The Peace of Death at Westphalia: October 24, 1648

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World.


Emperor Ferdinand II

The threat of France entering the war convinced the elector of Saxony to make peace with the emperor. Ferdinand II tried to get other Protestant princes to follow the elector’s example, and in the Treaty of Prague, he granted amnesty to all princes who consented to sign it. The treaty was an attempt to unite Germany against the French foe—and several Protestant princes did indeed sign it on May 30, 1635. But other Protestant princes decided to continue supporting the Swedes and their ally, Cardinal Richelieu.


Richelieu’s strategy was twofold. France would help fund the Swedes and the Protestant princes in their war against Ferdinand in Germany, while France itself would attack the territories of Habsburg Spain. Thus, while France’s allies continued fighting in Germany, French armies moved against the Spanish-controlled Netherlands (or the “Spanish Netherlands”—the southern Netherlands, modern-day Belgium), Franche Comté (a territory of Burgundy in France), and northern Italy as well as Spain itself. So violent were the French attacks that eventually, King Philip IV of Spain could no longer send troops to help the emperor against the German Protestants—which was just what Richelieu wanted to happen.


At first, the Spanish had a far superior army and were victorious against the French. In 1636, a large Spanish force invaded northern France and nearly captured Paris itself. The following year, a Spanish army crossed the Pyrenees Mountains and invaded southern France.

Philip IV, with his court dwarf

Gradually, however, the French began to score victories against the Spanish. France defeated Spain’s armies in the Netherlands because the Spanish had little local support there. (Ten provinces in the northern Netherlands had already declared themselves inde­pendent of Spain under their prince, William II of Orange.) By 1640, Philip IV was in deep trouble. Portugal, which Philip II had made part of Spain, revolted, as did Aragon and Naples in southern Italy. Philip IV was able to crush all these rebellions except the one in Portugal, and he even held on to the Belgian Netherlands. But in 1643, a French army destroyed the Spanish army at Rocroi in the Netherlands. By 1646, the Spanish held only a few large cities in the Belgian Netherlands.


In Germany, the emperor and his allies had been able to hold off the Swedes and the Protestant princes. But the weakening of Spain allowed Richelieu to send more and more French forces into Germany. The war in Germany now grew especially violent and lost any religious character it may have had. It had become a political struggle, with Protestants fighting with the emperor and Catholics fighting on the side of the Protestants. Neither side showed any Christian charity to the civilian population, which was caught between the contending armies. French, Swedish, and Protestant armies on the one hand, and the imperial and Catholic League armies on the other, ravaged Germany. They burned houses, massacred inhabitants, destroyed live­stock, and ruined crops. Both sides said such destruction was the necessary consequence of the “religious” disagreement. The “enemy” was expected to suffer and pay for his “opposition to the Truth.”


Richelieu on his deathbed, by Philippe de Champagne

Richelieu did not live to see the results of the warfare he had unleashed. In the fall of 1642 the cardinal, who had always been sickly, fell seriously ill. The elderly King Louis XIII, who had feared Richelieu and done his bidding, now personally attended the sick man, feeding him egg yolks from the royal spoon because the cardinal could not digest solid food. On December 4, 1642, Richelieu died after passing on his office to Cardinal Jules Mazarin—a man as committed as Richelieu had been to making France supreme in Europe.


With Mazarin as prime minister of France, the war continued. Yet, only a year after Richelieu’s death, the first moves toward peace were made. Emperor Ferdinand II, who had died in 1637, had been succeeded by his son, Ferdinand III. The German states desired peace, and in 1643 they convinced Ferdinand III to open peace talks with the French and Swedes. The talks, however, did not begin until late 1644, and it was August 1645 before Spain and the Netherlands joined in.


For the next three years peace talks continued, but so did the war. In 1646, the Swedes and the French occupied Bavaria, forcing Elector Maximilian to sign a treaty with Sweden. By 1647 the French and the Swedes controlled the entire empire, except for the Habsburg lands of Austria, Bohemia, and Hungary. Ferdinand wanted to make a separate peace with Sweden so he could continue to aid his cousin Philip IV in his war against France; but Sweden refused to agree to a peace treaty with­out France. Left with the choice of continuing the war or making peace with France and thus abandoning Spain, Ferdinand chose peace. Philip IV of Spain would have to fight on against France without help from his Austrian Habsburg cousin.


The Thirty Years’ War finally ended with the Peace of Westphalia, which was signed after long negotiations on October 24, 1648. Under the agreement, though Ferdinand III still held the title of emperor, the German states became practically independent of his power. Ferdinand, however, still held control of Austria, Bohemia, and Hungary, which, in the future, would form a strong Habsburg-controlled state. But the German empire, from then on, would be an empire only in name.


The swearing of the oath to ratify the final treaty of the Peace of Westphalia

More important and lasting than the parts of the Peace having to do with the empire were those that touched on religion. For the first time, the empire was forced to recognize Calvinism alongside Lutheranism and the Catholic Church as an official religion. But more significant than this was the provision stating that all states that had been Protestant in 1624 would remain Protestant, and all states then Catholic would remain Catholic. This provision made the religious division of Germany permanent and signified that any hope of reuniting Christendom had been openly abandoned.


The Thirty Years’ War was thus a great tragedy for Europe as a whole and Germany in particular. That land was devastated. Whole provinces were left uninhabitable wastelands, and almost half of the population of Germany had been killed. It took nearly 150 years for Germany to recover economically to the level of prosperity it had enjoyed before the conflict.


France’s war with Spain continued until 1659. Abandoned by Ferdinand III, his cousin for whom he had sacrificed so much, Philip IV, with the Spanish, fought bravely on. The Spanish cause, however, was hopeless. Portugal and England joined France against Spain. The Spanish treasury was empty, and vast numbers of Spanish soldiers had been killed in the long war. When the war ended in 1659, Spain, once the richest and stron­gest state in Europe, had become one of the poorest and weakest.


Richelieu’s supreme goal had been achieved, though he did not live to enjoy his victory. France came out of the Thirty Years’ War the most pow­erful nation in Europe. But to achieve this, France had forced Europe to pay an enormous price—the permanent dismemberment of Christendom into Protestant and Catholic states.

Song from Devastated Germany

Despite the devastation wrought by the Thirty Years’ War, German composers still wrote great music. Among these was the Lutheran composer, Heinrich Schütz, whose Geistliche Chormusik was published in 1648, the year of the Peace of Westphalia.




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