Excerpt from Holy Horrors: An Illustrated History of Religious Murder and Madness, by James A. Haught (Prometheus Books, 2002). Reprinted with permission from the author.
Throughout Europe, the number of wars, expulsions, massacres, and executions that accompanied the Reformation are almost beyond counting. Following are the major Christian-versus-Christian bloodbaths:
Protestantism sprouted in Catholic France, and King Henry II vowed to destroy it. He created a heresy court that became known as the Burning Chamber because of its standard sentence for Huguenots (the French name for Protestants). In 1559, France and Spain signed a treaty agreeing to extirpate Protestantism from their lands.
For a while, French queen mother Catherine de Medici allowed Huguenots to worship in certain locales. But Catholic dukes massacred the worshipers—setting off religious warfare that broke out again and again. Altogether, eight Huguenot wars occurred between 1562 and 1589. Each side was brutal. Huguenot soldiers smashed church ornaments and hunted priests like animals. One captain wore a necklace of priests’ ears. A French observer reported:
“It would be impossible to tell you what barbarous cruelties are committed by both sides. Where the Huguenot is master, he ruins the images and demolishes the sepulchres and tombs. On the other hand, the Catholic kills, murders, and drowns all those whom he knows to be of that sect, until the rivers overflow with them.”
Pope Pius sent troops to France to help fight the Huguenots, and ordered the commander to kill every prisoner taken. Pius was later canonized as a saint.
After the third war, Catherine de Medici sought to end the horror by arranging the marriage of her daughter to a young Huguenot prince, Henry of Navarre. Perversely, when Huguenots gathered in Paris for the wedding under a promise of safe passage, Catherine plotted with Catholic dukes to assassinate the Huguenot military leader, Admiral Gaspard de Coligny. The assassin missed, merely wounding the admiral—so Catherine and the dukes hastily decided to murder all Huguenots before they had time to counterattack. On the night of August 24, 1572—St. Bartholomew’s Day—Catholic troops swept through Huguenot neighborhoods in Paris, slaughtering thousands. Coligny was beheaded. Other massacres were staged throughout France.
Coligny’s head was sent to Rome, where Pius’s successor, Pope Gregory XIII, received it joyfully. He and the whole college of cardinals offered a mass of thanksgiving. The pope struck a medal celebrating the Catholic victory and commissioned the artist Giorgio Vasari to paint a fresco of the triumph over the Huguenots.
The St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre naturally triggered a fourth Huguenot war, and four more followed. Finally, Huguenot Henry of Navarre was offered the crown as king of France if he would convert to Catholicism. He did so, saying cynically, “Paris is worth a mass.” He issued the Edict of Nantes allowing Protestants to worship. After his death, however, all civil rights were stripped from Huguenots and they were persecuted ruthlessly. More civil wars erupted in the 1620s. In 1715, King Louis XIV proudly declared that all Protestantism had been suppressed in France.
Hundreds of thousands of Huguenots fled during the horrors. One colony settled in Florida, preceding what is now St. Augustine. A Spanish expedition discovered the colony in 1565 and killed virtually every person. The Spanish commander erected a sign saying the settlers were executed “not as Frenchmen but as Lutherans.”
The Low Countries
When Protestantism took root in the Low Countries, Catholic rulers vowed to obliterate it at any cost. Dowager queen Mary of Hungary, regent of Flanders, ordered execution of all heretics, “care being taken only that the provinces are not entirely depopulated.” The Inquisition killed multitudes. Mary decreed that Protestants who recanted would be spared burning; instead, the men would be killed by sword and the women buried alive.
The great Flemish mapmaker Gerardus Mercator was caught in a roundup of suspected Lutherans in 1544. Of those arrested with him, two were burned, two were buried alive, and one was beheaded. Mercator finally was released through efforts of his parish priest.
Spanish King Philip II, ruler of Holland and Belgium, was obsessed with halting Protestantism in those lands. He revived the Inquisition and commanded: “Let all prisoners be put to death, and suffer them no longer to escape through the neglect, weakness, and bad faith of the judges.” Protestants rebelled and burned 400 Catholic churches. The Duke of Alva was sent to smash Protestant towns. His onslaught was called “the Spanish fury.” He killed thousands in Antwerp and massacred Haarlem Protestants in 1573. He set up a heresy court, popularly called the Bloody Tribunal, which sent throngs of suspected Protestants to be executed. A Dutch chronicler wrote:
“The gallows, the wheel, stakes, trees along the highways, were laden with carcasses or limbs of those who had been hanged, beheaded, or roasted.”
