The Age of religious wars (c.1560-98)

September 24, 2012 12:20 pm
Kill them all; God will know his own. — Catholic general, ordering a massacre of a town containing both Protestants and Catholics

By the mid 1500’s, three main factors were converging to push Western Europe into a century of brutal religious wars. Two of these were the Protestant and Catholic Reformations that were firmly opposed to each other.  Added to this was a prevailing medieval mentality linking religion with political issues, making it impossible for either side to tolerate the other side’s presence or rule.  The first round started in Germany.

Germany (1521-55)

The emperor Charles V’s dramatic confrontation with Luther at Worms in 152l had resulted in outlawing the Lutheran heresy.  However, this was easier said than done for several reasons.  First, Charles had little control over the Holy Roman Empire (Germany), a patchwork of over 300 principalities, Church states, and free cities, all jealously guarding their liberties against any attempts by the emperor to increase his authority over them.  Charles could not even get effective support from the Catholic states to help suppress the Lutherans, since his success might give him more power over Catholic princes as well.
Second, the size of Charles’ empire made him many enemies, in particular France and the Ottoman Turks, who posed a constant threat from west and east.  As a result, Charles felt forced to let the Protestants alone and turn to more pressing matters on his borders.  Finally, Charles was plagued with money problems.  Several times in his career he found himself short of funds while on the verge of a major victory.  In an age of mercenary armies prone to run out on their employers as soon as funds for paying them ran out, this was fatal and forced him to let his enemies, especially France, off the hook.  All these factors kept Charles from effectively dealing with the Lutherans for over twenty years.
Therefore, it was 1546 before Charles could attack a defensive alliance of Lutheran princes known as the Schmalkaldic League.  Charles won a decisive military victory.  But the complex forces discussed above kept him from imposing either firm imperial control or his Catholic faith on Germany.  Both Lutheranism and the privileges of the German princes were too deeply entrenched for that.  Consequently, Charles agreed to the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, a compromise giving each German prince the right to choose his realm’s religion, as long as it was either Catholic or Lutheran.  Calvinists, Anabaptists, and other non-Lutheran Protestants were outlawed.
  Instead of settling Germany’s religious problems, the Peace of Augsburg actually made them worse in three ways.  For one thing, Calvinism kept spreading across Germany, even among German princes, thus raising religious tensions even more.  Also, Charles V, worn out by over 30 years of trying to maintain his empire and religious unity, gave up his throne.  The family lands in Austria and the Imperial title went to his brother Ferdinand, while Charles’ son, the staunchly Catholic Philip II, inherited Spain, the Netherlands, most of Italy, and Spain’s American colonies.  Philip’s passionate hatred of the Protestants would also aggravate the growing religious conflict brewing. Finally, the Peace of Ausgburg led to thousands of refugees, especially Calvinists and Anabaptists, fleeing Germany and spreading their religious beliefs to the Spanish Netherlands (modern Belgium and Holland), France, and eventually England.
As a result, religious conflict spread to these three countries after 1560.  In the Spanish Netherlands the influx of Protestants created growing religious unrest that led to a pattern of Spanish repression, riots and protests in response, more repression, and so on.  Despite its disunity, the ensuing revolt would hang on due to its control of seaports in the North, good leadership, and anger against Spanish atrocities.  In France, rising tensions between Calvinists and Catholics triggered its own vicious cycle of weakening the government, which allowed more anarchy, further weakening the government, etc.  Coming from this was a series of bitter civil wars aggravated by the weak government, feudal separatism, nobles’ rivalries, and foreign intervention, especially by Spain.  Finally, tensions between Protestant England and Catholic Spain led the English to raid Spanish shipping and support the revolt in the Spanish Netherlands while Philip II conspired to dethrone Elizabeth I.
The critical turning event in all three of these conflicts was the defeat of Philip II’s Spanish Armada (1588) that was aimed against the Dutch and French Calvinists as well as England.  While this did not destroy Spain as a power, it did save Protestantism in Western Europe, thus setting the stage for the Thirty Years War.  It also helped the Dutch win their freedom (1648) and become the premier naval and trading power in the 1600’s.  Finally, it allowed the Calvinist leader, Henry of Navarre, to take the throne of France after placating his Catholic subjects by converting to Catholicism while ensuring religious freedom to the French Calvinists.  This ended the French Wars of Religion so Henry IV could lay the foundations for the absolute monarchy of Louis XIV.

