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1520 - 1648: Religious wars in the Netherlands and Germany


1520 - 1648: Religious wars in the Netherlands and GermanyThe revolt of the Netherlands, which created a new and vigorous European state in the sixteenth century, and a great commercial and colonizing world-power in the seventeenth, was as much a religious as a political movement. The centralizing, autocratic, and unconciliatory policy of Philip II. was probably enough in itself to have caused rebellion in the Netherlands; while the religious conflict was so bitter that it would almost certainly have caused a revolt, even if there had been no political friction. The revolt of 1568 and the war which lasted till 1609, as a matter of fact, turned on causes belonging equally to both fields. Read more on this period at History of Holland.

When Charles V visited the Netherlands in 1520, on his way to claim the imperial crown, the twenty-two provinces then gathered into his hands were all nominally Catholic; and the large majority of the population were sincerely attached to Rome. Yet reformed doctrines soon made their way into the country in several forms. In the southern and central states, Flanders, Brabant, Hainault, Holland, and Zealand, Calvinism entered from France; into Friesland and North Holland came many Mennonites; in some of the towns there were Anabaptists; in the great commercial cities, such as Antwerp and Amsterdam, Lutherans were numerous, some of them immigrants from Germany, some converted to that faith through the communications between lower Germany and the adjacent provinces of the Netherlands. Even the Catholics of the Netherlands were not of a bigoted or militant type; heresy had been wide-spread there since the thirteenth century, and the inhabitants had not the horror of it that was felt in some more orthodox countries.

Among the wealthy, turbulent, strong-minded, and patriotic Netherland burghers and peasantry Reformation doctrines and principles readily spread and gained acceptance; yet they were met by the most determined and harsh opposition from the government which now held the Netherlands in the hollow of its hand. In 1521 Charles V issued from Worms an edict dooming to loss of property and death every Dutch, Flemish, or Walloon adherent of the teachings of Luther; and in 1523 two monks were burned at Brussels as first-fruits of the long and miserable harvest which was so abundantly reaped afterwards.

A series of edicts known as the "Placards" was now issued by Charles, prohibiting private meetings for religious worship, reading of the Scripture by laymen, discussions on questions of faith, the destruction of religious emblems, the harboring of heretics, the possession of heretical books, and, in general, all heretic or non-Catholic opinions and practices. These edicts were enforced by all the power of the civil government, and by the activity of four inquisitors. The "Placards" reached their culmination in the edict of 1550, renewing and making more severe all punishments for religious offences. When Charles, in 1556, laid down the burden of government in favor of his son, the persecutions had numbered their hundreds, if not thousands, of victims; but heresy had spread only the more widely, and Protestantism in its various forms had become only the stronger.

Philip II entered upon the struggle with heresy even more vigorously than his father. Even the Catholics of the Netherlands were opposed to the enforcement of the "Placards," while the heretics who were suffering and multiplying under it were looking forward almost desperately to some change that would make their position more tolerable. The States-General, the nearest approach to a national legislature that the Netherlands possessed, in 1559 pleaded for mildness. It was only the Spanish ruler who was determined to apply the heresy laws in all their vigor; and when he left the Netherlands and began to direct their administration from Spain, the religious question became more and more the great unifying element in national resistance to his policy.

William of Orange, in the council of state, took the lead in drawing up a petition to the king for the amelioration of the "Placards" and for the suspension of the decrees for an inflexible orthodoxy which had just been promulgated from Trent. He pointed out the necessity of recognizing the proximity and influence of Lutheran Germany upon the Netherlands, the actual extension of Protestantism in the provinces, and the degree to which the old church had lost its authority over the hearts of men. In words that rose in dignity and significance far above the ordinary contests of Catholics and Protestants, he declared: "I am Catholic, and will not deviate from religion; but I cannot approve the custom of kings to confine men's creed and religion within arbitrary limits." Philip replied to this petition of the Catholic nobles of the Netherlands by the edict of Segovia, dated October 17, 1565, insisting more vehemently than ever before on the enforcement of the laws against heresy in all their severity, including what was practically the introduction of the Spanish Inquisition. On the other hand, the Reformation pressed on with rapid strides; vast crowds gathered outside of Tournai, Harlem, Antwerp, and other cities to listen to Calvinist preachers. Ten, twelve, and twenty thousand of the populace assembled at a time to sing psalms and hymns and to listen to the appeals of teachers eloquent and devout, but almost invariably heretical.

