Your one-stop shop for everything you need to know about the Peace of Westphalia


Many issues were debated at the Congress of Westphalia, but most of them came down to one of the following categories:


Territorial “satisfaction,” as it was called, was one of the biggest concerns of the negotiations. It fell into the following demands:

France vs. the Holy Roman Empire

France was in an interesting position because it had declared publically when it entered the war that it wanted nothing from the Holy Roman Empire, it was just fighting for the liberties of the Imperial estates. Richelieu’s original instructions only asked for official transfer of the “Three Bishoprics” of Metz, Toul, and Verdun, which France had already administered for some time already (in the case of Metz, for nearly a century). However, Richelieu passed away and Mazarin, his successor, began thinking of Alsace. The province we know of as Alsace had once been an actual administrative unit, but by the 1640’s it was more of a description of a region just west of the Rhine. Administratively, it was a complicated mess. The Habsburgs oversaw Upper Alsace, but Lower Alsace was a congeries of independent cities and small lordships. The Habsburgs did exercise a vague protectorship over Lower Alsace, but as far as raising taxes, administering justice, and so forth, they had no active role there.

An actual 16th century map of Alsace giving some idea of its administrative complexity

France demanded Habsburg territory in Alsace, but due to some complicated historical circumstances, they ended up demanding the whole province. Not only that, they insisted on removing Alsace from the Empire. This deprived France of the chance to sit in Imperial Diets (as the Swedes would for Pomerania), but incorporated the territory into the French crown rather than allowing it to remain part of the Empire. This is one of the most complex parts of the negotiations and the treaty, because the terms were contradictory and no one agreed exactly what they meant. What they meant in practice was that France would administer part of Alsace immediately following the Peace of Westphalia, and gradually extended its authority over the rest of the province, until it had conquered the whole thing before the end of the century. Some of its conquests were disputable, but the occupation of Strasbourg in 1681 was unambiguously contrary to the treaty. Nevertheless, the Empire was in no position to dispute it at that time.

As Imperial estates gradually realized what was happening in 1647 and 1648, they tried to keep France from taking control of those parts of Alsace that were not administered by the Habsburgs. Their opinion mattered for little, however, since it was chiefly other small estates who raised the alarm, and they lacked the military strength to get anyone’s attention. France could safely ignore them, and the Emperor couldn’t be bothered to save them when he couldn’t even save his own territory.

France also gained two footholds east of the Rhine, Breisach and Philippsburg. Breisach was a major fortress and the real prize from a security standpoint. Alsace was more of an add-on, originally intended only to give France a means of reaching Breisach. Philippsburg was a smaller fortress, which did not guard a bridge, but it did provide another safe crossing point for French troops to enter the Empire. France did not annex Philippsburg, but rather acquired a garrison right from its owner, the Elector of Trier.

France had also demanded the Breisgau (the territory around Breisach) and the four “Forest Towns” which lay along the Rhine above Breisach (on the border between the Empire and Switzerland, not the Empire and France). These were easy bargaining chips to give up. France agreed to pay the junior Habsburg branch a small indemnity for the territory it gained.

Sweden vs. the Holy Roman Empire

From the first, Sweden had always demanded Pomerania. This is where Gustavus Adolphus landed, and any future Swedish intervention in the Empire would need a secure base on the coast. Gustavus extracted a treaty from the Duke of Pomerania that, should he die without heirs, Sweden would inherit his lands. But this conflicted with a much older treaty that Pomerania had made with Brandenburg (in the 15th century) guaranteeing Brandenburg the same right.

The Elector of Brandenburg, Frederick William, was adamant that he wanted to retain Pomerania — so much so that he was not even willing to discuss the idea of receiving compensation for all or part of it, because he would not concede the principle that Sweden would get any of Pomerania. He persisted through the end of 1646, and nearly lost the whole thing. Sweden possessed it, and neither Brandenburg nor anyone else was in a position to take it from them. Brandenburg did, however, have the support of other Imperial estates. Eventually, in February 1647, Frederick William gave in and the two sides reached a compromise by which Sweden would rule the western part of Pomerania (“Vorpommern” or “Hither Pomerania”), including the major port of Stettin, while Brandenburg would get the eastern part (“Hinterpommern” or “Further Pomerania”).

