Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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‘Vengeance from God for the blood of Innocents’: The Cultural Afterlife of the Valtellina Crisis in the Early Stuart Imagination

Thom Pritchard

1. Introduction

​[1]​ A distant Alpine valley to the northeast of Milan may seem an unlikely location to have been of much concern to the inhabitants of the Stuart kingdoms. From at least the beginning of the seventeenth century, however, the Valtellina had been a ‘volcano of political, linguistic and religious instability’ thanks to its role (both literal and metaphorical) as ‘one of the cross-roads of European politics’ (Parker 1979: 193). Forming a horse-shoe above Lake Como, it occupied a key strategic position, connecting northern Italy to routes into central and northern Europe. The concessions granted at the Peace of Lyon (1601) following King Henri IV of France’s victory in the War of Saluzzo had deprived Spain of a corridor to move her troops north to the Franche-Comte and the Netherlands beyond, while also taking away France’s access to Italy through Savoy. Subsequently, both states looked towards the Valtellina as the passageway to restore their interests: the French secured military exclusivity with the valley’s Protestant Grison overlords, while the Spanish retaliated by building a fort to guard the southern entrance to the valley and by fermenting revolt and sectarian violence among the Catholic majority. This culminated in July 1620 in the slaughter of around 600 Protestants, and a pro-Spanish takeover. The ensuing crisis would draw in Spain, France, and the Papal States, and threaten to spill the Thirty Years War into the Italian peninsula.[1]

​[2]​ At the bloody onset of the war, British attention would come to be focused on the rapid deterioration of militant Protestant causes, most notably the crushing of the Bohemian Revolt at the Battle of White Mountain in November 1620, and the loss of the Palatinate when Spanish troops stormed Heidelberg in 1622. Perhaps as a result, the reactions of the Anglophone public sphere(s) to the persecutions of the Protestant Grisons have been critically neglected by cultural historians. However, news of the violence in the valley circulated throughout Europe, and events in the Alps were seared into the consciousnesses of those anxiously observing the triumphs of the Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs. As this essay will demonstrate, the Valtellina came to haunt the early Stuart political imagination despite its apparent peripherality, not only as a strategically important locale, but also as a gruesome exemplar of the cruel ambitions of the Spanish Habsburgs and their alleged pursuit of universal monarchy.

​[3]​ Jacobean subjects would initially learn of events in the Valtellina primarily through the medium of cheap printed news. Yet the printed afterlife of the slaughter of the Grisons metamorphosed significantly over time, as the news-book accounts of atrocities, troop movements, skirmishes and diplomatic intrigues transcended their apparently ephemeral character and were woven into martyrologies, providential narratives, and even reasons of state. Through polemic the ghosts of Grison priests would cry outrage, from heaven the deceased Tudor dynasty would discuss the significance of the slaughter, and the presence of Spanish troops behind the bloodshed would implicate the Habsburgs in diabolical designs. Though spatially distant and seemingly politically remote from the complexities of Stuart foreign policy, the Valtellina crisis came to be deployed to highlight the precariousness of Protestantism, and to encourage a long-awaited war with Spain. Over the following decades the crisis would transition into a cultural memory, a stark warning of the potential for sectarian civil war influenced by foreign powers. So pervasive was this sensation that over a decade later, at the onset of the British Civil Wars, the persecution of Protestant Grisons would be cited as a gruesome example of Catholic cruelty in an updated Acts and Monuments. Its inclusion there, decades after the death of former Marian refugee John Foxe, attests to the enduring desire within the fractured Protestantism of the Stuart Kingdoms to identify with the plight of co-religionists in Europe.

​[4]​ This fascination with the Valtellina was not an insular phenomenon, but the product of a pan-European flow of information. Perceptions of the Valtellina crisis were shaped not only by reasons of state from the Grison canton, but also by discourses from France and the Republic of Venice. Through translation these polemics contributed to the shaping not only of immediate reactions to the crisis, but also of its cultural afterlife for decades after. The very translation of Catholic French and Venetian treatise and reasons of state into English, and their subsequent deployment within the polemic of even staunch Protestants, challenges the notion that anti-Catholicism in the Stuart kingdoms was a homogenised entity. Instead, in the context of dramatic Protestant defeats by the Spanish Habsburgs, an atmosphere of vociferous anti-Spanish hysteria sought to incorporate the Hispanophobic writings of European Catholic authors into the uneven strata of the Stuart public sphere(s).

2. Printing the Providence and Persecution in English and Scottish News

​[5]​ Before we discuss the avid Jacobean consumption of news from the Valtellina, we need to explore the diplomatic and religious stressors unleashed by the Bohemian Revolt. At the onset of the Thirty Years War, French diplomats had ‘thrown their weight behind a negotiated solution to the Bohemian revolt and had helped neutralise a large part of the Protestant support for the Palatine Elector’ (Parrot 2011: 141). The Habsburgs, however, interpreted these movements as ‘an indication of political weakness and division within France’ (141). Spanish troops would therefore opportunistically occupy the Valtellina, strengthening the corridor between the Habsburgs in Lombardy and the Habsburg Austrian lands (141).

​[6]​ The opportunity was presented by the eruption of fierce sectarian conflict in the Valtellina between the Protestant Grison overlords of the valleys and the local Catholic population. As Peter Wilson explains in his account of the slaughter (2012: 381-382) the Bohemian revolt had stirred tensions within the valley, and the ‘radical Calvinists’ who controlled the Grison Canton had sent troops to support Frederick in Bohemia. The Spanish governor of Milan would respond by conspiring with the Catholics of the Valtellina, using Capuchin monks as intermediaries, and by sending Spanish troops to the south of the valley. The Catholics attacked before the Grisons were ready and perpetrated fifteen days of ‘holy slaughter’, massacring four hundred Protestants by July of 1620; a counter attack by 1,500 Swiss Protestants routed the Catholics and proceeded to destroy Catholic churches, only to be checked by Spanish troops. In an attempt to maintain influence in the Italian peninsula, representatives of Louis XIII began a series of deliberately well-publicized talks with Savoy and Venice, culminating in the Treaty of Lyons in February 1623, which envisaged an army of 40,000 to expel the Spanish. However, neither France nor Spain wished for open war and instead they accepted papal mediation, with papal troops replacing the occupying Spanish forces (382). A decade later, French and Spanish troops would continue to fight over this vitally important valley, keeping the Valtellina as a major topic of European news.

