Christianity in the Reformation Era
Class 8 - The Embattlement of Protestantism

Christianity in the Reformation Era

Class 8

The Embattlement of Protestantism

Of the many battles of the reformation era three stand out as being particularly critical to the aftermath of the era.  These are 1) the French Wars of Religion, 2) The Dutch Revolt, and 3) The Thirty Years War.

The French Wars of Religion

Scope:   The French Wars of Religion, a series of eight wars between Catholics and Huguenots, took place between 1562 and 1598. Huguenot influence remained strong during the 1560s, then suffered a terrible blow in the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacres of 1572. After Henry III’s assassination in 1589, the Catholic League’s resistance to the Protestant Henry of Navarre blocked his accession, which was cleared only by the new king’s conversion to Catholicism in 1593. This paved the way for the end of the Wars of Religion. The Edict of Nantes (1598) granted Huguenots a protected religious minority status under specified conditions in France.


The French Wars of Religion pitted Huguenots against Catholics in a series of eight wars in which religion and politics were deeply intertwined.

Dynastic politics intersected with religious conflict among the leading families of France, the three most important of which were associated with different religio-political factions.

The Valois were the reigning royal family until 1589 and generally pursued a policy of moderate Catholic conciliation.

The Bourbons championed Calvinism.

The Guises defended an uncompromising Catholicism.

Each of the individual wars, which overlapped with popular violence and attracted international support, generally ended with temporary truces and terms that satisfied neither Catholics nor Huguenots.

The Huguenots were aided by certain German Protestant states, while the arch-Catholics were aided by Spain.

Besides overt military conflict, the wars were characterized by ongoing, local, episodic violence. Catholics and Protestants tended to exhibit distinctive ritual forms of popular religious violence.

In the decade after the Massacre of Vassy in 1562, Huguenots largely maintained their strength and established many more new churches.

The St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572 was the first great watershed of the Wars of Religion and an enormous blow against the Huguenots.

The massacre was prompted by the Paris wedding of Catherine de Medici's daughter, Marguerite of Valois, and Henry of Navarre.

The wedding was intended to help overcome the religious violence by uniting two prominent members of the warring factions.

Most of the important Huguenot leaders were in Paris for the wedding, which took place on August 18, 1572.

In Paris, the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacres combined political assassination with widespread popular violence.

After the Huguenot leader Gaspard de Coligny was wounded in an assassination attempt on August 22, the royal council decided to preempt anticipated retaliation by killing several dozen Huguenot leaders early on the morning of August 24.

Word spread in the streets of Paris, precipitating a widespread orgy of killing of Huguenots in the city that left some 3,000 dead.

The St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre should not be seen as a sensational aberration but as the culmination of an escalation of mutual violence that stretched back to the late 1550s.

In the weeks after the violence in Paris, similar massacres broke out in other cities in France, killing probably thousands more people.

As a whole, the massacres of 1572 severely damaged the cause of French Protestants and had widespread, long-lasting impact.

Thousands of Huguenots returned to Catholicism, shrinking the numbers of French Protestants dramatically.

Those Huguenots who remained Protestant were steeled in their resolve. The most important French treatises of Calvinist resistance theory were written in the wake of the massacres.

Warfare between Catholics and Huguenots resumed.

After the Huguenot Henry of Navarre became the presumptive heir to the throne in 1584, the Catholic League emerged as a major force, creating a three-way power struggle.

Henry III had been king since 1574 but had fathered no children by the time his brother Francis, the Duke of Anjou, died in 1584. This left Henry of Navarre as the closest heir to the throne.

With a Protestant in line for the throne, the Catholic League revived with a vengeance.

The Catholic League contended that the king of France must be Catholic and insisted that Cardinal Charles of Bourbon, Henry of Navarre’s uncle, should be heir to the throne.

The Catholic League viewed Henry III with suspicion for being soft on the Huguenots, and in 1584, entered into an alliance with Philip II of Spain, France’s traditional political enemy.

The Guises led the League with many adherents in French cities across a significant social swath of the Catholic population.

Humiliatingly forced out of Paris by the Catholic League, Henry III had the Duke and Cardinal of Guise assassinated in December 1588 and allied with Henry of Navarre in the spring of 1589.

