The writer H G Wells (1866-1946) described the Holy Roman Empire as a "crazy patchwork" of "sovereign princes, dukes, electors, prince bishops and the like." In 1655 there had been the Augsburg settlement whereby the territory of any prince who had been Luthern princes would continue as Luthern but Catholics in Luthern territories would be allowed to practice their Catholicism — but Calvinists and the Anabaptists were not recognized as having this freedom. The idea was not yet commonplace in Christian Europe that people should be left with the religious doctrines of their choice.
By the early 1600s, Scandinavia, England, Scotland and northern states in the Holy Roman Empire were Protestant, as were the self-governing Swiss cities of Geneva and Zurich. The Duke of Bavaria, Maximilian (in the Holy Roman Empire), on the other hand, was a proponent of the Catholic resurgence — the Counter-Reformation. In December 1607 he sent his troops to occupy a Protestant stronghold in Bavaria: the free city of Donauwörth. He purged Donauwörth of publicly functioning Protestantism, and this alarmed Protestant princes in the empire. They responded by forming a Protestant Union. This was answered in 1609 by Maximillian and other Catholic rulers in the empire establishing the Catholic League. An arms race and war between the two sides followed, what HG Wells described as akin to a civil war. It was a beginning of what would be called the Thirty Years' War, to be described as another of Europe's wars of religion and one of the longest and most destructive conflicts in human history.
In 1617, the Habsburg prince from Austria, Ferdinand II (brother of the deceased Philip II of Spain), became King of Bohemia (within the Holy Roman Empire) and he would become King of Hungary in 1618 and Holy Roman Emperor in 1619. He was a pious man, attending masses at all hours. He went on pilgrimages and endured self-abasement. In 1618 in Bohemia's capital, Prague, he closed some Protestant churches. This is where Jan Hus had been influential. Hus had been executed for heresy in 1415, and by the early 1600s many in Bohemia were members of Hussite churches. Bohemia was divided among Czechs and Germans, and Lutherism and Calvinism had arrived. The Habsburg kings there had reestablished Catholicism as the official religion while granting toleration to the Protestants, and the Protestants acquiesced so long as the Habsburg kings used their wealth for foreign purposes rather than local influences.
Like Maximilian and the Catholic League, Ferdinand intended to suppress Protestantism and make Catholicism the only religion in the Holy Roman Empire. Protestants in Bohemia rebelled. Maximilian (a failed contender for Holy Roman Emperor back in 1619) gave his support to Ferdinand, including the Catholic League army. The monarch in Spain, Philip III, another Habsburg, also supported Ferdinand. The Catholic armies pacified Upper and Lower Austria and then moved north into Bohemia. On 8 November 1620, a force led (so to speak) by Ferdinand II decisively defeated Frederick V at the Battle of White Mountain, near Prague. It was 15,000 mostly mercenaries hired by wealthy Protestants against 27,000 on the Spanish and Catholic League side. The Protestants lost about 4,000 killed or wounded, the Catholics about 700 dead or wounded. With the Protestant army destroyed, the Catholic army entered Prague and the Protestant revolt collapsed.
Much of the Bohemian nobility ran into exile. Their properties were confiscated and given to nobles who had demonstrated their loyalty to the Church and to Ferdinand (and some of it would end up with the military leader on the Catholic side, Albrecht von Wallenstein). In Prague, in June 1621, twenty-six Protestant noblemen were executed, and with the help of forced "conversions," Bohemia and neighboring Moravia were made Catholic.
Meanwhile, war as usual had intensified fear, loathing of evil and a search for enemies. Hatred had been unleashed that produced witch-hunts and pogroms. In his drive against the Protestants, the Lord Abbot of Fulda, Balthasar von Bernbach, in charge of a mobile Inquisition in search of witches as part of his drive against Protestantism, had within three years put 250 witches to death. A Protestant, Duke Heinrich Julius of Brunswick, had also hunted witches. The anti-witch campaigns included sadistic tortures in forcing confessions. Around 900 are reported to have been burned to death at Würzburg and around 600 at Bamberg. Some saw this as an act of Christian love to save those who stood on the brink of damnation. Being burned at the stake, it was believed, merely destroyed a person's body, while heresy killed a soul forever.
The Dutch back in 1568 revolted against Spain's high taxes and persecution of Protestants. In 1581, seven provinces in the Netherlands, including Holland, declared independence from Spain's Habsburg monarchy. These were called the United Provinces while other provinces, including Belgium, were to remain the Spanish Netherlands. A truce in the Dutch war for independence began in 1606, and it officially ended in 1618. War between Catholic Spain and the Protestant Dutch spread to the high seas and maritime shipping. The Dutch hired an unemployed army from the Holy Roman Empire to relieve a siege by a Spanish army at Bergen-op-Zoom in 1622, and in August that year, at the Battle of Fleurus, the Spanish army destroyed most of the Protestant army, and this set back Dutch trade in the Baltic Sea area, the Dutch losing maritime trade to their English competitors.
