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The Shaping of Modern Europe Index

Introduction to the Reformation
The Church before the Reformation I : Indulgences, Relics and Pilgrimages
The Church before the Reformation II : The Wealth and Political Power of the Church
The Church before the Reformation III : The Clergy
The Church before the Reformation IV : Inside a Church
The Lutheran Revolt
Conflict between Luther and the Church
The Church reacts to Luther
The Catholic and the Lutheran Church
Huldreick Zwingli

The English Reformation

The English Reformation : Introduction
The king takes over from the pope
The monasteries
People involved in the English Reformation

17th Century Europe

17th Century Europe

History Chapters Main Index


Map showing Europe in the 1600s

Europe in 1600


Spanish Nether-lands in the 1600s

As the name suggests, this region of Europe (which today is formed of the states of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg) was a possession of the Habsburg King of Spain. Nevertheless, the people of the seven northern provinces (the modern Netherlands), who were solidly Calvinist, were in open rebellion against their Spanish Catholic master in what was really a war of independence. The southern provinces (modern Belgium and Luxembourg) did not go to war. Though they were largely Catholic, the people of these provinces were also close to revolt. It was only the tolerance, intelligence and diplomatic skill of the Duke of Parma and, above all, his refusal to use military force against the people which kept them loyal. Meanwhile, the northern provinces, with help from England, were on the point of achieving their independence under the leadership of members of the House of Orange (still national heroes today).

Although Spain refused officially to recognise Dutch independence until 1649, it had already been achieved. Very soon this newly independent state was to become not only one of Europe's great cultural centres, but also a haven of religious tolerance (especially for Jews) in a Europe where thousands of people still suffered and died because of their religious beliefs. The United Provinces, as it was called, would soon demonstrate that it was not only a great centre of trade but also a maritime power to rival both England and France.


Italy in the 1600s

This was still the cultural heart of Europe. Renaissance Italy, with immensely wealthy cities such as Florence, Rome and Venice, was the model in art, architecture, music and fashion, although in literature it was now equaled, at least, by the works of Montaigne in France, Shakespeare in England and de Cervantes in Spain, to mention only three. The Italian states were among the richest in Europe but, like the states of the Holy Roman Empire, they were politically weak because they were disunited. The disunity frequently led to war between them.

N.B. The prosperity and riches of many of the states in Italy and the Holy Roman Empire, in addition to their political weakness, made them tempting and easy prey for the politically stronger states in Europe. They were frequently the major battlefields of Europe (like dogs fighting for a bone).




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17th Century Europe

Introduction : Europe in the 1600s


Spain in the 1600s

Spain was the great military power in Europe. Spain's wealth, which underlay this military might, was based on the gold and silver brought from its Central and South American colonies. As long as Spain maintained its control of this vital Atlantic sea route, its wealth and power were secure. However if ever Spain lost this control, its decline would be rapid. During the 16th. century, "The Golden Age of Spain", there was little or no social or economic change. Spain's wealth went directly into the royal coffers, to the powerful nobles (the Grandees), and to the Catholic Church.

No important commercial links were established between Spain and its colonies. The middle class was very small and strictly controlled, and the vast majority of the population consisted of illiterate, superstitious peasants. Spain was rich and powerful but extremely vulnerable.


France in the 1600s

France should have been Europe's great power at this time. The size of the country, its large population, the fertility of its soils and its advantageous geographical position in Europe could have been expected to encourage rapid economic growth, great prosperity and military strength. However, in 1600 France had just emerged from the Wars of Religion (1562-1598). This vicious conflict had seriously damaged the country's economy as well as the unity of its people.


England in the 1600s

For England, the 16th century was a period of relative peace, of developing political and social unity and of growing prosperity. This was especially true during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558 - 1603), who was called "Good Queen Bess" by the ordinary people and "Gloriana" by the privileged. During her reign, England took the first steps toward becoming Europe's greatest commercial and maritime power. Trading companies were founded by Merchant Venturers whose ships sailed off to create commercial links with Canada, the East Indies and even with Russia.

The Muscovy Company successfully founded a trading post in Moscow and Elizabeth corresponded with the famous Tsar Ivan "the Terrible". It was also during her reign that the first attempt was made to establish an English colony in North America, and, although the Roanoke colony failed, the modern state of Virginia was named after the queen. England's middle class, with the total support of the queen, was large, wealthy and very ambitious. In addition, Spanish control of the Atlantic Ocean was successfully challenged by English corsairs such as Drake, Hawkins and Raleigh. The foundations of England's future economic domination of Europe were laid.


Holy Roman Empire in the 1600s

Theoretically, the Holy Roman Emperor was Europe's most powerful ruler. During the reign of Charles V (1519-1556), this may certainly have been true, but after his abdication in 1556 it was no longer the case. Charles had been both the king of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor but had given up both the thrones out of sheer exhaustion. He was convinced that it was impossible for one man to rule such an enormous area so, before he went off to spend his retirement in the calm of a Spanish monastery, he divided his possessions as follows:


- The Kingdom of Spain and all of its European territories and its American colonies, were given to his son Phillip II.

- The Holy Roman Empire was given to his brother Ferdinand.


This division meant that there were two separate branches of the Habsburg dynasty in 1600, the Spanish and the Austrian. They would never be reunited (much to the relief of France). After 1556, the Holy Roman Empire was like a jigsaw puzzle of more than 360 independent states, principalities and cities. In addition, to the various ethnic groups, such as Germans, Poles, Bohemians, Ruthenes, Hungarians and Rumanians, there were different religions (Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox and Muslim), different languages, traditions and cultures which made it impossible for the Emperor to rule a strong, unified state.


Ottoman Empire in the 1600s

Though it was still powerful, by 1600 the Ottoman Empire had already entered a period of long-term and, eventually fatal, decline. The empire had reached the peak of its power during the reign of Suleiman "the Magnificent" from 1520-1566. However, the authority of the sultans was already being weakened by corruption and conspiracies at the court of Constantinople. The visirs (ministers) intrigued to obtain power at each other's expense, and even the Janissaries (the elite regiments which formed the sultan's bodyguard) became less reliable. This meant that the beys (provincial governors) increasingly ignored Constantinople and ruled independently. By the late 18th century the Ottoman Empire became known as "the sick man of Europe".


Russia in the 1600s

In 1600 Russia was on the margins of European civilisation. The Russian state was limited to a small area around Moscow (the Kingdom of Muscovy). Beyond this were vast and empty plains, marshes and forests. Russia's development as a major European power would only begin in the early 18th. century with the reign of Tsar Peter I (Peter the Great).



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