An account of Walter Butler of the Shankill Castle Butlers who assassinated Albrecht von Wallenstein, the supreme commander of the armies of the Habsburg empire, at the height of the Thirty Years’ War.
‘Follow me to the furthest bounds of Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Bohemia and hear the fame of the Butlers, celebrated everywhere for their fidelity to emperors and kings.’ wrote Father Carew, a native of Tipperary and an enthusiastic traveller in the first half of the 17th century. He became Chaplain General to all the English, Scottish and Irish forces of the Holy Roman Emperor, but such was his admiration for the Butlers that he dedicated his travel book to the Protestant Duke of Ormonde. His book was composed: “Not in the quiet chamber study, but beneath the tents of war, where my busy pen found no peace from the ominous clangour of hoarse trumpet, and the loud roll of the battle drum; where my ear was stunned by the dreadful thunder of the cannon, and the fatal leaden hail hissed round the paper on which I was writing.”
His regard and friendship was primarily for a cousin of the Duke of Ormonde, Walter Butler, a Colonel in the Austrian Army. “My most esteemed Butler with whom I had lived, passing a most delightful time, having always been treated by him as a brother, and having always respected him as a father.”
Butler’s relations lived in the fine cut stone tower house that stands now derelict in a farmyard in the village of Paulstown in County Kilkenny. Walter Butler, like many before and after him, had left his native shore to seek a career elsewhere.
I came, a simple squire , to Prague from Ireland
And buried there the knight I came to serve;
From humble duties in the stable rose
By skill in war to rank and eminence,
A lucky plaything of capricious fate.
The dramatist Friedrich Schiller makes Butler say in his play Death of Wallenstein. But Schiller is using dramatic license here, as the Butlers of Paulstown were descended from the Ormondes, one of the most distinguished and powerful families in Ireland.
Butler offered his services as a soldier of fortune to the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II. In the play he describes the mercenaries:
They are as strangers on the soil they tread
The service is their only house and home.
No zeal inspires them for their country’s cause.
For thousands like myself were born abroad…
Indifferent what their banner, whether ’twere
The Double Eagle, Lily or the Lion.
They are the outcasts of all foreign lands
Unclaimed by town or tribe, to whom belongs
Nothing except the universal sun.
The Emperor had need of all the soldiers he could get, for in 1618, the defenestration of Prague occurred when the Protestant citizens of Bohemia revolted and tossed their Catholic governors out of the window of the Castle and though all survived the 50ft drop, which some attribute to a miracle while others to the dung heap that broke their fall, this act plunged Europe into the religious fricative of the Thirty Years War.
Falling out of windows with political implications, happened habitually in Bohemia; as a young man, Albrecht Wallenstein who was to gain enormous wealth and power and to have a huge influence in the history of Europe through being the most successful general of the period, tumbled off a window ledge in Innsbruck but was caught by the Virgin Mary. This event caused him to turn from being a Protestant to becoming a Roman Catholic and to offer his services to the Holy Roman Emperor. Wallenstein then commanded the Imperial forces under a series of lucrative contracts and he secured for himself large confiscated estates, the right to legitimize bastards and to keep his hat on in the presence of his royal master. For Wallenstien was a megalomaniac and in spite of the miracle that had happened in Innsbruck, his conversion to Catholicism undoubtedly assisted his relentless personal ambition. The armies, he led, were extremely efficient, for he had remarkable organisational abilities and no detail was to minor for his personal supervision, he even gave orders as to what the chickens of the commissariat should be fed if they were ailing. For a decade, he was almost continually victorious.
On the ceiling of the main hall of his palace in Prague there is a fresco of Wallenstein depicted as Mars riding to War under a dark star. Not an attractive man, he was tall and thin with a yellow face, glittering eyes and a skimpy beard. In spite of his catholic faith, he devoted much time in trying to penetrate the future and discover the high destiny that awaited him. He consulted astrologers; had star gazers scatted across his dominions and it was rumoured conferred with a black dog prior to major military manoeuvres. As his personal soothsayer he employed the mathematician Johann Kepler, one of the founders of modern astronomy, though he was not a very enlightening astrologer. In the horoscope he cast for the General, he described his client as full of superstition and warned that to act on occult predictions was arrant nonsense.
Wallenstein’s success caused jealously and distrust at the court of Ferdinand and in 1630, he was dismissed from his command, but when the Emperor’s armies suffered a series of defeats he had to be hastily summonsed back.
Walter Butler with his regiment of Scottish and Irish troops had distinguished himself first at the battle of the White Mountain when the allied armies of the Czechs and Hungarians were scattered in headlong retreat not only from Butler’s regiment but also from Polish Cossacks who charged with the reins between their teeth and a sabre in each hand.
In 1631 he was at Frankfurt an der Oder, when the Snow King, Gustavus Adolphus with his sheepskin clad regiments came down from Sweden to avenge the wrongs of the Protestants. With the Swedish army outside the walls of the city Butler volunteered to make a sortie with five companies of cavalry and the same amount of cuirassiers and he was sure that with God’s help he would repel the enemy from the siege. But because he was a foreign mercenary, he was grudged the honour and someone else was chosen who turned the expedition into a disaster.