A current map showing the approximate boundaries of Pomerania. The German part roughly corresponds to Vorpommern, and the Polish part Hinterpommern. However, in the Peace of Westphalia, Sweden gained the port of Stettin (now Szczecin) along with Vorpommern.

Sweden also claimed the archbishopric of Bremen and the bishopric of Verden, which lay astride the lower Elbe and Weser rivers, respectively. These territories had been ruled by Christian IV’s younger son Frederick since the mid-1630’s and had been neutral in the war, but Sweden conquered them during the Torstensson War of 1643-1645. Both of them were fully secularized and converted into duchies.

This map shows some of the territorial changes resulting from the peace. Sweden’s portion is in dark blue; in addition to Vorpommern, they gained a large chunk of territory astride two major rivers flowing into the North Sea, on the other side of Jutland.

Sweden took control of all of these territories under Imperial sovereignty; in other words, the lands remained part of the Holy Roman Empire but were ruled directly by Sweden, just as other parts of the Empire (Brandenburg, Hesse-Kassel, Hamburg, etc.) were ruled independently. This gave Sweden effective control of the land, but also allowed them to participate in Imperial Diets.

Besides these major concessions, Sweden also gained the towns of Wismar and Neukloster and the island of Poel in Mecklenburg, further strengthening its position on the Baltic Coast. They were Sweden’s last possessions in Germany; the crown pawned them in 1803, and only in 1903 decided not to redeem them.

France vs. Spain
France’s real war was against Spain; they were only fighting the Empire because of the Habsburg family alliance. Against the Empire, France had limited demands. Against Spain, France insisted on keeping everything that it had conquered during the war. Not only that, but Mazarin insisted that France would keep everything it conquered even after an agreement was reached, but before a treaty was signed.

There were three main fronts to the Franco-Spanish war: the Low Countries, Italy, and Iberia. France consistently made its greatest military effort in the Low Countries, and generally made progress every year. In Italy, there was no direct French-Spanish border, because Savoy came between them. France wanted to keep Pinerolo, a fortress that it had conquered during the Mantuan War (1627-31). In Iberia, there was little fighting near the Bay of Biscay. Most of the effort was concentrated near the Mediterranean, where France had conquered Roussillon and subsequently occupied most of Catalonia when it rebelled from Spain.

The biggest issue in the Franco-Spanish negotiations was that France wanted the Low Countries and Spain wanted Catalonia. France wanted the Low Countries in part because of old titles to it (and much of it still spoke French), but also because it was a relatively thriving commercial region. Spain wanted Catalonia because it had belonged to Aragon since the 12th century and it could not accept the loss of a rebellious province, especially not on the Iberian peninsula.

The problem was that Spain continued to occupy the Low Countries, and France occupied most of Catalonia. France made military progress against the Low Countries every year, but it was a slow process because of the large number of fortifications; although Mazarin professed that the territory was likely to fall to France in the next campaign (whenever that was), he was deluding himself. Catalonia had put itself under French protection in 1641 and France continued to control most of the province, but it lacked Lérida and failed to capture it in both 1646 and 1647. Spain would not even discuss the possibility of ceding Catalonia legally to France; the most they would agree to was a truce of limited duration (Spain wanted 5 years, France wanted 30).

One obvious solution would have been to swap provinces: France would return Catalonia to Spain, and Spain would give the Low Countries to France. There were several problems with this possibility, however. First, Spain had strong title to both regions and it was rare for a country to cede an entire province of that size. Second, France’s hold on Catalonia was weaker than Spain’s hold on the Low Countries, both in a military sense and because the loyalty of the inhabitants to Spain. Third, France could hardly discuss the possibility of returning Catalonia, since Louis XIII had accepted rulership in order to protect the Catalans from Spain. At the first rumour of such a proposal, the Catalans might well try to defect back into Spanish control on the best terms they could, leaving France with nothing. Fourth, there were good reasons that the Dutch Republic did not want France in control of the Low Countries. Although they had been fighting Spain for 80 years, the intensity of the early conflict had long since died down and Spain provided little threat to the sovereignty of the Dutch; France, on the other hand, was an ascendant power which might well decide to use a position in the Low Countries to claim Dutch territory as well. The Dutch were happier with a weak Spain to their south than they would have been with a strong France.

