Skip to main content

Religious Wars in Europe (1517–1648)

Religious Wars in Europe (1517–1648)

Major Figures

Martin Luther

At the heart of the series of disputes in Europe during the early sixteenth century that eventually divided Christianity into Catholic and Protestant identities was the German monk and theologian, Martin Luther (1483–1546). The explicit shortcomings that Luther criticized in church practice and belief evolved into a comprehensive assault upon the foundations of Catholic identity and practice, ultimately creating alternative Protestant denominations and launching more than a century of political and religious strife in Europe.

Devout Beginnings

Born in Eisleben, Germany, Luther came from the middle ranks of society, and he was characteristic of the hard-working and sober young men recruited to assume a monastic life in the service of the Catholic Church. His father, Hans, a younger son of a successful farming family, had entered the mining industry and married respectably in Saxony. Hans wanted Luther to receive an education and hoped that he would pursue a legal career. Hence in 1501, Luther entered the university at Erfurt.

Luther soon abandoned his law studies, later attributing his decision to an experience in which he was caught outdoors during a terrible thunderstorm in 1505. The impressionable Luther vowed to Saint Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary, that he would enter the monastic life if he survived the tumult. When the storm passed, Luther kept his vow, entering an Augustinian monastery where he performed well, taking priestly orders in 1507. He began teaching at the University of Wittenberg soon thereafter.

From 1512 to 1516, Luther’s knowledge of Scripture deepened as he lectured on Genesis, the Psalms, and Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Despite his use of humanist methods of teaching and writing, Luther gradually arrived at a pragmatic—if somewhat dark—view of the human condition, a philosophy that represented a rebellion against the formally scholastic approach that was a staple of northern Europe’s intellectual climate.

A Call for Reform

By 1517, Luther was frustrated with some church practices, notably the sale of indulgences. When a supplicant purchased an indulgence, a transfer of the merit accumulated by Christ and the saints to an individual was affected by the church to remit some or all of the penalties otherwise to be suffered in purgatory. Luther, because he denied the pope’s authority over salvation, argued against this practice.

On October 31, Luther outlined his complaint in ninety-five statements, or theses, that he allegedly nailed to the Castle Church doors in Wittenberg. Whether he actually posted his theses or simply wrote to the Archbishop of Mainz, Luther’s words soon circulated widely and ignited a firestorm of debate. Between 1517 and 1530, Luther found himself the unexpected leader of a comprehensive and radical program that directly challenged the foundations of Catholicism.

By returning a merciful God to the forefront of theology, Luther attacked the church’s tight control over doctrine, morality, and social mores. Three formulas contain Luther’s teaching: sola fide (“by faith alone”), sola scriptura (“by scripture alone”), and sola gratia (“by grace alone”).

Sola fide emphasizes the magnificence of reason and the primacy of revelation by insisting that man is saved by faith alone. No man can earn salvation through works; rather, God mercifully chooses some few, and these, the elect, are predestined for salvation. Sola fide , or justification by faith, became a hallmark of later Protestantism.

Sola scriptura holds that the sole source of religious truth is the word of God as revealed in Scripture. The Bible is the authoritative record of God’s revelation to man and the means through which God communicates to people. The role of priests and church officials as intermediaries was clearly and directly challenged by Luther.

Sola gratia means that man cannot know the truth of salvation or accomplish any good without the aid and free gift of God’s grace. All virtue derives directly from grace and in no manner reflects any inherent abilities or works of individuals.

The Establishment Strikes Back

Luther published three tracts in 1520 that outlined these radical thoughts. An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation , The Babylonian Captivity of the Church , and On Christian Liberty constituted a wide-ranging assault against papal prestige, and consequently Pope Leo X realized that he could no longer ignore the troublesome Luther. In 1520, the Pope issued a papal bull (a formal decree) accusing Luther of heresy and threatening him with excommunication if he did not retract many of his positions. When Luther stuck to his arguments, he was formally excommunicated in January 1521.

Luther fled to Saxon territory and was installed by supporters in the Wartburg castle above the city of Eisenach. In March, he was summonsed by Emperor Charles V to Worms to defend himself. During the Diet of Worms (a meeting of the various polities of the Holy Roman Empire), Luther refused to recant his position. Whether he actually said, “Here I stand, I can do no other” is uncertain. What is known is that he did refuse to recant, and on May 8 he was placed under Imperial Ban.

This placed Luther and his protectors in a dangerous position, as Luther was now a condemned and wanted man. Consequently he remained in hiding at the Wartburg castle until May 1522, when he returned to Wittenberg to resume teaching. In 1524 and 1525, the Peasants War raged in Germany. This uprising, which saw widespread destruction waged by peasants and commoners, was fueled by an assortment of legal, social, and economic tensions fueled by Luther’s revolutionary prose that seemed to challenge the standing order. Luther disappointed the rebels, however, by arguing that they should adhere to temporal authorities.

Later Years

In 1525, Luther married Katharina von Bora, definitively establishing the practice of clerical marriage for Protestants. He continued to study and advocate his positions. His translation of the New Testament in German appeared in 1522, followed by the Old Testament in 1534, yielding an entire German-language Bible. During the last years of his life, Luther served as the dean of the theology faculty at Wittenberg. He died in Eisleben on February 18, 1546.

The Reformation that Luther sparked was ultimately an argument about the conditions of salvation. Those who followed Luther and became known as Protestants believed that Catholic clergy did behave badly (as in the case of indulgences), but more profoundly maintained that the Catholic Church was wrong about God’s plan for man’s salvation. Luther and his adherents wished to restore Christianity to its biblical purity. It was a debate that led to social and political conflict for a century after Luther’s death, and it is a theological debate that still resounds today.

Philip II

King Philip II of Spain (1527–1598), the “Catholic King,” was an ardent defender of his faith and a monarch admired at home and despised abroad. Among his many titles, he ruled as king of Spain from 1556 to 1598; as king of Naples and Sicily from 1554 to 1598; was king consort of England (husband of Mary) from 1554 to 1558; and was king of Portugal from 1580 until 1598. Philip’s reign was characterized by both the expansion of Spanish military power and consolidation of imperial reach, but also by increasing debt and growing challenges to Spanish authority by other European states.

