European Wars of Religion
The European wars of religion were a series of Christian religious wars waged in Europe in the 16th, 17th and early 18th centuries. Fought after the Protestant Reformation began in 1517, the wars disrupted the religious and political order in the Catholic countries of Europe. However, religion was only one of the causes, which also included revolts, territorial ambitions, and Great Power conflicts. For example, by the end of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), Catholic France was allied with the Protestant forces against the Catholic Habsburg monarchy. The wars were largely ended by the Peace of Westphalia (1648), establishing a new political order now known as Westphalian sovereignty.
The conflicts began with the minor Knights’ Revolt (1522), followed by the larger German Peasants’ War (1524–1525) in the Holy Roman Empire. Warfare intensified after the Catholic Church began the Counter-Reformation in 1545 against the growth of Protestantism. The conflicts culminated in the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), which devastated Germany and killed one-third of its population, a mortality rate twice that of World War I. The Peace of Westphalia (1648) broadly resolved the conflicts by recognising three separate Christian traditions in the Holy Roman Empire: Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism. Although many European leaders were “sickened” by the bloodshed by 1648, smaller religious wars continued to be waged in the post-Westphalian period until the 1710s, including the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (1639–1651) on the British Isles, the Savoyard–Waldensian wars (1655–1690), and the Toggenburg War (1712) in the Western Alps.
Definitions and discussions
The European wars of religion are also known as the Wars of the Reformation (and Counter-Reformation ). In 1517, Martin Luther‘s Ninety-five Theses took only two months to spread throughout Europe with the help of the printing press, overwhelming the abilities of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and the papacy to contain it. In 1521, Luther was excommunicated, sealing the schism within Western Christendom between the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutherans and opening the door for other Protestants to resist the power of the papacy.
Although most of the wars ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, religious conflicts continued to be fought in Europe until at least the 1710s. These included the Savoyard–Waldensian wars (1655–1690), the Nine Years’ War (1688–1697, including the Glorious Revolution and the Williamite War in Ireland), and the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714). Whether these should be included in the European wars of religion depends on how one defines a ‘war of religion’, and whether these wars can be considered ‘European’ (i.e. international rather than domestic).
The religious nature of the wars has also been debated, and contrasted with other factors at play, such as national, dynastic (e.g. they could often simultaneously be characterised as wars of succession), and financial interests. Scholars have pointed out that some European wars of this period were not caused by disputes occasioned by the Reformation, such as the Italian Wars (1494–1559, only involving Catholics) and the Northern Seven Years’ War (1563–1570, only involving Lutherans). Others emphasise the fact that cross-religious alliances existed, such as the Lutheran duke Maurice of Saxony assisting the Catholic emperor Charles V in the first Schmalkaldic War in 1547 in order to become the Saxon elector instead of John Frederick, his Lutheran cousin, while the Catholic king Henry II of France supported the Lutheran cause in the Second Schmalkaldic War in 1552 to secure French bases in modern-day Lorraine. The Encyclopædia Britannica maintains that “[the] wars of religion of this period [were] fought mainly for confessional security and political gain”.
Overview of wars
Individual conflicts that may be distinguished within this topic include:
- Pre-Reformation wars:
- The Hussite Wars (1419–1434) in the Lands of the Bohemian Crown
- Conflicts immediately connected with the Reformation of the 1520s to 1540s:
- The Knights’ Revolt (1522–1523) in the Holy Roman Empire
- The German Peasants’ War (1524–1526) in the Holy Roman Empire
- The Wars of Kappel (1529–1531) in the Old Swiss Confederacy
- The Tudor conquest of Ireland (1529–1603) on the Catholic population of Ireland by the Tudor kings of England and their Protestant allies
- The Kildare Rebellion (1534–1535)
- The First Desmond Rebellion (1569–1573)
- The Second Desmond Rebellion (1579–1583)
- The Nine Years’ War (1593–1603)
- The Münster rebellion (1534–1535) in the Prince-Bishopric of Münster
- The Count’s Feud (1534–1536) in the Kalmar Union (Denmark and Norway)
- The Anabaptist riot (1535) in Amsterdam
- Bigod’s rebellion (1537) in England
- The Schmalkaldic War (1546–1547) in the Holy Roman Empire
- The Prayer Book Rebellion (1549) in England
- The Second Schmalkaldic War or Princes’ Revolt (1552–1555)
- The French Wars of Religion (1562–1598) in France
- The Eighty Years’ War (1566/68–1648) in the Low Countries
- The Cologne War (1583–1588) in the Electorate of Cologne
- The Strasbourg Bishops’ War (1592–1604) in the Prince-Bishopric of Strasbourg
- The War against Sigismund (1598–1599) in the Polish–Swedish union
- The War of the Jülich Succession (1609–10, 1614) in the United Duchies of Jülich-Cleves-Berg
- The Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), affecting the Holy Roman Empire including the Habsburg Monarchy and Bohemia and Moravia, France, Denmark and Sweden
- Bohemian Revolt (1618–1620) between the Protestant nobility of the Bohemian Crown and their Catholic Habsburg king. This revolt started the Thirty Years’ War, causing additional conflicts elsewhere in Europe, and subsuming other already ongoing conflicts.
