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2.4 Wars of Religion



⏱️  6 min read

written by

Sharii Liang

sharii liang

For years, nobility and monarchies did their best to limit the other’s power. With the rise of religious reforms, many nobles switched to Protestant sects while many monarchies remained devout Catholics. This religious change only exacerbated existing problems and brought a lot of tension between the two aristocratic groups. It would soon become a major cause of the two bloodiest religious wars. ⚔️

🎥 Watch: AP European History - Martin Luther and Reformation

Stop Listening to Martin Luther

In the Holy Roman Empire (which is neither holy nor Roman), the Habsburgs rulers were faced with two problems: an expanding Ottoman Empire on the East and the rise of Protestantism in the West. In the West, Charles V would confront Martin Luther about his 95 Theses at the Diet of Worms, but it was much too late. Luther’s ideas had spread, and there was nothing Charles V could do about it.

The Habsburg rulers were the largest, most influential family in Europe. You could find them in practically every royal family. They were the rulers of the Holy Roman Empire and devout Catholics. When the German states and the princes under them converted to Protestantism (Schmalkaldic League), Charles V (current ruler of the HRE) fought them in the Schmalkaldic Wars before coming to a resolution known as the Peace of Augsburg. From then on, German princes could choose between Lutheranism and Catholicism only (no Calvinism!)

The Peace of Augsburg


Image Courtesy of Wikimedia

Conflicts over Religion

France and Central Europe were the battlefields for the two bloodiest religious wars during this time. As Protestantism spread, tension grew between Catholics and Protestants, too. 

In Germany, Martin Luther’s ideas influenced German peasants to revolt (German Peasants’ War). Hundreds of thousands of peasants rose up against their land owners to fight for social equality and religious/economic freedom. The violence of these peasants horrified Luther, and he actually supported the aristocrats in putting down the revolt through any means necessary. 

In France, Catholics fought against the Huguenots (French Calvinists). This tension was even prominent in the aristocracy and monarchy. Protestant nobles struggled with a Catholic monarchy, and this discourse rippled down to the lower levels of society before culminating into the St. Bartholomew Day’s Massacre. The French Wars of Religion would eventually result in the War of the Three Henrys with Henry of Navarre becoming King Henry IV and converting to Catholicism to maintain peace.

🎥 Watch: AP European History - French Wars of Religion

Flag of the Catholic League


Image Courtesy of Wikimedia

“Paris is worth a mass.”

  • King Henry IV (Henry III of Navarre)

In Bohemia (present day Czech Republic), the election of a new king would cause a division between Catholics and Protestants. Afraid that the new Catholic king, Ferdinand II, would strip away Protestant rights, some Bohemian leaders elected Frederick V, a Protestant. 

Although it was certain that Ferdinand II would end up on the throne, since he was personally chosen by the previous King, that didn’t stop Protestant opposition. In fact, the supporters of Frederick V were so peeved, they threw some of Ferdinand II’s Catholic representatives out of a 69 feet high window! This event, called the Defenestration of Prague (defenestrate = a fancy word for throwing someone out a window), sparked Europe’s bloodiest religious war, the Thirty Years’ War.


Ended in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia, the peace destroyed any remaining medieval ideas of universal Christianity. It also sped up the decline of the Holy Roman Empire even more after the Diet of Augsburg. While the Peace of Augsburg allowed German princes to choose between Lutheranism and Catholicism, the Peace of Westphalia granted the option to choose to other princes, bishops, and local leaders.

The Thirty Years' War


Place & Time

Important Players

Beginning Event

Ending Event


Bohemia, 1618-1625

Ferdinand II, Johann Tserclaes of Tilly, Frederick V, Count Ernst von Mansfeld

The Defenestration of Prague

Battle of White Mountain (Catholic victory)


Germany and Denmark, 1625-1629

Ferdinand II, Albrecht von Wallenstein, Christian IV 

Frederick V flees to Holland & Denmark supports Protestants

Peace of Lübeck (Catholic victory)


Germany, 1630-1635

Gustavus Adolphus, Wallenstein, Cardinal Richelieu

Invasion of Germany by Sweden’s king

Death of Swedish King, Gustavus Adolphus, in battle

French AKA


Germany, 1635-1648

Cardinal Richelieu, HRE, Maximilian of Bavaria

France gets directly involved in the fighting

Peace of Westphalia, 1648

🎥 Watch: AP European History - Thirty Years' War

Manipulative States

With all of this discourse, certain countries sought to exploit religion for their own gains. They saw it as a reason (or justification) to achieve national unity or more power. 

Spain was the Catholic Church’s biggest supporter. Ruled by Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, it took this time of religious turmoil to get rid of all the Muslims and Jews in the nation. The Spanish Inquisition sought out any people who weren’t Catholic and gave them two options: convert or leave.  


Image Courtesy of Getty Images

In England, King Henry VIII faced a dilemma that would forever change the country: how was he going to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, if the Pope wouldn’t let him? 💔 His solution was to leave the Catholic Church and create his own.

This divorce began the English Reformation, and King Henry became the Supreme Head of the Church of England during this time. ♚ After his death, the nation would go through another rapid change back to Catholicism for a short while with Mary I (Bloody Mary!) until the English Reformation returned and culminated with Elizabeth I.


Cause of Death

Any Children?


King Henry VIII

Natural Causes

3 legitimate: Edward VI, Mary I, & Elizabeth I

King of England

Catherine of Aragon

Heart Cancer

Mary I

First Wife

Anne Boleyn


Elizabeth I

Second Wife

Jane Seymour


Edward VI

Third Wife

Anne of Cleves



Fourth Wife

Catherine Howard



Fifth Wife

Catherine Parr


None that matter

Sixth Wife

Edward VI



King of England

Lady Jane Grey


None that matter

Queen of England

Mary I



Queen of England

Elizabeth I



Queen of England

In the Thirty Years’ War, Denmark, Sweden, and France all exploited the conflict in Bohemia for their own agendas. What started off as a religious war would expand into a political one as Denmark joined on the side of the Protestants to protect religious freedom in his, and other kingdoms, as well as expand his land. Sweden had the same reasons as Denmark for joining, but France, despite being Catholic, joined on the Protestant side due to a rivalry with the Habsburgs.

The End of an Era

As the continent grew bloodier and bloodier, it was clear to everyone that a unified Catholic Europe was no longer possible. Various legal documents created after conflicts allowed for religious plurality.

Even nations that weren’t involved in conflicts, like Poland and the Netherlands, had religious pluralism. Catholicism was still the main religion in these two states, with Phillip II of Spain persecuting non-Catholics in the Netherlands, but Calvinism and various Protestant sects were allowed. 🛐

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