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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 11 — The sack of Rome

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A Great Crisis–Deliverance Dawns–Tidings of Feud between the Pope and Emperor–Political Situation Reversed–Edict of Worms Suspended–Legal Settlement of Toleration in Germany–The Tempest takes the Direction of Rome– Charles's Letter to Clement VII.–An Army Raised in Germany for the Emperor's Assistance – Freundsberg–The German Troops Cross the Alps–Junction with the Spanish General–United Host March on Rome–The City Taken–Sack of Rome–Pillage and Slaughter–Rome never Retrieves the Blow.

WHAT were the Protestant princes to do? On every hand terrible dangers threatened their cause. The victory of Pavia, as we have already said, had placed Charles at the head of Christendom: what now should prevent his giving effect to the Edict of Worms? It had hung, like a naked sword, above Protestantism these five years, threatening every moment to descend and crush it. Its author was now all-powerful: what should hinder his snapping the thread that held it from falling? He was on his way to concert measures to that effect with the Pope. In Germany, the Ratisbon League was busy extirpating Lutheranism within its territories. Frederick was in his grave. From the Kings of England and France no aid was to be expected. The Protestants were hemmed in on every hand.

It was at that hour that a strange rumor reached their ears. The emperor and the Pope were, it was whispered, at strife! The news was hardly credible. At length came detailed accounts of the league that Clement VII. had formed against the emperor, with the King of England at its head. The Protestants, when these tidings reached them, thought they saw a pathway beginning to open through the midst of tremendous dangers. But a little before, they had felt as the Israelites did on the shore of the Red Sea, with the precipitous cliffs of Aba Deraj on their right, the advancing war- chariots and horsemen of Pharaoh on their left, while behind them rose the peaks of Atakah, and in front rolled the waters of the broad, deep, and impassable gulf No escape was left the terror-stricken Israelites, save through the plain of Badiya, which opened in their rear, and led back into the former house of their bondage. So of the men who were now essaying to flee from a gloomier prison, and a more debasing as well as more lengthened bondage than that of the Israelites in Egypt, "they" were "entangled in the land, the wilderness" had "shut them in." Behind them was the Ratisbon League; in front were the emperor and Pope, one in interest and policy, as the Protestant princes believed. They had just had read to them the stern command of Charles to abolish no law, change no doctrine, and omit no rite of the Roman Church, and to proceed in accordance with the Edict of Worms; which was as much as to say, Unsheath your swords, and set about the instant and complete purgation of Germany from Luther and Lutheranism, under penalty of being yourselves visited with a like infliction by the arms of the Empire. How they were to escape from this dilemma, save by a return to the obedience of the Pope, they could not at that moment see. As they turned first to one hand, then to another, they could descry nothing but unscaleable cliffs, and fathomless abysses. At length deliverance appeared to dawn in the most unexpected quarter of all. They had never looked to Rome or to Spain, yet there it was that they began to see escape opening to them. The emperor and the Pope, they were told, were at variance: so then they were to march through the sundered camp of their enemies. With feelings of wonder and awe, not less lively than those of the Hebrew host when they saw the waves beginning to divide, and a pathway to open from shore to shore, did the Lutheran chiefs and their followers see the host of their foes, gathered in one mighty confederacy to overwhelm them, begin to draw apart, and ultimately form themselves into two opposing camps, leaving a pathway between, by which the little Protestant army, under their banner with its sacred emblazonry–"The Word of the Lord endureth for ever"– might march onwards to a place of safety. The influence that parted the hearts and councils of their enemies, and turned their arms against each other, they no more could see than the Israelites could see the Power that divided the waters and made them stand upright, but that the same Power was at work in the latter as in the former case they could not doubt. The Divine Hand has never been wanting to the Gospel and its friends, but seldom has its interposition been more manifest than at this crisis.

The emperor's ukase from Seville, breathing death to Lutheranism, was nearly as much out of date and almost as little to be regarded as if it had been fulminated a century before. A single glance revealed to the Lutheran princes the mighty change which had taken place in affairs. Christendom was now in arms against the man who but a few months ago had stood at its summit; and, instead of girding himself to fight against Lutheranism for the Pope, Charles must now ask the aid of Lutheranism in the battle that he was girding himself to fight against the Pope and his confederate kings.

It was even whispered in the Diet that conciliatory instructions of later date had arrived from the emperor. [1] Ferdinand, it was said, was bidden in these later letters to draw toward Duke John and the other Lutheran princes, to cancel the penal clauses in the Edict of Worms, and to propose that the whole religious controversy should be referred to a General Council; but he feared, it was said, to make these instructions known, lest he should alienate the Popish members of the Diet.

Nor was it necessary he should divulge the new orders. The astounding news of the "League of Cognac," that

"most holy confederation" of which Clement VII. was the patron and promoter, had alone sufficed to sow distrust and dismay among the Popish members of the Diet. They knew that this strange league had "broken the bow" of the emperor, had weakened the hands of his friends in the Council; and that to press for the execution of the Edict of Worms would result only in damage to the man and the party in whose interests it had been framed.

