Religious Divisions

The Reformation sparked by Martin Luther

It was Charles’ fervent wish to have a united Christendom. He had a profound though conventional faith with a good knowledge of the scriptures. He could see the need for some reform of the clergy and the removal of abuses but he never appreciated the depth or the spiritual nature of the challenge to the Catholic Church which developed during his reign.

Martin Luther – the 95 theses

On 31st October 1517, shortly after Charles had first arrived in Spain, Martin Luther is said to have posted his 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, where Frederick III (the Wise) Elector of Saxony had amassed many thousands of holy relics. In fact he probably sent the "Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences," to Archbishop Albert of Mainz, though he may also have pinned it to the church door. This detail is of little significance when compared with the eventual consequences of his action. The problems of the Holy Roman Empire were about to become intertwined with religious divisions sparked by Luther’s protest and it was to fall to Charles to deal with the on-going upheaval thus caused. By the time Charles was elected and then crowned as Emperor this challenge had become an open wound that was threatening to poison the religious framework which for centuries had been fundamental to the structure of society. As Emperor, one of the ‘twin pillars’ of the Church together with the Pope, Charles believed that it was his duty to deal with this danger.

On a visit to Rome in 1510 Luther had been appalled by the luxury of the papal court and by the abuses he witnessed there. He was later troubled by the idea that indulgencies could be sold (with penance being a financial transaction rather than genuine contrition) as well as by the destination of the money raised in this way. The sale of indulgencies was not new. In 1300 Pope Boniface VIII had issued a ‘jubilee indulgence’ and in 1476 Pope Sixtus IV had extended the scope of indulgencies to include souls in Purgatory (i.e. for those who had already died). In 1506 Pope Julius II started the construction of the new basilica of St. Peter, in Rome, and new indulgencies were granted to contribute towards the enormous cost of the undertaking. Those being sold in Germany in the late 1510’s were promoted by Albert of Brandenburg. He had purchased the archbishopric of Magdeburg (1513) and then the archbishopric of Mainz (1514) and paid 30,000 ducats for his posts to be confirmed. Needing to recoup his costs he then purchased the right to sell indulgencies in Germany for another 10,000 ducats. Of the money raised 50% went to the rebuilding of St Peter’s in Rome, while the other 50% went to Albert, or more specifically his bankers. Johann Tetzel, the Dominican priest who travelled around Germany selling the indulgencies, was accompanied by an agent of the Fugger banking house of Augsburg, who had lent Albert 21,000 ducats. Add to this the fact that Frederick of Saxony and other rulers were concerned about the amount of currency that was leaving their territory (Frederick had banned the indulgence from his lands)1, and it is easy to see why the church authorities were concerned about Luther’s arguments. They were being challenged on theological, moral and financial grounds.

The impact of the 95 theses

Luther had intended his ‘95 theses’ to be a document for discussion, not a full blooded challenge to the Church, but the nature of his questions caused confrontation. In Thesis 86 he asked: "Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?" Luther at this stage stated that ‘I submit all things to the judgement of the Holy Church’. He soon found himself under attack and as he defended his position he began to put forward other beliefs that clashed with the Roman Church. In his view ‘good works’, such as penance, buying indulgencies, sacraments and Mass, pilgrimage and fasting, could not alone bring about ‘justification’ – God’s act of freeing an individual from the consequences of sin and making the sinner righteous. For Luther the most precious of all good works was faith in God. The idea that salvation depended on faith, and therefore that the individual’s relationship with God was central, undermined the position of the Pope and the Church, who emphasised the importance of the priest as an intermediary between God and the individual.

The reaction of the Catholic authorities

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The authorities in Rome reacted slowly, perhaps because the perils of heresy were subordinated to papal/Italian political interests. This, it has been claimed, proved the very point that Luther was making about the nature of the Papacy. In October 1518 he was summoned to Augsburg to have a ‘disputation’ with the Pope’s representative, Cardinal Cajetan. Luther had four ‘interviews’ with Cajetan at the cardinal’s lodgings in the Fuggerpalast, the Fugger family residence on Maximilianstrasse (Link to Augsburg in ‘In Charles’ Footsteps’). The cardinal demanded that he repent, revoke his errors, agree not to teach them again and make no future challenges – in other words capitulate completely. Luther, unable to do this, was wisely encouraged by his supporters to leave secretly at night for his own safety.

