The Early Baroque

Both sides recognized the new secular forces which were transforming western civilization ... and they harnessed these forces to the service of God. The Calvinist–Catholic struggle was in one sense the last medieval crusade, in another the first modern war between nation–states. Nothing like it has ever been seen before or since.

Richard S. Dunn. The Age of Religious Wars: 1559 – 1689


When the Council of Trent concluded in 1563, it was certain not only that all sides were further apart than ever, but that any sort of reconciliation was probably unattainable. There were national Protestant churches in Denmark, Sweden and England, while Spain and Italy remained Catholic. In other parts of Europe, political particularism fostered religious fragmentation. The Europe, 1648
Europe, 1648
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Protestant movement was splintered among Lutherans, Calvinists, Zwinglians, Anabaptists, Reform, and a dozen other sects, many with their own distinctive regional or national flavour. Catholics hardly presented a united front either. Yet in spite of scores of miniscule differences among Protestants, they and Catholics were united about one thing: papal authority.

Both Spain and France had worked hard for the right to control home church hierarchy without interference from the Bishop of Rome and, notwithstanding their support for one Holy Catholic Church and a determination to stamp out heresy, they were not about to give up that Papal Crown
Papal Crown
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right. In the Holy Roman Empire, fruitless bickering had led to the compromise cuius regio, eius religio (“who rules, his religion”) Peace of Augsburg in 1555; the people of each principality worshipped as did their overlord, who was free to choose between Catholicism and Lutheranism. This thinking was a sea change from the middle ages, when the highest authority on earth was spiritual. Now the monarch held a station above earthly law, appointed directly by God and answerable to Him Luther Rose
Luther Rose
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alone, and he was obligated to protect his subjects. Why? Things were as God wanted them, according to His plan of history. “Whatever is, is right.”

The Jesuits, the major weapon in the Pope’s arsenal, were busy setting up schools to educate the aristocracy’s young and preach support for Rome, and were sending missionaries to every part of the world, old and new. Geneva was a community of Calvinists, who were making headway especially in central Europe. Both sides had spiritual canonical leaders to venerate: St. Ignatius Loyola died in 1556, Jean Calvin in 1564. All sides knew they were right, and were determined to see their version of the next world in this one.

Ferdinand and Isabella had united much of the Iberian peninsula and driven out the Moors or isolated Spanish Habsburg Coat of Arms
Spanish Habsburg Coat of Arms
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them in controlled enclaves. Their grandson, Charles, was Holy Roman Emperor for most of the first half of the sixteenth century. At his death, he split his lands in half, bequeathing the east — Aragon, Castile, southern Italy and Milan, parts of northern Africa, the Low Countries and Franche–Comté — to his son, Phillip II.

Spain was economically still very much backward and unbalanced, but Phillip II’s mercantilist Phillip II
Phillip II
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policies provided a reliable flow of wealth from the new world. He was religious and austere, running his vast empire from a rigid central beauracracy, while retiring to his palace–cum–monastery, the Escorial, north of Madrid. His own aristocracy he left alone in exchange for their willingness not to challenge his authority. He was especially anxious to stamp out the heresy all around him: the Calvinists in the Low Countries, the Huguenots in France, the heretic English queen. During Phillip’s reign in the latter half of the century, Spain persecuted its conversos — forcibly converted Moslems and Jews — within its borders, and plagued the protestants outside of them.

France too tended toward more political unity under the rule of Francis I between 1515 and 1547. Under his inept sons and the Henri IV and Family
Henri IV and Family
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meddling queen mother Catherine de’ Medici, however, it degenerated into civil war, with strife among aristocratic factions — Guise, Bourbon, Montmorency — and unrest among apathetic Catholics and determined Calvinists. The Huguenots, as French Calvinists were called, gained strength in the ranks of the middle class and some of the aristocracy, as resolved as many Catholics to hinder the Coat of Arms, Henri IV
Coat of Arms, Henri IV
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advance of political absolutism. In 1588, the “War of the Three Henries” (Guise, Valois and Navarre) was instigated partly by Phillip II as a diversion during the attack on England by his Armada, from which Henry of Navarre emerged the victor. As King Henri IV, he renounced Protestantism in 1593 — with some military persuasion by Phillip II — but proclaimed the Edict of Nantes in 1598, making Catholicism the state religion but enshrining toleration of the Huguenots in their outlying strongholds of Dauphiné, Languedoc, Gascony, Poitou, Brittany, Normandy: a French version of the Augsburg formula.