​[7]​ Even before this episode, the Valtellina was not unknown to the Stuart popular imagination. Andro Hart, the ‘most successful and important Scottish book merchant and book importer before the Restoration’, with extensive literary links to the continent (Mann 2004), reported upon a natural disaster in the Grison Alps in 1618, using as his source a translation of a Parisian copy of an earlier Milanese report. In Newes from Italie: or, A prodigious, and most lamentable accident Hart provided a providential interpretation of the destruction of Pleurs, a ‘whollie Popish’ city (1619: 5). Hart related how an earthquake, ‘some windes vnder the ground’, sent a fatal landslide upon the city, killing ‘two thousande soules’, an act of wrath upon the Catholic inhabitants which calls ‘to remembrance another Sodome’ (6).

​[8]​ Only months before the outbreak of sectarian violence, arriving from the Grison cantons through translation and printed in London in 1619, The Proceedings of the Grisons detailed the fragile condition of the religious and civic liberties of the Grisons in the face of Catholic fifth columnists and Spanish interference. Although since ancient times God had granted the Grisons the ‘most precious jewell’ of ‘the libertie of our Church and Commonwealth’, these gifts were threatened by internal discord thanks to the machinations of a ‘tyrannizing faction’ who plot with ‘forraine States’ and fortify their settlements with ‘men and munitions’ (Anon 1619: B1R- C1V). In opposition to the Grison Protestant overlords, the Catholic faction exploit the topography of the valley, ‘keepe the passages, throwe downe the Bridges’, beseeching foreign military support in order to ‘drawe a civill Warre upon his owne Countrey’ (C2R). The anonymous translator solemnly hinted at the strategic significance of an imminent escalation: the Grisons ‘stand in the gates of Italy, as firme as the Mountaines wherein they live, against any forraine force whatsoever’ (1619: A1V). Within this polemic there is, however, a marked unease over the execution of the Catholic priest of Sondrio, Nicolo Rusca, by the Grison authorities. Responding to rumours ‘spred abroad by some false Calumniators, that this Rusca was tortured’ and subsequently died of his afflictions, the Grison authors go to great lengths to stress the legitimacy of his execution: he ‘shewed himself a Rebel’, ‘hindered the free course of preaching the Gospell’, and plotted the murder of a Protestant preacher (H1r-H2r). As will later be observed, the death of Rusca would be later employed by Spanish polemicists to frame the Grisons as the aggressors rather than the victims of the crisis.

​[9]​ Following the outbreak of violence in July 1620, news of the massacres would arrive through European letters and proclamations, translated and disseminated into pamphlets, with snippets of news of the trouble in the Alps bundled into bulletins reporting the wider continental turmoil. Reports of violence in the Valtellina can therefore be located within a vast corpus of pamphlets frantically furnishing a domestic audience with news of the tribulations of continental Protestantism during the disastrous onset of the Thirty Years War. In a landmark study of London’s News Press and the Thirty Years War, Jayne Boys explores London’s fledgling news-book industry, where from October 1622 news from abroad was ‘channelled into a series of licensed weekly periodicals run by a syndicate of five publishers’, before being distributed across England, supplying the anxious ‘English middle classes’ with news (2011: 8). These news publications quickly travelled across an ‘impressive distribution network’: over 400 London news periodicals published between the onset of war and the Treaty of Westphalia have survived (8). Nor was this news consigned only to the literate middle class: it was also disseminated orally, synthesised into ballads, sermons, and plays.

​[10]​ London’s position as an epicentre of news is exemplified by Coppies of Letters Sent from Personages of Accompt Unto Divers Personages of Worth in London, printed on 22 June 1622, wherein ‘Doctor Welles and Others’ provided a synthesis of European events, ranging from the Palatinate to the ongoing crisis in the Valtellina. ‘For three weeks word came from Valtellina’, the editor(s) reported, relating how the forces of the Habsburg Archduke of Austria Leopoldus ‘had also put the Valtellines to the sword [showing] for them and their Religion (…) such crueltie, as the like hath not bin heard of’ (Welles et al. 1622: 2). However, the editors perceived that providence was at work, and gleefully related how the next week brought news of a remarkable feat of divinely inspired female fortitude and gender subversion leading to a dramatic reversal for Leopoldus. The dispatch describes how at a ‘towne called Bunfen’, around ‘fiftie men’ and ‘many women, […] putting themselves into men’s apparrel, slew at severall times two thousand Papists’ (2). This sensational tale of Samson-like strength is ‘accounted here as a worke and a wonder of God’ (2).

​[11]​ Increasingly sensationalised reports of this violence travelled across the Jacobean kingdoms. That same year, John Everard recorded sightings of fantastical meteorological phenomena in Cornwall, comparing them with haunting preternatural reports from the Valtellina in an eschatological narrative entitled Somewhat vvritten by occassion three sunnes seene at Tregnie in Cornewall. In relations like Everard’s, we can glimpse the beginnings of the metamorphosis of the Valtellina crisis, from letters regarding skirmishes to events which correlated with wider metaphysical developments. In an apparent occurrence of a parhelion, or sun dog, the inhabitants of Tregnie were stunned by the appearance of ‘three Sunnes, of equall lustre and brightnesse’; stranger yet are reports from the neighbouring county of Devon, that ‘did as much affright the eares of men, as this did their eyes’ (Everard 1622: 10-13). Here, witnesses heard an auditory battle in the sky, ‘unusuall cracks or claps of thunder, resembling in all points, the sound of many Drums together’; they identified the distinct sounds of beating Charges, sometimes Retreats, sometimes Marches (…) many volleyes of Small-shot (…) volleys of Ordnance’ (13).

