Supplementary Appendix 399.1

The Sack of Magdeburg in May 1631 [*]



Apprehensive of the approach of Gustavus [Adolphus], [Johann T’Serclaes von] Tilly cast about for some ingenious scheme whereby the city might be taken. To starve it into surrender was impossible for want of time; to carry it by assault equally impracticable on account of its great strength and the vigilance of its garrison; but it might be overcome by stratagem.

One morning early in the month of May, 1631, the citizens of Magdeburg were surprised by the cessation of the fire from the Austrian batteries. That fire had been the daily music to which they had grown familiar, and when it ceased they looked hopefully at each other and felt that deliverance was at hand. These Austrian butchers, doubtless, had been informed of the coming of Gustavus and were ready to take flight, This surmise was confirmed by the breaking up of Tilly’s camp and the rapid retreat of his troops.

The citizens watched the departure of the enemy with the utmost joy; relief was surely at hand; they at least were to be spared the “tender mercies” of those ferocious troopers who had won for themselves eternal infamy by their revolting cruelty. So said, so thought, the good folks of Magdeburg, and quiet families clustered round the board at evening meal gave special thanks to God for this great deliverance. The garrison were right jovial in their way and jested, at the cost of Tilly, who had wasted so much time in the fruitless effort to subdue the town. . . .

Who can blame the town guard if they kept holiday that night? they had kept watch and ward through many a weary night. Now the danger was over they had nothing to fear; Gustavus Adolphus would soon be in their midst.

Had the usual precautions been observed, and that untiring vigilance maintained which had characterised the garrison throughout the siege, a great calamity would have been spared. In the darkness and silence of the night a few troopers stole down to the walls of Magdeburg, and took cognizance of the state of the city so far as they were able. There was the stillness of death over the old town.

No measured tread of sentinel, no watchword challenge, not even the bay of a dog — Magdeburg slept, and the silence was only broken by the musical chimes from the cathedral tower. The troopers having satisfied themselves that the city was unguarded, departed with the news, and about an hour before dawn on the morning of the 10th of May, a large detachment of Tilly’s army came back to Magdeburg; they crept forward stealthily, part of the darkness — apparitions that seemed to grow out of the darkness; lanterns were borne by a few of the troopers, and many carried scaling ladders.

They crossed the dry ditch, and gathered in great force under the walls that had so long defied their guns; they planted their ladders, and a picked number of veterans ascended and made good their footing on the rampart. Signalling to those below that all was well, they were speedily joined by a larger number of troopers, and their first act was to surprise the sleeping sentries, and slay them before they could raise an alarm.

The work they had come to accomplish was then begun. The alarm was raised just as the grey dawn was yielding to the roseate tint of morning, and a wild cry — the shriek of despair — told them that the enemy were within the city.

While the gates were flung open, and a body of cavalry charged up the principal thoroughfare, the soldiers who had scaled the walls busied themselves in butchering. In vain the garrison attempted resistance. They were only partially aware of the real extent of their danger — suddenly roused from their sleep, some of them but half roused, all of them bewildered by surprise and terror. Their ranks were broken, they were put to flight, pursued, cut down, hunted from place to place, and brutally murdered when they cried for quarter.

In the meanwhile the houses of the wealthiest citizens were rifled, the inhabitants put to death, and the buildings fired. There was no sparing, no respect for age or sex — the mother was slaughtered in the midst of her terrified children, or cruelly rescued to see each of her darlings slain, herself the last victim.


The troopers were diabolical in their merciless ingenuity: they revelled in the horrible outrages they committed. They celebrated their bloody saturnalia, and joined their coarse jests and mocking laughter to the entreaties of their miserable victims. Scores were hurled into the Elbe — driven into the river at the sword’s point, hunted to death; a very large number were consumed in their houses, birds burnt in their nests — the assassins driving those who attempted to escape back into the flames, seizing an infant from its mother’s arms, and casting it on a heap of blazing furniture, holding her fast to see her child die.

Scores of women, in the great terror which seized on them when the news spread that the enemy were within the walls, had fled for refuge in a church. Even Attila had some respect for holy things and holy places, and, perhaps, they thought that the Austrians might spare them as they knelt before God’s altar. The troopers closed the doors of the church, and set the building on fire. The frantic cries of the women rose shrill and piercing above the roar of the fire and the shrieks of the people without. But there was no mercy for them: they were to be sacrificed as a burnt offering — a human holocaust to Austrian despotism. Outside another church fifty-three women were afterwards found together in a ghastly group, each with her head severed from her body.

Every man who entered the city that day seemed devil-inspired. Blood and plunder were what they all sought; but they indulged their ferocious passions by every kind of gratuitous cruelty, some of them binding young and beautiful women to their saddle girths, and bearing them through all the horrors of that frightful day.


There is no counterpart in modern history to the outrages committed during the sack of Magdeburg, except that of the Sepoys in India, “putrid Delhi” is the only instance which at all approaches a parallel. Tilly, the savage fanatic, wrote to the Emperor an exulting despatch, in which he said: — “Never since the destruction of Troy and Jerusalem has there been such a victory.” Some of his own officers, heart-sickened by the sights they beheld, besought him to put a stop to the massacre, but he answered: — “Give the soldiers another hour or two and then come to me again.”

Another hour or two, and the streets were running with blood, and all quarters of the city in flames. One petition only would Tilly grant, and that was the sparing of the cathedral at the special request of his old schoolfellow, Canon Bake.

Thirty thousand persons perished during the massacre. So long did it require to clear the streets of the dead, that five days elapsed before Tilly made his triumphant entry. Nearly seven thousand corpses were thrown into the Elbe. Only one hundred and thirty-nine houses were left standing.

A convulsive shudder thrilled Europe at the news of the fate of Magdeburg. And as you visit the city to-day you are reminded of that frightful drama. The cathedral spared by Tilly — one of the noblest Gothic edifices in Germany — still lifts its beautiful pyramidal tower, and is still rich in art treasures — and there you may see Tilly’s helmet and gloves. The gate by which he entered the town has been walled up, and upon the house of the commandant whom he beheaded may still be read the words — “Remember the 10th of May, 1631.”


[*] John Tillotson, Stories of the Wars. 1574-1658: From the Rise of the Dutch Republic to the Death of Oliver Cromwell (London 1865), 249–53.

Top map: Magdeburg is located just east of towns in which Caroline spent much of her earlier life, namely, Göttingen, Clausthal, and Braunschweig (Rudolf Koch and Fritz Kredel, Deutschland und angrenzende Gebiete [Leipzig 1937]).

Illustrations: (1) Magdeburg in 1795: Almanach zu Kenntniß der Preußischen Staaten für Reisende und Einheimische (1795); Inhaltsverzeichnis deutscher Almanache, Theodor Springmann Stiftung; (2) Caspar Luyken And Pieter Van Der Aa, Tilly in Magdeburg Mai 1631 (1698); (3) Tillotson, Stories of the Wars, 252. Back.

Translation © 2018 Doug Stott