Gateway to the Classics: The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Van Loon
The Story of Mankind by  Hendrik Van Loon

Religious Warfare

The Age of the Great Religious Controversies

T HE sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were the age of religious controversy.

If you will notice you will find that almost everybody around you is forever "talking economics" and discussing wages and hours of labor and strikes in their relation to the life of the community, for that is the main topic of interest of our own time.

The poor little children of the year 1600 or 1650 fared worse. They never heard anything but "religion." Their heads were filled with "predestination," "transubstantition," "free will," and a hundred other queer words, expressing obscure points of "the true faith," whether Catholic or Protestant. According to the desire of their parents they were baptised Catholics or Lutherans or Calvinists or Zwinglians or Anabaptists. They learned their theology from the Augsburg catechism, composed by Luther, or from the "institutes of Christianity," written by Calvin, or they mumbled the Thirty-Nine Articles of Faith which were printed in the English Book of Common Prayer, and they were told that these alone represented the "True Faith."

They heard of the wholesale theft of church property perpetrated by King Henry VIII, the much-married monarch of England, who made himself the supreme head of the English church, and assumed the old papal rights of appointing bishops and priests. They had a nightmare whenever some one mentioned the Holy Inquisition, with its dungeons and its many torture chambers, and they were treated to equally horrible stories of how a mob of outraged Dutch Protestants had got hold of a dozen defenceless old priests and hanged them for the sheer pleasure of killing those who professed a different faith. It was unfortunate that the two contending parties were so equally matched. Otherwise the struggle would have come to a quick solution. Now it dragged on for eight generations, and it grew so complicated that I can only tell you the most important details, and must ask you to get the rest from one of the many histories of the Reformation.


The Inquisition

The great reform movement of the Protestants had been followed by a thoroughgoing reform within the bosom of the Church. Those popes who had been merely amateur humanists and dealers in Roman and Greek antiquities, disappeared from the scene and their place was taken by serious men who spent twenty hours a day administering those holy duties which had been placed in their hands.

The long and rather disgraceful happiness of the monasteries came to an end. Monks and nuns were forced to be up at sunrise, to study the Church Fathers, to tend the sick and console the dying. The Holy Inquisition watched day and night that no dangerous doctrines should be spread by way of the printing press. Here it is customary to mention poor Galileo, who was locked up because he had been a little too indiscreet in explaining the heavens with his funny little telescope and had muttered certain opinions about the behaviour of the planets which were entirely opposed to the official views of the church. But in all fairness to the Pope, the clergy and the Inquisition, it ought to be stated that the Protestants were quite as much the enemies of science and medicine as the Catholics and with equal manifestations of ignorance and intolerance regarded the men who investigated things for themselves as the most dangerous enemies of mankind.

And Calvin, the great French reformer and the tyrant (both political and spiritual) of Geneva, not only assisted the French authorities when they tried to hang Michael Servetus (the Spanish theologian and physician who had become famous as the assistant of Vesalius, the first great anatomist), but when Servetus had managed to escape from his French jail and had fled to Geneva, Calvin threw this brilliant man into prison and after a prolonged trial, allowed him to be burned at the stake on account of his heresies, totally indifferent to his fame as a scientist.

And so it went. We have few reliable statistics upon the subject, but on the whole, the Protestants tired of this game long before the Catholics, and the greater part of honest men and women who were burned and hanged and decapitated on account of their religious beliefs fell as victims of the very energetic but also very drastic church of Rome.

For tolerance (and please remember this when you grow older), is of very recent origin and even the people of our own so-called "modern world" are apt to be tolerant only upon such matters as do not interest them very much. They are tolerant towards a native of Africa, and do not care whether he becomes a Buddhist or a Mohammedan, because neither Buddhism nor Mohammedanism means anything to them. But when they hear that their neighbour who was a Republican and believed in a high protective tariff, has joined the Socialist party and now wants to repeal all tariff laws, their tolerance ceases and they use almost the same words as those employed by a kindly Catholic (or Protestant) of the seventeenth century, who was informed that his best friend whom he had always respected and loved had fallen a victim to the terrible heresies of the Protestant (or Catholic) church.

