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Lecture 15   Wars, Religion, and State-Building 1540-1660


The 100 or so years from the mid-1500s to the mid-1600s was a period of almost constant warfare, much of which revolved around conflict between proponents of Catholicism and Protestantism.   A century of warfare ended in the 1640s with a stalemate—neither the Catholics nor the Protestants had vanquished their enemies.  This would have great consequences in the later 1600s and 1700s, and many of the major intellectual and political trends of that period--the Scientific Revolution, Mercantilism, and Absolutism—can be seen as reactions to the turmoil of the wars of religion. Still, despite almost continuous warfare, the period from 1540-1660 also witnessed very important economic developments as well as significant growth of the centralized monarchical state. 


To provide a sense of continuity with last week's lecture on the Reformation, we will deal with these topics in the following order:  wars of religion, economic changes; and state-building.  (Chapter 15 in Coffin deals with other important topics—in particular trends in the arts—that we simply do not have time to discuss this week.)



Wars of Religion

Last week I pointed out that the religious divisions of the Reformation had political dimensions (remember Henry VIII?  The Protestant German Princes?).  The combination of religious fervor (there could be only ONE true religion, most people believed—all others were heretical) and political ambitions fueled a century of warfare.  The first center of religious warfare was Germany.


Germany (1540-1555).  Remember that Holy Roman Emperor Charles V had called Luther to Worms hoping there to bring an end to the Protestant heresy—Charles was a very devout Catholic.  In the 1540s and 1550s, Charles waged war against the Lutheran princes, hoping to reestablish Catholicism by force.  He failed, in part because his own supporters, Germany's Catholic princes, feared that victory for the Emperor would end their own autonomy.  Bloody battles between Lutheran and Catholic armies continued until 1555, when both sides agreed to the Peace of Augsburg.  This treaty recognized that any principality would follow the religion of its ruler (so if the prince was a Lutheran, all the people must be Lutherans).  In other words, there would be no tolerance of religious diversity within any state, and there would be no strict separation of Church and State.  This compromise would lead to considerable tensions in the 1600s, but it did at least bring an end to the war.


France (1562-1598).  In France the most significant religious tensions were between Catholics and Calvinists.  Remember that Calvin was a Frenchman living in Switzerland; one of his goals was to convert his mother country to his "true" religion.  He did succeed in converting hundreds of thousands of French men and women to Calvinism, in the form of the Huguenot movement (by the 1560s, about 2 in every 10 people in France had become Calvinists).  The most important of the converts were Queen Jeanne of French Navarre (in the South), her husband Antoine de Bourbon, and her brother in law the Prince de Conde.  Conde became the political leader of the Huguenots; like many other Huguenot aristocrats, he formed a large army and was feverishly devoted to the cause of spreading his faith.  (Jeanne and Antoine de Bourbon's son Henry will play an important role in this story, as we will see shortly.)


The Huguenot's religious fervor was equaled by that of the Jesuits, who played a central role in the French Catholic Church's struggle against Protestantism.  Both sides believed that France could have only ONE faith (theirs).  Tensions between the two faiths erupted into warfare in 1562.  In 1560, the young French King Francois II died without an heir.  His brother Charles IX was too young to rule, and so his mother Queen Catherine de Medici (that's right, from THE Medici family) ruled as regent.  The Huguenots led by Conde took this as the moment to attempt a coup and install a Huguenot king; they were opposed primarily by the fervent Catholic Duke de Guise (whose family included Mary Queen of Scotts, who had sought to revive Catholic rule in England).  The dispute turned into very bloody fighting and mob violence; for six years adherents of the two faiths butchered each other. 


In 1572 Henry of Navarre (the Huguenot son of Antoine de Bourbon) worked out a compromise to end the war—he would marry King Charles IX's Catholic sister, thus symbolizing the end of hostilities.  But when thousands of Huguenot leaders gathered in Paris for the wedding, the "Queen Mother" Catherine de Medici and the Duke de Guise organized a massacre of Huguenots; thousands of people were murdered in Paris in what became known as the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre; the killings then spread to the provinces, where Catholic mobs killed thousands more Calvinists.  The war was on again.