None of these issues was resolved in 1648. France and Spain eventually made peace in 1659, by which point Spain had reconquered Catalonia and had lost further ground in the Low Countries, although by no means the whole province as Mazarin had hoped.

The Dutch Republic vs. Spain

There was little debate in territorial matters between the Dutch and Spain. The Dutch Republic insisted on an uti possidetis treaty, i.e. one in which each side kept whatever it possessed. The only serious question was the religious status of a Catholic territory in Dutch control called the Meierij, which we will cover later.

German principalities vs. each other

The Peace of Westphalia settled many disputes among German estates, some arising from the war, many pre-existing it. Among the more important ones:

  • Bavaria demanded and received the Upper Palatinate, as well as the electorate that belongs to the deposed Elector Palatine. Maximilian also demanded compensation for returning Upper Austria.
  • Brandenburg received several reformed bishoprics as compensation for conceding half of Pomerania.
  • Saxony was confirmed in possession of Lusatia, which Ferdinand II had granted it for assistance against Bohemia at the beginning of the war.
  • Hesse-Kassel retained its share of the Marburg inheritance and the abbey Hersfeld as compensation for agreeing to return part of Marburg to Hesse-Darmstadt. It also received territory in Schaumburg, but returned Paderborn, Münster, and Fulda.
  • Brunswick kept several parts of the Bishopric of Hildesheim, as previously negotiated with Ferdinand III (1643), but gave up the majority of the bishopric.
Religious governance

The religious split in the Empire was central to the Thirty Years’ War. The emperors (Ferdinand II and III) had tried three times to settle matters: first, in the Edict of Restitution (1629), which made Catholics happy but angered Protestants; second, in the Peace of Prague (1635), which removed many of the grievances of the edict but left others; and finally in the Regensburg amnesty (1641). Even this last did not satisfy many Protestants, who still found themselves excluded in one way or another.

Ecclesiastical territory

There was no easy way to separate religion and politics. The Empire was “Holy,” after all, because its founder had been crowned by Pope Leo III for his efforts in defense of the Catholic Church. The existence of Protestantism in the Empire posed a fundamental threat to that role. Moreover, religion was built into the governing structure of the Empire. Most territory was ruled by secular leaders — dukes, counts, etc. — but a significant amount was ruled directly by a religious leader of some sort: great ones like archbishops and bishops, down to small abbeys and their surrounding land ruled by an abbot. What was to be done if one of these rulers converted to Protestantism? In many cases, they converted their territory with them. Hence, the archbishopric of Magdeburg and the bishoprics of Bremen, Verden, Minden, Halberstadt, and others, were Lutheran in the 1640’s. They were still “religious” territories in the sense that the canons of the main cathedral elected their rulers, but they were not part of the Catholic church. Catholics didn’t think this was fair. If a secular ruler, who ruled by hereditary right, converted his territory, that at least made sense; but if a bishop converted, he was only an official of the Church and had no right to take the territory permanently with him. Much of the Edict of Restitution was about taking back Church lands secularized in this way.

(The question of who owns church property — the higher church organization or the people who attend the church — has been in the news again recently when a number of Episcopalian churches in the United States left the main American church and joined a different one because of a doctrinal dispute.)

Mixed confessional cities

Another area challenged the basic principle of the ruler determining the religion of a territory: cities, which had no hereditary ruler. Instead, they were ruled by councils, usually elective of some sort (not by universal suffrage, but by some section of the population). This raised two questions. First, if the city converted to Protestantism, did it have the right to convert its surrounding territory? A ruler certainly could, but did a city council qualify as a “ruler” in the 1640’s? Second, what happened if the city had counselors of both confessions? Or citizens of both confessions, one of which managed to monopolize the council? There were no straightforward answers to these questions, so a number of them ended up being resolved in special clauses in the Peace of Westphalia (IPO, Article V).


