Beginning well over two decades before Martin Luther died, the idea that one need not pledge allegiance to the pope in order to be a Christian in good standing with God spread beyond Germany like a contagion, mutating as it did so into countless idiosyncratic sects promoting interpretations of Protestantism that differed markedly from one another. Seeing these movements as a threat to public order and to their own rule — if a peasant could be convinced to reject the authority of the pope, how soon before he started to question the authority of his secular monarch as well? — most of the kings of Europe tried, at the outset at least, to suppress them. But this was not true everywhere.

The first country in Europe to officially embrace Protestantism as its new national faith was one that hasn’t been much of a presence in these pages to this point. Sweden was relatively close to Germany both geographically and culturally, speaking a language from the Germanic family of same, sharing not only words but also many values and attitudes with the more populous lands just across the Baltic Sea. This northernmost part of Western Europe had been the last to accept the pope; stubborn pockets of pagan belief had persisted in Scandinavia into the twelfth or even thirteenth century. It therefore made a degree of sense that the countries of Scandinavia, beginning with Sweden, would be the first to comprehensively reject him once again.

As usual, though, the motivations behind that rejection were every bit as much temporal as spiritual. Since the middle of the fifteenth century, the three principal kingdoms of Scandinavia — Denmark, Norway, and Sweden (the last of which included some of present-day Finland at this time) — had been joined together under an uneasy umbrella known as the Kalmar Union. Theoretically, it was a partnership of equals, but in practice Denmark, the richest and most militarily powerful of the three lands despite being by far the smallest, was overwhelmingly dominant.

This didn’t sit well with Sweden in particular. In 1512, it attempted to withdraw from a union it now regretted ever having joined, sparking Denmark, which was ruled at the time by a rather bloody-minded despot named King Christian II, to abandon the fiction of co-equal sovereign lands and invade its neighbor. Importantly, Pope Leo X backed Denmark in the conflict, which initially seemed to end badly for Sweden: Sten Sture the Younger, the Lord Regent of that land, was killed in battle, and Christian was crowned king of Sweden as well on November 4, 1520. In the aftermath, he ordered that all prominent Swedes who had actively supported the war against him be rounded up and jailed or executed, betraying a promise of general amnesty which he had made to them during the negotiations that preceded his crowning.

This blatant treachery would prove a crucial mistake. For one of the noblemen killed in Christian’s roundup was the father of one Gustav Eriksson, a steely-eyed and charismatic youngster of just 24 years. Outraged, Gustav fled to the northern hinterlands of his country, where he ignited a liberation movement among the peasantry, training them personally in the use of bows and arrows and battleaxes. Patiently but inexorably, his ragtag army pushed south again, until the Swedish capital of Stockholm fell to it on June 20, 1523. Denmark was embroiled in an internal conflict of its own at that time; the tyrannical Christian II, who treated his own people little better than he did his new Swedish subjects, had just been deposed in favor of a new King Frederick I there. The latter now agreed to let Sweden go its own way while he set about putting his own house in order, and thus Gustav Eriksson became King Gustav I.

King Gustav I of Sweden, as painted by Jakob Binck in 1542. (Public Domain)

Sweden may have had a young, vigorous, capable king, but it was still a poor, war-torn land on the whole. Gustav urgently needed money with which to rebuild and defend his kingdom. The holdings of the Catholic Church in Sweden were tempting pickings in this regard, even as their seizure could be morally justified by the fact that the Church had continued to support the Danish occupiers over the people of Sweden until the very end of the war. Gustav made more and more demands on the Church, threatening that, if it refused to hand over the money he asked for, he himself would take over and “govern the Church in this country with the authority which we have as king.”

The Church complied in the beginning, but it eventually balked at his neverending demands for more, more, more. Protestant evangelists, some coming directly from Wittenberg, had been agitating in Sweden for several years already by this point, encountering little push-back from the government. In 1527, Gustav cast his lot for good and all with the Protestants. He told his senior council of nobles that they must decide between him and the pope; if the Catholic Church was to remain the final arbiter of the religious life of Sweden, then he would abdicate and go into exile. The nobles chose their widely beloved homegrown king over far-off Rome. The government of Sweden then confiscated all Catholic properties and gave the extant clergy a choice between pledging their loyalty to the new order or leaving the country. Going forward, bishops would serve at the pleasure of the king rather than the pope, and church services were to be simplified and democratized in the ways prescribed by Martin Luther. A Church of Sweden, the first national Protestant church in the world, was born. Gustav’s reign as the head of both a kingdom and a church would last until 1559, during which time Sweden would prosper as never before.

