16th Century

Home Up French Wars of Religion


Introduction to Western Civilization II
HIS 102 at Union County College


The Middle Ages was a period of about one thousand years from 500 CE to 1500 CE.  It was an Age of Faith.  The Middle Ages held as an ideal that there ought to be one Universal State and one Universal Church.  This ideal derived from the history of the Carolingian Empire of the Franks under Charlemagne and earlier memories of the Roman Empire under Augustus and his successors..  All of Europe was never unified under one state and ruler.  The political reality of the Middle Ages was that of feudalism and manorialism.  Europe was divided into many principalities, duchies, free cities, and small kingdoms.  Feudal monarchs exercised limited power over the warrior aristocracy, the Church, and self-governing towns.  Religiously, the Roman Catholic Church and the Pope provided a symbolic unity for all of Western Christendom.  This unity was shattered by the Protestant Reformers beginning with Martin Luther in 1517.  More than anything else, it was the Reformation that brought the Middle Ages to an end.

We are now living in the Modern Period of History.  The transition from Medieval to Modern was gradual and there was a period of overlap between the two.  The Early Modern Period may be dated from the Black Death of 1348 which date may also be used as the starting point for the Renaissance.  This early modern period lasted until 1648 when the last of the great wars of religion had burned itself out.  By 1648, the modern state system of independent, sovereign states ruled by absolute monarchs had largely replaced the medieval ideal of one state and one church.  Each sovereign state had its own official religion, either Catholic or one of the  various forms of Protestantism.

 Seven developments may be identified which brought about the transformation of the medieval world to our modern age, most of which were discussed during the previous semester.  What follows below is a review to refresh your memories.

Early Modern Period

1. Renaissance.  The Renaissance began in the city-states of Northern Italy after 1348.  The trauma of the Black Death produced in those who survived this natural catastrophe a new appreciation of life.  A man-centered world view began to replace the god-centered view of the Middle Ages.  Humanism replaced scholasticism as the dominant philosophy.  It is in art and literature that the Renaissance makes its greatest impact.  From Italy, Renaissance ideas spread across the Alps to Germany, the Netherlands, France, England, and Spain.  The Reformation brings the Renaissance to an end with its re-emphasis on religion.

2. Voyages of Discovery began when Portuguese sailors explored the coast of Africa.  The conquest of Byzantium of the Ottoman Turks in 1453 and the closing of the eastern Mediterranean Sea to Western Christian shipping, thereby preventing the supply of oriental spices from reaching Europe, led to the search for alternate trade routes.  Portugal and Spain pioneered the Voyages of Discovery.  Christopher Columbus, an Italian from Genoa in the employ of the Spanish monarchs, discovered a new continent accidentally in 1492 while seeking to reach Asia.  The discovery of America greatly enriched the Spanish Kingdom and made Spain the most powerful country in Europe during the sixteenth century.  The Netherlands, France, England, and Sweden follow Portugal and Spain in exploring and colonizing the world beyond Europe.  The Atlantic Ocean replaced the Mediterranean as the new highway for world commerce.  By 1914, almost all of the world had been colonized by a small number of European powers.  The Voyages led to Colonialism and Imperialism and the European domination of the world.

 3. Development of Capitalism and Formation of a Global Economy.  World trade and colonization created a global economy and capitalism.  While the early Voyages of Discovery were financed by kings, private speculators soon financed private sea captains to make them rich.  Joint stock companies were created to limit risk while maximizing profits for the investors.  Plantation agriculture worked by slave labor created the world’s first private millionaires.

4. Reformation.  Martin Luther started the Reformation in October 1517 with his posting of the 95 Thesis against the sale of indulgences by the Catholic Church.  This seemingly insignificant action set off a firestorm that brought the unity of Western Christendom to an end.  Protestants not only opposed Catholic teachings but each others’.  Four main Protestant branches had developed by 1648:  Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans, and Anabaptists.  Religious disagreements led to war within and between countries.  The Wars of Religion were an unfortunate consequence of religious disagreements.  Ultimately Catholic rulers, led by the Hapsburg kings of Spain and Austria, were unable to defeat the Protestant princes.  The Reformation and the Wars of Religion directly contributed to the formation of the European state system and the triumph of absolute monarchy.

