The Thirty Years' War
Author: Wallbank

Date: 2002

The Thirty Years' War

Spain's golden age had ended, but the religious and political strife of
dynasties continued with even greater intensity. Despite the weakening of
Spain, other nations still feared a Habsburg resurgence and other dynasties
sought to win more territories and power. Moreover, the increasing number of
Calvinists and proponents of the counter-Reformation were still hoping for
complete victory in the struggle over "true religion." These issues ultimately
produced the Thirty Years' War, which began in 1618. At enormous cost in lives
and wealth, this war finally completed the political transition from
medievalism by burning out old religious obsessions and clearly revealing the
secular rivalries of European states.

Background And Setting Of The Conflict

During the sixteenth century, Europeans had looked out upon the world
with pride in their vitality and superiority. Now in the early 1600s, they
faced severe economic depression, along with intensified conflict in every
sphere of human relations. It was a time of disruption and frustration, quite
in contrast with earlier optimism. A deepening sense of crisis gripped the

The first few decades of the seventeenth century brought a marked decline
to the European economy, even before the advent of open warfare. Prices fell
until about 1660, reversing the inflation of the 1500s. International trade
declined, as did Spanish bullion imports from America. Heavy risks on a
falling market caused failures among many foreign trading companies; only the
larger houses, organized as joint stock companies, were able to survive.
European industry and agriculture also fell on hard times; urban craftsmen saw
their wages drop, and peasants faced increasing exploitation.

Tensions accompanying economic depression added to those arising from
religious differences. Calvinism was becoming a more formidable force, having
become official in Scotland and Holland and achieving an uneasy toleration in
France. It was also spreading in eastern Europe and Germany. In England, soon
after James of Scotland succeeded Elizabeth, both the Anglicans and the more
radical sects feared the southward march of Scottish Presbyterianism. A
similar tension prevailed in the Dutch Republic, where a militant movement for
Calvinist uniformity strove to wipe out all other churches. But the most
dangerous area was Germany, which had directly experienced an increasingly
militant Counter-Reformation since the Peace of Augsburg.

Although absolute monarchy was already a recognized ideal and a dominant
trend in the early seventeenth century, every royal house from England to
Russia was somewhat insecure. The usual threat was posed by nobles defending
their traditional privileges. In England and Holland, however, where
commercial development was most advanced, nobles tended to support central
authority against the urban commercial classes. Theoretical opposition to
absolutism, based on a monarch's contractural responsibilities to his
subjects, had gained some popularity everywhere during the early religious
wars. It was particularly common among radical Protestants; but the same theme
had even been expressed among extreme royalists, such as the French Guises who
opposed Henry IV.

France best illustrates developing absolutism during the period. Henry IV
and his hard-headed chief minister, the Duke of Sully (1560-1641), produced a
balanced budget and a treasury surplus in little more than a decade. At the
same time, Henry ended the nobility's control of hereditary offices and
council seats. This royalist centralization was temporarily disrupted in 1610,
when Henry was assassinated; but his queen Marie de Medicis (1573-1642),
served as regent for her son Louis XIII until 1617. Like her distant relative
Catherine, Marie had survived a tragic marriage to play a dominant role in
French affairs. Her peace policy toward Spain and her successful defenses,
both military and diplomatic, kept the Huguenots and the great nobles in
check, thus securing the succession. Meanwhile, she negotiated a marriage
between her son and the Habsburg princess Anne of Austria.

When he was fifteen, the new king seized power from his mother. For the
next thirteen years, mother and son vied for power. Marie favored a
pro-Spanish and Catholic policy; Louis, following the advice of his famous
minister, Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642) saw the Habsburgs and the papacy as
the main threats to French interests. Richelieu finally prevailed, and Marie
was banished in 1631, after which she continued to conspire with Spain and the
French Catholic party. Inside France, Richelieu relentlessly worked to
increase the king's power. He organized a royal civil service, restricted the
traditional courts, brought local government under royal agents (intendants),
outlawed dueling, prohibited fortified castles, stripped the Huguenots of
their military defenses, and developed strong military and naval forces.