Father Carew wrote:
“While most of the Emperor’s army were making merry and feasting, Gustavus Adolphus made a strong attack. Butler’s men withstood it so bravely that the Swedes wanted to know who was carrying on the fight at that place. When they learned it was Irishmen and Scots they stopped in their tracks. But about four o’clock in the afternoon when the rest of the Imperial Army were more inflamed by wine than the desire to fight, the enemy began to scale the ramparts and soon drove away two regiments who retreated in Butler’s direction. But he had them fired on and compelled them to turn round again against the enemy. Butler stood his ground till he had scarcely a soldier left, and did not submit till he was shot through the arm with a musquet ball and pierced through the thigh with a halberd. ” Frankfurt was over run and he was taken prisoner. That night, Gustavus having all the chief officers at supper with him protested that he could not eat a morsel till he saw the brave Irishman. Butler because he had lost too much blood and could not walk, so was carried before the king according to military custom on two pikes and after the King had commended him, a surgeon was called to treat his wounds.”
While Butler was held captive, the officers of the imperial Army attributed the loss of Frankfurt an der Oder to Butler. The Emperor sent a note of severe reprimand. So to clear his name, Butler took it to the Swedish King who immediately wrote a detailed report describing Butler’s sturdy resistance and saying that the blame should fall on those who were far too over-confident and unconcerned and had forgotten their swords but waged war with cups and glasses.
During the Thirty Years War only too often at moments of crisis, the leaders were to be found at a feast where there was a lot to drink, with disastrous consequences.
After six months imprisonment, Butler bought his freedom from the Swedes with a thousand thalers and his first act was to send a challenge to the officer who had accused him of allowing Frankfurt to fall, but the accusation was retracted and Butler was received by the Emperor with his reputation vindicated.
To emphasis the esteem in which Butler was held, Carew writes that:
“There came an urgent order from Wallenstein to hasten to Sagan without delay. The town of Sagan belongs to Wallenstein himself and he found no better or truer hero to whom he was prepared to entrust it than our Butler. On the way there he attacked the unsuspecting enemy, drove them all away and captured substantial booty.” Under the generalship of Wallenstein, Butler performed a series of victorious and gallant actions which included fighting at the battle of Nordlingen for twenty-three hours without intermission, taking the strong fortress of Aurach and attacking Prague which he captured without a single shot being fired. At Eger: ” He resolutely attacked the enemy, chased them away and made so bold as to seize twelve regimental colours. For this Wallenstein showed him great favour and as a reward granted him the margravate of Jagerndorf (Krnov) together with appurtenances for winter quarters. While he was there he married the Countess von Dohn of exceptionally high and noble rank.
By this time, Wallenstein in the hopes of becoming King of Bohemia was intriguing with the Swedes and the French. In an effort to secure Butler’s allegiance, he offered him £32,000 to go to Ireland and raise troops but Butler refused very politely saying “Poor Ireland has been drained too much of her men already.”
The Imperial court, always suspicious of Wallenstein, was tipped off that he was conspiring with the enemy. They issued a proclamation withdrawing the command again from Wallenstein – however they were too timid to confront Wallenstein and tell him directly. Butler was in his winter quarters with detachments of troops guarding the passes to the upper Palatine when at midnight a courier arrived from Wallenstein, with express orders that the colonel should at once assemble his regiments and march to the White Mountain near Prague.
“Colonel Butler, astonished, had me awakened and called to him. He assured me that this unexpected order of the generalissimo confirmed him in the suspicious which he had entertained, of his disloyalty. For what else is it, said he, to call away me and my soldiers from the defence of the passes against the enemy so near to us, but to open the door to the enemy and invite him into Bohemia? But go we must said he, for so peremptory an order cannot be disobeyed.”
On 22 February, he reached Maies where there was orders that he should spend the night in the town with the colours while his regiment remained outside the walls. Wallenstein had Butler summoned to audience with him as he lay in his litter that was draped with crimson velvet: “He held contrary to his custom, the following friendly and confidential conversation with me. He said – Herr Butler, I regret that I have hitherto been so strange, and even ungrateful, to so brave and meritorious a commander of a regiment; but the blame rests not so much upon me as on the emperor, who promised me much with which I could have rewarded meritorious officers and brave soldiers; but he did not keep his promise. I may be able to recompense the deserving. Among these I am aware that few come before Herr Butler. I will give him two regiments – one of horse and one of infantry and besides this appoint in Hamburg 200,000 dollars for the raising of fresh troops. I answered to this with great but feigned expression of thanks for the offer of so many and such high marks of favour – but that I owed duty allegiance to the emperor as a soldier and that I might therefore preserve my honour which is dearer to me than my life, without spot, I would first write to request my discharge from the emperor. Immediately after this Butler sent a message to the generals loyal to the Emperor’ saying: “I would die a hundred deaths rather than draw my sword traitorously against the interests of the Emperor. And that it is perhaps by some special providence of God, that I have been compelled to this march, that I might perform some especially heroic act. When this message was delivered to General Piccolomino at Pilsen, he said he had never doubted Butler’s loyalty to the emperor and he should return and bring Wallenstein with him, dead or alive, if he wished to be advanced by the Emperor.
