Tony Blair and the Peace of Westphalia
by Gwydion M. Williams
A detailed disproof of the New-Right idea that sovereign states are a 17th century invention—a notion that Blair has now added to New Labour ideology. And what the Peace of Westphalia really did do for Europe
Having broken existing norms with the invasion of Iraq, Tony Blair is repeating the New-Right idea that sovereignty is actually a recent and rather shallow thing. It may not have begun 45 minutes ago, or even 45 years ago. But it supposedly began in 1648.
Oddly, Blair’s critics have not picking him up on this or said that he has swallowed New Right propaganda with the eagerness of a lawyer absorbing a new brief for an important client. The claim is in danger of getting established as part of popular belief, simply because it isn’t being disputed.
The 1648 ‘Peace of Westphalia’ perhaps established a pattern of states and politics that lasted till the French Revolution. Some say otherwise, that it simply confirmed the balance of power in Germany as it has been struck in 1555. It was definitely not a final European settlement, or even an end to the Wars Of Religion outside of Germany.
The pattern of states west of Vienna was not hugely different after 1648 than it had been in 1548, or 1448. In fact Europe changed more between 1448 and 1548 than between 1548 and 1648. In 1448, Constantinople still held a remnant of the Roman Empire, while the pope was secure as top authority in the Latin-Christian tradition. The Chinese invention of printing had not yet been boosted by Gutenberg’s system of moveable type. Beyond Europe, no one had got very far down the coast of Africa; the idea of lands to the west was still a hazy rumour.
1648 confirmed the pattern of previous centuries, with Germany fragmented and much of Italy tied to ‘Spain’—actually the Western Hapsburg dynasty. These ties lasted until the War of the Spanish Succession, which ended any possibility of a joint Spanish-Italian realm and which easily could have altered the balance struck in 1648.
The two treaties signed in Westphalia were just half of the actual peace process. A peace agreement became possible at Westphalia, only after the Dutch made peace with Spain. Rather, the unconquered northern half of the Netherlands made peace with their former rulers, the multi-national dominions of the Western Hapsburgs. By settling with the Dutch, the Western Hapsburgs secured about half of their former Netherlands territories, the lands that eventually became Belgium. The Dutch accepted that they’d never get this land back, while the Western Hapsburgs conceded that the Dutch rebellion had succeeded and had established a legitimate republic.
The ‘Peace of Westphalia’ was stages two and three in the process, beginning with the Treaty of Osnabruck between the Swedes and the Eastern Hapsburgs or House of Austria. The House of Austria were long-time possessors of the Imperial title, but no emperor could be certain of getting their heir elected to the Imperial power, whereas their claims to the other possessions of the House of Austria were secure. And though Westphalia saw the gathering of most of Europe, no principle of ‘multilateral mediation’ was established by this. The states present at Westphalia were those that were involved in the wars of the two Hapsburg dynasties, or the immediate neighbours of those states. Britain was marginal to the Thirty Years War and Britain was absent.
Britain in 1648 had just completed its main civil war and was edging towards executing King Charles 1st, creating a constitutional crisis that wasn’t really resolved until 1688. Small differences in the weather, personal choices or individual life-spans might have resulted in a British return to Catholicism, or alternatively a hard-line Puritan Britain under Cromwell’s heirs. Cromwell’s son-in-law Ireton would probably have kept power for a dynasty of Lord Protectors, or become Lord Protector himself, but he happened to die young. And, in Middle-Europe, the Turks nearly captured Vienna in 1683. The fall of Vienna after its emperor abandoned it would have utterly changed Europe, quite possibly giving Louis 14th the chance to make himself Holy Roman Empire and ruler of a unified Christian Europe. Louis 14th might also have triumphed if the pro-French King James 2nd had used his large British army against William of Orange, whose initial position was uncertain.
Alternatively, had Louis 14th failed in some of his anti-Spanish and anti-Austrian campaigns after 1648, the House of Austria might have been able to resume its campaign to make themselves true rulers of the Holy Roman Emperor. Had history gone that way, 1648 would have been just a blip in the ‘inevitable’ formation of a unified Hapsburg-Catholic Empire for Germany, maybe for all Europe and the New World.
The Peace of Westphalia was an important step in the winding-down of the brutal religious wars and their replacement by dynastic wars—wars in which William of Orange’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne would be celebrated by the pope. But it did not create a “new constitution for a small society of states”, as Philip Bobbitt claims in the Shield of Achilles. States outside of the Holy Roman Empire had always been fully sovereign bodies, subject at most to some supervision by the pope, who was frequently ignored or disobeyed. All that the Peace of Westphalia did was officially confirm that some 300-odd states within the Holy Roman Empire were almost sovereign, though with some reservations. The constitutional structures of a single German ‘Reich’ or ‘Realm’ was left in place. It did not create a novel notion of sovereignty, as the British Prime Minister seems to believe:
“Already, before September 11th the world’s view of the justification of military action had been changing. The only clear case in international relations for armed intervention had been self-defence, response to aggression. But the notion of intervening on humanitarian grounds had been gaining currency… in an increasingly inter-dependent world, our self-interest was allied to the interests of others; and seldom did conflict in one region of the world not contaminate another… So, for me, before September 11th, I was already reaching for a different philosophy in international relations from a traditional one that has held sway since the treaty of Westphalia in 1648; namely that a country’s internal affairs are for it and you don’t interfere unless it threatens you, or breaches a treaty, or triggers an obligation of alliance. I did not consider Iraq fitted into this philosophy, though I could see the horrible injustice done to its people by Saddam.” (Speech given by the prime minister in Sedgefield, Friday March 5, 2004. Emphasis added.)
Blair rejects the basic idea of sovereignty, the belief that foreign countries have the right to a life of their own. This notion has existed from the beginnings of human history, though ambitious conquerors and aggressive cultures have always contested the right of foreigners to be foreign. Aggressive states tried to swallow up their neighbours, and maybe to erase their separate identity, as England swallowed Wales and tried to swallow Scotland and Ireland. But states that were either strong or distant were treated politely, in a system that was not hugely different from modern diplomacy.
The various Latin-Christian emperors from Charlemagne onwards were mostly on good terms with the powerful Kings of England. Unlike the popes—who awarded Ireland to the English monarchs in mediaeval times, but went as far as excommunication on matters of Church authority—the emperors never thought that events in Britain were any of their business. Lawyers might theorise about the emperor ruling the whole world, but actual emperors found it hard enough to keep control of Germany. In fact they did not keep real control, except in the lands they held separately from the Imperial title.
The core idea of an empire is aggression, even though actual empires may be reduced to stagnation or a shadowy existence. The Persian Empire created by Cyrus was maybe the first empire to claim the right to rule everyone without exception. There had been previous empires, Babylonian and Assyrian and Hittite and Egyptian, going back 18 centuries before Cyrus as far as Sargon of ancient Ur. Definitely, the Persians were an Empire in the modern sense of the term, a sense borrowed by Alexander and his successors, and then passed on to the Romans. But the Persian Empire was tolerant; people could live much as they pleased once they paid tax and accepted Persian rule. This was the basis on which the Jews returned from their Babylonian Exile and rebuilt their Temple with Persian permission.
Rather less tolerance was shown by the heirs of Alexander, Macedonians who had absorbed Greek culture and who were full of a mission to make everyone Greek. To be lacking Greek culture was barely to be human—their term ‘barbari’ should be translated as either ‘foreigner’ or ‘half-human’, and did not just apply to foreigners who were barbarians in the modern sense. It was from this viewpoint that the Seleucid king Antiochus IV tried to force his Jewish subjects to junk their old-fashioned ways and embrace civilised Greek values.
The central demand of the civilising Greeks was that Jews should worship their peculiar Jerusalem God as an aspect of Zeus. This sparked the Maccabean Revolt: Mel Gibson has promised to make the Maccabees his next epic film, to balance the alleged anti-Jewish elements in his film about Jesus. But he’ll have to work hard to avoid the rebellious Jews fighting sophisticated Greeks looking uncomfortably similar to the anti-American Resistance in Iraq.
The Maccabean Revolt is better-remembered than most anti-Imperial uprising, mainly because the Maccabees won and established a Jewish kingdom. A mini-Empire that conquered surrounding peoples and imposed Judaism on some of them, notably the Edomites / Idumaeans. This kingdom still had a fading identity in the time of Jesus, and was an inspiration to Christianity and to later Judaism.
The Roman Empire had to fight several wars to re-subdue the Jews. They managed also to break the Celts outside of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands, but failed to ‘civilise’ the Germanic tribes. Constantine and his successors managed to save the Greek-speaking Eastern Roman Empire and continue its traditions at Constantinople, but the Latin-speaking Western Roman Empire was overrun by Germanic tribalists. The successful tribal rulers established a set of regional kingdoms and principalities that made more concessions to the human need to have a particular identity within a particular place.
Sovereignty is basic to human identity. But there have always been ambitious empire-builders trying to overturn this principle, both before and after 1648. The popes had claimed the right to preach crusades and to displace sovereign rulers: Popes had given official sanction to William of Normandy’s conquest of Saxon England, and later to Norman England’s conquest of Ireland. Popes also tried to depose Elizabeth Tudor, though this was not enforced. Note that it was popes rather than emperors who claimed this power and sometimes managed to exercise it. In most of Europe, the emperor was a foreign ruler with no more rights than any other foreign monarch.
