15 Important Facts about the Thirty Years’ War

Thirty Years’ War map

The Thirty Years’ War is a name given by historians to a series of conflicts in Central Europe, which occurred in the years 1618-1648. Today it is estimated to be one of the lengthiest and most violent conflicts in European history. What originally commenced as a feud between the Protestant and the Catholic countries, within the area previously known as the Holy Roman Empire, gradually scaled out of all proportion, becoming a matter of life and death for all the European superpowers. The France was pitted against the Habsburgs in a race for European hegemony, whereas the common folk were almost entirely engrossed in supporting one side or the other, religion being an important subject, discussed among all classes on a daily basis. Here are some things that you should know about the Thirty Years’ War.

1. The onset of the war was marked by the newly elected Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand II imposing religious uniformity on all his lands.

This meant that whatever their previous religion was, from now on all his subjects would have to convert to Roman Catholicism. The northern Protestant states vehemently objected this, saying that the Emperor’s new laws were a violation of their citizen rights. Therefore, they conjoined starting the Protestant Union. The act led to an atmosphere of religious-political unrest spreading throughout Europe and ultimately to the Protestant Bohemians, living on the territory known today as Czech Republic, rebelling against the Habsburgs. A series of conflicts followed.

2. The Bohemian citizens wanted to get rid of the Habsburgs and they did so in electing Frederick V, Elector of Palatinate.

This, however, was an incendiary event for the southern Catholic states, which formed the Catholic League. They supported Ferdinand II, the Roman Catholic Emperor and wanted in turn to oust Frederick. The Battle of White Mountain ensued, where the Empire prevailed and the Palatinate armies were defeated. As a result, the Protestants just got more annoyed. Soon, Saxony joined the Protestant Union, with Sweden a military superpower of the era.

Thirty Years’ War french army

3. Sweden intervened in 1640, led by the prominent general Gustavus Adolphus.

This was the exact moment when a series of fights on religious grounds had turned into a full-scale war on the European continent. The Catholic Spain quickly rushed in to support its Habsburg ally, Austria, and to once and for all defeat the Dutch Protestant forces both in the Netherlands and in the Dutch Republic. The answer to this move was most surprising, as the Catholic France unexpectedly joined the coalition on the Protestant side, transforming a conflict of faiths into a conflict of superpowers.

4. The Thirty Years’ War was quite a devastating conflict.

It swept drastically through entire regions, leaving nothing but famine, disease and decimated local populations behind. The latter was especially visible among the people of the German and Italian states, the Crown of Bohemia and the Low Countries. The war also became infamous for the actions of numerous mercenary armies, hired by the superpowers. Looting and extorting tribute, as well as theft were commonplace, which meant that even remote civilian villages were dragged into the atrocities of the conflict. The Thirty Years’ War also left some of its parties totally bankrupt, having spent the national treasure on weapons and army support.

5. The peace of Augsburg was the starting point of the conflict.

It was ratified in the year 1555 by Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor at that time. It confirmed the establishments of the Diet of Speyer and ended the religious war between the Lutherans and Catholics in Germany. The highlight of the peace of Augsburg was ensuring that the rulers of the 224 German states could choose wither Lutheranism or Catholicism and that their subjects would follow suit. Moreover, the document stated that the subjects should all lawfully follow the religion of their ruler, with no exceptions, according to the Latin rule: ‘cuius regio, eius religio’ (whose land it is, that person’s religion it is).

peace of augsburg

6. The Peace of Augsburg also extended its provisions to territorial cause.

It stated that the Lutherans could keep their territory, which they had previously confiscated from the Catholic Church via the provisions of the Peace of Passau in 1552. What is more, the prince-bishops who had switched sides to Lutheranism were ordered to give up their lands. The historical term coined for the occurrence is „reservatum ecclesiasticum”, meaning „reserved for the Church”. The Lutheran bishop-princes were then substituted by Catholic rulers, and had to renounce their entitlement to the land entirely.

7. However helpful, the Peace of Augsburg did not resolve the social tensions completely.

The factor making it virtually impossible to lay the religious cause to rest was the fast spreading of a new religious doctrine throughout the German lands. The doctrine was Calvinism. The Augsburg agreement did not recognize this new movement as a religion in its own right and this led to more military action, now with the Calvinist party fighting for their freedom against the Protestant and against the Catholic rule.

8. The countries sharing borders with the Holy Roman Empire contributed quite extensively to the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War.

