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a brief history of pre-20th century European violence, part 1

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The second siege of Namur, 1695

The second siege of Namur, 1695

A few years back I read Niall Ferguson’s The war of the world: twentieth century conflict and the descent of the west. It was published in 2006. More recently, in 2011, Steven Pinker’s The better angels of our nature was published, and it would seem that the two books are talking almost exactly opposite tales. I’ve not read Pinker’s book, but I’ve heard him talking about it, and I understand the thesis pretty well. In fact I largely shared Pinker’s view even before he wrote the book, and before I read Ferguson’s. Not that Ferguson’s book wasn’t interesting and full of incident, but the central thesis of the west’s descent into a quagmire of violence struck me as unconvincing. The huge numbers killed in the 20th century’s two world wars, and in other conflicts such as occurred in Rwanda and Cambodia were partly the result of greater killing technology, partly the result of a massive population increase, and partly the result of ideological fixations being played out to their logical conclusions. Of course all these features – the technology, the population and the ideologies – are still with us, but other forces have gradually risen, at least in the ‘west’, to keep them in check. I’d like to look at those forces in detail in another post, but for now I want to take a look at violence, both domestic and national-political, in Europe over the past few centuries, because I think Ferguson’s greatest error in his book was selectivity. He chose to focus on the twentieth century, and his treatment of earlier centuries was cursory at best. Naturally he argued that there was an extended period of peace before the outbreak of the Great War, but even that limited claim probably wouldn’t stand up to close scrutiny. We’ll see. I’ll begin my overview of violence in Europe at around the year 1600, for no reason other than I have to start somewhere, and I don’t want the post to be too long. So I’ll be covering some 300 years, with the obvious understanding that life was no less violent before this period. I’ll start with war violence, and finish with the more complicated picture of state-sanctioned, public and domestic violence.

the violence of warfare

In 1600 Elizabeth was still on the throne in England, and Spain was probably not yet fully conscious of its decline as a European power. There were plenty of tensions between these two countries, one newly Protestant, the other staunchly Catholic, but Spain had other concerns. In July 1601 the Flemish city of Ostend, in what is now Belgium, was subjected to what turned out to be one of the longest sieges in human history. Some 35,000 were killed or wounded by the time the Dutch surrendered to the Spanish in September of 1604. Considering that the total population of Europe was about a tenth of what it is today, that’s a significant figure. And it was only one event, albeit a particularly bloody one, in a long war, the Dutch War of Independence, also known as the Eighty Years’ War. A year before the siege, the Battle of Nieuwpoort, which the Dutch ‘won’ – their casualties were fractionally less than those of Spain – resulted in some 4,500 casualties. The long conflict – it lasted from 1568 until the end of the Thirty Years’ War of middle Europe, in 1648 – obviously resulted in many thousands of casualties, but merging as it did with the Thirty Years War of 1618-48, it’s hard to find a separate estimate.

The Thirty Years’ War itself was the most horrific internal war ever experienced in Europe, to judge by percentage of the total population affected. Estimates of the death toll range from 3 to 11.5 million, an incredible figure, though nothing compared to the Mongol slaughter of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, which saw between 30 million and 60 million dead, a veritable emptying of the Eurasian population.

The Treaty of London, signed in 1604, brought to an end what historians now call the Anglo-Spanish War of 1585-1604. Arguably this wasn’t so much a war as a series of battles or raids separated by years of tension and intrigue.  The execution of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots accelerated the conflict, the main events of which included the raid on the Armada by Drake in 1587, the destruction of the Armada in 1588, the disastrous campaign of the ‘English Armada’ in 1589, and a number of inconclusive skirmishes in the region of the Spanish Main in the 1590s. Casualties are of course hard to determine, but it’s estimated that some 25,000 died in the English defeat of the Spanish Armada, many of disease and hunger in the aftermath.

Spain was also a belligerent in the Irish Nine Years War, which came to an end in 1603. This was an uprising of Irish clans, supported by the Spanish, against English rule. It resulted in more than 100,000 deaths, mostly Irish, and mostly of resultant famine and disease. Meanwhile, the Polish-Swedish War (1600-11) saw another waste of resources and manpower. It was largely due to the ambitions of Sweden’s Charles IX and the Catholic Sigismund II Vasa, and the truce that followed years of battle was short-lived. The resumption of hostilities was just another aspect of the Thirty Years’ War. I can find no clear account of casualties, but in one famous battle, the Polish-Lithuanian victory at Kircholm in 1605, some 6000 Swedes were apparently wiped out.

