Skip to main content

Thirty Years' War


The series of protracted religious-dynastic wars that afflicted the Holy Roman Empire and most western European states from 1618 to 1648. The Thirty Years' War had complex and diverse origins but religion was perhaps the most important, and religious motivation was an integral part of the political, economic, and dynastic policies that formed and reshaped the course of Europe in the 17th century. Frederick V, Ferdinand II, and Gustavus II Adolphus were political leaders with dynastic ambitions, but religious principles also played a decisive part in the role that these men filled during the wars. This confluence and concurrence of many motivations persisted throughout the conflict, and if the conclusion of the struggle primarily reflected political and dynastic interests, religion and its consequences were everpresent and influential at the Peace of westphalia in 1648.

The years following the Peace of augsburg (1555), which had established the principle of "cujus regio, ejus religio," guaranteeing the Lutheran and Catholic confessions throughout the Empire, also witnessed the rise of Calvinist influence and strength, especially in the Palatinate and Brandenburg. Seeking privileges and rights enjoyed by Catholics and Lutherans, the Calvinists clashed with a rising tide of Catholic reaction. The Austrian Hapsburgs, encouraged by Jesuits, Capuchins, and Spanish zeal, fostered a militant policy of religious conquest and conversion. In this Catholic reformation, the Catholic League of Princes organized by Maximilian I of Bavaria in 1609 played a formidable part. Alarmed by growing Calvinist strength, Maximilian tried to rally the Catholic princes and to inspire the weak, ineffectual Emperor Rudolph II (15761612) to oppose the designs of the Protestant Union organized by Christian of Anhalt and Frederick IV of the Palatinate in 1608. The decade from 1608 to 1618 provided a crystallization of attitudes that ended in war.

The Bohemian War (161823). The death of Rudolph and the inability of his brother and successor, Matthias, raised the question of succession in the imperial lands. The childless Emperors had chosen their zealous and militant cousin Ferdinand of Styria as their heir. An ardent Catholic, Ferdinand was unacceptable to many Protestants, especially those of Bohemia. Despite their lukewarm pledge in 1617 recognizing Ferdinand's right of succession, the Bohemians searched for a new candidate, and discovered him in the ruler of the Palatinate, Frederick V (161032), son-in-law of James I of England, and a leader of the Protestant Union. In 1618, when the Bohemian estates accused the imperial government of violating their sovereign rights and privileges, they forcibly ejected the imperial emissaries by the defenestration of Prague, thereby proclaiming their rebellion against Hapsburg rule. Frederick was offered the crown of Bohemia by the provisional government. Ambition and religious commitment led Frederick to accept election and along with Count Matthew of Thurn and Ernst von Mansfeld, the new King took command of the Bohemian armies. The dying Matthias (161219) permitted Maximilian of Bavaria and the Catholic League to defend the cause of monarchical legitimacy and Catholic orthodoxy.

In 1619, Ferdinand II (161937) ascended the imperial throne and joined the League in an all-out war against the Bohemians. The Protestant Union, annoyed at Frederick's illegal acceptance of the Bohemian crown and divided between Lutheran and Calvinist factions, did not aid the Bohemian rebels. Frederick, left only with poorly paid, disorderly troops, saw his army and ambitions crushed by an army led by Count Johann Tilly and Duke Maximilian at White Mountain, Nov. 8, 1620. The brief reign of "the winter king" came to an end. While Frederick vainly sought aid at European courts, Bohemia underwent sweeping changes and reforms. Death sentences, imprisonment, and confiscation of land eradicated rebel opposition and weakened Protestant strength. The Jesuits were given charge of the education of the Bohemian nobility and of the task of converting Bohemia to Rome. The Palatinate fared little better. The electoral dignity and the Upper Palatinate were granted to Maximilian of Bavaria (1623). Personal aggrandizement became a fixed part of the religious and constitutional struggle which had spread to adjoining territories with the renewal of the war between the United Provinces and Spain.