Born to Rule

Philip’s father was Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, and his mother was Isabella of Portugal. Throughout his life, Philip was the emblem of Habsburg monarchy, and his personal life reflected his dynastic interests. His first marriage was to his cousin, the Princess Maria of Portugal, who bore him a son named Don Carlos. Don Carlos was unstable and sickly and died in 1568. Maria died in 1545, and Philip found a new wife in the English Catholic, Queen Mary. The match was not popular with the public in either England or Spain, but Mary, always insecure, grasped at the union.

Philip spent little time with Mary, and when she died childless in 1558, he sought yet another wife. He next married Princess Elizabeth of Valois, daughter of Henry II of France. When Elizabeth passed in 1568, Philip married for the fourth time, this time to his niece, Anna of Austria, who bore him an heir, Philip III, in 1578.

Philip’s reign as king was characterized by expansion and warfare. By the late 1580s, perhaps as many as 100,000 troops were in Spanish pay, and the defense of Spain’s overseas colonies in the Americas demanded a large fleet. Likewise, Philip oversaw contests against both the Protestant forces of Western and Northern Europe as well as against Muslims in the Mediterranean.

Trouble in the Low Countries

Beginning in the 1560s, the Netherlands rose in revolt against Habsburg rule. Protestant agitation and unwillingness to submit to Spanish administration prompted active resistance. Ruling from Madrid, Philip garrisoned thousands of Spanish troops in important Dutch cities and towns and sought funds from local citizens for their upkeep. The result was a war that simmered for decades and drained Spanish coffers while periodically inviting active military intervention from other powers, including England and France.

Queen Elizabeth of England, fearful of Spanish power and intervention in the Low Countries, had in the 1570s endorsed privateering as an effective and economic means to challenge Spain. By the mid-1580s, when it appeared that the longstanding tension would lead to war, she increased English support for Dutch rebels and launched more ambitious sea raids against Spanish maritime interests. In the fall of 1585, the English sea captain Sir Francis Drake plundered Spanish possessions and shipping in an expedition to the Spanish West Indies, inflicting significant damage to Spanish holdings and infuriating Philip.

Unwilling to allow Spain’s reputation to be sullied, Philip initiated preparations for an invasion of England. After many difficulties, the famed Spanish Armada sailed during the late summer of 1588. A combination of unfavorable weather, English seamanship, and inadequate logistical support doomed the armada to defeat, inflicting upon Spain the greatest military loss of Philip’s reign.

The event was the high point of Spanish influence in European and Atlantic waters. Thereafter, England’s rise as a naval power continued unabated for two centuries, while Spanish influence, though not completely evident at the time, entered a period of long decline.

Conflicts with Other Nations

From 1590 to 1598, Philip waged an unsuccessful war against Henry IV of France, allying with Duke Henry of Guise and the Catholic League. Henry IV was able to mobilize his subjects by characterizing Habsburg involvement in France’s affairs as dangerous to the French nation, thereby stiffening resistance to Spain. The war gained nothing for Philip.

While fighting against the Protestant states of Europe, Philip also waged war in defense of Christianity. Philip’s Spain, for many generations a battleground in the contest between Islam and Christianity, took religious war to the sea by confronting Turkish navies in the Mediterranean. During the late 1550s, Turkish warships raided the Spanish mainland. In 1560, Philip organized a Holy League by allying with Spain and the Republic of Venice, the Republic of Genoa, the Papal States, the Duchy of Savoy, and the Knights of Malta. The Christian fleet of some two hundred ships initially met defeat, but ultimately achieved a major victory at sea in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. Thereafter, the Islamic threat was significantly reduced.

Years of war drained Spanish coffers. As early as 1565, debts absorbed more than 80 percent of Spanish revenues. By the end of Philip’s reign, the total state debt ran eight times higher than annual income. While some of the debt could be relieved through bullion imported from the Americas, domestic taxes were also raised by more than 400 percent between the 1560s and 1590s. The result was an inflationary spiral that affected all segments of the Spanish economy.

When Philip died on September 13, 1598, Spain had reached new heights of influence, but it had also incurred debts that the state could not pay. His unyielding personality and ardent religiosity ensured the preservation of Catholicism at home but earned enemies in England, France, and the Netherlands. Nonetheless, by defeating the Ottoman navy, uniting the crowns of Portugal and Spain, and defending Catholicism across Western Europe, Philip demonstrated that he was one of the most important monarchs of his age.

Elizabeth I

Born at Greenwich Palace, Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603) ruled England from 1558 until her death in 1603. During her long rule, England prospered intellectually, economically, and politically.

Ascension Issues

Elizabeth was the only surviving child of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth barely knew her mother, whom Henry executed when Elizabeth was only thirty-two months old. When Anne Boleyn’s marriage to Henry was declared void, Elizabeth became illegitimate and was thus barred from inheriting the crown, as was Mary, Henry’s daughter with Catherine of Aragon, before her. It was only later, when Henry was satisfied with the succession to his son Edward VI, that he recognized Mary and Elizabeth as potential successors if Edward’s line failed.

Elizabeth received a thorough education and proved an intelligent child. She was supportive of Edward VI, but when he died young and Mary assumed the throne as a Catholic ruler, Elizabeth became a liability and a threat. She spent the years of Mary’s reign keeping a low profile and avoiding suspicion as best she could. When Mary died without issue, Elizabeth’s accession was welcomed by both the general population and the noble order.

After the tumults raised by Mary’s attempts to re-impose Catholicism upon a reluctant state, Elizabeth determined that a religious accommodation was one of her most important orders of business. The settlement she orchestrated in 1559 reflected her conviction that the era of reform instigated by her father in the late 1520s was now over; her institution of a revised prayer book and liturgical instructions was meant to be the final solution. To that end, and to the House of Commons’ consternation, Elizabeth tolerated very little public discussion of the matter by government officials. Zealous Protestants were quieted, and adherents to the old faith were driven underground.

