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September/October 2010

Discover more articles from this issue.


Zealous watchfulness against fusion of secular and religious activities by Government itself, through any of its instruments but especially through its...

Religious Dialogues

For What Purpose? And How Reported?

Christian Versus Muslim

Part Four in a Series

A Right to Faith?

New Hampshire Gets Two-Faced Over Homeschool

What the Constitution Means to the Citizen

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Crucifix Conundrums

In November 2009 the Catholic Church in Italy was faced with a "Crucifix Conundrum." Catholic crucifixes adorn every room of the public school system. In...

An Empty Gesture

Salazar v. Buono: The continuing legal saga of the cross in the desert.

Justice & Religion

A Retrospective

Magazine Archive »

Published in the September/October 2010 Magazine
by David J. B. Trim

This article is part four in a four part series.

The previous articles in this series on religious wars examined the ferocious 13 decades from the Protestant Reformation (c. 1520) to the Peace of Westphalia (1648), in which Europe was torn asunder by wars resulting from the post-Reformation fragmenting of Christendom. However, the wars between Roman Catholic and Protestant were not the only religious wars that began in the early sixteenth century and lasted to the middle years of the seventeenth century. Alongside them, particularly in the sixteenth century, were renewed wars between Christian and Muslim, which led to an efflorescence of the ethos of "crusade."*

In the late fourteenth century and throughout the fifteenth century the Ottoman threat was localized in the Balkans. Then, in the sixteenth century came the extraordinary westward expansion of the Ottoman Empire under Selim I and Suleiman I "the Magnificent." On the southern side of the Mediterranean, Egypt, Tripoli, and Algiers all fell under the rule of the "Sublime Porte" (as the Ottoman government was known); on the northern side, its armies moved into Christendom.

Surrender of Belgrade to Suleiman I "the Magnificent," in 1521.In 1521 Suleiman besieged and captured Belgrade, site of Janos Hunyadi's talismanic victory over the Ottomans in 1456; in 1522 he besieged and captured the stronghold of the Knights of St. John on Rhodes (they moved to Malta, which remained under their government until 1798); then on August 29, 1526, Suleiman decisively defeated Louis II, king of Bohemia and Hungary, at the great battle of Mohács, killing the king and destroying his army.

Since the late fourteenth century Hungary had been the defensive wall of Latin Christendom. Now it was gone. In 1529, the Turks laid siege to Vienna. Although they were repelled, Ottoman armies thereafter were encamped on the eastern frontier of Germany and the Holy Roman Empire (whose Hapsburg ruler was also the rightful successor to Louis II as king of the rump of Hungary remaining under Christian rule). Muslim fleets ranged across the Mediterranean and even into the Atlantic, attacking the coastal regions of Italy, France, and Spain, and even (in the seventeenth century) raiding southern England and Ireland.

The two empires, Ottoman and Holy Roman, fought each other in eight wars in the 80 years following Mohács, with major hostilities in 20 of those years, including throughout 1541–1543 and 1593–1604. In the course of these wars, Ottoman armies threatened (and reduced) those parts of Hungary in Hapsburg hands, as well as Austria and Bohemia. Meanwhile, the Ottoman naval threat (which now incorporated the Barbary corsairs) remained potent, with Muslim victories outweighing famous Christian successes at Tunis (1535) and Malta (1565). In 1571 Cyprus, once a significant independent Christian kingdom, was conquered by the Ottomans (now ruled by Selim II).

The naval balance of power only shifted in the last quarter of the century, after the great victory of the Holy League at Lepanto in 1571—the Christian fleet, largely drawn from Venice and Philip II's Spain, but including contingents from a number of Italian city-states and from France, decisively defeated the main Turkish fleet. Westerners and Ottomans alike saw the result as a manifestation of divine will. While the lost ships could be and were rapidly rebuilt, the experienced crews and soldiers could not be replaced quickly. The quality and military efficiency of Ottoman fleets significantly deteriorated; although the Turks went on to enjoy military successes after Lepanto, the decline in effectiveness of the navy and the cost of war helped induce the Ottomans to make peace with the Spanish Monarchy in 1578.

During the seventeenth century the Sublime Porte was to be persistently troubled by revolts and other internal problems, and was distracted by the threat to its eastern borders from Safavid Persia—Muslim but hostile to the claims made by the Ottoman Sultans to the Caliphate (or headship of Islam). Yet Ottoman military capability remained potent. In Central Europe, although the Austrian Hapsburgs were able to repel invasions, they could make little headway in attempting to regain territory in Hungary. Ottoman armies gave the Poles a drubbing in the early 1620s. The greatest extent of Ottoman control of the former Hungarian kingdom was actually reached in 1662, after a Turkish victory against a briefly resurgent Transylvania (the western part of what today is Romania, but historically regarded as part of Hungary).