In 1606, the Peace of Zsitvatorok brought to an end the Long War (1591-1606) between the Habsburg Monarchy and the Ottoman Empire, the first serious encounter between Christian and Moslem forces in eastern Europe since the Hungarians were slaughtered by the forces of Suleiman I at Mohacs in 1526. Significant events in this war included the Battle of Calugareni (1595), a major Wallachian (Romanian) victory, and the Battle of Keresztes (1596), a horribly bloody affair with massive casualties on both sides, with this time the Ottoman army scoring the victory. These two battles alone resulted in around 60,000 deaths. 17th century battles (since we’re supposed to be working from 1600) include Guruslau (1601) and Brasov (1603). War losses were heavy – certainly over 100,000.

The War of the Julich Succession was a convoluted Middle-European conflict (1609-14) between forces supporting and opposing the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II’s attempts to expand Habsburg Territory. It involved a number of sieges and skirmishes and was another precursor to the Thirty Years’ War.

The Polish Muscovite War (1605-1618) was essentially a series of incursions into Russian territory by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, at a time when Russia was wracked by civil conflict. Important events included the Battle of Klushino (1610) and the Siege of Smolensk (1609-11), which resulted in great loss of life, especially on the Russian side.

The Ingrian War (1610-17) was an attempt by Sweden to also take advantage of Russia’s internal conflicts. It ended with the treaty of Stolbovo which stripped Russia of access to the Baltic Sea for about a century.

These are the main European conflicts leading up to the Thirty Years’ War, which sucked most continental conflicts into it, up to mid-century. However, there was another conflict that can be clearly separated from it; the English Civil War (1642-51). This conflict directly killed more than 80,000 in England alone, at a time when the English population was around 5 million. As usual during this era, disease killed more people than combat, and war-related deaths are estimated at around 190,000. Related conflicts in Scotland in the period killed around 60,000 out of 1 million, and in Ireland the devastation was by far the greatest, with the best estimate put at over 600,000 dead – about 40% of the population. These conflicts are sometimes known as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (1639-51), though the conflicts continued until the Restoration under Charles II in 1660.

You might think that an exhausted peace would prevail after these massive British and European conflicts. You’d be wrong. The First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-4), an entirely naval affair, saw at least 5,000 deaths, and 1652 also saw the Battle of Batih, in which an estimated 8000 Polish forces were massacred by Crimean Tatars. But even before that there was plenty of conflict. In 1648, the year the Treaty of Westphalia brought to an end the Thirty Years’ War, civil wars erupted in France. These events have become known as the Fronde, and they lasted until 1653, when Royal authority was restored. Though the death toll was comparatively small, the turmoil was disturbing enough to cause the incoming monarch, Louis XIV, to move his residence out to Versailles.

In 1654 the Battle of Shepeleviche marked the beginning of the Russo-Polish War, which ran until 1667. Smolensk was again besieged during the conflict. In one battle alone, the Battle of Okhmativ (1655), some 9000 died on the Russian side. 1654 was also the year of the first of the ‘Battles of the Dardanelles’, part of the Cretan War (1645-69), also known as the Fifth (yeah, that’s right) Ottoman-Venetian War, fought between the State of Venice and its allies and the Ottoman Empire. This one was fought over Crete, hence the name.

Shortly after the Thirty Years’ War, Sweden, which had emerged from the devastation as a semi-great power, made a series of attacks on the   Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, itself weakened by war with Russia and the Cossacks. These attacks became known in Poland as the Swedish Deluge, which reached its height between 1655 and 1660. Approximately one third of the Commonwealth was wiped out, and Swedish casualties too were very high. Sweden’s warmongering King, Charles X Gustav, also attacked Denmark to precipitate the Dano-Swedish War of 1558-60, but Dutch forces and later those of Brandenberg, Poland and Austria came to Denmark’s aid, and after the Swedish king’s death in 1660 a peace treaty, the Treaty of Copenhagen, was signed which decided the borders of Sweden, Norway and Denmark, the same borders that exist today.

Meanwhile in Portugal, a revolution in 1640 had deposed the 60-year Spanish Habsburg monarchy, leading to skirmishes and more serious warfare with Spain, up to the Treaty of Lisbon in 1668. This 28-year period has become known as the Portuguese Restoration War. Portugal was already sporadically at war with the Dutch, mainly in relation to territories in Africa and the Far East, with the Dutch keen to muscle in on Portuguese Territories (complicated by the fact that the Portuguese were under Spanish dominion at the time). The Dutch-Portuguese War, largely a naval affair, lasted from 1602 to 1663. The Dutch were assisted by the British until 1640 when the Brits switched sides.

In 1667-68 France, under their young and ambitious King Louis XIV, chose to invade and take possession of lands in the Spanish-controlled Netherlands, presumably because it was the done thing for a mighty Prince to prove himself on the battle field. The French were successful enough in this ‘War of Devolution’, but a Triple Alliance of England, Sweden and the Dutch Republic, together with other stakeholders, forced Louis to realise the limitations of his power, and he had to hand back most of his gains. This pointless but hardly bloodless campaign clearly indicates the fashion for warfare of the time.