In August 1589, Henry III was in turn assassinated, which left Henry of Navarre as king, despite enormous resistance from the Catholic League.

Henry battled against the League, which began to break apart. In July 1593, he converted to Catholicism and entered Paris in March 1594.

Although some local resistance by the Catholic League persisted, Henry’s conversion undermined its basic raison d’être.

After decades of war, the conversion of the once-Protestant, now-Catholic king helped to stabilize the country.

In 1598, the Edict of Nantes provided a framework for the coexistence of Catholics and a Huguenot minority in France. 

Huguenots were granted freedom of worship in the approximately 200 towns that they controlled in 1597 and on their nobles’ estates, access to education and royal offices, and a number of garrisons.

Catholicism was recognized as the official religion of France, and Catholics were granted freedom of worship in Huguenot towns.

The Edict envisioned that eventually Catholicism would be restored to the whole of France.

The Wars of Religion left France exhausted and damaged by nearly four decades of war. They demonstrated the value of absolute monarchy as a central unifying institution in a religiously divided country.

In France, the situation of the Huguenots grew gradually worse during the seventeenth century, until finally Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685.

Huguenot privileges were eroded between the military loss of La Rochelle in 1629 and the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.

With a respite from French military conflicts in 1659, Louis XIV’s measures progressively restricted Huguenot activities and privileges in the 1660s and 1670s.

After the revocation in 1685 and a de facto policy of pressured conversion to Catholicism, some 200,000 Huguenots secretly emigrated from France.

Huguenots and Catholics in France developed sharper confessional identities and associated less with each other as the seventeenth century wore on.

French Huguenots developed the siege mentality of a cultural elite, which heightened their sense of Calvinist election.

Religion and Politics in the Dutch Revolt

Scope:   After the Iconoclastic Fury of 1566, Philip II sent the Duke of Alva to the Low Countries to punish its perpetrators. Alva’s harsh retribution provoked resistance led by William of Orange. This precipitated an anti-Spanish revolt that took much of the northern provinces from Spanish control. Beginning in the late 1570s, much of Flanders and Brabant was reclaimed by Calvinists as well.

Although William of Orange strove to preserve a united Low Countries, an anti-Calvinist backlash in the southern provinces helped the success of a Spanish counteroffensive under the Duke of Parma. The north repudiated Philip I and Spain and declared itself a new nation, the United Provinces of the Netherlands, protecting Calvinism as the official public church.


I.        The three distinct axes of politics and war (Dutch-Spanish), religious allegiance (Catholic-Calvinist), and doctrinal rigor (strict-liberal) combined to shape the most consequential years of the Dutch Revol

 II.         Philip II of Spain sent the Duke of Alva to punish the perpetrators of the Iconoclastic Fury, which prompted Dutch resistance to Spanish oppression, led by William of Orange.

Despite the dissipation of the Calvinist rebellion by the spring of 1567, the Duke of Alva administered severe punitive measures.

Alva oversaw the Council of Troubles (“Council of Blood”), which executed over 1,100 people between 1567 and 1573.

The Dutch widely resented the taxes imposed by Alva.

Alva’s repression deeply affected Dutch Calvinism. Thousands of Calvinists returned to Roman Catholicism. Thousands of Calvinists fled The Netherlands, especially to England and Germany, where the refugee community in Emden was especially important and hosted a crucial synod in 1571.

Those Calvinists who remained in the Low Countries were forced underground. They maintained ties to the exile communities.

C.        Beginning in 1568, resistance to Alva emerged under the leadership of the exiled nobleman William of Orange, who conducted unsuccessful invasions of the Low Countries in 1568 and 1571.

William of Orange's campaign against Alva was cast in the patriotic, political language of resistance to Spanish tyranny.

Because early resistance to the Spanish was not primarily religious in character, many Catholics who resented Alva were sympathetic to William of Orang

III.        Between 1572 and the early 1580s, militant Calvinists and William of Orange’s troops retook much of the Low Countries from the Spanish.