The Peace of Westphalia was an agreement by the emperor that he would respect a mediaeval pattern of laws, customs and privileges that limited his power within Germany. It said nothing about his legal right to interfere in France or Sweden or England, because no one seriously supposed that he had ever had such a right. A few intellectuals viewed the emperor as the rightful ruler of all Christians—of the whole world, indeed. But only within the Germanic Empire did the emperor have some claim to overall authority of a genuine sort.
The right of the popes to interfere anywhere in the world was not mentioned in the Peace of Westphalia, except to specify that the pope would be ignored if he attempted to overturn this particular settlement. Papal power was still theoretically respected by Catholics, except that in practice they had always stopped him from exercising it. The nearest thing to ‘humanitarian intervention’ was the papal powers of Interdict and Crusade, including the Sack of Byzantium by the Fourth Crusade. Various abuses of power led to the ‘Holy Father’ being seen as an ‘Unholy Fool’, open to bribes and threats.
The pope’s protest against the Peace of Westphalia—which I quote later on—says nothing about Christendom having been dissolved into princely states, because this was not what had happened. Christendom was princely states, and had been since the Roman Empire broke up. Nor did the papacy desire a restored Empire; they normally opposed attempts by the Empire at Constantinople to re-conquer its lost lands (which it did with the campaigns of Belisarius, recovering Italy for a while and briefly having enough control of Rome to stop the popes opposing the process.) The papal crowning of Charlemagne is often seen as pre-emptive, to stop him from claiming the Imperial crown in his own right and without regard for papal opinions. Still, for some reason the papacy did keep re-creating the office of emperor when it lapsed and lost authority. I suppose it was part of tradition.
Pope Innocent X’s actual protest against the Peace of Westphalia cited the emperor granting official toleration of heresy outside of his own holdings as Archduke of Austria and King of Bohemia. Another issue was the creation of an eighth Electorate, since the papacy considered it had a right to supervise the process whereby emperors were elected. The pope felt that his rights had been infringed by the 1648 agreements, and issued a Papal Bull saying so, but it was treated as Papal Bullshit by Catholic and Protestant alike. The real power of the popes to intervene was much reduced and went on diminishing, though popes never fully abandoned the right to make rulings on the affairs of sovereign states, in the hope that Catholics would help enforce these opinions.
The Peace of Westphalia was an innovation, in as much as it brought most of the powers of Europe together to make the settlement. It was probably unavoidable: most states in Latin-Christian Europe were involved in the fighting, or were close enough to the Holy Roman Empire to be deeply interested in its politics. But it had originally been a papal idea:
“The concept of such a conference originated with Pope Urban VIII (reigned 1623-1644). Like many of his predecessors since the 15th century, Urban VIII regarded his role in the family of Western states not as that of a ruler but as the padre commune, or father of all. Under the circumstances of the age of denominational conflict, this role entailed the special moral duty of settling the conflicts between the Catholic dynasties… However, Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642), Prime Minister of France since 1624, by no means wanted to confront both lines of the house of Habsburg at a peace conference without the presence of all his allies. He had resolutely defended these maxims even against the Pope, even though this placed him under considerable pressure to justify his position. For his most important allies were Protestant powers, above all Sweden (since 1631) and the States General of the Netherlands (since 1624/35)… These powers rejected the Pope as an intermediary, nor did the Pope wish to be available in his official capacity for talks with heretical powers. Thus an alternative had to be found so that they could participate in the conference. This alternative consisted in transferring the role of mediator between Catholic and Protestant states to another neutral power, namely Venice” (Negotiating the Peace of Westphalia, by Konrad Repgen).
In the modern world, the right of “intervening on humanitarian grounds” is theoretically governed by the Charter of the United Nations. This was supposed to establish global standards that could be imposed on sovereign states, by armed force if necessary, but only after consultation by the world as a whole. But the world as a whole has different values from the ‘Anglosphere’, the alignment of the USA and Britain, sometimes joined by Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Bush and Blair started their invasion of Iraq without clear authorisation from the United Nations, which had in fact given excessive credibility to false claims about ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’. They relied on the power of the ‘Anglosphere’ to override or overawe the United Nations, and the United Nations has reacted with total servility. What’s gone wrong is the failure to subdue Iraq, but the ‘Anglosphere’ is still governed by men who want to dominate the rest of the world and think that they can overcome all obstacles. Claiming a very recent origin for sovereignty is part of the process, obscuring the way in which the Anglosphere has used its power to override existing norms.
What was the actual effect of the treaties that constituted the Peace of Westphalia? Broadly, they worked against the possibility of Germany becoming a nation-state in the normal manner, with state power accumulating around the power of a traditional monarch. It confirmed the permanence of the divisions that had mediaeval origins, but which were encouraged by the Wars of Religion. It ended with the splitting of the Germanic Realm into some 300 states of various sizes.
The entity within which the Thirty Years War was fought was the Holy Roman Empire Of The Germanic People. The last part of the name is often omitted, as with the United States or United Kingdom. But it had been centuries since Charlemagne’s unsuccessful attempt to recreate the Roman Empire. His kingdom included about half of Latin-Christian Europe—the lands that became France, Germany and the Benelux countries, along with northern Italy. He then felt strong enough to claim the vacant title of Emperor of the West, with some hope of restoring the Latin Empire in the same way that the Shi and Tang dynasties had restored the Han-dynasty empire in China. But the pope outwitted him by crowning Charlemagne as if it were a papal gift, an act for which there was no real precedent.
Most monarchs were crowned by the most senior religious dignitary they could lay hands on. But the religious dignitary did no more than recognise and sanctify someone else’s decision, like a priest conducting a wedding ceremony. No Archbishop of Canterbury every dared refuse to crown the next claimant to the English throne—the closest was King Stephen being crowned by his half-brother in preference to Queen Matilda. And this led to a civil war that eventually ended with Matilda’s son becoming the heir and ancestor of subsequent English monarchs. But in the case of the Holy Roman Empire, the papacy did manage to wangle itself the right to say who was or wasn’t emperor.
When Charlemagne was made emperor, the rest of Latin-Christian Europe was not at all inclined to obey this new Supreme Lord. They would call him emperor, since the pope endorsed it, but most of them were rulers of kingdoms with their own ancient traditions, traditions stretching back into a non-Christian past. And Charlemagne’s realm fragmented between his various successors, helped by a habit of splitting the realm between all of the King / Emperor’s sons. Out of this confusion, France eventually emerged as a distinct kingdom whose monarch was often more powerful than the German Emperor.
The idea that the emperor was universal ruler was semi-serious in nominally Imperial territories, where it served as a defence against locally powerful rulers. Within the Empire, to be directly dependant on the emperor was to be almost independent—unless you were within the hereditary lands of the House of Austria, of course. In Italy, it also served as a defence against papal ventures into secular politics, and as part of a general factionalism. In the rest of Europe, the emperor was just a foreign ruler with a fancy title. Popes had a genuine authority in all Latin-Christian lands, but emperors did not. The empire became de facto a German kingdom, and from the 1440s was sacrum Romanum imperium nationis Germanicae, Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. It was not however very unified, including regional rulers known collectively as ‘princes’ and with a variety of other titles. The ruler of Bohemia was traditionally a King, at least from 1085, even though Bohemia was part of the Empire. But then got absorbed into the Hapsburg dynasty’s direct possessions, from 1526 to 1918. (The Thirty Years was sparked off by the rejection of this claim by Bohemian Protestants, who had some success but had been thoroughly crushed by 1648.)
Empires are the exception, not the rule. Human politics began with a huge number of separate political entities that each recognised the others as valid, sovereign in the modern sense of the term. The Roman Empire absorbed or destroyed many of them in Europe, West Asia and North Africa, but when the Empire fell, new principalities and kingdoms took shape. Portugal achieved its present frontiers before any other modern nation-state. But some other European kingdoms were recognisable by the year 1000: England, Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Arguably Scotland, Poland, Hungary, Serbia and several other nations in Middle-Europe that had a shape not unlike the shape they have today, after many ups and downs. Hungary was claimed and mostly ruled by the Hapsburgs between the 15th and 20th centuries, but always remained a distinct entity with its own subject peoples. This was the basis on which Czechs and Slovaks first separated: Bohemia and Moravia were Slavonic-speaking portions of the ‘Holy Roman Empire’, while the Slovak territories were part of the multi-ethnic Hungarian kingdom.
The authentic Roman Empire had been a political-military machine, funded by taxes and ruled by an Emperor whose power depended on holding the office of Emperor. Occasionally the official Emperor didn’t count and someone else ran the machine, as Seneca and Burrus ran it during the first years of Nero’s reign. But it was a functional state system, which collapsed in the West in the 5th century and lasted in Byzantium for many more centuries. The Roman Empire during its periods of strength was a unitary state, with the Emperor able to appoint and remove governors in distant provinces. This was very different from the customs of Feudalism and of the Dark Ages, which accepted entities that were subordinate but allowed to wage war on their own account, even against their own Overlord.
Well before the formal end of the Western Roman Empire, it had in practice become a mass of independent realms with a fairly nominal role for the emperor. The Roman state, with its complex bureaucracy, taxes and professional armies had been whittled away to nothing by the migration of Germanic tribes into Britain, France, Spain and North Italy. The Latin Empire became a title, not a state authority, and some of the later emperors were mere puppets. You could have had a Japanese-style situation with a warlord ruling in the name of someone with the right ancestry, except that the Church disliked such systems and the whole idea of ‘sacred kings’. And in the 5th century there was still a valid empire centred at Byzantium, which refused to recognise Romulus Augustulus, the last of the Western Roman Emperors.
