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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 9 — History of Protestantism From the Diet of Worms, 1521, to the Augsburg Confession, 1530

Chapter 10 — Dietat Spires, 1526, and League against the emperor

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A Storm–Rolls away from Wittenberg–Clement Hopes to Restore the Mediaeval Papal Glories–Forms a League against the Emperor– Changes of the Wind–Charles turns to Wittenberg–Diet at Spires– Spirit of the Lutheran Princes–Duke John–Landgrave Philip–"The Word of the Lord endureth for ever"–Protestant Sermons–City Churches Deserted–The Diet takes the Road to Wittenberg–The Free Towns–The Reforms Demanded–Popish Party Discouraged–The Emperor's Letter from Seville–Consternation.

THE storm had been coming onward for some time. The emperor and the Pope, at the head of the confederate kings and subservient princes of the Empire, were advancing against the Reformation, to strike once and for all. Events fell out in the Divine appointment that seemed to pave the way of the assailing host, and make their victory sure. Frederick, who till now had stood between Luther and the mailed hand of Charles, was at that moment borne to the tomb. It seemed as if the crusades of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were about to be repeated, and that the Protestantism of the sixteenth century was to be extinguished in a tempest of horrors, similar to that which had swept away the Albigensian confessors. However, despite the terrible portents now visible in every quarter of the sky, the confidence of Luther that all would yet go well was not to be disappointed. Just as the tempest seemed about to burst over Wittenberg, to the amazement of all men, it rolled away, and discharged itself with terrific violence on Rome. Let us see how this came about.

Of the potentates with whom Charles had contracted alliance, or with whom he was on terms of friendship, the one he could most thoroughly depend on, one would have thought, was the Pope. In the affair the emperor had now in hand, the interest and policy of Charles and of Clement were undoubtedly identical. On what could the Pope rely for deliverance from that host of heretics that Germany was sending forth, but on the sword of Charles V.? Yet at this moment the Pope suddenly turned against the emperor, and, as if smitten with infatuation, wrecked the expedition that Charles meditated for the triumph of Rome and the humiliation of Wittenberg just as the emperor was on the point of beginning it. This was passing strange, What motive led the Pope to adopt a policy so suicidal? That which misled Clement was his dream of restoring the lost glories of the Popedom, and making it what it had been under Gregory VII. We have already pointed out the change effected in the European system by the wars of the fifteenth century, and how much that change contributed to pave the way for the advent of Protestantism. The Papacy was lowered and monarchy was lifted up; but the Popes long cherished the hope that the change was only temporary, that Christendom would return to its former state–the true one they deemed it–and that all the crowns of Europe would be once more under the tiara. Therefore, though Clement was pleased to see the advancement of Charles V. so far as it enabled him to serve the Roman See, he had no wish to see him at the summit. The Pope was especially jealous of the Spanish power in Italy.

Charles already possessed Naples; the victory of Pavia had given him a firm footing in Lombardy. Thus, both in the north and in the south of the Italian peninsula, the Spanish power hemmed in the Pontiff. Clement aspired to erect Italy into an independent kingdom, and from Rome, its old capital, govern it as its temporal monarch, while he swayed his scepter over all Christendom as its spiritual chief. The hour was favorable, he thought, for the realization of this fine project. There was a party of literary men in Florence and Rome who were full of the idea of restoring Italy to her old place among the kingdoms. This idea was the result of the literary and artistic progress of the Italians during the half-century which had just elapsed; [1] and the result enables us to compare the relative forces of the Renaissance and the Reformation. The first engendered in the bosoms of the Italians a burning detestation of the yoke of their foreign masters, but left them entirely without power to free themselves. The last brought both the love of liberty and the power of achieving it.

Knowing this feeling on the part of his countrymen, Pope Clement, thinking the hour was come for restoring to the Papacy its mediaeval glories, opened negotiations with Louisa of Savoy, who administered the government of France during the captivity of her son, and afterwards with Francis I. himself when he had recovered his liberty. He corresponded with the King of England, who favored the project; with Venice, with Milan, with the Republic of Florence. And all these parties, moved by fear of the overgrown power of the emperor, were willing to enter into a league with the Pope against Charles V. This, known as the "Holy League," was subscribed at Cognac, and the King of England was put at the head of it. [2]

Thus suddenly did the change come. Blind to everything beyond his immediate object–to the risks of war, to the power of his opponent, and to the diversion he was creating in favor of Wittenberg–the Pope, without loss of time, sent his army into the Duchy of Milan, to begin operations against the Spaniards. [3]

