Beginning well over two decades before Martin Luther died, the dangerous idea that one need not pledge allegiance to the pope in order to be a Christian in good standing with God spread beyond Luther’s homeland of 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 repress 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 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.
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 swearing allegiance 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, and peasants were expected to pay no less than one-tenth of their income to it, 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 import of printed copies, and even issued an arrest order against Tyndale himself, lest he dare return to England. Yet all of Henry’s good will toward the Catholic Church would be undone by his marital antics, some of the most consequential in all of history.
In 1503, when he was just twelve years old, Henry had been betrothed to the eighteen-year-old Catherine of Aragon, the daughter of Ferdinand and 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 had two contradictory things to say about marrying one’s brother’s widow. The Book of Leviticus said 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 said 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 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.
France and the Holy Roman Empire had long been at odds with one another on matters small and large, as two great powers in such close proximity to one another often tend to be. Certainly King Francis I of France was none too pleased when his rival Charles of the House of Habsburg simultaneously assumed the thrones of the Netherlands, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire. The two monarchs went to war not long after Charles returned from the Diet of Worms. 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.) Francis, being yet another of the young, martial monarchs who were so prevalent in Europe during this era, led the French army personally, while his more cautious counterpart 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 rifles 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 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 against 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 for the second time in half a decade.
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 walls almost unimpeded. Rome has been sacked many times during its long history, 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. “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’s messenger when he arrived carrying a request for an annulment of his king’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Clement, never a strong personality under the best of circumstances, had no conviction at all left in him now; he simply asked the great secular powers of his world what he should do. Much to his consternation, they were not in agreement. King Francis I, who had brought about the disastrous alliance against the Holy Roman Empire and then done so very little to aid it when Charles had called his bluff, supported Henry’s application, having agreed to do so in return for a promise of support from Henry against, predictably, his arch-enemy Charles. For his part, Charles hoped to keep the two would-be allies at a distance by ensuring that the annulment was neither granted nor outright refused. Judging discretion the better part of valor, Clement followed the lead of the man whose minions had just sacked his city, failing to provide Henry with an 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 outright defiance, but deathly afraid of losing England forever for the Church if he went too far, as he was already losing Scandinavia and parts of Germany, Clement pronounced a “deferred excommunication” against Henry on July 11, 1533, stating essentially that, if he refused to recant his recent actions and take Catherine back as his one and only legitimate wife, he would be excommunicated 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 pope and his Catholic Church’s authority 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 likely male candidates having thus run dry, he was succeeded by Henry’s oldest daughter Mary — the infamous “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. She would go on to lead England into one of its golden ages, to which she would lend her name in the annals of history: the Elizabethan Age, during which England would begin its advance from a regional power, something of an also-ran even on the map of Europe, to a nation of incalculable consequence, the eventual hub of the largest empire the world has ever known. A daughter, as it happened, proved to be good enough for England after all.
Just as had been the case in the Scandinavian countries, Henry’s rejection of the Catholic Church had brought his kingdom out from under the thumb of the pope and transferred millions of pounds from the treasuries of the Church to those of the state. 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 amid 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 that of any social or spiritual revolution. The new Church of England, for example, 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 that didn’t go Protestant — or that hadn’t done so yet — 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.
Meanwhile, far below the level of this politicking in the halls of power, the original spirit of the Reformation continued to roil the people, giving birth to many more sects that were not endorsed by any state government, that were in many cases actively persecuted by them — even by those of officially Protestant countries. It was all a part of the Sturm und Drang of this, one of the more chaotic ages in European history, when extraordinary success and complete disaster both seemed to be constantly lurking just around the corner for the continent. Until King Francis’s death in 1547, the dominant note of the 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 — the one that had launched eight Crusades in a bygone age, some of them against these selfsame Turks and Tunisians — was well and truly dead in this new era of competing nation-states and frantic empire building.
Through it all, Clement and his successor Paul were living demonstrations of the diminished status of the pope, that figure who had once been able to order up Crusades at will but now couldn’t even convince a third or more of Europe to pray with him. Clement and Paul rather transparently tried to play all sides at once, managing to do so well enough to keep any of them from sacking Rome again. It wasn’t much, but at least it was something. Watching helplessly as more and more of Europe slipped through its fingers, the Catholic Church had to count its blessings where it found them.
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(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)