Unit 3 - Lesson 4 - European
Civil Wars and the Rise of the Nation State
what is it good for?
Should we really take our advice on key historical
questions from 1960s soul singers? How about from
Marxist revolutionaries like Leon Trotsky who said 'War
is the locomotive of history.' I'd like to think that
both of them are right. War is usually best avoided
where it can be, but when it does happen it has a
tendency to put history into overdrive. A few lessons
back we were discussing Jared Diamond's theories of
geographical determinism and why some countries develop
and others don't. The great unanswered question from
that lesson was, why not China? Why didn't China build on
its natural advantages and advanced civilisation and
build the modern world? Well, part of the reason,
according to Diamond was competition between divided
In the middle
ages, the Catholic Church had provided a unifying
internationalism and a higher authority, loyalty to the pope.
People did not consider themselves as part of a nation,
they identified themselves with their region or local
lord. As we have seen, the unifying power of the Catholic
Church began to break down in the late middle ages. But
when that central authority fractured, as it did in the
Reformation, it created a vacuum into which a different,
more centralised national authorities began to emerge
and compete. Powerful monarchs emerged that extended
their territories over weaker neighbours and began to
impose a unifying culture associated with religious
affiliation, language and tradition. This was a very
gradual process which really only reached an accelerated
conclusion in the 19th century with the process of
modernisation associated with the Industrial revolution.
(See Unit 5)
In the 16th century, these states started
going to war against each other, often for religious
reasons and carried on doing so (with the occasional
break) until 1945. Since the Second World War, the
creation of the European Union has largely stopped
European countries fighting each other. This lesson is
about the reasons for the rise in nation states and why
some states became more successful than others,
spreading their influence around the world.
Diamond on the advantage of European
'In fact, precisely because
Europe was fragmented, Columbus succeeded on
his fifth try in persuading one of Europe's
hundreds of princes to sponsor him. Once
Spain had thus launched the European
colonization of America, other European
states saw the wealth flowing into Spain,
and six more joined in colonizing America.
The story was the same with Europe's cannon,
electric lighting, printing, small firearms,
and innumerable other innovations: each was
at first neglected or opposed in some parts
of Europe for idiosyncratic reasons, but
once adopted in one area, it eventually
spread to the rest of Europe. These
consequences of Europe's disunity stand in
sharp contrast to those of China's unity.'
Finally, lets look briefly at two
historical examples of how religious tensions and
divisions played out within European states. During the
16th and 17th centuries, European states were often
divided by religion. By the late 17th century, one
religious group came to dominate the state and religious
toleration of difference was abandoned. For example, in
France under Louis XIV of France, and after a
century of religious conflict, the The Edict of
Fontainebleau (1685) forced Protestants to leave the
country. In Britain, the Glorious Revolution of 1688
resulted in the establishment of the Protestant King,
William of Orange. Catholics were denied the right to
vote and to become MPs and the monarch was forbidden to
be Catholic or to marry a Catholic, this latter law
remained in force until 2015. So what sort of religious
instability led states into establishing one, official
The St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre 1572
Between 1555 and 1563 nearly ninety
Calvinist preachers were sent to France to propagate
their ideas. Secret printing presses were established
and ideas spread quickly. By 1560, as many as 10% of the
French had converted to Calvinism. They were given the
nickname of Huguenots, nobody really knows where the
name came from. As Huguenots gained influence as
many of French nobility converted and more openly
displayed their faith. But Catholic hostility grew. A
series of religious conflicts followed, known as the
French Wars of Religion, which were fought
intermittently from 1562 to 1598. The wars ended
with the Edict of Nantes in 1598, which granted the
Huguenots substantial religious, political, and military
autonomy. The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day was the
most notorious event of the French Wars of Religion. One
room of the
Reformation Museum in Geneva is dedicated to it.
The French king was Charles IX. Under
the influence of a leading Huguenot, Admiral de Coligny,
Charles IX granted Protestants greater freedom of
worship and control of four cities. To help cement the
deal, he agreed to allow his sister to marry a Huguenot
prince. The problem was the king's mother Catherine de Médicis.
Catherine was very unhappy that she was losing influence
over her son. Using the opportunity of the royal
wedding, she plotted the assassination of Coligny.
However, the assassination attempt failed. Fearing that
the plot would be uncovered, Catherine de Médicis met
secretly with a group of Catholic nobles to organise the complete
extermination of the Huguenot leaders, who were still in
Paris for the wedding festivities. Shortly before dawn on August 24,St.
Bartholomew's Day, the massacre began. One of the first
victims was Coligny. The homes and shops of Huguenots were
pillaged and their occupants brutally murdered; many
bodies were thrown into the Seine. Bloodshed continued
in Paris even after a royal order of August 25 to stop
the killing, and it spread to the provinces. Huguenots
in Rouen, Lyon, Bourges, Orléans, and Bordeaux were
among the victims.