The following year, a Protestant army in the Holy Roman Empire was fleeing northward to the safety of Dutch territory but was caught five miles from the border. The Protestant army was destroyed, and after news of this reached the political leader of the Protestant forces, Frederick V (a Calvinist and former king of Bohemia, 1619-20), he gave up the fight and signed an armistice with Ferdinand II.
The Danes, Swedes, English, French and others were alarmed by the Habsburg successes. The king of Denmark and Norway, Christian IV, a Lutheran, expressed support for the Protestant princes in the Holy Roman Empire. He was also the Duke of Holstein and ruled other territories in what today is northern Germany. (In 1621, the nearby German city of Hamburg had accepted Danish sovereignty.) Denmark had wealth from tolls imposed on shipping on the Baltic Sea. The French and English agreed to help subsidize Christian IV against the Habsburgs. By 1625, Christian had raised an army of 20,000-35,000 mercenaries. Protestants in the Holy Roman Empire were infused with fresh hope. In response, Catholics commissioned their military leader, Wallenstein, to raise an army.
In 1625, plague appeared in England and on the continent. Catholic League forces under Field Marshall Johann Tilly were sick and ill-clad. They were mutinous, hungry and deserting. Their search for food turned into a scramble for plunder and women. Soldiers, writes Veronica Wedgewood, "set fire to villages and slaughtered such cattle as they did not drive off. In their hunt for plunder they dug up the graveyards for concealed treasure, combed the woods in which the homeless peasants had taken refuge, and shot down those they found, in order to steal their ragged bundles of savings and household goods." Wallenstein's soldiers, she writes, "were on the whole less destruction than Tilly's." Wallenstein saw to it that his men were contented, and he kept his troops paid.
Witch hysteria appeared again, in Würzburg, and was to last in that town for five years. Under Bishop Philip Adolf between 600 and 900 alleged witches would be executed.
The fighting season of 1626 produced defeats for Protestants. In August 1626 the Danes lost badly against the Catholic force at Lutter am Barenberges (in the middle of Germany), each side going into battle with about 20,000 men, infantry and cavalry, the Danes losing around 6,000 dead and 2,500 captured, the Catholics losing about 200 dead or wounded.
In response to the defeat at Lutter am Barenberges many of the small Protestant states in the Holy Roman Empire ended further allegiance with the Danes. Protestant princes sued for peace with the Catholics. In May 1629, Christian IV concluded a peace treaty with Emperor Ferdinand without any diminution of his realm, Christian agreeing to avoid further involvement in the empire's conflicts. This would have made it an Eleven Years' War rather than a Thirty Years' War, but Ferdinand II (the Holy Roman Emperor) wanted all Catholic properties lost to Protestantism since 1552 restored, with only Catholics and Lutherans — not Calvinists or others — allowed to practice their faiths. When Wallenstein started to enforce Frederick's position it was too much for Protestants in much of Europe, and Sweden joined the war on the side of the Protestants.
Sweden had been growing commercially, from a country of peasants and few towns to a country with a money economy that attracted foreign investments. It was a leading producer of iron and copper and a budding military power ready to defend its interests. Its Lutheran king since 1611, Gustavus II, believed it was his duty to help the Protestant cause. Also, he feared the Habsburgs dominating the maritime highways on Baltic Sea, and he had territorial ambitions. His war for Polish territory had ended and he was free to move into northern Germany. The Swedes entered the Holy Roman Empire via the Duchy of Pomerania in June, 1630. Protestant princes were encouraged and joined Gustavus' forces. Before Gustavus could get an army in the field to defend the Protestant city of Magdeburg on the Elbe River in northern Germany, that city fell to a crude military force — the Sack of Magdeburg in May 1631. According to the philosopher-historian AC Grayling,
its women were raped, 30,0000 of its citizers were slaughtered, and the city itself was put to the torch.
Later in 1631, King Gustavus II and a disciplined army equipped with superior muskets, crushed the Habsburg forces at Breitenfeld, securing northern Germany for Protestantism, the first major victory for Protestant forces in the war. Protestant Germany hailed Gustavus as a liberator. The Swedish army pushed on and wintered in Mainz (about fifty miles east of Luxembourg).
