At the beginning of the 16th century, about 62 million people lived in Europe. By 1700, that number had swelled to over 70 million. Northwestern Europe (especially the Netherlands and Great Britain) experienced the greatest increase as its population more than doubled. Urban areas grew both in size and importance in the 16th century as commerce and financial transactions were linked to the great fairs held regularly in cities. Inflation was, however, a constant problem. In a little over 100 years in France, prices rose a total of 627.6% (i.e., from 1471 to 1598). In the second half of the century, traveling merchants became a common feature in the European countryside.

Roads in Europe were about a yard wide, allowing both horsemen and carts to travel freely. There were also frequently adjacent footpaths for pedestrians. These thoroughfares connected Europe and, as the population rose, travel increased. Most importantly, these roadways allowed people trained in science, theology, art, and medicine to travel from one European country to another. Many of the significant thinkers of the 16th century were born in one nation, educated in another, and worked in a third or fourth. For example, Andreas Vesalius, the author of one of the most important books on human anatomy in the 16th century, was born in Belgium, studied in both France and Italy, and then published his book in Switzerland in 1543. Theophrastus von Hohenheim (also known as Paracelsus), who became known as the “father of toxicology,” was born in Switzerland, studied in both Austria and Italy, and embarked on a series of travels through Europe that took him to Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, England, Germany, Scandinavia, Poland, Russia, Hungary, Croatia, and Constantinople. The travels of scientists and scholars like Vesalius and Paracelsus were important not only in the acquisition of knowledge but also in its spread. As people interacted with each other across national and ethnic borders, many began to explore new ways of thinking about the world. Examples of significant scientific developments that occurred as a result in 16th century Europe include the microscope (1590) and the thermometer (1592).

The growing interconnected nature of European society also played a role in the important political events that occurred. Eight different, powerful factions were at the root of conflict in 16th century Europe. These included:

  • The nobles of Germany
  • The Protestants of Germany and later of France
  • Francis I, King of France
  • The nobles of France
  • The Pope
  • Henry VIII, King of England
  • The Ottomans
  • Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain

16th century Europe was characterized by constant warfare and strife. The feudal structure of late Middle Ages was gradually supplanted as political power and authority became concentrated in the apparatus of the state and in the person of its leader. Kings began to enjoy political power and wealth that were hitherto unknown. The conflict that ensued was frequently due to the personal rivalries between these rulers. The eight factions mentioned above lined up in various ways and on differing sides to battle each other throughout the century. For example, Francis I was a Catholic ruler who sometimes helped Protestant nobles in Germany but at other times supported the Catholic Emperor Charles V. He also made alliances with the Ottomans against Charles V. The key factor influencing Francis I was the preservation of his own political power. In a similar way, the English King Henry VIII sometimes backed the French and at other times supported Charles as he sought to preserve his kingship and establish control and power over English nobles.


A painting by Titian Vecili of Charles V in the 1550s. (Source: Creative Commons)


By the end of the 16th century, the areas of the Balkans, including Greece, were under the political control of the Ottomans who allowed local leaders considerable autonomy. In the more southern areas, a feudal aristocracy-maintained estates and fiefs. Although some Greek families and merchants living in the Ottoman capital city of Istanbul and coastal cities, such as Smyrna, were very prosperous, most lived in great poverty. Bulgaria and Romania in the eastern Balkans were an important source of cattle for Central Europe and Italy, sending approximately 200,000 head each year. Even so, people living in most areas of the Balkans lived in poverty. Idrija, a town in modern day western Slovenia, became an important source of mercury, which was shipped to America for use in the silver mining process. Seeing their economic importance, the Austrian Hapsburgs assumed control of these mines in 1580.


