The Thirty Years' War

Graham Darby examines the nature and effects of the war that dominated the first half of the 17th century.

For those who wrestle with seventeenth-century Europe there is no more complex topic than the Thirty Years' War. It is also an issue that generates a large number of questions in examinations - on the origins, course and consequences of the war. In addition, there can be questions about its nature: how far was it a war of religion, what was its social and economic impact and what were its military and financial implications? It is the purpose of this article to help clarify the latter topics, beginning with religion.

A Religious War?

This is a difficult issue. For one thing, in early modern times religion and politics were inextricably intertwined, so that our present-day approach, which makes a clear distinction between the two, is often inappropriate. Secondly, early modern language was couched in religious terminology to such an extent that it is often difficult to distinguish between what was, perhaps, formulaic or habitual and what was sincere and meaningful. And thirdly, in our secular age, it is quite simply very difficult to appreciate the extent and depth of religious feeling in the seventeenth century.

Was this the last religious war? Given that Protestant England and Catholic Spain had made peace in 1604, and the Protestant Dutch rebels had reached an accommodation with Catholic Spain in 1609, it could be argued that the outbreak of war in Germany, in which the fate of Protestantism seemed to be at stake, brought religious issues back to the forefront of European politics. Historians have usually suggested that the Thirty Years' War began as a religious war, but became more secular as it progressed, and this formulation is a useful one.

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