​[12]​ Everard offered no definitive explanation for the preternatural wonders. Instead, he abruptly turned his narrative to the ‘massacres committed by the Papists upon the persons of more than 400 Men women, and children, of the Reformed Religion, in the Valtellina’, ‘examples of cruelties and inhumanitie’ which occurred two years past (15). Everard claimed to omit the worst descriptions of the massacres, focusing instead on the eerie occurrences before and after the slaughter, as reported by an ‘eye-witnesse’ (16). In May 1620, two months before the slaughter, sentinels standing watch one night in the steeple of the church in Sondrio had heard ‘a great murmuring and noyse, as if it had been of many people, earnestly reasoning […] about some great and serious matter’ (16). The astonished sentinels then saw ‘a great light’, emanating from the church and heard the church bell of its own accord toll ‘ten times’, as if ‘giving an Allarme’ (16). Following the massacres, ‘in the Churches which were formerly used by them of the Reformed Religion’, disembodied voices cried ‘Woe, woe unto you, vengeance from God for the blood of Innocents’, and in the church where the priest Antonio Bassano was decapitated by ‘rebellious and seditious Papists’, the bell tolls ‘without any mans hands, at the time that the Sermon was wont to be’, and the spectral voice of Bassano is heard (18-19).

​[13]​ Given the general abhorrence of Protestant preachers at ‘heathenish’ attempts to predict the future through the interpretation of strange portents (Walsham 1999: 168), Everard’s apparent reluctance to provide explanations as to the implications of the phenomena is to be expected. However, from the inclusion of the apparitions in the Valtellina, several conclusions could be formed in the ambiguous space left by Everard’s apparent refusal to provide explanation. Could the witnesses to the battle in the sky in Devon be hearing the battles raging in the Palatinate or the Valtellina valley, in a miraculous case of hyper-contemporaneity? Or, instead, does the battle in the sky over Devon offer a stark warning of the dangers faced by domestic Protestants, just as the bells tolled, moved by unseen hands, to warn the Grisons of Sondrio of imminent slaughter? Everard believed that the Anglican Church had been deceived by Catholicism, and would a year later, in 1623, be imprisoned for his opposition to the Spanish Match; despite the protestations of Francis Bacon and Lord Verulam for his release, James I would retort, ‘Who is this Dr Ever-out you come so oft about? his name shall be Dr Never-out’ (Allen 2004).

​[14]​ Given Everard’s anxious preoccupations, the inclusion of the Valtellina can plausibly be seen as a warning. Indeed, through nature, ‘signs and portents’ of the apocalypse could be revealed: the comet of 1618 heralded momentous events, and phenomena such as parhelia were ‘considered to be an omen of horrible sufferings to come’, of wars and famines linked to the imminent second coming (Cunningham & Grell 2001: 76-79). From the sixteenth century onwards, accounts of apparitions of armies fighting in the skies were disseminated across Europe, vividly represented on broadsheets, such as those of a vision seen over Rome in 1580, of a clash between Turkish and Christian soldiers (80). As Cunningham and Grell note ‘identical visions of armies involved in eschatological battles were repeatedly reported in most of Protestant Europe’, with some claiming that these visions had been witnessed in several locations (81-82).

​[15]​ Furthermore, eschatological apparitions could provide a profound source of comfort despite the menacing warnings of judgement and slaughter. In fashioning some semblance of a moral victory, these preternatural events could reassure beleaguered Protestants that providence would restore justice, fulfilling what Alexandra Walsham describes as the ‘imperative to establish God’s positive endorsement of that community and creed’, an essential factor in even ‘crudely polemical providentialism’ (1999: 241). In these reports of the suffering of the Grisons, divine intervention is at hand. For example, when a ‘host of armed men’ are seen ‘comming downe from the Mountaines’ in Sondrio, before abruptly vanishing, the people below flee, ‘for feare of the divine punishment’ (Everard 1622: 19). This heavenly host, like the disembodied voices who cried for justice, or the slaughter of Leopoldus’s troops by the Grison women related by Welles and his contributors, attests to a providential interpretation of events amidst the desolation of Protestant defeats.

​[16]​ News would continue to flow through the arteries of Europe’s news networks to London, providing regular updates on the Valtellina crisis, as the valley threatened to dramatically expand the scope of the Thirty Years War southwards. From 1624 onwards, the syndicate of London news printers was succeeded by a ‘partnership of the stationers Nathaniel Butter and Nicholas Bourne who continued approximately weekly periodical publication’ (Boys 2011: 8). This prolific partnership provided regular updates on the Valtellina. Take for example, a report published on the 4th October 1622. ‘Post letters of Italy come from Venice’ related a grim situation in the Valtellina, ‘for there is nothing but killing and intercepting of passages among the Grizons’: soldiers are reported to be mobilising in Switzerland, ‘an army of seven thousand […] resolved to defend their countrey against the usurpation of strangers’ (Butter & Bourne 1622: 5). Despite talk of peace between the Duke de Feria and ‘Switzers’, and the arrival of ‘severall Embassadours from France, Venice’, the Duke de Feria, Leopoldus of Austria, sends his troops to forage the ‘Valleys of the Grisons, as farre as Tiroll’, stealing cattle, and increasing his forces so as to ‘subjugate that Countrey wholly to the use of the Spaniard’(6).

