Monday, February 9, 2015

Causes of the Thirty Years' War

The Thirty Years’ War devastated Europe at the early part of the 17th century. But what were the causes that led to the momentous event that changed the face of Europe? What were the situations and events that finally sparked the Thirty Years’ War?

The Thirty Years began in 1618 and ended in 1648. European states were divided. The Holy Roman Empire, Spain, various Catholic German States fought the alliance of English, French, Dutch, Swedish, and numerous Protestant German States. It raged as the name implied for Thirty Years and only ended with the Peace of Westphalia.

The war that lasted for thirty years, however, was caused by events that transpired a century before. The 16th century was marked by the Rebirth or the Renaissance. The arts and sciences flourished. Humanistic studies flourished. But it was the time of the zenith of the power of the Catholic Church in Europe. Kings bowed to the will of the Vatican City and the Papacy. Huge amount of money and influence was under the command of the Pope. And because of this two great earthly things corrupted absolutely. The church’s power was at its height, but corruption and decadence of the papacy was also at its all-time high. No one stood against the power of the representation of Christ on Earth until in 1517. A German Augustinian Friar named Martin Luther attacked the excesses of the papacy with his Ninety-Five Theses. The event that resulted to the Protestant Reformation brought division in Europe.

The rise of Protestantism rocked Europe significantly. The Holy Roman Empire, a compilation of various principalities, was under constant civil war between the German states that embraced Protestantism and those who adhered loyally to the Catholic faith. England also became embroiled with the Protestant Reformation after King Henry VIII declared himself leader of Church of England after his request for divorce was denied. France was embroiled also into a religious civil war that was made worst with the events during St. Bartholomew’s Day in 1572. Protestant Dutch Provinces rebelled against their Catholic Spanish rulers. Most if not all of Europe’s major power underwent problems as a result of the Protestant Reformation.

But after the initial shock, things subsided partially. In 1555, the Peace of Augsburg led to a peace in the Holy Roman Empire. In 1598, the Edict of Nantes ended the religious war that rattled France for more half a century. In 1609, the Spain and the Dutch Provinces agreed to a truce that would last for twelve years.

Peace seemed apparent but not for long. By the start of the 17th century, the Holy Roman Empire began to be divided once again. Tensions between the Catholics and the Protestants started to rise once more. It rose further with the creation of groupings among the factions. In 1609, the Protestants under the leadership of Frederick V of Palatine formed the Evangelical Union. On the same year, the Catholics under the leadership of Maximilian of Bavaria.

The division developed into a full scale conflict in 1618. A year before, a member of the Hapsburg family was elected to succeed the childless Holy Roman Emperor Matthias as King of Bohemia. As Matthias was already old and feeble, he began to exercise his power. A staunch Catholic, he sent to officials to the capital of Bohemia, Prague. These two Catholic officials clamped down against activities of the Protestants in the city. Furious, the Protestants assembled and barged to the Prague Castle and threw the Catholic officials outside the window. The event known as the Prague Defenestration came unpunished and started the Bohemian revolt and known officially as the start of the Thirty Years’ War. The following year, in 1619, Emperor Matthias passed away and things began to complicate. As part of the retaliation of the Protestants against King Ferdinand, in August 22, 1619, they removed him as King of Bohemia and replaced him with someone who was a Protestant. In August 26, they chose Frederick V of Palatine and founder of the Evangelical Union to become the new King of Bohemia. However, in August 28, Ferdinand became Ferdinand II, Holy Roman Emperor. As he assumed power, he revoked the toleration of the Protestants and invalidated the Peace of Augsburg. The new Holy Roman Emperor was also keen in retaking Bohemia from the Protestants. He also received support from the Catholic states of Saxony and Bavaria and the Kingdom of Spain. He ordered his commander, Johan Tserclaes, the Count of Tilly, to lead the attack. Protestant Bohemia braced themselves under the command of Prince Christian of Anhalt-Bernberg. However, the Protestant forces were no match the might of the Imperial army. On November 8, 1620, Protestant forces of Prince Christian faced defeat in the hands of the army of Count of Tilly at the Battle of White Mountain. Two years, later, the commander of the Imperial forces, Albrecht von Wallenstein took over the land of Frederick V – Palatine. Frederick V was force to seek refuge in France, while the Evangelical Union roamed Northern Germany. 

The Bohemian conflict seemed to be over, if it wasn't thanks to France that escalated it into a continental conflict. France felt weary of the victory and the aggression of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II. For over a century, France tried to avoid an encirclement by the Hapsburg. By the time of the hostilities in 1618, Spain and the Holy Roman Empire were both under the Hapsburg Family – Ferdinand II in the Holy Roman Empire and King Philip III and King Philip IV in Spain. Cardinal Richelieu, France’s chief minister became nervous of the potential of the Holy Roman Empire and Spain isolating France. And so in 1624, he supported financially the Dutch in their fight against the Spanish that began once more after the end of the Twelve Years’ Truce in 1621. In 1625, he formed an alliance with Denmark, which sought to increase its influence in Northern Germany under the guise of supporting the Evangelical Union, and England, which was Spain’s arch-nemesis for the control of the sea. The two countries received financial aides from France in order to fight the Hapsburgs. Sweden entered in 1630 with King Gustavus Adolphus landing Pomerania. Finally, in 1635, France decided to officially enter the war on the side of the Protestants. Because of political and diplomatic reasons, France entered to a war against the Holy Roman Empire, turning the Bohemian Revolt into a thirty years long conflict.

As a conclusion, the Thirty Years War was caused by religious divide and magnified by political and diplomatic reasons. A German dispute between the Catholics and Protestants in the Holy Roman Empire sparked the religious divide throughout Europe. Adding political significance, the war dragged the major powers of Europe to fight each other for thirty years, ending only with the Peace of Westphalia.

See also:

Derry, T. K. History of Scandinavia: Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1979.

Fahllbusch, E. et. al. (eds.). The Encyclopedia of Christianity. Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008.

Protherom G. W. (ed.). Scandinavia: A Political History of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden from 1513 to 1900. Cambridge University Press, 1905

Gilbert, A. The Encyclopedia of Warfare: From Earliest Times to the Present. London: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 2000.


  1. I could not comprehend a war lasting 30 years or 1 year. This history lesson hard to comprehend. They didn't teach us the history of our people. I am Prussian, Danish, Swedish and Bohemian. Who am I?

  2. Thanks but write about it point wise it will be interesting to read