“The Holy Roman Empire is neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.” By the time the French philosopher Voltaire wrote that famous take-down during the eighteenth century, the object of his scorn was long past its prime as a relevant political institution. Yet even when it still was a hugely significant player in the life of Europe, Voltaire’s formulation more or less applied. The Holy Roman Empire was never quite what we might think it was based on the three words that made up its name. To see why, let us take each of those words in reverse order now, examining the hard realities that lay behind the pomp and circumstance of empire, trying one last time to come to grips with perhaps the most slippery political entity of the entire European Middle Ages, one which survived disconcertingly deep into the epoch of Modernity.
The Holy Roman Empire was rarely an empire as we think of such things. For soon after the death of its founder Charlemagne, the emperor who stood at its head became something less than the absolute monarch we might expect. Rather than inheriting the title automatically by virtue of his bloodline, each successive emperor was formally elected by a council of the nobles who held sway in the various territories that made up the empire as a whole. To be sure, they were a rubber stamp most of the time, merely confirming the obvious choice that the imperial bloodline had already rendered. If the current imperial family got on the wrong side of them, however, the nobles of central Europe could and occasionally did exercise their prerogative to vote for change. In an odd sort of way, the Holy Roman Empire thus resembled the present-day European Union more than an ancient empire or even a Modern nation-state. Although it was far from a democratic institution as we understand those words — certainly no one was asking the peasantry of central Europe whom they would prefer as their supreme leader — its chief executive’s authority was not unchecked in the sense of, say, the kings of France or England. It was rather always a matter to be negotiated with the nobles who held sway in the empire’s constituent parts — a negotiation which some emperors navigated with more aplomb than others. The emperor didn’t even have a permanent capital from which to project his authority; the imperial court moved constantly around central Europe right from the empire’s founding in 800 to its belated dissolution in 1806. Small wonder that Voltaire, that archetypal philosopher of enlightened Modernity, scoffed so.
Then, too, the Holy Roman Empire was never truly Roman, given that Rome itself was never its capital nor even a part of its domains. Charlemagne’s empire began in France and initially encompassed much of that land, but from the coronation in 962 of Otto I, the first ethnically German Holy Roman Emperor, the realm was predominantly if not exclusively Germanic. It is for this reason that the Nazis of the twentieth century considered the Holy Roman Empire the “First Reich” of the German peoples, the one to which their own would-be thousand-year Third Reich was to be the anointed successor. (The Second Reich in this mythology was the comparatively short-lived imperial Germany that existed from the country’s unification as a Modern nation-state in 1871 until the end of the First World War in 1918.) The restiveness of those non-German speakers who found themselves trapped within the territory of the Holy Roman Empire, such as the Czechs of Bohemia, speaks to their resentment of the German majority, who controlled all the levers of power. With one exception, that is: the Holy Roman Emperor himself was, as we shall soon see, not always culturally German or even a fluent German speaker. And this in turn could, as we shall also see, create yet more confusion in a political order that already seemed predisposed to it much of the time.
Last but not least, the Holy Roman Empire was only intermittently holy, in the sense of marching in lockstep with the pope, Europe’s Holy Father. Born as a marriage of convenience between Pope Leo III and Charlemagne, it retained the character of a fair-weather partnership throughout its existence. When relations were good, later popes and emperors were happy to leverage the relationship in service of their mutual goals, proclaiming themselves to be joined together for all time on a God-given mission. When they were not — a situation that was at least as common — pope and emperor each went his own way, or in some cases even went to war with one another; Gregory VII and Henry IV’s long-running series of squabbles during the eleventh century may be history’s most famous example of a pope and emperor at loggerheads, but it is by no means the only one.
From 1440 until 1806, the title of Holy Roman Emperor remained within the House of Habsburg, a royal line with roots in present-day Switzerland that intermarried again and again with most of the other top ranks of European nobility to become the most long-lived and important of all the great families of the continent, with a legacy of power and wealth that stretched from the thirteenth century into the twentieth. When Martin Luther began his rabble-rousing, a Habsburg named Maximilian I had been Holy Roman Emperor for 25 years. Generally speaking, he had managed to keep up good relations with Rome throughout his reign. Although he had not been crowned personally by a pope, that had been down more to logistical problems than anything else: an ongoing dispute with Venice at the time of his ascension had made a papal expedition to Aachen — the traditional crowning place of the Holy Roman Emperor ever since Charlemagne, arguably the closest thing he had to a capital — too dangerous to contemplate at the time.