Estimates of the
number that perished in the disturbances, which
lasted to the beginning of October, have varied
from 2,000 to 70,000. Modern writers put the
number at 3,000 in Paris alone.
Coligny on the
Reformation wall in Geneva
Above, the famous
painting by François Dubois, of the St. Bartholomew's
Admiral Coligny's body hangs out of a window at the rear
to the right. Catherine de' Medici is shown emerging
from the Louvre castle to inspect a heap of bodies.
The news of the massacre was welcomed by
Philip II of Spain, and Pope Gregory XIII had a medal
struck to celebrate the event. Thenceforth the Huguenots
abandoned John Calvin’s principle of obedience to the royal authority
adopted the view that rebellion and tyrannicide were
justifiable under certain circumstances. Which leads us
nicely on to...
The English Civil War or English
will see with the religious wars of the 17th century,
religion played only one part of the causes of the
English Civil War. But religion, certainly at the
beginning was very important. After the death of Henry
VIII (1509-1547 who was never really a Protestant)
England swung violently from his Protestant son
Edward VI (1547-1553) and Catholic daughter Mary I
(1553-1558), before settling into compromise Church of
England Protestantism of Elizabeth I. (1558-1603) Watch
the Horrible History video right for a brief
overview or better still, watch this short documentary
about the life and work of
Thomas Cranmer, Henry VIII's Archbishop of
Canterbury who was burnt at the stake by Mary I.
Calvinists or Puritans as they were
became known in England, were Protestants
who sought to "purify" the Church of England from its
"Catholic" practices, maintaining that the Church of
England was only partially reformed. They were
Calvinists who were unhappy with the Elizabethan
Settlement (compromise). When King Charles I ascended to
the throne in 1625, the fact they he had a French
Catholic wife and seemed to sympathize with the need for
more traditional (i.e. Catholic) rituals in the Church
of England, led Puritans to worry about their future.
When his Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud began to
re-introduce incense and Catholic sounding ceremonies
the Puritans suspected a 'papist plot'. Puritan criticisms
of the King, quickly became merged with criticism of
absolute monarchy and the seeds of civil war were sown.
Puritans who openly criticized the King were often
victimized, but many of their supporters were members of
Parliament. King Charles responded by ignoring
Parliament, but then found himself in need of tax revenue
to wage war on the Scots (and then the Irish!) and only
Parliament could provide his taxes. In 1642 both sides
went to war. It was not just about religion. Parliament
was attempting to limit the power of the king (and in the long run this
was the most important cause) but
the fierceness of the fighting can largely be
explained by religious difference.
The English Civil War was particularly
bloody. In all nearly 200,000 people, or roughly
2.5 percent of the civilian population, lost their lives
directly or indirectly as a result of the war during
this decade, making the Civil Wars (relatively) the
bloodiest conflict in the history of the British Isles.
And as is often the case in civil wars, terrible atrocities were
committed on both sides. The overall outcome of the war
was threefold: the trial and execution of King Charles I
(1649); the exile of his son, Charles II (1651); and the
replacement of English monarchy with, at first, the
Commonwealth of England (1649–1653) and then the
Protectorate under the personal rule of Oliver Cromwell
(1653–1658). For 10 years England was a republic, most
English people seem to have forgotten this.
Just as in other Protestant conflicts in mainland Europe
(remember Müntzer?), so also in England, that more radical
groups calling for greater social equality
emerged. The Levellers (see right) called for working
men to be given the vote and the Diggers demanded that
England's farm lands should be given to those who worked
it (i.e. not the landowners!). All of these social
movements were crushed, but their ideas lingered on.
Under Cromwell, England was governed according to strict
Calvinist principals. Most English school children will
remember that Cromwell closed the pubs and
banned Christmas. More important in the long run,
was that the wars also established the
precedent that an English monarch cannot govern without
Parliament's consent and (again as with the French
Huguenots) that rebellion can be justified.
1. With reference to the origin and purpose (which you
will need to research) examine the value and limitations
of François Dubois' painting as evidence of the St.
Bartholomew's Day Massacre.
2. Read the text above and watch the
video about the English Civil War.
(a) Explain how Puritanism distanced itself from the
Church of England.
(b) Explain what was so radical about Scottish
(c) Explain how the Puritans justified the execution of
King Charles I.
The funniest thing ever made about
Blackadder - Password = bisb
did nation states begin to emerge?
To understand the origins of nation
states, we need to look back again at the late middle
ages. As feudalism declined and trade and towns grew,
wealth was generated that did not come from the land.
The towns needed protection and ease of trade, the
monarchs wanted taxes and more and more territory.
