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Western Europe: early 16th century

The Habsburg marriages of Maximilian in 1477 and of his son Philip I in 1496 have the eventual effect of bringing Burgundy, Austria and Spain under a single ruler - the Holy Roman emperor, Charles V.

Geographically this is a most unwieldy inheritance, reminiscent of the patchwork quilt of territories owing allegiance to feudal monarchs such as Henry II. But Charles to some extent rationalizes his vast estate in 1522. He gives control of Austria and other German-speaking Habsburg territories to his brother, Ferdinand I.


This still leaves Charles with an awkward clutch of territories in western Europe. He rules Spain, Burgundy and much of Italy, including the north. His possessions flank the kingdom of France on almost all its land boundaries - a circumstance unwelcome to Francis I, the king of France. The struggle between Charles and Francis, or the houses of Habsburg and Valois, is a recurrent theme of the first half of the 16th century.

With the increasing trend towards strong nations, ruled by absolute monarchs, this Habsburg-Valois rivalry evolves into enduring conflicts between Spain and France and subsequently Austria and France (until the famous Diplomatic Revolution of 1756).


The third nation of western Europe, England, also has a strong ruler in the early 16th century, but he is as yet a minor player in this league. Henry VIII may be a useful ally for Francis or Charles against the other (as the Field of Cloth of Gold suggests) but on his own he is not a match for either.

All three kingdoms - Spain, France and England - also compete in another context, across the Atlantic. This new dimension shifts Europe's centre of gravity to the west during the 16th century. Subsequently it brings increasing power and wealth to England and to her nearest neighbours, the Dutch, through a blend of overseas trade, the planting of colonies and general pugnacity at sea.


Eastern Europe: early 16th century

Two events on the eastern extremes of Europe, during the second half of the 15th century, set the pattern for the future. The fall of Constantinople in 1453, bringing to an end the Byzantine empire, completes the Turkish dominance of the Balkans. Henceforth there is a hostile boundary between Muslim and Christian territory in southeast Europe, frequently adjusted by warfare - with the Hungarians in the front line for Christianity.

Meanwhile a great new power is emerging in northeast Europe which will replace to some extent (at least in its own self-image) the lost Byzantine empire.


From the reign of Ivan the Terrible, beginning in 1462, Moscow emerges as the powerful centre of an expanding Russia. This is now the most powerful kingdom practising Orthodox Christianity. Russia begins to present herself as the new Christian empire, ruled by a tsar - the third Rome.

By 1500 the power blocs are in place around Europe which will dominate the continent during the next three centuries - the Russian empire, the Turkish or Ottoman empire, the Habsburg empire, and the kingdoms of France and England.


Reformation: 16th - 17th century

The conflicts of Europe in the early 16th century (Spain and France in the west, Christians and Muslims in the east) are further complicated by a most violent dispute within the Christian community itself.

The spark of the Reformation, struck by Luther in 1517, blazes for a century and a half across the whole of western Europe. From martyrdom of Protestants in one place and Catholics in another, through sudden massacres (as on St Bartholomew's Day in France) to prolonged warfare (the Thirty Years' War), the prevailing mood of the continent becomes one of religious intolerance and frenzy, often usefully put to the service of politics. Not till the late 17th century does national interest transcend religious fervour.


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