Peace of Westphalia

Feature, Middle Ages

Firmly Plants Protestantism in Europe

In the history of nations there come moments when a variety of causes conjoin and combine to set up a flow of dangerously inflammatory thoughts in men’s minds. One such moment was 1617, the centenary anniversary of Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation; and the peoples to be affected deeply were the Germans and Bohemians, though before the situation was resolved most of the great nations of Europe were to become involved.

The Germans of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had, by reason of the geographical position in which nature had placed them, been penalized by the fact that they had been cut off by this position from the colonizing enterprises which had so enriched the maritime nations of this era. As if this were not enough, they were now to suffer from a social depression arising out of a war the ferocity of which is scarcely paralleled in history. It is, indeed, no exaggeration to say that the misery which the German peasants were called upon to endure is literally indescribable.

There was starvation, there was even cannibalism, and there was widespread and constant marauding. Whole villages became depopulated derelicts, and, as always happens in circumstances such as these, moral restraints were unequal to their normal tasks and gave way to wild bursts of profligacy.

At the beginning of the sixteenth century Germany had been represented in the leadership of European civilization; before the middle of the seventeenth the country was barren of literature and art, and its customs and manners had sunk to a level of barbarity equalled only by that of contemporary Moscow under the boyar successors of Ivan the Terrible.

The main cause of the degradation to which the great German empire of Charlemagne and Otto and the latter’s successors was brought was religious. The counter-reformation, inspired by a lame middle-aged Basque named Inigo Lopez de Recalde, later known as Ignatius Loyola, founder of the presently powerful missionary Society of Jesus, had worked persistently and ruthlessly to destroy the new order which the Treaty of Augsburg (1555) had instituted and which might be summed up in the sentence Cujus regio, ejus religio. In other words, the German princes, without interference from the Emperor, were to be allowed each in his own territory to settle the form and character of the Church, and by this principle were to be allowed to establish Protestantism within their realms, if so moved, without fear of opposition from the invariably Catholic imperial central government.

Despite this the Peace of Augsburg cannot be accounted among the great liberating documents of history. It did not give a place to those types of Protestant belief which flourished in Zurich and Geneva. Still less did it set out in clear terms the principle of religious toleration. On the other hand, it was a serviceable solution of a grave controversy, and if it did not bring religious harmony to Germany, it did keep her out of war for half a century.

By the middle of the sixteenth century it had become clear to all intelligent Catholics that the Church had become a mighty edifice of abuses. Popes recognized the need for reform but did nothing about it, until after the passage of many years of obstructions, a Council was summoned to Trent. Although it was sparsely attended and subjected to many adjournments, one of which lasted for ten years, when at last it was brought to a conclusion in 1563, the Roman Church emerged with its doctrine defined, and its discipline strengthened. The Papacy, which had entered the Council exposed to many risks, issued victorious at every point. But most important, it divided the Lutheran from the Roman world, and drew a sharp line between the Catholic and Protestant confessions, thus beginning the period of open conflict.

Now, the real strength of Protestantism in Central Europe lay in two regions separated from one another by the whole breadth of the country, in the ancient Kingdom and Electorate of Bohemia, the home of the Hussites; and in the Palatinate, that beautiful country made lush by the waters of the Rhine and Neckar, where a succession of Calvinist Electors had made of their capital, Heidelberg, a centre of Calvinist thought and trading. But the distance separating Hussite Bohemia from the Calvinist Palatinate was not the only flaw in Protestant unity. There were basic differences of belief which the various sects, particularly the main ones, found it quite impossible to reconcile.

This was how things stood then, when the Jesuit-educated Elector of Bohemia decided that in his kingdom, at all events, there should be no place for Protestants of any faction or sect. Though the Bohemian Protestants had been powerful enough to extract from the Emperor Rudolf a Charter of Toleration, more commonly known as the Letter of Majesty (July, 1609), the succeeding Emperor, Matthias, though adhering to one interpretation of the Letter, administered it in quite the opposite sense from that intended by those who had drawn it up. A series of suppression acts set discontent bubbling, and when an even more determined Catholic Emperor than Matthias assumed the imperial purple, believing that their subsequent lot could only be worse, the Bohemian Protestants, under the leadership of a Calvinist noble, Henry Matthias of Thurn, decided on rebellion.