Revolt of the Spanish Netherlands (1566-1648)

The Spanish Netherlands was a collection of seventeen semi-independent provinces lumped together under Spanish rule.  With the possible exception of Italy, they were the wealthiest trading and manufacturing area in Europe in the 1500’s.  Their main port, Antwerp, handled a full 50% of Europe’s trade with the outside world.  Charles V had been born there and was somewhat popular with the inhabitants.  That was not the case with Philip II.  It was said that Charles neglected the Spanish Netherlands, but his son, Philip, abused them.  This was largely true, although Charles also heavily taxed the Netherlands for his wars and tried to impose his religious policies on them.  The major difference was that Philip did it with a heavier hand and with little or no concern for the feelings of his subjects there.
Philip was Spanish born and never left his homeland after his coronation in 1556.  His view of the world was very Spanish and very Catholic.  He taxed the Netherlands to pay for Spanish wars and he claimed he would rather die a hundred deaths than rule over heretics. As it was, Anabaptist and Calvinist “heretics” were making their way into the Netherlands, especially after the Peace of Augsburg outlawed them in Germany.  Philip, determined to get them out, brought in the Inquisition and increased the number of bishops the Netherlands had to support from four to sixteen. This repression started a cycle that led to protests and riots, more Spanish repression and so on until rebellion broke out.  This rebellion would drag on until 1648, become part of the wider European struggle known as the Thirty Years War, and itself become known as the Eighty Years War.
In 1566, the Duke of Alva with an army of 10,000 Spanish troops established the so-called “Council of Blood” which burned Calvinist churches, executed their leaders, and raised taxes to levels ruinous for trade, and nearly extinguished the revolt. However, despite the disunity of the revolt itself, it managed to survive for several reasons.  First, Calvinist raiders, known as “Sea Beggars”, managed to gain control of some ports in the North.  When word of these Calvinist havens spread, more Calvinists flocked in.  As a result of this migration, Holland in the north became and remains primarily Protestant today.  The second reason was the rebels’ leader, William, Prince of Orange, called “the Silent” for his ability to mask his intentions.  Although a mediocre general, William was a brave and patriotic leader whose selfless determination gave the revolt what little cohesion it had.  His accomplishment, much like that of George Washington in the American Revolution, would be as much to keep the rebels together as keeping the enemy at bay.
Finally, Spanish attempts to crush the revolt of the Sea Beggars often alienated more people and made them go over to the rebels’ side.  This was especially the case in 1576 when Spanish troops in the loyal provinces to the south rioted and went on a rampage of looting and slaughter in Antwerp after going unpaid for 22 months.  (However, they were pious enough to fall to their knees and pray to the Virgin Mary to bless this atrocity.)
Fighting in the war itself was desperate and destructive.  The siege of Maastricht in 1579 involved vicious battles in the miles of underground mines and countermines dug around the city.  When Spanish troops finally poured in through a breach in the wall, a slaughter ensued which killed all but 400 people out of a population of 30,000.  At times the rebels had to stop Spanish invasions by opening up their dikes and literally flooding the enemy (and their own crops) out. At the siege of Leyden, this was done also to provide water on which the Dutch rebels could float relief ships full of grain right up to the walls of the city.  The city held out, but only half of its inhabitants survived the rigors of the siege, having subsisted on boiled leaves and roots, wheat chaff, dog meat, and dried fish skins.  Interestingly enough, it was not until 158l that the Dutch rebels formally deposed Philip II as their king and declared the Dutch Republic in the Oath of Abjuration, a document that would strongly influence the American Declaration of Independence and later democratic movements.
Philip’s efforts to establish Catholic rule in England and France got the Netherlands involved in the wider scope of European religious wars.  Troops from England helped the rebels, as did the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, which was aimed against the Dutch and French Calvinists as well as England.  After Dutch advances in the 1590’s and early 1600’s, the two sides signed a twelve years truce in 1609.  However, the Dutch continued to blockade the Scheldt River and cut off Antwerp’s trade.  Gradually, this trade shifted to the Dutch city of Amsterdam, thus making it the new commercial capital of Europe.  Hostilities resumed in 1621 as part of the wider conflict known as the Thirty Years War.  Gradually, growing Dutch economic power and Spanish exhaustion from constant warfare turned the tables in favor of the Dutch.  In 1628, the Dutch captured the entire Spanish treasure fleet.  In 1639, they crushed another Spanish Armada at the Battle of the Downs and ended Spanish naval power once and for all.
After eighty years of struggle, Spain finally recognized Dutch independence in 1648 in the Treaty of Munster.  At this point, the Dutch were at the height of their commercial and naval power, although England would challenge them for that position in the later 1600’s.  The southern provinces would remain under Spanish, then Austrian, and finally Dutch rule until they won their freedom in 183l and established the modern nation of Catholic Belgium in the south.