The Danish War (162529). The Twelve Years' Truce (1609), which had brought a halt to Dutch-Spanish hostilities, expired in 1621. Colonial rivalry in the East Indies, added to religious and national differences, contributed to the war's renewal and continuance until 1648. Since the similar religious and dynastic interests of the Austrian and Spanish Hapsburgs encouraged cooperation and coordination between the two powers, the Dutch naturally turned to Protestant Germany for support in an effort to resist the Hapsburg offensive. The Bohemian

defeat, however, forced the anti-Hapsburg German diplomats to look more to Scandinavia than to Holland for aid. Christian IV (15881648), the Danish King, and Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden (161132) were the likeliest sources of assistance. Gustavus, engaged in a Polish war, could do little, but Christian, a prince of the Empire by virtue of his ducal title to Holstein, did intervene. Politically inspired but backed by the religious sentiments of his people, Christian accused the Emperor of unconstitutional acts against the Elector-Palatine. Using this as a pretext, Danish armies entered the Empire. Opposing them were Albrecht von Wallenstein, Duke of Friedland, an imperial general who led a personal army of 24,000 men, and Count Tilly, the League general. The Danish armies were defeated by Wallenstein at Dessau and by Tilly at Lutter in 1626. Wallenstein proceeded to occupy most of Denmark thereby forcing Christian to sue for peace. After the prolonged siege of Stralsund and several months of negotiations, Christian signed the peace of Lübeck (May 22, 1629) by which he renounced all claims to German territory and surrendered his legal membership in the lower Saxon district of the Empire, yet managed to avoid an indemnity and to retain Jutland, Schleswig, and Holstein. The terms, arranged by Wallenstein and approved by Ferdinand II, were mild and considerate largely because there was a new threat to Hapsburg hegemony. Gustavus Adolphus, "the lion from the north," was looking toward the Empire, and his appearance was to change the course of the war.

Swedish Intervention (163035). The victory of Hapsburg arms inspired Ferdinand II to issue his Edict of restitution (1629). This comprehensive religious settlement not only represented the height of Catholic reaction but it also inspired further Protestant resistance to Vienna. Many Protestant princes joined the struggle and appealed to Sweden for help. Fearing imperial designs on the Baltic and its trade, Gustavus Adolphus, a remarkable monarch and brilliant soldier, concluded a treaty with Poland at Altmark in 1629 and the following year led his army into Germany. Aided by the able statesmanship of his chancellor, Axel Oxenstierna, Gustavus rallied the Protestant princes and inspired a counteroffensive against the imperialists. In this he was aided by the Emperor's dismissal of Wallenstein from the imperial service. Fearful of his general's growing power and personal ambitions, Ferdinand relieved the duke of his command. With Wallenstein's removal, Ferdinand was left with an army inferior to that of the Swedes in leadership and morale. Within a year, the Swedish forces conquered Pomerania, won cooperation from George William, the previously aloof Elector of Brandenburg, and overcame the suspicions of some of the Protestant leaders who saw little difference between a Swedish absolutist and an Austrian one. Gustavus's motives are not completely clear. His personal ambitions were strong; his religious convictions, sincere; and his political aspiration, genuine.

Gustavus, aided by a large French subsidy obtained from Cardinal richelieu by the treaty of Bärwalde (1631), marched to relieve the city of Magdeburg, then besieged by Tilly, but not before the place was destroyed (May 1631) in one of the worst holocausts of a war full of horrors. King Gustavus, supported by the Saxons, engaged Tilly's army at Breitenfeld (Sept. 7, 1631), routing the Catholic forces. The King's tactical deployment of cavalry, light artillery, and superior infantry gave him a spectacular victory. Instead of marching on Vienna, the Swedes conquered Bamberg, the Upper Palatinate, Mainz, and Würzburg in rapid succession. At the same time, Gustavus advanced his political plan for a general union of the Protestant states with Sweden. The proposal was not well received. The princes feared the political consequences of such a union for their autonomy. Moreover, Richelieu looked with disfavor on a strong Protestant confederation across the Rhine. Gustavus also announced his peace terms asking for Swedish Pomerania, an imperial title, revocation of the Edict of Restitution, and a general redistribution of Hapsburg territory. Wallenstein, who had been restored by Ferdinand in an effort to halt the Swedish advance, rejected the terms, and instead, invaded Saxony in the hope of weakening the Protestant alliance. Gustavus pursued him and both armies joined battle at Lützen near Leipzig, on Nov. 6, 1632. The imperialists were routed again but Gustavus lay dead on the battlefield.

