Asthe dawn of early modern Europe rose, illumining the altered cultural andgovernmental landscape that emerged in the aftermath of the Thirty Years’ War,it was evident that Christendom1would never again be as it was up until the Reformation period.
Much scholasticdebate in recent years has focused on refuting the traditionally accepted religiousdimensions of the war. In 20th and 21st century academia,a trend toward secularizing the conflict has emerged. Proponents of thisviewpoint assert that the war was a political struggle stemming from objectionsto imperial Hapsburg hegemony. This treatise will argue that the Thirty Years’War was the capstone event of a continental conflict initiated by theProtestant Revolution. In order to support these claims, the current discoursewill examine the interwoven religious origins and subsequent politicaldevelopments of the matrix that is the Thirty Years’ War in relation to theadvent of Protestantism.Theecclesiastical, political and socio-cultural upheaval brought on by theReformation completely transformed the course of world history. According tonoted historian Jacques Barzun, it is imprecise to solely consider the religiousimplications of the schism. Among many other outcomes, “it deprived the West ofits ancestral sense of unity and common descent.
“2 Atthis particular point in time, most of Europe was under the dominion of theCatholic Habsburgs. Under this dynastic house, Christendom had achieved anapex. In fact, in many ways, Christendom itself was essentially synonymous withthe Holy Roman Empire. Thus, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on theWittenberg door, he inevitably unleashed a firestorm that overturned thechurch-state nexus defining Europeansociety and led to the fragmentation of Christendom as it was known. Protestanttheology produced the philosophical vindication for the origination of newpolitical structures that would diverge from Roman Catholicism and assert theirown autonomy. In fact, “it was the opportunistic princes of the Empire whogained most from the Lutheran Reformation…Their interests rapidly convergedwith those of the Lutherans and a large number of them became converts in orderto strengthen their position against the Emperor and to seize the property ofthe Catholic Church.”3The Holy Roman Empire was soon plagued with large-scale revolt and conflict—thePeasant’s War, the Schmalkaldic War between Charles V and Protestant Germanprinces, and other wars of religion throughout the 16th century.
Allof these were the result of revolutionary Reformation challenge to Christendom.In 1555, a weary Charles V signed the Peace of Augsburg to put an end to thefaith-based feuding. As a result, “the Lutheran princes, by virtue of the rule cujus regio, ejus religio, obtained theright to choose their religion and to impose it on their subjects.”4HistorianRudolph W. Heinze believes that the shortcomings of the Peace of Augsburgaugmented religious tensions and primed Europe for the outbreak of the ThirtyYears’ War. He cites three problems of particular importance. To begin with,the treaty pronounced that “in the free cities, where both Lutheranism andCatholicism existed, the two faiths should share the churches.
“5This proved to be a quixotic arrangement in light of doctrinal differences, asboth sides remained convinced that their theological convictions constitutedthe legitimate expression of Christianity. Secondly, the “EcclesiasticalReservation” clause added in by the Emperor proved to be controversial. Heinzeelaborates: “In simple terms, this meant that if an ecclesiastical ruler becamea Lutheran, he could not take his property and income with him, but a Catholicsuccessor should be elected in his place.”6This stipulation was repeatedly contravened, deepening the rift betweenLutherans and Catholics. Finally, the exclusion of Calvinist churches from thePeace of Augsburg would prove to be problematic with the spread of Calvinism acrossHabsburg holdings. At the same time, the Catholic Church, emboldened byTridentine reforms and the emergence of the Jesuit religious order, embarked onan incendiary campaign of re-Catholicization. Thus, the tenuous Peace ofAugsburg was doomed to failure.Accordingto historian Richard Bonney, “the Thirty Years’ War began as a religious war…but developed into a political contest that saw the Austrian Habsburg rulersof the Holy Roman Empire seeking to expand their control in Europe, while anumber of other powers (such as Sweden) tried to limit their ambitions.
“7When examining the multiplicity of interwoven causes of the conflict, it isdifficult to dispute its religious origins. By 1617, it became evident that theHoly Roman Emperor Matthias would die without an heir. His lands and titleswere thus passed to his nearest male relative: Ferdinand II of Styria.