Maximilian I evinced no lack of self-confidence. He was one of the first rulers in Europe to grasp the potential of the printing press as a propaganda tool, commissioning three grandiose poems in the style of the Medieval epic The Song of Roland to celebrate his life and deeds. The fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 had deeply unnerved the Germans, causing them to wonder, understandably enough, if their lands were destined to be the next item on the menu of the aggressively expansionist Muslim empire to their east. Maximilian attempted to cast himself as Western Christendom’s indispensable protector, but he was stymied in the end by the growing bureaucracy of a Germany that was now leaving the Middle Ages behind with more rapidity than just about any other part of Europe outside Italy. So, far from becoming the new Charlemagne he had fondly imagined himself to be, Maximilian wound up presiding over a significant expansion of the administrative state which came to a large extent at the expense of his own authority. Most notably, he saw the establishment of a German Reichstag, a parliament that was given “co-sovereign” status with the emperor himself. Late in his reign, he was forced to accept that all of the emperors who came after him would have to sign a “capitulation,” a document explicitly deferring many powers — most importantly, the power of the purse — to the Reichstag. Unable to secure state funding for many of his building projects and foreign adventures, Maximilian either forwent them or financed them privately; he would die massively in debt as a result.
He was in ill health already and, one senses, rather embittered with his own subjects for all of the reason I’ve just described when Martin Luther started making waves. Maximilian saw Luther’s carping first and foremost as a threat to public order, another outcome of the burgeoning Modernity that had become such a bane of his Medieval mindset. And yet, being by now all too keenly aware of the limits of his power, he was loath to take decisive action against Luther without the full backing of Rome. Instead he became just another of the chorus of voices in the ear of Pope Leo X who were urging him to crack down rather than compromise with heresy.
Then, in January of 1519, Maximilian I died, leaving a yawning absence behind. The emperor’s authority may have become more circumscribed than ever before in recent years, but it was still far from negligible. In a full-blown national crisis such as the furor over Martin Luther’s teachings was fast becoming, a decisive chief executive could be much more effective than a divided parliament. But the latter was all the empire had for the nonce, exacerbating the sense of hapless drift engendered by a pope who was unwilling to bring the full force of the Inquisition to bear on the problem in Wittenberg.
With one of his two sons having died young of disease and the other having joined the Church, Maximilian had mooted as his successor his grandson Charles. In doing so, he made one last bid from beyond the grave for the position of essential centrality in the life of Europe that had mostly eluded him during life. For the would-be Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was a well-connected young man even by Habsburg standards. His maternal grandparents were none other than King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of the newly united kingdom of Spain; in fact, he had already become King Charles I of Spain following the death of Ferdinand in 1516. Meanwhile other intertwining branches of the royal family trees of Europe had made him Lord of the Netherlands as well. If the Holy Roman Empire was now added to his holdings, he would become, in theory at least, the leader of fully half of Europe. And given that Hernán Cortés of Spain and his Conquistadors had by now begun to carve out a sprawling New World empire in his name as well, Charles was poised to become the sovereign leader of more territory and people than any other monarch in the world.
The six electors of the Holy Roman Empire approved Maximilian’s last request to make Charles his successor without much ado in June of 1519. They may very well have done so because they were aware of a flip side to the coin of the realm that had eluded Maximilian’s understanding: that the ruler of such a huge, scattered swath of territory would have difficulty asserting his will over all of it even if he was a born leader of men. And this Charles, not yet twenty years old, gave no sign of being. By no means was he anyone’s idea of a warrior king. Will Durant describes him as “pale, short, homely, feeble in voice and grave in mien,” albeit “kindly and affable by nature.” Raised in the Netherlands, the smallest and least politically consequential of his three kingdoms on the map of Europe, he would feel himself a fish out of water for years to come, struggling mightily with both Spanish and German, the languages in which most of the business of his larger two realms was conducted.