His chancellor, Axel Oxenstierna, continued the war but with little success. Even the murder of the scheming Wallenstein, apparently with imperial approval (1634), failed to turn the war to the Swedish advantage. The overwhelming defeat of the Swedes and German Protestants at Nordlingen in September 1634 permitted the Hapsburgs to press their campaigns with greater zeal and advantage. Southern Germany was reconquered, forcing the Protestant princes to conclude a separate peace at Prague in 1635. This agreement reached by Saxon and Austrian diplomats revised the Edict of Restitution enforcing changes in ecclesiastical reservations as of Nov. 12, 1627. It also provided for an army for the entire Empire as well as for the removal of foreign forces. The peace was an effort to obtain the support of all the German princes for the ancient constitution and to unite them against foreign influences. Many German states subscribed to the treaty; a few, fearful of Swedish or French retaliation, declined to do so.

The Swedish-French War (163548). Cardinal Richelieu, alarmed at the peace of Prague, finally declared war on the Austrian Hapsburgs and Spain. Despite Richelieu's subsidies, the Swedes never regained the initiative even after the succession of Emperor Ferdinand III (163757). The war continued for 13 years, during which time an internal revolt was transformed into an international conflict. French armies under Marshal Henri, Vicomte de Turenne and Louis II de Bourbon, Duke d'Enghien, invaded Spanish territory and crossed into Germany. Despite the French success at Rocroy (1643) and preliminary overtures toward peace, the war dragged on. These years marked probably the most destructive period of the struggle. Plundering armies and ravaging mercenaries leveled German cities and destroyed the countryside. Atrocities and epidemics compounded the miserable lot of the homeless and starving peasantry. Five years of negotiations finally brought the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, although France and Spain continued their war until the Peace of the Pyrenees in 1659.

The Thirty Years' War left behind it a trail of destruction and death. Bohemia, Saxony, Thuringia, and Württemberg were devastated. Cities, towns, and villages were burned and plundered; some of them disappeared. The Empire was depopulated; the German states were fragmented and divided. Religious life was demoralized and political institutions badly weakened. Germany ceased for some time to play an important role in the affairs of Europe. Religious ideals had been overwhelmed by reasons of state. The conclusion of the Thirty Years' War marked the last of the great religious conflicts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. From this point onward plans to re-establish the universal world of medieval Christiandoma world ruled spiritually by the Pope and temporarily by a Christian Emperor and princes were to seem unrealizable and archaic. Instead a modern Europe, divided into and governed by sovereign, territorial states emerged in the years following 1648.

Bibliography: f. c. dahlmann and g. waitz, Quellenkunde der deutschen Geschichte, ed. h. haering, 2 v. (9th ed. Leipzig 193132). g. franz, Bücherkunde zur deutschen Geschichte (Munich 1951). m. ritter, Deutsche Geschichte im Zeitalter der Gegenreformation und des Dreissigjährigen Krieges, 3 v. (Stuttgart 18891908). a. t. anderson, Sweden in the Baltic, 16121630: A Study in the Politics of Expansion under King Gustav Adolphus and Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna (Doctoral diss. unpub. Univ. of Calif.1947). m. roberts, Gustavus Adolphus: A History of Sweden, 16111632, 2 v. (New York 195358). h. holborn, The Reformation, v.1. of A History of Modern Germany (New York 1959). g. franz, Der Dreissigjährige Krieg und das deutsche Volk (2d ed. Jena 1943). g. pagÈs, La Guerre de Trente Ans (Paris 1939). P. Geyl, The Netherlands Divided, tr. s. t. bindoff (London 1936). d. ogg, Europe in the Seventeenth Century (6th ed. London 1954). d. albrecht, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765); suppl., Das Zweite-Vatikanische Konzil: Dokumente und kommentare, ed. h. s. brechter et al., pt. 1 (1966) 3:570572. h. hauser, La Prépondérance espagnole, 15591660 (Paris 1933). b. chudoba, Spain and the Empire, 15191643 (Chicago 1952). c. v. wedgwood, The Thirty Years War (New Haven 1939). r. g. asch, The Thirty Years' War (New York 1997). g. franz, Der Dreissigjährige Krieg und das deutsche Volk (Stuttgart 1979). j. v. polisensky, The Thirty Years' War, r. evans, Trans. (Berkeley 1971). h. u. rudolph, Der Dreissigjährige Krieg (Darmstadt 1977). g. schormann, Der Dreissigjährige Krieg (Göttingen 1985).

[p. s. mcgarry]

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

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Thirty Years' War." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . 14 Aug. 2018 <>.

"Thirty Years' War." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . (August 14, 2018).

"Thirty Years' War." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved August 14, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles 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, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use 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

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most 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.