​[17]​ The conclusion from the Serene Republic is bleak: ‘the Spaniard will have no Peace, but are resolved to continue the Warre’, so that ‘his Armies may passe from Millan into Germanie, without interception’ (6). With the arrival of the ambassadors, we can see not only a preoccupation with the suffering of Grison Protestants, but a wider concern regarding the international implications of this violence. Both these preoccupations would be fuelled by translated reasons of state. Although Catholic, the polemics of the anti-Spanish Bons Français faction at the French court and the Venetian lawyer and prelate Paolo Sarpi would be eagerly translated for a domestic audience.

​[18]​ One such pamphlet, The favorites chronicle, a translation of Chronique des Favoris by François Dorval-Langlois Fancan (1576-1628), is indicative of the need not only to report upon the conflict in the Valtellina, but to shape perceptions of it. Fancan entered the services of Richelieu in 1617 and has been praised by Victor Tapie as ‘one of the most brilliant controversialists who ever lived’ (1975: 145). Fancan was a polemicist who held a ‘hatred of the Spanish’, ‘sympathy with the Huguenots’, and ‘an extreme Gallicanism’ (Church 1972: 116-17). For Fancan, religion was irrelevant to the struggle in the Valtellina: Spain merely cloaked their designs of ‘territorial aggrandisement’ with religion (Church 1972: 117).  Fancan began his address by requesting his readers to consider ‘the Tragedies that are acted upon the Theatre of this World’, before invoking a paranoid Hellenistic metaphor:

Whereupon our neighbours (having Argus eyes) being alwayes vigilant, and never sleepe, and with their spectacles continually beholding our proceedings (…) they advised with themselves that a civill warre in France would fall out well to the purpose, to be a meanes for them to attaine to the end of the Germane revolts, and of the usurpation which they pretended to make upon the Palatinate, Inlliers and Valtellina. (Fancan 1621: 1-4)

​[19]​ For Fancan, a Spanish occupation of the Valtellina was a sinister prospect. If Spain held the Valtellina, not only would France’s prestige and influence in the Italian peninsula be weakened, but Spain could move troops from Milan northward with far greater ease to either hereditary Habsburg lands, or to the Low Countries, since the Twelve Years Truce with the Dutch Republic had expired. English anxieties would be stoked following the failed Protestant uprising in the Valtellina in 1622, when Spanish troops brutally suppressed resistance and tightened their grip on the valley (Parker 1979: 197). This prompted Sir Henry Wotton, the English ambassador to Venice, to lament a ‘terrible moment’ which enabled the Spanish to move men from Milan to Dunkirk. Wotton’s fears were confirmed in 1623 when 7,000 men marched northwards through the Valtellina (Parker, 1979:197). The remarkable successes of Spain at the onset of the Thirty Years War stirred cultural memories amongst English Protestants of the Marian persecution, of atrocities committed against the Dutch Rebels, of the Armada, and of the gunpowder plot orchestrated by former soldiers of the Army of Flanders. Therefore, for many, peace with Spain during the height of Protestant tribulations on the continent was not just a betrayal: it could plausibly sow the seeds of ruin for Protestantism in the Jacobean kingdoms.

​[20]​ The 1624 Votivæ Angliæ petitioned James I to draw England’s sword for the restoration of the Palatinate from the treacherous Spanish monarchy. Authored by the multi-lingual writer and merchant John Reynolds, who was based in France from 1619 (Grudzien 2004), this polemic argued that the French king had been lulled by ‘the Syreen tunes, and the charmes of Spayne’ to wage a ‘sacrilegious Warre against his owne Protestant subject’ (Reynolds 1624a: B4r). During this slumber, Spain seized the initiative. Addressing James and employing the language of rape, Reynolds explains how ‘Spayn recovered the Valtellina, and deflowered the Fortes of the Grisons’, whilst Gondomar ‘lull’d your Majestie asleep’, and seized the Palitinate also (B4r). Reynolds thereby compared the Spanish monarchy to ‘the Cyclope Polephemus’ who ‘devoured his passengers one after another’, as the ‘King of Spayne eated upp whole Countries and Provinces’ (B4r). The implications are menacing: are the Jacobean kingdoms be devoured next?

​[21]​ The same year, Reynolds’ Vox Cœli, Or Newes from Heauen was printed in London by William Jones. Originally written in 1621 in opposition to the Spanish match, according to Reynolds its publication was delayed because King James’s affection for Spain would have created hostile conditions for its reception (Colclough 2005: 110). 1624 was a markedly different context. As Cogswell demonstrates in The Blessed Revolution, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Spanish Match and the mobilisation of men and opinion towards war, 1624 would witness ‘a flood of anti-Catholic literature’ reflecting the ‘revolution in political attitudes’ (1989:302). In its form, it self-consciously imitates Thomas Scott’s reworking in his Nevves from pernassus of Trajano Boccalini’s rhetoric in Raggauagli de Parnasso (Colclough 2005: 109). It imagines a regal meeting in heaven of the Tudor dynasty, who proceed to discuss the lamentable events befalling Europe. Surprisingly, even Queen Mary I is present, admitted to heaven in spite of her persecution of Protestants due to the ‘prayers of the protestants’, and begrudgingly entreated to join the conversation of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Elizabeth I and Prince Henry because Mary ‘knew many secrets of Spaine’ (Reynolds 1624b: 3-4).

​[22]​ Talk quickly turns to the Valtellina. Henry VIII concludes that ‘if Grisons at any time lose the Swissers friendship’, then they will part ‘with their liberties and their lives’ to the Spanish (23). Although Elizabeth I admires the Grisons ‘warlike’ defiance, her brother Edward VI agrees with their father that tragedy awaits: ‘I feare the Grisons will buy their peace […] with teares of blood’ (23). In imagining the Tudor dynasty discussing contemporary strife, Reynolds is throwing down a gauntlet to James I, urging him to heed the advice of his glorious Protestant predecessors (and of that lost hero of England, his son Prince Henry, upon whose shoulders so much militant expectation was placed) and pursue war with Spain.