- Hessian War (1567–1648) between the Lutheran Landgraviate of Hesse-Darmstadt (member of the Catholic League) and the Calvinist Landgraviate of Hesse-Kassel (member of the Protestant Union)
- The Huguenot rebellions (1621–1629) in France
- The Wars of the Three Kingdoms (1639–1651), affecting England, Scotland and Ireland
- Bishops’ Wars (1639–1640)
- English Civil War (1642–1651)
- Scotland in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (1644–1651)
- Irish Confederate Wars (1641–1653) and the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland (1649–1653)
- The post-Westphalian wars:
- The Savoyard-Waldensian Wars (1655–1690) beginning with the Piedmontese Easter (Pasque piemontesi) of April 1655 in the Duchy of Savoy
- The First War of Villmergen (1656) in the Old Swiss Confederacy
- The Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665–1667) between England and the Dutch Republic
- The Nine Years’ War (1688–1697)
- The Glorious Revolution (1688–1689)
- The Williamite War in Ireland (1688–1691)
- The Jacobite rising of 1689 in Scotland saw Roman Catholics and Anglican Tories supporting the deposed Catholic king James Stuart take up arms against the newly enthroned Calvinist William of Orange and his Presbyterian Covenanter allies; the religious component may be regarded as secondary to the dynastic factor, however.
- The War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714) across Europe had a strong religious component
- The War in the Cevennes (1702–1710) in France
- The Second War of Villmergen or Toggenburg War (1712) in the Old Swiss Confederacy
Holy Roman Empire
Lutheranism, from its inception at Wittenberg in 1517, found a ready reception in Germany, as well as German-speaking parts of Hussite Bohemia (where the Hussite Wars took place from 1419 to 1434, and Hussites remained a majority of the population until the 1620 Battle of White Mountain). The preaching of Martin Luther and his many followers raised tensions across Europe. In Northern Germany, Luther adopted the tactic of gaining the support of the local princes and city elites in his struggle to take over and re-establish the church along Lutheran lines. The Elector of Saxony, the Landgrave of Hesse, and other North German princes not only protected Luther from retaliation from the edict of outlawry issued by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, but also used state power to enforce the establishment of Lutheran worship in their lands, in what is called the Magisterial Reformation. Church property was seized, and Catholic worship was forbidden in most territories that adopted the Lutheran Reformation. The political conflicts thus engendered within the Empire led almost inevitably to war.
The Knights’ Revolt of 1522 was a revolt by a number of Protestant and religious humanist German knights led by Franz von Sickingen, against the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Emperor. It has also been called the “Poor Barons’ Rebellion”. The revolt was short-lived but would inspire the bloody German Peasants’ War of 1524–1526.
Rebellions of Anabaptists and other radicals
Because of their revolutionary political ideas, radical reformers like Thomas Müntzer were compelled to leave the Lutheran cities of North Germany in the early 1520s. They spread their revolutionary religious and political doctrines into the countryside of Bohemia, Southern Germany, and Switzerland. Starting as a revolt against feudal oppression, the peasants’ uprising became a war against all constituted authorities, and an attempt to establish by force an ideal Christian commonwealth. The total defeat of the insurgents at Frankenhausen on May 15, 1525 was followed by the execution of Müntzer and thousands of his peasant followers. Martin Luther rejected the demands of the insurgents and upheld the right of Germany’s rulers to suppress the uprisings, setting out his views in his polemic Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants. This played a major part in the rejection of his teachings by many German peasants, particularly in the south.
After the Peasants’ War, a second and more determined attempt to establish a theocracy was made at Münster, in Westphalia (1532–1535). Here a group of prominent citizens, including the Lutheran pastor turned Anabaptist Bernhard Rothmann, Jan Matthys, and Jan Bockelson (“John of Leiden”) had little difficulty in obtaining possession of the town on January 5, 1534. Matthys identified Münster as the “New Jerusalem”, and preparations were made to not only hold what had been gained, but to proceed from Münster toward the conquest of the world.
Claiming to be the successor of David, John of Leiden was installed as king. He legalized polygamy and took sixteen wives, one of whom he personally beheaded in the marketplace. Community of goods was also established. After obstinate resistance, the town was taken by the besiegers on June 24, 1535, and then Leiden and some of his more prominent followers were executed in the marketplace.
In 1529 under the lead of Huldrych Zwingli, the Protestant canton and city of Zürich had concluded with other Protestant cantons a defence alliance, the Christliches Burgrecht, which also included the cities of Konstanz and Strasbourg. The Catholic cantons in response had formed an alliance with Ferdinand of Austria.
On October 11, 1531, the Catholic cantons decisively defeated the forces of Zürich in the Second War of Kappel. The Zürich troops had little support from allied Protestant cantons, and Huldrych Zwingli was killed on the battlefield, along with twenty-four other pastors. After the defeat, the forces of Zürich regrouped and attempted to occupy the Zugerberg, and some of them camped on the Gubel hill near Menzingen. A small force of Aegeri succeeded in routing the camp, and the demoralized Zürich force had to retreat, forcing the Protestants to agree to a peace treaty to their disadvantage. Switzerland was to be divided into a patchwork of Protestant and Catholic cantons, with the Protestants tending to dominate the larger cities, and the Catholics the more rural areas.
In 1656, tensions between Protestants and Catholics re-emerged and led to the outbreak of the First War of Villmergen. The Catholics were victorious and able to maintain their political dominance. The Toggenburg War in 1712 was a conflict between Catholic and Protestant cantons. According to the Peace of Aarau of 11 August 1712 and the Peace of Baden of 16 June 1718, the war ended with the end of Catholic hegemony. The Sonderbund War of 1847 was also based on religion.