Italy was fragmented into a collection of independent city-states. Economically successful and culturally vibrant, these city-states were appealing to the French and Spanish rulers of the 16th century. Beginning in 1494 and continuing through 1559, the Spanish and French fought six “Italian” wars to establish supremacy on the peninsula. These wars devastated Italy and its people. Rome was sacked (1527) and the city-states lost their independence as southern Italy was controlled by Spain and northwest Italy by France. The Spanish assumed control of Milan where they installed a Spanish governor as well as Naples, Sicily, and Sardinia which were governed by Spanish viceroys. The city of Genoa freed itself from Spanish control after a long revolt (1551-1569), aided by the Ottomans. Even still, Genoa, was tied economically to Spain. This link with wealthy Spain and the richness of the town of Genoa, itself, did not alleviate the wretchedness of the lower class. To survive, the homeless poor of Genoa were forced to sell themselves as galley slaves during the winter months. The city of Venice maintained its independence although it was frequently threatened by land and sea. Naples was one of the largest and wealthiest cities of Europe due to the close relationship between Neapolitan nobles and the Spanish viceroy. Wealth and urban development were concentrated chiefly in the cities on the Mediterranean.

By the end of the century, most cities of Italy had lost their independence and were financially exhausted. The people of Italy suffered greatly both from poverty and disease. Both syphilis and typhus devastated the population. In Italy, syphilis was called the “French Disease” while the Spanish called it the “Naples Disease.” Typhus swept through Italian cities and rural areas in 1505 and again in 1528. An influenza epidemic struck in 1510, and the plague appeared in Rome in 1522.

Ironically, the first half of the 16th century also marked the highest point of the Renaissance, with its vast expression of intellectual and artistic accomplishments. Michelangelo and Raphael continued their works and Titian added his classical art. Leonardo da Vinci lived into the 16th century and resided in the city of Milan.

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Explore the history of the Renaissance at the Annenberg Learning Website.

Look at the some of the most important artwork of the Renaissance by exploring an online display of images at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Germany consisted of a number of autonomous states ruled over by independent princes. Austria was a German-speaking sub-kingdom. All of these semi-independent states belonged to the Holy Roman Empire. Maximilian I (1459-1519) opened the century as the Holy Roman Emperor and established his capital at Innsbruck. As a member of the House of Hapsburg, he used marriage relations to unite the various political centers of Europe by marrying into the House of Burgundy, marrying his son to Juana of Castile and Aragon, and arranging for his grandchildren to marry into the royal families of Bohemia and Hungary. Maximilian’s grandson, Ferdinand I (1503-1564), followed him as king of Austria. During Ferdinand’s reign, there were constant skirmishes with the Ottomans on the eastern border and social disturbances in both Germany and Austria where peasants objected to their constant poverty and low living standards.


Maximilian holding his personal emblem, the pomegranate. Portrait by Albrecht Durer, 1519. (Source: Wikimedia)

Ferdinand’s brother, Charles, inherited the throne of Spain, where he was known as Charles I (1500-1558). In 1520, he was chosen as the Holy Roman Emperor and became known as Charles V. By 1550, the Habsburg Empire (based in Austria and Spain) had established control over Spain, southern Italy, Sardinia, Sicily, the Netherlands, the German states, Austria, parts of Hungary not controlled by the Ottomans, Bohemia, and much of Serbia. In addition, it controlled vast overseas holdings in the Americas. Austria, as the familial and political center of the Hapsburgs, had become the central political power in southern Europe.

The most important 16th century event in Germany was what has become known as the Protestant Reformation. In 1517, a Catholic priest by the name of Martin Luther (1483-1546) responded to the activities of a wandering Dominican friar named William Tetzel who had appeared in Germany. In an effort to raise money to finish the new St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Pope Leo X had promised that anyone who gave money to Tetzel would earn an indulgence. In exchange for a financial donation, an indulgence promised forgiveness of sins (past and present) and the release of relatives from purgatory. According to 16th century Catholic teaching, indulgences guaranteed that the person who received them and their loved ones would suffer less in purgatory. The Pope had commissioned Tetzel and sent him to Germany to sell these indulgences. When Tetzel approached Wittenberg, the capital city of Saxony, the local princely ruler, Frederick, asked Martin Luther, Catholic priest and professor at the University of Wittenberg, to approve Tetzel’s procedures. Luther refused because he did not believe that forgiveness of sins could be purchased with money. In response, Tetzel denounced Luther. Luther countered with the posting of 95 theses condemning various practices of the pope. This act is recognized to be the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.


