The Wars of Religion and the 30 Years War

King Philip II | France | Thirty Years War

The wars of religion were caused by intolerance within and among states where different religions competed for adherents. The Christian church had been a near universal church, at least in Europe, for over 1000 years. The Reformation of the early 1500s had changed this. People in various areas were evangelized by preachers to follow one or another religious movement.

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In the late 1500s and the Early 1600s it was believed that a state had to be homogenous in order to be stable. Some monarchs and politicians were not as concerned with what particular religion was practiced so long as there was only one. This is not to say that there were not devoutly religious kings who believed that hell-fire and damnation awaited those who did not adhere to the true religion. The two beliefs went hand in hand to create a struggle for the conscience of the people within many of the states of Europe. At the time, physical coercion was often used as a means of persuasion. Occasionally, civil war, and later European-wide war would be the result.

The Wars of Philip II

Philip II (king from 1556-1598) was a devout Catholic King of Spain. He had many more territories under his control including the Netherlands, Southern Italy, and Burgundy. He was a Hapsburg, the son of Charles V. Early in his reign he had to deal with Calvinists in the northern areas of the Netherlands who wished to be independent of Spain not only because of the difference in religion, but because they felt they were too heavily taxed. By 1609 the Dutch had effectively gained their independence.

While these struggles were under way, Philip got into a conflict with England. Mary of England had been his wife. During her reign the two had tried to reverse the English Reformation, bringing England back into the Catholic fold. However, many had resisted the movement. When Mary died, Elizabeth became queen and the Protestants came back into power. In 1588 he launched a large number of ships which were to pick up troops from Holland that were to invade England. The English, with intelligence that the invasion fleet was coming, fought an eight-day running battle with the Spanish. Though the English ships were smaller, they were superior in maneuverability and weapons range. Also a storm blew in, and the remaining Spanish ships were forced to sail by England, around Scotland and Ireland, and back to Spain. This event has long been celebrated in the annals of English history as the "Defeat of the Spanish Armada". England would never again be threatened by a direct attack from Spain.

Wars in France

Drawing of Catherine de Medici

In France a civil war between Calvinists, called Huguenots (led by the Bourbons), and the Catholic majority population (led by the Guise family) turned into a complicated mess. There had been an undercurrent of secular strife between the two parties ever since Calvinism began to seep over the border from Switzerland. Many of the nobles became Protestant, for some it was a vital religious conversion, but others used religion as a means to subvert the power of the king. At this time Catherine de Medici was Queen mother. She was the power behind the throne of three successive sons. Things came to a head in 1562. Eight years of fighting ended in a truce in 1570.

But Catherine was determined to deal a blow to the Huguenots. In 1572 she engineered the St. Bartholemew's Day Massacre. Several thousand Protestants across France were massacred on a signal from Catherine.

The massacre brought outrage from many quarters. Henry of Navarre (king of a separate country in northern Spain) became head of the Protestants. He marched into France and the War of the Three Henrys began. The Catholic faction was led by Henry, Duke of Guise. A moderate faction was led by the French King Henry III (the third son of Catherine de Medici to be king). In the end, Henry of Guise was assassinated by the king's men, and the king was assassinated by the duke's men, leaving the way open for Henry of Navarre to become King Henry IV of France (1553-1610). He proved to be a unifying force, ending the civil strife in France.

The Thirty Years War

The Peace of Augsburg (1555) had determined that the people of each state of the Holy Roman Empire would follow the religion of the ruler of the state, whether Lutheran or Catholic. This agreement brought peace for a short time among the various religious factions in Germany.

In 1617 Ferdinand of Styria was made king of Bohemia. Some of the people, especially the Calvinist noblemen, were afraid he would persecute them for their religion. They decided to rebel. To bring the whole country with them, some nobles entered the palace and threw two of the king's officials out of a high window. This episode was called the Defenestration of Prague. ("Defenestration" actually means the throwing of someone or something out of a window. It also is sometimes used to mean "swift removal from office".) This little demonstration would provoke a vicious war that would last thirty years.