The Schmalkaldic Wars and other early conflicts
The peace finally ended in the Schmalkaldic War (German: Schmalkaldischer Krieg), a brief conflict between 1546 and 1547 between the forces of Charles V and the princes of the Schmalkaldic League. The conflict ended with the advantage of the Catholics, and the Emperor was able to impose the Augsburg Interim, a compromise allowing slightly modified worship, and supposed to remain in force until the conclusion of a General Council of the Church. However various Protestant elements rejected the Interim, and the Second Schmalkaldic War broke out in 1552, which would last until 1555.
The Peace of Augsburg (1555), signed by Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, confirmed the result of the 1526 Diet of Speyer and ended the violence between the Lutherans and the Catholics in Germany. It stated that:
- German princes could choose the religion (Lutheranism or Catholicism) of their realms according to their conscience. The citizens of each state were forced to adopt the religion of their rulers (the principle of cuius regio, eius religio).
- Lutherans living in an ecclesiastical state (under the control of a bishop) could continue to practice their faith.
- Lutherans could keep the territory that they had captured from the Catholic Church since the Peace of Passau in 1552.
- The ecclesiastical leaders of the Catholic Church (bishops) that had converted to Lutheranism were required to give up their territories.
Religious tensions remained strong throughout the second half of the 16th century. The Peace of Augsburg began to unravel as some bishops converting to Protestantism refused to give up their bishoprics. This was evident from the Cologne War (1582–83), a conflict initiated when the prince-archbishop of the city converted to Calvinism. Religious tensions also broke into violence in the German free city of Donauwörth in 1606, when the Lutheran majority barred the Catholic residents from holding a procession, provoking a riot. This prompted intervention by Duke Maximilian of Bavaria on behalf of the Catholics.
By the end of the 16th century the Rhine lands and those of southern Germany remained largely Catholic, while Lutherans predominated in the north, and Calvinists dominated in west-central Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. The latter formed the League of Evangelical Union in 1608.
The Thirty Years’ War
During the 16th and 17th centuries, the Netherlands, or Low Countries, were engaged in a seemingly futile struggle for independence against the most dominant power of the times, Spain. The most politically significant turn of events came when Charles V of Spain transferred sovereignty of the Low Countries to his son Philip II. At this point in history the Low Countries were a loosely associated cluster of provinces. Philip II mishandled his responsibility through a series of bungled diplomatic maneuvers. Unlike his father, he had no basic understanding of the people placed under his direction. Charles V spoke the language; Philip II did not. Charles V was raised in Brussels; Philip II was considered a foreigner.
The religious element was a decisive factor in the development of hostilities despite the fact that the Dutch people at the time were overwhelmingly Roman Catholic. Their theological basis was in the liberal tradition of Erasmus versus the conservative line of the Spanish Church. Nevertheless, Protestant religions, especially Calvinism, seeped into the Low Countries during the early part of the 16th century due to the fact that it was a major center for trade. This period was also known for the Inquisition. Under Charles’ reign, the Low Countries were subjected to the papal form of the Inquisition where laws were rarely enforced. An incident at Rotterdam involving the rescue of several heretics from burning at the stake made Philip introduce the Spanish form of the Inquisition. This did little to promote allegiance to Spain.
Calvinism thrived in the mercantile atmosphere of the Low Countries. Businessmen liked the role of the laity in Calvinist congregations. The Roman Catholic church was viewed as an unyielding patriarch, and the pompous hierarchy of the Roman Catholic church was resented even though Catholicism had respect as an important social, moral, and political force. Merchants welcomed the “new” religion. Not to be taken lightly was the imposition of taxes on the businesses and people of the Low Countries. The taxation was unilateral in nature: it was levied by a foreign political entity and the benefit derived from the taxes went to Spain. Spain was building an empire, and the low Countries paid dearly.
In 1559 Philip appointed Margaret of Parma as governess. She held little power since her authority had been carefully limited by advisors designated by Philip. This was a means of preserving absolute control over the Low Countries and it was an excellent vehicle to promote the spread of the Inquisition. Hardly a day passed without an execution. Protestant authorities substantiate a number of accounts associated with the “justice” of Philip. One account reveals an incident where an Anabaptist was hacked to death with seven blows of a rusty sword in the presence of his wife, who died at the horror of the sight. Another tells of an enraged man who interrupted Christmas Mass, took the host, and trampled it. He was put to torture by having his right hand and foot burned away to the bane. His tongue was torn out, he was suspended over a fire and was slowly roasted to death. Margaret interceded but the atrocities continued. Even the Catholics now joined with Protestants as Philip stated that he would rather sacrifice a hundred thousand lives than change his policy. Some diplomacy was used and when a compromise was reached on May 6, 1566, Philip eased off. During the ensuing lull, Protestants brought their worship into the open. A group called the “Beggars” grew in strength and proceeded to raise a sizable army.
On August 6, 1566, Philip signed a formal instrument declaring that his offer of pardon had been gotten from him against his will. He claimed that he was not bound by the compromise of May 6 and a few days later, Philip assured the Pope that any suspension of the Inquisition was subject to papal approval. The destruction of thirty churches and monasteries followed. Protestants entered cathedrals smashing holy objects, breaking up altars and statues and smashing stained glass windows. Bodies were exhumed and corpses were stripped. Numbers of malcontents drank sacramental wine and burned missals. One Count fed the Eucharistic wafers to his parrot in defiance. It was well known that most Protestant leaders condemned the violence perpetrated by the angry mobs, but the pillage and destruction of property was considered far less criminal than burning heretics at the stake. On the political front, William of Orange saw the opportunity to amass support for a large scale insurrection aimed at procuring independence from Spain. Philip became dissatisfied with Margaret, and seized the opportunity to relieve her. The choice was crucial. Instead of selecting a successor trained in handling diplomacy, Philip sent the Duke of Alva to crush the malcontents.