5.  Development of the Modern, Sovereign, State:  Absolute Monarchy.  The most bloody event that can ravage a human society, next to a pandemic, is civil war.  During civil wars, brother murders brother, neighbor butchers neighbor.  Authority, government, breaks down.  Society descends into violence, chaos, and anarchy.  Religiously motivated civil wars are even more destructive and bloody because all sides claim that God is on their side and their butcheries are morally justified.

Wars, even religious wars, come to an end eventually.  One side or the other wins; countries split up; some outside power picks up the pieces and restores order; only rarely is a peaceful compromise reached.  The regime that restores order is usually more centralized and powerful than the one that preceded it.  In Europe, the wars of religion had the effect of strengthening the power of the central government.  The weak feudal kings of the Middle Ages became the absolute monarchs of the modern age.  Absolute kings gained control over the church, the nobility, and the independent towns.  An effective central government was created for the first time in Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire.  The modern state was born.  A modern state is run by a central authority that exercises effective control over a substantial territory and its human population.  The state, initially in the person of the king, is sovereign.

 In almost all of the countries of Europe, a single powerful king emerged who enforced a single state-controlled religion over his subjects.  In Catholic countries, the pope allowed the kings to exercise new control over religion as a necessity for keeping them in the Catholic fold.  In Protestant countries, the faithful supported a strong king who defended them against Catholic attacks and preserved their version of Protestantism as the official religion.  Official state religions became the norm during the early modern age.  Only gradually and resentfully was toleration granted to dissenters.

From the point of view of the Catholics, the Protestants were heretics.  There have been many heretical movements during the long history of the Church.  Most heresies were eventually controlled, persecuted, and wiped out.  What makes the Protestant heretics unusual is that they succeeded in establishing themselves as separate Christian churches that were defended and protected by their own governments and armies.  The Reformation lead to a checkerboard of Christian states with distinct religions.  The wars of religion resulted in a Europe divided into separate sovereign states.  It created the modern state system.

6.  Formation of State System.  The modern state system is generally dated from 1648.  The last of the great wars of religion, the Thirty Years was, raged from 1618 to 1648.  It was brought to an end through the Treaty of Westphalia.  The result of the war was that Germany, known then as the Holy Roman Empire, was divided into a loose confederation of some 300 "statelets" with the religion of the local princes determining the religion of their subjects:  Catholic, Lutheran, or Reformed Calvinist.  The Habsburgs, rulers of Austria, one of the main constituents of the Holy Roman Empire, were the big losers.  The Kingdom of France became the greatest Power on the continent and England emerged as the lead naval Power of the world.  Spain lost the dominant position, which it had had during the sixteenth century, to England and France during the seventeenth century.  The Seven United Provinces of the Netherlands had their political independence from Spain confirmed through the Treaty of Westphalia.  The Netherlands were Protestants and had their own Dutch Reformed (Calvinist) Church.  Spain was a militantly Catholic country.  The Spanish kings’ religious intolerance cost them one of their most economically valuable territories and their dominance in Europe. The most important sovereign States that emerged out of the wars of religion are discussed throughout this course.  An outline is given below. 

7. Scientific Revolution.  Nicolaus  Copernicus (19 February 1473 – 24 May 1543), a Polish monk and astronomer,  developed the  heliocentric theory of the solar system which replaced the geocentric theory of the cosmos developed by the Hellenistic astronomer Ptolemy.   Copernicus published On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres in 1543 just before his death,  It is often regarded as the starting point of modern astronomy and the beginning of the  scientific revolution.

