Story of Europe - H. E. Marshall

Reformation Period: Germany

When Luther nailed his theses to the door of Wittenberg Church he had no idea of what a great thing he did. He had no idea that he had begun a vast world-shaking movement. He had merely, in the fashion of the day, invited any who liked to debate the matter in public with him. But soon all Germany rang with his challenge. For the theses said openly and clearly what many had thought in secret yet dared not give voice to. They were quickly translated into German and sown broadcast throughout the land. From Germany they spread all over Europe, until all Europe was filled with disputations.

At first the pope thought little of the matter, and looked upon it as a mere monkish squabble. But soon he saw that it was more than that, and he issued a Bull of excommunication against Luther. By this time, however, Luther had become aware of what a great mass of opinion he had on his side. And instead of trembling at the pope's wrath, he publicly burned the Bull.

Charles V

Eighteen months before this the Emperor Maximilian had died, and after much intriguing his grandson Charles had been chosen emperor. As emperor his rule was so widespread that it is hardly an exaggeration to say that the future of the Reformation was in his hands. And so far as European history is concerned the chief point of interest in his reign is his attitude towards the movement.

The very extent of Charles V's dominions saved the Reformation. For at the beginning of his reign as emperor, he was so much occupied with the complicated politics of his varied possessions, that he could not give his whole mind to the suppression of heresy in Germany.

Not till eighteen months after his election as emperor, more than three years after Luther had nailed his theses to the door of the castle church at Wittenberg, did Charles pay his first visit to his German dominions. There in January 1521 he held his first Diet at Worms. And to this Diet Luther was summoned to answer for his heresy.

During the three years which had passed since his first bold deed, Luther had become strengthened in his convictions. Now he refused to retract anything that he had said. So the Ban of the Empire was pronounced against him. Henceforth he might be hunted or slain like a beast of prey, and his books were ordered to be confiscated and burned.

Excommunication and Ban alike fell harmless. Luther had now so many powerful friends that none dared to lay hands upon him, and his books were openly bought and sold in far greater numbers than before.

[Illustration] from The Story of Europe by H. E. Marshall


Charles was a Catholic not from conviction but from heredity. The religious aspect of the Protestant revolt interested him not at all. The political aspect interested him much. He desired to make sure of the pope's help against his arch enemy Francis I in his Italian wars, and by condemning Luther he procured this help. But he also produced war in his German domains.

For, condemned by the pope and the emperor although he might be, not only many of the German people but many of the German princes supported Luther. Had the emperor's interests been undivided he would have crushed these Protestant princes with an iron hand. But as it was he dared not. For he had two great enemies, the French and the Turks. The Turks were constantly threatening his Hapsburg possessions, the French were constantly opposing him in Italy. To keep these two enemies in check Charles had need of German help.


So in spite of all efforts against it the heresy spread. At length, however, the Diet met at Spires, and passed a decree forbidding any change of religion, and commanding mass to be said in all churches. Against this decree the Protestant princes issued a protest. And from this all those who then, or later, broke away from the Church of Rome, received the name of Protestants.

During all this time Charles had not again visited Germany, for the difficulties of his Spanish dominions kept him in Spain. But in 1530, finding himself at peace for the moment, he attended the Diet of Augsburg prepared to force his will upon the Protestants. The Protestant princes, however, refused to he coerced, and Melanethon, Luther's gentle and wise friend, drew up a Protestant Creed, and laid it before the Diet. From this it is called the Confession of Augsburg, and is still the accepted Creed of the Lutheran Church.

The Protestant leaders now, too, fearing that Charles would try to enforce his will by arms, banded themselves into the Schmalkald League, and prepared to resist force by force. But for the time Charles forbore to coerce them. For the Turks besieged Vienna, and he had need of the support of the Protestant as well of the Catholic princes to guard his possessions. In order to gain this help he signed the religious Peace of Nuremberg. By this Protestants were granted full freedom to worship God as they would, until a General Council should be called to discuss and settle the matter.

Then, having defeated the Turks, Charles once more left Germany, to turn his sword against his other great enemy, Francis I. Between 1521 and 1544 Charles fought at least four distinct wars against Francis I for the possession of Italy. Again and again Francis was defeated. He signed treaties and truces, and broke them; he was taken prisoner and released; and finally, to the horror of Europe, he allied himself with the infidel Turk against the emperor. But even this did not save him from defeat, and at length the long struggle came to an end in 1544 with the Treaty of Crespy. This treaty left Francis little better off as regards Italy than he had been at the beginning of his reign, it also bound him to aid in the suppression of heresy.

The following year Charles signed a long truce with the Turks, and being thus free of his two chief enemies, he set out for Germany, determined to crush the Schmalkald League, and force all Germany to return to the old religion.

In 1546 the Schmalkald War broke out. At first Charles was successful, and it seemed as if at last he would be able to enforce his will on Germany. He had gained his early successes by the help of Maurice, duke of Saxony. But in the hour of his triumph Maurice turned against him; the war ended in disaster for Charles, and he was obliged to give up his design of forcing all Germany to think alike on matters of religion.

By the religious Peace of Augsburg in 1555 a religious toleration of a very limited kind was established. It gave to the ruler  of each state power to decide what should be the religion of its people, and power to do as he liked with those who refused to conform to his religion. Thus the great revolt which had been awakened by the blows of Luther's hammer came to an end. The emperor and the pope had lost, and had been forced to give up their claim to be the keepers of the general conscience of mankind. But the people had not won. They had merely changed masters. Their princes were to be the keepers of their conscience, they were to be bishops as well as rulers. This was no real settlement. The strife was only ended for a time; later it was to break out more seriously than before.

The Abdication of Charles V

While the Peace of Augsburg was being concluded Charles V abdicated. He tried, but tried in vain, to make the electors choose his son Philip as emperor. They refused, and elected his brother Ferdinand instead. So to Philip Charles could only bequeath the Netherlands, the Italian provinces, and Spain, with all her vast possessions in America.

That Charles was able to leave the Italian provinces and the Netherlands to Philip without question is a signal proof of the ascendency of Spain in Europe at this time. For Italy had always been looked upon as a part of the Empire. Throughout centuries streams of German blood had been shed to acquire and hold it. But Charles, disregarding the fact that he had made his conquests by German aid, claimed Italy by right of conquest, and not by right of the ancient imperial claim. And as a Spanish possession he left the country to his son Philip.

The loss of Italy to the Empire was merely imaginary. It was, indeed, no real loss but a gain. A very real loss, and one which was to be felt in modern times, was the loss of the Netherlands. For centuries the northern part of the Netherlands, that part which is now Holland, had been included in the Empire. Now, by the will of Charles, it was severed from it without question or protest. And to this day the great German river, the Rhine, flows to the sea through a foreign country. Thus Charles V sowed the seeds of future warfare.

[Illustration] from The Story of Europe by H. E. Marshall