Duke of Alba (Alva)
Philip gave full power to Alva in 1567. Alva’s judgment was that of a soldier trained in Spanish discipline and piety. His object was to crush the rebels without mercy on the basis that every concession strengthens the opposition. Alva hand-picked an army of 10,000 men. He issued them the finest in armor while attending to their baser needs by hiring 2,000 prostitutes. Alva installed himself as Governor General and appointed a Council of Troubles which the terrified Protestants renamed “The Council of Blood.” There were nine members: seven Dutch and two Spanish. Only the two Spanish members had the power to vote, with Alva personally retaining the right of final decision on any case that interested him. Through a network of spies and informers, hardly a family in Flanders did not mourn some member arrested or killed. One morning, 1,500 were seized in their sleep and sent to jail. There were short trials held, often on the spot, for 40 or 50 at a time. In January, 1568, 84 people were executed from Valenciennes alone. William of Orange decided to strike back at Spain, having organized three armies. He lost every battle and the Eighty Years’ War was underway (1568–1648).
The Duke of Alva had money sent from Spain but it was intercepted by English privateers who were beginning to establish England as a viable world power. The Queen of England sent her apologies as a matter of diplomatic courtesy while unofficially enjoying Spain’s troubles. Alva responded to his financial bind by imposing a new series of taxes. There was a 1% levy on all property, due immediately. He enforced a 5% perpetual tax on every transfer of realty and a 10% perpetual tax on every sale. This was Alva’s downfall. Catholics, as well as Protestants, opposed him for eroding the foundations of business upon which the Dutch economy was built. What followed was a series of mutual confiscation of property as England and Spain played international cat-and-mouse.
Two new forces emerged to oppose Spain. Seizing upon the term, Beggars, used earlier in a derogatory manner by Margaret of Parma, the Dutch rebels formed the Wild Beggars and the Beggars of the Sea. The Wild Beggars pillaged churches and monasteries, cutting off the noses and ears of priests and monks. The Beggars of the Sea took to pirating under commission from William of Orange. William, who raised another army after a series of earlier defeats, again battled the Spanish without a single victory. He could neither control his troops nor deal with the fanatic Beggars. There existed no true unity between Catholics, Calvinists, and Protestants against Alva. The Beggars, who were nearly all ardent Calvinists, showed against the Catholics the same ferocity that the Inquisition and the Council of Blood had shown against rebels and heretics. Their captives were often given a choice between Calvinism and death. They unhesitatingly killed those who clung to the old faith, sometimes after incredible tortures. One Protestant historian wrote:
On more than one occasion men were seen hanging their own brothers, who had been taken prisoners in the enemy rank. The islanders found fierce pleasure in these acts of cruelty. A Spaniard had ceased to be human in their eyes. On one occasion a surgeon at Veer cut the heart from a Spanish prisoner, nailed it on a vessel’s prow, and invited the townsmen to come and fasten their teeth in it, which many did with savage satisfaction.
While Alva rested, he sent his son Don Fadrique to revenge the Beggar’s atrocities. Don Fadrique’s troops indiscriminately sacked homes, monasteries and churches. They stole the jewels and costly robes of the religious. They trampled consecrated hosts, butchered men and violated women. No distinction was made between Catholic or Protestant. His army crushed the weak defenses of Zutphen and put nearly every man in town to death, hanging some by the feet while drowning 500 others. Sometime later after brief resistance, little Naarden surrendered to the Spaniards. They greeted the victorious soldiers with tables set with feasts. The soldiers ate, drank, then killed every person in the town. Don Fadrique’s army later attempted to besiege Alkmaar but the rebels won by opening the dikes and routing the Spanish troops. When Don Fadrique came to Haarlem a brutal battle ensued. Haarlem was a Calvinist center that was known for its enthusiastic support of the rebels. A garrison of 4,000 troops defended the city with such intensity that Don Fadrique contemplated withdrawing. His father, Alva, threatened to disown him if he stopped the siege, so the barbarities intensified. Each army hung captives on crosses facing the enemy. The Dutch defenders taunted the Spanish besiegers by staging parodies of Catholic rituals on the cities ramparts.
William sent 3,000 men in an effort to relieve Haarlem. They were destroyed and subsequent efforts to save the city were futile. After seven months, when the city’s inhabitants had been reduced to eating weeds and heather, the city surrendered (July 11, 1573). Most of the 1,600 surviving defenders were put to death and 400 leading citizens were executed. Those that were spared were shown mercy only because they agreed to pay a fine of 250,000 guilders, a sizable sum even by today’s standards. This was considered the last and most costly victory of Alva’s regime. The Bishop of Namur estimated that in seven years, Alva had done more to harm Catholicism than Luther or Calvin had done in a generation. A new Governor of the Netherlands followed.
Philip’s half brother, the famous Don John, was placed in charge of the Spanish troops who, feeling cheated at not being able to pillage Zeirikzee, mutinied and began a campaign of indiscriminate plunder and violence. This “Spanish Fury” was used by William to reinforce his arguments to ally all the Netherlands’ Provinces with him. The Union of Brussels was formed only to be dissolved later out of intolerance towards the religious diversity of its members. Calvinists began their wave of uncontrolled atrocities aimed at the Catholics. This divisiveness gave Spain the opportunity to send Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma with 20,000 well-trained troops into the Netherlands. Groningen, Breda, Campen, Antwerp, and Brussels, among others, were put to siege.