Henry of Navarre, a shrewd politician who became King Henry IV in 1589, finally ended the fighting.  He converted to Catholicism and then, in 1598, issued the Edict of Nantes.  The Edict of Nantes said that France was a Catholic kingdom, but it did permit the Huguenots to worship, build churches, etc., in particular designated cities (especially in the south).   Again, as in Germany, this was not exactly a matter of religious toleration—Catholics and Protestants would live separately in their own regions, and the Catholic faith remained the official state religion.  But it did end the period of open religious warfare in France.


The Netherlands (1566-1609) The "Revolt of the Netherlands" began with religious warfare between Calvinists and Catholics.  The Netherlands was at the time ruled by the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor, who was from Belgium and had a great deal of support in that region.  When in 1556 Emperor Charles V retired, he left some of his lands—Spain, the Netherlands, half of Italy, and Spanish America—to his son Philip II.  Philip, a Spaniard, imposed Spanish oversight on the Netherlands (in the form of Spanish administrators) in an effort to pump more income out of the Netherlands to Spain.  That aggravated Catholic-Calvinist tensions, as did the large number of French and Swiss Calvinists who had entered Belgium.  The details of the situation in Netherlands are extremely complex, but it comes down to this:  Philip tried to crush the Calvinists, who rebelled against Spanish rule; the Calvinists also gained support from some Catholics who opposed Spanish rule (e.g., special taxes that the Spanish had imposed on the Netherlands).


In 1572 the leader of the rebellion, "William the Silent," seized control over the northern half of the Netherlands (Holland).  The north then became to center of the revolt, which lasted until 1609.  In 1609 the Spanish recognized the independent Dutch Republic, which during the war had become entirely Calvinist.  The southern territory, Belgium, remained under Spanish rule and was Catholic.  Again, the  end of the war had not resulted in religious toleration or in any clear separation of Church and State.


England vs Spain.  During the wars of the Revolt of the Netherlands, the English also engaged in naval warfare against Spain, which also had religious as well as political aspects.  Henry VIII's daughter Queen Elizabeth I—a protestant (see previous lecture) had come to the English throne in 1558, after the death of her half-sister Queen Mary I.  Mary, a Catholic, had restored Catholicism as the state religion and had oppressed Protestants.  She had also married the Catholic Spanish King Philip II, in 1554.  When Elizabeth became queen she reestablished the Church of England as the state church (see previous lecture).  Philip II of Spain, however, insisted that he was the rightful ruler of England (through marriage to Mary).  Therefore religious and dynastic conflicts were driving the two states towards war.


But there were other factors involved in this conflict as well.  The British and the Spanish were rivals in the Americas, and the British navy was challenging Spanish dominance over the world's sea routes.  Under Philip II, the Spanish had been trying to block the growth of British trade, especially with the Netherlands.  Queen Elizabeth responded by promoting British piracy against Spanish ships.  Also, the English had developed close ties to the Dutch Calvinist movement, and became involved in providing financial and logistical support to the Dutch rebels against Spain.  When England formally allied itself with the Dutch rebels in 1585, Philip II decided to invade England.  He sent a huge naval armada to defeat the upstart Protestant kingdom in 1588.  But the English fleet sank the Spanish Armada.  England's victory in the war (which formally ended in 1604) marked the start of its dominance over the world's oceans and spelled the beginning of the end for Spanish power. 


Germany Again:  The 30 Years War (1618-1648) For nearly 10 years (1609-1617), Europe was free of religious warfare.  But then, in 1618, war re-ignited in Germany.  In 1618 the Habsburg Prince Ferdinand of Poland, Austria, and Hungary was "elected" as the new King of Bohemia.   (A year later he became the Holy Roman Emperor.)  Ferdinand was a Catholic, and most Bohemians were Protestants.  When the Protestants rebelled, German Catholic princes intervened; they not only attacked Protestants in Bohemia, but also began attacking Protestant principalities in Germany.  The so-called Catholic League led by Ferdinand aimed at re-establishing Catholicism across Germany. 