Phillip considered the Netherlands vital for trade. They were a strong commercial culture of Low–German–speakers in the north and French–speakers in the south, with prosperous trading and industrial centres, principally Antwerp, who responded to Phillip’s blundering attempts to introduce Spanish customs and religious practices with strong resistance. Constant war during the last half of the century finally saw the emergence of a Calvinist north and Catholic south despite Phillip’s best efforts.

In England, Elizabeth I sought religious compromise after the turmoil under her predecessors, Protestant Edward and Catholic Mary. England Coat of Arms of Elizabeth I
England, Coat of Arms of Elizabeth I
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Anglicanism was the state religion, Catholic in structure and Protestant in idealogy. Calvinism emerged as the English Puritan movement, but worked for reform from within the church hierarchy. Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s navy sponsored continued piratical Elizabeth I
Elizabeth I
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raids against Phillip’s overseas empire, especially under Sir France Drake, leading to the showdown in 1588 in which Spain was disastrously defeated. Phillip had spread himself too thinly among conflicts in the Netherlands, France, and his futile attempts to invade England, accelerating his and his country’s grim decline even further.

Central Europe was only too happy to leave the cause of religious unity to its western neighbours. Charles V had left the eastern half of his empire to the Austrian branch of the family through his brother Ferdinand: Tyrol, Carniola, Styria, Austria, Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia and Hungary, each divided into dozens of principalities. Protestantism survived mostly in northern and central Habsburg Family Ancient Coat of Arms
Habsburg Family Ancient Coat of Arms
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Germany, while Catholics held on west of the Rhine and in the south. The cities of the Hansa were past their glory days, no longer able to compete with their Dutch counterparts.

But there was still plenty of turmoil. Opposition in Austria and Bohemia survived among Utraquists and the Bohemian Brethren, who were the spiritual progeny of the Hussites, a Protestant movement that had originated in the region long before anyone had ever heard of Martin Luther. And there was dissatisfaction with the Augsburg agreement. Zwinglian reform princes were unhappy at not having been included, and the Elector Frederick III had broken the rules by introducing a form of modified Calvinism in his Palatine lands in 1559. The Catholic Counter–Reformation was becoming more militant; the Jesuits were winning back some of the cities, and were establishing schools in major German cities.

Poland remained ethnically divided among Poles in the west, Lithuanians in the northeast, White Russians in the east, and Ruthenians Polish Senate, 1506
Polish Senate, 1506
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in the south, with Germans and Jews confined mainly in the cities. The ruling szlachta class fought tooth–and–nail to preserve a feudal way of life and its tax–exempt privilege, restricting its members to Poles and Lithuanians, and habitually electing weak, landless foreigners as monarch. Much of the region was Latin Christian, split about half and half between Protestant and Catholic, but the southern and eastern portions were mainly Greek Orthodox. Catholicism gained some ground during the latter half of the sixteenth century at the hands of the Jesuits.

Gustav Vasa
Gustav Vasa
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The Swedish empire, encompassing Finland, Estonia and Latvia, had been built by Gustavus Vasa in the early sixteeth century, who gained independence from Denmark but, as in France, his sons squabbled among themselves. The region remained loyal to Lutheranism.

Finally, the Ottoman Empire held the Balkan peninsula and most of Hungary, continually harrying eastern Europe, especially Poland, Tughra of Selim II
Tughra of Selim II
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with neither side making any significant or long–lasting gains. Since the death of Suleiman the Magnificent in 1566, the empire had been in steady decline, preferring hedonistic delights over military glory. In 1571, the Turkish fleet was defeated at the Battle of Lepanto and, except for a few brief but tense skirmishes, was of little further threat to Europe.

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