The inevitable crisis was now hastening on. The lesser nobles, including some Calvinists, soon formed the "Confederation," sent their petition to the king, and in 1567 broke out in fruitless rebellion. Almost at the same time the mob rose in the image-breaking riots which spread like wild-fire over all the provinces except the most southern. Then came Alva, with his unlimited powers, his veteran troops, his "Council of Blood," his more than ten thousand victims of political and religious persecution, and the awful severity and barbarity that have made his name a synonym of cruelty and heartless despotism. William of Orange brought an army into Brabant in 1568, and revolt was soon in full progress. Even under Charles V. there had been much emigration from the Netherlands to Germany and England, to escape religious persecution. Now the barbarities of Alva increased the number many-fold. It was estimated that there were at one time sixty thousand Dutch and Walloon refugees living in England. By 1568 the emigrants were said to number four hundred thousand.

As the revolt progressed and the various cities expelled the officers of the Spanish governor and put themselves under the banner of Orange, they became little oases of toleration. The instructions of William to his lieutenants in the north in 1572 ordered them "to restore fugitives and the banished for conscience' sake - and to see that the Word of God is preached, without, however, suffering any hindrance to the Roman Church in the exercise of its religion." By November, 1576, when the treaty known as the Pacification of Ghent was made between Holland and Zealand on the one hand and the fifteen southern provinces on the other, liberalism in religious views had progressed as far as the power of the patriotic party extended; and all "Placards" and edicts on the subject of religion were suspended till a national assembly should take final action on the subject. At the same time it was provided that there should be no action against the Catholic religion, outside the territory of Holland and Zealand.

Soon the Flemish provinces, where Protestantism had made least headway and where distrust of the north was strong, were "pacified" by Don John of Austria and Alexander of Parma. The Union of Arras, of January 6, 1579, became a centre of union and reconciliation to Spain and Catholicism for the fifteen southern provinces. Just three weeks afterwards the Union of Utrecht was formed, which united the seven northern provinces and became the basis of the free republic of the United Netherlands: each province was to make its own religious arrangements, though toleration was secured by the provision that no one should be molested or questioned on the subject of divine worship. Thus while the southern provinces set their feet in the path of a return to Roman Catholic uniformity, the northern provinces pledged themselves to toleration of Catholics and of all sects of Protestants alike.

Toleration is to the modern student the chief interest and glory of the foundation of the United Netherlands; but it was not toleration but Protestantism which then gave the young republic its peculiar strength, vigor, and enterprise. Even in the Pacification of Ghent and the Union of Utrecht, Holland and Zealand were recognized as Protestant states. As the bitter struggle progressed, their Protestantism became more pronounced and more militant. Exiled Calvinists from the south flocked to Amsterdam, Middelburg, Rotterdam, and other northern cities in great numbers, intensifying the Protestant character of these communities and enriching them with capital, business ability, and an astonishingly large proportion of gifted men. The formal abjuration of Philip by the United Provinces in 1581, on grounds so largely religious, could not but bring into still greater prominence the Protestantism of the country which now claimed its independence. The long-continued warfare that followed the assassination of the beloved prince of Orange, the sieges, mutinies, and battles by land and sea, steadily deepened the religious and political hatred between the Netherlands and Spain.

