By 1560, Europe was divided by religion as it had never been before. Protestantism was now a permanent feature of the landscape of beliefs and even the most optimistic Catholics had to abandon hopes that they could win many Protestants back over to the Roman church through propaganda and evangelism. A patchwork of peace treaties across most of Europe had established the principle of princes determining the acceptable religion within their respective territories, but those treaties in no way represented something recognizable today as “tolerance” – in fact, all sides believed they had exclusive access to spiritual truth.
- 9.1: Prelude to Religious Wars
- The very notion of tolerance, of “live and let live,” was almost nonexistent in early-modern Europe. Exceptions did exist, especially in the Holy Roman Empire, but beliefs clearly hardened over the course of the sixteenth century: what tolerance had existed in the early decades of the Reformation era tended to fade away.
- 9.2: The Little Ice Age
- The Little Ice Age was a naturally occurring fluctuation in earth’s climate where the average temperature drop by a few degrees during the period, enhancing the frequency and severity of bad harvests. In the Northern Hemisphere, that change began in the fourteenth century but became dramatically more pronounced between 1570 and the early 1700s, with the single most severe period lasting from approximately 1600 until 1640, precisely when the Thirty Years’ War raged in Europe.
- 9.3: The French Wars of Religion
- The first major religious wars of the period were in France. France was divided between two major factions, led by the fanatically Catholic Guise family and the Huguenot Bourbon family. Fearing the power of the Huguenots and detesting their faith, the Guises created the Catholic League, an armed militia of Catholics that included armed monks, townsfolk, and soldiers. In 1562 a Guise nobleman sponsored a massacre of Huguenots that sparked decades of war.
- 9.4: Spain and the Netherlands
- Following Henry IV's victory, the royal line of the Bourbons would rule France until the French Revolution that began in 1789. The Bourbons' greatest rivals for most of that period were the Habsburg royal line, who possessed the Austrian Empire, were the nominal heads of the Holy Roman Empire, and by the sixteenth century had control of Spain and its enormous colonial empire as well.
- 9.5: England
- The end result of the foreign wars that Spain waged in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was simple: bankruptcy. Despite the enormous wealth that flowed in from the Americas, Spain went from being the single greatest power in Europe as of about 1550 to a second-tier power by 1700. Never again would Spain play a dominant role in European politics, although it remained in possession of an enormous overseas empire until the early nineteenth century.
- 9.6: The Thirty Years' War
- The most devastating religious conflict in European history happened in the middle of the Holy Roman Empire; it ultimately dragged on for decades and saw the reduction of the population in the German Lands of between 20 – 40%. That conflict, the Thirty Years’ War, saw the most horrific acts of violence, the greatest loss of life, and the greatest suffering among both soldiers and civilians of any of the religious wars of the period.
- 9.7: Conclusion
- Obviously, neither Catholics nor Protestants "won" the wars of religion that wracked Europe from roughly 1550 - 1650. Instead, millions died, intolerance remained the rule, and the major states of Europe emerged more focused than ever on centralization and military power. If there was a silver lining, it was that rulers did their best to clamp down on explosions of religiously-inspired violence in the future, in the name of maintaining order and control.
Thumbnail: The Defenestration of Prague in 1618 triggered the thirty Years' War. (Public Domaon; Matthäus Merian via Wikipedia).