A painting of Martin Luther (Source: Creative Commons)

Learn More about the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation

Section 1.2 discusses the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic response.


Martin Luther’s Account of His Own Conversion

The following is taken from the Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther’s Latin Writings. It was written by Luther in Wittenberg, 1545.

Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!” Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. …

At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.'” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.

Watch and Learn

Watch John Green explain Martin Luther’s role in the Protestant Reformation in Crash Course in History #218.


You can also watch the first and second part of a two-part series on the Life of Martin Luther produced by PBS.


Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk who was both deeply read in theology and personally tormented by guilt and thoughts of the devil and demons. Luther was offended by Tetzel’s presentation of forgiveness as something that could be bought with money. To Luther, forgiveness was a divine gift which was received, not a reward to be earned. Luther argued that faith in Jesus brought salvation from Hell. In his zeal for what he considered to be the true message of the Bible, Luther argued strongly against what he thought was incorrect in the teachings and practices of the Catholic Church. He wrote and then distributed pamphlets and books in which he explained his beliefs and accused the Papacy of corruption. Significantly, Luther wrote in German so the people could read them. The printing press allowed Luther’s supporters to distribute his writings quickly throughout the German states. In response, the pope issued official statements of condemnation, known as papal bulls, against Luther.

As he aged, Luther became more defiant and rejected more of the teachings of the Catholic Church. What had begun as a repudiation of indulgences and corruption in the Church became a rejection of central Catholic doctrines and practices. Luther preached against the Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation. He rejected priestly celibacy both in his writings and practice. And he denied the role of the central Catholic role of the priest as an intermediary between the sinner and God. Many Germans for a complex set of reasons found Luther’s teachings appealing. Soon “Lutheranism,” as it became known, was a mass movement.

A significant event with lasting significance occurred seven years after Luther first nailed his Theses on the Church door. In 1524, the Peasants’ War erupted in southern Germany as thousands of impoverished people revolted against both nobles and priests. Violence engulfed much of Germany and there was a significant loss of property and life. Many nobles blamed Luther’s religious ideas for inspiring the peasants. Luther responded by rejecting the Peasant’s War as immoral. He condemned the violence as the devil’s work and supported the nobles in their opposition to the rebellion. In the end, the rebellion was finally put down by the nobility, who used their superior military training and equipment to slaughter hundreds of thousands of peasants. In 1552, social conflict erupted again as violence consumed the countryside. The Peace of Augsburg (1555) marked the end of the struggles over religion in Germany by recognizing the legality of the status quo – in both religious and territorial sovereignty.

Click and Explore

Read the Peace of Augsburg which made political restoration possible by accepting what had previously been regarded as an impossibility – namely, religious diversity. It decreed the toleration of those who accepted the Confession of Augsburg (1530), the definitive Lutheran doctrinal statement, in addition to those who held to the Catholic faith.


The Protestant Reformation spread beyond the borders of Germany into Switzerland. Two important religious reformers, Ulrich Zwingli of Zurich and John Calvin of Geneva, emerged as leaders. Zwingli had a humanist education, became a Catholic priest in 1506, and by 1508 was publicly questioning indulgences, clerical celibacy, and the doctrine of Transubstantiation. By 1517, he called for a religion based entirely on the Bible, and, in 1521, he declared his agreement with the principles of the Reformation which was already well under way in Germany. Zwingli became the head of both the new church and the city-state of Zurich.

Anabaptism arose among members of Zwingli’s circle, crystallizing as a distinct variety of Protestantism in 1525, when Conrad Grebel and George Blaurock re-baptized their group and called themselves “Brethren.” After 20 years of persecution, the movement received its permanent doctrine from Menno Simons. The three fundamental principles of those who followed Menno Simons (and were thus called Mennonites) were adult baptism, separation from the world, and literal observance of Christ’s commandments.