Absolutism elsewhere in Europe was moving in the same general direction
but with less success. The Vasa dynasty of Sweden, supported by a strong
national church and an efficient army, was building an empire involving
Finland, the Baltic states, parts of Poland, and Denmark. In Germany, many of
the princes, particularly the Hohenzollerns of Brandenberg, hoped to become
independent absolute monarchs. As was true of earlier Habsburgs, the Holy
Roman Emperor, Ferdinand II (1619-1637), struggled to concentrate his control
over Austria, Hungary, and Bohemia, while extending his limited authority in
Germany at the expense of the princes. Other rulers, including those in
England, Spain, Russia, and Poland, faced determined local opposition as they
sought to centralize power.

This political contention within states was accompanied by rising
internationl apprehensions. Although the European power balance in 1618
resembled that of the 1500s, it was much less fixed. The Habsburgs still
evoked counteralliances, but their vulnerability was now greater, not only
because Spain was weakening but also because other states - France, the
Netherlands, and Sweden - were growing more powerful. Under these
circumstances, European revolt against Habsburg dominance was almost
inevitable. A general awareness of the coming conflagration was perhaps the
most important source of European insecurity.

The Thirty Years' War, fought between 1618 and 1648, was a culmination of
all these related religious and political dissensions. Almost all of western
Europe, except England, was involved and suffered accordingly. Wasted
resources and manpower, along with disease, further checked economic
development and curtailed population expansion. Germany was particularly hard
hit, suffering great population loss in many areas. Despite the terrible
devastation, neither Protestantism nor Catholicism won decisive victory. What
began as a religious war in the German principalities turned into a complex
political struggle, involving the ambitions of north German rulers, the
expansionist ambitions of Sweden, and the efforts of Catholic France to break
the "Habsburg ring."

Reviving Habsburg Prospects, 1618-1630

Despite the general decline of Habsburg supremacy, the early years of the
war before 1629, usually cited as the Bohemian and Danish phases, brought a
last brief revival of Habsburg prospects. The new Habsburg emperor, Ferdinand
II, who had been raised by his mother as a fanatic Catholic, was determined to
intensify the Counter-Reformation, set aside the Peace of Augsburg, and wipe
out Protestantism in central Europe. For a time, he almost succeeded.

Ferdinand's succession came amid severe political tension. Spreading
Calvinism, plus the aggressive crusading of the Jesuits, had led to the
formation of a Protestant league of German princes in 1608 and a Catholic
counter-league the next year. The two had almost clashed in 1610 over a
territorial dispute in northwest Germany. Meanwhile, the Bohemian Protestants
had extracted a promise of toleration from their Catholic king, the Holy Roman
Emperor, Rudolf II (1576-1612). In 1618, the Bohemian leader, fearing that
Ferdinand would not honor the promise, threw two of his officials out of a
window - an incident which became known as the "defenestration of Prague."
When Ferdinand mobilized troops, the Bohemians desposed him and offered their
throne to Frederick, the Protestant Elector of the Palatinate, in western

In the short Bohemian war which followed, Frederick was quickly
overwhelmed. At the urging of his wife, Elizabeth, the daughter of James I of
England, Frederick reluctantly accepted the Bohemian crown. But while he and
Elizabeth held court in Prague, no practical military support came from
England, the Netherlands, or the Protestant German princes. Ferdinand, in
contrast, deployed two superb armies, one from Spain and the other from
Catholic Bavaria. In 1620 Frederick's meager forces were scattered at the
Battle of the White Mountain, near Prague. Afterward, the hapless Bohemian
monarch and his queen fled the country, ultimately settling at the Hague, in
the Netherlands, where they continued to pursue their lost cause. Ferdinand
gave their lands to Maximillian of Bavaria, distributed the holdings of
Bohemian Protestant nobles among Catholic aristocrats, and proceeded to stamp
out Protestantism in Bohemia.