When a royal decree forbade Protestant assemblies, at a violent interview with the two Catholic ministers, Martinitz and Slawata, who were the chief commissioners of the royal policy, Thurn and his fellow-nobles threw the two ministers from a window of the great Hradshin fortress-palace into the moat. This incident, known as the Defenestration of Prague, was the signal for war.

Even at this point the war, which was to rage for thirty years, could have been prevented had the Lutheran Elector of Saxony and an influential block of German princes known as the Protestant Union thrown in its lot at once with the Bohemians. But the Protestant Union lacked courage and foresight, and as it maintained a strictly neutralist position, the Emperor Ferdinand interpreted this to mean that he had a free hand in dealing with the rebellious Bohemians and acted accordingly.

Now, Bohemian Protestantism, though numerically strong, had never been united. It had to have allies or perish, and it turned to the Hungarian Protestants, to the strange, barbarous Calvinist prince from Transylvania, Bethlen Gabor, to the Protestants of Austria, and to the Palatinate. Deposing Ferdinand, the Bohemians offered their crown to the Elector Palatine, or, as he was better known in England, the Palsgrave.

The Palsgrave was destined to become for the English Puritans at Westminster the personification of the continental Protestant cause. His mother was the daughter of William the Silent, his wife Elizabeth, the daughter of the reigning English king, James I. The popular idea in London was that English troops should be sent to defend the Palatinate while the Palsgrave went to rescue Bohemia.

Fortunately the often too maligned James I was on this occasion far-sighted enough to veto this proposal, for the Palsgrave, a timid young man, little more than a youth, was destined to be no great leader. He allowed himself to be crowned King of Bohemia, and then in one sharp battle on the White Hill, a few miles from Prague, in November, 1620, he lost everything, and fled, leaving the Bohemian Protestants to the far from tender mercies of Ferdinand who was now supported not only by the Catholics of the League but by the Lutherans of Saxony also. Ferdinand determined to wipe Protestantism totally from Bohemia, and this he set about until he entirely succeeded.

Ferdinand, however, did commit one mistake. He put the Palsgrave under imperial ban and transferred the Palatinate to the Elector Maximilian of Bavaria, the leader of the Catholic League, and the successful general at White Hill.

Now, the Palatinate was the chief stronghold of Calvinism in western Germany, and though the Palsgrave deserved little of his own people and his fellow-Protestant rulers, they were not prepared to stand by and see him treated in this despotic fashion. A compromise with the Emperor was sought and obtained, but it resulted in a Catholic victory since both Bohemia and the Palatine Electorate were successfully wrested from Protestant hands.

This, naturally, could not be permitted to become a permanent arrangement, and the Calvinists in seeking to recover the vital territories looked about for allies. We have seen that one of the consequences of the Palsgrave’s activities had been to throw the Lutherans of Saxony into the Catholic camp of Ferdinand, a situation which demonstrated how very deep was the cleavage in the Protestant ranks between Lutherans and Calvinists. So in their search for help, deprived of that of Saxony, the Calvinists turned to Denmark, and since King Christian was avid for Catholic plunder, he agreed to come to their aid.

While all this had been shaping in the north, important changes were also taking place in the military direction of the Catholic forces, which was now taken over by the Prince of Friedland, Albert Wenceslas von Waldstein, better known in England as Wallenstein. Wallenstein was a Bohemian noble, who had proved his powers of leadership in the Turkish wars. He had little or no religion, but he had already accrued enormous wealth from the wars and was still not satisfied. He now came forward with an offer to raise an army at his own expense for Ferdinand, on the only condition that while the artillery and munitions captured in war should go to the Emperor, all the booty should go to the troops.

The defeat of the Danes at Lutter, in Thuringia, in August 1626, and the slaying of the most outstanding of the Protestant leaders, Mansfield, during an attack which he launched with Bethlen Gabor in the east, dealt the Protestant cause two resounding setbacks. Once more it seemed to touch rock-bottom, while, on the other hand, the victories of the Catholic Electors produced a euphoria from which sprang a natural, but, as it turned out, a very unwise belief which was eventually to react to the detriment of the imperial interest.

