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Early Modern European History

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Prior to 1400, Medieval Europe was without stable governments. Politically, it was fragmented. Feudal power was divided between kings and nobles causing an unstable society. It was common for loyalties among peasants and even nobles to be divided and change periodically1. This is because power existed in different forms. According to Max Weber, there are three types of power: Charismatic Power, Traditional Power and Bureaucratic Power2. States as we know them today, backed by bureaucratic power, did not exist. Instead the other two types of power were prominent.

It was not until after the sixteenth century that sovereign states began to develop and bureaucratic power began to replace charismatic and traditional power. The transformation of Medieval Europe from traditional power to bureaucratic power was a strong sign of the movement into what we now call Early Modern Europe (1400-1800 AD). Of the events of Early Modern European history, the Religious Wars, during the seventeenth century, had some of the greatest impacts on society, economy and politics. The Religious Wars were an indicator of the balance of political power in Europe at the time.

It is my intention to show that the Religious Wars, though most believe were generally about religious freedoms, were actually used as a great political tool at the time. With the wars came a shift in European power as well as the beginning area of many of the states as we know them today. The map of Europe above shows the political boundaries of the countries in the year 1400 AD. Though we can see the beginning of the counties we are familiar with today in name, such as France, England, Portugal and Germany, in many cases the area of the countries changed greatly after the Religious Wars as a result of the loss or gain of power.

The Reformation in Europe set the scene for the Religious Wars. Although, the Reformation was almost completely free from bloodshed the Religious Wars would not have the same fate. Protestants and Catholics would shed each other’s blood in extraordinary amounts. These struggles would eventually shatter the European monarchical traditions themselves. Protestants unhappy with the rule of Catholic kings challenged the monarchy. The final result of these struggles would be the overthrow and execution of Charles I in England in the middle of the seventeenth century, an historical event that permanently changed Europe.

The first major sets of wars were fought in France as civil wars. In 1559 Francis II became king of France at the age of fifteen. The three major noble families of France saw that the command of their country was weak and began to struggle for control of France. These families were the Guises in eastern France, the Bourbons in southern France, and the Montmorency-Chatillons in central France. The Guises were both the most powerful and the most fanatical about Catholicism. The Bourbons and the Montmorency-Chatillons were mostly Catholics who-for political reasons-supported the Protestant cause4.

When Francis II died in 1560, his younger brother, Charles IX assumed the throne. He was too young to serve as king so his mother, Catherine de Medicis became regent. Catherine was a brilliant and powerful political thinker. She knew from the beginning that the Guises were a threat to her and to her son. In order to control the threat, she allied with the Huguenots. To gain their support in return, she allowed them to practice their religion and to hold services outside town borders5. Catherine was a Catholic and wanted France to remain Catholic.

However, she did not want the Guises to gain too much power. The only way to chip away at the political power of the Guises was to increase the political power of the other major families and their Protestant allies. The Guises recognized what Catherine was doing and as a result, they attacked a Protestant service at Vassy killing everyone they came across. Thus the French Wars began. Catherine, because she did not want to loose her rule to any of the noble families, was forced to play both sides of the conflict.

With her help, the Guises planned and carried out the assassination of Gaspard de Coligny. From then until the end of the wars in France, on April 13, 1598 with the Edict if Nante the struggle between the Catholics and that Protestants escalated. Political power lost importance to religious freedoms and was only solved when a middle ground was reached with the help of Henry IV. As you see in this little bit of information, the Religious Wars in France did not begin because of different religions, but because of a rivalry between three families. Each of the families was predominantly Catholic.

It was only because the Guises were so fanatical about Catholicism that the Bourbons and the Montmorency-Chatillons supported the Huguenots. Although the Huguenots were comprised of only seven to eight percent of the French population, they where concentrated in politically strategic places. The Bourbons’ and the Montmorency-Chatillons’ support was solely to gain backing from the people in their campaign for the throne. The effects of the political division by means of religious pretenses were that the wars were perceived by everyone to be based on religion and not the political struggle that they really were.

The circumstances in Spain at the time were similar6. The 1556 Phillip II, perhaps the most important monarch of the sixteenth century, ascended the throne. Of all the monarchs of Europe, Philip was the most passionate defender of his religious faith and his energies in pursuit of this defense greatly changed the face of Europe. In the beginning, he was the force that stopped the Turkish invasion of Europe. Philip’s military navy was the source of his power and the most powerful and impressive navy of the sixteenth century. Allied with Venice, his navy defeated the Turks.

After this, Philip then turned his efforts from routing the Muslims to routing the Protestants in Europe. Phillip II sent armies to the Netherlands, which was ruled by Spain, but held large pockets of Calvinists that were turning against him. When Phillip II sent the Duke of Alba to support him, he imposed the Council of Troubles to question and punish the Protestants. The Dutch called these executions the “Council of Blood”7. Instead of stopping the revolt, the Protestants and Catholics in the Netherlands allied against Spain to get autonomy and end the oppressive rule.

