The Seventeenth Century
Its first half of the 17th century is marked by the wars of religion between Protestants and Catholics, especially the Thirty Years War, which raged within Germany or, as it was then called, The Holy Roman Empire from 1618 to 1648. More than a religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics, it was also a power struggle within and between kingdoms. France under its new, Bourbon dynasty became the most powerful state in Europe replacing the Habsburgs in both Spain and the Holy Roman Empire (Germany). The Treaty of Westphalia, which ended this long war, marks the beginning of the Modern State System.
The ideal of the Middle Ages had envisioned a universal empire and a universal church. This ideal dated back to memories of the Carolingian Empire and further back to Rome. This ideal was never a reality. The reality of the Middle Ages was based on feudalism and manorialism. Europe was divided politically into many locally governed principalities, free cities, duchies, and feudal kingdoms; but it was united religiously. Western Christendom was a unity under the Holy Roman Catholic Church and the Pope. Under Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, that dream of one Empire and one Church had still been a possibility After the Thirty Years War and the end of the 17th century, that dream had been given up. Religious unity had been shattered by Martin Luther and the other reformers. Political unity had become impossible with the creation of the modern state system based on sovereignty.
By 1648, Europe had divided into a system of sovereign, independent states governed largely by absolute monarchs.
Germany, the Holy Roman Empire, was fractured during the Thirty Years War into more than 300 separate states. The Catholic, Austrian Habsburgs were the big losers during the Thirty Years War. Any hope of centralizing Germany under their rule was lost. Germany was divided on the basis of religion into Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists. The religion of the ruler determined the religion of the people. Catholic Austria and Lutheran Prussia emerged as the two most important states within the loose Confederation called the Holy Roman Empire.
England experienced the rise and fall of militant Calvinistic Puritanism. Despite internal conflict, it kept building up its naval power and started on the road toward overseas empire. It gradually replaced Spain and the Netherlands as the greatest sea power. The Glorious Revolution of 1689 set England on the path of limited, constitutional, and, ultimately, democratic government. It became the most liberal country in Europe and the model for Enlightenment thinkers on the Continent to imitate in the eighteenth century.
The second half of the century was dominated by Louis XIV of France. The Sun Kings effort to dominate Europe failed but he succeeded in crushing the Protestant Huguenots and consolidated absolutism in France.
But, perhaps most importantly, the seventeenth century marked the beginning of an intellectual revolution. It marked the birth of modern ideas about nature, man, and government. What went by the name of the Scientific Revolution was really a paradigm shift in all areas of knowledge, including religion.
Constitutionalism and Limited Monarchy in England
Developments in England
Formation of Absolute Monarchies
Developments in France
Updated April 29, 2003