The nobles in Bohemia (modern Czech Republic) declared Ferdinand deposed and elected a new king, Frederick. War between Bohemia (with some help from a Protestant league of states) and the Holy Roman Emperor ensued (Ferdinand, the deposed king, had just been promoted to that position). By 1620 the rebellion in Bohemia was crushed.

In 1625 conflict flared again when the Lutheran king of Denmark decided to aid the Protestants in Germany. He was alarmed by the Catholic victories. He was also Duke of Holstein, another province of the Holy Roman Empire. The emperor hired an independent contractor, Wallenstein, who raised 50,000 troops and beside the emperor's forces destroyed the army of Christian IV (1577-1648) and took Holstein from him. Christian backed out of the internal struggles of the empire and got Holstein back as his reward.

All of this fighting was serving to consolidate the power of the Hapsburg family in the Holy Roman Empire. The empire had long been a very loose conglomeration of states, nearby nation states began to consider unification a problem. France, under Cardinal Richelieu, though a Catholic state began to support the Protestants. The Swedish king, Gustavus Adolphus, decided to intervene directly: to aggrandize some territory, knock the Hapsburgs down a peg or two, and to defend his Lutheran religion. Gustavus was a superb general, and made many tactical military innovations that made his army more maneuverable. He won several victories, throwing the Hapsburgs on the defensive. Nevertheless, he was killed at the battle of Lutzen and the Hapsburgs again gained the upper hand. By 1635, a treaty was signed which was very favorable to the Holy Roman Emperor.

The general shift in focus of the war should be noted here. The Thirty Years War began as a religious struggle, with dynastic and political factors in the background. As the war progressed, politics played a bigger and bigger part. The interest of nation states became primary. This was why in 1635 the French, led for the most part by a Catholic Cardinal, Richelieu, entered the war on the side of the Protestant princes.

The entrance of France into the struggle tipped the balance in favor of the rebellious Protestant princes. But still the war continued on and on. This was partly due to the fact that princes, kings, and emperors did not have enough money to pay their troops. The troops banded together to get money and supplies the only way they knew how, which was to continue pillaging the regions being invaded. Many kings were afraid to make peace, because they did not want these barely controllable armies to return to their own territories. Thus the war continued in a desultory fashion until 1648. The final Treaty of Westphalia proved beneficial to France, Sweden, and Brandenburg (Prussia). It also legitimized the Calvinists in Germany. The Holy Roman Empire became a mere shell. The title of emperor became virtually meaningless.

The 30 Years War would be the last major war between Catholics and Protestants in Europe. However, there would still be struggles among religious protagonists in various regions such as Northern Ireland, Russia, and the Balkans. Ultimately, religion would become more and more a matter of individual conscience and less a matter of state control. It would be found that religious diversity within a state was not detrimental. In fact, persecution of religious sects in both Spain and France (under Louis XIV) proved economically ruinous. Though some individuals saw benefits by plundering the persecuted, in general, pogroms and virtual forced emigration hurt the power of the state because manpower and expertise was suddenly drained from the country. Tolerant countries thereby benefited from the influx of highly skilled workers.

Were the wars of religion a cathartic that drained the animus of religious difference in Europe? Perhaps it had this effect. People came to see that the cost of the struggles that destroyed the economies and peoples of vast regions was too high a price to pay for unified belief (which proved impossible to enforce in any case). In fact, persecution often tended to provoke fanaticism on the part of persecuted sects. From this time forward, although nations would invoke God for protection or to bring victory in conflict, religion would play a largely moderating role in the relations between European states.

At the same time that religious strife was playing itself out on the continent it was also playing a part in Britain. Although the English Civil War and the subsequent struggles were ultimately about the power of the King verses the power of the people, nobility, and gentry, it was tinged with religious strife throughout.

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The Reformation

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Thirty Years War

The Development of the English Constitution under the Stuart Kings

French Absolutism and Louis XIV

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Concert of Europe


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