William Farel was the first to preach the Reformation in the Swiss city of Geneva. The most important Swizz Reformation leader, John Calvin came to Geneva to preach in the middle of the century after Zwingli’s death. He was a theologian who advanced doctrines that ultimately would deeply influence the history of France, England, Scotland, the Netherlands, and the United States. These doctrines are encapsulated and explained in his book, The Principles of the Christian Religion. This book would prove to be one of the most important writings of the Protestant Reformation. Calvin’s doctrines emphasized the utter sinfulness of all human beings and asserted that only a few people, specially chosen by God and known as the elect, would be saved. Calvin agreed with Luther that salvation was a gift of God, but he went further in asserting that God alone decided who would be saved and who would be damned. To Calvin, the proof that a person had been chosen by God for salvation was in their actions. The elect made decisions that pleased God and avoided actions that displeased him.


A Painting titled “Portrait of Young John Calvin” from the collection of the Library of Geneva. (Source: Creative Commons)

Calvin also believed that it was the role of the state to enforce divine law. Thus, in Calvin’s Geneva, blasphemy and witchcraft were punished by death. Adulterous men were beheaded, and adulterous women were drowned. Those guilty of heresy were likewise punished severely. In Geneva, Calvin established schools to train new religious leaders, who spread his teachings into France, the Netherlands, England, and Germany where it gained many converts. In France, by 1561, there were over two thousand congregations of people who followed Calvin’s teachings.

Watch and Learn

Watch this short video produced by the Khan Academy explaining the differences between groups of Protestants in the 16th century.


The important rulers of the 15th century and architects of the Reconquista, Queen Isabelle and King Ferdinand, died in in the early decades of the 16th century. Ferdinand’s great grandson, Philip II (1527-1598), was the next important ruler in Spain. By the end of the century, Spanish institutions and civilization dominated and controlled an area larger than the whole of Europe. Thousands of Spaniards emigrated from Spain to the Americas each year during the 16th century. The Spanish army was the most successful of Europe. After 1525, they dominated Europe until the middle of the 17th century. As a kingdom built by and on the military, Spain spent 70% of its annual revenue on weapons.

The central “problem” that confronted the Spanish rulers in the early 16th century was the existence of great numbers of non-Christians (both Muslim and Jew) who had lived for centuries in the land now claimed by the Spanish crown. At this time in European history, religion was considered to be essential to political unity. There was no separation of church and state. Religion relied on the state to enforce its moral decrees, and the state used religion to unify its people. Thus, the existence of large numbers of non-Christians was considered to be a direct threat to the Spanish monarchy.

The instrument used by the Spanish crown was the Inquisition. Inquisitions had been used in the Middle Ages to find and punish heretics. What was different about the Spanish Inquisition is that it was under the control of the state and not the church. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella established the Spanish Inquisition in 1478 and it continued through the 16th century and was not officially outlawed in Spain until 1834. The Inquisition was used primarily by the Spanish Crown to root out Jews and Muslims who claimed to have converted to Catholicism but (it was believed) were secretly practicing their old religion. While it is impossible to know exactly how many Jews and Muslims were forced to flee, contemporary scholars estimate that between 40,000 and 100,000 Jews and at least 300,000 Muslims were driven out of Spain in the 16th century.

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Learn more about the Inquisition by reading this interview with historian Cullen Murphy.


In the 16th century, Portugal developed an extensive empire. In addition to their colonization efforts in South America, the Portuguese established a colony with a governor in India and set up commercial relations with China. By the middle of the century, the Portuguese had built more than 50 forts and factories from the east African coast to Nagasaki, Japan. Portuguese ships, known as carracks, were the giants of the seas with a displacement of up to two thousand tons and the capacity to carry up to 800 persons. These ships used lateen sails, which allowed them to move faster over long distances and with increased maneuverability.


A Painting of a large carrack attributed to Pieter Bruegel the Elder, circa. 1558. (Source: Creative Commons)

Portugal’s impact on the lives of indigenous peoples in Africa and the Americas was immense. The Portuguese shipped millions of Africans to plantations in the Americas, and killed, displaced, or enslaved millions of Native Americans while colonizing Brazil. Portuguese culture had a large impact on both groups as many Africans and Native Americans were forcibly converted to Christianity. By the end of the century, pidgin Portuguese was the most widely spoken language in the Atlantic region.