North Africa

In the meantime, there was a renewed threat to Portugal and the Spanish Monarchy from North Africa. Even after the conquest of Granada in 1492 there had still been a good deal of contact between the Muslims of Africa and those under Spanish rule. When the Ottomans were at Spain's throat in the 1560s, the Muslim "Moriscos" in southern Spain rebelled, and they were aided by volunteers from across the straits of Gibraltar, including from the kingdom of Fez, which was not under Ottoman rule. The Morisco Revolt took three years to put down and the danger of fighting Muslims on two fronts led Philip II of Spain to an extraordinary act of repression. He ordered the resettlement of some 80,000 Moriscos, who were driven from their homes and dispersed across the Spanish kingdoms; but the problem was not solved and in 1609 Philip III took the even more radical step of expelling the Moriscos from Spain entirely, and forcibly deporting them to North Africa—one of the first examples of ethnic cleansing.

Meanwhile, the Ottoman expansion into the Barbary States, and the naval threat they posed from there, led the Hapsburgs to conduct a series of operations against the Mediterranean North African littoral. In the Maghreb, the powerful kingdom of Fez, which had been ruled by the Berber Wattasids, was conquered in the 1540s by the Arab Saadians from Marrakech; zealous Muslims, whose king claimed to be descended from the prophet Muhammad, they were committed to ongoing holy war against Christians and pagans. The result was conflict with Portugal, which had been gradually expanding in what is now Morocco since 1415—a conflict in which both sides saw their enemy in terms of religious, as well as of economic and political, rivalry and hostility.

In 1578 the youthful Portuguese king Sebastian I, who had been raised by Jesuits and believed that with God any odds could be overcome, decided to take an army to North Africa to drive the Saadians back. Sebastian and his nobles regarded their war as a crusade, and were not alone—Sebastian was able to attract volunteers from a number of European countries to his flag. But believing God would bring victory, his conduct of the campaign was almost unbelievably foolhardy and the result was one of the most crushing defeats in history at the battle of Alcazarquivir, in which Sebastian himself was killed, along with many of the country's nobles. The end result was the loss not only of Portugal's North African enclaves but also of its independence—the fatally weakened kingdom was swallowed up by Philip II of Spain and lost its independence for 80 years.

Christian Responses

For much of the sixteenth century, then, there was an immediate and direct Ottoman threat to the Hapsburg rulers of Austria (and the Holy Roman Empire) and the Spanish Monarchy (and its Mediterranean empire, though not its New World colonies), to the princes of Germany, to the Papal States, the Serene Republic of Venice and the other Italian states, and to the kings of Portugal and of Poland. What was in danger was more than just the loss of some territory. Ottoman aspirations and ambitions seemed limitless, and after the dramatic collapse of Hungary in the 1520s, the ravages of the Ottoman fleet, and the loss of Cyprus, there seemed a real prospect of a Muslim conquest of Germany, Italy, and perhaps parts of Spain. The Ottomans posed a clear and present danger to most of the chief powers of Europe.

Equally, in the conflict between Portugal and Fez, because religious as well as geopolitical factors were involved, a peaceful settlement to hostilities was impossible—both sides regarded the other as the enemies of God, with whom there could be no compromise. In the end, a major power, Portugal (which had extensive colonies in South America and Southern Asia), was reduced to a mere possession of Spain, as a result of waging war beyond its means. But the logic of war with "the infidel" was that the normal dictates of prudent policy could be disregarded.

The potency of the Muslim threat and that from the Ottomans, in particular, was recognized all over Europe and attracted a response from much of Europe. It periodically submerged geopolitical rivalries and even Catholic-Protestant confessional hostilities. This is not to say that Christendom was united: the rivalries of the Western powers made it difficult to create effective, lasting alliances; and some states, especially the French, were prepared to ally with the Turks. One reason for Ottoman success in the sixteenth century, then, is that it faced a disunited enemy. When Christians did cooperate, they often did so very effectively. For example, when the Turks besieged Malta, the headquarters of the Knights of St. John, in 1565, it prompted Italian and Spanish cooperation, which ultimately raised the siege. The grand alliance that resulted in the Crusade of Lepanto brought a famous victory and one that was, in the long run, decisive.

The failure of Christians consistently to present a united front in response to the Islamic challenge was, to many people in Western Europe, a shame and reproach. Although the French crown never sent an army or fleet against the Ottomans in the sixteenth century, its failure to do so, and its periodic alliances with the Sublime Porte, were unpopular in France, since many of the French nobility, like their medieval forebears, believed they should crusade against the Turks, not ally with them. In 1571 the French crown considered a detailed and serious proposal to join the Holy League; though it was rejected, in the short-lived periods of peace between the bitterly contested French wars of religion, French noblemen and their followers served as volunteers in campaigns in the Mediterranean, including the Crusade of Lepanto. After peace was restored in France in 1598, a French corps joined the Holy Roman Emperor's army and served in Hungary.