"Heresy" until a very short time ago was regarded as a disease. Nowadays when we see a man neglecting the personal cleanliness of his body and his home and exposing himself and his children to the dangers of typhoid fever or another preventable disease, we send for the board-of-health and the health officer calls upon the police to aid him in removing this person who is a danger to the safety of the entire community. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a heretic, a man or a woman who openly doubted the fundamental principles upon which his Protestant or Catholic religion had been founded, was considered a more terrible menace than a typhoid carrier. Typhoid fever might (very likely would) destroy the body. But heresy, according to them, would positively destroy the immortal soul. It was therefore the duty of all good and logical citizens to warn the police against the enemies of the established order of things and those who failed to do so were as culpable as a modern man who does not telephone to the nearest doctor when he discovers that his fellow-tenants are suffering from cholera or small-pox.

In the years to come you will hear a great deal about preventive medicine. Preventive medicine simply means that our doctors do not wait until their patients are sick, then step forward and cure them. On the contrary, they study the patient and the conditions under which he lives when he (the patient) is perfectly well and they remove every possible cause of illness by cleaning up rubbish, by teaching him what to eat and what to avoid, and by giving him a few simple ideas of personal hygiene. They go even further than that, and these good doctors enter the schools and teach the children how to use tooth-brushes and how to avoid catching colds.

But the Catholics did not lag behind. They too devoted much time and thought to education. The Church, in this matter, found an invaluable friend and ally in the newly-founded order of the Society of Jesus. The founder of this remarkable organisation was a Spanish soldier who after a life of unholy adventures had been converted and thereupon felt himself bound to serve the church just as many former sinners, who have been shown the errors of their way by the Salvation Army, devote the remaining years of their lives to the task of aiding and consoling those who are less fortunate.

The name of this Spaniard was Ignatius de Loyola. He was born in the year before the discovery of America. He had been wounded and lamed for life and while he was in the hospital he had seen a vision of the Holy Virgin and her Son, who bade him give up the wickedness of his former life. He decided to go to the Holy Land and finish the task of the Crusades. But a visit to Jerusalem had shown him the impossibility of the task and he returned west to help in the warfare upon the heresies of the Lutherans.

In the year 1534 he was studying in Paris at the Sorbonne. Together with seven other students he founded a fraternity. The eight men promised each other that they would lead holy lives, that they would not strive after riches but after righteousness, and would devote themselves, body and soul, to the service of the Church. A few years later this small fraternity had grown into a regular organisation and was recognised by Pope Paul III as the Society of Jesus.

Loyola had been a military man. He believed in discipline, and absolute obedience to the orders of the superior dignitaries became one of the main causes for the enormous success of the Jesuits. They specialised in education. They gave their teachers a most thorough-going education before they allowed them to talk to a single pupil. They lived with their students and they entered into their games. They watched them with tender care. And as a result they raised a new generation of faithful Catholics who took their religious duties as seriously as the people of the early Middle Ages.

The shrewd Jesuits, however, did not waste all their efforts upon the education of the poor. They entered the palaces of the mighty and became the private tutors of future emperors and kings. And what this meant you will see for yourself when I tell you about the Thirty Years War. But before this terrible and final outbreak of religious fanaticism, a great many other things had happened.

Charles V was dead. Germany and Austria had been left to his brother Ferdinand. All his other possessions, Spain and the Netherlands and the Indies and America had gone to his son Philip. Philip was the son of Charles and a Portuguese princess who had been first cousin to her own husband. The children that are born of such a union are apt to be rather queer. The son of Philip, the unfortunate Don Carlos, (murdered afterwards with his own father's consent,) was crazy. Philip was not quite crazy, but his zeal for the Church bordered closely upon religious insanity. He believed that Heaven had appointed him as one of the saviours of mankind. Therefore, whosoever was obstinate and refused to share his Majesty's views, proclaimed himself an enemy of the human race and must be exterminated lest his example corrupt the souls of his pious neighbours.

Spain, of course, was a very rich country. All the gold and silver of the new world flowed into the Castilian and Aragonian treasuries. But Spain suffered from a curious economic disease. Her peasants were hard working men and even harder working women. But the better classes maintained a supreme contempt for any form of labour, outside of employment in the army or navy or the civil service. As for the Moors, who had been very industrious artisans, they had been driven out of the country long before. As a result, Spain, the treasure chest of the world, remained a poor country because all her money had to be sent abroad in exchange for the wheat and the other necessities of life which the Spaniards neglected to raise for themselves.