It was a heady lesson — or, from a Catholic perspective, an ominous one — for the other leaders of Europe. On a continent fast transitioning from Medieval kingdoms to Modern nation-states, there was much to be gained by freeing oneself of the political interference of the Catholic Church, not to mention the money which could be returned to the state’s coffers by seizing its holdings. In Denmark, for example, fully half of the agricultural land was owned by the Church, while the peasants who worked the land were expected to pay no less than one-tenth of their income to the same institution, far more than they paid in taxes to the state. Juicy picking like these were hard to resist. Whatever other worth they might have had, Martin Luther’s teachings provided the perfect pretense for boosting the wealth and jurisdiction of Europe’s secular governments at the expense of the Church. Denmark followed its bitter rival Sweden’s lead in 1536, establishing a national Protestant church of its own. Norway followed suit in 1554 to complete the Reformation of Scandinavia.

But the most famous — and the most famously cynical — transition to Protestantism is undoubtedly the one that took place in England.

In 1521, King Henry VIII of England was 30 years old, another vigorous, charismatic monarch in the mold of the future Swedish King Gustav. He was also all-in for Rome at the time. He issued that year Assertion of the Seven Sacraments against Martin Luther, a tract he had purportedly written himself. “What serpent so venomous,” he asked rhetorically, “as he who calls the pope’s authority tyrannous? What a great limb of the Devil he [Luther] is, endeavoring to tear the Christian members of Christ from their head!” When an English scholar named William Tyndale, working in exile from Wittenberg under the direct supervision of Luther, produced a new translation of the Bible into his mother tongue — the first to have been attempted since that of John Wycliffe — Henry promptly banned the importation of printed copies, and even issued an arrest order against Tyndale himself, lest he dare return to England. Yet all of Henry’s goodwill toward the Catholic Church would be undone by his marital antics, some of the most consequential in all of history.

King Henry VIII of England, as painted by Hans Holbein the Younger circa 1535. A handsome, well-spoken, athletic youth early in his reign, so much so that he was sometimes compared to Alexander the Great, he slowly went to seed and fat as he aged. Many would say that his political and personal ethics underwent a similar regression. (Public Domain)

In 1503, when he was just twelve years old, Henry had been betrothed to the eighteen-year-old Princess Catherine, the daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. The betrothal was controversial, in that Catherine was the recent widow of Henry’s older brother Arthur, who had died of a sudden illness less than a year into their marriage. As so often happens, the Bible has two contradictory things to say about marrying one’s brother’s widow. The Book of Leviticus says that “if a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing: he hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness.” Yet the Book of Deuteronomy says that “if brethren dwell together, and one of them die, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband’s brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife.” In the end, Pope Julius II had to step in to settle the matter, declaring that right lay with the Book of Deuteronomy in this case, thus allowing the marriage to proceed.

Between 1510 and 1518, Catherine had five children by Henry: four sons who were either stillborn or died in infancy and a daughter named Mary who survived. She had no more children at all during the decade after that. A lack of male issue in the kingly line was always a serious problem for a traditional monarchy like England’s, a recipe for chaos and even civil war. Indeed, England had fought a 32-year-long War of the Roses with itself during the latter half of the fifteenth century, the last time the question of the rightful successor to the throne had been a matter of debate. Understandably, neither Henry nor any of his most trusted advisors wanted to see that bloody conflict repeated in their country after his death.

So, at age 37, Henry resolved to separate himself from Catherine, both for these defensible if cold-hearted reasons of state and for a less selfless one: he was utterly besotted with a vivacious and charming twenty-year-old named Anne Boleyn, the daughter of an earl in his court. He applied to Pope Clement VII for remedy, claiming his current marriage should be annulled because the prohibition in the Book of Leviticus, which Julius II had apparently overlooked, had made it illegitimate from the start. Clement proceeded to dither and prevaricate while Henry seethed with impatience and lust. To understand why the pope was so reluctant to render a judgment, we need to look to recent events in continental Europe.