Furthermore, while the Reformation created a confessional divide, many Protestants still regarded fighting Muslims as a Christian duty. Lutheran propaganda in Germany was vehemently anti-Turkish, as well as antipapal. There was an avid market in England and the Netherlands for histories of the Ottomans and of Christian resistance to them, as well as for news reports of Christian victories (and defeats) in battle with the Turks. English and Dutch writers of the 1570s and 1580s did not deride Sebastian of Portugal's disastrous "crusade" to Morocco, even though Sebastian was an avid persecutor of heretics; instead, they praised him for seeking to fight the infidel.

Protestants were not just interested in the struggles of Catholic Christians with Muslims; they joined them. Lutheran troops were part of the successful defense of Vienna in 1529. Hungarian and Transylvanian Calvinists initially made common cause with Catholic fellow countrymen in opposing the Turks. English volunteers, both Protestant and Catholic, served as volunteers in the Holy Roman Emperor's army in Hungary in the mid-1560s and again in the 1590s; they also served in the Spanish fleet in the Mediterranean in the 1560s, and in the Crusade of Lepanto in 1571, which served to check Ottoman maritime expansion. French Huguenots likewise joined French Catholics in the Crusade of Lepanto and in Hungary in the late 1590s. Although William of Orange, leader of the Dutch Revolt, made overtures to the Ottomans to make common cause against Spain, in 1578 he sent troops from the Netherlands to aid Sebastian in Africa, because the Muslims were still regarded the enemies of all Christians—Protestant as well as Catholic. Thus, Dutch, German, English, and Italian soldiers served the Portuguese in the Maghreb.

Later, Maurice of Nassau, William of Orange's son and successor as leader of the Dutch republic and a zealous Calvinist, was interested in helping the Turks' Christian vassal states in the Balkans in their struggle to obtain independence. In 1621 England and the Ottoman Empire engaged in a brief naval war in the Mediterranean that was warmly approved of even by Puritans, who generally opposed their government, because it had not joined the Thirty Years' War on the Protestant side. Puritans did not regard this naval war as a distraction from the serious business of fighting expansionist Catholicism, for they still saw Islam as the enemy of Christendom.

Christian-Muslim Conflict and Religious Freedom

The long series of wars between Christians and Muslims served to entrench the image of the Turk as enemy of all Christians, yet at the same time, it also served to promote a degree of religious freedom in Central Europe. This is ironic and was partly unintentional, a by-product of the intensity of the conflict between the Ottomans and the Holy Roman Emperor.

The emperors needed the financial support of Lutheran princes and the troops they could raise, in order to defend the eastern borders of the empire. In consequence, they employed Lutheran nobles as soldiers and diplomats, and allowed limited religious freedom in Bohemia and even in western Austria (around Salzburg). At one point in the late sixteenth century, the imperial ambassador in Constantinople was a Lutheran, who had his own private Protestant chaplain, alongside the officially appointed Catholic chaplain, who catered to the majority of the embassy's staff. The Protestants of Salzburg only finally lost their liberties in the 1730s—an unexpected result of a series of victories over the Turks in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries that "liberated" Hungary.

The Christian reoccupation of much of Hungary was not a genuine liberation for all, because a range of Christian and semi-Christian sects had flourished there under Ottoman rule. Catholicism naturally lost its state monopoly; the Ottoman authorities, operating on the policy of "divide and conquer" (and regarding all Christians as equally misguided), at various times and in certain areas even actively encouraged Lutheran, Calvinist, anti-Trinitarian, and Greek Orthodox institutions and organizations. Calvinism was especially strong in Transylvania, which had Calvinist princes, ruling under Ottoman overlordship, in the seventeenth century; but under Ottoman pressure, the Reformed conceded religious pluralism in Transylvania—although Greek Orthodox Christians suffered official sanctions, Roman Catholics, Calvinists, Lutherans, and anti-Trinitarians all coexisted.

As Habsburg military success drove the Turks back out of Hungary, "Christianity" nominally was the victory—but only one form of Christianity. The exigencies of the titanic "clash of civilizations" between Islam and Latin Christendom gave rise to limited freedom for minorities; but on the victory of the latter, religious plurality gave way to enforced uniformity. Ironically, for some followers of Jesus Christ, Muslim government proved preferable to Christian.

David J.B. Trim is a professor of history at the University of Reading, England, and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

*This article draws from D.J.B. Trim, "Conflict, Religion, and Ideology," chapter 13 in Trim and F. Tallett, eds., European Warfare, 1350-1750 (New York & Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

Author: David J. B. Trim

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