One of the victims was Count Egmont, whose martyrdom was commemorated by Beethoven in the Egmont Overture.
In the northern districts of Holland, Protestants led by William of Orange declared their independence from Catholic Spain. Philip II offered 25,000 crowns of gold for William’s assassination, and he was killed in 1584. But William’s militant Calvinists continued fighting
until they secured Protestant independence for the northern provinces.
The Catholic Church decreed that the Bible could be printed only in Latin, restricting it to priests and scholars. Printing it in a common language for common people was punishable by death. In England in the 1520s, William Tyndale sought permission to translate the New Testament into English so “every plowboy” might read it. The request put his life in danger, and he fled to Lutheran territory in Germany. He completed a translation and smuggled copies back to England—where they were seized and burned by Catholic bishops. Tyndale eventually was captured in Antwerp by Catholic authorities, who tried him for heresy and had him strangled and burned. (Later, much of Tyndale’s magnificent prose was incorporated into the King James version of the Bible.)
English King Henry VIII, who cynically used religion for power, had attempted to capture and try Tyndale. Henry also denounced Martin Luther and Protestantism, for which the pope gratefully proclaimed him a “Defender of the Faith.”
But when Henry wanted to divorce Catherine of Aragon, and the pope refused permission, the headstrong king arranged to divorce England from Catholicism. Parliament made the king, not the pope, supreme head of the church in England. Henry chose an obedient archbishop, Thomas Cranmer, who dissolved his unwanted marriage. Henry also seized the rich lands of formerly Catholic monasteries throughout England. The pope excommunicated Henry and tried to mount a crusade against England, but Catholic rulers around Europe declined to participate.
Henry fashioned a formal Church of England retaining most Catholic dogmas—and made it a capital offense to doubt those dogmas. Thus he executed stubborn Catholics such as Sir Thomas More, who voiced loyalty to the pope, and he also burned Lutherans who questioned transubstantiation. After Henry was succeeded by his 10-year-old son, Edward VI, further breaks from Catholicism were achieved by Archbishop Cranmer.
Edward was succeeded in 1553 by Mary I, daughter of Henry and Catherine of Aragon—and she became history’s “Bloody Mary.” An ardent Catholic, she sought to restore England to Catholicism through terror. In three years, she burned 300 Protestants alive. Archbishop
Cranmer wavered, first embracing Catholicism, then renouncing it. He was sent to the stake but he impressed the crowd by declaring his shame at recanting, and thrust into the flames his hand that had betrayed him by signing an oath to the pope.
When bishops Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer went to the stake, the latter declared: “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England as I trust shall never be put out.” He was right. The English, sickened by the executions and impressed by the martyrs’ bravery, turned intensely Protestant.
On this day, in 1555, Nicholas Ridley & Hugh Latimer were burned at the stake for preaching justification by faith alone. Latimer said, “Be of good cheer, Master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light a candle in England, by God’s grace, that shall never be put out.” pic.twitter.com/9ZYGfbvnUU
— Dustin Benge (@DustinBenge) October 16, 2021
When Elizabeth I succeeded to the throne, she sought to end the religious killings. But she was caught in a church crossfire. From one side, Catholics plotted against her life and staged a rebellion in the north. From the other side, extreme Protestant Puritans and Separatists raged against popery and “Romish dregs” in the Church of England. In retaliation, Parliament passed harsh laws making it treason to celebrate the Catholic mass, and also forbidding Puritan worship. A fine of twenty pounds a month was imposed on anyone not attending Anglican services.
About 200 Catholics were executed as traitors under Elizabeth—and Mary, Queen of Scots, was beheaded because Catholics conspired to put her on Elizabeth’s throne. In addition, three fanatical Puritans were put to death.
Amid this strife, King Philip II sent the Spanish Armada on a holy mission to force England’s return to Catholicism. But that too failed, and England remained Protestant.