By the year 1596 internal theological struggles between Remonstrants and Contra-Remonstrants approached the proportions of a civil war; and the victory gained by the latter party through the intervention of the stadtholder Maurice connected religion and politics, church and state, even more clearly, and made still more intense the fiery Protestantism of the Dutch government. Strengthened by her efforts, hardened by her struggles, awakened to vigorous life by the exhilaration of the long and arduous conflict, the little Protestant state approached the end of the sixteenth century, enterprising in internal plans and eager for new fields of foreign commerce. The probability that commercial expansion would bring her into conflict
with Spain added zest to the prospect and gave promise that in extending trade, conquering distant possessions, and establishing colonies, she would at the same time be weakening her bitterest enemy.

Hence the early Dutch expeditions to the Indies, the formation of the East and West India Companies, the establishment of the colonies in Brazil, Guiana, and North America, and of commercial factories in the East Indies, were all of them in a certain sense part of the religious and political struggle between the Netherlands and Spain. When the twelve years' truce was signed, in 1609, those provinces which had returned to the Spanish obedience were uniformly Catholic, but their prosperity and international significance had disappeared. The independent provinces, on the other hand, were, for all their toleration, almost uniformly Protestant, and they were already one of the great maritime and commercial powers of Europe.

The United Netherlands speedily colonized New Amsterdam, Guiana, Cape Colony, Java, and other places, with a population persistent in Protestantism and in many race characteristics. Unfortunately for Holland the number of her emigrants was never great enough to enable her permanently to play a great part in the history of colonization. The Dutch are not an emigrating people. Yet those who did emigrate carried with them such an assertive character and so highly developed a group of institutions that they exercised a deep and permanent influence over communities like New York, in which they soon ceased to be the dominant element; while their institutions in Holland made such a strong impression upon English sojourners in their midst that some of their characteristics reappeared long afterwards in American colonies in which no Dutchman had ever settled.

The Reformation, with the wars to which it gave rise, made Germany for a time the most conspicuous state in Europe, but its ultimate effect was to reduce that state to a degree of material poverty, political insignificance, and intellectual torpidity unknown before in her experience. Civil war was long delayed; the political necessities and the astute policy of Charles V, the conservative instincts and patriotic scruples of Luther, and the doubtful position of many of the German provinces and cities, long prevented any attempt by the emperor to enforce the orthodoxy required by the Diet of Worms, and induced the Lutherans to go more than halfway in accepting the policy of postponement. Yet even this early period was troubled by successive minor outbreaks of violence. The "Knights' War" of 1523, the Peasants' Revolt of 1524 and 1525, the Zwinglian wars in Switzerland in 1531, and the Anabaptist outbreak at Munster in 1534 were all connected with the religious ferment of the times.

From 1530, when the League of Schmalkald was formed to unite the Protestant princes and cities, Germany really belonged to two camps, and civil war was only a question of time. The time came in 1546, the year of Luther's death, when Charles was at last free from foreign complications and could make the attempt to reintroduce conformity into Germany. The Schmalkaldic War, although marked by a series of imperial successes and temporarily closed by a triumphant truce in 1548, was soon renewed, and the Peace of Passau of 1552 was a general compromise, representing rather the weariness of war and the jealousies of the various powers of Germany than any permanent political of religious equilibrium. An attempt was made to establish a more lasting settlement in the conference of Augsburg in 1555. Here the terms of the recent treaty were put in more formal shape: Lutheranism was given legal recognition; all religious disputes should be settled by peaceful means; in legal causes between a Protestant and a Catholic the Imperial Hight Court of Justice should be composed of an equal number of Catholics and Protestants.

On the other hand, certain compromises were then introduced which were destined to be fatal to the permanency of the religious and political settlement.

1. Instead of individual toleration, as was originally proposed, the principle was adopted which has become known as cujus regio ejus religio - that is to say, each prince or imperial city should choose between Catholicism and Lutheranism; and thereafter all inhabitants must conform, or, if unwilling to do so, must expatriate themselves. The unstable equilibrium of the empire was thus transferred to the individual states, and each was threatened with internal revolution whenever there was a change in the prevailing religious views of the inhabitants or the personal beliefs of the prince.