While hostilities are pending in the north of Italy, let us turn our eyes to Germany. The Diet, which, as we have already said, had been summoned by Charles to meet at Augsburg, was at this moment assembled at Spires It had met at Augsburg, agreeably to the imperial command, in November, 1525, but it was so thinly attended that it adjourned to midsummer next year, to be held at Spires, where we now find it. It had been convoked in order to lay the train for

the execution of the Edict of Worms, and the suppression of Protestantism. But between the issuing of the summons and meeting of the assembly the politics of Europe had entirely changed. When the emperor's edict passed out of the gates of the Alcazar of Toledo the wind was setting full toward the Vatican, the Pope was the emperor's staunchest ally, and was preparing to place the imperial crown on his head; but since then the wind had suddenly veered round toward the opposite quarter, and Charles must turn with it–he must play off Luther against Clement. This complete reversal of the political situation was as yet unknown in Germany, or but vaguely surmised.

The Diet assembled at Spires on the. 25th of June, 1526, and all the electoral princes were present, except the Prince of Brandenburg. [4] The Reformed princes were in strong muster, and in high spirits. The fulminations from Spain had not terrified them. Their courage might be read in the gallantry of their bearing as they rode along to Spires, at the head of their armed retainers, with the five significant letters blazoned on their banners, and shown also on their escutcheons hung out on the front of their hotels, and even embroidered on the liveries of their servants,V. D. M. I. AE., that is, Verbum Domini manet in AEternum (" The word of the Lord endureth for ever"). [5]

Theirs was not the crestfallen air of men who were going to show cause why they dared be Lutherans when it was the will of the emperor that they should be Romanists. Charles had thundered against them in his ban; they had given their reply in the motto which they had written upon their standards, "The Word of God." Under this sign would they conquer. Their great opponent was advancing against them at the head of kingdoms and armies; but the princes lifted their eyes to the motto on their ensigns, and took courage: "Some trust in chariots, and some in horses; but we will remember the name of the Lord our God." [6]

Whoever in the sixteenth century would assert rank and challenge influence, must display a corresponding magnificence. John, Duke of Saxony, entered Spires with a retinue of 700 horsemen. The splendor of his style of living far exceeded that of the other electors, ecclesiastical and lay, and gained for him the place of first prince of the Empire. The next after Duke John to figure at the Diet was Phllip, Landgrave of Hesse. His wealth did not enable him to maintain so numerous a retinue as Duke John, but his gallant bearing, ready address, and skill in theological discussion gave him a grand position. Bishops he did not fear to encounter in debate. His arsenal was the Bible, and so adroit was he in the use of his weapons, that his antagonist, whether priest or layman, was sure to come off only second best. Both Duke John and Landgrave Philip understood the crisis that had arrived, and resolved that nothing should be wanting on their part to ward off the dangers that from so many quarters, and in a combination so formidable, threatened at this hour the Protestant cause.

Their first demand on arriving at Spires was for a church in which the Gospel might be preached. The Bishop of Spires stood aghast at the request. Did the princes know what they asked? Was not Lutheranism under the ban of the Empire? Had not the Diet been assembled to suppress it, and uphold the old religion? If then he should open a Lutheran conventicle in the city, and set up a Lutheran pulpit in the midst of the Diet, what would be thought of his conduct at Rome? No? while the Church's oil was upon him he would listen to no such proposal. Well, replied the princes in effect, if a church cannot be had, the Gospel will lose none of its power by being preached outside cathedral. The elector and landgrave, who had brought their chaplains with them, opened their hotels for worship. [7] On one Sunday, it is said, as many as 8,000 assembled to the Protestant sermon. While the saloons of the princes were thronged, the city churches were deserted. If we except Ferdinand and the Catholic princes, who thought it incumbent upon them to countenance the old worship, scarce in nave or aisle was there worshipper to be seen. The priests were left alone at the foot of the altars. The tracts of Luther, freely distributed in Spires, helped too to make the popular tide set yet more strongly in the Reformed direction; and the public feeling, so unequivocally declared, reacted on the Diet.

The Reformed princes and their friends were never seen at mass; and on the Church's fast-days, as on other days, meat appeared at their tables. Perhaps they were a little too ostentatious in letting it be known that they gave no obedience to the ordinance od "Forbidden meats." It was not necessary on "magro day, as the Italians call it, to carry smoking joints to Lutheran tables in full sight of Romanist assemblies engaged in their devotions, in order to show their Protestantism. [8] They took other and more commendable methods to distinguish between themselves and the adherents of the old creed. They strictly charged their attendants to an orderly and obliging behavior; they commanded them to eschew taverns and gaming-tables, and generally to keep aloof from the roystering and disorderly company which the Diets of the Empire commonly drew into the cities where they were held. [9] Their preachers proclaimed the doctrines, and their followers exhibited the fruits of Lutheranism. Thus all undesignedly a powerful Protestant propaganda was established in Spires. The leaven was spreading in the population.

