Story of Europe - H. E. Marshall

Reformation Period—Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, and Italy

In Charles V's own kingdom of Spain the Reformation made little impression. This was partly because there was not so much need of it. For the Church there was more alive, and many of the worst abuses rampant in other countries had been removed. But chiefly it was due to the fact that in Spain heresy was promptly and severely suppressed by the terrible Inquisition.

Portugal, too, was hardly touched by the Reformation. For there also the Inquisition was in force, and all individual thought was quickly stamped out by it. Very shortly, too, while Europe was being torn by religious wars Portugal was to become for a time a mere province of Spain. For in 1580 Henry I of Portugal died without heirs, and Philip II of Spain claimed the throne as the heir of his mother Isabella of Portugal. Then for sixty years the kings of Spain ruled Portugal also.

The Inquisition and the Netherlands

In the Netherlands, which were at this time not an independent country but merely the private possession of Charles, the Reformation brought bloodshed, persecution, and war. There the struggle for religious freedom was combined with the struggle for political freedom. In the end both were won. Holland became independent of Spain, and one of the strongest Protestant powers in Europe. But that day had not yet dawned. In the meantime Charles determined to do what he liked with his personal property.

The Reformation had taken a great hold upon the Netherlands. Even from quite early days the people had never been very submissive to the pope. Heresy easily took root there, and in spite of horrible persecutions grew and flourished. Long before the Reformation the land swarmed with Wycliffites, Hussites, Waldenses, and adherents of many other dissenting sects. When at length the great Reformation came, with its ally the printing-press, it took root in the Netherlands and spread more rapidly than in any other place.

But Charles was a politician. He well understood that religious liberty was the forerunner of political liberty, and he determined to stamp out the new religion. So the Inquisition was introduced. The reading of the Bible was forbidden, as were also all gatherings for devotion or religious discussion. But the stolid, industrious people resisted. Hundreds and thousands were tortured and put to death. Still the adherents of the new religion increased, persecution only making them more determined to walk in the way upon which they had set their feet. It was left for the heirs of Charles to reap the harvest he had sown, and Holland was lost alike to Spain, to the Empire, and to the pope.

Italy and the Reformation

In Italy, divided as it was at this time between the rule of the pope and the rule of Spain, the Reformation made considerable headway. Italians lived beneath the shadow of the papacy, they were nearer than others to the fountain of evil, and many devout men longed to see the Church made pure and holy. There was, too, a great deal of intercourse between Germany and Italy. Both scholars and merchants constantly crossed the Alps, and Luther's doctrines soon found many sympathizers among Italians. But in Italy, as in Spain, the reform movement was rigorously repressed. The Inquisition did its work thoroughly, and Italy remained within the fold of the Church.

Broadly speaking then, when the Reformation had worked itself out, the whole of north-western Europe, the half of Christendom, was lost to the papacy. England, Scotland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, northern Germany, and part of Switzerland had adopted the new religion in one form or another. Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, and, in the long run, France, with portions of southern Germany, clung to the old religion.

The Reformation did not bring complete freedom of religious thought or real toleration. For the reformers merely changed an infallible Church for an infallible Bible. Each reformer, Luther, Zwingli, or Calvin produced his own dogma, and would admit of no salvation for those who differed from him. So there arose countless divisions among the Protestants, divisions which did much to check their further progress.

The reformers fought and died for freedom of conscience. But they permitted no freedom to those who differed from themselves, and one Protestant sect, when it had the power, was as ready to persecute another as the older church had been. Still, the principle of the right of private judgment had been admitted. It could not again be denied, and even more than in what it did the value of the Reformation lies in the fact that it made possible, and prepared the way for, modern toleration.

The Counter-Reformation: Ignatius Loyola

It also reformed and purified the Church of Rome. As country after country revolted, the ancient Church awoke from her sloth of centuries, resolved to make an end of the evils which had made her a reproach and a byword, and the Counter-Reformation began. In 1545 the Council of Trent was called, and a plain restatement of the Church's doctrines was made. Many causes of stumbling to devout Catholics were removed, and henceforth no man of evil life has sat upon the throne of St. Peter.

This Counter-Reformation stayed the force of the reformers even more than the dissensions among Protestants. To remain at peace within the Church purified was all that many a devout Catholic asked. And soon the Church found a powerful helper in Ignatius Loyola, a Spaniard, who, in 1540, founded the Society of Jesus. The aim of this society was to defend the Church and spread its doctrines. Soon its well-disciplined, scholarly, and devoted members were to be found all over the world. And to them the Church owed much of its re-established authority.

After the Reformation the borders of the ancient Church were doubtless narrowed. Yet in a sense it was stronger than it had been for centuries. Once again its prelates showed to the world the beauty of holiness, and by godly living made for the Church a bulwark against further assaults from without or from within.

Yet religious freedom was by no means won. Europe was divided into two hostile camps. Neither side had as yet learned toleration of the other, and for long years the wars which shook the continent were wars of religion.