World History 2 65 - 5.1.3 The Catholic Reformation and the Wars of Religion

The leaders of the Catholic Church did not sit idly by as its members deserted it for new faiths. The Catholic Reformation, also called the Counter-Reformation, was the Catholic Church’s effort to address Luther’s challenges as well as to effect other necessary reforms. One means to do so was the 1545 Council of Trent. There, Europe’s bishops and other clerics affirmed that both good works and faith were required for salvation and that both scripture (as interpreted by the church) and tradition were acceptable sources of authority. The council also affirmed the doctrine of transubstantiation. Aware of very real problems within the church, the council undertook a series of reforms as well. Indulgences were retained, but their sale was forbidden. The council prohibited church officials from appointing relatives to church offices, limited bishops to holding office in only one bishopric, and took steps to improve the education of Catholic clergy and curb their luxurious habits.

Another aspect of the Catholic Reformation was the creation of new religious orders. Founded by the Spanish noble Ignatius of Loyola, the Society of Jesus, also known as the Jesuits, assumed a number of tasks, chiefly the education of young Catholic men. They also undertook responsibility for the conversion of non-Christians to Roman Catholicism and for acting as advisers to the Catholic rulers of Europe. Unlike other religious orders, the Jesuits did not have a female branch. Instead, the Ursuline order of nuns, founded a few years before, undertook the education of young women.

Although the Catholic Reformation undoubtedly prevented the defection of many Catholics to Protestant churches, the new churches continued to gain adherents in many parts of Europe. At times, this was a peaceful process. At other times, wars erupted as devout Catholics did battle with equally devout Protestants to protect what both sides believed was the only true expression of Christian faith.

The transition from Catholicism to Protestantism in England was more peaceful than elsewhere. While Henry VIII’s Catholic daughter Mary I, the child of Catherine of Aragon, occupied the throne following her brother Edward’s death, Protestants were persecuted, and hundreds were executed as the queen tried to restore England to the Catholic Church. Mary died in 1558 before she could achieve this, however. Her younger half-sister, Elizabeth I, wished to govern an orderly, stable country, and while late in her reign she did persecute Catholics she felt posed a threat to her Protestant rule, she adopted a relatively moderate approach to religion during her early years on the throne (Figure 5.5).

In this painting a man sits on an ornate gold throne with a crest and green canopy above, a highly decorated wall behind, and detailed rugs below. He is wearing white stockings, red robes and a hat with a feather. With his right hand, the man holds a scepter up. With his left hand, the man hands a little boy dressed in white stockings and green robes a sword. Next to the boy stand two women in very elaborate long gowns, holding hands. Behind them is a lady in a red plain cloth holding a bouquet of flowers. A man and woman stand on the left side of the painting. They are dressed in elaborate, dark coats, gowns, and hats. Behind them a man in military armor and a helmet holds a shield with one hand and an upraised large stick in his other hand and runs toward the pair. A city can be seen in the far background.
Figure 5.5 This 4- by 6-foot painting by Lucas de Heere dates from about 1572, during Elizabeth’s reign. Elizabeth’s father Henry VIII (whose family name was Tudor) sits in the center next to his young son Edward VI, to whom he gives the sword of justice. On the left is Mary I with her husband the king of Spain, and behind them is Mars the Roman god of war. Elizabeth I herself stands on the right flanked by Peace and Plenty. (credit: “The Family of Henry VIII: An Allegory of the Tudor Succession” by National Museum Cardiff/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Parliament’s 1558 Act of Supremacy once again declared the Church of England separate from the Roman Catholic Church. The following year, the Act of Uniformity of 1559 brought back the Book of Common Prayer as the only legal form of worship in England. Some concessions were made, however, to those who did not wish to abandon Catholic ritual. The condemnation of the pope contained in an earlier version of the book was removed, and the communion ritual was described in a way that avoided making a clear statement about transubstantiation. Clergy could continue to wear traditional Catholic robes and ornaments.

During Elizabeth’s reign, English Calvinists, known as Puritans, attempted unsuccessfully to move the Church of England even further from the doctrine and ritual of the Catholic Church. Many clergy in the English church were Puritans, and they objected to wearing Catholic robes during church services and making the sign of the cross during baptism. By the 1570s and 1580s, Puritans had also come to oppose the structure of the Church of England, in which the monarch was the head of the church. They believed churches should be independent and governed by groups of elected elders instead of a king or queen. Elizabeth was unwilling to change the manner in which the Church of England was governed, however. During the reign of her successor James I, Puritans who wished to separate from the Church of England (known as Separatists) began to depart England for places, including mainland Europe and North America, where they believed they would be able to establish ideal Christian communities. In the reign of Charles I, James’s son, other Puritans also began to leave.

Link to Learning

English Puritans who immigrated to British colonies in North America used a book called The New England Primer to teach their children to read while also imparting religious lessons. This website presents images of the book, first printed in the 1680s. Pages 15 to 18 contain the alphabet and short rhymes to help children remember the letters: “A. In Adam’s fall we sinned all.”

Outside England, the dispute over whether a kingdom should be Catholic or Protestant could be quite violent. In 1572 in France, warfare between Huguenots and Catholics culminated in the August 23 St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, assassinations targeting prominent Huguenots who had come to Paris for a royal wedding. Peace was restored only when the Huguenot Henry IV succeeded to the throne of France, converted to Catholicism (the religion of the majority of French people), and issued the Edict of Nantes in 1598. The edict established Catholicism as the official religion of France but also granted Huguenots the right to worship as they chose.

In the Spanish Netherlands, Philip II of Spain, son and heir of Charles V, fought against Calvinist rebels. War raged from 1568 until a truce was signed in 1609. (After Philip’s death in 1598, his son Philip III fought on after him.) Peace was restored, but the seven northern provinces established their independence from Spain as the United Provinces of the Netherlands. The Netherlands was not the only place in which Philip II, who regarded himself and Spain as defenders of Catholicism, fought to maintain the church’s supremacy. In 1588, he launched a naval attack on England with the intent of restoring it to the Catholic Church and ending its support for Protestant rebels in the Spanish Netherlands. The invasion failed. The Spanish armada was famously outmaneuvered by the smaller, faster English ships, and as the remaining vessels started for home by sailing north around Scotland and Ireland, most were destroyed by a storm.

The wars of religion continued into the seventeenth century. From 1618 to 1648, the Thirty Years’ War between Catholic and Protestant states raged in the Holy Roman Empire. As German Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists fought one another, other European countries entered the fray. Sweden, a Lutheran land, supported the Protestant German rulers, as did the United Provinces of the Netherlands. Denmark also entered the war in the hopes of gaining German territory to offset its losses to Sweden in recent conflicts. France joined in on the side of the Protestants, primarily in an effort to become the preeminent power in Europe. Despite the multinational nature of the combatants, battles were fought almost entirely within the German lands, whose people suffered as armies of mercenaries destroyed farms and villages. In the end, the German Protestants were victorious, and France had become the dominant country in western Europe. The Peace of Westphalia, which ended the war in 1648, established the independence of each of the entities, numbering nearly one thousand, that had made up the Holy Roman Empire.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax