Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly laid siege to the city within a matter of months.[3] The city was besieged from 20 March 1631 and Tilly put his subordinate Imperial Field Marshal Gottfried Heinrich Graf zu Pappenheim, a Catholic convert, in command while he campaigned elsewhere. During fierce fighting, Imperial troops numbering 24,000, roughly the same number as Magdeburg's entire population, conquered several sconces of the city's fortification and Tilly demanded capitulation.[citation needed]