Louis wasn’t finished with the Netherlands, though. He sought to break up the Triple Alliance by seeking the support of the British against the Dutch Republic. He knew it was a shaky alliance because only months before it was made, the British and the Dutch had been at war. He also knew that Britain was concerned about Holland’s rise as a naval power, so he put all his energies into war preparations and alliance negotiations. In 1672, four years after the ‘War of Devolution’, the French army marched into what was then called the Dutch United Provinces, a month after Britain declared war. The consequent conflict, known as the Franco-Dutch War, lasted until 1678. The French gained a lot of territory, but lost the support of the Brits early on, and by war’s end most neighbouring nations had hostile relations with France. Again, virtually impossible to determine casualties, but military pundits claim 20,000 to 30,000 dead from one battle alone, at Seneffe (1674).

Swedish involvement in the Franco-Dutch War, on the French side, led to the Scanian War (1675-9), in which Denmark-Norway responded to a call for support from the Dutch United Provinces by invading areas of Sweden still in contention along the borders of Norway, Denmark and Brandenberg. Of course it was, as usual, a grab for power and territory. Scania is an area of what is now southern Sweden. The Danes scored most of the victories in the war, which further eroded Swedish power in northern Europe, but the Danes were forced by the Treaty of Fontainebleau (dictated by the French) to give up all their territorial gains. Another exercise in bloody futility.

Meanwhile on the other side of Europe, the Polish-Ottoman War (1672-76) – aka the 2nd Polish-Ottoman War – arrayed the forces of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth against those of the Ottoman Turks. After a number of battles and sieges and such, the Commonwealth was weakened to the extent that a number of foreign powers were encouraged to take advantage of it. However it rallied and scored some notable victories in the 3rd Polish-Ottoman War (1683-99), after which both Poland and the Ottoman Empire went into steep decline. The Ottoman Turks had also made war on the Russians (the Russo-Turkish War, 1676-81) to little effect, apart from much loss of life. In fact the period from 1683 to 1699 is referred to by historians as the Great Turkish War. The Turks lost a lot of territory in the period, but in spite of such disasters as the Battle of Zenta (1697), in which about 30,000 Turks died, they weren’t finished yet.

In England the Monmouth rebellion of 1685, against the newly crowned but highly unpopular king, James II, a fanatical Catholic, was a harbinger of the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, inaccurately described as a bloodless revolution, which deposed James II and snuffed out the last hope of a return to ‘official’ Catholicism in Britain.

1688 also marked the beginning of the Nine Years’ War, not the last conflict of the seventeenth century but the last one I’ll describe here. This was a conflict between James II’s powerful successor William of Orange (William III of England) – allied with a number of other powers such as Charles II of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I – and the ever-ambitious Louis XIV. James II had fled to the French court after being deposed, and he sought French assistance to regain the British throne. Louis was in the process of wreaking havoc in the Rhineland – his forces completely destroying some 20 large towns, including Heidelberg, Mannheim, Worms and Speyer, and numerous villages – but he was still inclined to help his fellow Catholic regain his god-given throne. Other European leaders (both Protestant and Catholic) rightly or wrongly imagined Louis had hopes of make James a ‘vassal king’. Louis was probably sincere in his desire to see a Catholic returned to the British throne (I’ll write about his revocation of the Edict of Nantes and its aftermath when I come to state-sanctioned violence), but he also wanted to distract William from protecting the Low Countries (nowadays Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and parts of north-west Germany) from his incursions. He also believed, apparently, that William’s invasion would meet with greater hostility than it did, and that England would likely be plunged into civil war by the event.

Of course, the campaign of James II, mostly in Ireland, backed by French gold, ships and generals, was a dismal failure. The continental campaign of the French waxed and waned, with notable victories at the Battles of Staffarda (1690) and Marsaglia (1693), and plenty of stalemates and stand-offs. The Wikipedia account of the Nine Years’ War is particularly good, IMHO. In the end though, with god knows how much loss of life, nothing much was achieved, and it ended with Louis XIV more or less back where he was territorially at the beginning of his reign.

So I’ll end my tale of 17th century European war violence here. The tale I’ve told lacks flesh and blood, and the complexity and depth of human motives, decisions and uncertainties, but it was merely intended to show that hardly a year passed in Europe in this era without some battle or siege or skirmish in which large volumes of blood were shed. War was a commonplace of diplomacy, and a commonplace feature of the adventurous male life, and the disease and suffering attendant upon all these battles and struggles no doubt formed the lifeblood of everyday conversation. ‘Were you really at the siege of Namur, uncle? Really? Tell me, what was it like…?’

In the next part I’ll look at the eighteenth century.



Written by stewart henderson

June 10, 2014 at 8:08 am

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