Pope Leo X (Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici) eventually issued a rebuttal of Luther’s beliefs in a papal bull of June 1520. Forty-one lines from Luther’s writings were condemned; he was ordered to recant or face excommunication. His writings were to be burnt. This did little to stem the growth of interest in his ideas. With the advent of printing ideas could spread quickly. By 1521 it is estimated that half a million copies of his various books and pamphlets were in circulation. Political divisions meant that Luther was not opposed by all German rulers, especially as he was a social conservative. When a symbolic book burning was carried out in Mainz, students substituted other religious texts for Luther’s works and the papal nuncio, Hieronymous Aleander, unwittingly threw these into the flames to the amusement of many.2 Luther continued to criticise abuses of power and call for reforms, refusing to be silenced. ‘I prefer the wrath of the world to the Wrath of God; they can do no more than take my life’, he wrote, adding that ‘a prince is a rare bird in heaven’. When in January 1521 he was finally excommunicated Luther’s followers reacted by publicly burning the order. Once the Church had decided upon excommunication the responsibility for his arrest and punishment fell to the secular authorities, ultimately the Emperor.

The Diet of Worms (1521) and after

The Imperial Diet insisted that Luther be given a hearing and the chance to repent before a final condemnation. Charles promised him safe conduct both to and from the Diet in the city of Worms. What followed became one of the famous meetings in European history. Luther arrived in Worms on 16th April 1521. Great excitement and expectation was reported in much of the town. His appearance before the assembled Diet with Charles at its head on the 17th was a disappointment to many: those who supported him had expected a forceful defence of his views; Charles had expected him to back down. Instead he asked for time to think, and was permitted to withdraw until the next day. It seemed that the grand setting or the seriousness of his position had overwhelmed him. It was on the 18th that he made his stand. Despite the fact that the questions put to him were intended to prevent him from providing a full explanation of his beliefs, he ignored them and put his case with knowledge, skill and vigour, concluding with the words: ‘I am neither able nor willing to recant, since it is neither safe nor right to act against conscience. God help me. Amen’. In later propaganda, probably produced by Luther’s supporter Philip Melanchthon, this was reported as being the memorable and resounding: ‘Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me. Amen’.

Charles, perhaps angered by the temerity of the priest and the fact that he had not been able to force Luther to back down, made an equally compelling statement. Written in his own hand, this was an important demonstration of Charles’ coming of age as a ruler, showing his ability to express his opinions clearly, guided by political, religious and dynastic beliefs which were to change little over the next thirty-five years. He stated that his ancestors as ‘the Most Christian Emperors of the great German people, of the Catholic Kings of Spain, of the Archdukes of Austria and the Dukes of Burgundy’ were ‘all to the death true sons of the Roman Church’ and ‘the defenders at all times of the Catholic faith’. He ‘resolved to maintain everything which these my forebears have established’. He asked how ‘the whole of Christendom’ could have ‘been in error for a thousand years?’ It was therefore ‘certain that a single monk must err if his opinion is contrary to that of all Christendom’. ‘To settle this matter I have resolved to stake upon this course my dominions and my possessions, my body and my soul’. He then stated that to allow this heresy ‘would be a disgrace to me and to you, the noble and illustrious German nation, since through privilege and special election we have been appointed defenders and protectors of the Catholic faith’. He regretted not having acted sooner and ordered that Luther ‘be escorted home with due regard for the stipulation of his safe conduct,’ and to stop preaching his ‘evil doctrine and not incite (people) to rebellion’.

Luther was to live another twenty-five years and continued to put forward his ideas under the protection of the Dukes of Saxony. Many areas of Germany adopted his beliefs and elsewhere in Europe others put forward their own religious ideas and established new churches. Charles was unable to quell this upsurge in what he regarded as heresy. His on-going problems with France and the Ottoman Empire, together with his need to be in Spain during the 1520’s, meant that he could not give these religious problems the time and attention they needed. In his memoirs Charles blamed the French as early as 1521 for his failure to deal with Luther and his supporters when he wrote that because of Francis’ unreasonable behaviour ‘the Emperor was obliged to close the Diet of Worms. By so acting, he did what he could rather than what he wished and had resolved to do’. The political disunity of the Holy Roman Empire and what he considered the lack of support from the Papacy also seriously hampered his efforts when he initiated attempts at religious reconciliation. Every delay which allowed Lutheran churches to continue meant that they became more established and the schism more deep rooted.