The main event of 476 was the formal deposition of this inadequate puppet-emperor and the creation of a short-lived Kingdom of Italy by the Vandals, who were actually quite cultured. Odoacer King of the Vandals stopped pretending to control the Western Roman Empire, which the other Germanic kings would not accept. He did still recognise a higher authority, but it was the Byzantine Emperor, who had no real control in Italy at that time.
The Byzantines asserted real power later on, with the conquest of Italy in 534-5 under the famous General Belisarius. But the Byzantines were gradually driven out by the Germanic Lombard kingdom, who in turn were conquered by Charlemagne.
It was Byzantium that kept Roman and Imperial-Greek traditions alive. Charlemagne was the first Germanic king who had comparable power and could claim to be a real Emperor. But he and his heirs remained Germanic kings with a fancy title; there was no state machine such as Rome had created and such as persisted in Byzantium (not to mention other gigantic Empires unrelated to the Romano-Greek and Christian tradition).
Charlemagne’s attempt to re-found the Western Roman Empire failed, in part because the papacy had gone way beyond its original role as the most senior of the five Christian patriarchies. The Bishop of Rome was trying to become a kind of emperor, but successive popes also felt the need to bestow the title of emperor on some hereditary ruler whom they felt they could work with. In real terms, the Western Empire was never restored. Charlemagne had power as King of the Franks, and gained little by acquiring the Imperial title.
And that’s just Western Europe. The parochial Latin-Christian viewpoint thinks of the Roman Empire ‘ruling the world’. But the Empire at the height of its power stopped at the deserts in North Africa, and met the equally powerful empire of Persia or Parthia in the Middle East. Most critically, the Roman Empire failed to conquer the Germanic tribes, who in the end broke into the Empire instead, and split it into kingdoms. Charlemagne’s dynasty were the most successful of these dynasties—actually usurpers who replaced the more ancient Merovingian dynasty, with papal approval.
At its height, the Roman Empire controlled no more than one-quarter of the world’s population. It was probably less rich and powerful than the distant Chinese Empire, which definitely drained it of wealth via the silk trade. And the Western Roman Empire was brought down by nomadic Huns whom the Han-dynasty Chinese had successfully driven westwards. The Holy Roman Empire was a weak attempt to revive the Roman state, not comparable to the successful revivals of the gigantic Han-dynasty realm by the Tang dynasty, Sung Dynasty and Ming dynasty, with the Ming realm taken over almost intact by the Sinified-nomad Manchus. China was dominated by scholar-gentry who always worked for a unification of the realm under a single supreme Emperor. In Europe, the papacy was always a disruptive force. Europe divided into a mass of kingdoms and smaller units, many of which had existed as pagan tribal entities and kept those forms when they became Christian. England and the Scandinavian kingdoms kept continuity with their pagan origins and never viewed the Emperor as anything more than a powerful foreign ruler. Hungary, Poland and other places got caught up in Imperial politics, but remained separate entities with a recognised and distinct identity.
Far away from Christendom, China kept re-unifying because Confucian ideology said there should be a single Emperor or ‘Son of Heaven’. This was also true of Orthodox Christianity, which stuck to St Paul’s notion that worldly rulers should be obeyed except on core religious matters. In the Latin half of the Roman Empire, the Bishops of Rome had vastly more prestige than any other bishops west of Greece. This led to them attempting to control emperors, or substitute for emperors.
During the 17th century, various European rulers were trying to simplify the complex politics that they had inherited from mediaeval times. England was well placed, because William the Conqueror as King of England made sure that none of his vassals could treat him as he treated the King of France in his role as Duke of Normandy. William of Normandy was frequently at war with the King of France, and yet would not have disputed that the King of France was his overlord for Normandy. He held England in his own right, however, and left it to William II while feeling obliged to let his elder son Robert inherit Normandy; that was the complexity of the feudal system. It was also nothing to do with the Emperor, except in as far as later English monarchs had claims to Flanders, which was ambiguously a part of the Holy Roman Empire. The Empire occasionally backed the English monarchy’s claim to the French throne, but it turned out that no one much cared.
It is arguable that the biggest result of the Norman Conquest was to preserve France as a coherent kingdom. Because regional resistance to rule from Paris got intermingled with efforts by the Kings of England to expand their French dominions. This accelerated with the end of the dynasty of the Capets, which left Edward III of England with an excellent claim to the French throne. George III in 1760 was the first monarch to drop the claim to be King of France. But it had become nominal under Henry 6th, when France was lost and England descended into the chaos of the Wars Of The Roses.
England recovered and became a more centralised state under the Tudors, while France in the end did pull together. In Germany this never happened, even though the House of Austria tried from time to time to become real Kings of Germany. The reality was a complex system of regional rule, including the German Hansa, commonly but wrongly known as the Hanseatic League. “For most of its history the Hanse simply ignored the Empire and in return was ignored by the Emperors” (Page 8, England and the German Hanse. T H Lloyd, Cambridge University Press 1991.) The Hansa were an anarchic alliance of towns, some of them legally the subjects of various German princes, while others were ‘Imperial’, nominal subjects of the distant emperor. The Hansa alignment even included the Teutonic Knights, whose territory was secularised as Prussia. Prussia’s rise was helped by its merger with the Electorate of Brandenburg, a dynastic state which eventually threw Austria out of Germany and founded a new Empire or Second Reich in the 19th century. Centuries before that, the Hansa lost significance as English commerce progressed under state encouragement. Other German rulers expanded their own little principalities under nominal Imperial rule. The Hapsburgs tried to reverse this, but Catholic as well as Protestant resisted their attempts to sweep aside local rights. The Peace of Westphalia was an abandonment of one such attempt, but no one knew at the time that it would be the last attempt. What it did amount to was a cessation of an exhausting war, along with a very detailed statement of who owned what and how much should be given back to those who held it before the Thirty Years War.
The Treaty of Munster
The treaty signed at Munster in Westphalia begins by stating that the war had been started by Ferdinand 2nd and Louis 13th, and was being concluded by Ferdinand 3rd and Louis 14th. The exact titles are worth noting; the Emperor was:
The most Serene and Puissant Prince and Lord, Ferdinand the Third,
elected Roman Emperor, always August,
King of Germany, Hungary, Bohemia, Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia,
Arch-Duke of Austria, Duke of Burgundy, Brabant, Styria, Carinthia, Carniola,
Marquis of Moravia, Duke of Luxemburg, of the Higher and Lower Silesia, of Wirtemburg and Teck,
Prince of Suabia, Count of Hapsburg, Tirol, Kyburg and Goritia,
Marquis of the Sacred Roman Empire, Burgovia, the Higher and Lower Lusace,
Lord of the Marquisate of Slavonia, of Port Naon and Salines.
the most Serene and most Puissant Prince and Lord, Louis the Fourteenth,
most Christian King of France and Navarre.
Louis 14thwould later establish that the King of France was boss of France. Richelieu and Mazaran had worked hard for it, Louis himself would complete the process, but in 1648 it was still incomplete. Still, there was general acceptance in 1648 that the King of France was sovereign and entitled to be obeyed, even if actual obedience took a little longer. Whereas the Hapsburg emperors were only big bosses as Archdukes of Austria and (sometimes) Kings of Hungary, with Hungary being outside of the Holy Roman Empire and governed by different laws. Hapsburg power within Germany depended on the various lesser titles which they displayed. There was no solid power attached to being “Elected Roman Emperor” or being designated King of Germany, two titles that normally went together.
In retrospect, the Peace of Westphalia was seen to have ended the religious wars in Continental Europe. No one at the time could have been sure if the new peace would be as successful as the 1555 Peace of Augsburg, which had lasted for more than six decades and then broken down.
The Treaty of Munster was part of a general peace process that occurred in 1648. A provisional peace had been made between Spain and France, but this broke down. The Spanish-French war was resumed after 1648 and lasted until 1659. The other parts of the agreement held, as it happened. These were:
- The Treaty between Spain and the Netherlands, which ended the ‘Eighty Years War’ by recognising the legality of Dutch independence. For their part the Dutch accepted that they could not recover the southern Netherlands, the territories that are today Belgium. This was signed first, and ignored the fact that the Netherlands had traditionally been part of the Holy Roman Empire,
- The Treaty of Osnabruck (also in Westphalia), made between Sweden and the House of Austria. This recognised Sweden’s role as champion of German Protestant rights and as possessor of lands within the Germanic Empire. This was settled and agreed first, but not actually signed until the House of Austria had made a final deal with France.
“The imperial estates, by applying political pressure, persuaded the representatives of the Emperor and Sweden to read out the finished Osnabruck peace instrument before the congress on 6 August 1648 and shake hands on it. After the end of September the text of this treaty was offered for sale everywhere… signing and sealing of it had been postponed out of consideration for the ally France… until 24 October in Munster” (Negotiating the Peace of Westphalia, by Konrad Repgen)
The Treaty of Munster was between France and the House of Austria. It included the abandonment of some portions of the German Realm to the King of France—lands in the provinces of Lorraine and Alsace, as it happened. Sweden gained a role in the Imperial system by virtue of the German lands it had won, but the lands given to the King of France were abandoned, with the French King kept away from the internal affairs of the Germanic Realm.
