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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 4 — Christendom at the Opening of the Sixteenth Century

Chapter 2 — The Empire

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Fall of Ancient Empire – Revived by the Pope – Charlemagne – The Golden Bull – The Seven Electors – Rules and Forms of Election – Ceremony of Coronation – Insignia – Coronation Feast – Emperor's Power Limited – Charles V. – Capitulation – Spain – Becomes One Monarchy on the Approach of the Reformation – Its Power Increased by the Discoveries of Columbus – Brilliant Assemblage of States under Charles V. – Liberty in Danger – Protestantism comes to Save it

THE one great Empire of ancient Rome was, in the days of Valentinian (A.D. 364), divided into two, the Eastern and the Western. The Turk eventually made himself heir to the Eastern Empire, taking forcible possession of it by his great guns, and savage but warlike hordes. The Western Empire has dragged out a shadowy existence to our own day. There was, it is true, a parenthesis in its life; it succumbed to the Gothic invasion, and for awhile remained in abeyance; but the Pope raised up the fallen fabric. The genius and martial spirit of the Caesars, which had created this Empire at the first, the Pope could not revive, but the name and forms of the defunct government he could and did resuscitate. He grouped the kingdoms of Western Europe into a body or federation, and selecting one of their kings he set him over the confederated States, with the title of Emperor. This Empire was a fictitious or nominal one; it was the image or likeness of the past reflecting itself on the face of modern Europe.

The Empire dazzled the age which witnessed its sudden erection. The constructive genius and the marvelous legislative and administrative powers of Charlemagne, its first head, succeeded in giving it a show of power; but it was impossible by a mere fiat to plant those elements of cohesion, and those sentiments of homage to law and order, which alone could guarantee its efficiency and permanency. It supposed an advance of society, and a knowledge on the part of mankind of their rights and duties, which was far from being the fact. "The Empire of the Germans," says the historian Muller, "was constituted in a most extraordinary manner: it was a federal republic; but its members were so diverse with regard to form, character, and power, that it was extremely difficult to introduce universal laws, or to unite the whole nation in measures of mutual interest." [1] "The Golden Bull," says Villers, "that strange monument of the fourteenth century, fixed, it is true, a few relations of the head with the members; but nothing could be more indistinct than the public law of all those States, independent though at the same time united... Had not the Turks, at that time the violent enemies of all Christendom, come during the first years of the reign of Frederick to plant the crescent in Europe, and menaced incessantly the Empire with invasion, it is not easy to see how the feeble tie which bound that body together could have remained unbroken. The terror inspired by Mahomet II. and his ferocious soldiers, was the first common interest which led the princes of Germany to unite themselves to one another, and around the imperial throne." [2]

The author last quoted makes mention of the Golden Bull. Let us bestow a glance on this ancient and curious document; it will bring before us the image of the time. Its author was Charles IV., Emperor and King of Bohemia. Pope Gregory, about the year 997, it is believed, instituted seven electors. Of these, three were Churchmen and three lay princes, and one of kingly rank was added, to make up the mystic number of seven, as some have thought, but more probably to prevent equality of votes. The three Churchmen were the Archbishop of Treves, Chancellor for France; the Archbishop of Mainz, Chancellor for Germany; the Archbishop of Cologne, Chancellor for Italy. The four laymen were the King of Bohemia, the Duke of Saxony, the Count Palatine of the Rhine, and the Marquis of Brandenburg.

The Archbishop of Mainz, by letters patent, was to fix the day of election, which was to take place not later than three months from the death of the former emperor. Should the archbishop fail to summon the electors, they were to meet notwithstanding within the appointed time, and elect one to the imperial dignity. The electors were to afford to each other free passage and a safe-conduct through their territories when on their way to the discharge of their electoral duties. If an elector could not come in person he might send a deputy. The election was to take place in Frankfort-on-the-Maine. No elector was to be permitted to enter the city attended by more than two hundred horsemen, whereof fifty only were to be armed. The citizens of Frankfort were made responsible for the safety of the electors, under the penalty of loss of goods and privileges. The morning after their arrival, the electors, attired in their official habits, proceeded on horseback from the council-hall to the cathedral church of St. Bartholomew, where mass was sung. Then the Archbishop of Mainz administered an oath at the altar to each elector, that he would, without bribe or reward, choose a temporal head for Christendom. Thereafter they met in secret conclave. Their decision must be come to within thirty days, but if deferred beyond that period, they were to be fed on bread and water, and prevented leaving the city till they had completed the election. A majority of votes constituted a valid election, and the decision was to be announced from a stage erected for the purpose in front of the choir of the cathedral.