The French Wars of Religion (1562-98)

France was another country that saw the devastating effects of religious wars in the last half of the 1500’s.  In this case, the antagonists were the Catholic majority of France and a strong minority of French Calvinists known as Huguenots. Although only comprising about 10% of France’s population, the Huguenots had several factors that helped them maintain their struggle for over thirty years.  Their number included many nobles who provided excellent leadership.  They were concentrated largely in fortified cities in the south.  Finally, they were enthusiastic and well organized into local congregations.
For thirty years Catholic and Huguenot armies marched across France destroying its fields and homes.  All this bred a cycle of chaos and destruction where growing anarchy would steadily weaken the French government’s power, thus allowing even more anarchy and so on. There were actually seven French religious wars with intermittent periods of peace, which made these wars & this period of French history confused, chaotic, and bloody.
Once the wars started, they tended to drag on and were aggravated by several factors that made them especially destructive.  First of all, besides the religious struggles, fighting between noble factions and revolts by old feudal provinces exposed and added to the weaknesses of the French state.  Second, foreign intervention, especially by Spain, but also by other states such as England, compounded the turmoil and destruction.  Finally, France was ruled by weak monarchs who let these forces tear the country apart.
  The fighting was confused and often involved the massacres of women and children.  From 1562-157l there were eighteen massacres of Protestants, five massacres of Catholics, and over thirty assassinations. The most famous such event was the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (8/24/1572), when the Paris Catholics suddenly burst upon local and visiting Calvinists and killed some 3000 of them.  A letter from a Spanish ambassador shows the degree of fanaticism and viciousness that infected peoples’ minds and values then:  “As I write they are killing them all, they are stripping them naked…sparing not even the children.  Blessed be God.”
 Philip II added to the disorder by actively supporting the Catholics.  The turning point came with the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, which led to a series of assassinations.  First, the king, Henry III, assassinated the Catholic leader, Henry of Guise.  Then, a fanatical monk assassinated the king for what he saw as his betrayal of the Catholic cause.  The man in line to succeed Henry was still another Henry, duke of Navarre, who also happened to be the Huguenot leader.  The prospect of a Calvinist king did not set too well with the predominantly Catholic population of France and led to even more fighting.  Despite brilliant victories against heavy odds, Henry still faced the desperate resistance of the Parisians, whose priests told them it was better for them to eat their own children than let them live under a Calvinist king.  When confronted also with Spanish intervention to put a Catholic back on the throne, Henry somewhat cynically converted to Catholicism to give his Catholic opponents no more reason to attack him.
Despite Henry’s obvious political motives and the fact that he guaranteed Huguenot religious freedom by the Edict of Nantes (1598), Frenchmen were ready to accept him as king, since they were tired of constant warfare and wished only for peace.  In order to ensure this, Frenchmen were willing to submit to the stronger rule of a king. This attitude helped set the stage for the rise of France as the dominant power in Europe in the later 1600’s and the rule of one of its most glorious and absolute monarchs, Louis XIV, the Sun King.