Farnese, the son of Margaret of Parma, was the ablest general of Spain. In January, 1579, a group of Catholic nobles formed a League for the protection of their religion and property. Later that same month Friesland, Gelderland, Groningen, Holland, Overijssel, Utrecht and Zeeland formed the United Provinces which became the Dutch Netherlands of today. The remaining provinces became the Spanish Netherlands and in the 19th century became Belgium. Farnese soon regained nearly all the Southern provinces for Spain.
Further north, the city of Maastricht was besieged on March 12, 1579. Farnese’s attackers tunneled an extensive network of passages in order to enter the city beneath its walled defenses. The defenders dug tunnels to meet them. Battles were fought fiercely in caverns with limited maneuvering capabilities. Hundreds of besiegers were scalded or choked to death when boiling water was poured into the tunnels or fires were lit to fill them with smoke. In an attempt to mine the city, 500 of Farnese’s own men were killed when the explosives detonated prematurely. It took more than four months but the besiegers finally breached the wall and entered the city at night. Catching the exhausted defenders sleeping, they massacred 6,000 men, women and children. Of the city’s 30,000 population, only 400 survived. Farnese repeopled it with Walloon Catholics.
Maastricht was a major disaster for the Protestant cause and the Dutch began to turn on William of Orange. After several unsuccessful attempts, William was assassinated in 1584 and died penniless. Spain had taken the upper hand on land but the Beggars still controlled the sea. Queen Elizabeth of England began to aid the Northern provinces and actually sent troops there in 1585. While Philip wasted Farnese with ridiculous and useless battles against England and France, Spain had become spread too thin. The Spanish Armada suffered defeat at the hands of the English in 1588 and the situation in the Netherlands became increasingly difficult to manage.
Maurice of Nassau, William’s son, had studied mathematics and applied the latest techniques in science to ballistics and siege warfare. He recaptured Deventer, Groningen, Nijmegen and Zutphen.
In 1592, Farnese died of wounds and exhaustion. Philip II died in 1598. As the period of sieges subsided, the War of Liberation continued. Archduke Albert and Isabel of Austria were given sovereign rights in the Netherlands forming a truce in 1609 that gave the Dutch a brief respite from war. But, in 1621, 12 years later, the war resumed when the Netherlands reverted to Spain when Albert and Isabel died childless. This period never experienced the fury of the early sieges; however, the struggle for independence went on. Attacks on Dutch border towns were made by Spinola, an Italian banker who pledged allegiance to Spain. Spain made progress in trying to suppress the Dutch but the Dutch recovered. They were financially supported by France and the money was poured into ships since Spain’s control of the seas had been broken by England. Deeply involved in the Thirty Years’ War, Spain decided to yield everything to the Dutch in order to be free to fight the French. The Treaty of Münster was signed on January 30, 1648, ending the War of Liberation.
In 1532, King Francis I intervened politically and militarily in support of Protestant German princes against the Habsburgs, as did King Henry II in 1551. However, both kings firmly repressed attempts to spread Lutheran ideas within France. An organised influx of Calvinist preachers from Geneva and elsewhere during the 1550s succeeded in setting up hundreds of underground Calvinist congregations in France.
In December 1560, Francis II died, and Catherine de’ Medici became regent for her young son Charles IX. Although a Roman Catholic, she was prepared to deal favourably with the Huguenot House of Bourbon. She therefore supported religious toleration in the shape of the Edict of Saint-Germain (January 1562), which allowed the Huguenots to worship publicly outside of towns and privately inside of them. On March 1, however, a faction of the Guise family’s retainers attacked an illegal Calvinist service in Wassy-sur-Blaise in Champagne. As hostilities broke out, the Edict was revoked.
This provoked the First War. The Bourbons, with English support and led by Louis I de Bourbon, Prince de Condé, and Admiral Coligny, began to seize and garrison strategic towns along the Loire. The Battle of Dreux and the battle of Orléans were the first major engagements of the conflict. In February 1563, at Orléans, Francis, Duke of Guise was assassinated, and Catherine’s fears that the war might drag on led her to mediate a truce and the Edict of Amboise (1563), which again provided for a controlled religious toleration of Protestant worship.
However, this was generally regarded as unsatisfactory by both Catholics and Protestants. The political temperature of the surrounding lands was rising, as religious unrest grew in the Netherlands. The Huguenots tried to gain French government support for intervention against the Spanish forces arriving in the Netherlands. Failing this, Protestant troops then made an unsuccessful attempt to capture and take control of King Charles IX at Meaux in 1567. This provoked a further outbreak of hostilities (the Second War), which ended in another unsatisfactory truce, the Peace of Longjumeau (March 1568).
In September of that year, war again broke out (the Third War). Catherine and Charles decided this time to ally themselves with the House of Guise. The Huguenot army was under the command of Louis I de Bourbon, prince de Condé, and aided by forces from south-eastern France and a contingent of Protestant militias from Germany—including 14,000 mercenary reiters led by the Calvinist Duke of Zweibrücken. After the Duke was killed in action, he was succeeded by the Count of Mansfeld and the Dutch William of Orange and his brothers Louis and Henry. Much of the Huguenots’ financing came from Queen Elizabeth I of England. The Catholics were commanded by the Duke d’Anjou (later King Henry III) and assisted by troops from Spain, the Papal States and the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.