The person chosen to the imperial dignity took an oath to maintain the profession of the Catholic faith, to protect the Church in all her rights, to be obedient to the Pope, to administer justice, and to conserve all the customs and privileges of

the electors and States of the Empire. The imperial insignia were then given him, consisting of a golden crown, a scepter, a globe called the imperial apple, the sword of Charlemagne, a copy of the Gospels said to have been found in his grave, and a rich mantle which was presented to one of the emperors by an Arabian prince. [3] The ceremonies enjoined by the Golden Bull to be observed at the coronation feast are curious; the following minute and graphic account of them is given by an old traveler: – "In solemn court the emperor shall sit on his throne, and the Duke of Saxony, laying a heap of oats as high as his horse's saddle before the court-gate, shall, with a silver measure of twelve marks' price, deliver oats to the chief equerry of the stable, and then, sticking his staff in the oats, shall depart, and the vice-marshal shall distribute the rest of the oats. The three archbishops shall say grace at the emperor's table, and he of them who is chancellor of the place shall lay reverently the seals before the emperor, which the emperor shall restore to him; and the staff of the chancellor shall be worth twelve marks silver. The Marquis of Brandenburg, sitting upon his horse, with a silver basin of twelve marks' weight, and a towel, shall alight from his horse and give water to the emperor. The Count Palatine, sitting upon his horse, with four dishes of silver with meat, each dish worth three marks, shall alight and set the dishes on the table. The King of Bohemia, sitting upon his horse, with a silver cup worth twelve marks, filled with water and wine, shall alight and give it the emperor to drink. The gentleman of Falkenstein, under-chamberlain, the gentleman of Nortemberg, master of the kitchen, and the gentleman of Limburch, vice-buffer, or in their absence the ordinary officers of the court, shall have the said horses, basin, dishes, cup, staff, and measure, and shall after wait at the emperor's table. The emperor's table shall be six feet higher than any other table, where he shall sit alone, and the table of the empress shall be by his side three feet lower. The electors' tables shall be three feet lower than that of the empress, and all of equal height, and three of them shall be on the emperor's right hand, three on his left hand, and one before his face, and each shall sit alone at his table. When one elector has done his office he shall go and stand at his own table, and so in order the rest, till all have performed their offices, and then all seven shall sit down at one time."

"The emperor shall be chosen at Frankfort, crowned at Augsburg, and shall hold his first court at Nuremberg, except there be some lawful impediment. The electors are presumed to be Germans, and their sons at the age of seven years shall be taught the grammar, and the Italian and Slavonian tongues, so as at fourteen years of age they may be skillful therein and be worthy assessors to the emperor." [4]

The electors are, by birth, the privy councilors of the emperor; they ought, in the phraseology of Charles IV., "to enlighten the Holy Empire, as seven shining lights, in the unity of the sevenfold spirit;" and, according to the same monarch, are "the most honorable members of the imperial body." [5] The rights which the emperor could exercise on his own authority, those he could exert with the consent of the electors, and those which belonged to him only with the concurrence of all the princes and States of the Empire have been variously described. Generally, it may be said that the emperor could not enact new laws, nor impose taxes, nor levy bodies of men, nor make wars, nor erect fortifications, nor form treaties of peace and alliances, except with the concurrent voice of the electors, princes, and States. He had no special revenue to support the imperial dignity, and no power to enforce the imperial commands. The princes were careful not to make the emperor too powerful, lest he should abridge the independent sovereignty which each exercised within his own dominions, and the free cities were equally jealous lest the imperial power should encroach upon their charters and privileges. The authority of the emperor was almost entirely nominal. We speak of the times preceding the peace of Westphalia; by that settlement the constitution of the Empire was more accurately defined.