Much of the treaty is unreadable, matters of power and territory that meant everything at the time and nothing nowadays. But some parts are worth quoting:
In the name of the most holy and individual Trinity: Be it known to all, and every one whom it may concern, or to whom in any manner it may belong, That for many Years past, Discords and Civil Divisions being stirred up in the Roman Empire, which increased to such a degree, that not only all Germany, but also the neighbouring Kingdoms, and France particularly, have been involved in the Disorders of a long and cruel War… [This is followed by the titles of Frederick the Second and Third, along with Louis the 13th and 14th, quoted earlier, and then “with his Allies and Adherents on the other side”]
I have used an English text of the Treaty of Munster. But I have modernised spellings, removing peculiar forms like “Publick” and “obtain’d”. I have also added ‘Article’ before each of the clauses, to make them clearer. Likewise I have changed ‘Swedeland’ to ‘Sweden’, but other place-names I have left as I found them. But I have ignored accents—the world’s standard computer technology originated in the USA and does not cope well with them. Often they turn a carefully accented character into a box (‘unknown’) or some obscure squiggle.
Note that you have a ‘Roman Empire’—a fancy name for the Germanic Realm—and also ‘neighbouring Kingdoms’ that are distinct political entities that took part in the war.
From whence ensued great Effusion of Christian Blood, and the Desolation of several Provinces. It has at last happened, by the effect of Divine Goodness, seconded by the Endeavours of the most Serene Republic of Venice, who in this sad time, when all Christendom is embroiled, has not ceased to contribute its Counsels for the public Welfare and Tranquillity; so that on the side, and the other, they have formed Thoughts of an universal Peace. And for this purpose, by a mutual Agreement and Covenant of both Parties, in the year of our Lord 1641 the 15th of December it was resolved at Hamburg, to hold an Assembly of Plenipotentiary Ambassadors, who should render themselves at Munster and Osnabruck in Westphalia the 11th of July, N.S. or the 1st of the said month O.S. in the year 1643. The Plenipotentiary Ambassadors on the one side, and the other, duly established, appearing at the prefixed time… [Followed by a long list of forgotten names]
After having implored the Divine Assistance, and received a reciprocal Communication of Letters, Commissions, and full Powers, the Copies of which are inserted at the end of this Treaty, in the presence and with the consent of the Electors of the Sacred Roman Empire, the other Princes and States, to the Glory of God, and the Benefit of the Christian World, the following Articles have been agreed on and consented to, and the same run thus.
That there shall be a Christian and Universal Peace, and a perpetual, true, and sincere Amity, between his Sacred Imperial Majesty, and his most Christian Majesty; as also, between all and each of the Allies, and Adherents of his said Imperial Majesty, the House of Austria, and its Heirs, and Successors; but chiefly between the Electors, Princes, and States of the Empire on the one side; and all and each of the Allies of his said Christian Majesty, and all their Heirs and Successors, chiefly between the most Serene Queen and Kingdom of Sweden, the Electors respectively, the Princes and States of the Empire, on the other part. That this Peace and Amity be observed and cultivated with such a Sincerity and Zeal, that each Party shall endeavour to procure the Benefit, Honour and Advantage of the other; that thus on all sides they may see this Peace and Friendship in the Roman Empire, and the Kingdom of France flourish, by entertaining a good and faithful Neighbourhood.
The treaty-makers regarded the ‘Roman Empire’ as a distinct entity from the ‘House of Austria’. In their eyes, the ‘Roman Empire’ was a collective entity with a mass of particular rights for its component parts, much as a modern corporation exists distinct from the personal wealth of its directors and shareholders. As a collective, it did business on an equal basis with the Kingdoms of Sweden and France—though the Monarchs of Sweden are also allowed to be part of the collective on the basis of their lands within the ‘Roman Empire’. Whereas the ‘House of Austria’ was a dynasty centred on the Austrian Archduchy, but with lands both inside and outside of the ‘Roman Empire’.
It had at one time been even more complex than that. Emperor Charles 5th had also been ruler of Spain, but he had failed to make himself a real Emperor of Europe. He then split his realm into a western and an eastern half, giving Spain and the New World along with the Netherlands and some connected kingdoms to his son Phillip, while giving his Austrian possessions to his brother Maximilian. It was this split rather than his abdication that was significant for history. And it became permanent until the dying-out of the Western Hapsburgs, by this time reduced but still significant enough to cause the War Of The Spanish Succession. The long-lived Louis 14th tried to secure the succession to the Western Hapsburg lands for one of his grandsons. In fact the different elements split between the rivals, ending Spain’s connection with Italy.
The Eastern Hapsburgs lasted rather better, having secure possession of their power-base as Austrian arch-dukes, and claims to several kingships besides. They could never be sure that they would hang on to the title of emperor, so they were content to let the ‘Holy Roman Empire’ decay.
“For Germany, the settlement ended the century-long struggle between the monarchical tendencies of the Holy Roman emperors and the federalistic aspirations of the empire’s German princes. The Peace of Westphalia recognized the full territorial sovereignty of the member states of the empire. They were empowered to contract treaties with one another and with foreign powers, provided that the emperor and the empire suffered no prejudice. By this and other changes the princes of the empire became absolute sovereigns in their own dominions. The Holy Roman emperor and the Diet were left with a mere shadow of their former power.” (Encylopedia Britannica.)
All that anyone knew at the time was that the Peace was the settlement in a civil war than neither side had decisively won or lost. As the treaty puts it;
That there shall be on the one side and the other a perpetual Oblivion, Amnesty, or Pardon of all that has been committed since the beginning of these Troubles, in what place, or what manner soever the Hostilities have been practised, in such a manner, that no body, under any pretext whatsoever, shall practice any Acts of Hostility, entertain any Enmity, or cause any Trouble to each other; neither as to Persons, Effects and Securities, neither of themselves or by others, neither privately nor openly, neither directly nor indirectly, neither under the colour of Right, nor by the way of Deed, either within or without the extent of the Empire, notwithstanding all Covenants made before to the contrary: That they shall not act, or permit to be acted, any wrong or injury to any whatsoever; but that all that has passed on the one side, and the other, as well before as during the War, in Words, Writings, and Outrageous Actions, in Violences, Hostilities, Damages and Expenses, without any respect to Persons or Things, shall be entirely abolished in such a manner that all that might be demanded of, or pretended to, by each other on that behalf, shall be buried in eternal Oblivion.
And that a reciprocal Amity between the Emperor, and the Most Christian King, the Electors, Princes and States of the Empire, may be maintained so much the more firm and sincere (to say nothing at present of the Article of Security, which will be mentioned hereafter) the one shall never assist the present or future Enemies of the other under any Title or Pretence whatsoever, either with Arms, Money, Soldiers, or any sort of Ammunition; nor no one, who is a Member of this Pacification, shall suffer any Enemies Troops to retire thro’ or sojourn in his Country.
That the Circle of Burgundy shall be and continue a Member of the Empire, after the Disputes between France and Spain (comprehended in this Treaty) shall be terminated. That nevertheless, neither the Emperor, nor any of the States of the Empire, shall meddle with the Wars which are now on foot between them. That if for the future any Dispute arises between these two Kingdoms, the abovesaid reciprocal Obligation of not aiding each others Enemies, shall always continue firm between the Empire and the Kingdom of France, but yet so as that it shall be free for the States to succour; without the bounds of the Empire, such or such Kingdoms, but still according to the Constitutions of the Empire.
The ‘Circle of Burgundy’ was the Burgundian inheritance of the Western Hapsburg, which made them legal overlords of the Netherlands. The man known to English historians as ‘Phillip of Spain’ had received Milan, Naples and the Netherlands from his father before also succeeding as King of Spain—or rather of Castile and Aragon, administered as two separate kingdoms even though they normally had the same ruler. Phillip had also been King of England during his marriage to Queen Mary Tudor.
Ignoring the Dutch
The Treaty of Munster was basically between the French and the Eastern Hapsburgs, who had already settled with the Swedes. Earlier in 1648, the Western Hapsburgs had made peace with the Dutch, the unconquered northern half of the Netherlands.
“While the loose connexion between the United Provinces and the Empire was allowed to lapse in silence in view of the recognition by Spain of the independence of what still formed part of the Burgundian Circle, the independence of the Helvetic Confederation of the Thirteen Cantons was explicitly recognised” (The Peace of Westphalia, by Dr A.W. Wakd).
“The Peace of Westphalia contains not a single word about the Netherlands’ position in regard to the Empire in terms of constitutional law.” (Negotiating the Peace of Westphalia, by Konrad Repgen).
A war of 80 years had failed to crush the Dutch, whose existence as an independent republic was officially acknowledged. The Dutch after 1648 were still nominally part of the Holy Roman Empire, but this was of no real significance.
That the Controversy touching Loraine shall be referred to Arbitrators nominated by both sides, or it shall be terminated by a Treaty between France and Spain, or by some other friendly means; and it shall be free as well for the Emperor, as Electors, Princes and States of the Empire, to aid and advance this Agreement by an amicable Interposition, and other Offices of Pacification, without using the force of Arms.
The peace was expected to be completed by a treaty between France and the Western Hapsburgs. This was actually delayed for many years, with the Peace Of The Pyrenees not happening until 1659.