The Protestant army laid siege to several cities in the Poitou and Saintonge regions (to protect La Rochelle), and then Angoulême and Cognac. At the Battle of Jarnac (16 March 1569), the Prince de Condé was killed, forcing Admiral de Coligny to take command of the Protestant forces. Coligny and his troops retreated to the south-west and regrouped with Gabriel, comte de Montgomery, and in spring of 1570 they pillaged Toulouse, cut a path through the south of France and went up the Rhone valley to La Charité-sur-Loire. The staggering royal debt and Charles IX’s desire to seek a peaceful solution led to the Peace of Saint-Germain-en-Laye (8 August 1570), which once more allowed some concessions to the Huguenots. In 1572, rising tensions between local Catholics and Protestant forces attending the wedding of the Protestant Henry of Navarre, and the King’s sister, Marguerite de Valois, culminated in the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. This led to the Fourth and Fifth Civil wars in 1572 and 1573–1576.
Henry of Anjou was crowned King Henry III of France in 1575, at Reims, but hostilities—the Fifth War—had already flared up again. Henry soon found himself in the difficult position of trying to maintain royal authority in the face of feuding warlords who refused to compromise. In 1576, the King signed the Edict of Beaulieu, granting minor concessions to the Calvinists, but a brief Sixth Civil War took place in 1577. Henry I, Duke of Guise, formed the Catholic League to protect the Catholic cause in France. Further hostilities—the Seventh War (1579–1580)—ended in the stalemate of the Treaty of Fleix.
The fragile compromise came to an end in 1584, when the King’s youngest brother and heir presumptive, François, Duke of Anjou, died. As Henry III had no son, under Salic Law, the next heir to the throne was the Calvinist Prince Henry of Navarre. Under pressure from the Duke of Guise, Henry III reluctantly issued an edict suppressing Protestantism and annulling Henry of Navarre’s right to the throne.
In December 1584, the Duke of Guise signed the Treaty of Joinville on behalf of the Catholic League with Philip II of Spain, who supplied a considerable annual grant to the League. The situation degenerated into the Eighth War (1585–1589). Henry of Navarre again sought foreign aid from the German princes and Elizabeth I of England. Meanwhile, the solidly Catholic people of Paris, under the influence of the Committee of Sixteen, were becoming dissatisfied with Henry III and his failure to defeat the Calvinists. On 12 May 1588, a popular uprising raised barricades on the streets of Paris, and Henry III fled the city. The Committee of Sixteen took complete control of the government and welcomed the Duke of Guise to Paris. The Guises then proposed a settlement with a cipher as heir and demanded a meeting of the Estates-General, which was to be held in Blois.
King Henry decided to strike first. On December 23, 1588, at the Château de Blois, Henry of Guise and his brother, the Cardinal de Guise, were lured into a trap and were murdered. The Duke of Guise had been highly popular in France, and the league declared open war against King Henry. The Parliament of Paris instituted criminal charges against the King, who now joined forces with his cousin, Henry of Navarre, to war against the League.
Charles of Lorraine, Duke of Mayenne, then became the leader of the Catholic League. League presses began printing anti-royalist tracts under a variety of pseudonyms, while the Sorbonne proclaimed that it was just and necessary to depose Henry III. In July 1589, in the royal camp at Saint-Cloud, a monk named Jacques Clément gained an audience with the King and drove a long knife into his spleen. Clément was executed on the spot, taking with him the information of who, if anyone, had hired him. On his deathbed, Henry III called for Henry of Navarre and begged him, in the name of Statecraft, to become a Catholic, citing the brutal warfare that would ensue if he refused. In keeping with Salic Law, he named Henry as his heir.
The situation on the ground in 1589 was that King Henry IV of France, as Navarre had become, held the south and west, and the Catholic League the north and east. The leadership of the Catholic League had devolved to the Duke de Mayenne, who was appointed Lieutenant-General of the kingdom. He and his troops controlled most of rural Normandy. However, in September 1589, Henry inflicted a severe defeat on the Duke at the Battle of Arques. Henry’s army swept through Normandy, taking town after town throughout the winter.
The King knew that he had to take Paris if he stood any chance of ruling all of France. This, however, was no easy task. The Catholic League’s presses and supporters continued to spread stories about atrocities committed against Catholic priests and the laity in Protestant England (see Forty Martyrs of England and Wales). The city prepared to fight to the death rather than accept a Calvinist king. The Battle of Ivry, fought on March 14, 1590, was another victory for the king, and Henry’s forces went on to lay siege to Paris, but the siege was broken by Spanish support. Realising that his predecessor had been right and that there was no prospect of a Protestant king succeeding in Catholic Paris, Henry reputedly uttered the famous phrase Paris vaut bien une messe (Paris is well worth a Mass). He was formally received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1593 and was crowned at Chartres in 1594.
Some members of the League fought on, but enough Catholics were won over by the King’s conversion to increasingly isolate the diehards. The Spanish withdrew from France under the terms of the Peace of Vervins. Henry was faced with the task of rebuilding a shattered and impoverished Kingdom and reuniting France under a single authority. The wars concluded in 1598 when Henry IV issued the Edict of Nantes, which granted a degree of religious toleration to Protestants.
France, although always ruled by a Catholic monarch, had played a major part in supporting the Protestants in Germany and the Netherlands against their dynastic rivals, the Habsburgs. The period of the French Wars of Religion effectively removed France’s influence as a major European power, allowing the Catholic forces in the Holy Roman Empire to regroup and recover.
