corner graphic   Hi,    
Facebook image
Finding the new version too difficult to understand? Go to

The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 12 — Protestantism in Germany From the Augsburg Confession to the Peace of Passau

Chapter 5 — The Schmalkald War, and Defeat of the Protestants

Resource Toolbox

 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19  20  21  22  23  24

 1  2  3  4  5  6


The Emperor's League with Pope Paul III. – Charles's Preparations for War – His Dissimulation – The Council of Trent – Its Policy – The Pope's Indiscretion – The Army of the Schmalkald League – Treachery of Prince Maurice – The Emperor's Ban – Vacillation of the Protestants – Energy of the Emperor – Maurice Seizes his Cousin's Electorate – Elector John Returns Home – Landgrave Philip Defeated – The Confederates Divide and Sue for Pardon – Charles Master.

FOR two years war had lowered over Germany, but while Luther lived the tempest was withheld from bursting. The Reformer was now in his grave, and the storm came on apace. The emperor pushed on his preparations more vigorously than ever. He arranged all his other affairs, that he might give the whole powers of his mind, and the undivided strength of his arms, to the suppression of Lutheranism. He ended his war with France. He patched up a truce with the Turk, his brother Ferdinand submitting to the humiliation of an annual payment of 50,000 crowns to Solyman. He recruited soldiers in Italy and in the Low Countries, and he made a treaty with the Pope, Paul III. There were points in which the policy of these two potentates conflicted; but both agreed that all other matters should give place to that one which each accounted the most important.

What the object was, which held the first place in the thoughts of both, was abundantly clear from the treaty now concluded between the Pope and the emperor, the main stipulation of which was as follows: – "The Pope and the emperor, for the glory of God, and the public good, but especially the welfare of Germany, have entered into league together upon certain articles and conditions; and, in the first place, that the emperor shall provide an army, and all things necessary for war, and be in readiness by the month of June next ensuing, and by force and arms compel those who refuse the Council, and maintain those errors, to embrace the ancient religion and submit to the Holy See." [1] The Pope, in addition to 100,000 ducats which he had already advanced, stipulated to deposit as much more in the Bank of Venice toward defraying the expense of the war; to maintain at his own charge, during the space of six months, 12,000 foot and 500 horse; to grant the emperor for this year one-half of the Church revenues all over Spain; to empower him to alienate as much of the abbey-lands in that country as would amount to 500,000 ducats; and that both spiritual censures and military force should be employed against any prince who might seek to hinder the execution of this treaty [2] "Thus did Charles V.," says the Abbe Millot, "after the example of Ferdinand the Catholic, make a mock of truth, and use the art of deceiving mankind as an instrument for effecting his purposes." [3]

Another step toward war, though it looked like conciliation, was the meeting of the long-promised and long-deferred Council. In December previous, there had assembled at the little town of Trent some forty prelates, who assumed to represent the Universal Church, and to issue decrees which should be binding on all the countries of Christendom, although Italy and Spain alone were as yet represented in the Council.

Hitherto, the good Fathers had eschewed everything like business, but now the emperor's preparations being nearly completed, the Council began "to march." Its first decrees showed plainly the part allotted to it in the approaching drama. "They were an open attack," says the Abbe Millot, "on the first principles of Protestantism." [4] The Council, in its third session, decreed that the traditions of the Fathers are of equal authority with the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament, and that no one is to presume to interpret Scripture in a sense different from that of the Church. [5] This was in reality to pre-judge all the questions at issue, and to render further discussion between the two parties but a waste of time. Obviously the first step toward the right settlement of the controversy was to agree on the rule according to which all matters in dispute were to be determined. The Protestants affirmed that the one infallible authority was the Word of God. They made their appeal to the tribunal of Holy Scripture; they could recognize no other judge. The sole supremacy of Scripture was in fact the corner-stone of their system, and if this great maxim were rejected their whole cause was ad-judged and condemned.

But the Council of Trent began by repudiating this maxim, which is comprehensive of all Protestantism. The tribunal, said the Council, to which you must submit yourselves and your cause is Tradition and the Scriptures, as interpreted by the Church. This was but another way of saying, "You must submit to the Church." This might well amaze the Protestants. The controversy lay between them and the Church, and now they were told that they must accept their opponent for their judge. Every one knew how the Church interpreted the questions at issue. The first decree of the Council, then, embraced all that were to follow; it secured that nothing should emanate from the Council save a series of thoroughly Popish decisions or dogmas, all of them enjoined like the first under pain of anathema.