2. A second compromise was reached by providing that all ecclesiastical property seized by temporal governments down to the close of the late war should be guaranteed to its new possessors; but that for the future the process of secularization should cease. Thus an artificial obstacle was placed in the way of the avarice or the desire for reform of the Protestant princes, at the very time they were given increased control in their own states.

3. The "ecclesiastical reservation" made an exception to the right of territorial independence in religion in the case of the ecclesiastical states, which were so numerous in Germany. If any archbishop, bishop, or abbot, who was also a secular prince, should become a Lutheran, he must resign his office and divest himself of his power and jurisdiction, which would pass to his Catholic successor. This provision deprived Protestant subjects of ecclesiastical princes of all prospect of religious freedom, and doomed them to compulsory reconciliation with the Catholic Church or to exile, except for certain rights guaranteed to them by the treaty.

4. The compromises of Augsburg were compromises between Catholics and Lutherans only, and neither Calvinists nor Zwinglians were given recognition in its terms, although Calvinism was destined to be the great aggressive force of the Reformation, making an appeal to the masses of the people and taking a fundamental hold upon its adherents beyond anything which Lutheranism, or indeed any other form of the Reformation, ever obtained.

The agreement reached in 1555, incomplete and unstable as it seemed, remained the foundation of an outward if somewhat troubled religious peace for more than sixty years. Yet a renewal of the conflict was threatened from time to time, and in 1618 the terrible Thirty Years' War broke out. The earlier contests had been civil wars only, the renewed war was no longer merely a German struggle. In 1625 Christian IV, king of Denmark, entered the war as leader on the Protestant side, only to yield to the perseverance of Tilly, the general of the Catholic armies, and to the genius of Wallenstein, the representative of Emperor Ferdinand; and to retire in 1629, leaving north Germany more completely than before at the mercy of the emperor and of the Catholic party. Scarcely a year later Gustavus Adolphus, full of enthusiasm for the Protestant cause and provided with funds from France, brought his veteran regiments and his military ability from Sweden into Germany, and fought in consecutive years his three wonderful campaigns. After the death of the "Lion of the North," in 1632, the "Swedish period" endured still two years; and when, in 1634, Catholic and Protestant princes entered upon a truce they made terms upon an equality, though there was even yet but little promise of a permanent settlement.

Just before the fatal battle of Lutzen, in the midst of military preparations, a decisive step was taken by Gustavus which ultimately led to the creation of one more American colony. Ever since the introduction of new issues. One after another, foreign states were drawn into the struggle until a mere German civil war had developed into a general European conflict, in which foreigners were struggling for German territory. Catholics made alliances with Lutherans and with Calvinists, until what had begun as a religious struggle became a purely political contest among unpatriotic German princes and ambitious neighbors of Germany contending for power and prestige.

When, at the peace of 1648, political questions had been settled, territorial changes agreed upon, the Netherlands and Switzerland definitely separated from the empire, Alsace surrendered to France, and much of Pomerania to Sweden, the religious conflict was brought to an end as far as possible by returning to the old plan of the treaty of Augsburg, except that such toleration as was then granted to Catholics and Lutherans was now extended to Calvinists also. To these provisions some further extensions of religious liberty were added by securing guarantees of protection to subjects differing in their religion from their princes and by including in the highest imperial tribunal a certain number of Protestants. The material sufferings and losses of Germany during the war were almost beyond description. The armies, made tip largely of soldiers of different nationalities, without attachment to the countries through which they marched, without interest in the questions at issue, without a regular commissariat, often without pay, brutalized by long campaigning and repeated sacks of cities, followed by an immense rabble of non-combatant men, women, and children, were a barbarian horde, and ravaged the lands in which they were established like a fire or a pestilence. The tortures they inflicted upon the peasantry and the citizens, the robbery, the outrages, the wanton destruction, pressed close to the limits of human endurance, and seemed almost to threaten the extermination of the population. The prosperity of the cities was crushed by war contributions, even when they escaped being plundered like Magdeburg; and the debasement of the coinage practised by the emperor and the princes bore hardly upon all who bought or sold. During the later campaigns of the war military operations in many regions became almost impracticable from the very impoverishment of the country; no sustenance existed for friend or for enemy; population in some parts was almost destroyed, and it was everywhere extensively displaced. The conservatism, the settled rooting of the people in the soil, acquired and inherited property, moral and material fixity, were all alike disturbed.