Meanwhile the Diet was proceeding with its business. Ferdinand of Austria it was suspected had very precise instructions from his brother, the emperor, touching the measures he wished the Diet to

adopt. But Ferdinand, before delivering them, waited to see how the Diet would incline. If it should hold the straight road, so unmistakably traced out; in the Edict of Worms, he would be spared the necessity of delivering the harsh message with which he had been charged; but if the Diet should stray in the direction of Wittenberg, then he would make known the emperor's commands.

The Diet had not gone far till it was evident that it had left the road in which Ferdinand and the emperor desired that it should walk. Not only did it not execute the Edict of Worms–declaring this to be impossible, and that if the emperor were on the spot he too would be of this mind–but it threw on Charles the blame of the civil strife which had lately raged in Germany, by so despotically forbidding in the Decree of Burgos the assembling of the Diet at Spires, as agreed on at Nuremberg, and so leaving the wounds of Germany to fester, till they issued in "seditions and a bloody civil war." It demanded, moreover, the speedy convocation of a general or national council to redress the public grievances. In these demands we trace the rising influence of the free towns in the Diet. The lay element was asserting itself, and challenging the sole right of the priests to settle ecclesiastical affairs. The Popish members, perceiving how the tide was setting, became discouraged. [10]

Nor was this all. A paper was given in (August 4th) to the princes by the representatives of several of the cities of Germany, proposing other changes in opposition to the known will and policy of the emperor. In this paper the cities complained that poor men were saddled with Mendicant friars, who "wheedled them, and ate the bread out of their mouths; nor was that all–many times they hooked in inheritances and most ample legacies." The cities demanded that a stop should be put to the multiplication of these fraternities; that when any of the friars died their places should not be filled by new members; that those among them who were willing to embrace another calling should have a small annual pension allowed them; and that the rest of their revenues should be brought into the public treasury. It was not reasonable, they further maintained, that the clergy should be exempt from all public burdens. That privilege had been granted them of old by the bounty of kings; but then they were "few in number" and "low in fortune;" now they were both numerous and rich.

The exemption was the more invidious that the clergy shared equally with others in the advantages for which money and taxes were levied. They complained, moreover, of the great number of holidays. The severe penalties which forbade useful labor on these days did not shut out temptations to vice and crime, and these periods of compulsory idleness were as unfavorable to the practice of virtue as to the habit of industry. They prayed, moreover, that the law touching forbidden meats should be abolished, and that all men should be left at liberty on the head of ceremonies till such time as a General Council should assemble, and that meanwhile no obstruction should be offered to the preaching of the Gospel. [11]

It was now that the storm really burst. Seeing the Diet treading the road that led to Wittenberg, and fearing that, should he longer delay, it would arrive there, Ferdinand drew forth from its repose in the recesses of his cabinet the emperor's letter, and read it to the deputies. The letter was dated Seville, March 26, 1526. [12] Charles had snatched a moment's leisure in the midst of his marriage festivities to make known his will on the religious question, in prospect of the meeting of the Diet. The emperor informed the princes that he was about to proceed to Rome to be crowned; that he would consult with the Pope touching the calling of a General Council; that meanwhile he "willed and commanded that they should decree nothing contrary to the ancient customs, canons, and ceremonies of the Church, and that all things should be ordered within his dominions according to the form and tenor of the Edict of Worms." [13] This was the Edict of Worms over again. It meted out to the disciples of Protestantism chains, prisons, and stakes.

The first moments were those of consternation. The check was the more severe that it came at a time when the hopes of the Protestants were high. Landgrave Philip was triumphing in the debate; the free towns were raising their voices; the Popish section of the Diet was maintaining a languid fight; all Germany seemed on the point of being carried over to the Lutheran side; when, all at once, the Protestants were brought up before the powerful man who, as the conqueror of Pavia, had humbled the King of France, and placed himself at the summit of Europe. In his letter they heard the first tramp of his legions advancing to overwhelm them. Verily they had need to lift their eyes again to their motto, and draw fresh courage from it–"The Word of the Lord endureth for ever."


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Tuesday, December 11th, 2018
the Second Week of Advent
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