European Wars of Religion Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In the sixteenth century, Europe experienced a period of civil strife, rebellions, and conflicts that came to be called the European Wars of Religion.

Political Considerations

In the sixteenth century, Europe experienced a period of civil strife, rebellions, and conflicts that came to be called the European Wars of Religion. The ProtestantsProtestant Reformation fueled strife between the Catholic and Protestant churches and led to changes in weapons and war across the subcontinent. Christendom divided into camps willing to fight and die for their versions of the religion. Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, Eastern Orthodox, and members of other sects became polarized around the reformist ideas of Erasmus, DesideriusErasmus, DesideriusDesiderius Erasmus (1466[?]-1536) and Luther, MartinLuther, MartinMartin Luther (1483-1546). Luther’s 1517 publication of his Ninety-five Theses (Luther)Ninety-five Theses ignited the Wars of Religion. Peasant revolts along with the separation of nobility and clergy from the papacy followed. French, German, and east European territories fell into a century of civil turmoil. European political powers became embroiled in the debate even as the Renaissance, absolutism, mercantilism, and the scientific revolution changed Europe from within.Wars of Religion (c. 1517-1618)European Wars of ReligionReformationRoman Catholic ChurchWars of Religion (c. 1517-1618)Religion, European Wars of (c. 1517-1618)European Wars of ReligionReformationRoman Catholic Church

Challenges outside Europe also fueled change. The Islamic Ottoman EmpireOttoman Turks under Süleyman the MagnificentSüleyman the Magnificent (Ottoman sultan)[Suleyman the Magnificent]Süleyman the Magnificent (1494/1495-1566) captured the medieval city of Constantinople, Siege of (1453)[Constantinople, Siege of 1453]Constantinople in 1453, opening Europe to invasion by powerful Turkish sultans who challenged the emerging Habsburg line and Holy Roman EmpireHoly Roman Empire. The Eastern Orthodox Church of Constantinople was exiled to Russia as the Russian state grew across Eurasia under Ivan IVIvan IV (the Terrible)[Ivan 04]Ivan IV “the Terrible” (1530-1584). Early modern states struggled to emerge through political and economic consolidation amid these external pressures. Simultaneously, seafaring advances helped extend European political power across the seven seas, providing an outlet for and from the religious wars. The conquest of the Americas and the opening of trade routes into the Indian, Atlantic, and Pacific oceans led to global changes known as the Columbian ExchangeColumbian Exchange, which saw both Protestant and Catholic European states emerge as international powers even as the chaotic Wars of Religion racked Europe.

Military Achievement

European states from 1517 to 1618 achieved military successes abroad but only mixed results within Europe, owing to civil conflict and the Gunpowdergunpowder revolution, which created equilibrium among larger states. Warfare was revolutionized, from naval and land battles to fortifications and logistics. Several of the great debates in history center on if and when Europe experienced a Military Revolution (Parker)“Military Revolution” and what relationship any such revolution had to “the rise of the West” in global affairs.

The formation of the Catholic Spanish Habsburg EmpireHabsburg Empire (1518-1648) under Charles VCharles V (Holy Roman Emperor)Charles V (1500-1558) and the rise of a number of Protestant states–including England, Sweden, and the Dutch Estates General–spread civil revolts into state conflicts. Northwestern Europe moved toward Protestantism, while Mediterranean and central Europe remained in league with the Roman Catholic Papacy;Reformation periodPapacy. Eastern Europe, especially Russia, emerged as the new home of Eastern Orthodox ChurchEastern Orthodox Christianity. Europe became a mosaic of territories where identity was based on a blend of religious beliefs, ethnicity, and political state.

The Spain;HabsburgsSpanish Habsburg Empire became the most powerful in Europe as Charles V developed the first global empire with holdings on all the major continents, taking the title of Holy Roman Emperor in alliance with Catholic Europe. Charles used military and political means to control much of Europe, the Americas, and parts of coastal Africa and Asia. Spanish Conquest (Americas)Conquests of the Aztec (1521) and Inca empires (1535) helped fund the Military Revolution (Parker)Military Revolution of Gunpowder revolutiongunpowder in Colonialism;EuropeanEurope and European expansion by sea across the globe. An uneasy competition and eventual alliance (1580) with neighboring state Portugal meant the empire controlled both the best land military units in Europe (Spanish tercios) and the best seafarers (Portuguese mariners). However, the Spanish Habsburg Empire was obligated to suppress the Protestant Reformation, defend against the Turkish expansion, and expand globally to fund the gunpowder revolution. Bankruptcy resulted four times from 1518 to 1644. The Turkish threat, armadas against Protestant England, religious wars with Netherlands and German rebels, and conflicts in the Indian and Pacific oceans ensured the high cost of empire.

