Europe’s Last War of Religion

We commonly regard the seventeenth century as among the most turbulent in English history. The continuing aftershocks of the Reformation, and the Civil War, certainly caused widespread disruption. But events in England were placid compared to what was unfolding across the channel in Central Europe. What came to be known as the Thirty Years War, which began 400 years ago next year, wreaked death and destruction a scale unequalled until the 20th century.

Emperor Ferdinand II

It started as a war of religion. Since the Augsburg Settlement of 1555, peace between the many independent states of the Holy Roman Empire had been maintained through the doctrine of Cuius Regio, eius Religio: Whose Realm, His Religion. Each state adopted the religion – either Roman Catholicism or Lutheranism – of its ruler. Strong religious convictions unleashed by the Reformation were held together in a fragile equilibrium until the arrival of the staunchly Catholic Ferdinand II as Holy Roman Emperor. He was to violate the settlement by trying to impose Roman Catholicism on all the states under his nominal rule as Emperor.

His first move was to send representatives to Prague, capital of Bohemia, with a decree preventing the construction of Protestant chapels on royal land. A volatile meeting with its Protestant leaders followed. Their implacable opposition to the imperial decree resulted in the wonderfully-named Defenestration of Prague, in which the Catholic delegates were ejected out of a third-floor window onto a dung-heap.

Rapidly worsening relations between Protestant and Catholic states led to those in northern Europe forming themselves into the Protestant Union; those loyal to the Holy Roman Empire and the Hapsburg states of Austria and the Netherlands joined the Catholic League. Soon, what began as a localised religious skirmish drew in wider European powers. The Hapsburg alliance was supported by its home state Spain, and the emerging country of Sweden, led by its ambitious King Gustavus Adolphus, weighed in on the Protestant side. Uncomfortable with Hapsburg activity on its borders, France became decisively involved from 1628. Thus a provincial dispute in Bohemia developed into a full-scale imperial European war.

And what an inconceivably destructive war it was. Both sides fielded largely mercenary armies who relied on plunder as their payment, leaving famine and disease in their wake. Towns and villages were routinely burned to deny shelter, food and supplies to their enemies. The worst affected states were Württemberg and Brandenburg; it is calculated that the German states lost about one half of their adult male population.  The death toll overall is thought to be around 8 million, mostly civilian.

The Thirty Years War was finally ended in 1648 by the Peace of Westphalia. The main loser was the Hapsburg Empire, which remained intact only in their heartlands of Spain and Austria. The Dutch Republic was freed from Hapsburg control and entered a period of prosperity and growth. France’s military success preceded a long period of European cultural and economic dominance under the rule of Louis XIV. The Holy Roman Empire was left fragmented and remained so until re-united in a different form under Bismarck over 200 years later.

The war had little direct effect on England. However a key player was Frederick V of the Rhineland Palatinate, known derisively as the Winter King as his kingship of Bohemia had only lasted one season before he was deposed. His wife – the Winter Queen – was the daughter of King James I of England. Through her grandson George of Hanover, her family became the rulers of Great Britain from 1714 and remain so today. Queen Elizabeth II is her 9-times-great grand-daughter.

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