The scientific revolution brought to an end the medieval world view and replaced it with our modern understanding of physics, nature, biology, and human beings.  The scientific revolution is ongoing.  It produced the Age of Reason of the 17th, the Age of Enlightenment of the 18th, the Age of Ideology of the 19th, and the Age of Analysis of the 20th centuries.  These developments are a major threat of our course this semester.

The Sixteenth Century

The 16th century was the tumultuous period during which the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation transformed the culture of Europe into our own modern age.  The seven trends listed above were all in play during this century.

 The unfolding of history is a great weaving together of individual lives, broad natural, economic, and social forces, outstanding personalities, and seemingly trivial accidents.

The great personages of the 16th century include:

Martin Luther (10 November 1483 – 18 February 1546)

John Calvin (10 July 1509 – 27 May 1564)

Paul III, Pope (r. 1534-49)

Nicolaus Copernicus (b. 1473 – d. 1543)

Charles V  (24 February 1500 – 21 September 1558)
    Holy Roman Emperor (r. 1519 - 1556) and, as Charles I, King of Spain (r. 1516 - 1556) 

Francis I, King of France (r. 1517 – 1547)

Philip II, King of Spain (r. 1556 – 1598)

Henry VIII, King of England (r. , 1509-1547)

Elizabeth I, Queen of England (r. 1558-1603)

Henry IV, King of France, first Bourbon king (r. (1589-1610)

At the beginning of the century, Christian unity prevailed in Europe.  The Habsburg family ruled most of Europe including Spain, the Netherlands, Austria, the Holy Roman Empire, and parts of Italy.  Only France, under the Valois King Francis I, stood in the way toward total domination of Europe.  The dream of a universal European Empire with one Church was still alive   By the end of the century, Western Christendom had been split apart.  Spain and the Habsburg dynasty were in decline.  The Netherlands had gained de facto independence.  The Spanish crown and the Austrian crown were in the hands of separate branches of the Habsburg family.  France was under a new Bourbon dynasty.  France and England were replacing the Spaniards as the dominant powers on the continent.  The Holy Roman Empire was divided on the basis of religion and on the verge of the Thirty Years War.  The Europe had fundamentally changed.

Below is a list of the major states that developed during the 16th and 17th centuries.  A more detailed introduction to the history of these states is found on the Web pages nested below this one.

States and Dynasties

  Country                        16th                        17th                             18th Century
bullet Spain                             Habsburg                                                   Bourbon
bullet Austria                          Habsburg
bullet France                           Valois     Bourbon
bullet England                        Tudor                    Stuart                    Hanover
bullet Prussia                          Hohenzollern
bullet Russia                                                          Romanov

 Spanish State

Ferdinand of Aragon married Isabella of Castile. Their marriage produced the modern State of Spain. The last Muslim stronghold, Granada, was captured in 1492, the same year that Columbus discovered America. The riches of the Americas went to the crown (king) and helped to finance the wars of Charles V and Philip II. The 16th century was the golden age of Spain.

Spanish absolutism was intolerant of religious diversity (Muslims and Jews), weakened the development of a middle class, and squandered its resources on wars. The defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588) and the loss of the United Provinces of the Netherlands (completed by 1648) mark the end of Spain's greatness.

                | and Isabella, 1479 - 1504

Ferdinand | and Philip I, 1504 - 1506

                | and Charles I, 1506 - 1516

Habsburg Dynasty

Charles I (was also Holy Roman Emperor Charles V), 1516 - 1556
Philip II, 1556 - 1598
Philip III, 1598 - 1621
Philip IV, 1621 - 1665
Charles II, 1665- 1700

The Netherlands

Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands were part of the lands inherited by Charles V and thus part of the Habsburg Empire centered on Spain.

Under Philip II of Spain, civil war erupted and the Netherlands gained independence from Spain.  The Dutch formed the first independent Republic of modern history.

