The Protestant Reformation is traditionally said to have begun at the end of October 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his “95 Theses” against the sale of Indulgencies to the church door at Wittenberg in eastern Germany. The questions that emerge from this and what followed are: why did Luther do this, and why was he not crushed as previous would-be reformers had been? Why was Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, the ruler of Germany, unable to stop him?
Luther was born in 1483 and had become an Augustinian friar in 1505. He had become increasingly obsessed with a sense of his own sinfulness, and his inability to achieve any sense of salvation by his own efforts or through the traditional rituals of the church. He had visited Rome and been disgusted by the luxury and cynicism he saw there.
Luther’s ruling prince, Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, was a pious man who owned a famous collection of holy relics. He had endowed a university at Wittenberg in 1502 and appointed Luther as a lecturer in theology. He remained a cautious supporter of Luther until his death in 1525, when he was succeeded by his nephew, John Frederick, an enthusiastic Lutheran.
Indulgencies were documents from the Papacy which guaranteed reduction of penance in Purgatory, either for the buyer or for a deceased relative. Many theologians had their doubts about them, especially when they were being hawked in high-pressure salesmanship as a blatant fundraising measure, as was being done by certain Dominican friars in Germany in 1517. Luther’s protest therefore sparked a response, and he defended his actions in debates with other clerics. But Luther went further than this. Over the next few years he wrote such pamphlets as “An Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation” (written in German, for a wide circulation), and “The Babylonish Captivity of the Church” (written in Latin, for the clergy). He denounced the authority of the Pope and the doctrine of the Mass. He also denounced the necessity for clerical celibacy, and himself later married a former nun. When he was excommunicated by a Papal Bull in 1520 he publicly burned the document. Charles considered things were getting out of control and decided to intervene.
Charles, or Carlos, or Karl; whatever we want to call him; was born in 1500 in Ghent, in what is now Belgium. His paternal grandfather was the Maximilian, the head of the great Habsburg family, who bore the title of Holy Roman Emperor, and his grandmother was heiress to the lands of the Duchy of Burgundy. Through them, Charles inherited the Netherlands and the lands of the modern state of Austria. But Charles’s mother was the daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, and through her Charles inherited not only Spain itself but also Sardinia, Naples and Sicily, and the lands beyond the Atlantic which Spanish explorers were conquering. (Magellan’s voyage round the world, financed with Spanish money, set sail in 1519; Cortez destroyed the Aztecs of Mexico in 1522, and Pizarro inflicted the same fate on the Incas of Peru in 1533) Such a vast inheritance had not been seen since the days of the Roman Empire.
Charles never knew his parents, who left for Spain soon after he was born. His father died in 1506 and his mother, Joanna, was certified as insane; some said unjustly. Charles was brought up by Margaret, the dowager Duchess of Burgundy, who was the sister of Kings Edward IV and Richard III of England, and then after her death by his aunt, Margaret of Austria. His first language was French, but at the age of 17 he was sent to Spain to be crowned as King. He was a rather dour young man compared with his glamorous contemporaries Francis I of France and Henry VIII of England; not particularly talented, but conscientious and hardworking.
The Emperor Maximilian, who had never shown much interest in his grandson, died in 1519, leaving the Imperial throne vacant. Charles was determined to succeed his grandfather, but that was by no means guaranteed, for the Imperial title was bestowed by election.
The Holy Roman Empire dated back to the days of Charlemagne. By this time, it effectively meant Germany.
In theory, all the Kings of Western Europe were subject to election, but by this time England, France and Spain were developing into centralized hereditary monarchies supported by embryonic bureaucratic governing structures. In Germany, by contrast, election was still very much a reality, and the 300-odd little territories (a mish-mash of princely states, bishoprics and free cities) into which the land was divided, jealously guarded their independence against the claims of any Emperor. Just seven Electors chose the Emperor; one of their number being Luther’s prince, Frederick the Wise of Saxony.
The election of Charles was by no means guaranteed, especially when Francis I of France decided to throw his hat into the ring. (Henry VIII considered intervening, but wisely decided not to proceed). After enormous sums, all borrowed at crippling rates, were expended in bribes, Charles was duly elected Emperor in 1521. But Luther was just one of many problems with which he would have to deal.
