"On the field of Lützen on the same day / Gustavus Adolphus lay in his blood.” - The Death of the Leu von Mitternacht

6 November 1632, the Leu von Mitternacht (lit.: Lion from Midnight, meaning from the North), Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, fell in the Battle of Lützen, 20 miles southwest of Leipzig during the Thirty Years’ War.
“Like a ray of light it flashes through the fog / no rider in the saddle sits / The fleeing beast, it steams, it reeks / Its white is dipped in scarlet red // The saddle bloody, bloody the mane / All Sweden saw the horse / On the field of Lützen on the same day / Gustavus Adolphus lay in his blood.” (Theodor Fontane “6 November 1632, A Swedish Legend”)

Wilhelm Carl Räuber’s (1849 – 1926) imagination of Gustavus Adolphus’ dead at Lützen (1886, Museum Schloss Lützen) 

And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider's name was Death, and Hades followed him. Like many other creatures great and small of mythological significance to the Indo-Europeans, greys experienced a bit of a revaluation under the new management of the Christian symbol system. Once, though, white horses were held sacred from the steppes of Central Asia to the hills of the Berkshire Downs where “The White Horse of the White Horse Vale / Was cut out of the grass”, as Chesterton once put it, “before the gods that made the gods”. And while deities like Odin, Indra and Svantovit rode them as well as Persian kings, Celtic fertility goddesses and Greek heroes and white horses were sent as messengers to propitiate the gods before battle by Romans, the Norse, Huns and Magyars, greys never lost their ambiguous connotation of being bearers of bad tidings and ghostly apparitions. When Streiff galloped out of the November mist and gun-smoke of battle, the king’s charger, riderless and smeared in blood, running between the front lines, offered a spectacle of epic proportions on many archetypical levels. Even if Streiff wasn’t a grey at all, as popular iconography and history painting have it, but a chestnut. The “Lion of the North”, King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, champion of the Protestant cause in the Thirty Years’ War, did own a grey once, though, but the horse was shot under him during a reconnaissance ride near Ingolstadt after the Battle of Rain on the River Lech in the spring of the year, where Count Tilly fell, then the commander of the Imperials and the Catholic League before Wallenstein took over. The year before, Gustav Adolf already had acquired his Oldenburg chestnut charger from Johann Streiff von Lauenstein, one of his cavalry colonels, for a thousand riksdalers, at least ten times the price of a war horse. Ironically enough, the gift of an Oldenburg stallion by a breeder near Celle once prevented Tilly from sacking the stud farm and  Gustavus’ horse shot at Ingolstadt, probably another Oldenburg, was recovered by the Bavarians after the siege was raised and the town had become the first fortress that held against a Swedish army during the Thirty Years’ War. The “Schwedenschimmel”, the Swedish grey of Gustavus Adolphus, was taxidermied as a trophy and is now the Europe’s oldest stuffed animal, on exhibition in the city museum of Ingolstadt. Streiff, Europe’s second oldest specimen so preserved, would suffer a similar fate. 

Carl Fredrik Kiörboe (1799 - 1876): "The horse of Gustav II Adolf at the Battle of Lützen" 

Things looked bleak for the Protestant cause after 14 years of war that killed literary more people than the plague. The “Magdeburger Hochzeit”, the infamous sack of Magdeburg, by Count Tilly’s imperial mercenaries in 1631 with a death toll of 25,000 slaughtered civilians of a total of 30,000 inhabitants, men women and children, marked the horrible climax of a terrible conflict. A few weeks later, a Swedish army appeared on the battlefields of Saxony, led by the Protestant King of Sweden himself and defeated Tilly decisively at Breitenfeld. Gustavus Adolphus became the champion of the Protestants and his new ways to wage war, the innovative use of muskets, the mobility of field artillery and dashing cavalry charges. For a year, Gustavus Adolphus led the Protestant armies, mostly victorious. Wallenstein managed to defeat him once, though, near Nuremburg, and the autumn of 1632 saw the armies back again in Saxony. After Tilly’s demise, Wallenstein lead the Imperials and the troops of the Catholic League, Gustavus Adolphus the army of the Protestant Union, roughly 20,000 men on each side. Dense fog over the battlefield at Lützen delayed commencing of hostilities, Gustavus Adolphus is reported to have knelt in front of his kneeling, praying army, a “moving song” was sung, probably the Protestant rallying hymn Vår Gud är oss en väldig borg ("Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott" / “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”), then “Mount!” was ordered, the king himself wore only a buff coat of elk skin, wounds received in battle prevented him from donning armour. The Battle of Lützen had begun. When Wallenstein’s second-in-command Pappenheim’s counter charge on the outflanked Imperial left wing stopped the Swedish advance, the next Swedish cavalry divisions moved up, personally led by Gustavus Adolphus, fog came up again, the myopic king got separated from his Smålands cavalry regiment, got too close to the Catholic firing line, a musket ball hit him in the left arm, Piccolomini’s Imperial cuirassiers caught up with him, another bullet hit him in the back, he fell out of his saddle, was dragged along by his horse Streiff, the beast stopped, one of the Imperials shot him in the head, another pierced him with his estoc, a slim bladed long sword, the king was dead, his corpse was plundered, he lay naked in the mud and Streiff galloped away.