War began again in 1625 when Christian IV (1588-1648), the Lutheran king
of Denmark, invaded Germany. As Duke of Holstein and thus a prince of the
Empire, he hoped to revive Protestantism and win a kingdom in Germany for his
youngest son. Christian was luckier than Frederick had been in attracting
support. The Dutch reopened their naval war with Spain; England provided
subsidies; and the remaining independent German Protestant princes, now
thoroughly alarmed, rose up against the Catholics and the Emperor. All of
these renewed efforts were in vain. Ferdinand's new general, Albert von
Wallenstein, defeated the Protestants in a series of brilliant campaigns. By
1629, Christian had to admit defeat and withdraw his forces, thus ending the
Danish conflict with another Protestant debacle.

Their successful campaigns of the 1620s gave the Habsburgs almost
complete domination in Germany. Using the army Wallenstein raised in Bohemia,
Ferdinand reconquered the north. In 1629, he issued the Edict of Restitution,
restoring to the Catholics all properties lost since 1552. This seemed to be
only a first step toward eliminating Protestantism completely and creating a
centralized Habsburg empire in Germany.

The End Of Habsburg Supremacy, 1630-1648

Fearing the Counter-Reformation and the growing Habsburg power behind it,
the threatened European states resumed the war again in 1630. As the conflict
rapidly spread and intensified, religious issues were steadily subordinated to
power politics. This was evidenced by the phases of the conflict, usually
designated as the Swedish (1630-1635) and the French (1635-1648), because
these two countries led successive anti-Habsburg coalitions. Utlimately, their
efforts were successful. By 1648, the Dutch Republic had replaced Spain as the
leading maritime state and Bourbon France had become the dominant European
land power.

Protestant Swedes and French Catholics challenged Ferdinand's imperial
ambitions for similar political reasons. Gustavus Adolphus, the Swedish king,
wanted to save German Lutheranism, but he was also determined to prevent a
strong Habsburg state on the Baltic from restricting his own expansion and
interfering with Swedish trade. A similar desire to liberate France from
Habsburg encirclement motivated Cardinal Richelieu. He offered Gustavus French
subsidies, for which the Swedish monarch promised to invade Germany and permit
Catholic worship in any lands he might conquer. Thus the Catholic cardinal and
the Protestant king compromised their religious differences in the hope of
achieving mutual political benefits.

Gustavus invaded Germany in 1630 while the Dutch attacked the Spanish
Netherlands. With his mobile cannon and his hymm-singing Swedish veterans,
Gustavus and his German allies won a series of smashing victories, climaxed in
November 1632 at Lutzen, near Leipzig, where Wallenstein was decisively
defeated. Unfortunately for the Protestant cause, Gustavus died in battle.
Meanwhile, a Dutch army in Flanders advanced toward Brussels, where Philip
II's aging daughter, Isabella, was still governing. Aware of her subjects'
desperate need for peace, Isabella began negotiations, but the news from
Lutzen raised Habsburg hopes in Vienna and Madrid. Subsequently, Isabella was
removed, a Spanish army was dispatched to Germany, and Wallenstein was
mysteriously murdered. This Habsburg flurry brought no significant victories
but led to the compromise Peace of Prague in 1635 between the emperor and the
German Protestant states.

The situation now demanded that France act directly to further its
dynastic interests. The final, French phase of the war began in 1635 when
Richelieu and Louis XIII declared war on the Habsburgs, sending French troops
into Germany and toward the Spanish borders. They also subsidized the Dutch
and Swedes, while recruiting an army of German Protestant mercenaries. France
continued limiting Protestantism within its borders but gladly allied with
Protestant states against Catholic Spain, Austria, Bavaria, and their Catholic
allies. The war which had begun in religious controversy had now become pure
power politics, completing the long political transition from medieval to
modern times.