England Blossoms

In 1569, the strength of Elizabeth’s regime was tested when the northern Earls of Northumberland and Westmorland raised a revolt, calling for the restoration of Catholicism. The rapid collapse of the movement and the inability of the rebels to raise any sustained assistance from elsewhere in the kingdom was evidence that the 1559 settlement had become established. By the early 1570s, Elizabeth’s popularity was marked throughout the country in spontaneous festivities to note Accession Day (November 17).

The two decades following 1570 were especially prosperous for England. Sufficient harvests and a respite from epidemic disease contributed to a growing population and domestic stability. Literature and the arts blossomed—this was the age of Francis Bacon, William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and Edmund Spenser.

Elizabeth was a decisive and strong leader, earning the confidence of her close advisors as well as that of the populace. Her style of command was highly personal and maximized her unique status as a female monarch. To her council and court she appeared tough and unyielding, demanding obedience to her orders. While always eager for flattery and often haughty, she did not easily succumb to the solicitations of supplicants. The aristocrats and servants Elizabeth maintained in her household were fiercely loyal to her, and her rule benefited from the continuity she oversaw.

Beyond her court, Elizabeth cultivated a much more feminine, pacific image. She made great display of attending to the needs and wishes of her subjects. During her annual summer progresses through the nation, she acted the role of a grateful, if distinguished, guest in country manors and great houses. Her propaganda relentlessly presented the queen as the defender of the realm against all threats.

A Quest for a Consort

There were certainly threats to the security of her realm. One of her most vexing challenges was the search for a husband to solidify her succession and to perhaps forge an alliance with another European state. While Elizabeth had favorites—including Robert Dudley (earl of Leicester), Sir Christopher Hatton (the captain of her bodyguard), and Robert Devereux (earl of Essex)—these men were not sufficient matches in dynastic terms. Instead, she sought an alliance with another European monarchy.

Early in her reign she entered negotiations with Philip II of Spain, Mary’s former husband, but these ended when Elizabeth confirmed her opposition to papal sovereignty. Another suitor was Charles, archduke of Austria, but negotiations in this direction also collapsed over religious disputes. Henri, duke of Anjou (the younger brother of Charles IX, king of France), presented himself as a candidate for a time, albeit unsuccessfully. Then Anjou’s younger brother François, duke of Alençon, came to the forefront, and in November 1581 Elizabeth announced she would marry him, causing a sensation. Elizabeth may not have been sincere, especially given French persecution of the Protestant Huguenots, but in any case the matter concluded in 1584 when Alençon died.

Elizabeth’s prospects for bearing a child were diminishing by now, and gradually she adopted the mantle of the “Virgin Queen,” a status her publicity machine elevated to a position of unassailable virtue and dignity.

Suitors Wanting the Nation are Also Rebuffed

In the realm of foreign affairs, Elizabeth maintained an on-and-off-again war with Spain. English sea captains such as Francis Drake, whom Elizabeth knighted in 1581, preyed upon Spanish merchant fleets sailing from the New World. England also supported the Netherlands in its struggles against Spain.

Philip believed that as the former husband of Mary (and as a devout Catholic king), he enjoyed a divine prerogative to invade heretical England. In 1587, Philip received approval from the pope to do just that, and the following year he launched his great armada against England. The armada was defeated by bad weather and English seamanship, but as hostilities between the two nations continued on, Elizabeth emerged the stalwart defender of England and the English Church.

Elizabeth died at Richmond Palace at the age of sixty-nine. Although she left behind no will, she had made it known that her cousin, James VI of Scotland, was her lawful successor. Thereafter, the crowns of England and Scotland would be united in the person of the monarch. While the final years of her reign lacked the vitality of her youth, her kingdom reached new levels of prosperity and influence under her rule. She remains as one of the United Kingdom’s most important and effective monarchs.

Henry of Navarre

Henry IV, also known as Henry of Navarre (1553–1610), ruled as king of France from 1589 to 1610. Henry was popular in his day, and he earned a legacy of stability and reform for his kingdom, successfully drawing to a close the religious wars that had plagued the country for more than a generation.

Switching Religions

Born at Pau in Béarn, Henry was the son of Antoine de Bourbon, Duke of Vendôme, and Jeanne d’Albret. Initially raised as a Catholic, young Henry was educated by his mother to be a Protestant when he joined her at the official court in 1564. As a teenager, he served under Admiral Gaspard de Coligny during the Third Huguenot War (1568–1570).

Upon his mother’s death, Henry became king of Navarre (as Henry III) in June 1572. He married Margaret, the sister of Charles IX, in August 1572, but was forced to abjure his faith as a consequence of the Catholic-led St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre that same month. Henry was initially held captive at the royal court, but when he escaped, he renounced his enforced Catholic allegiance.

Henry found himself in line for the throne of France when the Duke of Anjou died in 1584. However, he was formally excluded from the royal succession by the Treaty of Nemours, agreed upon by King Henry III of France and Duke Henry of Guise, leader of the Catholic League. Guise was adamant that a Protestant not ascend to become king, and another round of warfare ensued.

During the subsequent “War of Three Henrys,” the Catholic League was allied with Spain against the Huguenots. The populace became polarized, forcing Henry III to flee Paris and join with Navarre. The way to the throne finally materialized in August 1589, when Henry III was assassinated.

Henry of Navarre demonstrated his military talent by fighting in numerous battles at the head of Protestant forces in the field, and he achieved a decisive victory while outnumbered at Arques in September 1589. Henry was repulsed from Paris later that year but returned to besiege the capital again in 1590. He operated against Rouen in 1591 and 1592.

Ascending the throne as King Henry IV, Henry was welcomed by many who were weary of the religious war and who had a desire for change from the vacillation of his predecessor. Nonetheless, the new monarch faced numerous challenges. Several years of poor harvests and rapid inflation had brought economic distress and heightened criminality to the countryside. Towns ran up debts as they increased their defenses and supplied the armies in their vicinity. Hardships suffered by the peasants sometimes led to open rebellion, like the uprising that began in 1593 and soon engulfed much of western France. Meanwhile, as Henry attempted to restore order within France, he also struggled to establish his own legitimacy.