In 1630 the Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus, a Lutheran, intervened in the war y invading northern Germany to support the Lutheran cause.  (Again, some Catholic princes actually supported him, since they feared losing their autonomy to the Holy Roman Emperor).  Spain then intervened on the side of the Catholic forces.  France also became involved—although a Catholic kingdom, France secretly helped fund the Swedish army as a means of countering the threat of being surrounded by Habsburg kingdoms (remember that Austria, Spain, Belgium, and much of Northern Italy were under Habsburg rule).  In 1635 the French formally entered the war on the side of the Swedes.  So the two most powerful Catholic kingdoms were on opposite sides in this war.


To make a long, complicated, and horrible story short, Germany was a battleground for 30 years, and in some regions the combination of warfare, famine, and disease killed off more than half the population.  The worst period of the war was in 1644-48, while peace negotiations were being carried out.  The war ended in 1648, with the Peace of Westphalia.  Very little had been accomplished—northern Germany was still mostly Lutheran, southern German mostly Catholic.  Germany would remain divided until 1871.  Austria lost all of its territory in the north and the Holy Roman Empire had seen the last gasp of its power in Central Europe.  The Spanish had been defeated for the third time in the last two generations (by the English, the Dutch, and not the French); Spain was now clearly in decline, and France had taken its place as the most powerful country on the European continent. 




Economic change:  Merchant Capital and the Price Revolution

As I noted in an earlier lecture, in the mid-1400s Europe's population began recovering from the effects of the disastrous 1300s (the plague, famine, etc.).   Europe's population nearly doubled in the 150 years between 1450 and 1600 (from 50 to 90 million).  Compared to population growth in the 1700s, this increase seemed minor; still, the impact on the economy and on politics proved great.   That was in part because population increased faster than did agricultural productivity.   (Not until the 1600s would great advances in European agriculture really take root—the development of new plows, new seeds, and new crops rotations that included plants imported from the Americas.)


The increase in population relative to agricultural productivity meant that there was less surplus food per capita.  Merchants, who were playing a larger and larger role in the marketing of grain and other food stuffs, took advantage of this market situation to raise prices for grain.  That meant that the cost of food increased, which made life harder for the mass of the population—the peasants and urban artisans.  But it also meant increased profits for the merchants and for large landowners who re-organized their lands to maximize the production of grain and whose land now rose in value.  In Russia, for instance, the nobility in the rich "Black Earth" belt in the South began making greater demands on their serf laborers; in England, big landowning aristocrats used their power in Parliament to push forward laws on the enclosure of common lands, so that they could drive peasants off the land and use the land more profitably.  The price revolution therefore helped to stimulate both serfdom in Russia and agrarian capitalism in England.


Another factor (besides population pressure) was involved in the "price revolution" of the late 1500s—which is what historians call the period of rapid inflation of grain prices:  that factor was the importation of large amounts of silver from the Spanish colonies in the Americas.  The importation of silver (most of which actually passed through the Spanish controlled Dutch port of Antwerp, not Seville as Coffin says), allowed the Spanish monarchy to pay off its very large foreign debt.  The result, though, was that the value of silver coins declined (here, again, the law of supply and demand was involved—the supply of silver exceeded the actual capacity of the currency markets to absorb new silver, so that its value fell).  The decline in the value of money reinforced the inflationary pressures created by population growth.  Again, the result was higher profits for merchants and bankers who speculated in currency.


But the result of inflation for ordinary peasants, laborers, and artisans were disastrous, since their wages and agricultural incomes did not keep pace with the cost of living.  Making matters worse, governments faced with warfare and concerned with increasing the size and power of the State paid for these policies by taxing to commoners  (aristocrats and the church were generally exempt from taxes across Europe), so that most of the burden fell on the backs of the peasants, laborers, and artisans.  From the dawn of the development of Europe's capitalist economy, then, the growing wealth of the entrepreneurial classes were coupled with the growing misery of the laboring classes.


Centralized Monarchies and State-building

One of the ironies of this era is that while Europe was engulfed in the wars of religion, the most successful and most powerful monarchical states were those able to subordinate the interests of the Church and the aristocracy to the needs of the centralized State. 