On the first night of his arrival in Cheb, Butler invited the Scottish Lieutenant-colonel Gordon and Watch-master Leslie, both officers of an infantry regiment, to his quarters. “After they, according to military custom, had drunk somewhat, whether from design or from the wine, he endeavoured to make out their sentiments. “It appears to me very strange that our generalissimo, who formerly never approached the enemy unless with 50,000 men, now advances towards him with only some five or six thousand?
When they answered that this novelty looked very like treachery; Butler said: This has long been my opinion; we must take counsel together how we may keep unstained our honour and the allegiance which we owe to his Imperial majesty. We are foreigners, and have no other inheritance except fidelity and honour, which are to be preferred to everything else. Gordon counselled flight which was easy as he had the keys of the town. Butler answered: It would be disgraceful to fly and leave behind the emperor’s soldiers and colours. At last watchmaster Leslie, with much courage and openess, burst out with the words so much longed for by Butler, ‘Let us slay the traitors! ‘ Upon this, Butler much cheered, said ‘Stand by me brothers only pledge yourselves to keep secret. I take the dangerous execution upon myself, for the support of the Almighty has never failed those who undertake what is difficult for the sake of God, justice, and loyalty. ‘”
On the morning of the 25th February, several of Butler’s Irish officers were secretly let into the town. Gordon invited the colonels loyal to Wallenstein to an evening feast where after the servants had gone to their supper the doors were guarded until the diners had reached the drinking stage when Butler entered with twelve dragoons crying “Who is for the Emperor?” . Gordon and Leslie sprang up, drew their swords, each took a candle from the table in his hand and cried, “Long live the House of Austria.” Two of Wallenstein’s henchmen were cut down as they went for their weapons, Count Trcka defended himself desperately, his doublet of elkskin protected him from so many thrusts that his attackers thought he bore a charmed life, but he fell at last pierced through the body. Count Neumann did escape but as he did not know the password he was cut down by the guard. The twelve dragoons went immediately to Wallenstein’s castle nearby – on the way they could hear the wails of the Countess Trcka and the Countess Neumann who had learnt of the death of their husbands. Wallenstein had arisen and gone to the windows and had asked of the watch what the noise was. A dragoon, with his foot thrusting open the door, called out “Art thou the traitor who would deprive the emperor of his crown and kingdom? Wallenstein stretched out his arms in silence: and was pierced through his unflinching breast and he sank upon the ground without a groan.
The next day Butler summoned the town council and told them of the deed with the reasons for it and administered an oath of loyalty to all the troops.
The Emperor, when he learnt of the assassination, rewarded Butler well making him a count and giving with his own hand a heavy foliated gold chain set with huge topazes. But he hedged his bets by offering up 3000 masses for the soul of Wallenstein.
Butler did not live to enjoy his fortune for long, he died of the plague at the end of that same year. Father Gerard Fitzgerald wrote from Prague to Father Luke Wadding ” I must send you sorrowful news of the death of our noble patron Colonel Walter Butler who died in the land of Wittemberg upon Christmas holidays, as he was in the beginning of his fortune whereby he could help himself and many others, and do his poor distressed country and countrymen great honour and service.”
Walter Butler left twenty thousand thalers to the Irish College in Prague, but the bulk of his estates went to his relations from Paulstown one of whom was on the way to visit him accompanied by twelve gentlemen, six fair greyhounds and a harp.
After the first world war, my grandfather, George Butler, a farmer in Kilkenny, received a letter written in green ink from a Count Stephen Butler who was, he wrote lying penniless in hospital in Budapest. He claimed kinship because his ancestor had emigrated 300 years ago from Ireland and knew he would be received as their old child. He was, he said, good at fencing and riding and spoke several languages. My grandfather thought the fencing would be useful until it was pointed out to him that the Count meant fencing with swords so the letter remained behind the clock with a view to replying sometime, it was soon joined by another letter and then a despairing plea on a postcard to send two pounds c/o Thomas Cook, Stefansplatz Vienna. This enterprising Count had written to all the Butlers in the directories for England and Ireland, even to William Butler Yeats who, learning that the original Walter Butler had become a count for murdering a leader of the opposition, remarked rather nastily (it was in the middle of our Civil War)
“This seems a recognized form of distinction. We may have seen the foundation of several noble houses in Ireland recently”.
I am glad to say that my Cousin Annie replied as requested to Thos Cook. She was very angry with Schiller for having spoken disrespectfully off the Butlers and for having hung the plot of his play on Butler’s craving to be a Count. Carew, who after all knew Butler, says that his loyalty was irreproachable.
In Schiller’s words, Walter Butler says :
“What is my crime, and why do you rebuke me?
It is a good deed I have done the Empire.
Released it from a fearsome enemy,
And so I make my claim to be rewarded.
But whatever his motives, the consequence of his act was that the war dragged on for fourteen more years, inflicting misery and the senseless destruction of large tracts of Europe.
See also The Irish Franciscans in Prague 1629-1786, by Jan Parez and Hedvika Kucharová.