King of Kings

Author’s Note: After taking a work related break, we’re back with the story of the Thirty Years’ War. This is our first dedicated post on the topic, but it’s not really where the story begins. For that, it’s best to start here. And then go here. We’ll still be here when you get back.

Charles the V in a painting by Titian. Note the remarkably pronounced “Hapsburg” jaw. Over time the trend would become physically painful for succeeding generations of Hapsburgs.

As much as anywhere else, the story of the Thirty Years’ War has to begin with Luther, and the avalanche his pebble the Theses would trigger almost a century later.[1] By the time the war was done perhaps a fifth to a third of Germany’s population was dead, and the country itself had become the stage for a series of battles between every major European power of the day. Some of the side bets and tensions caused by the war spun off into separate decades long conflicts. Just as an example, the venerable Duchy of Poland-Lithuania would collapse as a result of the changing power dynamics; this in turn creating a vacuum that allowed the Russian Czars to rise to greater prominence. Even the way we think about nations and the dynamics between them owes itself to the concluding peace treaties that make up the 1648 Peace of Westphalia. Only today in our globalizing world has Westphalian Sovereignty arguably begun to unravel.[2]

While Luther’s Bible drew the initial battle lines, the Thirty Years’ War had its secular causes as well owing to the success of one particular European family. The House of Hapsburg draws its name from a small and relatively unassuming 11th Century castle in modern day Switzerland. Yet the family never lacked for ambition, and across the generations had an eye for the creative title purchases, smart inheritances, and egregious amount of second cousin marriage required to build a thriving dynasty. By the 13th Century Rudolph IV was Duke of Austria, a title the family held until 1918. By the 15th Century, Frederick III was crowned Holy Roman Emperor, another title the family would hold for three hundred years. In 1504 another strategic grafting of the Hapsburg branch Phillip I to Joanna of Castile[3] brought Spain into the family’s orbit. In 1519, more or less concurrently with Luther’s Theses-nailing, the stars aligned and Phillip and Joanna’s son Charles V ascended both Spanish and Imperial thrones simultaneously and became the master of empire spanning four million square kilometers on three continents. It was also an empire newly flush with the blood silver brought in by Spain’s Conquistadors as they hacked their way through the Americas.

Needless to say, Charles’ global empire came with an enemies list as long and as complicated as his coat of arms. He would spend most of his life fighting his own Protestants in Germany, rebellious Dutchmen in his lowland home region, the French (all the time), the Ottoman Empire (most of the time) [4], Italians, and sometimes all of the above at the same time. It was a small wonder that after more than three decades years in power Charles not only abdicated but broke up his empire among his heirs to prevent anything this stupid from rolling through again.[5] Spain and the Holy Roman Empire were both still effectively Hapsburg, and France hated both of them for it.

A very symbolic version of Charles’ Smorgasbord of an empire. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

Unlike most of his territories where Charles was merely hated but his sovereign authority unchallenged, the Holy Roman Crown was a strange paradox. On paper his authority was absolute. His title as Emperor came from Charlemagne, and the Germans themselves were very fond of saying that they were the living residents of the last biblical empire envisioned by Daniel;[6] a selective reading of the text if ever there was one. In practice Charles wasn’t a slouch in the power department either, he controlled a little under a third of the Imperial population directly, mostly in Austria and Bohemia. From the remaining population he also received a handsome little tax every year. But here is where limitations began to creep in. Charles was technically elected to the role of Emperor by the seven Elector Princes of the Empire, all of whom had their own sizeable power bases. While no single one of them or even a group could hope to match Charles in a war, there was always the lethal prospect of one of them turning to a foreign power if they felt backed into a corner. This was of course above the multitude of little lordlings, small states, independent cities, and Bishopric states that made achieving any kind of consensus in the Empire the equivalent to herding a particularly malevolent bunch of cats. Further confusing Charles’ status as Emperor Supreme, the Holy Roman Empire also had a nice system of ten district Courts, and a Parliamentary system known as the Bundesrat. Granted, Charles could ignore whatever these two institutions said, but as with many traditions, that wasn’t usually done.

While Charles was busy alternately punching the French at Pavia in 1525, fending off an Ottoman siege of Vienna itself in 1529, and then punching the French again, the new Protestant lords in Germany started to form defensive leagues. Yet in a shadow of things to come the resulting Schmelkaldic League was nowhere near as inclusive as it needed to be to actually stand a chance against the Hapsburgs. Though its cofounding leader the Elector of Saxony proved to be a pain in Charles’ royal backside, he was also a staunch Lutheran, and excluded all of the scampering subsects of Protestantism that had already formed from his sparkly new defensive social club. When Charles finally signed off on a few peace treaties with the French and Ottomans, he decided to relax by coming home to kick the Schmelkaldic League in the teeth at the Battle of Mühlberg in 1547. Still, even after Charles smacked the League around a bit and replaced the Elector of Saxony with his son-in-law, it was only a few years before the new Saxon Elector was leading another rebellion. Tired of all the fighting, in 1555 Charles handed negotiations off to his more moderate brother and agreed to create the Peace of Augsburg.

German leaders at the Peace of Augsburg. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

In a nutshell, Augsburg offered the same state based approach that most were already taking, the religion of the ruler became the accepted one for the region. Cuius Regio, Eius Religio meant that Catholicism in places like Bavaria and the imperial lands, but in places like Saxony, Lutheranism was now the official religion. Notably, the choice was a binary one. Calvinism, Anabaptism, and any other “ism” that did not conform to the accepted mainstream was still illegal. In practice, the Calvinists especially would continue to thrive, but their legal status was up in smoke. Moreover, Augsburg was less of a grand compromise than peace with some concessions. In exchange for recognition of Lutheranism, the Protestant leaders in turn agreed not to go against Imperial policy in foreign matters. Charles could also rest easier knowing that thanks to demographics among the nobility the Catholic faction had a permanent majority in the Bundesrat and the courts. This was a wound that would fester over time, and prove fatal in the long run.

[1] So it’s probably best to start with those entries, and keep going through to the Peasant’s War.

[2] The author isn’t inclined toward writing thinkpieces, but debate about how Westphalian the world ever was, and how much it is now, is robust.

[3] Daughter of King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella, known best for commissioning Columbus’ expedition to the American continents and concluding the centuries long Reconquista of Spain. It is hard to think of a more effective power couple, or one with more blood on their hands. Ferdinand would, incidentally, declare his own daughter insane in order to hold on to his deceased wife’s kingdom of Castile as the ward of young Charles.

[4] To give a sense to the scale, at one point Charles made an alliance with the Safavid dynasty in Persia to battle the Ottomans on two fronts.

[5] He retired to a monastery and lined every wall with clocks, which were always a hobby he had ironically little time for.

[6] The other three being Babylon, Persia, and Alexander’s Greco-Macedonians. Many others since have claimed this or that superpower met the criteria for the fourth power, and the thinking was very much in vogue among the more apocalyptic sorts living in the 16th Century.



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