In 1524, King Christian II converted to Lutheranism and encouraged Lutheran preachers to enter Denmark despite the opposition of the Danish diet of 1524. Following the death of King Frederick I in 1533, war broke out between Catholic followers of Count Christoph of Oldenburg and the firmly Lutheran Count Christian of Holstein. After losing his main support in Lübeck, Christoph quickly fell to defeat, finally losing his last stronghold of Copenhagen in 1536. Lutheranism was immediately established, the Catholic bishops were imprisoned, and monastic and church lands were soon confiscated to pay for the armies that had brought Christian to power. In Denmark this increased royal revenues by 300%. Christian III did also establish Lutheranism by force in Norway in 1537, Faroe Island in 1540, and Iceland in 1550. In 1536/1537 he also made Norway a puppet state under the Danish crown. and it would be a puppet state until 1814, when Frederick VI gave away the crown of Norway to the king of Sweden as part of the Treaty of Kiel.
The Count’s Feud, from 1534 to 1536, was a civil war over the Reformation of Denmark.
In 1625, as part of the Thirty Years’ War, Christian IV, who was also the Duke of Holstein, agreed to help the Lutheran rulers of neighbouring Lower Saxony against the forces of the Holy Roman Empire by intervening militarily. Denmark’s cause was aided by France, which, together with England, had agreed to help subsidize the war. Christian had himself appointed war leader of the Lower Saxon Alliance and raised an army of 20,000–35,000 mercenaries. Christian, however, was forced to retire before the combined forces of Imperial generals Albrecht von Wallenstein and Tilly. Wallenstein’s army marched north, occupying Mecklenburg, Pomerania, and ultimately Jutland. However, lacking a fleet, he was unable to take the Danish capital on the island of Zealand. Peace negotiations were concluded in the Treaty of Lübeck in 1629, which stated that Christian IV could keep his control over Denmark if he would abandon his support for the Protestant German states.
Great Britain and Ireland
Main article: English Reformation
The Reformation came to Britain and Ireland with King Henry VIII of England’s breach with the Catholic Church in 1533. At this time there were only a limited number of Protestants among the general population, and these were mostly living in the towns of the South and the East of England. With the state-ordered break with the Pope in Rome, the Church in England, Wales and Ireland was placed under the rule of the King and Parliament.
The first major changes to doctrine and practice took place under Vicar-General Thomas Cromwell, and the newly appointed Protestant-leaning Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. The first challenge to the institution of these reforms came from Ireland, where ‘Silken’ Thomas Fitzgerald cited the controversy to justify his armed uprising of 1534. The young Fitzgerald failed to gain much local support, however, and in October a 1,600 strong army of English and Welshmen arrived in Ireland, along with four modern siege-guns. The following year Fitzgerald was blasted into submission, and in August he was induced to surrender.
Shortly after this episode, local resistance to the reforms emerged in England. The Dissolution of the Monasteries, which began in 1536, provoked a violent northern Catholic rebellion in the Pilgrimage of Grace, which was eventually put down with much bloodshed. The reformation continued to be imposed on an often unwilling population with the aid of stern laws that made it treason, punishable by death, to oppose the King’s actions with respect to religion. The next major armed resistance took place in the Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549, which was an unsuccessful rising in western England against the enforced substitution of Cranmer’s English language service for the Latin Catholic Mass.
Following the restoration of Catholicism under Queen Mary I of England in 1553, there was a brief unsuccessful Protestant rising in the south-east of England.
Main article: Scottish Reformation
The Reformation in Scotland began in conflict. Fiery Calvinist preacher John Knox returned to Scotland in 1560, having been exiled for his part in the assassination of Cardinal Beaton. He proceeded to Dundee where a large number of Protestant sympathisers and noblemen had gathered. Knox was declared an outlaw by the Queen Regent, Mary of Guise, but the Protestants went at once to Perth, a walled town that could be defended in case of a siege. At the church of St John the Baptist, Knox preached a fiery sermon that provoked an iconoclastic riot. A mob poured into the church and it was entirely gutted. In the pattern of Calvinist riots in France and the Netherlands, the mob then attacked two friaries in the town, looting their gold and silver and smashing images. Mary of Guise gathered those nobles loyal to her and a small French army.
However, with Protestant reinforcements arriving from neighbouring counties, the queen regent retreated to Dunbar. By now Calvinist mobs had overrun much of central Scotland, destroying monasteries and Catholic churches as they went. On 30 June, the Protestants occupied Edinburgh, though they were only able to hold it for a month. But even before their arrival, the mob had already sacked the churches and the friaries. On 1 July, Knox preached from the pulpit of St Giles’, the most influential in the capital.
Knox negotiated by letter with William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, Elizabeth’s chief advisor, for English support. When additional French troops arrived in Leith, Edinburgh’s seaport, the Protestants responded by retaking Edinburgh. This time, on 24 October 1559, the Scottish nobility formally deposed Mary of Guise from the regency. Her secretary, William Maitland of Lethington, defected to the Protestant side, bringing his administrative skills. For the final stage of the revolution, Maitland appealed to Scottish patriotism to fight French domination. Support from England finally arrived and by the end of March, a significant English army joined the Scottish Protestant forces. The sudden death of Mary of Guise in Edinburgh Castle on 10 June 1560 paved the way for the signing of the Treaty of Edinburgh, and the withdrawal of French and English troops from Scotland, leaving the Scottish Calvinists in control on the ground. Catholicism was forcibly suppressed.