Its first days were its most vigorous. It began to decline when no longer upheld by the power and guided by the genius of Charlemagne. The once brilliant line of Pepin had now ceased to produce warriors and legislators. By a sudden break-down it had degenerated into a race of simpletons and imbeciles. By-and-by the Empire passed from the Frank kings to the Saxon monarchs. Under the latter it recovered a little strength; but soon Gregory VII. came with his grand project of making the tiara supreme not only over all crowns, but above the imperial diadem itself. Gregory succeeded in the end of the day, for the issue of the long and bloody war which he commenced was that the Empire had to bow to the miter, and the emperor to take an oath of vassalage to the Pontiff. The Empire had only two elements of cohesion – Roman Catholicism within, and the terror of the Turk without. Its constituent princes were rivals rather than members of one confederacy. Animosities and dissensions were continually springing up amongst them. They invaded each other's territories, regardless of the displeasure of the emperor. By these wars trade was impeded, knowledge repressed, and outrage and rapine flourished to a degree that threatened society itself with destruction. The authors of these calamities at last felt the necessity of devising some other way of adjusting their quarrels than by the sword. The

Imperial Council, the Aulic Diet, the Diet of the Empire, were the successive methods had recourse to for obviating these frequent and cruel resorts to force, which were giving to the provinces of the Empire the appearance of a devastated and uninhabited region. In A.D. 1519, by the death of Maximilian, the imperial crown became vacant. Two illustrious and powerful princes came forward to contest the brilliant prize – Francis I. of France, and Charles of Austria, the grandson of Maximilian, and King of Spain. Henry VIII. of England, the third great monarch of the age, also entered the lists, but finding at an early stage of the contest that his chance of success was small, he withdrew. Francis I. was a gallant prince, a chivalrous soldier, a friend of the new learning, and so frank and affable in his manners that he won the affection of all who approached him. But the Germans were averse to accept as the head of their Empire the king of a nation whose genius, language, and manners were so widely different from their own. Their choice fell on Charles, who, though he lacked the brilliant personal qualities of his rival, drew his lineage from their own race, had his cradle in one of their own towns, Ghent, and was the heir of twenty-eight kingdoms.

There was danger as well as safety in the vast power of the man whom the Germans had elected to wear a crown which had in it so much grandeur and so little solid authority. The conqueror of the East, Selim II., was perpetually hovering upon their frontier. They needed a strong arm to repel the invader, and thought they had found it in that of the master of so many kingdoms; but the hand that shielded them from Moslem tyranny might, who could tell, crush their own liberties. It behooved them to take precautions against this possible catastrophe. They framed a Capitulation or claim of rights, enumerating and guaranteeing the privileges and immunities of the Germanic Body; and the ambassadors of Charles signed it in the name of their master, and he himself confirmed it by oath at his coronation. In this instrument the princes of Germany unconsciously provided for the defense of higher rights than their own royalties and immunities. They had erected an asylum to which Protestantism might retreat, when the day should come that the emperor would raise his mailed hand to crush it.

Charles V. was more powerful than any emperor had been for many an age preceding. To the imperial dignity, a shadow in the case of many of his predecessors, was added in his the substantial power of Spain. A singular concurrence of events had made Spain a mightier kingdom by far than any that had existed in Europe since the days of the Caesars. Of this magnificent monarchy the whole resources were in the hands of the man who was at once the wearer of the imperial dignity and the enemy of the Reformation. This makes it imperative that we should bestow a glance on the extent and greatness of the Spanish kingdom, when estimating the overwhelming force now arrayed against Protestantism.

As the Reformation drew nigh, Spain suddenly changed its form, and from being a congeries of diminutive kingdoms, it became one powerful empire. The various principalities, which up till this time dotted the surface of the Peninsula, were now merged into the two kingdoms of Arragon and Castile. There remained but one other step to make Spain one monarchy, and that step was taken in A.D. 1469, by the marriage of Ferdinand of Arragon and Isabella of Castile. In a few years thereafter these two royal personages ascended the thrones of Arragon and Castile, and thus all the crowns of Spain were united on their head. One monarch now swayed his scepter over the Iberian Peninsula, from San Sebastian to the Rock of Gibraltar, from the Pyrenees to the straits that wash the feet of the mountains of Mauritania. The whole resources of the country now found their way into one exchequer; all its tribes were gathered round one standard; and its whole power was wielded by one hand.

