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PODs of the Thirty Years War L

By Alex Richards

Allegory of the Peace of Westphalia, by Jacob Jordaens.

The Westphalian Peace

It is tempting, from the perspective of the writer of Alternate History, to speculate on the Treaty of Westphalia failing. The conflict recommences, the unresolved issues break forth into open war once more, and France and Sweden in their positions as guarantors of the Imperial settlement descend upon Germany once again, and a new round of conflict emerges, perhaps becoming embroiled with the Fronde, Sweden’s succession crisis and the First Anglo-Dutch War.

No matter how temping this might be to consider, however, it is almost certain not to have happened. By 1648 neither the Habsburgs, nor the smaller states of Germany, nor Sweden could realistically maintain the resource-intensive level of conflict of the previous three decades. France alone was able to maintain some degree of large scale warfare, but even when only fighting Spain and Lorraine was unable to force a decisive victory. Their war would continue until 1659, when France would see Spain acknowledge the loss of Alsace, Rousillon and Artois in return for Maria Theresa of Spain marrying Louis XIV. Lorraine meanwhile was restored to Duke Charles IV in 1661, and would not be subordinated to French rule until after the War of the Polish Succession in 1737. Yet Spain too lost out- the possibility that she might bestride the continent like a colossus being dashed by the loss of influence in the Empire, and more significantly the loss of Portugal to a new, independent dynasty.

Nothing illustrates this lack of desire to continue the conflict more than what has come to be known as the Cow War of Düsseldorf. Elector Friedrich Wilhelm of Brandenburg attempted to resolve the Jülich-Cleves settlement in his favour once more, invading Pfalz-Neuburg held territory in the summer of 1651. Wolfgang Wilhelm of Pfalz-Neuburg responded by calling in the assistance of Duke Charles IV of Lorraine, and for a moment large-scale warfare appeared imminent. However, while during the war this would have received the backing of at least some of the Protestant powers of the Empire, and certainly the Dutch who were prone to kidnapping local Catholic priests to extort Wolfgang Wilhelm to tolerate Protestant practice during the war. Now, however, all condemned his actions, and the conflict was successfully defused by the end of the year.

It was a pattern that was repeated throughout the immediate post-Westphalian years. The constitutional settlement was not quite completely satisfactory for either side, but sufficient to prevent further conflict. There were debates over the implantation and interpretation of the normative year for ownership of Church property, but none of these broke into open confrontation. Even the Palatinate being inherited by the Catholic Pfalz-Neuburg branch in 1685 in the same year that Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes granting tolerance to French protestants did not produce widespread conflict within the Empire. The Protestant powers of the Empire invoked their right, agreed at Westphalia, to meet as a separate body in the Reichstag to discuss a response, but remained in alignment with the Emperor, the more radical positions being tempered by Saxon leadership in the body.

Indeed at a very fundamental level, Westphalia succeeded where previous attempts at agreements had failed because rather than trying to address all issues, it created new processes and legal recourses to ensure that new, or unresolved existing, disputes could be resolved. In this, at the very least, it was a long-term success.

The Shadow of Westphalia

Gerard ter Borch's depiction of the ratification of the Treaty of Münster, part of the Peace of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years' War.

There is a concept, well known in the field of international politics and diplomacy, of Westphalian Sovereignty. It is the ideal of a state- usually in the sense of the modern Nation-State- which exists on its own merits, its government bound by neither an external body nor internal opponents, fully in control of her own affairs and where any treaty made must respect this. As might be guessed from the name, the assumption is that this was created by the Peace of Westphalia casting out the roles and influence of Pope and Emperor and creating a patchwork of essentially independent states in the middle of Europe.

By and large this concept lies outside the scope of these articles. There are interesting debates to be had about the validity of Westphalian Sovereignty as an applied theory, about its relevancy in the modern world, and about the challenge organisations such as the European Union present to this interpretation of International Affairs. These are, however, the topics of another time, and another person.