 The Seventeen Provinces were themselves split between Catholic and Calvinist, which resulted in a split between what are today the Netherlands and Belgium.


Catholics versus Dutch Reformed (Calvinists)


Spain versus the Seven United Provinces of the Netherlands


Phillip II, 1556 - 1598, of Spain


Margaret of Parma, Regent of the Netherlands, 1559 - 1567


William the Silent of the House of Orange, b. 1533 - 1568


Duke of Alva, b. 1508 - 1582, seeks to subdue Netherlands from 1567 to 1573 when he resigns.


Water Beggers capture Brill 1572 and begin new conflict.


Pacification of Ghent, 1576, all provinces unite against Spain


Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, subdued southern, Catholic provinces by restoring their old privileges, 1578 - 1592. He could not conquer seven, northern, Protestant provinces.


Union of Utrecht, 1579, of seven, Northern, Protestant provinces-- Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Gelderland, Groningen, Friesland, Overyssel--formed the United Provinces of the Netherland


Hereditary Stadtholder settled on House of Orange


Dutch Declare Independence from Spain 1581


Spanish Armada 1588


Twelve Year Truce 1609


Republic of the United Provinces’ independence recognized in Treaty of Westphalia, 1648


What is today called Germany used to be known as the Holy Roman Empire

 The Holy Roman Empire never became a strong centralized state in the manner of Spain or France.

The position of Holy Roman Emperor was an elective position.  Seven powerful noblemen, called Electors, chose the Emperor.  Usually, the Habsburgs, rulers of Austria, were elected Emperors.

Through wars and marriages, the Habsburgs had also become the Kings of Spain and the most powerful royal family in Europe.

Charles V was the greatest of the Habsburg Kings.  The Protestant Reformation broke out in Saxony, Germany, during his period of rule.  In 1556, Charles V abdicated and split his Empire between his son, Philip II of Spain, and his brother Ferdinand I, Holy Roman Emperor.  This produced two lines of Habsburg rulers, the Spanish Habsburgs and the Austrian Habsburgs.  Both sides of the family continued to cooperate with each other.

The Austrian Habsburgs continued to be the Holy Roman Emperors.

As said before, the Holy Roman Empire was never a centralized, modern state.  It continued to be a Feudal Monarchy with a weak central government (the Austrian Emperor) and many local rulers:  princes, prelates, and merchant free cities.  These princes, like their people, split into Catholic and Protestant camps.


Catholics versus Lutherans and Calvinists


The Empire versus the Regional Princes


Centralization versus Local Autonomy


Habsburgs against everyone else


Rival Leagues


Peace of Augsburg 1555


Thirty Years War 1618 - 1648


Foreign Intervention: Dutch, Danes, Swedes, French


Treaty of Westphalia 1648

As a result of the Thirty Years War, Germany split into a weak Confederation of over 300 semi-independent states under the Emperor.  It continued to be called Holy Roman Empire

Austria, Prussia, Saxony,  Hanover, and Bavaria were important states within the Empire.

Austria and Prussia were Great Powers independent of the Holy Roman Empire.



Catholics versus Huguenots


Civil War 1567 - 1589


Valois, Bourbon, Guise, Montmorency Families


St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, August 24, 1572


Henry of Navarre, leader of the Huguenots, becomes King Henry IV and founds the Bourbon Dynasty in 1589


Edict of Nantes 1598




Louis XIII


Cardinal Richelieu


Cardinal Mazarin


Louis XIV



The Death of Queen Elizabeth I of the House of Tudor, 1603


King versus Parliament


Stuart Dynasty: King James I and King Charles I


Anglicans versus Catholics and Calvinists


Puritan Revolution


Oliver Cromwell and the Commonwealth


Restoration of Stuarts: Charles II and James II


Glorious Revolution: William III and Mary II


Hit Counter

Updated January 30, 2013
September 2, 2009

Copyright Dr. Harold Damerow
Senior Professor of Government and History
Union County College
Cranford, NJ 07016