The Portuguese also played a significant role in trade with India and East Asia in the 16th century. In 1498, explorer Vasco de Gama reached India after sailing around the southern tip of Africa. In the ensuing century, Portuguese traders duplicated de Gama’s voyage and began to tap into the Indian spice market. In 1534, Portugal took over Bombay Island. Throughout the century, the Portuguese presence in Sri Lanka increased. Furthermore, in 1557 Portuguese merchants established a colony at Macao in East Asia.

The Portuguese built bases on the east African coast at Mozambique and Zanzibar which helped make the sea route more secure for Portuguese ships. On the western African coast, the Portuguese were attracted to the African slave trade, which they used as a source of labor for their plantations in the Americas. The Portuguese developed colonies at Angola and Guinea as they tapped into the slave trade. Even though the Portuguese were the first Europeans to establish trading colonies in Africa, they did not follow this initial action with sustained colonization or conquest. They did, however, maintain a strong presence in Africa based on their role in the slave trade. The strongest connection was with the colony at Guinea, which was the closest to Portugal. The region around Guinea was known as the Slave Coast for its role in the slave industry.


This map shows Portuguese discoveries and explorations in the 16th century; the main Portuguese spice trade routes are shown in blue. (Source: Wikimedia)

Learn More about European Exploration

Read Chapter 3 to learn more about the Age of Exploration and its impact on the world’s peoples.


Francis I (1494-1547) became the king of France in 1515. Under his leadership, French armies invaded Italy and defeated a seasoned Swiss mercenary army of the pope near Milan. As noted previously, these “Italian Wars” mark the beginning of nearly six decades of warfare between France and Spain, ending in the Peace of Cateau-Cambresis in 1559.


A map of the center of Paris in 1550, by Olivier Truschet and Germain Hoyau (Source: Wikimedia)

The impact of the Protestant Reformation was delayed in France because of a “concordat” with the pope, allowing the king to appoint and control church officials in the nation. Nevertheless, by the second half of the century, the growth of Protestantism in France led to the Wars of Religion. 16th century France was divided between Catholics and Calvinist groups. Each was led by members of the French nobility who used religion as a way of advancing their own personal fortunes and power. From 1559 to 1598, they fought eight distinct wars. The Wars came to an end with the Edict of Nantes in 1598, issued by the French King Henry IV (1553-1610), who had been raised a Protestant but converted to Catholicism as a condition of his succession to the throne in 1589 This edict gave the French Protestants, known as Huguenots, equal political rights, although not complete religious freedom, and brought the French religious-civil conflicts to an end.

In the 16th century, Paris was France’s largest city, with over 400,000 people. Wood for construction and heat arrived in Paris in boatloads and giant floats reaching up to 250 feet in length. Charcoal came from the forests of Othe in north-eastern France via the Sens River.


A portrait of King Henry III of France by Francs Clouet. (Source: Wikimedia)

The French aptitude for high fashion was shown late in the century when King Henry III (1551-1589) allegedly wore 6,000 yards of lace at the 1577 Estates General at Blois. The extravagance of the French king and nobility stands in stark contrast to the lives of ordinary people. In 1587, 17,000 poverty-stricken people presented themselves under the walls of Paris for relief. In some years, Parisian food supply was so inadequate that there were reports of starving people eating dogs, garbage, and rats. Poverty and starvation were also worsened by eleven general famines in France in the 16th century.


Throughout most of the 16th century, the Netherlands were controlled by the Spanish Habsburgs. The Dutch War for Independence from Spain (commonly referred to as the Eighty Years War) began in 1568 and ended in 1648. The seven regions which rebelled against the Spanish Hapsburgs were united in 1579 in the Union of Utrecht and formed the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands (also called the United Provinces). This United Republic formally declared independence from Spanish control in 1581.