Henry Decides Paris is Worth a Mass

The Catholic League opposed Henry and had chosen the Cardinal de Bourbon to be monarch. The latter took the name Charles X, but he died in May 1590. This left the League without a suitable replacement, and some moderates suggested to Henry that he declare himself a Catholic to satisfy the League’s demands. Henry had already included Catholic advisors in his court, and in July 1593, he formally abjured his Protestant faith. On February 27, 1594, he was crowned at Chartres, thus paving the way for his entrance into Paris.

Henry continued to confront challenges to his rule. In January 1595, he declared war on Spain for the purpose of eliminating foreign support for domestic Catholic agitation. Henry hoped to excite a sense of French nationalism and to isolate the Catholic League by uniting the French people in a common cause. In June of that year, Henry’s forces won a battle over Spanish troops near Fontaine-Française during which the king demonstrated his courage by personally leading several cavalry charges.

He then led an army to the north, seizing Cambrai from Catholic loyalists and laying siege to La Fère, a key Spanish outpost. The war continued, but Henry had the upper hand. In the spring of 1597, he besieged Amiens and then later turned back a relieving Spanish army in mid-September, capturing the city.

Later Achievements

Having eliminated the Spanish threat, Henry spent the next decade consolidating his authority. In 1598, he issued the Edict of Nantes by which certain political and religious rights for Huguenots were guaranteed. Huguenots could not raise taxes, build fortifications, or levy troops, but they did enjoy a measure of civil independence. The immediate effect was to calm religious tension and preserve Protestant enclaves, but in the long term, the Protestant cause in France found itself circumscribed. Never again would the Huguenots challenge Catholic supremacy.

Assassinated by François Ravaillac in Paris on May 14, 1610, Henry IV was widely mourned.

By the time Henry became king, the wars of religion in France had damaged the reputation of the French monarchy. As the first Bourbon king, he did much to establish royal order and set in motion administrative reforms that would pay enormous dividends for French power and domestic security over the course of the eighteenth century. While he did not resolve religious tension, he did quell the violence and allowed a modicum of civil life to be restored in France.

Major Battles

Dreux, December 19, 1562

The Battle of Dreux was the first major battlefield engagement of the French religious wars. The Royalist (Catholic) army, led by Duke François of Guise, defeated Louis I de Bourbon, Prince of Condé’s Huguenot (Protestant) force in a bloody but indecisive contest that settled nothing, but which was a harbinger of the decades of sectarian violence to come.

Forces Muster

As small-scale religious hostility and violence turned to outright war in France, each side mobilized forces. By mid-1562, the Royalists had mustered nearly three hundred companies of all types, almost fifty thousand men. Approximately two-thirds were Frenchmen, with the remainder being foreigners and mercenaries. For the Huguenot cause, Condé gathered about six thousand infantry and two thousand cavalry from France. In the spring, roughly seven thousand additional troops (four thousand infantry and three thousand cavalry) from the Protestant principalities of Germany arrived to augment the Protestant army.

In July 1562, the main royal host departed Paris and marched south. It seized Blois from Huguenot forces and ordered separate columns under Marshal Saint-André and other Catholic commanders to retain the towns along the Loire and Poitou rivers. The Royalist troops next headed for Rouen, which the local Huguenots had seized. In late October, that city yielded and was subsequently sacked.

Discouraged but not defeated, Huguenot formations now marched from their garrisons around Orleans with vengeance in mind. Finding Chartres and Paris too strongly defended, they turned northeast and headed toward Normandy to subdue Catholic areas there and to link up with an English expedition marching from Le Havre.

After crossing the river Eure at Maintenon, the Huguenots encountered the Royal army (some nineteen thousand men) south of Dreux. The Royalists formed a line of battle facing south, with their right anchored in the village of Epinay and with their left at a crossroads near Blainville. Catholic cavalry anchored each wing with infantry battalions and interposed some horse in the center of their position. The Huguenots arrayed themselves in two lines, with the cavalry to the front and the foot behind, and defended astride the Marville-Dreux road, facing north.

The Battle

The Huguenot cavalry opened the fighting by charging the left wing of the Royalist line, striking the Swiss infantry posted there. The horsemen of Protestant commander Gaspard de Coligny, Admiral of France, sent the Catholic cavalry of Constable Montmorency to flight, capturing Montmorency in the process. Soon the Catholic left was in peril; the Swiss stood firm in the face of the Protestant battering, but the other Catholic troops nearby began to give way with the Huguenots in pursuit. On the other end of the line, the Catholic right under Guise and Saint-André held their ground as Condé’s men pressed ahead.

Coligny’s cavalry continued to charge the Swiss ranks, but made little progress. The Huguenot second line, composed mostly of German infantry, now joined the assault, but was repulsed as the Swiss fled behind temporary defenses within the village of Blainville. After several hours of sustained combat, the Protestants finally prevailed, sending the Swiss streaming back with the German cavalry in pursuit. Condé and Coligny then attempted to reassemble their cavalrymen, many who were now dispersed around the battlefield and were bent on looting the Catholic baggage train.

The rest of the Huguenot army, still standing in the middle of the field, was suddenly vulnerable, and a desperate attack by Guise and Saint-André met with unexpected success against the Protestant foot, who had little cavalry support. Condé himself was captured, and Guise led a contingent of his troops toward Blainville to compel the infantry holed up there to yield. However, at the last moment Coligny mounted one final countercharge with the horse he had gathered that blunted the Catholic advance. Confusion now reigned across the battlefield as each side withdrew to take account of the day’s events.

Aftermath

There was no clear winner to the fight. While the first and final cavalry charges of the day had been made by the Huguenot cavalry, the Catholic infantry had won the better part of the infantry contest. Casualties among the Swiss troops were especially high; probably more than one thousand died, including most of their officers. The Catholics lost about six thousand more, including many of their cavalry leaders. Saint-André was murdered by his Huguenot captors. Protestant losses were also heavy; probably about five thousand killed, wounded, and missing.