According to this foundation of reciprocal Amity, and a general Amnesty, all and every one of the Electors of the sacred Roman Empire, the Princes and States (therein comprehending the Nobility, which depend immediately on the Empire) their Vassals, Subjects, Citizens, Inhabitants (to whom on the account of the Bohemian or German Troubles or Alliances, contracted here and there, might have been done by the one Party or the other, any Prejudice or Damage in any manner, or under what pretence soever, as well in their Lordships, their fiefs, Underfiefs, Allodations, as in their Dignities, Immunities, Rights and Privileges) shall be fully re-established on the one side and the other, in the Ecclesiastic or Laick State, which they enjoyed, or could lawfully enjoy, notwithstanding any Alterations, which have been made in the mean time to the contrary.
The peace of 1648 broadly confirmed the Peace of Augsburg, which had been made in 1555 and was an admission by Emperor Charles 5th that he could not make himself the real ruler of Germany, despite his possession of Spain and the vast wealth of the New World. The Thirty Years War was an attempt by the Eastern Hapsburgs to improve on the Peace of Augsburg. And they had failed.
Which doesn’t mean that the Thirty Years War ended with everything the same. Some rulers had lost power and others had gained it, most notably the Swedes. The Treaty of Munster also contains many clauses detailing what had changed and what remained the same. The most significant was the vital position of Elector, one of just seven rulers entitled to choose the next German emperor. The House of Austria had tried to transfer this from the Protestant rulers of the Palatinate to the House of Bavaria. In the end they agreed to have eight Electors, so that both Bavaria and the Palatinate could accept the peace. More widely:
That those of the Confession of Augsburg, and particularly the Inhabitants of Oppenheim, shall be put in possession again of their Churches, and Ecclesiastical Estates, as they were in the Year 1624. as also that all others of the said Confession of Augsburg, who shall demand it, shall have the free Exercise of their Religion, as well in public Churches at the appointed Hours, as in private in their own Houses, or in others chosen for this purpose by their Ministers, or by those of their Neighbours, preaching the Word of God.
That the Paragraphs… be understood as here inserted, after the same manner they are contained in the Instrument, or Treaty of the Empire with Sweden.
The ‘Confession of Augsburg’ is something distinct from the Peace of Augsburg. The Confession of Augsburg dated back to 1530 and was a broad statement of Lutheran Protestantism, prepared with Luther’s approval as the basic faith of the Protestant portion of the German nobility. The Catholic emperors of the House of Austria had tried simultaneously to suppress Protestantism and make themselves real monarchs of Germany, but they failed. They re-drew the limits in agreement with the Swedish monarchy at the Treaty of Osnabruck
“Both the Treaty of Munster and to that of Osnabruck, which secured to every Estate the right of concluding any such alliance with a view to his own security, provided that it was neither directed against the Emperor, the Empire, or its Landfrieden, nor against the conditions of the Peace of Westphalia itself. Notwithstanding these safeguards, a virtually complete independence was thus assured—so far as any of them could assert it—to each of the 300 or more political bodies which made up the Holy Roman Empire; and this independence extended to the right of carrying on war in fulfilment of the obligations of an alliance which any one of these bodies might have concluded by its own choice.” (The Peace of Westphalia, by Dr A.W. Wakd)
No one could have known this for certain in 1648, of course. There had been 63 years of uncertain peace in the German Empire between the 1555 Peace of Augsburg and the start of the Thirty Years War. Longer than the gap between the USA’s Civil War and their entry into World War One; longer than the peace that the USA and Europe have enjoyed since then ending of World War Two.
In 1648, Europe was far from peaceful. Louis 14th was threatened by the rebellion of the Frond, while the English parliament were about to behead their King and initiate Cromwell’s hard-line Puritan rule. No one in the mid-17th century could have known that the House of Austria would be unable ever to unify Germany or suppress Protestantism. No one could have known that Louis 14th would both unify and extend France, while also converting or driving out the French Protestants. The Huguenots had won rights similar to the German Protestant princes by the 1598 Edict of Nantes, and had considerable local autonomy until Richelieu captured their chief stronghold of La Rochelle in 1628. They retained most of their religious rights up until 1685, when Louis 14th revoked the Edict of Nantes and most Huguenots left the realm. The similar settlement in the German realm or Reich was not obviously more secure.
That Sentences pronounced during the War about Matters purely Secular, if the Defect in the Proceedings be not fully manifest, or cannot be immediately demonstrated, shall not be esteemed wholly void; but that the Effect shall be suspended until the Acts of Justice (if one of the Parties demand the space of six months after the Publication of the Peace, for the reviewing of his Process) be reviewed and weighed in a proper Court, and according to the ordinary or extraordinary Forms used in the Empire: to the end that the former Judgments may be confirmed, amended, or quite erased, in case of Nullity.
In the like manner, if any Royal, or particular Fiefs, have not been renewed since the Year 1618. nor Homage paid to whom it belongs; the same shall bring no prejudice, and the Investiture shall be renewed the day the Peace shall be conclude.
The Peace of Westphalia did accept the right of the House of Austria to suppress Protestantism on their own lands:
But for those who are Subjects and Hereditary Vassals of the Emperor, and of the House of Austria, they shall really have the benefit of the Amnesty, as for their Persons, Life, Reputation, Honours: and they may return with Safety to their former Country; but they shall be obliged to conform, and submit themselves to the Laws of the Realms, or particular Provinces they shall belong to.
Elsewhere, everyone had freedom of worship, but the religion of the state was the current religion of the ruler. The position as it existed in 1648 was frozen: rulers who changed their religion could not take their principality with them, but would have to give it up.
“The difficult question of the ownership of spiritual lands was decided by a compromise. The year 1624 was declared the “standard year” according to which territories should be deemed to be in Roman Catholic or Protestant possession. By the important provision that a prince should forfeit his lands if he changed his religion, an obstacle was placed in the way of a further spread both of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. The declaration that all protests or vetoes of the Peace of Westphalia by whomsoever pronounced should be null and void dealt a blow at the intervention of the Roman Curia in German affairs.” (Encylopedia Britannica)
As mentioned earlier, the de facto separation of the Netherlands from the Empire was not specifically endorsed. In the case of Switzerland, old enemies of the House of Austria, a formal separation from the Empire was conceded:
And as His Imperial Majesty, upon Complaints made in the name of the City of Basle, and of all Switzerland, in the presence of their Plenipotentiaries deputed to the present Assembly, touching some Procedures and Executions proceeding from the Imperial Chamber against the said City, and the other united Cantons of the Swiss Country, and their Citizens and Subjects having demanded the Advice of the States of the Empire and their Council; these have, by a Decree of the 14th of May of the last Year, declared the said City of Basle, and the other Swiss-Cantons, to be as it were in possession of their full Liberty and Exemption of the Empire; so that they are no ways subject to the Judicatures, or Judgments of the Empire, and it was thought convenient to insert the same in this Treaty of Peace, and confirm it, and thereby to make void and annul all such Procedures and Arrests given on this Account in what form soever.
A shadowy Empire
Regarding the rest of Germany, there was a genuine desire to have it function as a kind of confederacy, with common institutions covering the 300-odd principalities that the Peace of Westphalia had sanctioned.
“States within the empire acquired greater independence with the right to have their own foreign policies and form alliances, even with states outside the empire. As a result of these changes, the Holy Roman Empire lost much of what remained of its power and would never again be a significant actor on the international stage. The Habsburgs would continue to be crowned emperors, but their strength would derive from their own holdings, not from leadership of the empire. Germany was less united in 1648 than in 1618, and German particularism had been strengthened once again.”
And to prevent for the future any Differences arising in the Politick State, all and every one of the Electors, Princes and States of the Roman Empire, are so established and confirmed in their antient Rights, Prerogatives, Liberties, Privileges, free exercise of Territorial Right, as well Ecclesiastic, as Politick Lordships, Regales, by virtue of this present Transaction: that they never can or ought to be molested therein by any whomsoever upon any manner of pretence.
They shall enjoy without contradiction, the Right of Suffrage in all Deliberations touching the Affairs of the Empire; but above all, when the Business in hand shall be the making or interpreting of Laws, the declaring of Wars, imposing of Taxes, levying or quartering of Soldiers, erecting new Fortifications in the Territories of the States, or reinforcing the old Garrisons; as also when a Peace of Alliance is to be concluded, and treated about, or the like, none of these, or the like things shall be acted for the future, without the Suffrage and Consent of the Free Assembly of all the States of the Empire: Above all, it shall be free perpetually to each of the States of the Empire, to make Alliances with Strangers for their Preservation and Safety; provided, nevertheless, such Alliances be not against the Emperor, and the Empire, nor against the Public Peace, and this Treaty, and without prejudice to the Oath by which every one is bound to the Emperor and the Empire.
That the Diets of the Empire shall be held within six Months after the Ratification of the Peace; and after that time as often as the Public Utility, or Necessity requires. That in the first Diet the Defects of precedent Assemblies be chiefly remedied; and that then also be treated and settled by common Consent of the States, the Form and Election of the Kings of the Romans, by a Form, and certain Imperial Resolution; the Manner and Order which is to be observed for declaring one or more States, to be within the Territories of the Empire, besides the Manner otherways described in the Constitutions of the Empire; that they consider also of re-establishing the Circles, the renewing the Matricular-Book, the re-establishing suppressed States, the moderating and lessening the Collects of the Empire, Reformation of Justice and Policy, the taxing of Fees in the Chamber of Justice, the Due and requisite instructing of ordinary Deputies for the Advantage of the Public, the true Office of Directors in the Colleges of the Empire, and such other Business as could not be here expedited.