Far more relevant to these articles is the way how this is fundamentally a misinterpretation of what the Peace of Westphalia actually represented. The institutions of the Empire, with the notable exception of those Imperial Circles dominated by the major states such as Bavaria or Brandenburg-Prussia, not only endured after 1648, in many cases the resolution of the religious disputes allowed them to grow and gain new life by removing deadlock. Legal disputes continued, in many cases stretching on for years, but as anyone who has experience with modern legal processes- or has read Dickens’ novel Bleak House- can attest this is hardly unknown even within nations. The extensive and complicated tax laws determined by the many and varied states of the Empire were an extreme case of this existing in a relatively small geographic area, but again hardly unusual- tariff barriers in France were after all to be one of the drivers of the Revolution there the following century. Even in areas where 1648 is generally treated as the end of membership of the Holy Roman Empire, the Dutch United Provinces and the Swiss Confederation most notably- the Emperor never formally renounced his rule. Instead it was simply the case that there was a declaration that these territories no longer owed formal rights and duties to the Emperor. It was an essentially feudal concept of relations, and the resultant feeling that these areas were no longer part of the Empire was a gradual cultural shift that was only to be fully completed in the 18th Century.

Most significantly, however, is the concept of the prince supreme in his own territory, an interpretation of Westphalia that owes far more to concurrent political trends in France than anything agreed in 1648. In one of the great ironies of the conflict, in the Empire this was far more of an assertion of rights and liberties granted by past Emperors in past declarations and which were to be expanded once again in future. In short, the relative independence of the states of the Empire after 1648 owed far more to the propaganda of ‘German Liberty’ espoused by France and Sweden than it did to do the centralising efforts of Louis XIII and XIV. It is a concept of ancient rights that endures, in small manner, to the present day- directly influencing the political outlook of the contemporary Austrian Freedom Party for example.

And yet for all that, Westphalia remains a turning point. The claim that it removed the influence of religion from the politics of Europe is inaccurate, but the division of Christianity between Catholic and Protestant branches was effectively cemented by the treaties, and the Pope’s direct influence was increasingly restricted to Italy over the next two centuries. The Emperor was not stripped of power, but the balance of power in Europe decisively shifted, with France being the chief beneficiary. Most notably, for all that Westphalia did not actually implement the sort of political system that is claimed, it was certainly to serve as an inspiration and blueprint for it. The French Revolution may have given birth to the modern world, but the Peace of Westphalia was still the effective last rites of the Medieval one, and while the path that emerged was not inevitable, it is undeniable that any world that emerged after Westphalia would be dramatically different from that which existed before. In that, more than anything, the Thirty Years War has been one of the foundations of the modern world.


Those interested in the history of the Thirty Years War alone can stop reading now, what is to come is pure self-indulgence. I do hope I have earned a little of that however.

When I started this article series back in April of 2019, I did so with the aim of bringing to light a complex, but transformative period of European history. At the time I thought this would be a relatively short series- maybe a dozen articles or so- covering the major points of interest.

In this, I perhaps fell into the same trap as so many of the leaders of the war itself, and made a fundamentally unrealistic assumption.

Almost 2 years to the day, 50 articles and 67,000-odd words later and I find myself astounded both by retrospective realisation of what this has become, and by the number of people who have stuck with my increasingly rambling digressions on the subject.

I sign off, therefore, with three expressions of thanks.

Firstly, to Peter H. Wilson who’s work Europe’s Tragedy has been invaluable in writing this series and is my chief recommendation for anyone who wants more details on the subject. My copy is now very well-thumbed and will be returning to the bookshelf for the first time in years.

Secondly, to the editors of the SLP blog. Both Andy Cooke and Gary Oswald have been extremely accommodating about the occasional schedule slip and I am greatly appreciatively of their excellent selection of illustrations throughout these articles.

And finally, to all those of you who have stuck with me through these last couple of years. Your comments, conversations and discussions have been a great joy to be a part of, and very rewarding.

It’s been exhausting at times. I hope it’s been informative. Most of all, it’s really been a lot of fun.


Alex Richards is the author of Tippecanoe and Wallace Too, published by SLP


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