The Ottoman Turks besieged the old Habsburg capital of Vienna in 1529 and formed an alliance with France’s King Francis against the Habsburgs in the 1530’s and 1540’s.

(Peeter Snayers/The Bridgeman Art Library/Getty Images)

The Ottoman EmpireOttoman Turks conquered much of southeast Europe, even besieging the old Habsburg capital of Vienna, Siege of (1529)Vienna in 1529 and forming an alliance with Francis IFrancis I (king of France)[Francis 01]Francis I of France against the Habsburgs in the 1530’s and 1540’s. Turkish victories on land at Mohács, Battle of (1526)Mohács (1526) and at sea at Preveza, Battle of (1538)Preveza (1538) were eventually reversed as the reigns of Süleyman the Magnificent and Charles V ended. Habsburg victories included breaking the Malta, Siege of (1565)Siege of Malta in 1565 and destroying the Ottoman navy at Lepanto, Battle of (1571)Lepanto in 1571. By 1618, the role of the Turks in Europe was on the decline because of Habsburg military successes. However, the high cost of global empire left the Habsburgs vulnerable to other European states, such as England, France, and the Netherlands, which took over global sea trade from Spain and Portugal in the seventeenth century. In addition to military changes and religious strife, mercenaries on land and pirate privateers at sea were a large part of the chaotic sixteenth century.

Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

The sixteenth century saw Gunpowder revolutiongunpowder transform weapons and warfare in Europe. Originally from Asia, gunpowder weapons were combined with European metallurgical skills, especially bell making, to create two kinds of weapons that changed warfare and thus global power. CannonsThese were bronze and iron cannon (siege, ship, and field artillery cannon) and Firearmsfirearms Harquebuses(harquebus, Musketsmusket, and Pistolspistol). The changes to land warfare were greatest in two areas: sieges and battles. Siege warfareSiege Artilleryartillery and Minesmines destroyed the medieval castle walls and led to complex star-shaped Fortifications;Renaissancefortifications of earth, timber, and stone. Sieges became protracted affairs requiring enormous resources on both sides. On the battlefield, firearms led to Infantry;professionalprofessional soldier units of volley-fire infantry. Medieval land warfare had been dominated by tall stone castles, armored knights, and cavalry, spear, pike, and sword on land. In the sixteenth century these were supplanted by complex earth fortifications, pike and shot infantry, harquebuses, muskets (after 1550), pistols, giant siege cannon, and field artillery with wheeled carriages.

Uniforms Uniforms;Renaissancemoved away from armored protection made obsolete by guns toward regularized clothing units to identify specialized groups of professional soldiers.MatchlocksMatchlocks and Wheel lockswheel locks developed as firing mechanisms for firearms. Metal projectiles replaced stone, and weapons moved from breech-loaded to muzzle-loaded. Siege artillery, such as the Mons megmons meg (1449), Turkish Bombardsbombards (1450), and the Tsar pushkatsar pushka, or Czar cannonczar cannon (1586), weighed from fifteen to forty tons and fired five-hundred-pound metal or fifteen-hundred-pound stone shot over several miles.

Catholic and Protestant Territories, 1590-1598

TheNaval warfare;RenaissanceShips and shipbuilding;Renaissanceships involved in naval warfare changed from lightweight, clinker-built (with overlapping sideboards), rowed, ram-and-board galleys with few guns toCarvelsheavy-timber (often oak) sailing ships, carvel-built (with flush sideboards for strength), bristling with gunpowder weapons, side gun ports, and complex rigging. Under Henry VIIIHenry VIII (king of England)[Henry 08]Henry VIII (1491-1547), English warships such as the enormous Mary Rose and Great Henry were built with skeletons of keel and ribs and could hold up to two hundred gunpowder weapons and 400 crew. The Man-of-war ships[Man of war ships] man-of-war, the first purpose-built warship for fleet duty, by 1540 carried 200 sailors, 185 soldiers, 30 gunners, powder boys, several pilots and cartographers, and a captain. Cannons Cannon included fifty-pound cannon, thirty-two-pound demicannon, long-range culverin of small poundage, and many antipersonnel hand cannon, such as demiculverins, sakers, falcons, and robinets. The gun carriage, consisting of wooden side brackets, trunnions, and transoms, held the gun through recoil. By 1550 the English had sixteen naval cannon sizes, the Spanish twelve, and the French six. Shot could be canister, grape, chain, double, exploding, or even heated, depending on the situation. Powder was refined from the ground powder of land siege cannon to a Corned powder “corned” variety of coarse grain that allowed for uniform firing across a broadside volley.

