Peace of Westphalia Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Peace of Westphalia brought an end to the Thirty Years’ War and guaranteed the rights of Catholics and Protestants within the constitution of the Holy Roman Empire.

Summary of Event

The Peace of Westphalia, which terminated the Thirty Years’ War Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648);end of , was drawn up at the first modern peace congress of European powers. Two major agreements, one drafted at Osnabrück between the Holy Roman Empire and Sweden, and the other at Münster between the empire and France, were both concluded, after protracted negotiations, on October 24, 1648. The very length and scope of the Westphalian peace conference reflected the complex nature of the many problems emanating from the long war, which had begun in 1618 with the Defenestration of Prague Defenestration of Prague (1618) . [kw]Peace of Westphalia (July, 1643-Oct. 24, 1648) [kw]Westphalia, Peace of (July, 1643-Oct. 24, 1648) Diplomacy and international relations;July, 1643-Oct. 24, 1648: Peace of Westphalia[1500] Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;July, 1643-Oct. 24, 1648: Peace of Westphalia[1500] Germany;July, 1643-Oct. 24, 1648: Peace of Westphalia[1500] Westphalia, Peace of (1648)

Within a few years, this initially isolated incident in Prague expanded into a general European war. Indeed, the four phases that can be distinguished in the conflict emphasize its international scope: the Bohemian-Palatinate period, 1618-1625; the Danish period, 1625-1629; the Swedish period, 1630-1635; and the Swedish-French period, 1635-1648. The major battleground was the Holy Roman Empire. During the first two periods of the war, the Catholic forces under Emperor Ferdinand II completely overwhelmed the Protestant opposition. The revolt in Bohemia was suppressed and the Rhenish Palatinate was conquered, as was Denmark, which had entered the conflict on behalf of the Protestant cause. The year 1629 found the Catholic cause everywhere triumphant; only the Netherlands, engaged since 1621 in a continuation of the Wars of Independence with Habsburg Spain, managed to hold its own.

Although religious issues played an important role throughout the conflict, they became increasingly subordinated to political interests during the last two periods of the war, when the Swedes and the French cooperated in an attempt to break the power of the Austrian and Spanish Habsburgs Habsburgs . The entry of Sweden into the war in 1630, led by King Gustavus II Adolphus Gustavus II Adolphus and subsidized by Cardinal de Richelieu, Richelieu, Cardinal de chief minister of France, brought initial success over the imperial forces. Gustavus II Adolphus had entered the war reluctantly, hesitant to become involved in the sectarian cauldron of German politics. Nevertheless, he did so because he believed the success of imperial forces in the early stages of the war threatened the balance of the constitution of the Holy Roman Empire and the protection it offered to both Catholics and Protestants.

Once the Swedes had been deprived of the brilliant generalship of Gustavus II Adolphus through his death in battle in 1632, however, the imperial armies experienced a partial recovery, and a stalemate ensued. This situation was not substantially altered by the direct participation of France in the war after 1635 against the empire and Spain or the continued strength of the Swedish armies, led after the king’s death by the generals Johan Banér Banér, Johan and Lennart Torstenson Torstenson, Lennart . Hence, on December 25, 1641, the new emperor, Ferdinand III Ferdinand III (Holy Roman Emperor) , agreed to begin peace negotiations the following year with Sweden and France in the Westphalian cities of Osnabrück and Münster, respectively.

Because fighting continued, diplomatic and military events delayed the formal opening of the peace conference at Osnabrück until July, 1643, and that at Münster until April, 1644. For all practical purposes, however, the congress, plagued by incredible problems of protocol and lack of a definite agenda, did not settle down to serious work until the end of 1645, when Count Maximilian von Trauttmansdorff Trauttmansdorff, Maximilian von arrived. Trauttmansdorff, chief ambassador of the emperor, was the leading personality of the peace conference. From the outset he demonstrated singular ability to establish good relations with his Swedish and French counterparts, Axel Oxenstierna Oxenstierna, Axel and the duc de Longueville Longueville, duc de . Once such an atmosphere had been created, the major powers, together with Spain and the Netherlands, found it somewhat easier to resolve the many complicated issues that divided them. Even so, it took the imperial negotiators almost three years to hammer out peace treaties with the Swedes, who were joined at Osnabrück by Protestant representatives from the empire, and the French.

Because of their close interrelationship, the major provisions of the Treaties of Münster and Osnabrück, Münster and Osnabrück, Treaties of (1648) both signed on October 24, 1648, as well as a separate agreement signed earlier between Spain and the Netherlands, may be considered as parts of a single settlement, known as the Peace of Westphalia. The stipulations of the settlement can be divided into matters touching the religious affairs of the Holy Roman Empire and those relating to the political affairs of the several European powers concerned. The religious side of the Peace of Westphalia was designed to reconcile Protestant and Catholic elements in the empire; Calvinism received equal, legal status with Catholicism and Lutheranism.

This purely religious equality had its political counterpart in that the Catholic and Protestant states of the empire were now considered to have equal status in imperial affairs. The victory of equality, however, was limited as to the free exercise of religion by individuals. The princes in several states still had the unqualified right to determine the religion of their territories, a principle rigorously enforced in Austria long after 1648. This principle, known as cuius regio, eius religio and roughly translated as “The religion of the ruler determines the religion of the ruled,” did not solve the problem of individual civil rights, but it made sure that there would always be places where persecuted Catholics or Protestants could find toleration. Finally, ecclesiastical territories were to remain in the possession of the upholders of whichever religion held them on January 1, 1624.





As to the major political provisions of the treaties, Sweden Sweden obtained a foothold on the southern Baltic coast through the acquisition of lands in the Holy Roman Empire: Western Pomerania and the secularized bishoprics of Bremen and Verden. Sweden thus reached its apogee as a world power. This development was of more than local significance, for the existence of the Protestant world power of Sweden guaranteed the long-term survival of Protestantism. Protestantism Protestantism;Thirty Years’ War and was no longer in danger of being a mere hundred-year heresy; it was a permanent part of the European cultural landscape. Although Sweden declined as a power for internal reasons shortly thereafter, its place as a Protestant world power was taken by Great Britain in the 1700’. France, likewise, secured holdings within the empire: Metz, Toul, and Verdun, all of which had actually been under French control since 1522, and Alsace. Brandenburg-Prussia received Eastern Pomerania and several secularized bishoprics. Other stipulations of the settlement recognized the complete independence of the Spanish Netherlands Netherlands;independence of and of Switzerland of the empire, and the virtual independence and sovereignty of each of the German states of the Holy Roman Empire.


The Peace of Westphalia of 1648 was a landmark in European history. On the religious side, the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation had ended. Religion no longer played a critical role in the issues that divided European states. Politically, Sweden emerged as a great power in northern Europe for at least the following sixty years. Likewise, the position of Brandenburg-Prussia was greatly strengthened. The Holy Roman Empire, however, became more loosely organized than before. Modern historians tend to criticize the near-anarchy of hundreds of basically self-ruling principalities that were unleashed within the empire; eighteenth century thinkers such as Voltaire and Edward Gibbon, though, praised the pluralism of the revised imperial constitution.

Spain’s decline, obvious by 1648, was all the more evident when peace was finally made with France in 1659. France under Louis XIV emerged in the second half of the seventeenth century as the leading Continental power, eager to challenge anew its old adversaries, the Spanish and the Austrian Habsburgs.

As historian C. V. Wedgwood has commented, “the Peace of Westphalia was like most peace treaties, a rearrangement of the European map ready for the next war.”

Categories: History