For thirteen more years the conflict wore on. France's allies, the Swedes
and north Germans, kept Habsburg armies engaged in Germany, while French
armies and the Dutch navy concentrated on Spain. In 1643, the French won a
decisive battle at Rocroi in the southern Netherlands. Next, they moved into
Germany, defeating the imperial forces and, with the aid of the Swedes,
ravaging Bavaria. When Richelieu died in 1642, he had already unleased forces
which would make the Bourbon dynasty supreme in Europe.

For all practical purposes the war was over, but years of indecisive
campaigning and tortuous negotiations delayed the peace. The French held to
rigid demands, despite the deaths of both Richelieu and Louis XIII in 1642 and
1643. Richelieu's protege, Cardinal Mazarin, directed diplomacy, although he
was technically responsible to Queen Anne, ruling as regent for her son, the
future Louis XIV. Anne consistently supported her minister through budget
crises and popular unrest. The Swedes took a more conciliatory approach after
Queen Christiana, the daughter of Gustavus Adolphus, succeeded to the throne
in 1644. A horde of emissaries from nearly every capital in Europe met that
year at Westphalia to negotiate the peace. Although Spain and France could
reach no agreement, a settlement for the Empire was finally completed in 1648.

The Peace Of Westphalia

The Peace of Westphalia is among the most significant pacts in modern
European history. It ended Europe's emergence from medievalism and prepared a
way for the modern state system. Even so, it did not establish universal
peace; the war between France and Spain lasted another eleven years, ending
finally with the Peace of the Pyrenees in 1659.

The peace agreement at Westphalia signaled a victory for Protestantism
and the German princes while dooming Habsburg imperial ambitions. France moved
closer to the Rhine by acquiring Alsatian territory, Sweden and Brandenburg
acquired lands on the Baltic, and Holland and Switzerland gained recognition
of their independence. The German states won undisputed rights to
self-government and the conduct of their foreign relations. The emperor was
required to receive approval from the Imperial diet for any laws, taxes,
military levies, or foreign agreements - provisions which practically
nullified imperial power. The religious autonomy of the German states, as
decreed at Augsburg, was reconfirmed, with Calvinism now permitted along with
Lutheranism. In addition, Protestant states were conceded all Catholic
properties taken before 1624.

In its religious implications, the Peace of Westphalia ended the dream of
reuniting Christendom. Catholics and Protestants now realized that major
faiths could not be destroyed; moreover, Europeans had finally tired of
religious controversy, tending to think it dangerous. From such intuitions a
spirit of toleration gradually emerged. Although religious uniformity would be
imposed within states for another century, it would not again be a serious
issue in European foreign affairs.

The Peace confirmed the new European state system. Henceforth, states
would customarily shape their policies in accord with the power of their
neighbors, seeking to expand at the expense of the weaker and to protect
themselves - not by religion, law, or morality, but by alliances against their
stronger adversaries. The treaty also instituted the internationl conference
as a means for negotiating power relationships among contending states.

Aside from its general implications, the peace left specific political
legacies for Europe. Both Spain and Austria were weakened, and the Austrian
Habsburgs shifted their primary attention from Germany to southeastern Europe.
German disunity was perpetuated by the autonomy of many petty states. France,
in contrast, emerged as the potential master of the continent and the model of
successful absolute monarchy. The war also helped both Holland and England,
although this was not evident for England in 1648 at the climax of its

Perhaps the most significant legacy of Westphalia was a universal
yearning for order and stability. The war disrupted trade, destroyed
industries, undermined monetary systems, and caused the deaths of more than
five million people. It perpetuated an economic depresssion in central Europe
so severe that killing famines became commonplace. Armies on both sides lived
from the land. Brutalized and half-starved mercenary soldiers looted, burned,
tortured, and raped. Even in unoccupied areas, general disorder and crime
prevailed among rural and urban populations, both of which declined
drastically. In some places, law enforcement was virtually abandoned. For all
who experienced these conditions directly, and for thousands of others who
only heard the terrible rumors, restoration of order seemed a goal surpassing
all others.

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