Powerful monarchs sought to consolidate their power by
taking over the territories of weaker neighbours and
centralizing power. Sometimes though diplomacy, but
often through war, in the late 15th and early 16th
century the modern nation states began to take on a
recognizable shape. Navigate on the timelapse map of
Europe to see the shape of Europe change.
Centralization in states throughout
Europe meant that law making was carried out in the
capital city and these laws were applied and enforced
throughout the kingdom. Trade flowed more freely across
the kingdom as standard laws reduced local tolls, taxes
and regulation. Increased wealth and more efficient tax
collection made monarchs more able to fund the
professional armies that enabled them to defend and
expand their territories still further. Power became
In England, the War of Roses (1455-85)
saw the Tudor dynasty defeat their Yorkist rivals and
though marriage consolidate that power. In France by
1500, Picardy, Anjou, Brittany and Burgundy came under
the centralized control of the Valois kings with the
notable military support of the Swiss mercenaries. A unified Spain also was born by 1500. The key
event here was the marriage in 1469 of Isabella of
Castile to Ferdinand of Aragon. The final piece of the
puzzle was put into place when the last of the Spanish
Muslim states, Granada, was conquered in 1492.
In their turn, the commercially rich Protestant Dutch
would assert their independence from the Spanish crown.
Until the 16th century, the Low Countries –
corresponding roughly to the present-day Netherlands,
Belgium, and Luxembourg – consisted of a number of small
kingdoms, almost all of which were under the supremacy
of the Holy Roman Empire. In 1568 the Netherlands, led
by William I of Orange, revolted against Philip II
because of high taxes and persecution of Protestants.
Russia grew from its base in Moscow, over the decades
conquering more and more territory. By 1547 under Ivan
the Terrible, the first tsar, Russia had become a centralised, multi-ethic empire.
Crash Course for Kirill
Religion as cultural
As nation states
began to be formed - as a result of the political,
economic and military reasons listed above - their
monarchic rulers sought to reinforce their power through
cultural means. Religion was central to this. Over time,
rulers sought to assert their religious
identity on the nation as a whole. Loyalty to the new
nation state, required a loyalty to the religion of the
state. If the king was Protestant, he would expect his
loyal subjects to be protestant also. In Protestant
states, the translation of the Bible into the
vernacular, the national language, also had the
advantage of encouraging the flowering of German,
English or Dutch and encouraged literacy. People over
time began to think of their identity in more abstract
terms than just their sense of belonging to a locally
defined geographical community. This is well
illustrated by the creation of a distinctly Protestant
'national identity' in Elizabethan England. People began
to identify themselves as English speaking Protestants.
As with all
forms of national identity, the identity of the English
had to be manufactured and sustained through deliberate
control of the media of the time - books and pamphlets. In 16th century England there was
no more powerful media than Foxe's Book of Martyrs.
Previous generations had been encouraged to think of
Protestants as heretical threats to the state. Foxe rewrote history to celebrate the martyrdom of the
What happened when they
went to war with each other?
There were many religiously motivated
wars in the 17th century but the most significant was
the 30 Years War. The Thirty Years' War was a war fought
primarily in Central Europe between 1618 and 1648. One
of the longest and most destructive conflicts in human
history, as well as the deadliest European religious war
in history, it resulted in eight million deaths.
Initially a war between various Protestant and Catholic
states in the fragmented Holy Roman Empire, the war
became less about religion and more of a continuation of
the France–Habsburg rivalry for European political
pre-eminence. It began when Holy Roman Emperor,
Ferdinand II, tried to impose Catholicism on the
northern Protestant states. Sweden's support for the
Protestants and Spain's desire to crush the Protestant
Dutch rebels resulted in a full-scale European war. By
the time that Catholic France entered the war in support
of the Protestants against the Austrian Hapsburgs in
1635, religion was evidently less important than power
30 Years War
The Thirty Years' War devastated
entire regions, with famine and disease resulting in
high mortality in the populations of the German and
Italian states. The Thirty Years' War ended with the
Peace of Westphalia (1648). The war altered the previous
political order of European powers. Perhaps the most
significant political consequence was the rise of France
under the Bourbon Kings.
The Treaty of Westphalia not only
enshrined the right of monarchs to decide the official
religion of their territory but also the
modern concept of national sovereignty. This is the idea
that there is no higher power than the power of the
individual nation state and that no other body or state
can have authority over what goes on within the state.
The state is independent.
1. Explain, with examples, how new nation
states began to emerge at the beginning of the 16th
2. Watch the video of Foxe's Book of
Martyrs. Explain how Foxe rewrote English history, used
powerful new publishing techniques and was able to be
such an important influence in England.
3. What were the main causes and
consequences of the 30 Years' War?
Peace of Westphalia - Fry and Laurie
https://www.tomrichey.net is a US history teacher
providing lectures of essential information for students
on the Advanced Placement programme. I think his
lectures are very clear and very much at your level.