3. Translating Paolo Sarpi’s Valtellina to Influence Stuart Foreign Policy

​[23]​ Venice had also been watching the unfolding crisis near its borders with grave concern. Whilst mobilising her own forces in preparation for war, her writers condemned the illegitimacy of Spanish operations. These condemning reasons of state would through translation be appropriated to support the bellicose revolution in the foreign policy of the newly enthroned King Charles I. Through posthumous publication following his death in 1623, the Venetian prelate and all-round Renaissance man Paolo Sarpi provided Stuart subjects with another virulently anti-Spanish narrative of the Valtellina crisis. Sarpi ‘was at the centre of a vast scholarly and political web’: John Milton would later praise him as ‘the unmasker of the Council of Trent’ for his history on the council (Vivo 2005: 36). The 430 letters which survive him are evidence of his vast pan-European correspondence network. Of particular note are the 45 letters from Sarpi to William Cavendish, the Earl of Devonshire, which survive as translations by the earl’s secretary Thomas Hobbes: written under pseudonyms and referring to Sarpi only in the third person; they highlight the risks Sarpi faced when writing to recipients who were not Catholic (38).

​[24]​ In the 1625 posthumous translation of The free schoole of warre, using the Dutch Revolt(s) as a starting point, Sarpi undertook a survey of European statecraft. Considering the cross-confessional allegiances which undermined any conception of a unified Catholic Christendom, and turning his attention to the international implications of the Valtellina crisis, Sarpi wrote:

 the crowne of France hath for a long time entred into league with the Protestant Switzers, with mutuall articles of defence; with the Grison Protestants of Rhetia, unto whom that Crowne is to giue ayde ordinary and extraordinary […] alliance and confederation with the Protestants of Germany […] an annual summe of money of twenty five thousand Crownes to the Common wealth of Geneva […] hath defended the same against Savoy and Spaine, who are Catholike Princes. (1625: 26)

For Sarpi, the union between Rome and Spain had resulted in a series of plots, often instigated by the Jesuits, ‘Bloody, Trecherous, and Insidiarie persons’ (9). In 1618, Venice had been gripped by fears of a Spanish conspiracy: fearful of a possible Spanish assault upon the Republic, many Venetians ‘expressed with great intensity the opposition of a free, Republican Venice, to an intolerant, tyrannical Spain’ (Martin 2007: 232). It is significant that Sir Nathaniel Brent and William Bedell’s translation of The free schoole of warre appeared in 1625, the year of the debacle of the expedition to Cadiz: this suggests it may have been intended to support the necessity of a raid to cut the purse strings of the Spanish Habsburgs. As Cogswell notes, whilst the ‘vindication of English honour’ and ‘ulterior motives may well have been behind the bellicosity of Charles and Buckingham […] no evidence suggests that their concern about Habsburg expansion was insincere’ (1989: 66). Cogswell also observes that the Secretary of State Edward Conway, cited the seizing of the Valtellina, alongside Spanish triumphs in Bohemia and the Palatinate, in what can be seen as the ‘seventeenth century equivalent of the domino theory’ in which the United Provinces and England could be victims of this chain reaction (70).

​[25]​ The translation of Hispanophobic polemic from Venice not only served to create the impression of a pan-European echo of revulsion at Spain’s years of victories, but also sought to fashion the semblance of a community of states whose very survival depended on their opposition to Spain. Secretary Conway had envisaged an anti-Habsburg confederacy, uniting Catholic ‘Venice, Savoy and France’ with Protestant ‘Denmark, Sweden, the United Provinces and England (Cogswell 1989: 70-71). Under Conway’s plan the sheer size of the Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs’ possessions would be an ‘Achilles heel’ and force them to fight a war across several fronts: ‘the French, Savoyards and Venetians would strike the Valtellina passes’, whilst the Danes would assist German Protestants fighting in the Empire, and the English and the Dutch would wage a naval war (Cogswell 1989: 71). However, in 1625, the long-anticipated war with Spain resulted in a failed expedition to Cadiz, and promised subsidies to support Christian IV of Denmark hampered the Danish intervention into Germany. Worse was yet to come for hopes of an anti-Spanish dynastic alliance.

​[26]​ By the late summer of 1627, England and France were at war following another Huguenot rebellion, ‘and cheap corantos, readily available in the bookstalls around St Paul’s Cathedral, reported weekly on the fighting’, some publications even going so far as to question ‘the way in which the king and the privy council were running the war’ (Thompson 1998: 653). Confronted with the dispersion of potentially seditious literature, Conway tasked his servant Georg Rudolph Weckherlin (1584-1653) with censoring these publications (654). Weckeherlin would later sanction a translation of Palo Sarpi’s A discourse vpon the reasons of the resolution taken in the Valteline (hereafter referred to as A discourse), an ‘anti-Spanish diatribe’, evidently translated to fuel ‘national hatred of Spain’, and ‘to encourage further Parliamentary support for England’s wars’ (670). It is here that we can see a distinct transition in the way in which the Valtellina was represented in English language polemic.

​[27]​ By 1627 a fragile peace resided in the valley. Although French troops had arrived in the Valtellina at the end of 1624, even opening fire upon troops marching under the papal banner, tensions had been lowered by the Treaty of Monzon in 1626: both France and Spain had agreed upon the restitution of the Grisons, with the condition that only Catholicism be practiced in the valleys (Church, 1972: 105-06). With the easing of tensions, and the events of the Holy Slaughter now seven years old, the injustices inflicted upon Grison Protestants would be employed as a polemical example of the cruelty of the Spanish Habsburgs, warning against peace with Spain. Conrad Russell noted that, with the gargantuan costs of Caroline foreign policy from 1626-28, and the failure of the expedition of the Duke of Buckingham’s expedition to relieve Huguenot La Rochelle, some at the Parliament of 1628 expected Buckingham to make peace with Spain (1979: 323-29).