The return of Mary, Queen of Scots, to Scotland in 1560, led to further tension between her and the Protestant Lords of the Congregation. Mary claimed to favour religious toleration on the French model, however the Protestant establishment feared a reestablishment of Catholicism, and sought with English help to neutralise or depose Mary. Mary’s marriage to a leading Catholic precipitated Mary’s half-brother, the Earl of Moray, to join with other Protestant Lords in open rebellion. Mary set out for Stirling on 26 August 1565 to confront them. Moray and the rebellious lords were routed and fled into exile; the decisive military action becoming known as the Chaseabout Raid. In 1567, Mary was captured by another rebellious force at the Battle of Carberry Hill and imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle, where she was forced to abdicate the Scottish throne in favour of her one-year-old son James. Mary escaped from Loch Leven the following year, and once again managed to raise a small army. After her army’s defeat at the Battle of Langside on May 13, she fled to England, where she was imprisoned by Queen Elizabeth. Her son James VI was raised as a Protestant, later becoming King of England as well as Scotland.
The Rising of the North, 1569 to 1570, was an unsuccessful attempt by Catholic nobles from Northern England to depose Queen Elizabeth I and replace her with Mary, Queen of Scots.
English Civil War
England, Scotland and Ireland, in personal union under the Stuart king, James I & VI, continued Elizabeth I’s policy of providing military support to European Protestants in the Netherlands and France. King Charles I decided to send an expeditionary force to relieve the French Huguenots whom Royal French forces held besieged in La Rochelle. However tax-raising authority for these wars was getting harder and harder to raise from parliament.
In 1638 the Scottish National Covenant was signed by aggrieved presbyterian lords and commoners. A Scottish rebellion, known as the Bishops War, soon followed, leading to the defeat of a weak royalist counter-force in 1640. The rebels went on to capture Newcastle upon Tyne, further weakening King Charles’ authority.
In October 1641, a major rebellion broke out in Ireland. Charles soon needed to raise more money to suppress this Irish Rebellion. Meanwhile, English Puritans and Scottish Calvinists intensely opposed the king’s main religious policy of unifying the Church of England and the Church of Scotland under a form of High Church Anglicanism. This, its opponents believed, was far too catholic in form, and based on the authority of bishops.
The English parliament refused to vote enough money for Charles to defeat the Scots without the King giving up much of his authority and reforming the English church along more Calvinist lines. This the king refused, and deteriorating relations led to the outbreak of war in 1642. The first pitched battle of the war, fought at Edgehill on 23 October 1642, proved inconclusive, and both the Royalists and Parliamentarians claimed it as a victory. The second field action of the war was a stand-off at Turnham Green, and Charles was forced to withdraw to Oxford, which would serve as his base for the remainder of the war.
In general, the early part of the war went well for the Royalists. The turning-point came in the late summer and early autumn of 1643, when the Earl of Essex’s army forced the king to raise the siege of Gloucester and then brushed the Royalist army aside at the First Battle of Newbury on 20 September 1643. In an attempt to gain an advantage in numbers Charles negotiated a ceasefire with the Catholic rebels in Ireland, freeing up English troops to fight on the Royalist side in England. Simultaneously Parliament offered concessions to the Scots in return for their aid and assistance.
With the help of the Scots, Parliament won at Marston Moor (2 July 1644), gaining York and much of the north of England. Oliver Cromwell’s conduct in this battle proved decisive, and demonstrated his leadership potential. In 1645 Parliament passed the Self-denying Ordinance, by which all members of either House of Parliament laid down their commands, allowing the re-organization of its main forces into the New Model Army. By 1646 Charles had been forced to surrender himself to the Scots, and the parliamentary forces were in control of England. Charles was executed in 1649, and the monarchy was not restored until 1660. Even then, religious strife continued through the Glorious Revolution and thereafter.
The Silken Thomas Rebellion was an Irish rebellion in 1534. Shane O’Neill’s Rebellion occurred from 1558 to 1567, and the Desmond Rebellions occurred in 1569–1573 and 1579–1583 in the Irish province of Munster.
Ireland entered into a continuous state of war with the rebellion of 1641, with most of the island controlled by the Irish Confederates. Increasingly threatened by the armies of the English Parliament after Charles I’s arrest in 1648, the Confederates signed a treaty of alliance with the English Royalists. The joint Royalist and Confederate forces under the Duke of Ormonde attempted to eliminate the Parliamentary army holding Dublin, but their opponents routed them at the Battle of Rathmines (2 August 1649). As the former Member of Parliament Admiral Robert Blake blockaded Prince Rupert’s fleet in Kinsale, Oliver Cromwell could land at Dublin on 15 August 1649 with an army to quell the Royalist alliance in Ireland.
Cromwell’s suppression of the Royalists in Ireland during 1649 still has a strong resonance for many Irish people. The siege of Drogheda and massacre of nearly 3,500 people—comprising around 2,700 Royalist soldiers and all the men in the town carrying arms, including civilians, prisoners, and Catholic priests—became one of the historical memories that has driven Irish-English and Catholic-Protestant strife during the last three centuries. However, the massacre has significance mainly as a symbol of the Irish perception of Cromwellian cruelty, as far more people died in the subsequent guerrilla warfare and scorched-earth fighting in the country than at infamous massacres such as Drogheda and Wexford. The Parliamentarian conquest of Ireland ground on for another four years until 1653, when the last Irish Confederate and Royalist troops surrendered. Historians have estimated that up to 30% of Ireland’s population either died or had gone into exile by the end of the wars. The victors confiscated almost all Irish Catholic-owned land in the wake of the conquest and distributed it to the Parliament’s creditors, to the Parliamentary soldiers who served in Ireland, and to English people who had settled there before the war.
The Pilgrimage of Grace was a popular rising in Yorkshire in 1536–37 against Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Catholic Church.
Bigod’s rebellion was an armed rebellion by English Roman Catholics in Cumberland and Westmorland against King Henry VIII of England and the English Parliament.