Pope Clement VII, as painted by Sebastiano del Pimobo in 1531. The second and last Medici to hold the office, his papacy is rivaled only by that of his first cousin Leo X in terms of the disastrous diminishment of the Catholic Church’s stature that it has come to represent. (Public Domain)

The looming prospect of a war with France that had been worrying Holy Roman Emperor Charles V so much during the Diet of Worms had become a reality not long after that event. The decisive battle came on February 24, 1525, when two armies of almost exactly equal size met outside the walls of the northern Italian town of Pavia. (Because of its location, northern Italy was frequently the place where such conflicts between the big players on the map of Europe were resolved.) King Francis I of France, being yet another of the young, martial monarchs who were so prevalent in Europe during this era, led his army personally, while a more cautious Charles stayed back from the front. But his bravery did Francis no good in the end. The French were routed by Charles’s army, which made effective use of Modern firearms against the Medieval swords and lances that its enemies were still largely relying upon. Francis himself suffered the humiliation of being captured. He then spent more than a year as a prisoner of Charles, until he managed to buy his release for the price of major territorial and political concessions.

But even that didn’t end the feud. For as soon as he was free again, Francis set about reneging on his promises to whatever extent was practical. He worked to build a grand alliance against Charles in the half of Western Europe that the latter did not control. The Swiss Confederacy, Venice, Florence, and Milan all agreed to join him. And even the perpetually reluctant Pope Clement VII was convinced to pledge the Papal States and Rome to the cause, at least partially because the Church was incensed with Charles for his having mostly chosen to stay out of the disputes between Catholicism and Protestantism that were roiling his German possessions at the time. Determined to nip the alliance in the bud, Charles assembled an army that included plenty of the hated German Protestants in its ranks and used it to invade Italy.

The Italian city-states, more accustomed to fighting one another than fighting as allies, struggled to put up a concerted defense, even as the army of Francis, the instigator of the whole affair, was nowhere to be found now that worst had come to worst. Charles’s army — or rather the army fighting in his name; Charles himself was far away in Spain — reached the walls of Rome on May 5, 1527. Despite being under explicit orders not to attack the city immediately — Charles hoped to use the threat his army posed as a way to force the pope to repudiate the alliance he had joined without further bloodshed — the local commanders on the scene did just that. It turned into an ironic replay of one of the last acts of Antiquity, another mob of angry Germans charging the gates of Rome. And it didn’t end any better for these Romans than it had for their ancient ancestors: the attackers burst through the city’s walls almost unimpeded. Rome has been sacked many times during its long existence, but few of its sackings have been as savage as this one. The attackers “spread out through the city, and where they went, the cries of women began to be heard above the sound of falling roofs and burning houses,” writes Ferdinand Addis in his history of Rome. “Some were raped and then murdered. Others raped and raped again. Some were raped and forced to watch their daughters raped. Some killed themselves, before or afterwards. Some girls were killed to save their honour, by their fathers.”

Pope Clement VII’s fate would surely have been a grisly one had he been captured. But luckily for him, the Swiss Guard, his elite inner circle of protectors, put up a stauncher defense than virtually anyone else in Rome. They spirited Clement out of his palace and fought their way to the Castel Sant’Angelo, a mausoleum built by Emperor Hadrian in the second century, now repurposed as a bolthole of last resort for the pope. (Since becoming the host of the most spectacular series of frescoes in all of Europe, the Sistine Chapel was no longer maintained as a defensible redoubt.) From his vantage point near the heart of the city, Clement watched as the invaders’ fury slowly spent itself. Addis again:

Nunneries were violated, the nuns bought and sold in the street. Saint Peter’s Basilica was used as a cavalry stable. The high altar became a butcher’s block, to which hundreds of men were brought for slaughter. At San Giovanni in Laterano, the Landsknechts [German mercenaries] forced their way into that great treasury of relics, the Sancta Sanctorum. The Holy Lance that had pierced Jesus’s side was paraded through the streets on a German pike. The head of Saint Andrew was used as a football. All over Rome, shrivelled bits of saint were dug out of jewelled reliquaries, exposed to the sun again after centuries of gloomy veneration. Arquebusiers practiced their aim on holy bones.

Art suffered too. Statues were smashed. Lutheran graffiti was carved into frescoed walls…

Miraculously, the Sistine Chapel was left mostly unscathed, perhaps thanks only to the fact that its finest treasures were so far above the invaders’ heads, well out of the reach of their fists and clubs and torches.

