By the sixteenth century, changes in political, social, family, and economic structure were underway that marked the beginning of what historians call the modern period. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the modern state system took shape as well-organized states competed for power in western Europe.
With the emergence of Spain, France, and England came the growth of national patriotism. European states developed diplomatic services and professional armies. The first modern navies were also built. Increases in population, trade, and prices fostered conditions that led to warfare.
Some historians have called the invasion of Italy by Charles VIII of France the “first modern war.” The invasion enmeshed France in a long and complex power struggle with the Habsburgs.
Philip II of Spain (r. 1556-1598), a powerful, hardworking monarch, waged a battle on many fronts: against Protestantism, against France, against the Ottoman Turks, and against his subjects in the Netherlands. The Dutch revolted against Philip’s attempt to limit their autonomy and to use the Inquisition against Protestants. During a long, costly war, the northern provinces declared their independence from Spain. When Elizabeth I helped the Dutch, Philip launched an armada to invade England. The destruction of the armada marked a turning point both for Spain (a gradual international decline) and for England (an increase in international standing).
In Spain, as elsewhere, the growth of absolutism was marked by persistent struggles against local centers of power. Philip centralized administration and reduced the power of the Cortes, the representative assemblies. Yet Spain failed to establish a sound economic footing for its power. Despite the influx of New World bullion, the Spanish economy stagnated, while Philip’s wars drained the treasury.
During Spain’s Golden Age (1516-1659) Cervantes penned Don Quixote, a landmark in literature. In religion, St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross became important figures to the common people. The paintings of El Greco embodied the ideas of the Catholic Reformation.
In the late sixteenth century France was plunged into civil and religious strife that finally subsided after Henry of Navarre, the first Bourbon king, took the throne. By the Edict of Nantes (1598), Henry IV assured the Huguenots of some religious toleration. He tried to improve the economy but did not solve the problem of fiscal stability.
In England, Henry VIII moved cautiously in war and added to the treasury by his seizure of monastic property. Tactful in handling Parliament, which had the power to enact laws, Henry and alter Elizabeth I moved against the enemies of England: Spain and the Catholic church. Elizabeth firmly established the Protestant religion in England and scored success in war with Spain.
But she had to concede rights to the House of Commons, foreshadowing the struggle between the Crown and Parliament of the next century. The Tudor period also saw the beginning of the Irish question. In literature, William Shakespeare expressed the exuberance of the Elizabethan Age, a period of significant achievement in music, architecture, and science.
The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) began as a religious conflict but ended as a political power struggle between France and the Habsburgs. During the war, armies ravaged the land. The final settlements, negotiated at the peace conferences of Westphalia and Munster, extended the Peace of Augsburg to include Calvinists, made territorial concessions to France, Sweden, and Brandenburg, and recognized the right of individual German states to conduct their own foreign policies.
In the seventeenth century, secular concerns replaced religious certainties. Galileo, Newton, Descartes, and Pascal were in the forefront of the scientific revolution. Francis Bacon furthered the new scientific attitude by his reliance on the empirical faculty.
The rise of modern science helped create a new world view known as rationalism—a mechanistic interpretation of the universe that maintained that all things could be understood if people applied their reason. Rationalism would have a profound impact on ways of thinking in Europe.