Military Organization

In sixteenth century Europe, the Wars of Religion and the emergence of gunpowder weapons disrupted state development and the ability of rulers to field large-scale, well-organized military units. Funding and loyalty were the two main variables to be overcome, thus Mercenaries;Renaissancemercenaries hired by private contractors on behalf of states formed the bulk of all military systems during war. Armies rarely exceeded thirty thousand, and naval forces usually consisted of small flotillas, with exceptions at Lepanto, Battle of (1571)Lepanto in 1571 and the Spanich Armada (1588)Armada of 1588. Ethnic groups became associated with particular weapons and military units, such as English (Welsh) longbowmen, Swish and German pikemen, Spanish sword and bucklers or harquebusiers, and French heavy cavalry and musketeers. Sir Drake, FrancisDrake, FrancisFrancis Drake (c. 1540-1596) was perhaps the best-known maritime mercenary, hired as a Privateersprivateer by Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), or, as King Philip II of Spain (1527-1598) labeled him, a Piratespirate.

An engraving of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572, in which Huguenot leaders and thousands of other Protestants were killed by French Catholic nobles in Paris.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

Maurice Maurice of NassauMaurice of Nassauof Nassau (1567-1625), as well as his brother and cousin, moved the Netherlands;mercenariesDutch forces toward permanent mercenary units by providing year-round training and state pensions as part of the Dutch Protestant revolt against the Spanish Empire. However, it was the advent of the Printing press;Military Revolutionprinting press that led to the popularization of such ideas as manuals on military changes, from the infantry training system to projectile ballistics, spread throughout Europe. Scientific specialists such as artillery and siege Engineers;Italianengineers like Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), aristocrats turned officers and leaders such as Maurice’s cousin John, and merchants turned sea commanders such as Ferdinand Magellan (c. 1480-1521) organized their troops and sailors around ethnic and religious companies and brigades that varied greatly in size and loyalty, owing primarily to the disruptions of the Wars of Religion.

Unit clothing and constant fighting did identify professional mercenary groups, but irregular state funding and loyalty issues often resulted in confusing conflicts and fluctuating levels of military organization. The main exceptions were the Spanish square Tercio (Spanish regiment)tercio, or regiment of 3,000 regionally recruited men, and the Dutch linear battalion of 550 musketeers. On warships,Powder boyspowder boys of ten to fourteen years old became crucial, but their numbers varied largely depending on recruitment tactics, some of which resulted in near slavery for these boys. Pilots and ship’s captains were often chosen for their expertise on particular regions or types of expeditions, but it was not uncommon to find Portuguese pilots on a Dutch ship captained by an Englishman with sailors recruited from around the globe, especially if it was a pirate ship.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

Niccolò Machiavelli, NiccolòMachiavelli, NiccolòMachiavelli, in his influential Prince, The (Machiavelli) work Il principe (1532; The Prince, 1640), argues that the first work of rulers is war and that “there is no wall, whatever its thickness that artillery will not destroy.” Employing theGunpowder revolutiongunpowder revolution in military systems thus became a major doctrine informing the strategy and tactics of religious, state, and dynastic powers. Firearms;religious doctrine Religious doctrine could affect the use of guns (sometimes labeled the devil’s weapon). Dynastic rivals among Habsburgs, Tudors, Valois, Osmans, and Bourbons often struggled to fund the Military Revolution (Parker) Military Revolution while building states, so the economic doctrine of creating wealth became key. Turkish, Russian, and Spanish Habsburg gains on land and Portuguese, Dutch, and English gains at sea often came as internal turmoil racked rival states in France, Hungary, the Italian peninsula, or Poland, thus indicating that opportunism was perhaps the most successful doctrine.

