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July/August 2010

Discover more articles from this issue.

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Magazine Archive »

Published in the July/August 2010 Magazine
by David J. B. Trim

This article is part three in a four part series.

The second part of this five-part series on Europe’s wars of religion told the story of how, from the 1520s until approximately 1650, the greatest nations in Christendom—France, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Sweden, the Dutch Republic, and Britain—were all caught up in wars that were, either in part or in whole, the result of the divisions engendered by the Reformation. In this third article in the series, we consider certain obvious questions: Why did the wars last so long? Why were they so bitterly contested? And what were the effects on relations between people of different Christian confessions?


First, parties to holy war were reluctant to concede victory to ideological enemies. They frequently fought on when, humanly speaking, there was no point. This was partly because of a natural dislike for making peace with (depending on the point of view) bloody persecutors, idolatrous agents of antichrist, or blasphemous heretics who had evoked the wrath of God. It was also because zealous Christians believed that God could and would intervene in human affairs. This was particularly, although not only, true of Calvinists.

At various points in the first, third, fourth, fifth, and eighth wars of religion in France, the position of the Huguenots (French Calvinists) seemed hopeless. Had these wars been only the efforts of discontented or over-mighty nobles to obtain concessions from the monarchy, the sensible thing would have been to cut one’s losses and negotiate. Instead, the Huguenots each time assumed that God could work a miracle—and, fortified by their inner confidence, and by military assistance, especially from England, they fought on and obtained peace settlements that included substantial concessions to the Huguenot minority.

In 1574 the Dutch Revolt seemed over, confined to a few towns and islands in just two of the 17 provinces of the Low Countries. The leader of the revolt, William of Orange, who had joined the Reformed, but was more Lutheran in his own religious views, wrote in May that year to his younger brother John in the aftermath of a disastrous defeat in which two more of their brothers had been killed. William was, as he wrote, so “perplexed,” both by “grief and melancholy” and by “the state of affairs,” that “I hardly know what I do”—but, he concluded, “since this has been the will of God, we have to bear it patiently.” He reminded John of telling him “some time ago, that we could defend this country against all the forces of the king of Spain for two years.” But, he went on, this would be to “speak in human terms,” and he drew “hope that the Lord God whose arm stretches far, may use His power and pity on us.” He concluded that “we always have to conform to the will of God and respect His divine providence and trust, that He who spilled the blood of His only Son to maintain His church, will do only what will redound to the progress of His glory and maintenance of His church, though it seems impossible. And even if all of us should die . . . God will never forsake His flock.”1

Almost identical sentiments inspired Roman Catholic sovereigns. As the historian I.A.A. Thompson eloquently writes of Philip II of Spain: “Whatever the outcome, Philip had to go on. The heretics must not be allowed to believe that it was God’s will that they go unpunished. The obstacles that sprang up on every side were sent to try him for God’s greater glory, maybe to punish him for his sins. If vengeance was to be the Lord’s, he yet had an obligation to serve God in accordance with his conscience, if need be to sacrifice himself.”?2

The holy Roman emperor, Ferdinand II, who began the Thirty Years’ War, also shared this “God can do” attitude, and hence attempted to reverse the results of almost a hundred years of history with the sword.

With God, all things were possible. He who had swept the Egyptians into the Red Sea and put an entire Assyrian army to the sword in a single night could work what He willed in the world—if only His followers were faithful.

Thus, compromise was rarely an option. Where it was, often, as in the French wars of religion, it was for both sides only a tactic to gain time to rest and regroup. Equally, there was rarely, in this period, a willingness to tolerate dissent. Nevertheless, at times military exigency might dictate confessional cohabitation—the Dutch, for example, for all the leading role played by the Reformed Church, never were able to create a Calvinist polity because victory over the Spanish required a coalition of members of different religions and confessions. Even then, however, the Reformed only ever allowed liberty of conscience, not liberty of public worship, and only begrudgingly conceded even limited religious freedom.

Dehumanizing Enemies

Second, ideology meant there was a tendency to dehumanize enemies: whether seeing them as agents of antichrist or Satan, or as sources of heretical pollution that provoked the judgment of God. Even otherwise liberal and progressive thinkers held such views. For example, the Spanish writer Diego de Saavedra y Fajardo (1584–1648), who was a kinsman of Cervantes (author of the great satirical novel Don Quixote), and, like him, expressed skepticism about traditional values and argued (unusually in Renaissance Spain) that peace was to be preferred to war, nevertheless had no doubt that “war was often necessary in the defence of true religion.” He argued that actions that in normal warfare would be illegitimate were acceptable in a war of religion, so for him “the cross of crusade sanctioned all.”?3