Charles efforts to achieve a reconciliation

The religious question became a regular issue at Imperial Diets. Charles made two major efforts to bring about unity of the church by agreement - at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530 and the Diet of Regensburg in 1541. He regularly asked the pope to convene a general church council, but it suited the papacy to regard Protestantism as a ‘German’ problem rather than a church problem, and Francis I was unlikely to support anything that would ease Charles’ difficulties.

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In 1530 he declared his wish that all should ‘come to live again in one Church and one State’. He attended the Imperial Diet at Augsburg where both Catholic and Protestant1 theologians were encouraged to explain their beliefs with the idea of bringing about agreement. Charles was initially discouraged by the intransigence of the Catholic negotiators and then horrified by the beliefs of the Protestants. He argued the case for a meeting of a general church council but this could only be called by the pope and Pope Clement VII regarded this as a challenge to his own position. Charles had hoped that his authority would make an agreement possible, but it was not to be. The final statement from the Diet in November 1530 reflected the Catholic position, stating that Protestants had ‘lost all true reverence, all Christian honour…and charity to their neighbours’. They were ordered to return confiscated property and recant. However, no means existed by which these demands could be enforced. In response (and partly because of the election of Charles’ brother, Ferdinand, as ‘King of the Romans’ in January 1531), the Protestant rulers formed the Schmalkaldic League, an alliance for their own defence.

By 1540 the problems confronted in Augsburg had deepened. The ‘Religious Peace’ of 1532 had only been achieved because Charles needed agreement to deal with the Ottoman advance on Vienna. This permitted Protestant territories to continue with their new forms of worship. The Frankfurt ‘interim’ of 1539 again allowed this, at least until the holding of the long awaited general church council. Each time that the council looked possible, papal opposition and French influence derailed the plan. Charles’ troubles in Germany could after all only benefit Francis I who, while introducing harsh measures against Protestants in France, was more than willing to negotiate and ally with those opposed to the Emperor in Germany. But as Charles travelled to the Diet summoned to meet in Regensburg in early 1541 he had a renewed determination to tackle the dispute that had persisted for over twenty years. He was not at war with France, though relations were strained, and he hoped that the marriage of his natural daughter Margaret to Ottavio Farnese, the grandson of Pope Paul III, would result in a more compliant papacy.

Charles hoped that rational discussion and the authority of Pope and Emperor would be sufficient to settle the religious controversy. In order to continue preliminary discussions that had been held during 1540 and early 1541, a colloquy was arranged so that a free meeting of minds in debate on a series of 23 issues (outlined in the Regensburg Book by Johannes Gropper) would produce a set of principles that all could agree to. This would then be presented to the Diet. Charles selected representatives (the collocutors) from Catholic and Protestant theologians, carefully balancing the more extreme – Eck (Catholic) and Melanchthon (Protestant) – with the more moderate – Gropper and Pflug (Catholic), Bucer and Pistorius (Protestant). The balance favoured conciliation if at all possible. Charles and his Chancellor, Granvelle, worked hard to win over moderate opinion.

Using a house on Haidplatz, the largest square in Regensburg, the collocutors approached the talks in a generally cooperative manner when they opened on 27th April. Agreement was reached on Articles I to IV and then also on Article V, on justification, expected to be a major sticking point. However, further discussions, on issues such as transubstantiation and the authority of the Church with regard to interpretation of the scriptures, revealed the depth of the divide. Cardinal Contarini, the Pope’s representative, met daily with the Catholic collocutors and while keen for unity, had to protect the basis of the papal power. On the other side, if such power was accepted then they would cease to be Protestants! At times Charles intervened, on occasions showing considerable irritation with both Catholic and Protestant zealots. The final debates took place on 22nd May. Much had been achieved, but it was not enough. Both groups now increasingly turned to a defence of their own position and apportioned the blame for the failure to others.