In April 1572, Dutch Calvinist pirates known as the “Sea Beggars” began recapturing towns in Holland and were soon aided by William of Orange’s sizeable army, itself assisted by Calvinist exile communities.

Although freedom of worship for Catholics was proclaimed in Holland in 1572, the Sea Beggars massacred many Catholic clergy.

William of Orange acknowledged his debt to militant Calvinists by joining the congregation in Delft in 1573, yet he kept his deeper commitment to religious toleration.

By mid-1573, most of the significant towns of Holland were under Dutch control.

The takeover relied on siege warfare and Sea Beggar aggression, although urban magistrates remained wary of Calvinist ambitions.

Catholic ecclesiastical property and possessions were taken and much of the money was used for the war effort against Spain.

Beginning in 1577, city governments supported a more aggressive Calvinism in Brabant and Flanders.

The Calvinist takeover was aided by the mutinies of unpaid Spanish soldiers, most dramatically in Antwerp.

William of Orange worried that militant Calvinism would alienate Catholics and political moderates from the anti- Spanish cause.

IV.        The consolidation of Dutch gains in the north led to the creation of the United Provinces of the Netherlands in 1579. In the south, Calvinist militancy led to a Catholic backlash, helping Spanish repossession by 1585.

In 1579, the Union of Utrecht provided for the political unification of the seven northern provinces against Spain and soon led to the elimination of public Catholic worship.

A coalescence of the political and religious axes in the north made it impossible to be openly Catholic and anti-Spanish.

 The northern polarization between Catholics and anti- Catholics ended the dreams of William of Orange of a religiously broad middle path uniting the Netherlands.

In 1581, the United Provinces formally repudiated the authority of Philip II and Spain.

Beginning in the late 1570s, the Spanish army regrouped and recaptured the southern provinces, with significant popular support.

Alessandro Farnese, the Duke of Parma, reestablished Spanish control in the south by 1585.

Significant disaffection with Calvinist militancy led many moderates and Catholics to favor Spanish control and Catholicism over Calvinism.

The reestablishment of Catholicism under Spanish control in the south precipitated a massive Protestant migration to the Dutch Republic.

Despite continued conflicts between the Dutch Protestant north and the Spanish Catholic south, the basic religio-political template of the modern Netherlands and Belgium was in place by the late 1580s.

Calvinism became the official, but not the imposed, church of the Dutch Republic, where a de facto religious pluralism soon prevailed.

Many urban magistrates in the Dutch Republic had not opposed Catholicism in order to impose a rigorous Calvinism, but instead favored a pragmatic policy of religious toleration.

Calvinism became the only publicly recognized church in the Dutch Republic, but private worship by other groups, including Catholics and Mennonites, was permitted.

The magistrates’ attitudes and policies often frustrated committed Calvinists, with whom they frequently clashed over the appointment of ministers, schools, and relief for the poor.

The contrast between religious rigor and latitude in Dutch Calvinism was reflected in the distinction between full members and a larger number of “sympathizers.”

The Thirty Years’ War—Religion and Politics 

Scope:   The Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), the most destructive of all the early modern European wars of religion, arose out of longstanding religious and political tensions in the Holy Roman Empire, then passed through four distinct stages. Up through 1629, a militant Counter-Reformation Catholicism under Ferdinand II dominated Protestant forces, but a dramatic reversal occurred under the leadership of the Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus from 1630 to 1632. The last years of the war were the most destructive, with France’s decision utterly to exhaust an already weak Empire. The Peace of Westphalia, which ended the war in 1648, ended the Holy Roman Empire as a major political force, established the basic religio-political map of modern Europe, and left France as Europe’s dominant political power. 


The complex political and religious tensions of the Holy Roman Empire were the matrix for the origin of the Thirty Years’ War.

Political tensions between emperors and territorial princes, as well as religious differences among Lutherans, Calvinists, and Catholics, were a volatile combination in the early seventeenth century.

Two opposed confederations combining religious commitment with political power emerged in central Europe at the end of the first decade of the seventeenth century.

In 1608, the Calvinist Frederick IV of the Palatinate formed a Protestant Union against increasingly aggressive Counter- Reformation Catholicism in central Europe.