Spain, already great, was about to become still greater. Columbus was just fitting out the little craft in which he was to explore the Atlantic, and add, by his skill and adventurous courage, to the crown of Spain the most brilliant appendage which subject ever gave to monarch. Since the days of old Rome there had arisen no such stupendous political structure as that which was about to show itself to the world in the Spanish Monarchy. Spain itself was but a unit in the assemblage of kingdoms that made up this vast empire. The European dependencies of Spain were numerous. The fertile plains and vine-clad hills of Sicily and Naples were hers. The vast garden of Lombardy, which the Po waters and the Alps enclose, with its queenly cities, its plantations of olive and mulberry, its corn and oil and silk, were hers. The Low Countries were hers, with their canals, their fertile meadows stocked with herds, their cathedrals and museums, and their stately towns, the seats of learning and the hives of industry. As if Europe were too narrow to contain so colossal a power, Spain stretched her scepter across the great western sea, and ample provinces in the New World called her mistress. Mexico and Peru were hers, and the products of their virgin soils and the wealth of their golden mines were borne across the deep to replenish her bazaars and silver shops. It was not the Occident only that poured its treasures at her feet; Spain laid her hand on the Orient, and the fragrant spices and precious gems of India ministered to her pleasure. The sun never set on the dominions of Spain. The numerous countries that owned her sway sent each whatever was most precious and most prized among its products, to stock

her markets and enrich her exchequer. To Spain flowed the gums of Arabia, the drugs of Molucca, the diamonds of Borneo, the wheat of Lombardy, the wine of Naples, the rich fabrics worked on the looms of Bruges and Ghent, the arms and cutlery forged in the factories and wrought up in the workshops of Liege and Namur.

This great empire was served by numerous armies and powerful fleets. Her soldiers, drawn from every nation, and excellently disciplined, were brave, hardy, familiar with danger, and inured to every climate from the tropics to the arctic regions. They were led by commanders of consummate ability, and the flag under which they marched had conquered on a hundred battle-fields. When the master of all these provinces, armies and fleets, added the imperial diadem, as Charles V. did, to all his other dignities, his glory was perfected. We may adapt to the Spanish monarch the bold image under which the prophet presented the greatness of the Assyrian power. "The" Spaniard "was a cedar in" Europe "with fair branches, and with a shadowing shroud, and of an high stature; and his top was among the thick boughs. The waters made him great, the deep set him up on high with her rivers running round about his plants, and sent out her little rivers unto all the trees of the field. Therefore his height was exalted above all the trees of the field, and his boughs were multiplied, and his branches became long because of the multitude of waters, when he shot forth." (Ezekiel 31:3-5) [6]

The monarch of Spain, though master of so much, was laying schemes for extending the limits of his already overgrown dominions, and making himself absolute and universal lord. Since the noon of the Roman power, the liberties of the world had at no time been in so great peril as now. The shadow of a universal despotism was persistently projecting itself farther and yet farther upon the kingdoms and peoples of Western Europe. There was no principle known to the men of that age that seemed capable of doing battle with this colossus, and staying its advance. This despotism, into whose hands as it seemed the nations of Christendom had been delivered, claimed a Divine right, and, as such, was upheld by the spiritual forces of priestcraft, and the material aids of fleets and legions. Liberty was retreating before it. Literature and art had become its allies, and were weaving chains for the men whom they had promised to emancipate. As Liberty looked around, she could see no arm on which to lean, no champion to do battle for her. Unless Protestantism had arrived at that crisis, a universal despotism would have covered Europe, and Liberty banished from the earth must have returned to her native skies. "Dr. Martin Luther, a monk from the county of Mansfeld... by his heroism alone, imparted to the half of Europe a new soul; created an opposition which became the safeguard of freedom." [7]

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, October 22nd, 2020
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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