A disappointed Charles had to put before the Diet the amended Regensburg Book together with nine Protestant counter articles. When the Catholic princes could not accept even the ‘agreed’ articles, and John Frederick, Elector of Saxony, and Luther rejected the agreement over justification, any headway that had been achieved was lost. Charles’ great desire for unification had led him to again overestimate the likelihood of success. The final statement by the Emperor on 29th July had to recognise that fact. It seemed to Charles that he alone wanted reconciliation; it had been rejected by the collocutors, the Pope, Luther, and both Catholic and Protestant estates at the Diet. Charles later recorded in his memoirs that ‘after many controversies, very few things had been decided upon and still fewer had been executed’.

Charles continued to advocate a general church council to deal with ‘the evils that had arisen in Germany’ and ‘the abuses of the Church’. When eventually Pope Paul agreed to convene the council in November 1545 its chances of success were slim. The papacy insisted on dealing with doctrinal issues before considering reforms; those Protestants that attended soon departed; and the council reasserted traditional Catholic beliefs. Meanwhile Martin Luther died in February 1546 and was buried in the church of Wittenberg castle. But the Reformation that he had sparked did not die with him.

The use of force. Charles realised that unless he took action soon the situation would become irretrievable. He feared the spread of heretical ideas throughout Germany and then to the Low Countries, believing that ‘If we do not take a strong line the risk to the faith is enormous’.3Charles was beginning to consider the use of force. He had a very difficult hand to play. He wished to extend the hope of a compromise to the Protestants, but he could not be seen to weaken so much as to lose the backing of Catholic princes. Nor did he wish to show his hand too early. As he travelled through the Rhineland in early 1546 he had almost certainly decided that there would be war but still assured a delegation of electors and princes that his dearest wish was for peace and that he would only resort to arms if forced to do so. His true intentions were revealed in a letter to his son - he hoped to mislead the princes – and later in his ‘Memoirs’, referring to the ‘great arrogance and obstinacy’ of the Protestants4. In March he met a leading protestant Philip of Hesse at Speyer and although on the surface the meeting was cordial, Charles was deeply offended by Philip’s blunt, rigid, approach and by his advice to Charles that he should study the scriptures.5

Charles wished to impose his will in regard to both his authority as Emperor and on the religious issues. On 20th July 1546 Elector John Frederick of Saxony and Philip of Hesse were denounced as rebels and traitors. Both sided had recruited sizeable armies. The hostilities that broke out in Bavaria that summer eventually came to a head with the defeat and capture of John Frederick of Saxony at Muhlberg on the river Elbe in Saxony on 24th April 1547.

Although most of Protestant cities of northern Germany submitted to Charles, he was soon to learn yet again that military victory did not necessarily mean success in achieving his aims. Charles’ imprisonment of John Frederick and Philip of Hesse raised fears of an over-mighty emperor and angered many in Germany, even his erstwhile allies. Defeat had not shaken Protestant beliefs. Compromises that were drawn up and agreed by ‘moderate’ Protestants were rejected by others, and in any case it was clear that the papacy remained opposed to any reforms.

In September 1555 after years of discussion Charles’ brother Ferdinand had to accept the ‘Religious Peace of Augsburg’, signed in Charles’ name but never accepted by him – he was by then in the process of abdicating power throughout his lands. The peace allowed German princes to choose between Catholicism or Lutheranism within the lands that they ruled – ‘cuius regio, eius religio’ (whose the region, his the religion) – with subjects been given a brief time to move to a different region to suit their beliefs. Other protestant churches (Calvinist, Anabaptist) were not included and the power of the princes, as opposed to the Emperor, was greatly enhanced. Charles had failed in his mission to restore unity throughout Christendom.


1Rupp, G. Luther’s Progress to the Diet of Worms, 1521. SCM Press, London 1951. pp.51-52
2RadyM. The Emperor Charles V. Longman, London and New York, 1988 pp23
3Charles to Mary 9th June 1546
4Charles’ Memoirs p.78
5Brandi, K. The Emperor Charles V: The Growth and Destiny of a Man and of a world Empire. Transl. C.V.Wedgewood, 1939. Humanities Press, N.J. 1980. p.543