​[28]​ Addressing the Parliament of 1628, the ‘Translators’s Epistle to the Commons House of Parliament’ prefaces a translation of Sarpi’s A Discourse. The translator, described only as ‘Your humble Seruant Philo-Britannicos’, spewed forth abuses of the Habsburgs. The bibliographical notes of Early English Books Online state that the translator was the diplomat Sir Thomas Roe, a suggestion which opens an intriguing possibility. Roe served as ambassador to the Ottoman court in Constantinople from 1621 to 1628, during which time he encountered the Prince of Transylvania Gabor Bethlen. Roe envisaged that the Palatinate might be restored by Bethlen attacking from the south whilst the King of Sweden, Gustavus Adolphus, attacked from the north (Strachan, 2004). What is unmistakable is the endeavour to remind Parliament of the usurpation of the Valtellina, challenging any voices who advocated ceasing hostilities with Spain in order to concentrate on a French war. Roe praised Sarpi for opening ‘the eyes of all Princes’ to a Habsburg ‘secret project of Universall Monarchy’; surveying the world for Spanish abuses, Roe echoed Sarpi in claiming the ‘Valtellina [was] possessed under the colour of Religion’, the latest illegality in a list that included the usurpation of India and the seizure of the Palatinate (Britannicos 1628: 5)

​[29]​ Any overt mention of the failed 1625 expedition to Cadiz is omitted, as is the failure of Buckingham to relieve La Rochelle. Instead, the translator advises continued and imminent action against the Habsburgs:It is Time onely that will macerate England, when without traffique and exchange, and that especially of Germany, our owne treasure must be exported to pay forraine Armies’ (29). In a closing line, a sensation of temporal urgency is reinforced, imploring Parliament through print, ‘It will be time to be thrifty in the members and particulars, when the Head and the whole State is safe’; the alternative is serve: ‘And if you deferre untill a lingring warre hath exhausted you’ (29).

​[30]​ Following Britannicos’ urgent preface, the translation of Sarpi’s A Discourse on the occupation of the Valtellina was printed. Posthumously published in English, a full four years after Sarpi had died, Roe brought back the ghosts of persecution past as a dreadful past precedent to caution against any truce with Spain. Curiously, at the onset of Sarpi’s A Discourse, the Venetian had included a piece of pro-Habsburg polemic called The Manifest: Wherein the Reasons of the Resolutions lately by them taken against the tyranny of the Grisons and Heretiques, bringing the claims of Catholic resistance theorists to light before proceeding to unravel and deconstruct their legitimacy. As we have seen, while slaughtered Grisons found a cultural afterlife in Protestant polemics, becoming martyrs in the landscape of providential memory, a similar phenomenon had been underway within Catholic polemic, fashioning the victims of Grison rule into Catholic martyrs. The Manifest can be seen amongst a corpus of anti-Grison polemics, such as the 1621 Kurtzer vnnd warhaffter Bericht deß KelchenKriegß (Short and truthful relation of the war on chalices), a German language broadside depicting Grisons as iconoclasts and devil worshippers.

​[31]​ Anti-Grison polemics such as these endeavoured to justify armed resistance to radical Calvinists. The fact that Sarpi dedicated time and ink to devaluing their validity attests to a subtle Venetian anxiety stemming from favouring the cause of French backed Grisons Protestants over Spanish backed Catholic rebels in the Valtellina. The events which inspired anti-Grison justifications can traced back to the immediate prelude of the slaughter in 1620. When in 1618, some of the leaders of the valley’s Catholics objected to Grison support for Venice against Ferdinand of Styria, a radical Protestant preacher named George Jenatsch led an army into the Catholic areas, arresting and torturing two Catholic leaders and expelling fourteen more (Parker 1979: 195). This incident was used in The Manifest, wherein the victims of this incident are glorified as martyrs of the Catholic Church, their deaths providing a sanguine justification for armed rebellion:

Nicolo Rusca Arch-Priest of Sondrio, a Priest of most innocent life, and a true Martyr of Christ, tormented and put to death, with all cruelty, and possible infamy, without any other fault, then being a good Catholique, & a priest. Now these Iniuries and Cruelties hauing necessitated some Catholique Communities, to seeke redresse of so many euills, vsing their vtmost force. (Anon 1628: 36)

​[32]​ Indeed, the anxiety surrounding the accusations of torture behind the demise of Rusca can be glimpsed within the Grison version of events in the 1619 Proceedings of the Grisons. Sarpi then proceeded to lampoon The Manifest. Its allegations ‘hath giuen great scandal to all wise men, who easily do comprehend from whence, and why it was put to the Presse’ (1628: 39). Employing the metaphor of concealment and darkness, a similar device used by Fancan in anti-Spanish/ anti-Jesuit polemic, Sarpi stated that whilst The Manifest endeavoured ‘to wrap up in darknesse; I have thought it an act of Iustice’ to bring it ‘to light, that truth’, unless ‘it become deceived with a false appearance of Pietie and Religion’ (4). For Sarpi the danger of lies and concealment are potentially diabolical, ‘the Devill, a perpetual enemy of Princes well enclined, useth oftentimes to transforme himselfe into an Angell of light’ (40). In a moment of urgency Sarpi implored Phillip to consider the results of religious persecution against heretics across Europe: ‘a consideration worthy of many teares’ (68). ‘Poore Germany, into what state is it reduced?’, ‘Flanders too had been ruined’, and now, the Valtellina sits precariously like a powder keg: ‘the present warre against the Grisons prove not a fire of faith and religion, in all Italy’ (68-69). Phillip’s ministers have been corrupted by the designs of Satan, ‘The Deuill hath prepared the wood, the Ministers of your Majesties have kindled the flame’ (69). This image, of religious war as a flame, spreading from country to country, is perhaps the most paranoid of Sarpi’s discourses, yet it resonates with pan-European literature and the many scattered perceptions of a contemporaneous world in a state of combustion. In a further attack upon The Manifest, Sarpi exonerates the Grisons, who ‘have not tyrannised their Subjects, neither concerning Religion, nor in the politike life’, instead ‘Tyranny’ was ‘treacherously induced by the Ministers of your Majestie’, the Catholic rebellion not a voluntary act, but one compelled by manipulation of the ‘present Governor of Millan’ (74).