Strategy and tactics were transformed in the sixteenth century by the emergence of gunpowder weapons and large sailing ships. Strategy;RenaissanceStrategy became dominated by expensive siege warfare on land and control of lucrative global sea trade. Armies lived off the land and the work of peasants, who were often unpaid, leading to revolt, mutiny, and worse. Tactics;RenaissanceTactically, pike and shot dominated, and Musketeersmusketeers (after 1550) became as common as pikemen in the seventeenth century. Training manuals and drill made it easy, inexpensive, and fast to train peasants into sailors, pikemen, or volley-fire Infantry;Renaissanceinfantry. Expensive Cavalry;Renaissancecavalry adopted the tactic of Caracol tacticcaracol, or riding forward and firing pistols en masse before wheeling in reverse, but this was ineffective and their numbers declined. Steady rates of infantry volley fire were achieved by the Dutch using the “countermarch” system of six to twelve lines of infantry. After the soldiers in the first line fired, they would retreat to the rear to go through the complex reloading process.

At sea, the expense of naval seafaring again was key. The Portuguese alone had a variety of ships, including naus, caravels, gales, and bergantim. All served as both merchant ships and warships. Only the English Man-of-war ships[Man of war ships] man-of-war was utilized mainly for war fleet activity. The Portuguese Caravels caravel, English man-of-war, and Spanish Galleons galleon led to these nations’ domination of naval battles abroad but to stalemates at home. The Habsburg Holy League owed its victory over the Turkish Empire at the naval Lepanto, Battle of (1571) Battle of Lepanto in 1571 (in which more than 100,000 men were involved) mainly to gunpowder weapons, while the defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588) Spanish Armada of 1588 owed more to storms than to gunpowder. Europe thus remained deadlocked into the seventeenth century at home but was expanding successfully abroad.

Contemporary Sources

The popularization of the European Printing press;military worksprinting press in the sixteenth century meant that works on militarism and religion became widely influential in Europe. Christians became polarized around the ideas of moderate reformer Erasmus, DesideriusErasmus, DesideriusDesiderius Erasmus, whose works accounted for 20 percent of all print sales by 1530. Erasmus was in communication with most European scholars of the period, and his five editions of critical analysis and discussion of language translation issues concerning the Bible;Erasmus onBible were most influential. The third and fourth editions of his Testamentum (1527; The Essential Erasmus, 1964) relied on Hebrew, Greek, Latin Vulgate, and his own Latin texts in parallel columns. Erasmus also produced works on the role of princes and Christian soldiers of the time. Martin Luther, with his publication of the Ninety-five Theses (Luther) Ninety-five Theses (originally known as the “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”) in 1517, spurred on the Reformation in local languages. In the influential work Prince, The (Machiavelli) The Prince, Machiavelli discusses leadership strategy in the early modern world, and he also produced works on war. Jacob de Gheyn IIJacob de Gheyn II[Jacob de Gheyn 02] Jacob de Gheyn II’s book of engraved prints Exercise of Armes, The (Jacob de Ghyen II) The Exercise of Armes (1607) was a military drill book that could be used to train peasants in volley firearm tactics regardless of their language.Wars of Religion (c. 1517-1618)Religion, European Wars of (c. 1517-1618)European Wars of ReligionReformationRoman Catholic Church

Books and Articles
  • Black, Jeremy. Cambridge Illustrated Atlas of Warfare: Renaissance to Revolution. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  • De Souza, Philip. Seafaring and Civilization. London: Profile Books, 2001.
  • Knecht, Robert. The French Religious Wars, 1562-1598. New York: Osprey, 2002.
  • Konstam, Angus. The Spanish Armada. New York: Osprey, 2009.
  • Lynn, John. Battle: A History of Combat and Culture. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2003.
  • Parker, Geoffrey, ed. Cambridge Illustrated History of Warfare. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  • Rogers, Clifford, ed. The Military Revolution Debate. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1995.
Films and Other Media
  • Battlefield Britain: Spanish Armada. Documentary. DD Home Entertainment, 2005.
  • History’s Mysteries: Drake’s Secret Voyage. Documentary. A&E Home Video, 2006.
  • The Return of Martin Guerre. Feature film. Arrow Films, 1982.

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