The Pope at this time was Leo X, from the great Florentine family of the Medicis. Destined for high office in the church since childhood, he had become a cardinal at the age of just 16, and then Pope at 37. His attitude to his duties was, “God has given us the Papacy: let us enjoy it”. He lived a spectacularly luxurious lifestyle, and was a lover of the fine arts. In the same year as Luther’s gesture at Wittenberg, Leo survived a plot to poison him, following which the suspects (who included a cardinal) were tortured and publicly executed. At first he treated the disputes in Germany as a remote and uninteresting squabble between monks, and did not get around to issuing his Bull excommunicating Luther until it was too late. Then in 1521 Leo died, aged only 46.
Charles decided, with some justice, that the church was in dire need of reform, and the man he selected to do the job was his old tutor, Adrian of Utrecht, a Dutchman in his sixties, who was now installed as Pope Adrian VI. When this austere old man arrived in Rome the cardinals were horrified by his attempts to curb their lavish lifestyles. Adrian knew nothing of the complexities of Vatican politics, all his attempts at reform were obstructed, and the French were intent on stirring up trouble in Italy. After just two years the unfortunate Adrian died (of a broken heart, it was said), and it was with sighs of relief that the cardinals turned to another member of the Medici clan to return things to normal. But the new pontiff, Clement VII, was to prove one of the most disastrous Popes of all time.
In 1521 Charles summoned Luther to appear before a meeting of the German Parliament (the Diet) in a city on the Rhineland: the memorably-named Diet of Worms. There Luther was asked to justify his beliefs, but he refused to recant, and was duly condemned for heresy. Previous would-be reformers had been burnt at the stake for this, but Charles had promised Luther a safe-conduct, and the young Emperor clearly thought his personal honour was involved. So he let him go.
Luther was taken by his supporters to safety in the castle of Wartburg, where he spent the next year translating the Bible into German. Luther’s writings came to form the standard German language, and thanks to the recently-invented printing press, they were rapidly dissembled all over Europe. The Protestant Reformation was now under way. New reformers appeared, such as Zwingli in Zurich. More alarmingly for the princes, a massive peasant revolt broke out in Germany in 1524, inspired by a charismatic preacher called Thomas Muntzer. Luther showed where his loyalties now lay by calling on the nobles to crush the peasants, and many thousands were duly slaughtered. In the 19th century, Engels hailed Muntzer as a proto-communist.
Charles had simply too much on his plate to deal with this, for he was now engaged in a major war with the French for the control of the great city of Milan. In 1525 the Imperial forces, which consisted mostly of Spanish troops and German mercenaries, destroyed the French at the battle of Pavia, capturing King Francis himself. But things now got out of control, as the hungry and leaderless Imperial army (Charles being in Spain) marched on Rome itself, where Pope Clement had been conducting a futile and irresolute attempt to play the French and the Imperialists off against each other. In 1527 the Imperial army stormed Rome and sacked the city, amidst appalling scenes of slaughter and plunder. Pope Clement barely escaped with his life. There were many Lutherans amongst the German mercenaries, who raped nuns and conducted obscene parodies of the Mass in the churches. An unknown soldier hacked the name of Martin Luther into the base of Michelangelo’s statue of the Virgin Mary.
The greatest threat, however, was in the east. The power and wealth of Charles and Francis were but little when compared with the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent. The Turks had taken Constantinople two generations before, and made it the capital of their empire, which now stretched through the Balkans, down through Syria and Palestine, and across Egypt and the north African coast. In 1526 Suleiman struck north, and destroyed the Hungarian kingdom at the battle of Mohacs. King Louis of Hungary, who was Charles’s brother-in-law, was drowned in a river as he fled the battlefield.
Three years later, Suleiman struck again, seizing Budapest and advancing up the Danube to the gates of Vienna itself. Fortunately for central Europe, it was too late in the campaigning season for a full-scale siege of the city, and the Turkish forces soon retreated; but the threat remained all-too-real for the next century. King Francis had no compunction in allying France with the Moslem Turks against his fellow-Catholic monarch, and Henry VIII of England was a diplomatic “wild card”, especially after his breach with Rome in the 1530s.
With all these international troubles, it is hardly surprising that Charles was unable to crush Protestantism in Germany, but was forced to accept, at least as a temporary expedient, a compromise whereby the individual princes were able to choose which church they wished their subjects to follow. In 1556 he decided he had had enough, and he abdicated. His vast domains were divided: Spain, Italy and the Netherlands went to his son, Philip, and the Empire to his brother Ferdinand, who also claimed the throne of what was left of Hungary. He must have died a disappointed man. Never again would any western European monarch rule such an enormous area. And Protestantism, though under severe threat for the next century, survived.
There is a famous remark attributed to Charles (though in a number of slightly different forms) that he “spoke French to his friends, Spanish to his priests, Italian to his mistress and German to his horse”!