In the military campaigning that came in the spring of 1632 a Protestant army from Saxony marched into Bohemia and occupied Prague. The Swedes drove as far south as Augsburg and Munich, and fear by peasants of armies-on-the-move resulted in small-scale warfare between peasants and soldiers.
According to Veronica Wedgewood, the peasants warred also against the Catholic forces in Bavarua:
... the good harvest of 1632 and the poor, hail smitten harvest of 1633 had been alike destroyed by the passing armies... By the end of December between twenty and thirty thousand peasantry were in arms, holding the roads against Aldringen [Catholic commander] and his hungry troops.
At the Battle of Lützen in November (1632), Gustavus Adolphus became separated from his troops while leading a cavalry charge. He was not wearing armor, having said, The Lord God is my armor,and he took a bullet in his shoulder. He was plundered of his clothes and gold jewelry and left on the battlefield dressed only in his shirts and long stockings. Without King Adolphus to unify the Protestants their war effort lost direction. In 1634 the Swedes and their Saxon allies suffered a crushing defeat against a larger force at the Battle of Nördlingen (25,000 against 33,000, infantry and cavalry) the Protestants losing 21,000 killed or wounded, the Habsburgs 3,500 killed or wounded. In May 1635, Protestant princes made a separate peace with the Holy Roman Emperor: the Treaty of Prague, which has been described as ending the civil war aspect of the Thirty Years' War — the war within the Holy Roman Empire. But the armies of Spain and Sweden continued their hostilities in the Holy Roman Empire.
With them there were French forces. The French saw Spanish forces as a threat to its north-eastern border. And France was concerned about the Habsburgs dominating central Europe – a rivalry that counted for more with the Catholic monarchy in France than did the Catholic-Protestant conflict. With Sweden's army weakened, France was more afraid of being overwhelmed by Habsburg power. Louis XIII, warrior king and son of the good king Henry IV, was a member of the Bourbon family branch of French monarchs, the so-called House of Bourbon. Hostile toward the House of Habsburg (although married to a Habsburg: Anne of Austria), Louis XIII and his minister, Cardinal Richelieu, declared war on both Spain and on the Holy Roman Empire (its emperor, Ferdinand III, a Habsburg). In August 1636, France opened offensives against the Habsburgs in the Empire and the Netherlands. Spanish forces hit back with campaigns in northern France, but they were unable to follow through and gave the French time to regroup and drive the Spaniards back to their northern border. And the French were able to cut the Spaniards supply line to the Netherlands.
There was the Swedish victory Battle of Wittstock in October 1636, followed by more victories. In 1639 the Dutch navy annihilated the Spanish fleet. In 1640, burdens of the war led to unrest and revolt in Catalonia. The Catalan Republic was proclaimed. The Portuguese revolted, and fours years of war between Portugal and Spain began. In 1643, the French defeated one of Spain's best armies at Rocroi, in northern France, 22,000 against 23,500 on the Spanish side.
In 1645 the Swedes defeated the Catholic army at Battle of Jankov in Bohemia. Ferdinand III sent out calls to all of his estates of his dominions for fresh troops, and he sent a request to the papacy for a subsidy to raise more troops. Pope Innocent X (r. 1644-55) was another who was not friendly towards the Habsburgs, and he gave no aid to Ferdinand.
But by late December, 1645, the Swedish army was worn out by the continuous fighting. Peace negotiations had been under, and at Westphalia (north-western Germany), in 1648, a treaty was signed. The Holy Roman Emperor signed, as did representatives of France, Sweden, and the Pope. Spain had two reprentations, one for the Spanish Netherlands, and five provinces of the United Netherlands signed, and a representative of the Swiss Confederacy signed.
The settlement returned to the Habsburgs their rule in Bohemia. It recognized the independence of the Dutch republic, ending an Eighty Years' War between Spain and the Dutch. Sweden gained Western Pomerania and bishoprics in Bremen and Stettin. They also gained control over the mouths of the Oder, Elbe and Weser rivers and emerged from the war as one of Europe's great powers. There was recognition of secular kingship as as legitimate form of government. The sovereignty of Switzerland and the United Netherlands was recognized.
All parties agreed on the need of a "balance of power" between Protestants and Catholics, tantamount to an acceptance of the status quo and a politics of compromise that Ferdinand II had rejected back in 1629. Calvinists gained the same rights that had been granted Lutherans. With this new order, Europe's period of religious wars is said to have come to an end. Wars from then on were to be described as wars between nations, not religions.
The Peace of Westphalia was optimistic. It spoke of a "Christian and universal peace, and a perpetual, true and sincere amity."
Recommended additional reading: War Made New, chapter 2 (pages 50–76), by Max Boot.
CONTINUE READING: The Dutch Golden Age
Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.