The Peace of Westphalia’s Twilight

Painting of Peace of Westphalia
Ratification of the Peace of Münster (Gerard ter Borch, Münster, 1648)

Arguably one of the most significant dates in the history of Western Civilization, October 26, 1648 appears eternally longer than 367 years ago. The Thirty Years War, officially launched in 1618, traces its catalyst to 1515 when Wittenberg monasterial monk Martin Luther rejected Pope Leo X’s sale of indulgences to peasants under false pretenses. Luther’s response was to hammer his “Ninety-Five Theses” to the monastery’s door, resulting in over a century of revolution by way of conscientious objection and warfare. Born of this was the Peace of Westphalia, ending the bloodshed, luring further English and European settlement to North America.

The Schism Between East and West

Christianity experienced one reformation prior to the rise of Protestantism. Problems over Southern Italy (then under East Roman rule, or the Byzantine Empire) materialized during the 1040’s following the Norman conquest of the region, who subsequently replaced Greek bishops with Latin clergy. Leading to mass confusion and hysteria, debates raged regarding liturgical customs. Clerical marriage, the variety of bread consumed during the Eucharist, days of fasting and other practices suddenly became objects of unprecedented debate and conflict.

Incensed, Michael Cerularius retaliated, inducing Leo of Ochrid to devise strategies to attack among other events, the Latin abolition of unleavened bread during the Eucharist. In response, Leo IX dispatched Cardinal Humbert, a acerbic man described having been tactless and narrow-minded, to Constantinople to directly confront Cerularius. But upon his arrival at the Hagia Sofia in April 1054, Humbert erupted into bellicose verbal assaults, slamming atop the altar the papal bull of excommunication.

Though drenched in drama in light of Humbert’s histrionics, it proved initially much ado about nothing. Still, negotiations between Rome and Constantinople continued, intensifying the final two decades of the 11th Century upon the invasion of the Muslim Turks. Seeking military aid from Rome, in 1095 Pope Urban II launched the Crusades.

Violent anti-Latin revolts contributed to the inevitable demise of the East Roman Empire. In 1204 papal knights ravaged Constantinople. By 1234, tensions reached the point where it was clear the Church experienced its first division given irreconcilable differences between the Latins and Greeks. While the schism’s cause remains uncertain, many scholars concur it had little to do with the excommunications of 1054, nor differences theologically, liturgically or the discipline of divination. Combined however with prejudice, misunderstanding, arrogance and foolishness, one may conclude to each their customs their self-image seemed to make. For instance, Rome appeared concerned of the resurgence of Arianism, nearly adding to the Nicene Creed the word Son as part of the Holy Trinity. The Greeks rejected this, strongly disagreeing with the theological implications diminishing the individual properties of God as three individual Persons. Following one year of debates at the Council of Florence in 1439, what compromises made were never fully accepted. In 1454, the Ottoman Turks sacked Constantinople, whose people under the Turkish caliphate were balkanized into smaller nation-states and later, individual sovereignty after achieving independence from the Turks.

The Protestant Reformation Through the Peace of Westphalia

Martin Luther (1483-1546)

“AMONG those monstrous evils of this age with which I have now for three years been waging war, I am sometimes compelled to look to you and to call you to mind, most blessed father Leo. In truth, since you alone are everywhere considered as being the cause of my engaging in war, I cannot at any time fail to remember you; and although I have been compelled by the causeless raging of your impious flatterers against me to appeal from your seat to a future council—fearless of the futile decrees of your predecessors Pius and Julius, who in their foolish tyranny prohibited such an action—yet I have never been so alienated in feeling from your Blessedness as not to have sought with all my might, in diligent prayer and crying to God, all the best gifts for you and for your see. But those who have hitherto endeavoured to terrify me with the majesty of your name and authority, I have begun quite to despise and triumph over. One thing I see remaining which I cannot despise, and this has been the reason of my writing anew to your Blessedness: namely, that I find that blame is cast on me, and that it is imputed to me as a great offence, that in my rashness I am judged to have spared not even your person.”