People from all confessions, but especially Calvinists, embraced Old Testament texts that seemed to justify seeking not just military victory over confessional opponents, but their extermination. For example, Edward VI (who succeeded his father, Henry VIII, while still a boy, then presided over Protestant reform in England) was hailed by English Protestants as “a new Josiah”—the original Josiah was a youthful Old Testament king who came to the throne of Judah by providence and proceeded to purge idolatrous and impure religion. Edward VI died before he could live up to his “promise” (as it seemed to English Protestants) and take England into the European wars of religion. While such Old Testament referencing is often regarded as typically Calvinist, it was also Catholic: thus, the cardinal of Lorraine also cited the example of Josiah in an address to Charles IX at the palace of Fontainebleau on May 28, 1573. Charles, like Josiah (and Edward), had come to the throne as a minor; and the cardinal urged him to follow the example of the Israelite, who had gathered the priests, lords, and people of Judah to destroy the idols of Baal, and the actual unfaithful themselves—“heretics,” as the cardinal pointedly (but unscripturally) calls them—thereby destroying “all other Religions than the true one.” Charles was urged to be the Josiah of France and so achieve a “rebirth” of “the faith and Catholic Religion.”?4

All this meant that, at the tactical level, religious warfare was often waged with few restraints. To take but a few examples: the French crown killed or sent to the galleys prisoners taken at Rouen in 1562; the Spanish massacred at least 2,000 prisoners after the surrender of Haarlem in 1573; the English slaughtered about 600 Spanish and Italian prisoners at Smerwick, in Ireland, in 1580. The Thirty Years’ War is notorious for its atrocities, sometimes on a massive scale, and although Cromwell’s campaign in Ireland was not as vicious as it has usually been depicted, it was brutal enough.

The bitterness engendered by such methods helped to make the resolution of conflict more difficult, as, too, did the knowledge that victory by one’s enemies could mean death for one’s families, regardless of whether or not they were in a war zone. The divisions between Catholic and Protestant were so entrenched that peacemaking was often very difficult.


Third, because of the ideological component to wars between Protestant and Catholic—and ideology was present and important even when not the sole cause of conflict—wars were internationalized. The “Protestant Cause” motivated sovereigns as diverse as Queen Elizabeth I of England; King Frederick II of Denmark and Norway; Frederick III, elector palatine; Frederick Henry, prince of Orange; and King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden to send armies and fleets to aid foreign Protestants. It also motivated many Protestants to fight for coreligionists or donate money to help them, even when sovereigns did not act.

Catholic solidarity moved Philip II of Spain to aid the kings of France in the 1560s and 1570s, and helped produce a coordinated offensive by Spain and the Austrian Habsburgs in the 1620s. It also motivated numerous Irish and Scottish volunteers to serve in the armies of Catholic sovereigns: the kings of Spain and France and the Holy Roman Emperor.

Calvinists in particular mobilized transnationally and did so with, without, or in parallel to state action, to aid their brethren. After the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572), in which 3,000 French Calvinists were killed in Paris in a single night, a prominent English Puritan wrote to Queen Elizabeth: “We be embarked all in one ship, shall we lie still, while they strive against this common tempest? Or if they make a wreck, may we be safe? Your highness may see Flushing [and] the Flemings in good labor and [the Huguenot stronghold of] La Rochelle and the persecuted Frenchmen at hard point . . . we be made up with them in one band together.”?5

His proposals for dispatching a combined naval and military expedition to La Rochelle were translated into an actual joint Anglo-Huguenot relief expedition that helped to save the city from capture by the armies of the Catholic king.

Ratification of the Peace of Westphalia (1648)
in Munster


This international dimension to national wars was the chief reason that the Peace of Westphalia (1648) established a policy of nonintervention as a necessary concomitant to the principle of national sovereignty. It was only practically possible because, by 1648, after nearly a century of very bitter fighting, ideological attachment had inevitably been somewhat diluted.

Hatred between different confessions could only be maintained at white-hot level for so long. One of the chief effects of the European wars of religion was actually to diminish religious faith and fervor; across Europe, many thoughtful people concluded that if traditional Christianity resulted in so much appalling brutality and cruelty and such terrible bloodshed, then they wanted nothing to do with it. The zeal and passion that led Christians of various types to wage war against each other, in the hopes of purging their national church of heterodox elements, and even of waging war to attempt to reunify Christendom itself, ultimately was an important factor, along with the scientific revolution, in giving rise to the dispassionate and detached religious views of the deists and the so-called Age of Reason.

More conclusions will be drawn in the fifth and last article in this series; the fourth article will examine the wars between Christians and Muslims in central and southern Europe that were contemporaneous with the wars between Catholics and Protestants. The final article will show how the era of wars of religion came to an end in Europe and consider what lessons can be drawn for debates about freedom of belief.

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

  1. E. H. Kossmann and A. F. Mellink, eds., Texts Concerning the Revolt of the Netherlands (Cambridge University Press, 1974), doc. 19, pp. 113-115.
  2. I.A.A. Thompson, “The Appointment of the Duke of Medina Sidonia to the Command of the Spanish Armada,” The Historical Journal 12 (1969): 203.
  3. See R. A. Stradling, Spain’s Struggle for Europe, 1598–1668 (London & Rio Grande, Ohio: Hambledon Press, 1994), pp. xv, xvi.
  4. Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, Paris, MS 188, ff. 348-350.
  5. The British Library, London, Lansdowne MSS, vol. 15, ff. 199v (spelling modernized).

Author: David J. B. Trim

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