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Westphalia and Peace of Augsburg: States' Rise to Sovereignty and Decline of the Empire

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  • 0:06 Background
  • 2:36 Religious Uprisings
  • 3:20 Peace of Augsburg
  • 4:32 30 Years' War
  • 6:17 Peace of Westphalia
  • 7:16 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson focuses on the Holy Roman Empire during the Reformation. As it highlights the Peace of Augsburg and the Peace of Westphalia, it will illustrate the rise of state power, and the decline of the empire.

Background of the Empire

For much of Europe's history, the Holy Roman Empire dominated the continent and controlled the Roman Catholic Church. As a staunchly Catholic regime they wielded both the cross and the sword to control the lives of Europe's population. Without hesitation, they dispensed of anyone who dared challenge their authority. To say the very least, they were a force to be reckoned with.

However, as we'll find out, that's exactly what the Reformation did. It reckoned with this formidable power. Not only did it reckon with it; it won!

In today's lesson, we'll be discussing two things that made this victory a reality. They are the Peace of Augsburg and the Peace of Westphalia. Before we get into the details of these two, let's do a quick background review.

Prior to the Reformation, the Holy Roman Empire controlled most of Central Europe. It occupied all, or part of, modern-day Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, and several other European nations. Although these territories had their own semi-autonomous rulers, the empire still had ultimate control. Since the Holy Roman Empire was a staunchly Catholic regime, the Roman Catholic Church shared in its domination.

In the 16th century, things started to change. Throughout Europe, people began to question the practices of the Catholic Church. In 1517, Martin Luther made public his 95 Theses. In these writings, Luther called for Church reform. With this, the Reformation was born. Soon, others joined Luther to protest against the Church. One such man was John Calvin. Becoming known as 'Protestants,' Luther's followers formed the Protestant sect known as Lutheranism. Calvin's followers, who were also part of the Protestant faith, adhered to Calvinism. Although they were both of the Protestant faith, there were differences among them. Regardless of these differences, they each gained widespread support within the Holy Roman Empire. Within just a few years after Luther's 95 Theses, the Church had a very hot issue on its hands. As many of the Empire's territories traded Catholicism for Protestantism, this hot issue would turn into a deadly blaze.

Religious Uprisings Begin

Some of the first flames of war occurred in 1525 with the German Peasants' Revolt. In this conflict, the lower classes of Germany, being inspired by the Reformation, took up arms against their wealthy rulers. However, they not only wanted religious freedom - they fought for political and economic freedom as well. Although this small flame was quickly doused by Catholic forces, it was not the end of the religious conflict that would rage like fire across the Holy Roman Empire. On the contrary, as places like the Netherlands reached their fill of Catholic domination, full-scale wars waged across the Holy Roman Empire.

Peace of Augsburg

By the middle of the 16th century, it became apparent the Holy Roman Empire was losing control of its lands. Forcing Catholicism down the throats of its territories was no longer a viable option. In 1555, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, made a huge concession to the Protestant reformers. This came with the signing of the Peace of Augsburg. In this historic treaty, Lutheranism was given official toleration. Going even a step further, the treaty allowed the princes of each territory to decide whether Catholicism or Lutheranism would rule their land.

Although this treaty did relieve some of the religious tensions within the Holy Roman Empire, it had one major flaw. It completely ignored Calvinism! Yes, the Lutherans were pacified, but every other Protestant group was left out in the cold. Since Calvinism was thriving in many parts of the Holy Roman Empire, this omission would lead to one of the most devastating wars in European history: the 30 Years' War.

30 Years' War

Not surprisingly, the 30 Years' War ignited when Calvinists in Bohemia, now the Czech Republic, rebelled against their Catholic rulers in the year 1618. Since Bohemia was no match for the Church and the Holy Roman Empire, this small fire was quickly snuffed out. However, the 30 Years' War would continue to burn.

Seeing how ruthlessly the Church dealt with Bohemia, the Protestants of Denmark rallied their forces and invaded the Catholic states of Germany still loyal to the Empire. Like the Bohemians, the Danes were crushed by the Catholic forces, yet the fires of war waged on!

The next group of Protestants to take up arms against the Holy Roman Empire were the Swedes. Fortunately for the Swedes, they were financially backed by the French. This gave them the support they needed to win several victories against their foe. However, lasting victory came when Catholic France decided to actually join the fight on the side of the Protestants. Of course, Catholic France's motivation wasn't to aid Protestantism. They simply hated the Holy Roman Empire more than they did Protestants. If they had to align with heretical Protestants in order to see the Holy Empire burn, so be it!

With the Protestant forces backed by the armies of France, the empire couldn't contain the Protestant fire. Although peace talks began in the early 1640s, the Holy Roman Empire would face several more decisive defeats before fighting ceased. Finally, the 30 Years' War was brought to an end by the 1648 Peace of Westphalia.

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