A map of the United Provinces drawn in the shape of a lion by Claus Jansz, 1609. (Source: Wikimedia)

During the Eighty Years War, the Dutch provinces became the most important trading center of Northern Europe. In the first half of the century, Antwerp was the most important city but was replaced by Amsterdam which became the center of commerce in the second half of the century The Netherlands, along with Italy, remained the focus of European industrial activity until very late in the 16th century.

As a sign of its growing importance and prosperity, literature, the arts, and science flourished in the United Provinces. One of the Netherland’s most famous sons and the first Dutchman to play a leading role in European history, Desiderius Erasmus, was born in Rotterdam. A priest of the Catholic Church, Erasmus was also a humanist who rejected many of the corruptions of the Church. He called for a simpler devotion and an elimination of the connection between wealth and leadership in the Church. Erasmus quickly gained a large following throughout Europe.


Excerpts from Erasmus, In Praise of Folly (1509)

There were many critics of religion in the 16th century like Luther, Calvin, and Erasmus. Erasmus never left the Catholic Church, but he did point out the “stupidities and immoralities” of the Catholic Church and its clergy in his 1509 book In Praise of Folly. In this satirical work, as the passage below illustrates, the character of “Folly” praises herself and all her “followers,” including church officials and those who blindly follow them:

[T]here is no doubt but that that kind of men are wholly ours [i.e., followers of Folly]  who love to hear or tell feigned miracles and strange lies and are never weary of any tale, though never so long, so it be of ghosts, spirits, goblins, devils, or the like; which the further they are from truth, the more readily they are believed and the more do they tickle their itching ears. …

 Or what should I say of them that hug themselves with their counterfeit pardons; that have measured purgatory by an hourglass, and can without the least mistake demonstrate its ages, years, months, days, hours, minutes, and seconds, as it were in a mathematical table? Or what of those who, having confidence in certain magical charms and short prayers invented by some pious imposter, either for his soul’s health or profit’s sake, promise to themselves everything: wealth, honor, pleasure, plenty, good health, long life, lively old age …

And what, are not they also almost the same where several countries avouch to themselves their peculiar saint, and as every one of them has his particular gift, so also his particular form of worship? As, one is good for the toothache; another for groaning women; a third, for stolen goods; a fourth, for making a voyage prosperous; and a fifth, to cure sheep of the rot; and so of the rest, for it would be too tedious to run over all.

To read the entire book, visit the website of Project Gutenberg.


England of the 16th century is well-known to many, primarily because of the actions of King Henry VIII and Queens Mary and Elizabeth as well as the contributions of its greatest authors who lived in this century which is known as the “Golden Age” of English literature. Many today may associate Henry VIII with obesity, gluttony, and the beheading of both enemies and wives, but in his younger years he was a capable, bright, ambitious, and well-liked man. He was determined to make England the greatest artistic and literary center of Europe. Thomas More was one of the English intellectuals who was supported by the King. Initially one of the great humanists, More soon became a close friend of Erasmus of the Netherlands, who made many visits to England. In addition to their humanist views, they studied Greek and wrote many treatises in both Latin and Greek.


A painting of King Henry VIII (Source: Creative Commons)

As King Henry VIII (1491-1547) aged, he became increasingly focused on the necessity of a male heir. When his first wife Catherine failed to give him a son, he appealed to the Pope to grant him a divorce that would allow him to remarry. When the Pope denied his request, to Henry’s dismay, More defended the Pope’s decision. King Henry, supported by men who had been influenced by the teachings of Martin Luther, responded to this rejection by calling for England to declare itself independent (both religiously and politically) of the Pope. When Parliament convened in 1529, it placed the church under royal authority, repudiated Papal Supremacy, and recognized Henry as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. When Thomas More continued to object to these actions, the King ultimately ordered that his head should be removed.

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Learn more about King Henry’s wives and what happened to them at
The Six Wives of Henry VIII website (PBS).

Sir Thomas More was portrayed by Charlton Heston in the movie, A Man for all Seasons, in 1988. You can watch the trailer for this movie here.

