Overview of the Thirty Years’ War


European history is full of wars, religious and secular, all of which have decided which nations became superpowers and which died out, impacting the course of history. Among the numerous battles fought over religion is the Thirty Years’ War, fought between 1618 and 1648, the result of which would determine the course of history, establishing new nations, weakening others, and undermining the Catholic Church. Fought primarily in Germany, the war saw the rise of new and improved armies and tactics, and it would inflict severe damage upon the Holy Roman Empire.

Prior to the war was the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther, after nailing his 95 theses to a church door in 1517, sparked a massive conflict, practically declaring war against the Catholic Church by refuting their practices, with new denominations of Christianity springing up as a result, such as Lutheranism and Calvinism, founded by John Calvin. Soon after, more people began converting from Catholicism to Protestantism, to the dismay of the German Princes, and especially to the Emperor, Charles V. Tensions grew as the map01_1648.jpgcountry was divided, and riots and wars broke out between the provinces. Eventually, in 
1555, the Peace of Augsburg was signed, instating the “cuius regio, eius religio” principle, which allowed each prince to choose what religious sect he wanted to be; whatever religion he aligned with, the citizens would have to as well. However, while many in the North chose Lutheranism and Calvinism, the latter was not officially recognized and thus was not allowed. The Peace of Augsburg worked, until the Protestants felt they were under threat of the Habsburgs, a powerful dynasty that ruled in both Germany and Spain. Worried that their freedom of religion was to be infringed upon presently, the Protestants revolted in 1607. In response, Maximilian I was sent to take care of the rebellion, successfully quelling it and retaining peace. The Protestants were horrified and created the Protestant Union in 1618 to protect themselves against Maximilian’s force; and to counter this new union, Maximilian, a year later, founded the Catholic League. Problems arose once more when the Holy Roman Emperor 
Unknown.jpegMatthias chose Ferdinand II to be his successor. Several emissaries went to Hradschin castle in Prague for Matthias, hoping to negotiate with the Protestants. The Protestants were suspicious of the messengers, whom they knew were not visiting in their favor, and so seized and threw them out the third-story window, although they survived. This “Defenestration of Prague” (another occurred in the 15th century) was one of the catalysts for the war, the other being the election. When Matthias died in 1619, Ferdinand II, devout Catholic king of Bohemia, was made Holy Roman Emperor; the Protestant Bohemians thought otherwise, refusing to bow to Ferdinand, crowning instead Frederick V to retaliate. Ferdinand II was not pleased to hear that he was deposed, so he asked for assistance from the Spanish Habsburg king Philip III.

e5cf89143b21a7739959066bcf1e74e8.jpgOn November 8, 1620, the first battle of the Thirty Years’ War was fought at White Mountain. The Catholic League easily beat the Protestant army. Ferdinand, now having control over Bohemia, completely outlawed Protestantism, imposing Catholicism on everyone. From 1618 to 1625 the war was limited to Germany, where the two leagues were fighting. Sensing that the Protestants were losing, having ended his previous war with Spain, Christian IV of Denmark joined the war, mostly out of commercial and political reasons, not for religious ones. At the same time, Albrecht von Wallenstein was recruited by Ferdinand to lead the Catholics. Albrecht was unbelievably wealthy, so he was able to acquire a large, able army that was loyal to him alone. Despite winning several battles, Wallenstein was dismissed by the Emperor in 1630, for he feared that Wallenstein would turn against him. The end of the Danish phase was 1619, also when the Edict of Restitutions was released. All property of the Church since 1555 had to be paid for by the Protestants, and the Holy Roman Empire got to re-appropriate the land. It appeared as though the Protestants were going to lose—that is, until 1630, when the Swedish phase began. Before Wallenstein was removed, he and his troops had marched on Baltic soil. Unknown-1.jpegGustavus “the Lion of the North” Adolphus II, King of Sweden, took much offense to this, afraid that the Catholics might advance into his homeland. In 1631 he won the Battle of Breitenfeld with his superior army, equipped with modern weaponry and disciplined with brilliant stratagems. He went on to conquer Denmark, Poland, and Finland, destroying any hopes of German unity. The desperate Ferdinand called Wallenstein back to repel Gustav. During the Battle of Lützen in 1632, though, Gus was killed in a courageous feat, yet his army, in the end, won, notwithstanding the tragic loss. Thereafter, the Swedes experienced a stroke of bad luck, losing miserably at Nördlingen in 1634. Wallenstein, who was now conspiring behind Ferdinand’s back, was assassinated when the latter found out. The Peace of Prague was signed in 1635, when Ferdinand offered to repeal the Edict of Restitutions, only if the Germanic princes agreed to help expel the Swedes. Over in France, Cardinal Richelieu disapproved of the Peace, as he wanted to continue the war, hoping to overthrow the Habsburg dynasty and establish France as a superpower; as a result, he decided enough was enough and declared war, both on the Holy Roman Empire and on Spain, initiating the French phase (1635-1648). Also known as the international phase, this period saw the involvement not only of the French but the Scottish and Finnish. The Thirty Years’ War was truly international: Germany, Spain, Sweden, France, Denmark, and Scotland were the main forces. French commander Duc d’Enghien beat the Spanish at Rocroi in 1643; thenceforth, the Spain’s military splendor began to decline. Talk of peace began in 1644. For the first time in 200 hundred years, all the international nations met in one place to discuss peace terms. Negotiations continued for another four years, each nation changing its terms as the war progressed. Finally, in 1648, the Treaty of Westphalia was signed, concluding the Thirty Years’ War.