In the altered relations of the emperor to the Papacy, the Popish section of the Diet–among the more prominent of whom were the Dukes of Brunswick and Pomerania, Prince George of Saxony, and the Dukes of Bavaria– dared not come to an open rupture with the Reformers. The peasant-war had just swept over Germany, leaving many parts of the Fatherland covered with ruins and corpses, and to begin a new conflict with the Lutheran princes, and the free and powerful cities which had espoused the cause of the Reformation, would be madness. Thus the storm passed away. Nay, the crisis resulted in great good to the Reformation. "A decree was made at length to this purpose," says Sleidan, "that for establishing religion, and maintaining peace and quietness, it was necessary there should be a lawful General or Provincial Council of Germany held within a year; and, that no delay or impediment might intervene, that ambassadors should be sent to the emperor, to pray him that he would look upon the miserable and tumultuous state of the Empire, and come into Germany as soon as he could, and procure a Council. As to religion and the Edict of Worms," continued the Diet–conferring by a simple expedient one of the greatest of blessings–" As to religion and the Edict of Worms, in the meanwhile till a General or National Council can be had, all shall so behave themselves in their several provinces as that they may be able to render an account of their doings both to God and the emperor" [2] – that is, every State was to be free to act in religion upon its own judgment.

Most historians have spoken of this as a great epoch. "The legal existence of the Protestant party in the Empire," says Ranke, "is based on the Decree of Spires of 1526." [3] "The Diet of 1526," says D'Aubigne, "forms an important epoch in history: an ancient power, that of the Middle Ages, is shaken; a new power, that of modern times, is advancing; religious liberty boldly takes its stand in front of Romish despotism; a lay spirit prevails over the sacerdotal spirit." [4] This edict was the first legal blow dealt at the supremacy and infallibility of Rome. It was the dawn of toleration in matters of conscience to nations: the same right had still to be extended to individuals. A mighty boon had been won. Campaigns have been fought for less blessings: the Reformers had obtained this without unsheathing a single sword.

But the storm did not disperse without first bursting. As the skies of Germany became clear those of Rome became overcast. The winter passed away in some trifling affairs between the Papal and the Spanish troops in Lombardy; but when the spring of 1527 opened, a war-cloud began to gather, and in due time it rolled down from the Alps, and passing on to the south, it discharged itself in terrible violence upon the city and chair of the Pontiff.

Before having recourse to arms against the "Holy Father," who, contrary to all the probabilities of the case, and contrary also to his own interest, had conspired against his most devoted as well as most powerful son, the emperor made trial of his pen. In a letter of the 18th September, written in the gorgeous halls of the Alhambra, Charles reminded Clement VII. of the many services he had rendered him, for which, it appeared, he must now accept as payment the league formed against him at his instigation "Seeing," said the emperor to the Pope, "God hath set us up as two great luminaries, let us endeavor that the world may be enlightened by us, and that no eclipse may happen by our dissensions. But," continued the emperor, having recourse to what has always been the terror of Popes, "if you will needs go on like a warrior, I protest and appeal to a Council." [5] This letter was without effect in the Vatican, and these "two luminaries," to use the emperor's metaphor, instead of shedding light on the world began to scorch it with fire. The war was pushed forward.

The emperor had requested his brother Ferdinand to take command of the army destined to act against the Pope. Ferdinand, however, could not, at this crisis, be absent from Germany without great inconvenience, and accordingly he commissioned Freundsberg, the same valorous knight who, as we have related, addressed the words of encouragement to Luther when he entered the imperial hall at Worms, to raise troops for the emperor's assistance, and lead them across the Alps. Freundsberg was a geunine lover of the Gospel, but the work he had now in hand was no evangelical service, and he set about it with the coolness, the business air, and the resolution of the old soldier. It was November (1526); the snows had already fallen on the Alps, making it doubly hazardous to climb their precipices and pass their summits. But such was the ardor of both general and army, that this host of 15,000 men in three days had crossed the mountains and joined the Constable of Bourbon, the emperor's general, on the other side of them.

On effecting a junction, the combined German and Spanish army, which now amounted to 20,000, set out on their march on Rome. The German general carried with him a great iron chain, wherewith, as he told his soldiers, he intended to hang the Pope. Rome, however, he was never

to see, a circumstance more to be regretted by the Romans than by the Germans; for the kindly though rough soldier would, had he lived, have restrained the wild licence of his army, which wrought such woes to all in the in fated city. Freundsberg fell sick and died by the way, but his soldiers pressed forward. On the evening of the 5th of May, the invaders first sighted, through a thin haze, those venerable walls, over which many a storm had lowered, but few more terrible than that now gathering around them. What a surprise to a city which, full of banquetings and songs and all manner of delights, lived carelessly, and never dreamt that war would approach it! Yet here were the spoilers at her gates. Next morning, under cover of a dense fog, the soldiers approached the walls, the scaling-ladders were fixed, and in a few hours the troops were masters of Rome. The Pope and the cardinals fled to the Castle of St. Angelo. A little while did the soldiers rest on their arms, till the Pope should come to terms. Clement, however, scouted the idea of surrender. He expected deliverance every moment from the arms of the Holy League. The patience of the troops was soon exhausted, and the sack began.

