Chapter 12: The Age of Religious Wars
From Martin Luthers death in 1546 until the middle of the seventeenth century, European life was
dominated by religiously and politically inspired violence. Roman Catholics and Protestants across
Europe engaged in almost a century of slaughter before religion ceased to be the primary motive or
excuse for warfare. France descended into nearly 50 years of civil war before emerging with a united
monarchy under the terms of the Edict of Nantes in 1598. Warfare in Germany during the Thirty Years
War reached levels of human destruction higher than any previously experienced. Spain escaped civil
strife and remained firmly Catholic. The countrys unparalleled wealth, drawn from its American
empire, gave Spain enormous political leverage in European affairs. Philip IIs long 40-year reign at the
end of the fifteenth century forged Spains all-powerful position during this era. Despite its
"superpower" status, Spain suffered defeat of its Armada naval fleet at the hands of the English, who
unlike the French managed to avoid civil war under the inspired leadership of Queen Elizabeth. Spain
also failed to subdue Protestant nationalism in the Netherlands. As a result, Spains position in
international affairs declined thereafter. For Germany, the original center of the Reformation, Lutherans
and Catholics, after some bloodletting, had come to tolerate each other. But in the early seventeenth
century the temporary compromises collapsed. The resulting free-for-all, known historically as the
Thirty Years War (16181648), effectively consumed much of Europes energies until it was resolved
in the international settlement of Westphalia. After 1648, though the peoples of central Europe would
remain deeply divided, religion would no longer be a primary factor in international conflict as it had
been since the beginning of the Reformation.
After reading this chapter you should understand:
The French wars of religion between Catholics and Calvinists.
Spanish struggle against Dutch independence in the Netherlands.
The struggle between Catholic Spain and Protestant England.
The course of the Thirty Years War and the devastation of central Europe.
The late sixteenth and the first half of the seventeenth centuries are described as the Age of Religious
Wars because of the bloody conflict of Protestants and Catholics across Europe. Both genuine religious
conflict and bitter dynastic rivalries fuelled the wars.
Renewed Religious Struggle
First half of the 16 century, religious conflict confined to central Europe and was primarily a
struggle by Lutherans and Zwinglians to secure rights and freedoms for themselves.
Second half shifted to Western Europe (France, Netherlands, England & Scotland) and was a
struggle by Calvinists for recognition. After the Peace of Augsburg (1555) and acceptance of the
principle that a regions ruler determined its religion (cuius regio, eius religio) Luterhanism became a
legal religion in the Holy Roman Empire. The Peace of Augsburg did not, however, extend recognition
to non-Lutheran Protestants. Anabaptist and other sectarians continued to be scorned as heretics and
anarchists, and Calvinists were not strong enough to gain legal standing.
Outside the empire, the struggle for religious freedom had intensified in most countries. After the
Council of Trent adjourned in 1563, Catholics began a Jesuit-led international counteroffensive against
Protestants. At the time of John Calvins death in 1564 Geneva had become both a refuge for Europespersecuted Protestants and an international school for Protestant resistance, producing leaders equal to
the new Catholic challenge.
Genevan Calvinism and Catholicism as revived by the Council of Trent were two equally dogmatic,
aggressive, and irreconcilable church systems. Calvinists may have looked like new papists to critics
when they dominated cities like Geneva. Yet when, as minorities, they found their civil and religious
rights denied, they became firebrands and revolutionaries. Calvinism adopted an organization that
magnified regional and local religious authority. Boards of presbyters, or elders, represented the
individual congregations of Calvinists, directly shaping policy.
By contrast, the Counter-Reformation sponsored a centralized Episcopal church system
hierarchically arranged from pope to parish priest and stressing unquestioning obedience to the person at
the top. The high clergy the pope and his bishops not the synods of local churches, were supreme.
Calvinism proved attractive to proponents of political decentralization who opposed such hierarchical
rule, in principle, whereas the roman Catholic Church, an institution also devoted to one head and one
law, found absolute monarchy congenial.
The opposition between the two religions may be seen in their respective art and architecture. The
Catholic Counter-Reformation found the baroque style congenial. A successor to mannerism, baroque
presented life in a grandiose, three-dimensional display of raw energy. The great baroque artists Peter
Paul Rubens (1571-1640) and Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) were Catholics. By contrast, the works
of prominent Protestant artists were restrained, as can be seen in the gentle, searching portraits of the
Dutch Mennonite, Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). (See the juxtaposition of Bavarian Catholic and
Palatine Calvinist churches.)
As religious wars engulfed Europe, the intellectuals perceived the wisdom of religious pluralism and
toleration more quickly than did the politicians. A new scepticism, relativism, and individualism in
religion became respectable in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (See Chapter 14.) Sebastian
Castellios (1515-1563) pithy censure of John Calvin for his role in the execution of the Antitrinitarian
Michael Servetus summarized a growing sentiment: To kill