Battered and unwilling to continue the battle, the Huguenot army withdrew toward Orleans to garrison that city while reorganizing and refitting. The Catholic Regent Catherine de Medici made some preliminary peace overtures, but Admiral Coligny, who succeeded Condé, demurred. Therefore, the fighting continued until 1566, when a short period of peace was achieved, and the first war was brought to a close.

Brill, April 1572

The seizure of Brill by the Dutch Sea Beggars marked the opening of a second revolt against Habsburg occupation and consolidation of power in the Netherlands. While their attack did not seriously damage the long-term viability of Spanish administration, it did serve to open a new round of hostilities across the Netherlands and further drained Spanish coffers.

The Duke Honors Himself

The Duke of Alva, Spanish King Philip II’s governor general of the Netherlands, celebrated his military victories against the armies of William of Orange and his allies in 1568 by compelling the city of Antwerp to construct an enormous bronze statue in his honor. Alva had hoped that Philip would reward him with an offer of return to Spain, but instead his king ordered the duke to continue his pacification. Nor would the king make a visit; having recently lost his only son and then his wife in childbirth, Philip could not afford to leave Spain to travel. Alva would have to continue to enforce the rule of Spain until a replacement could be sent.

The military threat from William of Orange at bay for the moment, Alva pursued a series of domestic reforms. He installed the bishopric scheme that had been enacted a decade previously, standardized criminal legal procedures, and codified many customary laws. While these changes were rational in an administrative sense, his high-handed manner and use of force offended most Netherlanders who jealously guarded their local privileges.

Maintaining Spanish troops in the Netherlands was expensive, and Alva sought ways to add to the Spanish purse. In 1569 he convened the Estates of Netherland and petitioned for the collection of new taxes. One of these, the Tenth Penny tax, was a 10 percent levy on sales; a second, the Twentieth Penny tax, was a 5 percent levy on future sales of landed property; and the third, a Hundredth Penny tax, was a single occasion, 1 percent levy on all capital. The Estates rejected this scheme, but in 1571, with his treasury draining, Alva declared he would impose it anyway. Discontent and unrest reached new highs.

Anti-Spanish Sentiment Grows

During these years, tens of thousands of Netherlanders fled Spanish persecution, mainly to Germany and England. These communities sustained anti-Spanish propaganda and agitated for other governments to act against Spanish interests. Some agitators met in councils at Emden, on the coast of the Dutch province of Friesland. There they developed a sense of shared purpose and published hundreds of pamphlets regarding Spanish atrocities. Alva had issued an edict against such propaganda in November 1568, but to little effect.

While unrest against Alva and the Spanish persisted, a new open revolt was sparked by the Sea Beggars. The Dutch Sea Beggars were a loosely organized formation of brigands, patriots, pirates, soldiers, and sailors. Upset with Spanish trade and tax impositions, they were ostensibly anti-Spanish and pro-Orange, yet they frequently angered William and served no single master. They communicated only when convenient to themselves; they attacked seafaring vessels (both Spanish and neutral alike) for the purpose of securing treasure for their own ends; and they made a general nuisance wherever they gained control of a municipality.

Orange tried to impose discipline and direction to the Sea Beggars by clarifying rules by which they could employ military force, but he achieved only limited success. He frequently found himself responding to their actions, seeking to exploit them to success for his cause, rather than effectively coordinating their actions in advance.

Such was the case with the Sea Beggars’ assault on Brill. Emboldened by the successful capture of the city, they next seized Flushing, thereby creating several lodgments from which they could move further inland into Holland and Zealand over the course of the summer of 1572. With Alva off balance, William of Orange had wanted to undertake his own offensives, yet the Sea Beggars moved before his forces could be made ready.

Although a small army under Louis of Nassau captured Mons in May, and another force led by Count van der Berg occupied Zutphen, Orange did not have time to secure French cooperation. Charles IX, king of France, was wary of war with Spain and wanted assurances that Orange and his troops could prevail before he risked open conflict with Philip II.

Orange, however, could no longer wait as the Sea Beggars continued their push. He convinced Charles to dispatch some six thousand men to join an invasion force. Yet Alva regrouped in time and ambushed the French, prompting Charles to withdraw immediately and leaving Orange to fight on without assistance. Hence the Sea Beggars, while harming the Spanish occupation in the short term, accomplished little in terms of the strategic situation, and the Eighty Years War continued.

Cadiz, April 1587

The raid by English Admiral Sir Francis Drake upon Spanish shipping in the port of Cadiz marked a personal victory for the great sea captain as well as a signal victory in England’s maritime war with Spain. The raid disrupted Spanish preparations demanded by King Philip II for an armada to assemble and carry an invasion force, and it demonstrated the growing skill and lethality of the English navy.

Life of a Privateer

Drake was born at Crowndale, near Tavistock, Devonshire, between the years of 1535 and 1543 (the exact year is unknown). His father was a tenant farmer who later became a Protestant preacher. In 1549, the Drake family fled Devon because of resurgent Catholicism. They traveled initially to Plymouth and then later to Kent.

The young Drake’s first experience with the sea came as an apprentice on a small barque making trading voyages between England, France, and Holland. When the ship’s captain died, Drake acquired the vessel and advanced his career as a sailor. In subsequent years, Drake participated in a number of sea voyages, culminating in his circumnavigation of the globe, an achievement for which Queen Elizabeth knighted him in 1581.

(Somewhat) Authorized Pirates

Beginning in the 1570s, Queen Elizabeth I of England confronted an increasingly tense relationship with Philip. Spain was the great power of the age and conflict was a perilous proposition, but Spain’s occupation of the Netherlands, growing confrontation regarding trade, and competition for overseas colonies prompted Elizabeth to seek ways to maintain an anti-Spanish coalition in northern Europe.

