Skip to main content
Skip to content

Tremors - Reformation & Counter-reformation Europe

Updated Sunday, 7th January 2001

The authority of the Catholic Church shattered; Europe reacts: Reformation and Counter-Reformation.

This page was published over 21 years ago. Please be aware that due to the passage of time, the information provided on this page may be out of date or otherwise inaccurate, and any views or opinions expressed may no longer be relevant. Some technical elements such as audio-visual and interactive media may no longer work. For more detail, see how we deal with older content.

Tudor ships at sea

The Reformation was a cataclysmic event in early modern Europe. It shattered the authority of the universal Catholic Church and destroyed the unity of the medieval Christian world of western Europe. The conflict which emerged between those states which remained true to Catholicism and those which embraced Protestantism disfigured Europe for over two centuries, and provided the backdrop against which the British Civil Wars of the 1640s were played out.

Although Protestantism originally emerged as a critique of medieval Catholicism- the trade in holy relics, the selling of indulgences, church involvement in secular issues, the inability of certain churchmen to keep to their vows- it quickly developed into an alternative religious credo in its own right with distinctive doctrines and liturgies. Whereas Catholicism had aspired to be a universal all-embracing faith with one unambiguous doctrine, Protestantism was characterised by heterogeneity and diversity from the outset as it spread from north-western Germany to Holland, Scandinavia, other parts of Germany and France, Scotland and England, evolving in response to local customs, values and politics. In due course, these different 'brands' of Protestantism - Lutheranism, Calvinism and Zwinglianism, and doctrines and practices associated with Anabaptism, Arminianism, Anglicanism and Puritanism - would ultimately come into conflict with each other.

Some of the defining features of 16th and 17th century Protestantism are outlined below:

Justification by faith alone: works (good works of Christian charity and the taking of communion) and outward adornments (stained glass, relics, robes) offered no guarantee of salvation. Salvation could only be secured through a deep-rooted and unswerving faith in the mercy and majesty of Christ. In time, 'solafideism' would be challenged by 'predestinarianism' which held that God had already divided the damned and the pure into two distinct groups and nothing could be done to change this.

Priesthood of all believers: Every believer (lay or clerical) could and should have a direct personal relationship with God. Under Protestantism, the priest no longer enjoyed a special intermediary role between God and man. The Bible should therefore be made available to everyone in local tongues and church services should also be held in local languages. And if the priests no longer enjoyed special relationships with God, they needn't be bound by special laws (such as celibacy). Protestant clergy were free to marry.

Scriptural authority: the word of God, as revealed in the Bible, was the supreme authority in all spiritual matters. The word of man (expressed through the teachings of the church) was flawed and imperfect.

Fewer sacraments: Luther defined a sacrament as anything which had been personally instituted by Christ, and so reduced the sacraments to the essential two (baptism and the eucharist). The Catholic church traditionally observed seven sacraments (confirmation, penance, extreme unction, ordination, matrimony, baptism, eucharist). Some Protestant faiths had more than two sacraments but all had fewer than the Catholic seven.

Transubstantiation denied: According to Catholicism, the priest's words during the eucharist turned the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Luther denied that the priest's words effected such a change and some Protestant faiths (Calvinism, Zwinglianism) insisted that the bread and wine be taken only in a commemorative or symbolic way.

Presbyterianism: Under the Presbyterian model articulated by Calvin and Knox, church government was to reside in the hands of ministers and elders (presbyters). The more thoroughgoing forms of Protestantism rejected government by bishops and archbishops (episcopalianism - episkopi is the Greek word for bishop).


Although slow to respond, the Catholic Church eventually offered a firm and vigorous response to the spread of Protestantism. Successive sessions of the Council of Trent (1545, 1552, 1562) attempted to remove the worst of the abuses which had inspired Protestantism in the first place- indulgence- selling, bishops residing outwith their dioceses, the trade in church offices-while organisations such as the Oratory of Divine Love and the Modern Devotion advocated a return to simple ethical living and included both clerical and lay members. The formation of the Jesuits in the 1530s represented an attempt by Catholicism to recapture its former crusading spirit and missionary zeal. The Jesuits were formally recognised in the 1540s and membership rose dramatically as they spread the word to Protestant-dominated areas and to the New World. For those not convinced by argument and theology, the Inquisition and auto-da-fé (trial by fire) were also on hand.

The Counter- Reformation had a military and secular side also as Catholic kings and princes tried to regain territory conquered by the Protestants and, simultaneously, expand their own power and influence. Philip II of Spain was the foremost of these princes as he led numerous military expeditions against the Protestants in the Spanish Netherlands (modern Belgium and Holland), and also launched the ill-fated Armada against England in 1588. In these activities, Spain was assisted by Henry II of France, Emperor Charles V and (in the seventeenth century) by Louis XIV.

By the middle decades of the sixteenth century, Europe was effectively divided into two armed camps- the southern states of Spain, Italy, southern Germany- were largely Catholic while the smaller, less powerful states of north-western Europe-Sweden, Denmark, northern Germany, England and Scotland- were Protestant. France spent much of the second half of the sixteenth century engaged in a civil war about the right of Protestants to worship freely. For modern readers, the closest analogy is with the 'Cold War' of the twentieth century when Europe was divided into two ideologically hostile camps (the Warsaw Pact and NATO). However, whereas the great ideological contest of the late twentieth century was largely 'cold' (in Europe anyway), the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries - Protestant versus Catholic, and Protestant versus Protestant - were extremely hot. Eventually, these fires would spread to the British Isles.

Map of Europe

Before 1517, Europe was a religiously united continent, with all states and virutally all subjects acknowledging the Pope's spiritual authority. Luther's successful theological revolt from 1517 onwards shattered the unity of medieval christianity, and by the middle of the century, Europe was divided into two armed camps - the mainly protestant north and the largely Catholic south.



Become an OU student


Ratings & Comments

Share this free course

Copyright information

Skip Rate and Review

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?