Spain wanted to adjoin the German states to its vast area consisting of some Italian states, Spanish Netherlands and other parts of the Empire. The Dutch strongly opposed Spanish rule in the 1560’s, which led to a long-standing locked battle for independence, ending with a truce in 1609. At the same time, France was threatened because of its position between two Habsburg states – Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, and wanted to assert its stance as a superpower. Sweden and Denmark wanted to rule over the German Baltic Sea states.


9. Contrary to what one may think, the Holy Roman Empire was not at all unified.

The whole country was composed of a multitude of small, autonomous states. The title of the Holy Roman Emperor was also mainly a representative title, as the Emperor had little to no business in imposing his strict jurisdiction on all the states. Only the territories of the Archduchy of Austria, Kingdom of Bohemia and Kingdom of Hungary were ruled by the Emperor in a more direct manner. So, the Austrian domain was a military power in its own right, but it was also very divided. The second part of the Habsburg house ruled over Spain and the Spanish empire, including the Netherlands, the southern part of Italy, the Philippines and a greater part of the two Americas.

10. The real strength of the Holy Roman Empire was in its regional power states, such as those within the area of the present day Germany.

The most prominent states included: the Duchy of Bavaria, the Electorate of Saxony, the Margraviate of Brandenburg, the Electorate of the Palatinate, Landgraviate of Hesse, the Archbishopric of Trier, and the Free Imperial City of Nuremberg. However powerful the small states might have been, however, they were rather incapable of establishing long-term diplomatic relations with the neighboring countries. And this is where the Holy Roman Empire was helpful as an organizational structure.

11. One of the factors contributing to the wide-spread division of the Habsburg-subject German states was the tradition of Partible inheritance.

This was a curious system of feudal inheritance, where the property of the father and ruler of the land was divided among his heirs. The more heirs one ruler had, the more partitioning of the land ensued, so that each an everyone of his sons could have his own territory to rule over. This custom caused trouble not only for the Holy Roman Empire, but also for many other European countries, because it complicated both trade and state relations.

Thirty Years’ War battle of rocroi

12. The Thirty Years’ War resulted in a complete redefinition of European structure of power.

During the last decade of the conflict, Spain’s significance has noticeably diminished, whereas other neighboring countries became more prominent on the map of Europe. This included first and foremost Portugal, which elected John IV of Braganza as king in 1640, and the House of Braganza since became the new dynasty of Portugal monarchs. Spain had also to let go of the idea of owning the Dutch Republic, which claimed independence in the year 1649. Bourbon France also took over in the race for power against the Habsburg dynasty. Led by Louis XIV., France won the Franco-Spanish War (1635–59), the War of Devolution (1667–68), and the Franco-Dutch War (1672–78), thoroughly securing its political position.

13. For Austria and Bavaria the end of the Thirty Years’ War resulted both in losses and gains.

Bavaria was now occupied, but gained additional territory by the power of the 1648 treaty. Austria had failed to reassert her stance as a European hegemon, but at the same time managed to put down the Protestant uprisings. Also, although it did not win, her territory was in quite a good shape and its army was not much depleted. All the above plus the diplomatic skill of Austria’s new ruler, Ferdinand III, allowed it to play an important part in the years to come.

HIS292256 Soldiers Plundering a Farm during the Thirty Years' War, 1620 (oil on wood) by Vrancx, Sebastian (1573-1647); 50.8x69.5 cm; Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin, Germany; (add.info.: Soldaten pluendern einen Bauernhof;); © DHM; Flemish, out of copyright
Soldiers Plundering a Farm during the Thirty Years’ War

14. The Peace of Westphalia laid a foundation for a modern day sovereign nation-state.

Not only did it for the first time outline some of the contemporary countries, it also helped establish the basic rule of the subjects being first and foremost mindful of the laws and edicts of their ruler, with religious laws appearing not as a priority any more. The Thirty Years’ War was the last of the great religious wars on the European continent, and it effectively ended the century-long bloodshed following the Reformation. It also gave a beginning to the era of modern army, disciplined and qualified.

15. The Thirty Years’ War consequences were not restricted to Europe alone.

Firstly, the European superpowers were now free to colonize lands overseas, as they had no urgent state matters to attend to. In 1630, the Dutch fleet started the process, by taking the opulent sugar-exporting area of Pernambuco (Brazil) away from the Portuguese, just to lose them again in 1654. Africa and Asia were also a battleground for colonial influence. The battles took a toll on Asia, as many of its religious and cultural landmarks got shrewdly demolished during the fighting. A case in point are the destruction of the Koneswaram temple, the Ketheeswaram temple and over 500 Hindu shrines. The Europeans also introduced a forceful conversion to Catholicism among the Hinduists and Buddhists.

dutch spanish fleet colonies allegory


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