Spain had been the first great centralized monarchical state in Europe to emerge as a world power; it was also the first of the great centralized monarchies to fade in power and influence.  In a lecture a few weeks ago, I mentioned that in the early 1400s Spain was divided into five different kingdoms; no single unified Spanish state existed in the medieval period.  The first critical step toward a unified kingdom came in 1469, when King Ferdinand of Aragon married Queen Isabella of Castile.  Between 1479 and 1516, Ferdinand and Isabella used force to unify the rest of Spain under their rule and to defeat the Muslims in the South. 


Unifying Spain and defeating the Muslims required that Ferdinand and Isabella build a royal army.  By the end of the 1400s, Spain had the largest, best supplied, and best trained army in Europe.  To keep this army supplied required great resources, and Ferdinand and Isabella developed a system of centralized state administration to make the collection of taxes and other state duties more efficient.  The centralized state administration also allowed them to rule more effectively over a country in which regional differences and rivalries were especially strong. 


The united monarchy forged an especially strong alliance with the Catholic Church:  Ferdinand and Isabella needed a militant clergy (especially the Jesuits) in their fight against the Muslims and to provide literate administrators for the state bureaucracy; at the same time, the Church needed royal support at a time of general weakness (remember the lecture on the problems face by the church in the late 1400s!).  The monarchy sought to create the idea of a single Spain, based upon the idea of a shared Spanish "blood." But Spain was a land of many different ethnic groups (the Basque people of the North, for instance, speak language completely different from Spanish), and the concept of "Spanish blood" had to be shaped in a way that excluded Spain's Jews and Muslims.  So Spanish national identity became equated with Catholicism—what it meant to be Spanish was to be a Catholic who was a subject of Their Most Catholic Majesties, Ferdinand and Isabella.   That helps explain why, in 1492, the crown ordered expulsion of all Jews and Muslims from Spain.  (Those who remained, including those who converted to Catholicism, were subject to constant suspicion, repression, and even torture and death at the hands of the Inquisition—a Church institution.)


Ferdinand and Isabella made brilliant use of marriages to forge alliances that strengthened the Spanish state.   They married off their daughter, Juanna, to Prince Phillip, the son of the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I; their son John married the Holy Roman Emperor's daughter.   As a result, Spain became closely allied with the Austrian Habsburg family (which controlled the crown of the Holy Roman Emperor).  As a result of this family connection, Ferdinand and Isabella's grandson, Charles V (1516-1556) inherited not only the Kingdom of Spain (and its colonies), but also Austria, the Netherlands, Sardinia, Sicily, Naples, and Franche Comte.  In 1519, Charles V (by applying some pressure on the Pope), was elected Holy Roman Emperor. 


Charles V did much to build up the army and state administration in his vast empire, and in particular devoted resources to Spain, which became to military backbone of the Habsburg lands.  If you look back to earlier lectures, you will find several references to the Habsburgs using the Spanish army to intervene, for instance, in Italy, and against the spread of Protestantism (above).  But the cost of such warfare actually weakened Charles' power.  Moreover, the very size of the Habsburg Empire made it difficult to administer and govern.  And some of its apparent strengths also proved to create long-term weaknesses; the influx of gold from Spain's American colonies, for instance, tended to discourage economic initiative and slowed the growth of the Spanish middle class (as had the expulsion of Jewish and Muslim merchants!).


Charles V left only portions of his empire to Philip II, who ruled Spain from 1556-1598 (Charles effectively divided the Austrian/German portion of his lands from the Spanish domains, which led to the creation of two Habsburg royal houses—the Austrian and the Spanish). 


Philip II, who we met a little earlier in this lecture, oversaw the collapse of Spanish dominance in continental Europe.  It was Phillip that sent the largest land army ever formed (to that date) in Europe to crush the Revolt of the Netherlands—as we have seen, this failed.  The loss of Holland deprived Spain of its most important industrial region.  Devastation caused by warfare ushered in the decline of the Spanish controlled port of Antwerp and the rise of Protestant-controlled Amsterdam as the hub of trade in the Netherlands.  Philip also intervened in France during the fighting between Catholics and Huguenots (on the Catholic side, of course), at great cost and with no effect.  Not only did Philip's 1588 effort to defeat England (using the 22,000 ship Armada) fail, as we have seen, but the cost of war with England had bankrupted Spain by 1596.  Meanwhile, Philip's renewed purge of all non-Catholic elements from Spain hardened the position an (entrenched) Catholic elite in the state administration that over the long term proved resistant to change and innovation. 