While England sent troops and funds to support the Dutch rebels on land, Elizabeth found it more expedient to support unofficial maritime opposition in the form of privateering. A semi-official form of warfare, privateering was dependent upon a combination of governmental sanction and private funding to mount naval expeditions to prey on Spanish shipping.

Since the English navy was relatively small, Queen Elizabeth promoted—and the parliament supported—privateering on a significant scale. Drake’s voyage to the West Indies in 1585, during which he seized a number of Spanish prizes, was one such expedition that exposed the vulnerability of Spanish holdings to foreign depredation. The queen sponsored only two vessels from a fleet of more than thirty ships. While this reduced her government’s span of direct control, it did provide scope for profit for the adventurers willing to equip and lead such missions, and at the same time it provided England with an inexpensive maritime capability. As a result, each year during the late 1580s, between one hundred–two hundred vessels ranging from small barques of less than fifty tons to warships of three hundred tons roamed the seas searching for prizes on behalf of England.

Spanish Plans for Retaliation

Philip was furious at such depredations; unwilling to allow such injuries to the Spanish Empire, he sought to punish England. After deliberation, Philip decided to launch an invasion of England. To do so, he would need a sizeable armada to carry infantry from the Netherlands across the English Channel. Although numerous logistical and organizational obstacles emerged, the Spanish began assembling the necessary fleet.

In the spring of 1587, Drake went to sea with four galleons of the English navy and seventeen other ships. His fleet included a squadron commanded by Captain Robert Flicke that had been making ready to cruise for Portuguese carracks returning from the East Indies. Drake sailed on April 2, meeting the London ships at sea, and pushed southward with a screen of pinnaces (small, fast ships), intercepting passing ships that could alert the Spanish to the English presence.

On April 19, Drake appeared off Cadiz and boldly entered the harbor. Cadiz was one of the home bases for the Spanish galleons that performed escort duties across the Atlantic. As the armada was gathering, a number of Spanish galleys were also present. The tactics of the day called for an English sea captain to maneuver with the wind at his back to employ his heaviest cannons against targets along or near the shore. The challenge for Drake at Cadiz was that galleys in shallow waters were at their strongest because they could more easily employ their own guns in defense.

However, when Drake appeared without warning, the astonished Spanish were completely unprepared for battle. The English warships fired upon the Spanish ships with impunity. When Drake ordered a withdrawal, two dozen Spanish ships had been destroyed.

Drake then sailed to Cape Sagres, a headland near Cape St. Vincent on the southwest coast of Spain. There, his fleet took position and preyed upon the inward-bound shipping arriving from the Indies, as well as coastal shipping between Lisbon and the Andalusian ports.

The psychological effect of Drake’s raid on Cadiz was devastating. While the Spanish were shocked by the attack, the English rejoiced at the success of English arms. Elizabeth’s reputation was enhanced, and although the raid did not prevent the armada from sailing against England, once more Spain’s prestige had been hurt and her enemies encouraged.

The Spanish Armada, 1588

The defeat of the Spanish Armada, a key naval campaign waged between England and Spain, denoted the high-water mark of Spanish influence in European and Atlantic waters. Thereafter, England’s rise as a naval power continued unabated for two centuries, while Spanish influence entered a period of stagnation and decline from which it never emerged.

European Rivalries

By the mid-1580s, Queen Elizabeth I of England confronted an increasingly tense relationship with the most powerful monarch of the age, Philip II of Spain. Naval and trade competition, as well as English resistance to Spanish prosecution of Dutch rebels in the Netherlands, had created a situation in which open conflict became increasingly likely.

In 1584, Elizabeth decided that war was imminent, so she offered aid to the Dutch in the form of more than four thousand troops and funding to the city of Antwerp. By the end of the next year, twice that many English soldiers were fighting the Spanish in the Netherlands. She also turned to confrontation at sea through privateering. In the fall of 1585, the English sea captain Sir Francis Drake plundered Spanish possessions and shipping in an expedition to the Spanish West Indies, inflicting significant damage to Spanish holdings and pricking the aura of Spain’s invincibility.

Philip was enraged; well aware of the importance of reputation among the courts of Europe, he knew that England must be punished. He immediately initiated plans for an invasion, but there was little either side could quickly accomplish since Spain and England did not share a border.

English privateers were sanctioned, and parliament increased funding for shipbuilding. Elizabeth possessed only a small fleet of galleons and some large merchantmen, perhaps forty sizeable ships total. While this force was small, its leaders were competent and English crews generally displayed high morale. While not capable of a large-scale offensive, the navy could pursue pre-emptive actions. Hence in 1587, Drake led a squadron off Cadiz that destroyed two dozen Spanish vessels. He then took position off Spain’s southwestern coast at Cape St. Vincent, snapping up enemy ships.

Invasion Schemes

Philip possessed several substantial fleets in Mediterranean waters and another in the Atlantic. However, he displayed little military leadership ability and did not like to receive bad news, so advisors often tempered the information they provided the monarch. After deliberation, Philip decided upon two ways to strike England. The first was to seize a port in England’s west country or in Ireland and from there marshal forces for an invasion into the English countryside. The cost and time required for such an endeavor proved prohibitive, and while Philip maintained this option formally, he turned to his second course of action to achieve quicker results.

The Duke of Parma, commanding Spanish troops in Flanders, was Philip’s nephew. Parma offered to prepare a landing force in secret and to be ready to embark it upon a Spanish fleet before the English could ready a defense. With Philip’s approval, this plan was put into motion. However, difficulties soon arose.

The admiral in charge, the Marquis of Santa Cruz, struggled to assemble the needed supplies in Lisbon and other Spanish ports. By the end of 1587, the flow of provisions to the fleet was so inadequate that the crews were consuming their stores faster than they could be resupplied. To check desertion, crews were restricted onboard, but epidemics, especially typhus, took a heavy toll. A shortage of powder, shot, guns, and small arms also plagued the fleet.

The Armada Sails

When Santa Cruz died in early 1588, the Duke of Medina Sidonia assumed command. Philip, exasperated with the delays, ordered the Spanish fleet to get underway. By the middle of May, over 140 ships with more than 7,600 seamen and 18,000 troops were at sea.