Before Mary, Queen of Scots, met the headsman in England, she participated in Catholic-Protestant bloodshed in Scotland.
The Reformation brought the same horror to Scotland as to other lands. The Catholic parliament banned Lutheran books and preaching. Cardinal David Beaton burned Protestant leaders Patrick Hamilton and George Wishart. Then their followers murdered Beaton, hung his body from the wall of St. Andrew’s Castle, and barricaded themselves in the castle.
John Knox became chief of the besieged Protestants. When French Catholic troops finally helped Scottish Catholics seize the castle, Knox and his colleagues were sent into slavery aboard French galleys. English intervention obtained his release nineteen months later, and he began preaching in England and on the continent.
Scotland was ruled by Mary of Lorraine, of France’s fiercely Catholic House of Guise. She denounced Scot Protestants as heretics. Protestant lairds rebelled, summoned Knox from Geneva to be their voice, and waged war against Catholic strongholds. They seized Edinburgh and, with English help, gained control of Scotland. A Protestant parliament renounced the pope and decreed death to anyone who attended Catholic mass more than twice.
Mary of Lorraine died and her 18-year-old daughter, also Mary, came from France to be queen of Scots. She was an immature Catholic ruler in a land seething with Protestantism. She might have coped, but she married a Catholic scoundrel, then conspired to have him murdered, then married his chief assassin. Protestant lairds rebelled again. They defeated Mary’s Catholic troops at Carberry Hill near Edinburgh and jailed her in an island castle.
Mary escaped, and another Catholic army rallied around her—but it too was smashed by Protestant forces. Mary fled to England, where she was imprisoned eighteen years by Queen Elizabeth, until Catholic insurrection plots finally led to her beheading.
Thirty Years’ War
The last great spasm of the Reformation was its worst. The Thirty Years’ War, from 1618 to 1648, killed millions in Central Europe and left Germany a wasteland of misery.
"The Thirty Years' War was largely waged within the Holy Roman Empire from 1618 to 1648. One of the most destructive wars in European history, it caused an estimated 4.5 to 8 million deaths." https://t.co/Y0DLX1pcdk
— Church and State (@ChurchAndStateN) June 21, 2022
It began because Catholic Habsburg rulers of the Holy Roman Empire tried to suppress growing Calvinism in regions already smoldering with Catholic-Lutheran tensions. Evangelical princes formed a defensive alliance, the Protestant Union. The other side formed the Catholic League. They faced each other like ticking bombs—which finally exploded over a trifle: Protestant nobles entered the imperial palace in Prague and threw two Catholic ministers out a window into a dungheap, touching off war.
Catholic armies quickly slaughtered the Protestant forces. The conflict might have ended then, but Catholic Emperor Ferdinand II decided to eradicate Protestantism entirely. The faith was outlawed and cruel persecution was inflicted.
Protestants appealed for foreign help, and Protestant King Christian IV of Denmark sent an army to their rescue. Lutheran and Calvinist German princes joined him. Once again the Protestants were defeated, once again Ferdinand resumed religious oppression, and once again the victims sought outside aid.
Next, Protestant King Gustav Adolph of Sweden marched into Germany to rescue his fellow believers. His soldiers sang Martin Luther’s hymn Ein Teste Burg in battle. Terrible slaughter occurred. A Catholic army captured Magdeburg and massacred its Protestant residents. King Gustav was killed, and his troops wreaked vengeance on Catholic peasants.
Eventually the war turned more political than religious. Catholic France entered on the side of the Protestants, in an attempt to cripple the rival Habsburgs. The killing dragged on decade after decade until both sides were too exhausted to continue.
The Thirty Year’s War was a human catastrophe. It settled nothing, and it killed uncountable multitudes. One estimate says Germany’s population dropped from 18 million to 4 million. Hunger and deprivation followed. Too few people remained to plant fields, rebuild
cities, or conduct education or commerce.
This disaster helped break the historic entwinement of Christianity and politics. The concluding Peace of Westphalia prescribed an end to the pope’s control over civil governments.
Excerpted from Holy Horrors: An Illustrated History of Religious Murder and Madness by James A. Haught. Copyright © James A. Haught, 2002. All rights reserved.
By James A. Haught
Prometheus Books (30 May 2002)
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