— Letter of Martin Luther to Pope Leo X. Martin Luther (1483–1546). Concerning Christian Liberty. The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Luther’s audacious rebellion led to his own excommunication in 1521 by Pope Leo X. As the chief catalyst for the birth of Protestantism, Luther was a professor of biblical interpretation at the University of Wittenberg inside the Holy Roman Empire. It was there his Ninety-Five Theses were drawn, condemning the Holy See for selling indulgences in exchange for the promise of Heaven. Three months following his excommunication that April, Luther was summoned before the Diet of Worms to defend charges of heresy. His sentence was severe enough that he was declared a heretic.

A century following the Lutheran revolution, a war redefining a continent’s political culture ravaged European nationalities for three decades. Beginning in 1618 when the Austrian Habsburgs tried imposing Roman Catholicism on their Protestant subjects in Bohemia, the Thirty Years War pitted Protestants against their Catholic brethren, better than three centuries of bloody warfare between the Germanic peoples of the former Holy Roman Empire with Catholic France, sandwiched to the west by Habsburg-controlled Spain.

The Thirty Years War set the tone for the Great Northern War (1701-21) involving Sweden, Denmark, Poland, the Netherlands, the Swiss Confederation and Russia. Among the prizes aside religious divorce from Rome were the commercial interests and the quest to politicize through coercion The Word of God.

The peace of Westphalia opened in Münster and Osnabrück December 1644. The conference included no fewer than 194 nation-states represented by 179 plenipotentiaries. Presiding over the conference were the Papal Nuncio (the future Pope Alexander VII) and the Venetian ambassador from the Italian Papal States. Details were slowly negotiated and agreed upon, though it took three weeks simply organizing the public signing ceremony. Yet the most profound event forever altering Western civilization finally concluded at 2 o’clock in the afternoon Saturday, October 24, 1648, thus redrawing Europe’s map based on both national and cultural commonalities.

Specifically, the following territories were issued by the Treaty of Münster.

  • Switzerland was granted independence from Austria.
  • The Netherlands were granted independence from Spain.
  • German municipalities finally achieved autonomy.
  • Sweden was granted territory and a lump sum payment in cash.
  • France annexed the long-coveted territory of Alsace-Lorraine.

As a result of the new Westphalian order, the Roman Catholic Church’s hegemonic stranglehold was rendered forever impotent.

The Glorious Revolution in England (1688-9)

The Glorious Revolution forever ended the creeping popery feared in Britannia while lifting Parliament as the government of the people over the monarchy.

Fears of Catholic tyranny driven by Rome led to conflicting accounts as to the nature of the struggle. The Whigs recorded the revolution as “bloodless”, establishing parliamentary supremacy under a democratically-elected constitutional monarchy. Yet their account ignores the foreign invasion of the British Isles by another foreign power, the Dutch Republic. And while England remained relatively free of violent warfare, the revolution was only decided in Scotland and Ireland through massive losses in life and sovereignty.

The catalysts driving the short revolution were as much religious as it was political. The phenomena behind “popery”, or the fear and hatred of Catholics, was a direct reflection of a pervasive view of a papal conspiracy, that Catholics truly were planning to topple the Church of England and the state, replaced by an all-powerful Catholic absolute monarch such as Louis XIV (“Sun King”) of France. The concerns were, however, very legitimate, given the 1605 Gunpowder Plot by Guy Fawkes to blow up Westminster Palace.

Social unrest for the first time since the 1640’s led to England mired in civil war. As news spread of Prince William of Orange’s arrival, waves of anti-Catholic sentiment drove rioting in London. Yet despite agreeing to William’s demands of a “free” parliament, James II was convinced his own life was endangered. In his first attempt to flee England, the James II was captured by Kent fishermen December 11, 1688.  Thrusting the role as the lone person capable of restoring order in England, he aided the effort in permitting James II to finally leave.

Following the “convention parliament” convening January 22, 1689, it was agreed both William and Mary would rule as joint monarchs. Prior to being authored the crown however, they were presented the documentation of the Declaration of Rights (later known “Bill of Rights”) affirming a number of constitutional legal guarantees such as “the illegality of prerogative suspending and dispensing powers, the prohibition of taxation without parliamentary consent and the need for regular parliaments.”