England maintained patrols and slowly readied its own fleet, but otherwise did little beyond wait for the Spanish attack. On the early afternoon of July 20, the two fleets sighted each another in thick weather. Medina Sidonia sailed with about 125 ships at this point, while the English commander Admiral Charles Howard (Lord Howard of Effingham) had with him about eighty ships of all sizes. Most were speedy, heavily armed galleons that carried twice the armament of the main Spanish warships.

As the armada sailed up the Channel in a standard line abreast formation with the main fighting strength in the center and wings trailing on each side, Howard beat up to windward on the seaward side of the Spanish flank. With this favorable position, he attacked the seaward wing, while England’s second-in-command, Drake, led a small contingent against the other enemy wing.

The engagement was not decisive, but it established a pattern that would be repeated. Howard, fearful of becoming trapped near the coast or of becoming decisively engaged by Spanish musketeers, continued to assault the Spanish wings and let the longer-ranging English guns inflict damage.

While the two fleets sparred in the Channel, the Spanish situation grew more critical with the passage of time. Parma was late in preparing the landing force to sail, and in any case lacked the shallow draft ships necessary to protect the landing barges near the shore. When he finally promised to be ready in a week, Medina Sidonia anchored off Calais about thirty miles from Parma’s men to wait.

Sensing an opportunity, the English launched eight small fireships against the stationary enemy vessels. The Spanish had foreseen such an attack and moved to sea to avoid the flaming hulks, but when dawn arrived, the individual Spanish ships had not reassembled. The English moved to attack, and again their artillery took a toll even though Medina Sedonia rallied his fleet; the armada was again intact by midday.

After dawn on July 30, a favorable wind allowed the Spanish to sail into the Channel, with the English following. Yet instead of linking up with Parma, Medina Sedonia continued northward, finally turning westward into the North Atlantic.

The Armada Sinks

During the long voyage around Ireland, the Spanish fleet suffered tremendous losses. Crews who sought water and shelter on the coast were virtually all lost, either drowned or killed by the Irish or English. Ultimately, only sixty-seven ships made it back to Spain, with a loss of about one-third of the armada’s manpower.

The war between England and Spain would go on for another fifteen years, but never again did Spain launch such a large effort against any adversary. While the Spanish were stunned by the armada’s defeat, the English rejoiced at their deliverance. Elizabeth’s stature reached a new peak, and while little had been accomplished in terms of Spanish intervention in the Netherlands, England was for the time being satisfied with its preservation.

Key Elements of Warcraft

The Galleon

The galleon, the ship type that was the workhorse of the Spanish navy during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, symbolized Spain’s maritime empire and was the style of vessel that ensured that the tremendous wealth extracted from the American colonies reached European ports. Often associated with glamorous images of pirates, the galleon was actually a purpose-built and practical ship that reflected Spain’s highly effective approach to naval strategy.

Ship Design

The galleon was an evolutionary design that emerged in the early sixteentth century from earlier oar and sail vessels that plied Mediterranean waters. Dispensing with the oars, galleons appeared as a distinct type by the 1530s. They featured high sides with a very tall sterncastle, which was useful for infantry fighting and was perhaps their most distinctive aspect. Galleons also had a lower forecastle, a flat stern, a protruding beak at the bow, and an unbroken gun deck. The hull sloped inward from bottom to top, providing a stable platform despite the ship’s great height above the waterline. Beneath the gun deck was a hold for carrying cargo, passengers and troops. Most galleons used a bowsprit, a foremast, a mainmast, and a mizzen, with a largely square-rigged sail plan.

The most significant change in galleon design over time was an increase in their size. In the mid-sixteenth century, galleons listed in royal inventories had an average displacement of 334 toneladas (Spanish tons), or almost three times the weight of galleons of a decade previous. By 1570, galleons of five hundred tons were common, with some reaching one thousand tons when the armada sailed in 1588. After that point, a re-appraisal of Spanish tactics and convoy methods led to a general decrease in galleon size. Ships of about around five hundred toneladas became common, a typical size that lasted until the galleon era was surpassed in the mid-seventeenth century.

The Galleon’s Purpose and Accomodations

Galleons performed essential duties for the government of Spain. By the time of King Philip II’s ascension in 1556, Spain had been operating a convoy system to the New World for several decades. As the wealth carried by these convoys became apparent to other colonial powers, the fleets’ vulnerability could no longer be tolerated. Galleons began to appear in increasing numbers as escort vessels. They usually sailed as part of a fleet. Gradually, they came to carry onboard an increasing proportion of the spices and specie, as Spanish officials wanted to directly supervise their precious cargo and could not do so as well with merchant vessels. Since 20 percent of all specie production in the Americas went to fill the coffers of the Spanish crown, the stakes were high.

Life aboard galleons was tightly circumscribed by routines and was rarely pleasant. A three-watch system regulated the daily routine, with each third of a ship’s company standing a four-hour watch twice a day. Space onboard was very tight. Only the captain and his key officers enjoyed any sense of privacy and dedicated cabins; the rest of the crew and passengers lived and slept scattered about the decks. Temporary screens were erected at night to demarcate sleeping areas arranged by seniority.

Sanitation and diet were poor, leading to frequent outbreaks of disease. Rations of hard biscuit were a basic staple, augmented when possible with rice and beans, salted beef or fish, and perhaps cheese, beer, and a daily allotment of red wine. Protecting food stores from the ever-present rats and insects was an endless chore that usually met with limited success.

Manpower was assigned to a galleon according to an established quota. Although in practice manning varied considerably, the basic rule was that one man was allocated for every ton of the galleon’s weight, although this was often increased to 1.5 men per ton in time of war.

