War booty

Siege of Prag 1648, Teatrum Europeum, Bd VI, sign. HP Chr. B110-113

Looting in Prague

In the early morning of 16th July 1648, during the very last stages of the Thirty Years War, a Swedish force one hundred strong, commanded by the Imperial renegade Ernst Odowalsky, scaled the city wall of Prague’s Kleinseite or ‘Little Side’ (Cz. Malá Strana) on the west bank of the Moldau. Overpowering the unsuspecting guard, the Swedes made their way through the Strahov gate. Soon afterwards 3,000 men flocked into the Kleinseite under the command of Swedish General Hans Kristofer von Königsmarck. The castle and a number of aristocratic palaces, in which both the Emperor and the Austro-Bohemian nobility had amassed great quantities of valuables, were at the troops’ mercy and were systematically looted, following a detailed plan which Königsmarck and Odowalsky had drawn up together. The haul was immense. Apart from a host of invaluable art objects, the Imperial Treasury contained a number of valuable illustrated works and rare manuscripts. The inventory drawn up at the time mentions 100 an allerhand Kunstbüchern (‘a hundred art books of different kinds’), among them two world-famous manuscripts: Codex Gigas and Codex Argenteus (the Silver Bible, now in Carolina Rediviva, Uppsala). The Emperor’s library, mainly from the time of Rudolph II was also looted, as was the princely Ursini-Rosenberg collection of books, one of the very finest at that time, which had been transferred to the castle only the year before. The Praemonstratensian monastery of Strahov, the Jesuit College and several aristocratic palaces were ransacked as well.

Codex Gigas is carried off to Sweden

All the booty was quickly inventoried. The books were packed into 30 large chests. On Queen Christina’s instructions these were shipped down the Elbe to the Baltic coast during the autumn. Time was short, because in the Osnabrück peace talks it had been settled that all booty which had not been carried off when hostilities ended was to be returned. The peace treaty was signed in Münster in mid-October 1648. The booty was stored during the winter in the border fortress of Dömitz, Mecklenburg, and at the end of May 1649 it reached Stockholm by way of Wismar where the Queen waited impatiently. She had made plans to enlarge the royal castle to make room for the new treasures. Isaac Vossius, her librarian, was tasked with arranging the books captured in Prague. He finished the work in March 1651, having catalogued some of the books and all the manuscripts. His catalogue starts with Codex Gigas. Most of the books ended up in the royal castle library, but some became the private property of Swedish and foreign officers. Some were given to Christina’s favourites and some in lieu of salary to her librarians. Other books went to the Swedish university and grammar school libraries, and probably also to Dorpat (Tartu) University.

The Queen eventually took the most valuable books and manuscripts with her when she left the country. The majority of those items are now in the Vatican Library. Much of the booty that remained in Sweden later perished in a number of fires while some was sold at book auctions in the eighteenth century. But a portion has survived and is now mainly in the Royal Library, Stockholm, in Uppsala and in Lund University Library.

The archival records which Königsmarck, acting on the government’s special instructions, laid hands on was incorporated with Riksarkivet (the Swedish National Archives) in Stockholm in 1653. Only a fraction of it now remains, some of the documents having been returned and others destroyed in the Royal Castle fire of 1697.

War booty as a method of acquisition

Queen Christina was a passionate book collector who acquired large numbers of books by purchase but greatly enlarged her library by means of war booty. This was a recognised method of acquisition at the time and had been successfully tested by Christina’s father, Gustavus Adolphus, who made his campaigns between 1621 and 1632. These were excellent opportunities for enriching Swedish libraries and especially that of Uppsala University. Sweden did not have money to spend on new acquisitions and had limited access to newly published literature. This war-booty came as a substantial increment to the newly established university library. In addition, the looting of Jesuit book collections was regarded as fair play in the struggle against the Catholic Counter-Reformation.

During the regency administration, between 1632 and 1644, Axel Oxenstierna issued detailed instructions to Swedish military commanders for the confiscation of fine libraries. These were to be sent to Sweden, preferably in their entirety. He particularly urged the field chanceries to seize manuscripts. Charles X and Charles XII, Queen Christina’s successors to the throne of Sweden, both continued the taking of literary war booty on their campaigns.

All this was governed by political, denominational and crass pecuniary considerations. The books captured as war booty represented a wide spectrum of subjects from classical authors and legal literature, canon law included, to works on medicine. All this included many works of a purely Catholic nature, whereas works by Protestant authors were few and far between.

Poland, Germany, the Baltic States and Denmark were very hard hit by the Swedes’ depredations, but Bohemia and Moravia were robbed of perhaps the most exacting prizes.

The right to war booty

The question of war booty aroused a multitude of feelings. War booty can be taken as a symbol of the Swedes’ depredations on the Continent during the seventeenth century. Memories of the war have long since faded, but the profound experience of the prolonged and ruthless looting burned itself into the minds of the victims. The Swedes were by no means the only predators. One very well-known example from the period is the looting of the Elector Palatine Fredericks’s library in Heidelberg. Large parts of its collection are now in the Vatican Library.

Looting and plundering were part and parcel of warfare and belligerents were entitled to war booty. Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), who codified international law and made warfare part of a legal system argued in his seminal work De jure belli ac pacis (‘On the Law of War and Peace’), that every belligerent country could lay claim to war booty on the condition that it had been in the victor’s possession for 24 hours. And the title to personal property passed to the victor only when the object in question had been transferred to his territory. The conqueror was also entitled to the property taken from the enemy’s subjects. Grotius noted, moreover, that war booty was customarily used as payment for allied states or soldiers. These were guiding principles of belligerent countries in the seventeenth century, Sweden included.

Plundering forbidden

Views concerning the looting of private property were slowly changing, however, and during the eighteenth century it came to be regarded as unlawful. But the need for a more detailed regulatory system only appeared in the nineteenth century, the direct cause being the very extensive removal of art objects during the Napoleonic wars and the destruction of various historic buildings, such as Strasbourg Cathedral. Certain basic rules were established from the 1860s onwards. At two peace conferences in the Hague, in 1899 and 1907, all plundering and confiscation cultural objects, both public and private property, was banned. Further regulations materialised with the 1954 Hague Convention, supplemented in 1977. Archives were given special status at an early stage. Various peace settlements since the seventeenth century have stipulated the restitution of archives in connection with boundary definitions. However, such decisions were not always complied with.


At the end of the eighteenth century Sweden returned 133 Bohemian archival records, and in 1878 21 manuscripts were transferred as a gift to Landesarchiv in Brünn (Brno) in what was then Austro-Hungary, today Státní Archiv in Brno. The Royal Library in Stockholm received 32 presentation volumes in exchange. This was part of Gustaf Klemming’s vigorous ‘exchange activity’ by the intermediation of Beda Dudik, who in 1852 published a catalogue of Czech manuscripts in Swedish libraries.

The question of restitution of Swedish war booty has been raised a number of times. Basic legal principles require an act to be judged according to the law at the time when it took place. In other words, it would be wrong to apply present-day legal provisions retrospectively to actions which took place in the seventeenth century. The old ‘crimes’ are statute-barred. Notions of right and wrong have changed through the centuries, and that which today is regarded as a blatant crime was not always viewed the same way in the past. European libraries and museums are full of things that were taken as war booty when the practice was considered legitimate under international law. They have acquired a new domicile, but in certain cases they have been there far longer than they were in their previous venues. Restitution of former war booty would engender chaos, with ambiguous legal consequences. What we should do is to take the best possible care of the objects in question and make them available to the public as these are now part of our common cultural heritage.