Thus, in 1531, King Henry became the head of both the English church and state. He appointed Thomas Cromwell to be his chief administrator. Cromwell dedicated himself to establishing the King’s authority and to rooting out anyone who opposed him for either political or religious reasons. When Henry died in 1547, his son became King Edward VI (1537-1553). Edward VI, however, died at the age of 15. Supporters of his half-sisters Mary and Elizabeth battled to put one of them on the throne. Mary (1542-1587), a strongly devoted Catholic, was the first to be pronounced Queen. Persecutions of Protestants began, resulting in the name “Bloody Mary” being given to the queen. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, a key leader in the English Reformation who had written the first English Book of Common Prayer, was burned at the stake.


Excerpts from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs

John Foxe published his 3000-page book in 1563. In this book, Foxe tells the history of the Christian Church from the death of Christ to the accession of Queen Elizabeth I. This work of propaganda aimed to show the Catholic Church was evil and corrupt. Special emphasis was placed on the murders of English Protestants during the reign of Queen Mary. This book was widely read in the 16th century and played a significant role in promoting anti-Catholic prejudice and bigotry in the English-speaking world for centuries. The following passage comes from the end of the introduction to his book:

I see no reason why the martyrs of our time deserve any less commendation than those of the primitive Church. They are assuredly not inferior to them in any point of praise whether we view the number of them that suffered, or greatness of the torments, or the constancy in dying. Consider the fruit that they brought to posterity and the increase of the Gospel. They watered the Truth with their blood. They taught us by their death to overcome such tyranny. Ought we not learn from their example, we who are now the posterity and the children of these martyrs, and being admonished by their examples?

Read more about the book and the complete text of Foxe’s Introduction.

When Mary died in 1558, her sister, Elizabeth (1533-1603) was made Queen. Elizabeth sought to bring peace to the religious-torn nation by implementing what has become known as the “Elizabethan Settlement” in 1559 which declared that the English Church was a “middle way” between Protestantism and Catholicism. It allowed for diversity of belief and practice within the Church in order to “room” for both Protestants and Catholics. The vast majority of the English population were pleased with the compromise. A minority of Catholics and Protestants however refused to comply. The latter became significant in history because it is from this group that the Puritans and Pilgrims emerged who settled what became known as the New England colonies of North America. It is also important to note that the English civil wars in the 17th century were a direct consequence of simmering tensions over religion.

In the latter decades of Elizabeth’s reign, foreign trade became an important part of the English economy for the first time and in the last quarter of the century, there was a great overseas expansion. Sir Francis Drake, an infamous English pirate, left England in 1577 to sail through the Strait of Magellan and enter the Pacific. Along the way, Drake harassed Spanish ships and ransacked cities in both Chile and Peru, before finally sailing to the Moluccas and Java. Accounts of his trip were published in England. In addition to making Drake a folk hero, they also raised interest in exploration, thereby setting the stage for the English colonization of the Americas in the late 16th and 17th centuries.


Sir Francis Drake in Buckland Abbey 16th century, oil on canvas, by Marcus Gheeraerts the Young (Source: Wikimedia)


When Henry VIII completed his separation from the Roman Catholic Church in England, he commanded the Irish Parliament to acknowledge him also as head of the Irish Church. When the members agreed, Henry gave the land which had belonged to the monasteries and churches to Irish chieftains who became nobles of the English king. The clan system was abolished, and Ireland was declared a kingdom, with Henry VIII as its king, in 1541. The Irish people, however, remained steadfastly Catholic, a factor which bolstered them in their later struggle for freedom. Irish rebels, including Red Hugh O’Donnell and Hugh O’Neill, continued to fight for Irish independence.

Watch and Learn

Watch this short video produced by Lagan College in Ireland explaining the contentious relationship between England and Ireland in the 16th century.


The Baltic and the adjacent Gulf of Finland were almost completely under the control of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark during the 16th century. In the first quarter of the century, these countries (referred to collectively as Scandinavia) were under one king as stipulated by the Union of Kalmar. Finland was considered to be part of Sweden, and all were subservient to King John (1481-1513). Throughout the century, however, the various regions of Scandinavia slowly drew apart as they began to establish individual identities as separate countries. It is important to note that Scandinavia was still relatively sparsely settled, with only about 1.5 inhabitants to the square kilometer (compared, for example, to 40 in the Netherlands).


