Religious Warfare Across Europe During the Reformation

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  • 0:05 Definition of Reformation
  • 1:47 German Peasants' Revolt
  • 2:19 80 Years' War
  • 4:00 French Wars of Religion
  • 5:37 30 Years' War Ends…
  • 8:23 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 will explain the different wars which waged across Europe during the Reformation. It will begin with the German Peasants' Revolt and continue through the 30 Years' War, ending with the Peace of Westphalia.

Definition of Reformation

The idea of full-scale war being waged over religious differences is rather foreign to the Western train of thought. Sadly, we all know religious fanaticism can, and at times has, lead to acts of terror. However, the idea that any legitimate parliament or president would declare war over who worships where, seems absurd to most Western minds. Ironically, the pages of Western history books are replete with this very thing. To explain, we'll have to start with the Reformation.

The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century began as an attempt to reform the practices of the Catholic Church. It was sparked in the year 1517 by Martin Luther's 95 Theses. In these writings, Luther objected to the abuses he perceived within the Church. Soon, others joined the call for church reform.

Martin Luther sparked the Reformation with his writings.
Martin Luthers 95 Theses

Of course, these ideas didn't sit so well with the Pope. Before long, the efforts of the reformers led to a schism in Western Christianity. On one side were those who held to the doctrines of the Catholic Church. On the other were those who protested these doctrines.

Aptly so, these protesters became known as Protestants, or followers of Western Christianity, separate from the Roman Catholic Church. Aided by its followers and the invention of the printing press, the Protestant message spread throughout Western Europe. As reformers met with opposition and even persecution, what started out as a desire for reform exploded into the fight for freedom.

German Peasants' Revolt

This brings us to Chapter 1, the German Peasants' Revolt of 1524. In this conflict, German Protestants rebelled against the very catholic Holy Roman Empire in order to gain political and economic freedom. As the name implies, a majority of them were from the lower classes of society. Sadly, for the rebels, the revolt ended in failure, leaving thousands of peasants dead. Despite this loss, the Peasants' Revolt signaled the beginning of Europe's religious wars.

80 Years' War

Now, on to Chapter 2.

After the failed revolt in Germany, the Protestant cause found victory in the Netherlands' revolt against Catholic Spain. This conflict has come to be known as the 80 Years' War. Within the Netherlands, Protestantism came to popularity in the form of Calvinism. Calvinism, named after the 16th century reformer John Calvin, holds that only God has complete authority over humanity, salvation, and the Church.

In other words, the Pope is not the end-all authority. He, like the rest of humanity, is subject to God. With these reforming ideas in mind, the Netherlands were no longer willing to tolerate Catholic Spain's domination. For years, Dutch Protestants experienced victories and defeats in their quest for freedom.

Calvinism became a popular form of Protestantism in the Netherlands.

Making the conflict more notable, Protestant England got involved in the fight. With this, Spain turned its wrath toward England's shores with the launching of the Spanish Armada in 1588. No longer content with just keeping the Netherlands, Spain launched over 100 ships towards England's shore. This was Catholic Spain's attempt to conquer England. Fortunately for the Protestant cause, England, with the help of some very bad weather, handed Spain a decisive defeat.

Having spent most of its money on these religious conflicts, the Armada's defeat added to the financial problems of Spain. In the year 1648, the Netherlands gained their independence from a bankrupt Spain. Not only was this a win for the Dutch Protestants, it stripped Catholic Spain of much of its power.

French Wars of Religion

Chapter 3 takes us to France. While the Dutch Protestants were fighting for freedom, France was engulfed in the French Wars of Religion. This conflict pitted French Protestants against France's Catholic monarchy.

Like the Netherlands, Calvinism had taken hold in France. However, French Protestants took on the name, Huguenots. Adding to the tensions in France, many of the Huguenots were of the noble class. This gave the French Protestants political power to back up their reforming beliefs. It also made them a huge threat to the Catholic Church. Tensions between the Catholic Church and the Huguenots simmered for years, coming to a boil in 1562, at the Massacre at Vassy.

During this violent episode, dozens of unarmed Protestants were killed by Catholic nobles. This marked the beginning of the French Wars of Religion. During this long war, the Huguenots gained the support of Protestant England, while the Church was backed by Catholic Spain and the Pope.

Tension between the Huguenots and Catholics led to the French Wars of Religion.
Huguenots Catholics Fighting

The Huguenots faced many trials, which saw the murder of thousands of Protestants. Despite these tragedies, the Huguenots were granted the right to worship by the Edict of Nantes. Passed in 1598, this edict also ended the French Wars of Religion. Although this seemed like a happy ending, the Edict of Nantes didn't last. It was abolished in 1685. After its abolishment, the Huguenots of France were stripped of their civil rights, and the Reformation in France met its end.

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