A large portion of the wealth of the Catholic Church in north Germany had passed, in the last sixty years or so, to the Protestants. An edict of 6 March, 1629, however, ordered the return of all the property and titles involved to their former Catholic owners. The Protestant administrators, in the face of tyrannical pressure from Wallenstein’s troops, were forced to obey the edict, and very soon even Catholics began to resent the appearance of Jesuit Fathers in abbeys formerly free of the Society’s influence, and more especially the rumour which soon began to circulate that Wallenstein was advocating that four rich north German bishoprics should be combined to form one new hereditary principality. The question on everyone’s lips was, who was to be the new prince? And everyone believed he knew the answer.

Certainly the Catholic Maximilian of Bavaria was of this opinion. So at the Diet of Ratisbon, in July 1630, he bluntly advocated Wallenstein’s dismissal; and to his, and everyone else’s, surprise, got his way.

The cunning Cardinal Richelieu of France promptly seized the advantage created by this revolt. Extraordinary though it may seem, he, a Catholic, pledged financial support for a Swedish invasion of Germany aimed at restoring the fortunes of the Protestant cause.

The Swedish leader at this time was Gustavus Adolphus, the most outstanding of all Sweden’s rulers. A great warrior, a skilful and ambitious statesman, and a sincere Protestant, he had spent his early manhood fighting with one aim in view, the aggrandizement of his country and the simultaneous advancement of the Protestant cause. He had already brought his highly proficient and disciplined army south of the Baltic when the momentous treaty was made with France.

In a brilliant and short campaign he won all northern Germany for the Protestants, advanced on Prague, and entered Munich having defeated the army of the Catholic League, commanded by its skilful Walloon general, Tilly. To prevent even further deterioration of the Catholic cause Wallenstein was recalled to the command of the imperial army. In the first encounter between these two great soldiers at Nuremberg, Gustavus Adolphus tasted the bitterness of his first defeat. When they met for a second time at Lutzen, on 16 November, 1632, the Swedes lost their leader.

Though deprived of Gustavus’s inspiration, the Swedes carried on the struggle under the direction of the great regent, Count Oxenstierna, who, wise statesman that he was, had already acquired full control of all Sweden’s foreign policy. By diplomatic means and the full consent of Gustavus Adolphus’s generals, Oxenstierna now set about an attempt to impose Swedish supremacy on northern Germany. But even he, with all his experience and wisdom, was unable to achieve this objective, and when the Swedes were defeated at Nordlingen, the Elector of Saxony brought all the Lutherans over to the imperial side. Not only did Saxony cast off his Swedish allies, but in return for a guarantee of the Protestant forms of worship and the continued enjoyment for fifty years of the lands and revenues they had taken, with Swedish help, from the Catholics, he undertook to drive the Swedes out of Austria.

It seemed at this point that a general peace could be worked out, but it was precisely now that the whole character of the conflict changed from a religious to a political one, in which the real issue was Bourbon or Hapsburg European hegemony. One feature of this phase was the Dutch resistance to Spanish attempts to overrun their republic, the English now making their only contribution to the war by helping the Dutch.

So the struggle continued until 1648, when the Spaniards, at the end of their resources, decided that for their own good they must arrange a peace with the Netherlands. This decision made a strong impact on the other powers involved, and they, realizing that their own positions were not very different from Spain’s, instituted a general move towards peace. The negotiations resulted in the signing of the Peace of Westphalia.

The greater importance of the Peace undoubtedly lies in its religious aspects, though in the overall view it is clear that the contemporary political influences are faithfully mirrored. Despite the operation of ancient obstinacies, a willingness to implement the Treaty eventually emerged, and it was on this compromise that the future religious divisions of Europe were based, on principles which remained effective for many decades.

Specifically, however, the greatest success of what was a considerable achievement, was the recognition the Peace accorded to Calvinism, for from this sprang the eventual indestructibility of European Protestantism.