It was clear that the Fathers had assembled at Trent to pass sentence on the faith of the German people as heresy, and then the emperor would step in with his great sword and give it its death-blow.

Meanwhile Charles pursued his policy of dissimulation. The more he labored to be ready for war, the louder did he protest that he meant only peace. He cherished the most ardent wishes for the happiness of Germany, so did he affirm; he had raised only some few insignificant

levies; he had formed no treaty that pointed to war; and he contrived to have an interview with Philip, Landgrave of Hesse, who, he knew, saw deepest into his heart and most suspected his designs, and by his consummate duplicity, and his earnest disavowals of all hostile intentions, he succeeded in removing from the mind of the landgrave all apprehensions that war was impending. On his return from this interview Philip communicated his favorable impressions of the situation to his confederates, and thus were the suspicions of the Protestants again lulled to sleep.

But soon they were rudely awakened. From every quarter came rumors of the armaments the emperor was raising. Seeing Charles was at war with neither Francis nor Solyman, nor any other Power, for what could he intend these preparations, except the extinction of Protestantism? The Lutheran princes had warnings from their friends in Italy and England that their ruin was intended. Finally there came a song of triumph from Rome: Paul III., full of zeal, and not doubting the issue of an undertaking that inexpressibly delighted him, told the world that the overthrow of Lutheranism was at hand. "Paul himself," says the Abbe Millot, "betrayed this dark transaction. Proud of a league formed against the enemies of the Holy See, he published the articles of it in a bull, exhorting the faithful to concur in it, in order to gain indulgences." [6] This was a somewhat embarrassing disclosure of the emperor's projects, and compelled him to throw off the mask a little sooner than he intended. But even when he avowed the intentions which he could no longer conceal, it was with an astuteness and duplicity which to a large extent disguised his real purpose.

"He had address enough," says Millot, "to persuade part of the Protestants that he was sincere." True, he said, it was Germany he had in his eye in his warlike preparations; but what he sought; was not to interfere with its religious opinions, but to punish certain parties who had broken its peace. The Schmalkald League was an empire within an empire, it could not consist with the imperial supremacy: besides certain recent proceedings of some of its members called for correction. This pointed unmistakably to John Frederick, Elector of Saxony, and Philip, Landgrave of Hesse.

The pretext was a transparent one, but it enabled the timid, the lukewarm, and the wavering to say, This war does not concern religion, it is a quarrel merely between the emperor and certain members of the League. How completely did the aspect the matter now assumed justify the wisdom of the man who had lately been laid in his grave in the Schlosskirk of Wittemberg! How often had Luther warned the Protestants against the error of shifting their cause from a moral to a political basis! The former, he ever assured them, would, when the day of trial came, be found to have double the strength they had reckoned upon in fact, to be invincible; whereas the latter, with an imposing show, would be found to have no strength at all.

Meanwhile the major part of the Protestants, being resolved to repel force by force, made vigorous preparation for war, "They solicited the Venetians," says the Abbe Millot, "the Swiss, Henry VIII., and Francis I. to support them against a despotism which, after having enslaved Germany, would extend itself over the rest of Europe. None of these negotiations succeeded, but they could dispense with foreign assistance. In a few months they levied an army of more than fourscore thousand armed men, furnished with every necessary in abundance. The Electors of Cologne and Brandenburg remained neutral, as did also the Elector Palatine." [7] The Margrave of Misnia, and the two princes of Brandenburg, though all Protestants, declared for the emperor. The Elector of Saxony, the Landgrave of Hesse, the Duke of Wurtemberg, the princes of Anhalt, the cities of Augsburg, Ulm, and Strasburg, alone set this formidable armament on foot. The League was divided from the very commencement of the campaign; but what completed the disorganization of the Protestant camp, and paved the way for the tragedy that followed, was the treachery of Prince Maurice of Saxony.

Maurice was the son of that William who succeeded Duke George, the noted enemy of Luther. William, a weak prince, was now dead, and his son Maurice was Duke of Albertine-Saxony. Neglected in youth, he had grown to manhood restless, shrewd, self-reliant, self-willed, with ambition as his ruling passion. He was a Protestant, but without deep religious convictions. In choosing his creed he was influenced quite as much by the advantage it might offer as by the truth it might contain. He was largely imbued with that skeptical spirit which is fatal to all strength of character, elevation of soul, and grandeur of aim. The old race of German princes and politicians, the men who believing in great principles were capable of a chivalrous devotion to great causes, was dying out, and a new generation, of which Prince Maurice was the pioneer, was taking their place. In the exercise of that worldly wisdom on which he plumed himself, Maurice weighed both sides, and then chose not the greater cause but the greater man, or he whom he took to be so, even the Emperor Charles. With him, he felt assured, would remain the victory, and as he wished to share its spoils, which would be considerable, with him he cast in his lot.