Before Charles was even crowned Holy Roman Emperor, events on the ground were serving to illustrate all too clearly the challenges of administering so diffuse a collection of peoples. His departure for Aachen for the coronation was delayed by an uprising against his rule by the people of the Spanish province of Castile, who had been willing to accept Ferdinand and Isabella as their sovereigns but wanted no part of this foreigner. Thanks to them, it took him almost eighteen months after his official election as Holy Roman Emperor to finally reach Aachen, with Luther continuing to incite the people of his more easterly holdings to another form of rebellion all the while. Indeed, before and after Charles’s crowning, which took place at long last on October 23, 1520 — it was not done by the pope personally, again for logistical rather than political reasons — he was bombarded with reports of the chaos Luther was engendering. All of the five electors whom Charles met personally in Aachen agreed that Luther was best dealt with harshly, even at the risk of making a martyr out of him; they were immensely relieved that Pope Leo X was finally on the verge of excommunicating him and condemning him to death. The one elector missing from the scene was none other than Luther’s protector Frederick III of Saxony. He would surely have expressed a different view about how to handle the man the pope had taken to calling “The Mad Monk of Wittenberg,” but he hadn’t been able to complete the trip to Aachen, having been waylaid in Cologne by an attack of gout.
As it was, Charles met Frederick for the first time eight days after his crowning, when Charles himself traveled on to Cologne. There he promised Frederick that he wouldn’t make any final decisions about Luther’s fate until the next Imperial Diet of the Reichstag, the grand parliamentary convention where laws were passed and edicts handed down to the entire empire every few years. This event was to take place in Worms on January 27, 1521.
The population of Worms swelled from 7000 to almost 14,000 over the weeks before the Diet officially opened for business. The town’s hotels, stables, and churches were packed to overflowing, as were its taverns and brothels. It was a raucous scene, like Europe itself at this juncture of history half Medieval and half Modern, knights in shining armor rubbing shoulders with the new breed of urban burghers, neither landed nor noble but nonetheless weighty both in purse and in self-importance.
The Holy Roman Emperor who arrived there had much to worry about apart from the freshly excommunicated Martin Luther. For one thing, the rebellion in Castile had yet to be completely quelled. For another, he was also on the verge of war with France, thanks to a tangled skein of provocations and grievances that long predated his ascent to any of his thrones. And then he was acutely short of funds on all fronts, urgently needing the Reichstag to pass new taxes to pay off his grandfather’s debts and shore up defenses against the looming Turkish threat. None of these worries made him more sympathetic to Luther’s cause; quite the opposite, in fact. How could he be king of Spain, whose previous monarchs had insisted on so strict an adherence to Church orthodoxy that they had created their own separate and uniquely brutal Inquisition to force it, and at the same time show leniency to the heretic here in Germany? How could he hope for the support of the Papal States and other close allies of the pope if and when he went to war with France if he failed to back the pope’s excommunication of Martin Luther now? For that matter, how could he continue to be called the Holy Roman Emperor if he allowed so grave a challenge to Rome’s spiritual dominion as this one to go unchecked? He wanted warmer relations with Rome, not cooler ones.
Martin Luther himself was not to be found in Worms. But if he was physically absent, he was all too present in spirit. His books were everywhere on the streets, his name on everyone’s lips, from the highest to the lowest. The pope’s representative at the Diet was one Girolamo Aleandro, a leading member of the conservative wing of the Church, another of those who had been pressing Leo to take a hard line on Luther since long before the pope belated saw the wisdom in excommunication. Now Aleandro sent alarmed letters back to Rome, describing just how critical the situation had become in Germany.
All Germany is up in arms against Rome. All the world is clamoring for a council that shall meet on German soil. Papal bulls of excommunication are laughed at. Numbers of people have ceased to receive the sacrament of penance. Martin [Luther] is pictured with a halo above his head. The people kiss these pictures. Such a quantity [of them] has been sold that I am unable to obtain one. I cannot go out in the streets but the Germans put their hands to their swords and gnash their teeth at me. I hope the pope will give me a plenary indulgence and look after my brothers and sisters if anything happens to me.
By Aleandro’s estimation, 90 percent of the ordinary citizens of Worms were on Luther’s side. The rabble-rousing poet Ulrich von Hutten kept the mood on the street at a fever pitch with bombastic attacks on the Church’s officers, churned out on a printing press that had been set up just outside of town.