Philip, ruler of the most powerful nation of the sixteenth century, depended for his revenue upon the taxes which were gathered in the busy commercial bee-hive of the Netherlands. But these Flemings and Dutchmen were devoted followers of the doctrines of Luther and Calvin and they had cleansed their churches of all images and holy paintings and they had informed the Pope that they no longer regarded him as their shepherd but intended to follow the dictates of their consciences and the commands of their newly translated Bible.

This placed the king in a very difficult position. He could not possibly tolerate the heresies of his Dutch subjects, but he needed their money. If he allowed them to be Protestants and took no measures to save their souls he was deficient in his duty toward God. If he sent the Inquisition to the Netherlands and burned his subjects at the stake, he would lose the greater part of his income.

Being a man of uncertain will-power he hesitated a long time. He tried kindness and sternness and promises and threats. The Hollanders remained obstinate, and continued to sing psalms and listen to the sermons of their Lutheran and Calvinist preachers. Philip in his despair sent his "man of iron," the Duke of Alba, to bring these hardened sinners to terms. Alba began by decapitating those leaders who had not wisely left the country before his arrival. In the year 1572 (the same year that the French Protestant leaders were all killed during the terrible night of Saint Bartholomew), he attacked a number of Dutch cities and massacred the inhabitants as an example for the others. The next year he laid siege to the town of Leyden, the manufacturing center of Holland.


The Night of Saint Bartholomew

Meanwhile, the seven small provinces of the northern Netherlands had formed a defensive union, the so-called union of Utrecht, and had recognised William of Orange, a German prince who had been the private secretary of the Emperor Charles V, as the leader of their army and as commander of their freebooting sailors, who were known as the Beggars of the Sea. William, to save Leyden, cut the dykes, created a shallow inland sea, and delivered the town with the help of a strangely equipped navy consisting of scows and flat-bottomed barges which were rowed and pushed and pulled through the mud until they reached the city walls.


Leyden Delivered by the Cutting of the Dykes

It was the first time that an army of the invincible Spanish king had suffered such a humiliating defeat. It surprised the world just as the Japanese victory of Mukden, in the Russian-Japanese war, surprised our own generation. The Protestant powers took fresh courage and Philip devised new means for the purpose of conquering his rebellious subjects. He hired a poor half-witted fanatic to go and murder William of Orange. But the sight of their dead leader did not bring the Seven Provinces to their knees. On the contrary it made them furiously angry. In the year 1581, the Estates General (the meeting of the representatives of the Seven Provinces) came together at the Hague and most solemnly abjured their "wicked king Philip" and themselves assumed the burden of sovereignty which thus far had been invested in their "King by the Grace of God."


The Murder of William the Silent

This is a very important event in the history of the great struggle for political liberty. It was a step which reached much further than the uprising of the nobles which ended with the signing of the Magna Carta. These good burghers said "Between a king and his subjects there is a silent understanding that both sides shall perform certain services and shall recognise certain definite duties. If either party fails to live up to this contract, the other has the right to consider it terminated." The American subjects of King George III in the year 1776 came to a similar conclusion. But they had three thousand miles of ocean between themselves and their ruler and the Estates General took their decision (which meant a slow death in case of defeat) within hearing of the Spanish guns and although in constant fear of an avenging Spanish fleet.

The story about a mysterious Spanish fleet that was to conquer both Holland and England, when Protestant Queen Elizabeth had succeeded Catholic "Bloody Mary" was an old one. For years the sailors of the waterfront had talked about it. In the eighties of the sixteenth century, the rumour took a definite shape. According to pilots who had been in Lisbon, all the Spanish and Portuguese wharves were building ships. And in the southern Netherlands (in Belgium) the Duke of Parma was collecting a large expeditionary force to be carried from Ostend to London and Amsterdam as soon as the fleet should arrive.

In the year 1586 the Great Armada set sail for the north. But the harbours of the Flemish coast were blockaded by a Dutch fleet and the Channel was guarded by the English, and the Spaniards, accustomed to the quieter seas of the south, did not know how to navigate in this squally and bleak northern climate. What happened to the Armada once it was attacked by ships and by storms I need not tell you. A few ships, by sailing around Ireland, escaped to tell the terrible story of defeat. The others perished and lie at the bottom of the North Sea.