8 Asa resolved Catholic, educated by the Jesuits, Ferdinand was keen onestablishing religious uniformity throughout his newly acquired lands. StephenJ. Lee writes: “His Catholic convictions amounted… to a ‘consuming passion.’Convinced that he had a divine mission to reconvert the Habsburg dominions toCatholicism, he had already imposed ‘confessional absolutism’ on his ownprovince of Styria.”9Thus, it was his intent to do the same in Bohemia.
The Calvinists there had nodesire for Ferdinand’s will to be imposed on them and threw his appointedImperial governors out of a window in protest.10By that time, the Bohemians had raised an army and offered their throne to theCalvinist Elector Palatine Fredrick V. 11In response, Ferdinand enlisted the aid of his nephew, Philip IV of Spain, tocrush the rebellion. Thus, the Bohemian Revolt can be seen as a struggle thatwas rooted in the desire to assert a Protestant or Roman Catholic identity overthe other side. Ultimately, it brought the Catholic League and the ProtestantUnion in a bitter feud that marked the commencement of the Thirty Years’ War.Theentry of Catholic France on the side of the Protestant forces in 1635 marks aturning point in which the Thirty Years’ War became secularized.
While Francewas predominantly Roman Catholic and had no intention of advancing theProtestanization of Europe, she was also a rival of the Habsburg Holy RomanEmpire and Spain. Believing that the Habsburgs were too powerful, as they heldvast swathes of territories on the eastern border of France, Cardinal Richelieupersuaded Louis XIII to join the war in a formal capacity in alliance with theSwedish and German Protestants in order to curb Habsburg hegemony.12Thus, religious tensions were no longer the dominant factors in the ThirtyYears’ War as it evolved into a politically motivated pan-European war. In theend, “there can be little doubt that the period from 1648 onwards saw thecompletion of Richelieu’s original ambitions: the separation of the Austrianand Spanish Habsburgs, the expansion of the French frontier into the Empire,and the substitution of French for Spanish military supremacy in Europe.”13The signing of the Treaty of Westphalia in light of the cessation of the warmarked the beginning of a new religio-political peregrination for the Westernworld. As a result, the previously Catholic-driven vision for Christendom wasrearranged into the realities of early modern Europe, characterized bypost-Enlightenment secularized politics and the privatization of religiousbeliefs.
Inlight of the aforementioned examinations, it is the opinion of this author thatthe Thirty Years’ War was the last act within a causal chain of eventsinitiated by the Protestant Revolution. The parties which found themselvesengaged in warfare across Europe were seeking to steady the church-state nexuswhich had been overturned by the Reformation. During the first half of the war,religious concerns played a central role. The outbreak of the Thirty Years’ Warwas not the result of a new set of circumstances, but rather the continuationof religious rivalries that had ravaged Europe. The Peace of Augsburg failed tosubdue the fires produced by the heat of the Reformation. All that was neededwas a spark to reignite the hostilities, which was provided by the BohemianCalvinist resistance to the imposition of Catholic.
However, the war cannot beseen as purely faith-based; after France’s formal ingress, the war degeneratedinto a conflict motivated by political and territorial goals. As a result, it is in my view that an entirelysecularized approach to the Thirty Years’ War is not merited. At its core, thestruggle can be traced back to the pressures produced by the theological,socio-cultural and political implications of the Reformation. 1 This term means the “Christianbody” and denotes the fusing of church and state under the leadership of theRoman Catholic Church and an emperor royal to Rome.
2 Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present:500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 4.3 Jacques Aldebert et al., Illustrated History of Europe: A UniqueGuide to Europe’s Common Heritage, 234.4 Ibid., 234.5 Rudolph W. Heinze, Reform and Conflict: From the Medieval Worldto the Wars of Religion AD 1350-1648, 372-373.
6 Ibid., 373.7 Richard Bonney, The Thirty Years’ War 1618-1648, 7.8 S.H. Steinberg, The Thirty Years War and the Conflict forEuropean Hegemony 1600-1660, 36.
9 Stephen J. Lee, The Thirty Years’ War, 22.10 Bonney, The Thirty Years’ War 1618-1648, 13.11 Aldebert et al., Illustrated History of Europe, 242.12 Bonney, The Thirty Years’ War, 50.13 Lee, The Thirty Years’ War, 67-68.