International School History - International Baccalaureate - MYP History

MYP4 Last update - 20 mars 2018  
Unit 3 - Lesson 4 -  European Civil Wars and the Rise of the Nation State
War, 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 nation states.

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.


Jared Diamond on the advantage of European division.

'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.'

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Division and Persecution - Two case studies

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 religion?

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 Day Massacre
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 - and adopted the view that rebellion and tyrannicide were justifiable under certain circumstances. Which leads us nicely on to...
The English Civil War or English Revolution (1642–1651)

As we 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.

Cromwell on the Reformation Wall Geneva

Tristam Hunt on the Levellers

Billy Bragg on the Diggers

Activity 1

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 Calvinism.
(c) Explain how the Puritans justified the execution of King Charles I.

The funniest thing ever made about Puritanism
Blackadder - Password = bisb




How 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 increasingly concentrated.

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 nationalism

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 Protestants.



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 politics.

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.

Activity 2

1. Explain, with examples, how new nation states began to emerge at the beginning of the 16th century.

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

Tom Richey 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.




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