As the rapers and pillagers trickled out of the city, their lust and fury sated at long last, all of Europe was left to reckon with the crimes they had committed — not least Charles, who was as horrified by the destruction they had wrought in his name as anyone, and would suffer it as a stain on his reign for all of its remaining 29 years. “What unheard-of barbarity!” exclaimed the aging Erasmus, whose fundamental optimism about humanity and its works had been sorely tested by some of the things he had witnessed during his life. “Assuredly this was more truly the destruction of the world than of a city.” A Spanish visitor to Rome in the aftermath of its rape described the despoliation all too vividly.

In Rome, the chief city of Christendom, no bells ring, no churches are open, no masses are said. Sundays and feast days have ceased. Many houses are burnt to the ground; in others the doors and windows are broken and carried away; the streets are changed into dunghills. The stench of dead bodies is terrible; men and beasts have a common grave, and in the churches I have seen corpses that dogs have gnawed. In the public places, tables are set close together at which thousands of ducats are gambled for. The air rings with blasphemies fit to make good men — if such there still be — wish that they were deaf. I know nothing wherewith I can compare it, except it be the destruction of Jerusalem. I do not believe that if I lived for 2000 years I should see the like again.

This, then, was the charnel atmosphere which greeted Henry VIII’s messenger when he arrived in Rome carrying a request for an annulment of his king’s marriage to Catherine of Spain. Pope Clement, never a strong personality under the best of circumstances, had no conviction at all left in him now. Traumatized by the horrors he had just witnessed in the very heart of the Holy City, terrified of getting on the wrong side of yet more European monarchs, he failed to provide Henry with a definitive answer one way or the other for literal years.

Henry’s patience finally ran out. In the summer of 1531, he took back the crown jewels he had bestowed upon Catherine and gave them to Anne Boleyn, then sent his erstwhile queen off to live in exile on the borders of his realm; he would never lay eyes on her again. Cohabiting more or less openly with Anne now, he persuaded and/or bribed friendly English clergymen to grant him his annulment even in the absence of a papal decree giving them permission to do so. On January 15, 1533, he married Anne Boleyn, who was four months pregnant at the time. Forced to take some sort of stand by this bald-faced defiance, but deathly afraid of losing England forever for the Church, as he was already losing Scandinavia and parts of Germany, Clement pronounced a “deferred excommunication” against Henry on July 11, 1533. It stated only that, if he refused to recant his recent actions and take Catherine back as his one and only legitimate wife, he would be excommunicated for real at some unstated future date. It was a pretty weak sauce, which Henry ignored entirely.

It didn’t even succeed in preventing the split which Clement so feared; having come this far, Henry saw no reason not to go all the way. Thus on November 11, 1534, the English Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy, which formally abolished the Catholic Church as a presence in England, establishing instead an independent Church of England with Henry himself at its head. A reign of terror followed, aimed at rooting out any and all spiritual dissent among the clergy and laypeople alike by means of widespread imprisonment, hanging, beheading, drawing and quartering, and burning at the stake. For years, the public spaces of England were festooned with the heads and limbs of those who refused to acknowledge Henry as their new pope. The most famous of the victims is Sir Thomas More, Henry’s former Lord High Chancellor, a good friend of Erasmus, and the author of Utopia, one of history’s most important works of political philosophy. After refusing repeatedly to recognize Henry’s divorce and remarriage and his newfound spiritual as well as temporal authority over the people of England, More felt the executioner’s axe bite into his neck on July 7, 1535. Figuring on the basis of evidence like this that the jig was well and truly up, in 1538 Pope Paul III — the hapless Clement had died in 1534, “not yet having made up his mind about anything,” as Will Durant slyly puts it — finally implemented Henry’s long-threatened excommunication. England had become a Protestant nation, for reasons that had almost exactly nothing to do with the line preached by Martin Luther.

The birth of the Church of England was retroactively rendered still more tawdry by Henry’s subsequent marital career. By the time of his death in 1547, he had found the time and energy to marry no fewer than six women in succession, ridding himself of the nuisance of two of them — including the unlucky Anne Boleyn, that proximate cause of England becoming a Protestant nation — by having them beheaded. All of his marriages together yielded just one sickly son, who reigned for six years after him in name only as King Edward VI before dying at age fifteen in 1553. With the well of male candidates having thus run dry, he was succeeded by Henry’s oldest daughter Mary — the notorious “Bloody Mary,” who attempted to return England to Catholicism during her violent five-year reign. She was in turned followed by her stepsister Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry and Anne Boleyn. A staunch Protestant, Elizabeth reinstated the home spiritual rule of the Church of England, this time for good.