Toleration of religious minorities was not generally accepted in 17th century Europe. The official church supported the state, and if you did not support the official church, you were a potential subversive. Nevertheless, sometimes religion spread in a region quickly enough that a ruler could not extirpate it completely. He might turn a blind eye to those practicing another faith, or he might be forced to recognize in some official fashion their right to worship as they chose. Protestantism was widespread in parts of Austria at the start of the war, and it was officially tolerated in Bohemia and surrounding territories. Many other Imperial estates possessed some religious minority of one size or another.

The principle from the Peace of Augsburg (1555) had been that the ruler got to determine the religion of his territory, but this was not enough in 1648. Protestants wanted the right to practice their religion at least where they had already been doing so before the peace was signed. Various levels of toleration could be instituted. At best, a minority could have the right to hold its own public services, usually limited to a certain number of churches. Inhabitants could have the right to allow ministers to come into their homes to hold private services, or they might be limited to private worship at home as a family. Lacking this, individuals could be given the right to hold their own beliefs, without being allowed to share them with others. Finally, an absolute minimum level of tolerance would be to allow worshipers to emigrate elsewhere and given sufficient time to dispose of their goods.

Normal Year

Because there were so many disputed cases of which religion should be official in a territory and which minorities should be tolerated, the question was settled based on the concept of “normal” (i.e., normative) year. Whoever controlled a territory as of the normal year would control it after 1648, and whichever minority religions were tolerated in a region (even implicitly) in the normal year would be tolerated officially going forward. The idea of settling things by use of a normal year was a major breakthrough, because resolving things on a case-by-case basis would have an enormous task. Even so, there were many exceptions to the normal year specifically written into the Peace of Westphalia. One of the most notable was the Habsburg lands were exempt from toleration requirements. Proposals for a normal year between 1621 and 1627 bounced around before negotiators settled on 1624.


Settling religious matters within individual Imperial estates was probably the single most complicated aspect of the negotiations, but there was also the matter of religious governance in the Empire as a whole. The individual problems had come about, after all, largely because the Empire could not reach a consistent policy on religion. (Not that this was necessarily bad: if it had come up with a consistent policy, it would probably have been to the exclusion of many minorities.) The problem was not the lack of institutions, because the Empire had the Diet, the Imperial Chamber Court, the Aulic Council, and, of course, the Emperor who were able to resolve these questions. The problem was that Catholics were in the majority in all of these institutions, and if they had had their way, they could have outvoted Protestants on every issue. Protestants, however, argued that the religious settlement of 1555, the Peace of Augsburg, was in effect a treaty and therefore could not be judged like other laws; it had to have the consent of both parties. Protestants insisted on parity: in religious matters, they wanted to have an equal voice with Catholics, regardless of how the votes in the Diet or the judges in the Imperial courts were constituted.

Protestants won their demands. In religious matters, the courts were to appoint an equal number of judges from each religion. In religious matters debated in the Diet, settlement could only come by way of “amicable composition”: both Protestants and Catholics had to concur. In the ecclesiastical reservation, which prevented bishops from converting their bishoprics when they converted, Catholics were limited in the same way (should a Protestant administrator convert to Catholicism). Finally, the rules requiring toleration of religious minorities applied to both parties, in spite of Protestants’ efforts to have them apply only to Protestant minorities in Catholic territories.

There were, in fact, two different Protestant churches in the Empire, Lutheranism (Evengelical) and Calvinism (Reformed). Prior to 1648, Calvinism had not been official accepted as a religion, although a number of rulers had converted themselves and their territories in defiance of the rules. The Peace of Westphalia officially acknowledged Calvinist estates as part of the Protestant bloc, so that any decisions referring to Protestants included Calvinists as well as Lutherans.

The Imperial constitution

France and Sweden wanted to weaken central power in the Empire so that it could not pose a threat to them. Sweden was concerned that the Emperor would try to expand his power toward the Baltic coast and assist Poland, Sweden’s enemy. France was mainly concerned with the Emperor’s assisting his Spanish relatives. Both were aided by those Imperial princes who resented the power of the Emperor (which had grown during the war) and the Electors, chief among them Hesse-Kassel.