​[33]​ Reprinting Sarpi’s A Discourse on the Valtellina reminded Parliament of both the fragile balance of power, of the states and valleys which narrowly held back Spanish ascendency, and also of the sombre accusation that behind Spanish policy were diabolical machinations. For many Stuarts the onset of the Thirty Years War was not just a dynastic conflict, but an apocalyptic unfolding where the forces of the antichrist threatened universal Protestantism. Sarpi’s Valtellina was appropriated to reinforce this world-view. By employing the legal discourse of the deceased Sarpi on the subject of Grison Protestants who had died almost a decade before, we can glimpse the beginnings of an enduring cultural afterlife in English language polemic, a vital transition from contemporary events, to past precedents and cultural memories.

4. The Memory of Grison Martyrs on the Eve of Civil War

​[34]​ The persecution of the Protestant Grisons would continue to haunt the imagination of Stuart Protestants. As the 1630s dawned, their macabre deaths were not merely consigned to reasons of state to be debated and argued by politicians and diplomats, but immortalised in martyrologies for the wider community to remember. In 1632, the great behemoth of the English martyrology and contributor to English Protestant identity, John Foxe’s (c.1516-1587) Acts and Monuments, would be given a seventh volume, printed by Adam Islip, Foelix Kingston, and Robert Yong. Amongst its additions, was the 108 page A continuation of the histories of forrein martyrs from the happy reigne of the most renowned Qu. Elizabeth,  presenting a newly updated martyrology, starting with the 1572 St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. It featured the ‘famous deliverances of our English nation’, the 1588 Spanish Armada and the 1605 Gunpowder plot, before finishing with ‘the barbarous cruelties exercised upon the professors of the Gospell in the Valtellina’ in 1621. It is striking that this  addition was reprinted and included in the 1641 edition. With the British Isles sliding into bloody civil war, the graphic examples of continental persecution offered a stark warning. The martyrs of the Valtellina would, to echo Pierre Nora, evidence the fact that memory is ‘vulnerable to manipulation and appropriation, susceptible to being dormant and periodically revived’ (1989: 7). In 1641 the ghosts of Grison martyrs were summoned to warn of sectarian possibilities.

​[35]​ In addition, the ‘Grison Lords’ are the ‘Soveraigne Magistrates’ of the Valtellina, and for merely practicing their religion, were persecuted by murderous Catholics. Violence erupted at a Protestant Church in ‘Boalez’, where a ‘multitude and concourse of the papists in that place in Armes’ beat to death Protestants with staves, setting in motion a slaughter, ‘where the rage and fury of those murderers grew unto that height’ (99). The attempts of the Grisons’ council to organise a garrison are in vain, as ‘barbarous and wicked fellowes’, both ‘domestique’ and ‘forraine’, arrive with malicious intentions’ (100). With the arrival of Spanish troops, slaughter ensued:

Protestants, who without feare or suspicion of any practise against them, came out of their houses into the streets to see what the matter was, were suddenly shot and most cruelly murthered in the place. Others by force entred into the houses of the Protestants, drew them out of their beds, and without any compassion slew all they could meet withall (100)

Distinct parallels begin to emerge with reports of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, where Protestants are pulled from their beds and slaughtered like cattle in the street. Accounts of the 1572 massacre had been included in the 1610 edition of Acts and Monuments: as Mark Breitenberg notes, this edition ‘may well have been in response to the tumult surrounding the Gunpowder Plot and to the increasing tide of puritan opposition’(1989: 384). With the inclusion of the St Bartholomew’s Massacre, ‘James could hope to rally his own divided nation against an inveterate English enemy’ (384-85). In a scene which strongly echoes  the murder of the Huguenot hero Admiral Coligny, in 1620 the Grison Governor of Teglie, ‘seignior Andrea Enderlin of Kublis in Prettigonia, a Gentleman of great worth, very singularly learned, and skilful in many languages’, is strangled to death before being thrown from the window down into the street below, where his corpse ‘was so beaten and bruised, that you could not know him’ (Anon 1641: 58). In the account of the night in 1572, realising that his murder is at hand, Coligny commends his soul unto God, moments before he is slaughtered, and his naked body is defenestrated down upon the bloodthirsty mob below: ‘mockes of the multitude’ trample their trophy; his mutilated corpse is so disfigured and bloody that ‘his visage could not be discerned’ (59).

​[36]​ Such parallels are unsurprising, by 1610, and indeed by the date of these additions in 1632 and 1641 respectively, the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre had been ingrained into the cultural memory of European Protestants. As Judith Pollmann notes, communicative memory, the testimonies relayed by survivors of an atrocity or other significant moments, could transition into cultural memory, especially through the medium of cheap print, a phenomenon which early modern contemporaries were conscious of (2017: 169). Although Huguenot refugee communities in London and Norwich could have provided access to eyewitness testimony, the dispersion of cheap print was pervasive, inspiring polemics and plays, for instance Anne Dowriche’s The French Historie (1589) and Christopher Marlowe’s The Massacre at Paris (1593). The 1572 massacre looms large in the cultural memory as a bloody warning of the dangers of sectarian civil war. Its sheer pervasiveness in Anglophone polemic over fifty years later cannot be understated.