The allies did not stay together long because in 1579 the Catholic provinces in the southern part of the Netherlands came to an agreement with Spain and separated to form what is today known as Belgium. Although the Catholics had abandoned them, the Protestants soon were able to gain their freedom from Spain. Phillip II had spread his forces all over Europe at the time and did not have enough power and influence in the area to hold on to them. The last Spanish soldiers were driven out in 1579 and the Dutch eventually gained official autonomous recognition with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.

While fighting in the Netherlands, Phillip was keeping tabs on the events in England. Initially, he did not want to get involved because he believed that England would return to Catholicism on its own. However, soon Phillip felt the need to get involved when Queen Elizabeth I signed a mutual defense treaty with France after Spain had defeated the Turks. Elizabeth was afraid that the Spanish navy was growing too powerful and feared that they would attempt to invade England. She thought that the only way to stay safe was to join with France in a mutual defense treaty.

In the late 1570’s, Elizabeth allowed English ships to pirate and ransack Spanish ships that were sailing to and from the New World. In 1585, just as the Protestant provinces of the Netherlands were beginning to drive the Spanish from their country, Elizabeth sent English soldiers to the Netherlands to help in the revolt. Finally, when the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, was executed, Phillip had had enough and attacked England. Elizabeth was ready for the attack and with the help of the French and the Dutch, she managed to defeat the Spanish Armada and cause a temporary setback to Spain’s political position.

By the end of the seventeenth century Spain lost its leading position in Europe. Once again politics played a large role in the way the wars played out. True, Philip II made it known that he was fighting for Catholicism. However, building an empire that would take over Europe was the way he chose to make Catholicism the number on religion, and perhaps the only religion. The size and strength of his Armada and the fact that his forces were spread throughout Europe tells me that he was working for political gain as well.

The reason that he did not attempt and attack on England was probably because Queen Elizabeth’s forces were strong enough to hold their own. Otherwise it would have been far more strategic to have attacked before the mutual defense treaty she entered into with France had been made. Although, King Phillip II’s initial defense against the Turks may have been based on protection of his country and even religion, I am sure that his need to conquer the rest of the states of Europe was far more than religion, but political power.

He, like the Emperors of the past, attempted to expand his resources farther than they would reach and because of that, he lost his position and the empire became weak. Traditionally religious fanatics focus on maintaining what they have rather than conquering what they do not in hopes to convert them. The last major war of religion was the Thirty Years War8. It is fair to say, however, that this war was as much about politics as it was about religion. Germany, which was part of the Holy Roman Empire, was not united at all. Instead it was made of 360 autonomous city-states and province-states.

Of the 360, about half were predominately Catholic and the other haft mostly Protestant. At the same time the Treaty of Augsburg recognized Lutherans, but not Calvinists. In fact the first Calvinist state did not exist until 1559 when Frederick III became the Elector of Palatinate and converted to Calvinism. His state later became a key player when England, France and the Netherlands joined forces against Spain in 1609. Fredrick III was passionate about the spread of Calvinism and Protestantism. The state to the south of Palatinate was called Bavaria.

There, Maximillian, the Duke of Bavaria was equally as fanatic about Catholicism and the Counter-Reformation. When Fredrick IV, formed a defensive league with England, France and the Netherlands, the Duke of Bavaria formed a Catholic League. In 1618 war broke out between the two states. The Thirty Years War was said to have been the bloodiest of all of the wars. Almost every state in Europe became involved and the casualties reached a height that would not be seen again in Europe until the nineteenth century. The Thirty Years War ended in 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia.

The treaty did nothing more than reaffirm what The Treaty of Augsburg said besides allowing each state within the Holy Roman Empire the right to choose its own religion. Actually, the only really important part of it was the recognition of Calvinism. From the maps below you can see how the area changed as a result of the politics in due to the Religious Wars. The parts in orange are Spain. As you look between the two maps you can see that the overall area that Phillip II conquered dropped by the end of the war including the Spanish Netherlands, Portugal and its territory near France.

On the other hand, England’s political area, yellow, increased to include Scotland, the territories of the island to its west as well as what was called the United Provinces, light green area near Holland. France’s are also increased, but only enough to solidify the area around and within the established kingdom. The political struggle was not enough to unite the German states, although, as you can see on the maps, some of them did unite either under Palatinate or Bavaria. So as you can see, the rulers of different states to increase their political power in Early Modern Europe used the Religious Wars.

In France’s case, religion was used as a tool in order to achieve or maintain power of France. Eventually, it did get out of control and became a real issue in the country, but initially it was used as a front. In Spain, Phillip II used religion as a reason to attempt the expansion his territories. The Holy Roman Empire was the third to use religion as a base for the gain of political power, but not the last. Perhaps what the leaders learned the most, was that religion may be an effective tool for political gain in the beginning, however, passion usually gets in the way making the political outcome of religious wars unpredictable.

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