One way to decentralize power would be to limit the Habsburg dynasty’s control of the office of emperor. The two crowns would not try to overthrow the elective nature of the office itself, but they did try to place restrictions on it. First, they sought to eliminate the practice of electing a “King of the Romans” while the current Emperor lived. This office was sort of “emperor-elect,” and it allowed the Habsburg emperor to secure the election of his son while he himself was still in office. Second, they sought to prohibit the election of the consecutive emperors from the same family, interrupting the Habsburg dynasty and breaking its lock on the highest office.

Unlike most of their other goals, France andn Sweden did not achieve these. The electors were jealous of their power to choose the emperor, and would not consent to any restrictions.

The other way to weaken central power was to change the structure of government itself. The Diet would be strengthened by the requirement that it be summoned more frequently (it had been 27 years between its sessions of 1613 and 1640), and be affirmation of its exclusive authority to make declarations of war. The estates would individually be confirmed in their independence and their right to make alliances with foreign powers.

Financial compensation

There were no reparations in the Peace of Westphalia. Some money did exchange hands, but it was for different purposes. Most of the amounts were fairly small, mainly:

  • France agreed to pay 3 million pounds to the Habsburg archduke of Further Austria as compensation for its acquisition in Alsace and Breisach (§ 88 IPM).
  • Hesse-Kassel received a payment of 600,000 Reichstalers in compensation for the territory that it had to return

The really big sum to be paid out as a result of the peace was the amount of 5 million Reichstalers for the Swedish army. It was common for early modern governments to be behind in the payment of their troops. Sweden was particularly in arrears, which did not matter so much as long as the war continued, because its armies were usually victorious and there was normally plunder to be had. However, with the end of hostilities, the troops would not disband without payment of at least a portion of their back pay. this had been driven home in 1636 when the army actually mutinied and held Axel Oxenstierna hostage until he promised to make no peace without a substantial payoff for the troops. (Mutinies were fairly common at the change of command, and were particularly problematic in the Swedish army.)

The satisfactio militiae, as this payment was called, was the last major item to be settled in the negotiations, in the sprint and summer of 1648. The Swedish army had its own representative, Alexander Erskein, present at the negotiations for this purpose. He originally requested 20 million Reichstalers, but the reality of what a devastated Germany could pay convinced him to agree to the much lower sum. Austria and Bavaria were exempted on the grounds that they needed to pay off their own troops.

The sticking point with this payment wasn’t so much the amount as the way it was to be executed. The Swedish army did not want to disband before being paid, but the Germans did not want to pay the army before it disbanded. The treaty specifies that the amount would remitted in three sums of 1.8 million, 1.2 million, and finally the last 2 million, and that the troops would evacuate territory proportionally. In practice, the details took two years to implement and required an entirely separate “Execution Diet” at Nuremberg to work out. Most of the Swedish army was gone by fall of 1650, but the last garrison was not pulled out until the final payment was made in 1654!

Economic concerns

Economic matters were not a major concern at Westphalia. Article IX of the IPO (§ 67 and 68 of the IPM) abolish tolls established illegally during the war and re-establish freedom of trade, but it is otherwise not mentioned. Trade was much more a factor in the Spanish negotiations with the United Provinces, where the Dutch wanted access to Spanish markets that had been closed during the war. Morover, Spain accepted the permanent close of the Scheldt waterway, which the Dutch blockaded during wartime. This cut Antwerp off from the sea, saving the Dutch a major competitor in international markets. Trade was also a central concern — arguably the central concern of the Torstensson War and the Treaty of Brömsebro, because Sweden resented the high tolls charged by Denmark for passing through the Sound, and the indiscriminate methods it used for enforcing its rules (such as breaking up cargo while searching for contraband). The United Provinces, too, resented the tolls, so much so that they abandoned their role as a mediator in the negotiations and joined Sweden in the naval war. The peace exempted both countries from Denmark’s Sound duties, which was a huge blow to Denmark’s most reliable source of cash income.

Other matters

Amnesty, Switzerland, anti-protest