In 1609, Duke Maximilian of Bavaria headed a Catholic League meant to counter the Protestant Union and to protect Catholicism in the Holy Roman Empire.

The election of the intensely Catholic Ferdinand of Austria as king of Calvinist Bohemia in 1617 provoked the defenestration of Prague, the event that touched off the Thirty Years’ War.

When Ferdinand II was elected emperor in 1619, Frederick V of the Palatinate, the new head of the Protestant Union, was proclaimed king of Bohemia against Ferdinand’s claims.

No one expected that a local conflict would eventually swell into the most devastating of all the wars of early modern Europe.

II.         The political and military complexities of the Thirty Years’ War fall into four distinct phases before the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

During the Bohemian phase of the war (1618–1625), militant Catholicism was in the driver’s seat under the guidance of Ferdinand II.

Ferdinand II received military support from Catholic allies; Frederick V was hampered by problems in the Protestant Union

In late 1620, Catholic commander Johann Tilly defeated Protestant forces in the Battle of the White Mountain, after which Frederick V was deposed as King of Bohemia and lost the Palatinate as well.

The Danish phase of the war (1625–1629) was the high water mark of Counter-Reformation Catholicism during the Thirty Years’ War.

Ferdinand II, seeking a Catholic recovery of the entire Empire, was aided by Tilly’s and von Wallenstein’s military successes.

The Edict of Restitution (1629) mandated the restoration of Catholic properties and reiterated the illegal status of Calvinism under the terms of the Peace of Augsburg.

The Swedish phase of the war (1630–1635) achieved a dramatic Protestant success under the leadership of Gustavus Adolphus.

The Lutheran king of Sweden, Gustavus Adolphus, advanced into Germany against Ferdinand II’s forces and increased the size of his army as he went, aided by Dutch money

At the behest of Richelieu, minister to Louis XIII, the French subordinated religious sympathies to political concerns by providing Gustavus Adolphus with money for his campaign.

At the Battle of Breitenfeld (1631), Gustavus Adolphus inflicted a massive defeat on the Catholic army under Tilly.

But he died in battle the following year, weakening Sweden’s position.

With both sides weakened, the Peace of Prague was concluded in 1635, bringing the Swedish phase of the war to a close.

France’s military involvement in the French phase of the war (1635–1648) inflicted massive destruction on central Europe.

At Richelieu’s behest, the French struck militarily against an already weakened Empire, with huge armies plundering and spreading disease among central European armies and people.

The religious motives, important early in the war, receded.

The Empire lost an estimated eight million people during the war.

In 1648, the Peace of Westphalia brought the war to an end and established the basic religio-political configuration of modern Europe.

The various treaties involved in the Peace of Westphalia established a framework for international relations and diplomacy in Europe that lasted into the nineteenth century.

In addition to relatively minor territorial gains and losses, the Peace of Westphalia canceled the Edict of Restitution of 1629, legalized Calvinism in the Empire, and reaffirmed the main clause of the Peace of Augsburg that permitted Lutheranism.

The Thirty Years’ War was significant for at least five reasons.

The war's last years reveal the ascendancy of secular political interests over religious motives, epitomized by Richelieu’s aid to Sweden.

Extending the trend of increasing state control of churches, rulers tended to subjugate religious concerns to the state’s interests.

Pope Innocent X’s denunciation of the Peace of Westphalia was politely ignored, epitomizing the eclipse of the papacy as a major political player in Europe by the mid-seventeenth century.

The sheer scale and horror of destruction in the Thirty Years’ War made clear in an unprecedented way the costs of religious war.

The disruption of the Thirty Years’ War deeply derailed the process of confessionalization in central European territories, whether Lutheran, Calvinist, or Catholic.

With the destruction of the Thirty Years’ War, the Holy Roman Empire ceased to be a major political entity in European politics.

To a greater extent than ever, individual princes were sovereign in their respective territories after the Thirty Years’ War.

The Thirty Years’ War proved crucial to preventing any significant measures toward national unification in Germany for over two centuries.

As a result of the war, France was unquestionably the most powerful state in Europe. 

Christianity in the Reformation Era - Class 8 - The Embattlement of Protestantism

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