Elizabethan England and the Spanish Armada

Certainly one of the most fascinating and capable monarchs of the age was Elizabeth I of England (1558-1603).  We have already seen how she skillfully defused religious tensions in England by grafting Catholic ritual and organization onto mild Protestant theology, thus keeping most people reasonably content.  Good Queen Bess, as she was known, was quite popular with her people, since she kept taxes low and knew how to get what she wanted from Parliament without being too demanding about it.  She also kept the people’s good will by acting as one of their own, patiently sitting through any pageants or speeches given in her honor.  Elizabeth and her subjects understood and loved each other quite well.  Her tolerant reign was a virtual golden age for England, nurturing among other things, the genius of William Shakespeare, possibly the greatest literary figure in its history.
Being a woman, Elizabeth had to be crafty to keep her throne, avoiding at all costs a marriage that would put a husband in her place as the real power in England.  As a result, she never married, although she cleverly held out the prospect of marriage to neutralize potential enemies and keep them on their best behavior.
The great test of Elizabeth’s reign was the war against Spain culminating in the Spanish Armada in 1588.  The causes of the war revolved mainly around religious differences between Spain and England that caused various acts of aggression by each side against the other.  Philip II still hoped fervently to re-establish Catholicism in England.  Throughout the 1570’s he plotted toward this end, trying to put Mary Queen of Scots, a Catholic, in Elizabeth’s place.  Elizabeth countered these intrigues by finally executing Mary after a long imprisonment.  She also sent troops to help the Dutch rebels, while encouraging freebooting English captains, such as Sir Francis Drake, to raid Spanish shipping.  Finally, Philip decided to crush the Protestants in England, Holland, and France by sending a huge armada (navy) and army northward in 1588.
Philip’s plan was to send the Armada to pick up the Spanish Army of Flanders which was then fighting the Dutch, transport it to England to crush the English, and then transport it back to crush the Dutch rebels and French Huguenots.  Thus the Armada presented a serious threat, not just to England, but also to the very existence of Protestantism in Europe.
On the surface, the struggle looked like an uneven one, heavily stacked in Spain’s favor.  However, the English had developed radical new tactics and ship designs that would revolutionize naval warfare. They built sleeker ships powered totally by sails.  Instead of boarding and grappling, they relied on cannons fired from the broadside to destroy the enemy fleet.  Recent research shows that the English enjoyed a decisive edge in firepower thanks to their use of shorter four wheeled carriages that made it easier to reload and fire the cannons.  This contrasted with the Spanish who still used longer gun carriages adapted for land use.  These had long trailers, which made it very difficult, if not impossible, to pull them inside the cramped quarters of the ship’s gun deck for reloading during the heat of battle.  These innovations successfully frustrated the Armada’s attempts to come to grips with the English.  However, the English, in turn, were unable to stop the Spanish advance up the coast for its rendezvous with the Army of Flanders.
When the Spanish pulled into the French harbor of Calais to rest, get supplies, and try to establish contact with the Army of Flanders (which through poor communications had no idea of its approach), the English struck.  Launching eight fireships into the midst of the Spanish fleet, they forced the Spanish ships out into the open and out of formation where the English could use their superior firepower and speed to destroy the Spanish ship by ship.  An ensuing storm added to the damage and forced the Spanish to give up on their rendezvous with the Army of Flanders and return home by sailing all the way around the British Isles.  When the Armada finally came limping back home, a full half of it had been destroyed.
The defeat of the Spanish Armada did not destroy Spain as a great power.  However, it did signal the beginning of the end of Spanish dominance of Europe.  In the first half of the 1600’s this process would accelerate as Spain wrecked itself by trying to maintain its power in an exhaustive and devastating series of conflicts, most notably the Thirty Years War (1618-48).  As a result, a new balance of power would emerge in Europe.  France would replace Spain as the main superpower, while the Dutch Republic and then England, despite their small size, would become the most dynamic naval and economic powers in Europe.
Europe’s mentality would also change in the 1600’s.  Exhausted and disgusted by the seemingly endless religious wars and disputes, many people would take a more secular (worldly) view of things, seeing religion more as a source of trouble than comfort.  By the late 1600’s, these views would flower in the great scientific and cultural movement known as the Enlightenment.

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