Begone, ye unclean swine! Depart from the sanctuary, ye infamous traffickers! Touch not the altars with your desecrated hands! How dare you spend the money intended for pious use in luxury, dissipation, and pomp, while honest men are suffering hunger? The cup is full. See ye not that the breath of liberty is stirring?
Through it all, the business of the Diet proceeded in halting fashion. What with his lack of fluency in German, Charles had to rely on a translator just to follow the discussions he was supposed to be leading. Far from inspiring awe, the towering, jewel-encrusted throne from which he looked down upon the proceedings in the main meeting hall only seemed to exacerbate his isolation. “The emperor is a child,” concluded one diplomat. “He takes no action on his own, but is under the thumb of some Netherlanders who concede to us Germans neither honor nor any good quality.” Frederick of Saxony too was frustrated with an undisciplined, disordered Diet that seemed as much carnival as legislature. “There is racing and jousting every day,” he wrote. “Otherwise everything makes very slow progress.”
It wasn’t until March 3 that the Reichstag finally turned its official eye to the problem of Martin Luther. On this day, Aleandro stood up to demand that the Mad Monk of Wittenberg be arrested and burnt at the stake immediately, as the long-since-expired papal ultimatum of the previous year stipulated. Frederick opposed Aleandro’s motion, arguing not just from principle but also from practicalities: if Luther was executed without due process, Frederick said, the people in many parts of Germany would rise up en masse against their leaders. Even those who were not sympathetic to the man Frederick was sheltering back in Saxony could feel the truth of his words. Charles agreed to the compromise which the Reichstag eventually hammered out and set before him: to invite Luther to come to Worms and plead his case one last time before final judgment was passed. “You need fear no violence or molestation,” wrote the emperor personally to Luther in a letter dated March 16, 1521. “You have our safe conduct.”
The letter reached its recipient within a week. Noting that Charles had promised “safe conduct” but had made no guarantees about what would take place after his arrival, Martin Luther felt sure that the martyrdom he had heretofore rather miraculously avoided awaited him in Worms. Yet he saw no way to avoid that fate in any but the shortest of terms. Keen populist politician that he had discovered himself to be, he knew that to go there freely would strengthen his cause, while to be dragged there cringing in chains could only weaken it. “If I do not come back, if my enemies put me to death,” he wrote to his closest followers, “you will go on teaching and standing fast in the truth. If you live, my death will matter little.”
He left Wittenberg on April 2, traveling with three others atop a plain two-horse dogcart. At every stage of the journey, the crude conveyance was mobbed by thousands of Germans from every walk of life, who came out to kiss the hem of Luther’s robes and to beg for his blessing, treating him almost like a second Jesus on his way up Calvary Hill. His entry into Worms proper on April 16 was greeted with far more enthusiasm than the arrival of Charles had been; the throngs waved and cheered from every curbside and every window to the living saint in their midst.
The very next day, Luther was brought face to face with Charles and the Reichstag for the first time. The man appointed to lead the prosecution was his old nemesis Johann Eck. Everyone knew that the stakes of this latest debate between the two would be Martin Luther’s life.
Luther asked for a day to gather his thoughts and prepare his arguments, and this Charles graciously granted. But when the morrow came, the proceedings were over almost before they had begun. Speaking in well-formed Latin for Charles’s benefit, Eck made his usual arguments from traditional authority.
Martin, your plea to be heard from scripture is the one always made by heretics. You do nothing but renew the errors of Wycliffe and Hus. How can you assume that you are the only one to understand the sense of scripture? Would you put your judgment above that of so many famous men and claim that you know more than all of them? You have no right to call into question the most orthodox holy faith, instituted by Christ the perfect lawgiver, proclaimed throughout the world by the apostles, sealed by the red blood of martyrs, confirmed by the sacred councils, and defined by the Church. I ask you, Martin — answer candidly and without distinctions — do you or do you not repudiate your books and the errors which they contain?
Tellingly, Luther chose to reply in ordinary German; the real audience to whom he pressed his case had long since ceased to be Eck and other establishment intellectuals like him.
Since your majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without distinctions. Unless I am convicted by the testimony of sacred scripture or by evident reason — I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other — my conscience is captive to the word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against my conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.
