Franz Peter König, the forgotten war hero and entrepreneur from Freiburg. Illustration by Marco Heer
Franz Peter König, the forgotten war hero and entrepreneur from Freiburg. Illustration by Marco Heer

The forgotten war hero

Discovered in a museum storeroom, a magnificent portrait of a horseman proves to be witness to a life straight out of an adventure novel: Fribourg mercenary leader Franz Peter König’s wild gallop through the Thirty Years’ War.

Thomas Weibel

Thomas Weibel

Thomas Weibel is a journalist and Professor of Media Engineering at the Fachhochschule Graubünden and the Hochschule der Künste in Berne.

For decades the colossal painting, almost three by three metres square, languished in a storeroom at the Museum of Art and History in Fribourg, rolled up on a framework of battens. A first inspection showed a proud horseman in magnificent black armour, mounted on a rearing black horse with a jewel-encrusted bridle. The carefully twirled moustache, the gold-embroidered commander’s sash over one shoulder, the gloved right hand resting lightly on the pommel of the marshal’s baton and, at top left, the year – 1631. The painter was revealed to be renowned St Gallen artist Samuel Hofmann, who enjoyed an outstanding reputation in southern Germany, around the Lake Constance area, in eastern Switzerland and in Zurich. But who had posed for Hofmann? Who was this mysterious musketeer?
Franz Peter König, 1631: Painting by Samuel Hofmann.
Franz Peter König, 1631: Painting by Samuel Hofmann. Museum of Art and History, Fribourg
It was to take eight months before the painting, which had been damaged by improper storage, was finally restored. In the meantime, Verena Villiger, who would later become the Museum’s director, began trawling through the archives to finally unravel the secret: the horseman was colonel and mercenary leader Franz Peter König (1594-1647). In 1631, the year the magnificent cavalier portrait was painted, König was a member of the council of the city and republic of Fribourg; he was also governor of the city of Lindau on Lake Constance, and Emperor Ferdinand II had just granted him the title “Freiherr von und zu Billens und Herr zu Hennens und Villariaz”, giving him dominion over estates which he and his brother had acquired two years earlier. König, a baron and a governor, was at the height of his power.
Franz Peter König came from family that was neither particularly distinguished nor particularly wealthy. He was the son of a notary, Jean Rey de Moret, who later Germanicised his name to “König von Mohr”. Whether the young Franz Peter, like his younger half-brothers, attended Fribourg’s Jesuit College of St Michael is not documented, but he was undoubtedly an educated man: he grew up speaking French at home, but also mastered German, Italian and Latin. At the age of 14 or 15, like so many young Swiss, the young König entered foreign military service. This step was not unusual: the trade of war provided employment for a large proportion of the male population. Fribourg mercenaries were not recruited individually, but as closed units which were then usually “leased” to the French kings. Even though they were in foreign service, these contingents of recruited mercenaries were subject to Fribourg law; supply and administration were in the hands of the patrician families of Fribourg, who also held the command and officers’ posts. The fact that the regiments and companies were made up of fellow countrymen strengthened cohesion and loyalty, and boosted the widely feared clout of the units.
Etching of Franz Peter König, probably produced by David Custos, around 1630.
Etching of Franz Peter König, probably produced by David Custos, around 1630. Wikimedia
To avoid having to serve under superiors who, although they were from Fribourg, came from more powerful families than himself, the young Franz Peter König – unlike most of his contemporaries – went to Venice to fight in the battles of the Uskok War. A monumental faux pas: because Venice was hostile to the House of Habsburg, a traditional Fribourg ally, the city of Fribourg ordered the young soldier to return immediately, under threat of loss of citizenship and property. So König made his way to Vienna and entered the service of the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Ferdinand II. With the Battle of White Mountain near Prague on 8 November 1620, the first major conflict of the Thirty Years’ War, in which the “Catholic League” inflicted a crushing defeat on the Protestant Bohemian army, König’s military career began.
The Battle of White Mountain, painting by Pieter Snayers, 1620.
The Battle of White Mountain, painting by Pieter Snayers, 1620. Wikimedia
As a military leader, König had undeniable talent. He quickly rose up the ranks, from captain to lieutenant colonel (1623), and finally to field marshal’s aide-de-camp and imperial war commissary (1628). He fought in scores of battles of the Thirty Years’ War. When he was ambushed on a reconnaissance ride near Cologne in mid-June 1629, he was so badly wounded by two bullets “that the doctors feared he would not survive”, as his half-brother Albrecht wrote in a letter to the Fribourg government. But König was tough: the rigours of warfare, especially the day-long rides, took a toll on him, but a recuperative stay at Bad Pfäfers in Graubünden the following year, during which a surgeon removed a total of 16 bone splinters from his arm, finally enabled him to recover.

An officer and a war entrepreneur

Like many mercenary leaders, König was first and foremost a war entrepreneur. Unlike the foot soldiers, as an officer he participated in the war as a profit-making exercise. Even as a lieutenant colonel he began recruiting soldiers. König borrowed money from wealthy enterprisers to cover the supplies, pay and any profits of the troops. Refinancing was done firstly in the form of direct invoicing to the client for recruitment and mobilisation, and secondly through subsequent sharing in the profits after successful campaigns. With its huge armies, the Thirty Years’ War devoured enormous sums that the emperor and the princes involved had no hope of raising alone. They were dependent on around 1,500 such war entrepreneurs; the most famous of these is Albrecht von Wallenstein, who was murdered in 1634. All in all, the war proved a lucrative venture for König too. In 1629, he and his brother bought four estates in Fribourg and the Palais Ratze, one of the grandest buildings in the city.
And so the circle closes: what was then the Palais Ratze is now the Museum of Art and History in Fribourg.
And so the circle closes: what was then the Palais Ratze is now the Museum of Art and History in Fribourg. Wikimedia
After an odyssey through half of Europe – Vienna, Hesse, Bohemia, Moravia, northern Italy – fighting the war, Franz Peter König was appointed garrison commander of Lindau, which as an imperial support base was then under siege by Swedish troops. Dismissed and arrested for attempted murder – König is accused of having ordered the elimination of an adversary – the mercenary leader once again benefitted from his excellent relations with Fribourg and the support of the Catholic towns of the Old Swiss Confederation. He was acquitted, escaped from house arrest and returned to Fribourg unscathed. His military career segued into a political one: in 1645 König, who had previously been a member of the Grand Council, then the Council of Sixty and finally the Small Council, was elected Schultheiss (mayor) of Fribourg. Just two years later, König fell seriously ill and on 11 December 1647, the council clerk informed the gentlemen of the council that he had been called to the mayor, “whom he found still quite strong, and resolved to await the will of God”. König died the same day.
A life like an adventure novel: the discovery of an enigmatic painting in the storeroom of the Museum of Art and History in Fribourg culminated in the meticulous reconstruction of an extraordinary life as a politician and a soldier. The Museum is located in the Ratzehof, the very same palace that the portrait’s subject, Franz Peter König, once bought to enable him to become a citizen of the city of Fribourg.

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