We cannot, even at this distance of time, relate the awful tragedy without a shudder. The Constable Bourbon had perished in the first assault, and the army was left without any leader powerful enough to restrain the indulgence of its passions and appetites. What a city to spoil! There was not at that era another such on earth. At its feet the ages had laid their gifts. Its beauty was perfect!Whatever was rare, curious, or precious in the world was gathered into it. It was ennobled by the priceless monuments of antiquity; it was enriched with the triumphs of recent genius and art; the glory lent it by the chisel of Michael Angelo, the pencil of Rafael, and the tastes and munificence of Leo X. was yet fresh upon it. It was full to overflowing with the riches of all Christendom, which for centuries had been flowing into it through a hundred avenues–dispensations, pardons, jubilees, pilgrimages, annats, palls, and contrivances innumerable. But the hour had now come to her "that spoiled and was not spoiled." The hungry soldiers flung themselves upon the prey. In a twinkling there burst over the sacerdotal city a mingled tempest of greed and rage, of lust and bloodthirsty vengeance.

The pillage was unsparing as pitiless. The most secret places were broken open and ransacked. Even the torture was employed, in some cases upon prelates and princes of the Church, to make them disgorge their wealth. Not only were the stores of the merchant, the bullion of the banker, and the hoards of the usurer plundered, the altars were robbed of their vessels, and the churches of their tapestry and votive offerings. The tombs were rifled, the relics of the canonized were spoiled, and the very corpses of the Popes were stripped of their rings and ornaments. The plunder was pried up in heaps in the market-places–gold and silver cups, jewels, sacks of coin, pyxes, rich vestments–and the articles were gambled for by the soldiers, who, with abundance of wine and meat at their command, made wassail in the midst of the stricken and bleeding city.

Blood, pillage, and grim pleasantries were strangely and hideously mixed. Things and persons which the Romans accounted "holy," the soldiery took delight in exposing to ridicule, mockery, and outrage. The Pontifical ceremonial was exhibited in mimic pomp. Camp-boys were arrayed in cope and stole and chasuble, as if they were going to consecrate. Bishops and cardinals –in some cases stripped nude, in others attired in fantastic dress–were mounted on asses and lean mules, their faces turned to the animal's croupe, and led through the streets, while ironical cheers greeted the unwelcome dignity to which they had been promoted. The Pope's robes and tiara were brought forth, and put upon a lansquenet, while others of the soldiers, donning the red hats and purple gowns of the cardinals, went through the form of a Pontifical election. The mock-conclave, having traversed the city in the train of the pseudo-Pope, halted before the Castle of St. Angelo, and there they deposed Clement VII., and elected "Martin Luther" in his room. "Never," says D'Aubigme, "had Pontiff been proclaimed with such perfect unanimity."

The Spanish soldiers were more embittered against the ecclesiastics than the Germans were, and their animosity, instead of evaporating in grim humor and drollery, like that of their Tramontane comrades, took a practical and deadly turn. Not content with rifling their victims of their wealth, they made them in many cases pay the forfeit of their lives. Some Church dignitaries expired in their hands in the midst of cruel tortures. They spared no age, no rank, no sex. "Most piteous," says Guiciardini, "were the shrieks and lamentations of the women of Rome, and no less worthy of compassion the deplorable condition of nuns and novices, whom the soldiers drove along by troops out of their convents, that they might satiate their brutal lust... . Amid this female wail, were mingled the hoarser clamors and groans of unhappy men, whom the soldiers subjected to torture, partly to wrest from them unreasonable ransom, and partly to compel the disclosure of the goods which they had concealed." [6]

The sack of Rome lasted ten days. "It was reported," says Guiciardini, "that the booty taken might be estimated at a million of ducats; but the ransoms of the prisoners amounted to a far larger sum." The number of victims is estimated at from 5,000 to 10,000. The population on whom this terrible calamity fell were, upon the testimony of their own historians, beyond measure emasculated by effeminacy and vice. Vettori describes them as "proud, avaricious, murderous, envious, luxurious, and hypocritical." [7] There were then in Rome, says Ranke, "30,000

inhabitants capable of bearing arms. Many of these men had seen service." But, though they wore arms by their side, there was neither bravery nor manhood in their breasts. Had they possessed a spark of courage, they might have stopped the enemy in his advance to their city, or chased him from their walls after he appeared.

This stroke fell on Rome in the very prime of her mediaeval glory. The magnificence then so suddenly and terribly smitten has never revived. A few days sufficed to wellnigh annihilate a splendor which centuries were needed to bring to perfection, and which the centuries that have since elapsed have not been able to restore.


Lectionary Calendar
Friday, September 21st, 2018
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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