The half-century that followed 1648 did but little to restore prosperity or repose to Germany. The western provinces especially were the scene of frequently renewed warfare. The territorial ambitions of Louis XIV were directed to the German lands which lay on the eastern border of France, and there was no strength in the empire to resist his aggressions or to make him fear either defeat or reprisals. Even the European coalitions which forced upon him successive treaties did not prevent renewed attacks or heal the scars of the repeated devastations of the lower and the upper Rhine country. The culmination of this period of suffering was the terrible ravaging of the Palatinate, in 1688, when the fertile region about Heidelberg, Mannheim, Speyer, and Worms was harried and burned and pillaged by the soldiers of Louis, with the same brutality and more destructiveness than the wild Swedish and mercenary armies of the Thirty Years' War had used.

A people with an experience such as that of the Germans in the seventeenth century was thenceforth easily drawn away from home. One generation of continuous warfare throughout all Germany, followed by another generation of intermittent invasion from France, and closed by a crisis of rapine and devastation, made hundreds of thousands of the German people homeless, despairing, and eager for escape. It was this situation of the people, combined with the religious condition before described, that made Germany the best recruiting-ground for American colonists to be found in Europe. Before the close of the seventeenth century a stream of emigration set from Germany towards America which furnished to Pennsylvania one-third of her pre-Revolutionary inhabitants, and made a considerable part of the population of several of the other colonies.

A second effect of the Thirty Years' War was the practical dissolution of the empire and the loss by the emperor of all centralized control over its policy. This was a cumulative result of the war rather than a definite provision of the peace. The princes, nobles, and cities had so frequently allied themselves with foreign states against the emperor and against one another, their policy had been so constantly regulated by their own interests alone, in entire disregard of those of the nation at large, and the religious divisions had been settled on such a sectional basis, that there was now no thought of derogating from their independence for the sake of the central power of Germany. By Article VIII of the treaty of peace all German states were definitely permitted to form independent alliances among themselves and with foreign states, so long as these were not directed against either the emperor or the empire. As a matter of fact, the bond of union among the states of Germany had become so weak as to be almost non-existent. The emperor was the actual ruler of the Hapsburg dominions and the nominal head of the empire; but Germany was a geographical rather than a national expression, and its head could play no part as a national ruler outside of his immediate hereditary dominions.

Germany had many interests in America. Martin Behaim, Regiomontanus, and other German scientists contributed largely to the development of the science of navigation during the period of discovery; Waldseemuller suggested the name that has been universally accepted for the New World; the numerous printing-presses of Germany did much to make known to Europe the history of the exploration and early conquests and the wonders of the Indies; under Charles V the empire was brought closely into connection with Spain, the greatest colonizing power of the seventeenth century; her Fuggers, Welsers, and other capitalists provided much of the means for the early Spanish voyages, and for a time held extensive grants in Venezuela under the Spanish crown; and her teeming emigrants furnished a large part of the colonial population. Yet Germany as a nation has, of all the nations of Europe, exercised the least influence on the fortunes of America. Neither the emperor nor any German prince has ever exercised any direct or indirect power over any American territory. Many causes may have contributed to this failure, but the most effective was doubtless the Thirty Years' War. The religious disunion, the material impoverishment, and the political insignificance which this war caused, during the most important colonizing century, excluded Germany as a nation from a role among the European powers which have held control over parts of the New World.