​[37]​ As Susannah Brietz Monta states, ‘most simply, the martyrologist’s task is to show that the lives and deaths of particular witnesses confirm the beliefs they held’ (2005: 11). In order ‘to shape reading communities’ which celebrate the martyr, accounts ‘proposed that the cause, not the death, makes the martyrs’, as evident with Foxe’s emphasis on the conscience of the martyr (11-12). Here in this martyrology of Grison Protestants, the victims are afforded no opportunity to profess their faith before the persecuting authorities, or allowed the option to recant. The martyrdom is brutal and operates outside of the judiciary, in fact in many cases, it is the respectable agents of the Grison religious and civic administration who are being butchered. However, as with Foxe’s martyrs of the early Reformation, names and biographical details are included, thereby enhancing the sensation of a personal connection to the victims. The Protestant martyrs imitate Christ’s crucifixion, ‘having recommended their soules to God, they were most cruelly slaine’ (Anon 1641: 101), and their killers enact, to borrow the language of Mikhail Bakhtin, a bloody rendition of the carnivalesque, beheading the local priest and mocking his extinguished authority:

They cut off Bassoe’s head, and carried it into the Church, and fixed it upon a pole in the pulpit where before time he was wont to preach, saving with all disgrace and scorne, Come downe Basso, thou hast preached long enough already. (Anon 1641: 101).

It is plausible that the mutilation of pitiful Bassano was based on accounts disseminated in the early 1620s, for example, in Everard’s inclusion of the persecution of Grisons into his preternatural narrative; ‘the rebellious and seditious Papists’ decapitate Bassano, mount the head on the pulpit and ‘cryed vnto him, Cala a basso, Basso, cala a basso, c’hai predicato assai, &c. that is, Come downe, Basso, come downe, thou hast preached long enough’ (1622: 19-20).

5. Cultural Afterlives

​[38]​ The events of the Holy Slaughter and the subsequent crisis had, over the subsequent decades, transitioned into an enduring cultural memory for those who only witnessed the violence through the medium of print. When compared to the vast corpus of literal, visual and oral responses to the horrors and atrocities of the Thirty Years War, the sheer endurance of the Valtellina crisis within English language polemic is remarkable. The massacres of the early 1620s were employed to warn of the horrors of sectarian violence on the continent, and to propel Caroline foreign policy against the Spanish perpetrators. Later, in 1632 and 1641, the massacres served as a stark exemplar of the danger of fifth columnists, and of civil war instigated by Catholic neighbours in league with foreign powers.

​[39]​ The massacres in the Valtellina inspired enduring cultural memories, which, to echo Jan Assmann, ‘preserves the store of knowledge from which a group derives an awareness of its perceived unity and peculiarity’ (1995: 130). Cultural reminders that Protestant brothers and sisters in the Alps and across Europe were being persecuted for their shared faith. Warnings that Caroline Protestants might suffer the same terrible fates if recusants aided by Spain put plot into action. It contributed to confessional identity through a polemical binary juxtaposition between Grison victim and Spanish soldier, persecuted and persecutor, Protestant and Catholic. As Philip Benedict notes, ‘confessional identity and confessional rivalry were powerful antidotes to historical amnesia’, the recollection of violent events committed by a hostile group ‘reminded members of the community of the importance of continued vigilance’ (2013: 113).

​[40]​ Memory, especially the memory of persecution, was never neutral. To Stuart Protestants who had lately witnessed the Bishops Wars and heard the wild, amplified rumours of the massacres of the Irish Rebellion, the warnings of the Valtellina would have been further evidence of the potential for Catholic insurrection, aided by the Spanish monarchy, to set the world aflame. Just as the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre was commemorated, the Valtellina massacres were transformed and remembered, fed by fledgling news-books and fantastical preternatural reports. Such was its significance that foreign reasons of state were translated into English to shed light on the crisis, and it was appropriated to apply pressure upon respective Jacobean and Caroline foreign policy to resist suing for peace with Spain. Its inclusion in an updated Acts and Monuments, alongside the Gunpowder Plot and the 1572 St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, attests to its transition into a semi-canonical event which evidenced the sufferings of God’s true church. The fashioning of the Grison Protestants into martyrs necessarily also fashioned them into confessional brethren, knowable by their names, professions and the torments they suffered: members of a spiritual community that transcended physical flesh and spatial distance, reinforcing a Protestantism pan-European in its scope.

​[41]​ Through translation and print polemic, the events of this distant alpine pass continued to be evoked almost twenty years after the onset of bloodshed in its valleys. Remarkably, Catholic polemicists such as Fancan and Sarpi had contributed to this process, in a curious by-product of their anti-Spanish reasons of state. Through translation and re-appropriation, their words transcended mountain ranges and linguistic and confessional boundaries. The cultural afterlife of the violence in the Valtellina is not only evidence that early Stuart subjects avidly followed the Thirty Years War even within theatres where few of their compatriots fought, but that even Swiss-Italian Protestants from a distant alpine valley would be remembered by generations of Stuart Protestants alongside the hallowed echelons of the Marian martyrs.

University of Edinburgh


I would like to thank Patrick Hart, Lynsey MacCulloch and this special issue’s editors for their insightful support in revising this article. I would also like to thank Ilaria Grando and James Loxley for their structural suggestions, as well Henri Hannula and Simon Mølholm Olesen, brilliant sounding boards for this article with whom I shared an office at the University of Leiden. I also acknowledge the Scottish Graduate School for the Arts and Humanities for funding my PhD.

[1] The Canton of the Grisons, or Graubünden, was formed by a federation of the three Swiss leagues, located to the south-east of what is now Switzerland. In other contemporary sources, they are referred to as Rhetians on account of the name of the Roman provinces. In the early seventeenth century, the majority of Grisons were Calvinists, and had jurisdiction of the Valtellina valley to the south of their canton, which connected their lands to the Italian peninsula below. The crisis this article explores can be located in the broader context of the conflict of the Bündner Wirren (1618-1639), which is examined in greater detail in Randolph Head’s Diplomacy in the Grisons: Social Order and Political Language in a Swiss Mountain Canton 1470-1620 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995). [back to text]


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