That as well as general as particular Diets, the free Towns, and other States of the Empire, shall have decisive Votes; they shall, without molestation, keep their Regales, Customs, annual Revenues, Liberties, Privileges to confiscate, to raise Taxes, and other Rights, lawfully obtained from the Emperor and Empire, or enjoyed long before these Commotions, with a full Jurisdiction within the inclosure of their Walls, and their Territories: making void at the same time, annulling and for the future prohibiting all Things, which by Reprisals, Arrests, stopping of Passages, and other prejudicial Acts, either during the War, under what pretext soever they have been done and attempted hitherto by private Authority, or may hereafter without any preceding formality of Right be enterprised. As for the rest, all laudable Customs of the sacred Roman Empire, the fundamental Constitutions and Laws, shall for the future be strictly observed, all the Confusions which time of War have, or could introduce, being removed and laid aside.
Protestant Sweden gained a role in the Empire as the champion of Protestant causes. In the event, Sweden gradually lost this role which was taken over by Prussia. The decline of Sweden was foreshadowed by the abdication of Queen Christina, daughter of Gustavus Adolphus, who resigned the throne to a cousin and then converted to Catholicism. But her successors had military successes, and achieved for a time an absolute monarchy. The Swedes lost out to Russia and Prussia, but history might have gone otherwise.
The Swedes were not, however, a threat to the House of Austria’s possession of the Imperial title. The Kings of France were: it was perfectly possibly that they could have re-united Charlemagne’s realm under their own control, given that the Eastern Hapsburgs were only emperors for as long as the Electors chose to keep electing them. So when the House of Austria gave up its position in Alsatia, it preferred also to shut Alsatia out of the political structures of Germany, rather than giving the French Kings a formal role in German politics. Thus:
In the third place the Emperor, as well in his own behalf, as the behalf of the whole most Serene House of Austria, as also of the Empire, resigns all Rights, Properties, Domains, Possessions and Jurisdictions, which have hitherto belonged either to him, or the Empire, and the Family of Austria, over the City of Brisance, the Landgraveship of Upper and Lower Alsatia, Suntgau, and the Provincial Lordship of ten Imperial Cities situated in Alsatia… and of all the villages, or other Rights which depend on the said Mayoralty; all and every of them are made over to the most Christian King, and the Kingdom of France…
But they only handed over what the House of Austria had possessed in Alsatia, which wasn’t everything:
That the most Christian King shall be bound to leave not only the Bishops of Strasburg and Basle, with the City of Strasburg, but also the other States or Orders, Abbots of Murbach and Luederen, who are in the one and the other Alsatia, immediately depending upon the Roman Empire; the Abbess of Andlavien, the Monastery of St. Bennet in the Valley of St. George, the Palatines of Luzelstain, the Counts and Barons of Hanaw, Fleckenstein, Oberstein, and all the nobility of Lower Alsatia; Item, the said ten Imperial Cities, which depend on the Mayory of Haganoc, in the Liberty and Possession they have enjoyed hitherto, to arise as immediately dependent upon the Roman Empire; so that he cannot pretend any Royal Superiority over them, but shall rest contented with the Rights which appertained to the House of Austria, and which by this present Treaty of Pacification, are yielded to the Crown of France. In such a manner, nevertheless, that by the present Declaration, nothing is intended that shall derogate from the Sovereign Dominion already hereabove agreed to.
Note that European diplomatic language spoke of the King of France as ‘the most Christian King’, a special title putting him above other kings, though below the emperor. Alsatia was left in a messy state, which was resolved only when Louis 14th in his subsequent wars gradually conquered what he didn’t already hold.
A papal protest
The Peace of Westphalia defined only the balance of power within the entity known as the Holy Roman Empire of the Germanic Peoples. The emperor had no wider rights, except in a totally abstract sense that had not been taken seriously for centuries. As for the role of the pope, this was conveniently ignored to get a workable treaty that would end a ruinous war. The pope protested at this, naturally:
“Out of a zeal for the house of God which continually moves our spirit, we have principally applied ourselves with care to conserve everywhere the integrity of the orthodox Faith, and the dignity and authority of the Catholic Church; in order that the Ecclesiastical rights of which we have been made the defenders by Our Lord should not suffer any injury from those who seek their own interests rather than those of God, and that we should not be accused of negligence with regard to the administration which has been entrusted to us when we account for our government to our Sovereign Judge.
“So it has been only with a very lively feeling of sorrow that we have learned that, by several articles, as much of the Peace made respectively at Osnabruck on the 6th of August of the year 1648 between our very dear son in Christ Ferdinand, King of the Romans, elected Emperor, his allies and followers on the one hand, and the Swedes, also with their allies and followers, on the other, as of that which has been likewise concluded at Munster in Westphalia on the 26th day of October of the same year 1648 between the same Ferdinand, King of the Romans, elected Emperor, his allies and followers, on the one hand, and our very dear son in Jesus Christ, Louis, the very Christian King of the French, and likewise with his allies and followers, on the other, very great injury has been done to the Catholic Religion, to Divine worship, to the Apostolic See of Rome, to the lower-ranking Churches, and to the Ecclesiastical order, as also to their jurisdictions, authorities, immunities, franchises, liberties, exemptions, privileges, affairs, goods, and rights.
“For, by various articles in one of these Peace Treaties, there is surrendered in perpetuity to the heretics whom they call of the Confession of Augsburg the free exercise of their heresy in several places, the promise is given them to assign to them sites to build Temples for that purpose; and they are admitted with the Catholics to public responsibilities and offices, and to a number of Archbishoprics, Bishoprics and other high Ecclesiastical positions and livings, and to the participation in the first prayers which the Apostolic See has accorded to the same Ferdinand, King of the Romans, elected Emperor; there are abolished the annates, the rights of Pallium, the sacraments of confirmation, the Papal months, and similar rights and reservations in the Ecclesiastical properties of the said Augsburg Confession; there is conferred upon the secular power the ratification of elections, or of the candidacies of would-be Archbishops, Bishops and Prelates of the same Confession; several Archbishoprics, Bishoprics, Monasteries, Provostships, Bailiwicks, Commanderies, Canonries, and other Livings and properties of the Church are given to the heretical Princes in perpetual fee under the title of their secular position with suppression of the Ecclesiastical denomination.
“It is ordered that against this Peace no laws, either Canon or Civil, common or special, Decrees of Synods, Rules of Religious orders, solemn oaths, concordats with the Roman Pontiffs, or any other Ecclesiastical or Political Statutes, Decrees, Dispensations, Absolutions, or other exceptions must be invoked, heard or admitted; the number of seven Electors of the Empire, formerly decided by the Apostolic authority, is augmented without our consent, or that of the said See, and the eighth Electorate is established in favour of Charles Louis, the heretical Count Palatine of the Rhine, and many other things are laid down which it is shameful to relate, most prejudicial and harmful to the orthodox Religion, to the said See of Rome, to the lower-ranking Churches and others named above.”
There is much more. But in the context of the times, the protest was mild enough to count as a grudging acceptance. The pope knew that the Austrian Archdukes had tried to be real monarchs of Germany. And they might not have been wholly unhappy that they’d failed: a strong emperor was always a menace to papal authority, especially as the Realm theoretically included North Italy and made the emperor a neighbour of the Vatican. In any case, it was ignored.
“Its validity had been denied beforehand in the Peace itself, and no proceeding could have demonstrated more palpably the complete estrangement which now prevailed between the Imperial and the Papal authority. As a matter of fact, the Papal protest is not known to have been ever invoked by any Power against any stipulation of the Peace of Westphalia.” (The Peace of Westphalia, by Dr A.W. Wakd)
Popes in those days would have merited the title ‘Exhausters Of The Faith’, mixing theology with dishonesty in a manner that explains the cynicism of the subsequent ‘Age Of Reason’. Belief in traditional authority became difficult, especially since one pope would often reverse the policies of the previous pope.
“The papal protests on the Peace of Westphalia was typical of the contrast between papal centralism and the actual extent of papal power. Innocent X in his brave Zelo domus dei, 26 November 1648, complained that the emperor had given away things that were not his to give: the goods of the church to the heretics in perpetuity, freedom of worship to heretics, and a voice in the election of the emperor. It was a peace against all canon law, all councils, all concordats. This was a declaration by a pope much more conciliatory than his predecessor Urban VIII, who had consistently refused to recognise the Protestant powers as partners in any negotiations. It had been Urban’s intransigence which had largely ended papal influence the course of events at a time when after many years of war a longing for peace emerged from sheer weariness.” (The New Cambridge Modern History, Volume IV, p 186)
Other sources give a different view of which pope was more favourable to peace. But European history has shown that the attractive-seeming notion of an elected monarch just does not work. The kingship of Poland was the other major case, and it ruined Poland as a Great Power, paving the way for the 18th century partition. And it was the endless instability caused by papal elections and imperial elections that stopped Roman Catholic power ever consolidating itself into a single entity.