Despite their stated willingness to avoid “distinctions,” both men would happily have continued the debate. But, showing a decisiveness that had been rare prior to this day, Charles raised a hand to stop them. “It is enough,” he proclaimed. “We wish to hear no more.” He said that he would render his judgment on the following day.
Luther wasn’t even called back in to hear it when it was read before the assembly.
I am descended from a long line of Christian emperors of this noble German nation, of the Catholic kings of Spain, the archdukes of Austria, and the dukes of Burgundy. They were all faithful to the death to the Church of Rome, and they defended the Catholic faith and the honor of God. I have resolved to follow in their steps. A single friar who goes counter to all Christianity for 1000 years must be wrong. After having heard yesterday the obstinate defense of Luther, I regret that I have so long delayed in proceeding against him and his false teaching. I will have no more to do with him.
Honor demanded, felt Charles, that his promise to Luther of “safe conduct” be broadly interpreted, to include his stay in Worms and a return to Wittenberg. So, he wouldn’t take any action against Luther before May 6, 1521, giving him plenty of time for his return journey. But “when the time is up, no one is to harbor him. His followers also are to be condemned. His books are be erased from the memory of man.” (Not coincidentally, Pope Leo X publicly cast his lot with Charles in the ongoing dispute with France as soon as word of this harsh judgment reached him in Rome.)
Martin Luther left Worms on April 26, no doubt convinced that he was now experiencing his last days on earth. He was still making his meandering way back to Wittenberg, preaching as heatedly as ever to the crowds who awaited him at every bend in the road, on May 4, when a group of armed horsemen burst out of hiding to stop him in his tracks. They yanked him down from his cart, tied him into a harness, and forced him to run away with them at their horses’ side, while the supplicants who had surrounded him looked on in shock, sure that they were witnessing Luther being carried away to martyrdom two days before the deed became legal.
But it turned out that that was not what they had witnessed at all. The supposed abduction had in fact been a rescue, secretly engineered by Luther’s tireless protector Frederick. As soon as they were away from the prying eyes of the crowd, the kidnappers apologized to Luther for the rough treatment and helped him to mount a horse instead of being dragged by one. Then the whole party made off at a breakneck pace for the Wartburg, a tumbledown, largely abandoned old Saxon castle where he was to be hidden away. He would spend the next ten months there, sleeping, writing, and praying in a cold, narrow garret equipped only with a bed, a desk, and a stump for him to sit on. His written output would be smuggled away and printed as quickly as it left his pen. And so the word spread across Germany: somehow, someway, somewhere, Martin Luther was still alive, still at large, and still railing against Rome and all it represented.
Meanwhile on May 25, 1521, in one of its last official acts, the Diet of Worms issued a definitive edict pertaining to the movement Luther had spawned. It was an uncompromising declaration of no tolerance whatsoever, destined to set the pattern for Catholic Christianity’s relations with Protestantism for centuries to come.
According to the edict, Protestantism was a “contagious confusion” that fomented “rebellion, division, war, murder, robbery, arson, and the collapse of Christianity,” that had to be combated with every tool at the disposal of the pope and the emperor. Martin Luther himself was “the Devil in the habit of a monk who has brought together ancient errors into one stinking puddle and invented new ones. He encourages the laity to wash their hands in the blood of the clergy. He lives the life of a beast.” The only way to stamp his evil out was to closely monitor all printed materials throughout the Holy Roman Empire and beyond, ensuring that any that deviated from orthodoxy in the slightest were destroyed forthwith — or, better yet, never printed in the first place, for fear of the consequences that would follow. This well-nigh unhinged Edict of Worms was, writes Michael Massing, “in effect a declaration of war on the printing press and the forces it had unleashed. The edict committed the full powers of church and state to enforce orthodoxy, extinguish heresy, and restrict free expression.” One can’t help but wonder what Frederick was thinking as he heard this rant being read aloud to the assembly, harboring as he was the man who had prompted it in his own castle.
The intransigence of the Church’s conservative leaders and Martin Luther between them had made the schism irreversible. The unanswered question now was what that schism would mean for the life of a Holy Roman Empire that had known just one Christian church — the same one alluded to in its very name — ever since its founding more than 700 years ago.
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(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)