After Philip's death, Spain still sought to assert its influence in continental politics, but again failed.   Spain's entry into the 30 Years War (above) came at great cost and yielded no gains.  The 1648 Peace of Westphalia required that Spain recognize the independence of Belgium and finalized the split between the Austrian and Spanish Habsburgs.  By 1660, Portugal also had become independent from Spain (it had been joined to Spain by Philip II).  As Spain fell further and further into, the Spanish aristocracy and the Catholic Church stubbornly protected their privileges and prevented any real governmental administrative reforms.  Taxes soared, the countryside was plagued by inflation, and the peasantry suffered; state policy and the power of the aristocrats simultaneously hindered the Spanish middle class from increasing its wealth and influence.  Spain had become a second rate power and France had taken its place as the preeminent power on the continent.


France developed the most effective centralized monarchical state in continental Europe in this period.  In the Concordat of Bologna, King Francis I (1515-1547) had again obtained Papal recognition of King's right to appoint the church hierarchy in France.  The trade off for monarchical control of appointments to the Church administration (which in additions to its other benefits allowed the King to use ecclesiastical offices as rewards), was that the Church and the clergy retained a special privileged legal status that, among other things, kept it exempt from all taxation.  On a whole, the subordination of the ecclesiastic hierarchy to royal authority strengthened the power of the monarch. 


Francis I's son, King Henry II (1547-1559), however, was unable to hold his kingdom together as effectively as had his father.  During the reigns of Henry and his sons Francis II (1559-1560), Charles IX (1560-1574), and Henry III (1574-1589), France was torn by conflict between Catholic and Protestant forces (see above for discussion of the French wars of religion in 1562-1598).  Huguenot rebels sought to replace the monarch but not the monarchy (they argued that rebellion against an unjust King was righteous, but also argued that France must have "one King, one God, and one Law").  Still, the long religious war weakened the powers of the French monarch. 


When the last Valois king (Henry III) died in 1589, the new Bourbon King, Henry IV (1589-1610), moved effectively to restore and extend the power of the monarch.  Despite Henry's conversion to Catholicism, his Edict of Nantes (above) served to neutralize Protestant resistance.  That allowed Henry's successor, Louis XIII (1610-1643), to concentrate on state-building.


Louis built a system of rule called "absolutism," based on the idea that the King's rule is absolute and not limited by the interests of the aristocrats or the Church, and that the King should base policy on the interests of the State (not that of any social group, the faith, etc.).  All governing power and authority rested with the monarch.  But Louis XIII's system depended upon creating an effective bureaucracy able to collect taxes (necessary to fund warfare, etc.) while holding in check to ambitions of the Church, the aristocracy, and the Protestants.  The architect of this bureaucracy was Cardinal Richelieu, the King's chief minister from 1624 to 1642.  Richelieu built to the central government ministries (all of which answered directly to him and to the King).  He stressed that the provinces must follow the directives of the central government, and he established a system of royal agents (often men of the middle class), who traveled to the provinces to ensure that taxes were collected, laws followed, etc.  He weakened the independence of Huguenot-dominated towns.  And he "humbled" the nobility by limiting their access to the King and reducing their traditional privileges.  (For instance, the King no longer called the Estates General, a gathering of nobles and other elites from across France that customarily had advised the King on issues such as taxation and war.)


The methods and style of absolutist rule would reach their apex under King Louis XIV and his main advisor, Cardinal Mazerin, but that brings us into the 1660s and the period after the end of this course…


England provides an example of an alternative form of state building.  After the War of the Roses (1455-1485), the new Tudor monarchy under King Henry VII (1485-1509) began brining commoners into the government administration.  Unlike nobles, who had their own political factions and ambitions, commoners would serve the king loyally in return for financial rewards and status.  Henry VIII (1509-1547) considerably strengthened the centralized monarchical state when he broke with Rome and established the Church of England (which we discussed last week).  But Henry would not have been able to accomplish "his" Reformation without support from the Parliament, the landed gentry (nobles), and the merchants; his gifts of land confiscated from Catholic monasteries helped cement the loyalty of many of these supporters. 