Battle Tactics

Rosters indicated that an average five-hundred-ton galleon carried approximately fifteen officers, twenty-six seamen, nineteen apprentice seamen, ten pages, and twenty-one gunners. A company of 125 soldiers on board rounded out the complement. These troops were essential to the Spanish style of naval warfare. During battle, the infantry took positions throughout the ship. A squadron of the most experienced men was stationed in the forecastle, while other detachments were on the quarterdeck and on the poop deck. A reserve was often kept below decks. About one-half of the soldiers were armed with small arms, and these would fire their muskets and arquebuses in two rotating ranks from the gunwales before the remaining men boarded enemy vessels armed with knives, daggers, and swords suitable for close-in combat.

Since Spanish naval doctrine emphasized the use of infantry to seize enemy ships, galleons never realized the full potential of artillery. While galleons carried 24–50 cannons with bores 2.5–6 inches and a length of 7–12 feet, naval ordnance was for many decades hampered by inadequate carriages. Each Spanish gun was placed under the command of a ship’s gunner, assisted by a crew of sailors and soldiers. Once the cannon was loaded, the crew dispersed to other action stations, leaving the gunner with his burning match, waiting for the order to fire.

Spanish tactics emphasized a broadside salvo by the guns immediately before boarding an enemy vessel. This was a successful technique until English ship captains countered by improving their long-range artillery so that they could stand off from the galleons and pound the Spanish ships at a distance.

As the main vessel type of the Spanish navy for more than a century, the galleon fulfilled a requirement to protect and later carry specie and valuable goods from the New World to Spain. Until surpassed by the ship-of-the line, the galleon ruled European and American waters, and made Spain the richest of the colonial powers.

Impact of the Religious Wars of Europe

The religious wars of Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were a major feature of the period that transformed the political and ecclesiastical landscape of the continent. The fighting itself was not continuous and did not affect all parts of Europe equally. Some regions—like Normandy or Poitou in France, the United Provinces, and much of Germany—were the scenes of many campaigns, while others were spared the direct depredations of war. Nonetheless, nearly every aspect of human and cultural topography was touched by conflict.

Between 1517, the year of Martin Luther’s criticism of Catholic practice, and 1648, when the Peace of Westphalia brought the Thirty Years War to a close, the ecclesiastical domination of the Catholic Church collapsed in Europe. The splintering of Christianity held enormous consequences for every European. The church, which during the Middle Ages had acted as a European-wide corporation, was broken into territorial churches whose reach was defined in many terms. Some churches were consistent with political boundaries of a state; others reached only as far as the prince who sponsored them; still others defined themselves provincially.

While the Catholic Church and the papacy attempted to reinvigorate their power and extend their reach after the mid-sixteenth century, the great doctrinal variety of the Protestant churches continued to blossom, serving as a seedbed for persistent agitation and resistance to authority. Secular rulers, whether aligned as Catholic or Protestant, all sought to claim jurisdiction over religious appointments, taxation, administration, and discipline. The progress of this contest between state and church played out differently in each country.

In Spain, the long struggle against Islamic occupation created a fervent, self-conscious Christian sensibility. Loyalty to the Catholic Church remained steadfast. Because of the personal devotion of the Spanish monarchs, as well as the widespread religious passion among the lowest reaches of society (a passion accompanied by deep-seated suspicion of differing beliefs), Protestantism could not establish a foothold.

England, in contrast, did convert to Protestantism in the sixteenth century, but gradually and without a civil war. King Henry VIII broke from Rome for dynastic and personal reasons, and when he did, his new Anglican Church remained largely Catholic in ideological terms. Nonetheless, the religious and the political were so intertwined that his rejection of papal supremacy meant that England would serve as a Protestant bulwark and the frequent military opponent of Catholic states.

The experience of France was more convoluted. Catholicism won the day in the 1590s with the Catholic conversion of Henry of Navarre as King Henry IV. Yet the French Church remained bound and subordinate to the French crown. By the Concordat of Bologna in 1516, King Francis I and his successors ensured that they would maintain supervision over ecclesiastical appointments in France as well as tight control of the property of the church. In return, the Pope received annates and some measure of security from the alliance. It was a typical compromise that melded political and religious interests, an accommodation that could lead to war when out of balance.

The largest of the religious wars was the Thirty Years War (1618–1648), a multifaceted, dynamically shifting, European-wide war that brought the many strands of inter-state conflict together. The contest began largely due to a religious dispute between German Roman Catholics and Protestants, but it quickly became ensnared in the dynastic competition for power within the Holy Roman Empire. The war also developed into a political conflict that pitted the ambitions of the Catholic Austrian rulers, and later Spanish Habsburg rulers, against the Protestant leaders of Denmark and Sweden, and then even against Catholic France. Throughout the struggle, the German states aligned themselves according to the fortunes of war and the calculations of their princes.

For generations, the horrors of the war’s depredations haunted Europeans’ collective memory. While not all of Europe suffered, and not all of Germany was plundered, the Holy Roman Empire was subject to almost continuous warfare between 1618 and 1648, causing terrible losses in life and property. Across the war zones, plague, famine, and failed harvest followed the armies.

Although the European social order composed of corporations, orders, and kinship and patronage ties proved resilient (long-lasting populist or peasant revolutions did not occur), European society was ultimately changed. The war banished the idea and ambition for a unified Christendom modeled after the glory of the long-vanished Roman Empire. The power of the papacy was permanently reduced; thereafter, government depended overwhelmingly upon its secular leaders for decisions and authority in all its forms. Fiscal, diplomatic, judicial, and military affairs increasingly became the province of a single, centralized, and secular authority.

The end of the major religious wars in 1648 pointed in the direction of the international state system still functioning today. New ways of war, the alignment of states according to balance of power and economic interests, and the growth of European political identities founded upon modern notions of statehood each sprang from the tumultuous years of religious conflict in Europe.

Bainton, Roland. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther . New York: Abingdon Press, 1991.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Religious Wars in Europe (1517–1648)." Gale Encyclopedia of World History: War. . Encyclopedia.com. 10 Sep. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Religious Wars in Europe (1517–1648)." Gale Encyclopedia of World History: War. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 10, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/religious-wars-europe-1517-1648

"Religious Wars in Europe (1517–1648)." Gale Encyclopedia of World History: War. . Retrieved September 10, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/religious-wars-europe-1517-1648

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.