And so the dominoes of the Reformation continued to fall one by one, leaving everyone unsure where and when they would stop. In the past, the princes of Europe had been made reluctant to confront the Church by the intense loyalty of the common people to their local priests and bishops, who had convinced them that the price of disloyalty would be an eternity of suffering amidst the flames of Hell. Now, though, itinerant preachers were wandering everywhere in Europe, telling the same people that Rome had nothing to say about their salvation, thereby freeing the hands of their leaders to break with the pope if they found it desirable. The new national Protestant churches that were formed in this way tended to be far less radical than the grassroots variety, being tools of the status quo at bottom rather than those of any social or spiritual revolution. (Certainly the new Church of England was every bit as pompous an institution as the Catholic Church, with enough ornate ceremony and ostentatious displays of wealth to send Martin Luther into conniptions.) Even the rulers of those countries and provinces that didn’t go Protestant weren’t above using the Reformation to their advantage. For everyone knew now that an outright rejection of the Church was within the bounds of possibility, and this gave the monarchs of Europe more leverage against Rome than ever before.

It was all a part of the Sturm und Drang of this, one of the more chaotic ages in European history. Until King Francis’s death in 1547, the dominant note of the secular political zeitgeist continued to be the undying enmity between him and Charles. Forced to fight perpetually from a position of weakness, Francis was willing to indulge just about any scheme for harassing his rival, even to the point of getting in bed with heathens: he made secret pacts against Charles with the Ottoman Turks, whose armies had come as close to the heart of Europe as Vienna before being turned back in 1529, and with the Muslims of Tunisia, who were busily pirating Charles’s ships in the Mediterranean and enslaving his citizens.

The old ideal of a united Christendom under a single, all-powerful Catholic Church — the one that had launched eight Crusades in a bygone age, some of them against these selfsame Turks and Tunisians — was dead, replaced by a new ethic of competing nation-states and frantic empire-building. The pope, that figure who had once been able to order up Crusades at will, now couldn’t even convince a third or more of Europe to pray with him.

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(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)

8 Comments for "Chapter 19: The Reformation Beyond Germany"

  • Ilmari Jauhiainen

    Good work, but I have a couple of suggestions for minor potential corrections:

    ”This northernmost part of Europe had been the last to accept the pope”

    In a sense, true, but it might confuse those readers, who are not aware that another part of the Europe (i.e. that following the Eastern Orthodox Church) never accepted the rule of the pope. Why not just ”last to convert to Christianity”?

    ”Sweden (the last of which included most of present-day Finland)”

    This is a somewhat murky issue. The borderline between Sweden and Novgorod was determined in 1323 treaty, which is notoriously hard to decipher, especially as to where the borderline was supposed to go – and it may well be that the northern parts of the Finland were not really part of any country. The most likely version is that Sweden had about a third of present-day Finland definitely in their possession. It wasn’t until 1595 treaty with Russia that Sweden definitely gained the most of Finland.

    • Jimmy Maher

      Thanks! A couple of minor edits made…

  • Martin

    “The head of Saint Andrew was used as a football.” So the word was “football” and not “soccer ball”? Shouldn’t you really label that as “folk football”? Unless you know what football looked like back then, a modern person wouldn’t recognize what they were doing with poor old St. Andrew’s head.

    • Jimmy Maher

      Ferdinand Addis is a contemporary author who writes in (British) English, so you’ll have to take the matter up with him. 😉 It’s maybe a slight anachronism, but I have no trouble picturing what he describes.

  • Emmanuel F.

    “But even that didn’t the feud.”

    Looks like”end” is missing here.

    • Jimmy Maher


  • Alex Smith

    “ which made effective use of Modern rifles against the Medieval swords and lances that its enemies were still largely relying upon”

    “Rifle” is not a generic term for any long-barreled firearm. Such weapons are only rifles if the barrel is etched with the groove pattern known as rifling. While there were some experiments with grooved barrels earlier, the rifle was an 18th Century invention. The gunners at Pavia were equipped with arquebuses.

    • Jimmy Maher



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