“The concept of the empire as Austrian, absolutist and Catholic, which the reforms of Maximilian, on the one hand, and the aggressive tactics of Ferdinand II, on the other, had tried to impose on the German lands, was now finally dead. The end of the imperial dream was accompanied by the disintegration of Germany. The country split up into several hundred autonomous states, each jealous of its independence…”(Ibid., Volume IV, page 432.)
The main cause of peace was a general weakness, especially on the part of the Western Hapsburgs. “The bankruptcy of 1647 finally published the incapacity of Spain, and prepared the way for the peace settlements of Westphalia in the following year, and eventually of the Pyrenees (1659).” (Ibid, p 99).
The fragmentation of the German Realm had been advocated in 1640 by a Swedish German writer called P. Chemnitz, “under the pseudonym of Hippolitus a Lapide… Sovereignty belonged to the empire and the estates grouped in the Diet, not to the emperor… Each member of the empire had the right to raise troops and make alliances, even with foreigners, without the emperor’s consent… Although the emperor had the book burnt its main points were incorporated, thanks to France, in the Treaties of Westphalia.” (Ibid., p 111.)
Note that no one in the 17th century disputed that people outside of the Empire had the right to raise troops and make alliances with foreigners, subject only to the sovereignty of those states. In the Kingdom of England, though the monarch was not absolute, everyone was a subject, without the right to raise troops or make alliances with foreigners. This was established under Henry 7th at the end of the 15th century, when he put an end to the disastrous civil war that was later called the Wars Of The Roses. This peace had held despite civil wars, which were always for control of the whole of England plus its Welsh and Irish conquests—the whole of Britain, after James 6th of Scotland became James 1st of England. Even the Wars Of The Roses had always been about who ruled the kingdom, with no desire for any part of it to hive off and become a small principality equivalent to the German principalities. Had Ireland or Scotland or the Scottish Highlands sought independence under a Stuart monarch, they might well have succeeded. But all of their revolts were aimed at control of the ‘Three Kingdoms’, and usually ended with the victory of the English-Protestant interest, which was much the strongest.
The question of limits to sovereignty was being debated in the 17th century. Suarez and Grotius argued for some binding rules. “Grotius, as a good Dutchman, defended the freedom of the seas and was opposed by the Englishman Selden, who argued that the sea could be appropriated and occupied and that British dominion over it extended to the opposite coast (Mare Clausum, 1635).” (Ibid, page 112.). The power of blockade was useful to England, and later to the British Empire, and so was never given up. It remains the reality of International Law, with the USA having inherited Britain’s power and freely imposing blockades on sovereign nations.
The New Cambridge Modern History also says “Catholics as well as Protestants ignored the pope’s solemn protest against the clauses of the peace treaties which were injurious to the Catholic church. The claim of a supranational religious authority to interfere in the affairs of state was rejected.
“Until the days of the French Revolution, the Peace of Westphalia was considered to be the basis of the European state system. The recognition of the independence of two states, the United Provinces of the Netherlands and of the Swiss Confederation, could give some sanction to the belief that only a European congress could ratify the creation or extinction of states. Many years later, Edmund Burke protested that the partition of Poland was a breach of the Westphalian treaties… In this sense the Thirty Years War may be called the beginning of modern power politics.” (Ibid., p358).
But as was mentioned earlier, the Netherlands was recognised as a legitimate state by the Western Hapsburgs, separately from the Westphalian peace process. And if Burke protested at the partition of Poland, this made no difference whatsoever to Poland’s actual status. The idea of a general European gathering may have become customary after Westphalia, but there was never any formal agreement that it was necessary. If the big powers wanted to do something, then they did it and let the lawyers justify it afterwards. Relations between the sovereign states of Europe remained what it had been since the Germanic conquest of the Latin Roman Empire—a matter of power, with legal forms adapted or ignored to suit the realities of power. Only within the German Realm did Westphalia make some difference, half-legitimising the 300-odd independent states without actually saying that the Realm no longer existed:
“Too much stress is laid on the division of Germany during this period. It is not sufficiently realized that there existed at the time what might be called a feeling of nationhood; this declared itself, during the imperial election of 1658, in favour of the Habsburg of Vienna…
“After 1660 a distinction must, of course, be made between the history of the empire and that of Austria. But, while the strength of the Hapsburgs lay chiefly in the territorial importance of their possessions, the value of the title of Emperor must not be underestimated. Though it did not raise its holder above other sovereigns, this title did designate him as the indispensable bulwark against the Turkish menace and as the defender of Christendom. Now, with regard to Turkey, the position of France was ambiguous…
“[France] not daring to make either a friend or an enemy of the Turk, never reaped the full benefit of either the capitulations or the crusade. For Mazaran [Richelieu’s successor as effective ruler of France], the Turks were only a pawn in the game of maintaining a balance of power in the Mediterranean and the East, a counterweight to the might of the Hapsburgs of Vienna and Madrid.
“In 1648 the alliance between France and Sweden was the keystone of the European system established by the Treaties of Westphalia. These agreements had made the northern state into a German power, playing in the Empire the same role later to devolve upon Brandenburg [Prussia]—that of the natural enemy of Austria, the leader of the Protestant party in Germany…” (Ibid., 432-433.)
Bobbitt and Achilles
I’ll conclude by taking another look at Philip Bobbitt’s The Shield Of Achilles. Cutting off Professor Bobbitt’s credibility is a tedious but very necessary task. He provides the intellectual ballast for the widespread notion that sovereign nation-states are an accidental and recent product of the Westphalia treaty.
The Shield Of Achilles has the appearance of scholarship, but is a junk-heap of misunderstanding and bad sources. A lot of his evidence against 20th century Germany is based on quotations from British books written in the late 1940s, as I’ve detailed elsewhere. And you can’t really understand 20th century Germany without seeing the Westphalia treaty in its correct light, the fragmentation of the German Realm at a time when other European realms were being pulled together as successful military-imperial machines. I’ve described elsewhere that it was Hitler’s annexation of the Czech lands that led to the Second World War. Chamberlain took it as a breach of faith, baffling after he had been so generous to Hitler at the Munich Agreement. But to Hitler, it seemed very natural, the Third Reich taking back territory that had traditionally been part of the Germanic Realm.
The 300 little realms of Germany might indeed have carried on very happily if they had been left alone, much as the Swiss Cantons have kept most aspects of their mediaeval constitution. But fragmented Germany was first overrun by the French Revolution, then thrust back into something like its old condition by the peace after Napoleon’s defeat, and finally put under intolerable pressure by the commercial forces generated by Britain’s industrial revolution. The German states never suffered anything as drastic as the forcible opening-up of China by the Opium Wars, or Japan’s humiliation by Commodore Perry, but the overall process was similar.
It is interesting to wonder how history would have gone if Queen Victoria’s father had had a son, or if alternatively Victoria had not been born or had not lived to inherit the throne. She had male cousins, but took precedence under British law because their fathers were junior to her father among the many sons of George III. But Hanover had a rule forbidding female heirs, and so Britain and Hanover separated in 1838. Had Hanover kept the link with the British Empire, Bismarck’s Prussian unification would have been much harder to achieve and some different sort of split might have occurred.
That’s history, but Professor Bobbitt does not write history. Rather, he rewrites it to fit a set of theoretical notions that he has developed, perhaps sharing Plato’s belief that he is somehow aware of ‘Higher Principles’ which the world depends upon and imperfectly reflects. He’s been described as “one of the nation’s leading constitutional theorists, Mr. Bobbitt’s interests include constitutional law, international security and the history of strategy.” The book’s blurb tells how he has “served as a senior advisor at the White House, the Senate and the State Department, and held several senior posts at the National Security Council including Director for Intelligence”. In brief, he has been a sophisticated justifier of everything the USA has been doing wrong since the end of the Cold War. But he does not understand history. Instead of learning from events, he takes such facts as suit his theories and ignores the rest.
“Westphalia provided the model for subsequent international conventions. In an important sense, Westphalia was to the states of Europe in 1648 what Philadelphia became for the states of the American colonies in 1789: the birthplace of a new constitution for a small society of states.” (The Shield Of Achilles, page 503, hardback edition.)
It is typical of these characters that they elaborate a theory of European history that has damn all to do with real history. Britain’s ex-colonies met at Philadelphia to decide what they would do with the independence that had been asserted in 1776 and formally admitted by Britain in 1783. They had been linked by the ‘Articles of Confederation’ since 1781, but these did not make for a fully workable system. 1789 was the year in which most of the ex-colonies ratified the Constitution, and the first US Congress met to consider some 103 amendments that had been proposed. These were whittled down to the ten clauses of the ‘Bill Of Rights’, but no one settled whether the constituent states had given up their sovereignty or else retained the right of secession. This little detail was not settled until the 1860s, when the Union crushed the Confederacy. The Confederates may well have been in the right from the standpoint of strict constitutional law, a set of rules written by slave-owning gentry and which included the compulsory return of runaway slaves among the new freedoms.
The USA’s various constitutional documents speak for themselves, and so do the treaties making up the Peace of Westphalia. Which is why I have quoted a fair chunk of one of the Westphalian texts. Whereas Professor Bobbitt relies on a mixed bag of generalities by historians, most of them writing long after the event.
Europe before and after 1648 was dominated by Magnates, rulers who had actual wealth and armed force, and also hereditary claims which gave a strong justification to the power they exercised. Emperor Charles 5th was the strongest European magnate between Charlemagne and Napoleon, but he was not strong enough to impose his will upon the ‘Germanic Realm’, and conceded his failure in 1555 at the Peace of Augsburg. The Thirty Years War was a renewal of this struggle by the heirs of Charles 5th, but they too lacked the power.