The Armada is Coming

Turn about is fair play. The British and the Dutch Protestants now carried the war into the territory of the enemy. Before the end of the century, Houtman, with the help of a booklet written by Linschoten (a Hollander who had been in the Portuguese service), had at last discovered the route to the Indies. As a result the great Dutch East India Company was founded and a systematic war upon the Portuguese and Spanish colonies in Asia and Africa was begun in all seriousness.

It was during this early era of colonial conquest that a curious lawsuit was fought out in the Dutch courts. Early in the seventeenth century a Dutch Captain by the name of van Heemskerk, a man who had made himself famous as the head of an expedition which had tried to discover the North Eastern Passage to the Indies and who had spent a winter on the frozen shores of the island of Nova Zembla, had captured a Portuguese ship in the straits of Malacca. You will remember that the Pope had divided the world into two equal shares, one of which had been given to the Spaniards and the other to the Portuguese. The Portuguese quite naturally regarded the water which surrounded their Indian islands as part of their own property and since, for the moment, they were not at war with the United Seven Netherlands, they claimed that the captain of a private Dutch trading company had no right to enter their private domain and steal their ships. And they brought suit. The directors of the Dutch East India Company hired a bright young lawyer, by the name of De Groot or Grotius, to defend their case. He made the astonishing plea that the ocean is free to all comers. Once outside the distance which a cannon ball fired from the land can reach, the sea is or (according to Grotius) ought to be, a free and open highway to all the ships of all nations. It was the first time that this startling doctrine had been publicly pronounced in a court of law. It was opposed by all the other seafaring people. To counteract the effect of Grotius' famous plea for the "Mare Liberum," or "Open Sea," John Selden, the Englishman, wrote his famous treatise upon the "Mare Clausum" or "Closed Sea" which treated of the natural right of a sovereign to regard the seas which surrounded his country as belonging to his territory. I mention this here because the question had not yet been decided and during the last war caused all sorts of difficulties and complications.

To return to the warfare between Spaniard and Hollander and Englishman, before twenty years were over the most valuable colonies of the Indies and the Cape of Good Hope and Ceylon and those along the coast of China and even Japan were in Protestant hands. In 1621 a West Indian Company was founded which conquered Brazil and in North America built a fortress called Nieuw Amsterdam at the mouth of the river which Henry Hudson had discovered in the year 1609


The Death of Hudson

These new colonies enriched both England and the Dutch Republic to such an extent that they could hire foreign soldiers to do their fighting on land while they devoted themselves to commerce and trade. To them the Protestant revolt meant independence and prosperity. But in many other parts of Europe it meant a succession of horrors compared to which the last war was a mild excursion of kindly Sunday-school boys.

The Thirty Years War which broke out in the year 1618 and which ended with the famous treaty of Westphalia in 1648 was the perfectly natural result of a century of ever increasing religious hatred. It was, as I have said, a terrible war. Everybody fought everybody else and the struggle ended only when all parties had been thoroughly exhausted and could fight no longer.


The Thirty Years War

In less than a generation it turned many parts of central Europe into a wilderness, where the hungry peasants fought for the carcass of a dead horse with the even hungrier wolf. Five-sixths of all the German towns and villages were destroyed. The Palatinate, in western Germany, was plundered twenty-eight times. And a population of eighteen million people was reduced to four million.

The hostilities began almost as soon as Ferdinand II of the House of Habsburg had been elected Emperor. He was the product of a most careful Jesuit training and was a most obedient and devout son of the Church. The vow which he had made as a young man, that he would eradicate all sects and all heresies from his domains, Ferdinand kept to the best of his ability. Two days before his election, his chief opponent, Frederick, the Protestant Elector of the Palatinate and a son-in-law of James I of England, had been made King of Bohemia, in direct violation of Ferdinand's wishes.

At once the Habsburg armies marched into Bohemia. The young king looked in vain for assistance against this formidable enemy. The Dutch Republic was willing to help, but, engaged in a desperate war of its own with the Spanish branch of the Habsburgs, it could do little. The Stuarts in England were more interested in strengthening their own absolute power at home than spending money and men upon a forlorn adventure in far away Bohemia. After a struggle of a few months, the Elector of the Palatinate was driven away and his domains were given to the Catholic house of Bavaria. This was the beginning of the great war.