Carl Wahlboom's (1810 - 1858) imagination of the "Death of King Gustav II Adolf at the Battle of Lützen" (1855), with a correctly coloured chestnut Streiff 

There is an old legend that people back home in Sweden heard the roar of battle and saw the apparition of Streiff running through the mist that November day when their king died. However, every Swedish soldier and Protestant landsknecht on the spot recognised the riderless Streiff, an outcry went through the army, first of despair, then of rage and the Protestants charged again and again and eventually won the Battle of Lützen, narrowly. The naked, plundered body of the king was recovered and carried by the army in a funeral procession from Saxony to the coast of the Baltic Sea. Swedish troops continued to fight until the end of the war in 1648 and Gustavus Adolphus’ reforms cleared the way for Sweden to become a major if continuously broke European power for the next 150 years. Gustavus Adolphus’ charger that ran so picturesquely in the fog between the frontlines died a year later from the wounds he received on the day his master fell. The carcass was taken from the Swedish port of Wolgast in Pomerania to Stockholm. Streiff, just like the Schwedenschimmel of Ingolstadt was taxidermied and is exhibited today in the Livrustkammaren, the Royal Armoury established by Gustavus Adolphus himself in 1628, along with his armour, the king was finally buried in Riddarholm Church after his wife Maria Eleonora of Brandenburg kept his body for herself, first in Wolgast, later in Nyköping castle, unwilling to surrender her beloved husband to eternity. Another somewhat Gothic aspect that surrounds the death of the Lion of the North. His buff coat of elk skin, however, captured by the Imperial cuirassiers at Lützen was a trophy brought “all bloody” to the king’s adversary Emperor Ferdinand II in Vienna and ended up in what is now the Museum of Military History until the Great War was over in 1918. Humanitarian aid from Sweden helped the starving, newly founded Austrian Republic to her feet and as a gesture of gratitude, Gustav Adolf’s buff coat was returned and is now at Livrustkammaren, along with Streiff and the rest of the king’s paraphernalia.

Taxidermied Streiff at the Livrustkammaren* 

Theodor Fontane’s poem quoted above goes as follows:

Der 6. November 1632
Schwedische Sage

Schwedische Heide, Novembertag,
Der Nebel grau am Boden lag,
Hin über das Steinfeld von Dalarn
Holpert, stolpert ein Räderkarrn.

Ein Räderkarrn, beladen mit Korn;
Lorns Atterdag zieht an der Deichsel vorn,
Niels Rudbeck schiebt. Sie zwingen's nicht,
Das Gestrüpp wird dichter, Niels aber spricht:

»Busch-Ginster wächst hier über den Steg,
Wir gehn in die Irr', wir missen den Weg,
Wir haben links und rechts vertauscht, –
hörst du, wie der Dal-Elf rauscht?«

»Das ist nicht der Dal-Elf, der Dal-Elf ist weit,
Es rauscht nicht vor uns und nicht zur Seit',
Es lärmt in Lüften, es klingt wie Trab,
Wie Reiter wogt es auf und ab.

Es ist wie Schlacht, die herwärts dringt,
Wie Kirchenlied es dazwischen klingt,
Ich hör' in der Rosse wieherndem Trott:
Eine feste Burg ist unser Gott!«

Und kaum gesprochen, da Lärmen und Schrein,
In tiefen Geschwadern bricht es herein,
Es brausen und dröhnen Luft und Erd',
vorauf ein Reiter auf weißem Pferd.

Signale, Schüsse, Rossegestampf,
Der Nebel wird schwarz wie Pulverdampf,
Wie wilde Jagd, so fliegt es vorbei; –
Zitternd ducken sich die zwei.

Nun ist es vorüber ... da, wieder mit Macht
Rückwärts wogt die Reiterschlacht,
Und wieder dröhnt und donnert die Erd',
Und wieder vorauf das weiße Pferd.

Wie ein Lichtstreif durch den Nebel es blitzt,
Kein Reiter mehr im Sattel sitzt,
Das fliehende Tier, es dampft und raucht,
Sein Weiß ist tief in Rot getaucht.

Der Sattel blutig, blutig die Mähn',
Ganz Schweden hat das Ross gesehn: –
Auf dem Felde von Lützen am selben Tag
Gustav Adolf in seinem Blute lag.

And here is a rough translation:

Swedish heath, November day,
Fog lay grey over the ground,
Over the stony field of Dalarn
Rumbles, stumbles a wheeled cart

A wheeled cart, laden with grain,
Lorn Atterdag pulls the shaft at the fore,
Niels Rudbeck shoves, they take it easy,
The shrub grows denser, but Niels says

“Gorse grows over the pathway here,
We’ve gone astray, we’ve lost our way,
We have confused left with right,
Do you hear the Dal-Elf’s rushing?”

“That is not the Dal-Elf, the Dal-Elf is far,
There is nor rushing ahead of us and not to our side,
It’s high up in the air, it sounds like the trot
Of riders to and fro.

It is like battle pressing towards us,
And church song sounding in between,
I hear in the chargers’ hoofbeats
“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”

And hardly that was said, clamour and cries,
With broad wings it bursts,
Air and earth roar and boom,
At the fore a rider on a pale horse.

Signals, shots and horses’ stamps,
The fog grows black like powder smoke,
Like Wild Hunt it’s flying past,
Trembling the two take cover.

Now it is over… there, again with might,
Backwards surges the cavalry charge,
And again booms and thunders the earth,
And at the fore again the pale horse

Like a ray of light it flashes through the fog,
No rider in the saddle sits,
The fleeing beast, it steams, it reeks,
Its white is dipped in scarlet red

The saddle bloody, bloody the mane
All Sweden saw the horse
On the field of Lützen on the same day
Gustavus Adolphus lay in his blood.

More about the Battle of Lützen on:


And an image of the “Schwedenschimmel” of Ingolstadt can be wondered and marvelled at on:


* the image of Streiff was taken by Göran Schmitt and found on: