Thirty Years War (1618-1648)







 Czech Republic (Bohemia)



 Great Powers:

  • Holy Roman Empire
  • France
  • Spain
  • Papacy
  • Sweden


  • Germany (totally destroyed)
  • Spain

 Ottoman territories:

  • Empire still expanding into Europe,


  • France






This war was extremely complicated. The student cannot begin to understand it without reading one of the full length books about it.

The Great Powers of Europe in the early 17th century were the Holy Roman Empire (Habsburg Lands), France, Spain and the Papacy. (Note that England was still an unimportant fringe state, not yet extended outside its own territory and scarcely influential on the mainland of Europe. Despite this, the marriage of Elizabeth the daughter of James the first to Frederick the Duke of the Palatinate was an important preliminary to the war - see Frances Yates.) Surprisingly to present day eyes, Sweden was to play an important role in the coming dispute. But the popes' role in the war was ambiguous as they switched allegiance from the emperor to France and back again.

The Intellectual dispute was between the new Protestant religions and the older Catholic religion, headed by the Pope. But the differences were far more about political power than belief.

People involved

  • Frederick the Elector Palatine
  • The Emperor Ferdinand
  • The Popes
  • The King of Sweden
  • The King of France (Louis XIV)
  • King of Spain

Places involved

  • Bohemia (Czech Republic)
  • Germany


  • Reformation
  • Counter-Reformation

Was the war really about religion? Or was it a "normal" war of national (dynastic) ambition? We should note that although France was theoretically Catholic (especially after the St Bartholomew's Day massacre of French Protestants) its government (Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin) supported anti-Imperial forces for the purpose of opposing Spain and the Holy Roman emperor.

The political power of Spain was based on the silver from Bolivia but its population was declining and its economy had stagnated since religious fervor had prompted the kings to expel the Muslims and Jews. The silver from the Americas was used to pay the kings' debts and to recruit soldiers but not at all for investment in anything useful. Despite this decline the other powers still feared Spain, and the ambitions of its kings to regain control of the United Provinces of the Netherlands.

Spain had come under the control of the Habsburgs. However, the chief Habsburg ruler was the Emperor, based in Prague or Vienna. The territories of which he was the ruler were never united as single state. Each territory had its own governing arrangements. Thus it was not possible for Spain, Portugal, the central European states, northern Italy and the Habsburg Netherlands (now Belgium) to act together.

Useful Reading

C.V.Wedgwood - The Thirty Years War

The Thirty Years War (New York Review Books Classics)

Der Dreißigjährige Krieg

Amazon francais
Frances Yates - The Rosicrucian Enlightenment
A respectable academic historian looks at what people believed in the 16th century

This book includes the reasons why many people thought the marriage of King James the first's daughter Elizabeth would aid the Protestant cause in Bohemia.
Peter H Wilson - The Thirty Years War

Europe's Tragedy: A New History of the Thirty Years War

Europe's Tragedy

The Thirty Years War began in Bohemia

The Reformation against the Roman church began in Germany with the career of Martin Luther (1483-1546), a theologian in Germany. The Reformation was provoked partly by the pressure of the Papacy to collect money for building the Basilica of St Peters. Luther opposed the method by which Rome was attempting to gain money, by selling Indulgences - certificates which purported to ease the purchasers' time in "Purgatory". (This was a doctrine of the church that claimed that after death a soul that was not perfect - almost everyone except genuine saints - would have to spend time suffering for any sins committed before being ready for "heaven".) Luther objected that spending money could not affect this "spiritual" condition. He may even have doubted that Purgatory existed (nowadays, so does the Pope) and like many Germans saw the certificates as fraudulent - just an excuse to extract money. As they became aware of the sort of people who were going to spend that money (the very corrupt church officials) they became reluctant to send it. In the 16th century, as now, Germany was seen as a good source of money for Italy. (see the current 2011 disputes going on on in the European Union)

Luther had drawn up a list of his objections to current church practices, the 95 Theses, and published them academically using the New Technology of Printing (not by nailing them to a church door in Wittenburg which did not happen in reality). He denied that the Pope was authoritative, and indeed argued that there was no mention of the Papacy in any part of the Bible. Luther advocated that priests should be allowed to marry, and did so himself, to a former nun.

Soon a number of states in Germany had ceased to send money to Rome and their churches no longer saw the need to obey the Pope.