Yet not until 1694 did the call for regular parliaments gain its foundation through the Triennial Act. And while William pressed hard for passage of the Toleration Act, in reality he was far more limited in his tolerance displayed at Catholics than his reviled, deposed regal predecessor. In failing to limit parliamentary overreach, the Bill of Rights, much like the Peace of Westphalia. The rise of mercantilism and unfortunately slavery led in no small part to the Elizabethan settlement of British America.

The European Union and Globalization Assassinated Westphalian Nationalist Identity

Matthew 7:6
“Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.

The peace of Westphalia politically crippled the corrupt absolutism of the Holy See acting in Christ’s name. Verily it seems, the first recorded tyranny post-Roman Empire in Western civilization can be traced to corruption of the papacy itself. The pope, so powerful he was, never blinked at opportunities to manipulate the Scriptures for political expedience. The early Christian world was a tale in contradictions, where on the one hand families were raised as devout Disciples, and on the other, their values may well have been tainted due to liturgical disingenuity capitalizing on the vast illiteracy of serfs driven by their vassals. Thus Martin Luther may well have understood how the locals near Wittenberg fell prey to religious statism, purchasing a temporal authority’s tickets to Heaven in the form of indulgences.

The first two permanent settlements of British America could not differ more from their cultural distinctions to the purposes of why. In 1607 when Jamestown was settled, it served the fledgling English empire’s global depot in the tobacco “cash-crop” trade, tilled off the fertile sand-to-clay soils along the Virginia Chesapeake region. Yet in 1620 once Plymouth was settled following the transatlantic voyage, the quest for religious freedom was achieved for the English puritans whose pilgrimage still best defines what is American. Where Jamestown inevitably imported slaves from Africa to cultivate English mercantilist cash-crops, the puritan work ethos instilled the spirit that through hard work and self-reliance may the virtuous under God thrive.

Yet amid the differences and seeming moral divergences, they set the standard for a future where imperfection would be sought to form a more perfect union. The thirteen colonies united to drive away their British imperial masters, resulting in the formation of the American miracle. It is true how the words of conservative intellectual giant Dr. Russell Kirk apply, that “Human nature suffers irremediably from certain grave faults,” that “Man being imperfect, no perfect social order ever can be created.” Given the entry of America into a global supra-national corporatist political Pangaea, the attempt to coerce the diverse beauty of mankind into a one-mindful pulse is contradictory to human nature. In denying human nature sustenance fed by cultural continuity, one need only recall the words of Roanoke colonial settler John Randolph asserting “Providence moves slowly, but the devil always hurries.” Left-wing ideologues and revolutionaries promising an utopia to their partisans achieve nothing but “a terrestrial hell”.

To quote Jean Jacques Rousseau’s most profound and dangerous assertion,

“In order then that the social compact may not be an empty formula, it tacitly includes the undertaking, which alone can give force to the rest, that whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free; for this is the condition which, by giving each citizen to his country, secures him against all personal dependence. In this lies the key to the working of the political machine; this alone legitimises civil undertakings, which, without it, would be absurd, tyrannical, and liable to the most frightful abuses.”

If civil liberty is not free, how may one justify forcing a man to buy it? If Utopia is a temporal manifestation, who considers my neighbor’s defined incorruptibility analogous to another’s personal absolutism? I think in answering the radical eradication of nation-state sovereignty is best summarized by Margaret Thatcher in her speak at Bruges Belfry in Belgium.

However far we may want to go, the truth is that we can only get there one step at a time. And what we need now is to take decisions on the next steps forward, rather than let ourselves be distracted by Utopian goals. Utopia never comes, because we know we should not like it if it did. Let Europe be a family of nations, understanding each other better, appreciating each other more, doing more together but relishing our national identity no less than our common European endeavour.

In reflection of Napoleon’s poker game with the former owner of the Manor Farm, Mr Jones, “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.” (Animal Farm, George Orwell)

Because it seems today “as though the farm had grown richer without making the animals themselves any richer — except, of course, for the pigs and the dogs.”