1680: The Limits of Christendom

1680: The Limits of Christendom February 12, 2016

I recently described the tumultuous years 1675-1685, and how they shaped the future of Europe and North America. Here, I want to explore the implications for the politics of religion in this era, and for some of the stereotypes we might have. Everyone knows that religion played a vital role in the Early Modern era: according to customary stereotypes, Protestants fought Catholics, Catholics fought Protestants, and Christians struggled against Muslims. All those statements are correct as far as they go, but they stand in need of some nuance. (Orthodox Christians also had their conflicts, but I will leave those out here).

As they say in Hail Caesar: Would that it were so simple …. [mirthless chuckle].

To recap briefly, I described the Protestant-led Hungarian/Magyar revolt against the (Catholic) Holy Roman Empire in the late 1670s. That in turn led to the Muslim Ottomans intervening on the side of the Hungarian rebels. The resulting war led to the siege of Vienna in 1683, and the ensuing battle, which really marked the end of Islamic expansion into Europe. Most historians would agree that this really marked a turning point in European (and world) history.

Looking at the battle of Vienna, several thoughts come to mind. For one thing, it is odd to realize just how late that happened, and how in fact it coincides so closely with an event like the settlement of Pennsylvania or (almost) the Salem witch trials – or indeed, the height of the Royal Society in London. It’s also sobering to think through the “might have been” of an Ottoman victory in that war, which might theoretically have extended Islamic power deep into southern Germany, and who knows how much further? If that had occurred, then the immediate cause would have been tensions and persecutions between Protestants and Catholics within the Holy Roman Empire.

Further afield, an Ottoman victory would, oddly, have been good news for France’s Most Christian King, Louis XIV (1643-1715). Both Louis and the Emperor Leopold were zealous Catholics, who (as we have seen) actively persecuted Protestants within their own realms, and both wished to uproot those Protestant minorities completely. Even so, dating back to the sixteenth century, the Catholic French had a long-standing entente cordiale with the Ottomans, on the basis that both had a common enemy in the Habsburgs. In the 1540s, the French allowed the Ottoman fleet to winter at their port of Toulon, and built mosques to make the Turkish forces feel welcome.

Recall that the Empire included what we would today call Germany and Belgium as well as Austria (and several other countries). When Louis tried to push the French border eastward to the Rhine, he was encroaching on Imperial territory. He was the Empire’s aggressive neighbor on the West, as the Ottomans were on the East. Cooperation made great sense, regardless of faith.

Hence, the revival of the alliance in the 1670s. The (Catholic) French originally supported the (Protestant) Hungarian/Magyar revolt, and later:

In 1679 and 1680, Louis XIV through his envoy Guilleragues encouraged the Ottoman Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa to intervene in the Magyar Rebellion against the Habsburg, but without success. Louis XIV communicated to the Turks that he would never fight on the side of the Austrian Emperor Leopold I, and he instead massed troops at the eastern frontier of France.

That is what gave the Ottomans the confidence to launch the assault on Vienna, although at the last minute in this campaign, Louis shifted his support to the Habsburgs. So much for any sense of Christian political unity, or indeed of Christendom as such.

A few years afterwards, Ireland witnessed the pivotal Battle of the Boyne (1690). The Protestant William III defeated the Catholic James II in a victory that established Protestant supremacy in the island for two centuries afterwards. Not surprisingly, the battle lives on as a potent myth for both sides in Irish religious divisions. William was “of Orange,” and still today, Protestant Orangemen proclaim King Billy’s triumph each year when they march on the anniversary of the Boyne, on July 12. Patriotic Irish Catholics see the Boyne as a national calamity.

Yet neither Catholics nor Protestants ever like to confront the full context of the battle. When Calvinist William triumphed in 1690, his victory was celebrated joyously by his international Catholic allies, including the Emperor Leopold, and the Pope, Alexander VIII. Austrian (Catholic) cathedrals sang a Te Deum to hymn the victory. Why? Because James II was allied to Louis XIV, and any defeat of Louis must be excellent news, not to mention long-overdue payback. My enemy’s enemy is my friend, and arguably a great Christian warrior.

Religious politics in this era were distinctly messy.

In case anyone thinks that I am maligning the French in this post, in the sixteenth century the English had likewise decided that Muslim friends were useful allies against Catholic powers, and specifically against the Habsburgs. Elizabeth I had a warm and enduring alliance with Morocco against the Spanish, and the two sides even discussed the idea of a joint Anglo-Moroccan colonization venture in the Americas (!). Now there’s another might have been on a huge scale. To summarize that story:

[Sultan] Al-Mansur and Queen Elizabeth conducted an extensive correspondence, which lasted from at least 1580—two years after he mounted the throne—until their deaths, which both occurred in the year 1603. He was in correspondence with the Queen at the time of the founding of the Roanoke colony and shared her desire to check Spanish power in the Caribbean. In 1603, al-Mansur made the extraordinary proposal that Morocco and England combine forces, expel the Spaniards from the Caribbean, take joint possession of the Spanish dominions in the New World, and “by the help of God … join it to our estate and yours.”

Moroccan diplomatic letters usually ended by wishing Elizabeth “that she might come to a good ending,” which meant (discreetly) hoping that she might eventually convert to Islam before her dying day.

Those cordial interactions excited a lot of popular English interest in Moors: witness Shakespeare’s Othello (1603-4).

I am not saying that claims to a religious role in politics in this period were largely or mainly cynical. Well into the nineteenth century (and indeed the twentieth), European people and governments often were motivated by genuine religious zeal, and we should never underestimate that element in international affairs. But Realpolitik also operated.

Beyond that, another simple point cannot be stressed sufficiently when discussing Protestant attitudes: Catholics did not consider Protestants as fellow-Christians, and vice versa. Hence there was no reason not to ally with Muslims against them.


On the Morocco story, see Nabil Matar, Turks, Moors, and Englishmen in the Age of Discovery (2000). Anything by Nabil Matar is also worth reading. See also now Jerry Brotton, This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World  (London: Allen Lane, 2016).


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