A Map of the Countries surrounding the Baltic Sea (Source: Wikimedia)

The “Little Ice Age” with Atlantic ice sheets extending well south of that island impacted the Norwegian settlement in Iceland in the 16th century. It interrupted shipping and, more importantly, destroyed the Icelanders’ agricultural economy as the cold weather destroyed their ability to grow wheat. Life was extremely difficult for them as they experienced 37 years of famine between 1500 and 1600.

Click and Explore

Read more about the history of Iceland by visiting this History World web page.

To see amazing pictures of Iceland, visit this Guide to Iceland web page.



In 1523, Gustav I (1496-1560), known today as the “Father of Sweden,” became king. During his reign, iron and copper mines were expanded as Sweden increased its trade with nearby countries. As a result, the Swedish people enjoyed a time of prosperity. Even the peasants manufactured iron, but only during the rise of the spring waters when waterpower was available to help in the operation of the furnaces. At the same time, it is important to note that the vast expanses of Sweden were still half-empty, with only a few isolated settlements.


Poland enjoyed a Golden Age under Kings Sigismund I (1467-1548) and Sigismund II (1520-1572). Both rulers were men of culture and spirit. Even though they were both devout Catholics, they extended religious toleration to both Greek Orthodox Christian and Jews living in their domain. They also were keen supporters of the arts.

Although there were minor wars with other nations for control of the Baltic, Poland prospered and remained a major European state. The power of the lesser nobility continued to grow and the efforts of the kings to strengthen royal power met with failure as Poland gradually was transformed into a republic. The struggle between nobility and king began with the passage of the Nihili Novi Act in 1505. This Act transferred legislative powers from the king to a formal legislative deliberative assembly called a “Diet.” All of the nobility served on the Diet and worked together to rule Poland. Though the Union of Lublin in 1569, Lithuania and Poland were legally joined in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The beginning of the Commonwealth marks the period of Poland’s greatest territorial expansion, artistic and intellectual advancement, and economic prosperity.

Due to Poland’s geographical proximity to both Germany and Switzerland, Lutheranism and Calvinism advanced rapidly, with the National Diet in 1552 voting that there should be religious freedom for all expressions of Christianity based on “the pure Word of God.” Clerical marriage was legalized, and the Diet declared that communion should be offered in both bread and wine. In 1564, the Catholic bishops invited Jesuit priests into Poland offering them strategic places in the educational system. The work of the Jesuits was effective in securing the allegiance of the Polish people back to Catholicism. In 1595, most of the Orthodox bishops of Ukraine and Lithuania accepted union with Rome on condition that they were allowed to retain their Orthodox rituals. This agreement was completed in what is known as the Union of Brest in 1596.


Russia’s search for a Baltic port to facilitate trade remained a critical issue throughout the 16th century. Ivan IV (1530-1584), also known as Ivan the Terrible, became the Russian sovereign in 1533. In his plan to expand Russian borders and increase opportunities for trade, Ivan conquered Kazan, thereby giving Russia control of two vital rivers, the Kama and the Volga. These rivers connected Russia to the Caspian Sea and allowed it to develop trading relations with both Persia and central Asia.


A 18th-century portrait of Ivan IV. Images of Ivan IV often display a prominent brow and a frowning mouth. (Source: Creative Commons

Watch and Learn

Learn more about Ivan the Terrible by watching this short video.


Italians, Germans, Dutchmen, and Englishmen emigrated to Russia in the 16th century. With the arrival of German coins and ingots, money began to be minted regularly, although still on a modest scale. The Russian nobility struggled to control members of the lower classes. In 1592, the Moscow government ordered the registration of all peasants and five years later decreed that any peasants who deserted their ancestral homes could be returned to their former lawful masters, marking the initial steps toward curbing of peasant freedom, thus turning the bulk of Russia’s population into serfs.


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