Unknown-2.jpegIn the end, Germany got it worst, while the international forces got it best. The Habsburg dynasty lost tremendous land and lost just as much influence in Germany, surrendering most of their power to the local princes; therefore, all central power was lost, along with it the idea of unity, the nation more divided than ever. Calvinism was finally accepted as a legitimate religion, though not too many princes chose it. The decline of the Church became apparent, the war being only the beginning of its fall. Church and state were no longer one, but separate entities, neither influencing the other. It is estimated that about seven million German lives alone were lost. Edward Calamy reported in 1641, “Germany… is a place of dead men’s skulls… and a field of blood.”[1] The German’s experienced a devastating depression, as their agriculture was completely ruined. When the Imperial forces were not busy fighting the Protestants, they were busy getting drunk, massacring towns; when Gus was not busy beating the Imperial forces, he was busy touring Germany, wreaking havoc wherever he went, destroying fields, slaughtering civilians, raiding towns. In my blog about Romanticism, I mentioned that the rise of the movement was inspired by the Thirty Years’ War, particularly the intense hatred the Germans had toward the French, Europe_1648-eng_590.jpgwho invaded and ravaged their land. After the Thirty Years’ War, Germany despised France, understandably. Spain was weakened alongside Germany, and it lost its position as a superpower. France, however, became not quite as strong as England, but perhaps the strongest nation in Central Europe. The warring between France and Spain was perpetuated after the war and continued for several more years during the Fronde, out of which France came victorious. Denmark and Sweden were made independent. Sweden and France, further, could intervene in German affairs and aid princes whenever they felt it was necessary. A result of the Thirty Years’ War that I have touched on was what the Germans called Staatensystem:

Europe was understood to consist in a large number of unconnected sovereigns, free and detached atoms, or states, which acted according to their own political interests, forming and dissolving alliances, exchanging embassies and legations, alternating between war and peace, shifting position with a shifting balance of power.[2]

In the next post, I will be explaining the important battles of the Thirty Years’ War in depth.



[1] Hart-Davis, History: The Definitive Visual Guide, p. 262
[2] Palmer, A History of the Modern World 5th ed., p. 142


For further reading: Western Civilization: Paleolithic Man to the Emergence of European Power by William R. Langer (1968)
 A History of Western Society Vol. B 2nd ed. by John P. McKay (1983)
History: The Definitive Visual Guide by Adam Hart-Davis (2007)
The Western Experience 6th ed. by Mortimer Chambers (1995)
A History of the Modern World 5th ed. by R.R. Palmer (1978)
The Story of Civilization Vol. VII by Will Durant (1961)




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