On the 20th of July the blow fell. On that day the emperor promulgated his ban of outlawry against the two Protestant chiefs, John Frederick, Elector of Saxony, and Philip, Landgrave of Hesse. [8] This step was the more bold as it ought to have been authorized by the Diet. The war, now that it had come, found the League neither united nor prepared. But notwithstanding some cowardly defections it was able to bring into the field 47,000 troops [9] The

first question was, who should have the command? Philip of Hesse was the better soldier, but John Frederick of Saxony was the greater prince. Could a landgrave command an elector? In the settlement of this nice point much time was wasted, which had better have been devoted to fighting. The campaign, from its commencement in the midsummer of 1546, to its close in the spring of 1547, was marked, on the part of the League, by vacillation and blundering. There was no foresight shown in laying its plans, no vigor in carrying them out. The passes of the Tyrol were strangely left undefended, and the Spanish and Italian soldiers, unopposed, deployed on the German plains. The troops which Charles had raised in the Low Countries in like manner were suffered to cross the Rhine without a blow being struck [10] Before the arrival of these levies, the emperor's army was not more than 10,000 strong. His camp at Ingolstadt might easily have been surprised and taken by the superior forces of the League, and the campaign ended at a blow. [11]

While the Protestant leaders were debating whether they ought to essay this, the imperial reinforcements arrived, and the opportunity was lost. Money began to fail the League, sickness broke out in their army, and, despairing of success, the soldiers and officers began to disperse to their several homes. Without fighting a battle the League abandoned Southern Germany, the first seat of the war, leaving Wurtemberg, and the Palatinate, and the cities of Ulm, Augsburg, and others, to make what terms they could with the emperor. [12]

Prince Maurice now undertook the execution of the imperial ban on the dominions of the elector. When John Frederick was informed of this, he set out from the camp of the League to defend his dukedom, now ravaged by the arms of his former ally. He was pursued by the army of the emperor, overtaken on the Elbe at Muhlberg (24th April, 1547), routed, taken captive, stripped of his electorate, and consigned to prison. The emperor parted the elector's dominions between Maurice and his brother Ferdinand . [13]

Landgrave Philip was still in the field. But reflecting that his forces were dispirited and shattered while the army of the emperor was unbroken and flushed with victory, he concluded that further resistance was hopeless. He therefore resolved to surrender. His son-in-law, Prince Maurice, used all his influence with the emperor to procure for him easy terms. Charles was inexorable; the landgrave's surrender must be unconditional. [14] All that Maurice could effect was a promise from the emperor that his father-in-law should not be imprisoned. If this promise was ever given it was not kept, for no sooner had Philip quitted the emperor's presence, after surrendering to him, than he was arrested and thrown into confinement. [15]

So ended the Schmalkald war. It left Charles more completely master of Germany than he had ever been before. There was now no outward obstruction to the restoration of the ancient worship. The Protestants appeared to be completely in the emperor's power. They had neither sword nor League wherewith to defend themselves. They were brought back again to their first but mightiest weapon – martyrdom. If, instead of stepping down into the arena of battle, they had offered themselves to the stake, not a tithe of the blood would have been shed that was spilt in the campaign, and instead of being lowered, the moral power of Protestantism thereby would have been immensely raised.

But we dare not challenge the right of the Protestant princes to combine, and repel force by force. It was natural, in reckoning up the chances of success, that they should count swords, especially when they saw how many swords were unsheathed on the other side. But no greater calamity could have befallen the Reformation than that Protestantism should have become, in that age, a great political power. Had it triumphed as a policy it would have perished as a religion. It must first establish itself on the earth as a great spiritual power. This could not be done by arms. And so, ever and anon, it was stripped of its political defenses that the spiritual principle might have room to grow, and that all might see that the conquests of the Reformation were not won for it by force, nor its dominion and rule given it by princes, but that by its own strength did it grow up and wax mighty.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, March 18th, 2018
the Fifth Sunday of Lent
There are 14 days til Easter!
Search Historical Writings
Enter query in the box below
To report dead links, typos, or html errors or suggestions about making these resources more useful use our convenient contact form
Powered by Lightspeed Technology