The Holy Roman Emperor was, in theory, the ruler of the whole area of modern Germany and several other countries. He disagreed with the break-up of the Church and tried to enforce his disagreement with arms. The perennial problem of Germany was that as time passed the emperor had less and less control over the subordinate rulers. Germany had not developed a strong central government of the type found in France or England. The Reformation proved how little influence he had over what went on. Those states of which he was the personal ruler would obey him; the others mostly would not. (This is how the Habsburg Empire came into being - it was the countries owned personally by the Habsburg family).

In the non-Habsburg states the ruler decided what sort of religion would be followed. (This was the political formula eius regio; eius religio.) Some rulers chose to be Catholic and obey the Pope; others followed Luther. In these states the effective controller of the Church was the ruler (as in England after Henry the eighth). It was this control that made Lutheranism popular among rulers. For the most part ordinary people had to do what their ruler ordered.

This is why many people thought it would be a good idea if the Emperor was a Protestant. In theory the position of emperor was elective. The Protestant claimant to the position was Frederick the Elector Palatine. He was the ruler of a state in the Rheinland. The trigger for the war was his attempt to become ruler of Bohemia, instead of a Habsburg. The ruler of Bohemia was one of the 7 Electors. Usually the ruler was a Habsburg, but that position was also elective and so it was thought possible that the religious allegiance could be changed. Three of the other Electors (Brandenburg, Saxony and Rheinland-Pfalz were already Protestant.)

There was also an extremist protestant sect that followed the radical doctrines of John Calvin, a Swiss professor (born in Britanny). In modern times we might compare these with the Wahhabists of Saudi Arabia, whose doctrine contradicts most of traditional religion. Their doctrines became official in Scotland, the Netherlands and some other states. They were as opposed to Lutheranism (and Anglicanism) as they were to the Popes. Their role in the war was to complicate the situation by preventing a unified Protestant organisation. Their doctrines tended towards Republicanism, although some rulers such as the Elector of Brandenburg also adopted them. It was Calvinists in Scotland who repudiated Mary, Queen of Scots and later resisted the attempts by Charles the first to impose Anglicanism (bishops) on them.

The historian does not need to judge which if any of these religious parties was "right" but should describe the political and cultural effects of these events. The breaking apart of the single church of medieval Europe had a similar cultural effect to the ending of Communism in the 1980s. The ending of totalitarian control of thought opened up the possibility of different modes of thought. By the 17th century, in some states, such as England, it became possible for science to be thought of, without the danger of being denounced by the Pope (see the experience of Galileo Galilei). From 1660 the formation of the Royal Society in England made science respectable, under royal patronage. Because different states had different religions it became possible for a scholar to move to a more congenial society if he was in danger in his own. (Scholarly discourse was still in Latin so he could work anywhere).

The Adventures of Simplicius Simplicissimus - Grimmelshausen

The Adventures of Simplicius Simplicissimus (Studies in German Literature Linguistics and Culture)

Simplicius Simplicissimus
A vivid story of the horrors of the war as it affected ordinary people, written by a man who experienced them himself.
John Julius Norwich - History of the Popes

The Popes: A History


  • 1. The attempt of Frederick to gain control of the kingdom of Bohemia, to become the Elector there for when the Emperor died.
  • 2.

At the end of the war France became "top nation" in Europe:

The treaty of Westfalia (1648)

  • Ended the power of the Holy Roman Emperor over most of Germany
  • Made sovereign hundreds of states in Germany, most of them tiny
  • Prevented the expansion of either Catholicism or Protestantism
  • French became the diplomatic language
  • Spain entered a decline
  • France acquired influence in Germany
  • Europe, and especially the Habsburg empire, was weakened and vulnerable to an expansion of the Ottoman empire whose forces tried to conquer Poland and reached as far west as Vienna (Wien) in 1683.
  • Germany had been devastated and depopulated

The last tiny state (Kleinstaat) is Liechtenstein.

Did this Treaty begin the conditions for later wars, especially the First World War? France's domination created resentment in Germany.

This war was as devastating for mainland Europe, and especially Germany, as the first world war was later, and lasted much longer. Although the population involved was much smaller than in the 20th century, the proportion killed in the battle fields, civilians as much as soldiers, was perhaps even worse. The memory of the ferocity of battle affected even the Founders of the United States 150 years later in their resolve not to allow their new government to meddle in religion. The exhaustion at the time of the peace of 1648 caused the ruling classes of Europe to resolve, at least privately, not to take religion seriously ever again.

Last revised 26/12/11


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