Like her father, Henry's daughter Elizabeth I (1558-1603) considerably increased the size and power of the central government.   Elizabeth used the resources of the state to build ports, canals, and ships— infrastructure that was necessary for the growth of England's international power.  She also deftly balanced the interests of the "old" aristocratic elite with the emerging commercial elite of merchants and "capitalist" landlords (nobles who already had started to use their land in new ways to produce surplus aim at the market with the goal of making a profit).  The new commercial elite, and the commoners who served in government administration, tended to be drawn towards the English variant of Calvinism (known as Puritanism).  The commercial elites entered Parliament alongside the old aristocracy, and like the old aristocracy they had come to see the relationship between King and Parliament as a partnership. 


When Elizabeth died the Tudor family line came to an end and the related Stuart family took the throne.   Elizabeth's cousin James I (1603-1625) saw himself an absolute monarch (in the mold of the French King Louis XIII) and believed that strengthening the power of the monarchy required weakening the powers of the Parliament.  His approach to governing alienated Parliament, as did his decision to make peace with Spain.  Moreover, Puritans felt that the Stuarts were not sufficiently Protestant.  His successor, Charles I (1625-1649) argued that he had the right to impose taxes and rule without approval of Parliament, and he did not call Parliament into session between 1629 and 1640.  During that period, he also repressed the Puritans, imposed unpopular new taxes, and flagrantly violated rights that guaranteed all free Englishmen according to the Magna Carta. 


In 1640, Charles had to call Parliament into session, to raise new funds for a planned invasion of Scotland (which had rebelled against Charles' imposition of bishops on the Scottish Presbyterian Church, which had no ecclesiastical hierarchy).  Parliament refused to agree unless Charles guaranteed that he would consult the Parliament on all matters of taxation; recognize the right of all Englishmen to trial by jury and habeas corpus; end persecution of the Puritans; and reform the Church of England on the basis of Puritan principles.  Charles recognized that these concessions would have subordinated royal authority to that of the Parliament and refused.  The result was a revolution/civil war between Parliament's "Roundheads" and forces loyal to the King (the Cavaliers), beginning in 1642.   In 1644 the Parliament's army reorganized as the "New Model Army" under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell.  The New Model Army, which included gentleman farmers, fanatical Puritans, and thousands of poor laborers, soundly defeated the King's forces in 1646.  Charles I was forced to revoke many of his decrees, such as the impositions of Bishops in Scotland.


But in 1648, Charles renewed the fight against Parliament and the war re-ignited.  This time Parliament arrested then beheaded Charles I (in 1649).  The Parliament now ruled England as a Commonwealth, without a king.  Parliament's rule depended upon support from the New Model Army, led by Cromwell.  In 1653 Cromwell used the military to take power in the name of the "Parliament" in a sort-of-dictatorship called the "Protectorate." Cromwell the "Lord Protector" then purged the leadership of the army of its more radical democratic elements like Gerard Winstanely—a "Leveler" who wanted to give all men the right to vote and redistribute property equitably:  these radicals threatened the property and power of the propertied elites; moreover, their devotion to democracy ran against the grain of the Calvinist conception of rule by the "God-chosen" Elect.  In 1655 he disbanded Parliament and began ruling by decree.


To make a long and complicated story short and simple—When Cromwell died in 1658, one of his generals seized power from Cromwell's son and called for new elections to Parliament.  In 1660 the Parliament asked the son of Charles I to take the English throne as King Charles II (1660-1685).  The monarchy was restored, but the revolution/civil war had strengthened the principle of Parliamentary restrictions upon the king's powers.  The ongoing conflict between the King and Parliament over their relative authority would lead to another revolution in 1688-1689 (against the Catholic King James II), which brought William and Mary of  Orange to the power under the condition that they accept a Bill of Rights that ensured the powers of Parliament and the rule of law. 


But that, like the story of the popular uprisings in France in the 1650s and the reign of French King Louis XIV, are really topic from the next western civilization course, from 1650 to the Present!