Then the Habsburg armies, under Tilly and Wallenstein, fought their way through the Protestant part of Germany until they had reached the shores of the Baltic. A Catholic neighbour meant serious danger to the Protestant king of Denmark. Christian IV tried to defend himself by attacking his enemies before they had become too strong for him. The Danish armies marched into Germany but were defeated. Wallenstein followed up his victory with such energy and violence that Denmark was forced to sue for peace. Only one town of the Baltic then remained in the hands of the Protestants. That was Stralsund.

There, in the early summer of the year 1630, landed King Gustavus Adolphus of the house of Vasa, king of Sweden, and famous as the man who had defended his country against the Russians. A Protestant prince of unlimited ambition, desirous of making Sweden the centre of a great Northern Empire, Gustavus Adolphus was welcomed by the Protestant princes of Europe as the saviour of the Lutheran cause. He defeated Tilly, who had just successfully butchered the Protestant inhabitants of Magdeburg. Then his troops began their great march through the heart of Germany in an attempt to reach the Habsburg possessions in Italy. Threatened in the rear by the Catholics, Gustavus suddenly veered around and defeated the main Habsburg army in the battle of Lützen. Unfortunately the Swedish king was killed when he strayed away from his troops. But the Habsburg power had been broken.

Ferdinand, who was a suspicious sort of person, at once began to distrust his own servants. Wallenstein, his commander-in-chief, was murdered at his instigation. When the Catholic Bourbons, who ruled France and hated their Habsburg rivals, heard of this, they joined the Protestant Swedes. The armies of Louis XIII invaded the eastern part of Germany, and Turenne and Condé added their fame to that of Baner and Weimar, the Swedish generals, by murdering, pillaging and burning Habsburg property. This brought great fame and riches to the Swedes and caused the Danes to become envious. The Protestant Danes thereupon declared war upon the Protestant Swedes who were the allies of the Catholic French, whose political leader, the Cardinal de Richelieu, had just deprived the Huguenots (or French Protestants) of those rights of public worship which the Edict of Nantes of the year 1598 had guaranteed them.

The war, after the habit of such encounters, did not decide anything, when it came to an end with the treaty of Westphalia in 1648. The Catholic powers remained Catholic and the Protestant powers stayed faithful to the doctrines of Luther and Calvin and Zwingli. The Swiss and Dutch Protestants were recognised as independent republics. France kept the cities of Metz and Toul and Verdun and a part of the Alsace. The Holy Roman Empire continued to exist as a sort of scare-crow state, without men, without money, without hope and without courage.


Amsterdam in 1648

The only good the Thirty Years War accomplished was a negative one. It discouraged both Catholics and Protestants from ever trying it again. Henceforth they left each other in peace. This however did not mean that religious feeling and theological hatred had been removed from this earth. On the contrary. The quarrels between Catholic and Protestant came to an end, but the disputes between the different Protestant sects continued as bitterly as ever before. In Holland a difference of opinion as to the true nature of predestination (a very obscure point of theology, but exceedingly important in the eyes of your great-grandfather) caused a quarrel which ended with the decapitation of John of Oldenbarneveldt, the Dutch statesman, who had been responsible for the success of the Republic during the first twenty years of its independence, and who was the great organising genius of her Indian trading company. In England, the feud led to civil war.

But before I tell you of this outbreak which led to the first execution by process-of-law of a European king, I ought to say something about the previous history of England. In this book I am trying to give you only those events of the past which can throw a light upon the conditions of the present world. If I do not mention certain countries, the cause is not to be found in any secret dislike on my part. I wish that I could tell you what happened to Norway and Switzerland and Serbia and China. But these lands exercised no great influence upon the development of Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I therefore pass them by with a polite and very respectful bow. England however is in a different position. What the people of that small island have done during the last five hundred years has shaped the course of history in every corner of the world. Without a proper knowledge of the background of English history, you cannot understand what you read in the newspapers. And it is therefore necessary that you know how England happened to develop a parliamentary form of government while the rest of the European continent was still ruled by absolute monarchs.

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