“What is sometimes less appreciated is that the principle that was the basis of Augsburg—the famous cuius region eius religio—transformed this multilateral treaty into a constitution for the new society of princely states. This principle may be roughly translated as ‘he who rules, his is the religion’; it provides that the religion of a state is determined by the choice of the sovereign… implied a ‘theory of sovereignty by the states of Europe that permitted no distinction in law between a Catholic and a Protestant country’. Thus the basis for a comprehensive society of states was formed… Medieval Christendom had known no society of politically distinct states.” (Ibid, p 487.)
This last statement is garbage. The popes and some lawyers had a theory of Christendom as a single body, with themselves at the head. This was never remotely the reality, although the actual politics could get complex, especially when the same individual was both a king and the vassal of another king—frequently the case with the Kings of England and their possessions in France. Within the Holy Roman Empire of the Germanic Peoples, politics was even more complex, since the House of Austria had possessions outside of the Holy Roman Empire and also inside of it. They had an ambition to dissolve this complexity and make it a unitary state under their own hereditary rule, but Catholics as well as Protestants were against this, and the popes too had doubts about an emperor with so much power.
Had Charles 5th succeeded, this would still have made him just the ruler of the Germanic Realm, as well as King of Spain and other titles that he held separately. He would have had no inherent rights in France or England or Sweden, which would have remained distinct kingdoms. Catholic rulers engaged in normal diplomacy with the Empire of Byzantium, even though it was officially heretical by Catholic doctrine and their were all its subjects according to Byzantine political theory. Nor was there any problem ‘doing business’ with Islamic rulers, even to the extent of selling them Christian slaves in mediaeval times, castrated first if that was what the customer wanted. Bristol’s first recorded involvement in the slave trade was mediaeval, selling English slaves to Ireland, most of them destined for transhipment to the much richer Islamic world.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, there was a definite reluctance to admit that Catholic land had been lost to Protestant rulers. And some was indeed recovered: Bohemia during the Thirty Years War, and other lands later, including a substantial faction of Protestants in Hungary. But this was power-politics. Rulers in the Latin-Catholic tradition had always had normal diplomatic relations with non-Christians and with other sorts of Christians.
As for the principle of cuius region eius religio, what does it actually mean? Does it mean that the ruler can change the religion of the state? Or does it mean that the religion of the state is fixed and the ruler must abide with it or else abdicate? I showed earlier that the second meaning was the one that applied after the Treaty of Westphalia—at least it was written on a piece of paper that this was the rule, though only for the Holy Roman Empire.
The history of England had mostly followed the first of these rules, Henry 8th was able to create his own English Catholicism, and also declared that England was an ‘Empire’, perhaps because his real divorce-trouble was with the Hapsburg emperor, who dominated the pope and would not allow an annulment that would have destroyed the claim of the half-Hapsburg Mary Tudor. Young Edward 6th moved from English Catholicism to real Protestantism, but then died and Mary Tudor was able to re-join Roman Catholicism. When she died without producing an heir, Queen Elizabeth was able to ease the kingdom back into a loose kind of English Catholicism or Anglicanism, a religion that Puritans could tolerate even though they did not like it. James the 6th of Scotland was happy to accept this and leave behind him a Scotland that was officially Presbyterian. Charles 1st sparked off the Civil War when he attempted to bend Scotland to Anglicanism, and later the Scots tried to impose Presbyterianism on England, with much support from English Presbyterians. Cromwell blocked this and established the Puritanism of the Independents, which meant a lack of the popular democratic controls that the Presbyterians had within their own ranks.
Independent Puritanism proved a weak creed, collapsing within a few months of Cromwell’s death. Puzzlingly, Charles 2nd was brought back without any clear settlement as to whether he was obliged to remain an Anglican as King of England—he was probably not much of a believer, but on his deathbed he declared himself a Catholic. Meantime there had been a constitutional crisis over the status of James 2nd, who was openly a Roman Catholic. Had the Westphalian principles applied outside of the Holy Roman Empire, then he would clearly not have been eligible to succeed. But of course they did not apply. The Whigs, who later became the Liberal Party, began as a parliamentary group that sought to exclude James. The Tories formed themselves in opposition to the Whigs, as a mix of Catholics and Anglicans centred on loyalty to the monarchy. The Whigs were approximate inheritors of the Cromwellian tradition, and most Puritans or Dissenters supported the Whig cause.
In the event James 2nd succeeded with an assurance that he was content to keep the state Anglican, and then aroused great protest by trying to establish toleration and freedom of worship for both Catholics and Dissenters. Whether he was out to establish real tolerance or was working towards total Catholic power remains unknown; he was chased out. And then the English parliament adopted the principle that the English state was Anglican and that no monarch could succeed without being an Anglican. Meantime Scotland became solidly Presbyterian, with Scottish Anglicanism almost disappearing.
If anyone invoked the Peace of Westphalia in this connection, I’d be interested to hear about it.
Another ambiguity of cuius region eius religio is whether the ruler’s subjects are obliged to keep the state’s religion. Here again, there were no real principles, just a mess of power-politics. Catholics had the right to be Catholics anywhere in the Holy Roman Empire. Lutherans had the right to be Lutherans after the Peace of Augsburg; the Peace of Westphalia extended this to Calvinists, but also gave the House of Austria the right to forbid Protestantism from the territories they actually ruled. Elsewhere, the only rule was a lack of consistent rules. Henry 4th was obliged to become a Catholic when he became King of France, but also confirmed a limited tolerance for Protestants. His grandson Louis 14th took away most of this freedom within the Kingdom of France, while also remaining in alliance with Protestant princes whenever it suited him. Some French Protestants hung on, and were still being harassed down to the French Revolution, when it was suddenly discovered that all of this persecution had destroyed real faith. In England, it took a long time to remove legal discrimination against non-Protestant Christians. Non-Christians remained discriminated against until well on into the 19th century; Disraeli’s career could not have happened had not his father made a nominal conversion to Christianity.
The only rule is that there was no rule. Westphalia was a piece of power-politics that ended an indecisive war within the realm of Germany, which was not however dissolved. And at one level, Bobbitt knows this perfectly well:
“On the German side, Catholics and Protestants were united in their desire not to dismember the empire. This came as a shock to the French, who assumed that the German princes would wish to separate into sovereign states, as had the Italians…” (Ibid, p 504)
Why, then, does he also speak of Westphalia making a ‘constitution for Europe’? Because that’s what he is supposed to discover, and he is not going to let facts come in the way of the proper conclusion. This creature has feathers, a beak and it quacks; therefore it’s a panda. Nowadays you get lots of ‘histories’ like that
As for Professor Bobbitt’s judgement of more recent history, this nephew of Lyndon Baines Johnson shows no more judgement on Iraq than his mother’s brother showed over Vietnam. Just look at the following:
“Military action against Iraq is necessary, a leading US academic has claimed, to prevent them using weapons of mass destruction.
“Philip Bobbitt, an expert on US constitutional law, said that military action would “prevent weapons of mass destruction going in to the hands of groups it [the US] cannot deter. He said: “It’s not that Saddam Hussein attacked the Trade Towers, it’s that the groups that attacked the Trade Towers exploited vulnerabilities that we in the US, and you here in Britain are powerless to reduce.” (BBC Online, 30th July 2002,
A lot of learning is a dangerous thing, if it gives you nothing better than some fancy arguments to justify the delusions of the powerful. A critic at the time said “The war on offer is not concentrated on Saddam in the precise and limited terms Bobbitt outlines. It is being used to legitimate a war-creating role for the world’s greatest power which is bound to provoke further violence and (that other track) to intensify the attitudes that feed terrorism.” (http://www.opendemocracy.net/themes/article-3-920.jsp). But I think that misses the point. Legitimising wars by the USA is exactly what Bobbitt’s work has been about.
Westphalia was a functional peace, as was the earlier Peace of Augsburg. There were still wars, but they gradually turned into dynastic conflicts fought by professional armies, a big step up from the mass slaughter of the Wars Of Religion.
As of now, we are drifting back to ‘Wars Of Religion’. Just like the Hapsburgs, the US elite cannot stand for anyone to be different from them or out of their control. During the Cold War, the US made a decent alternative to the Soviet Union, which was even more intent on imposing uniformity. But the 1990s have shown that the USA will not be satisfied until the entire world is ‘sub-Americanised’, turned into a copy of their own confused values.
I noted earlier that the gap between the Peace of Augsburg and the start of the Thirty Years War was about the same as the gap between the uneasy European peace after Germany’s collapse in 1945 and the uneasy post-cold-war situation of the current day. There are certainly people in the US elite who’d like ever-wider global conflict, and justify it by calling war ‘inevitable’.
Wars are not always avoidable. But you can always choose which side you are on. Mostly, the side of peace is the best one to join. There will always be Bobbitts who seek to legitimise war and pretend that inherently disgusting policies are somehow inevitable. But to put the truth on record is always worth doing.
First published in Problems of Socialism and Capitalism, No. 76, Summer 2004.
It also had the title “Westphalia: The peace that surpasseth Tony Blair’s understanding”.
I later discovered that the idea from university departments of Political Science. I’ve not yet found a historian who takes this view.