January 3, 1521: Martin Luther excommunicated
On this date, Pope Leo X issued a papal bull, Decet Romanum Pontificem, excommunicating Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk in Germany. On June 15 of the prior year, the Pope had issued Exsurge Domine, threatening Luther's with excommunication unless the monk recanted 41 sentences from his writings, including the Ninety-Five Theses. Luther responded on December10, 1520 by publicly burning his copy of Exsurge at Wittenberg. The dramatic confrontation with Luther had been four years in the making.(Decet Romanum from Wikipedia)
Since the time of Constantine the Great in the early 4th century AD, the Catholic Church had reigned supreme in Western Europe, surviving threats from Islam and Norse pagans. It had done battle with heretics like the Bogomils of Croatia and Albigensian of Southern France, but in the wake of the Black Death (1347-53), which led to a period of social turmoil, it faced a more insidious threat to papal authority; that of the reformers who sought to end what they saw as the Church's corruption.
Two of the most prominent reformers were England's John Wycliffe (1320-84) and Jan Hus (1372-1415) of Bohemia, of whom the later was considered a more fundamental threat. At the Council of Constance (1414-18), Hus was condemned as a heretic and burned at the stake, triggering revolts by his followers which took a series of crusades lasting until 1431 to suppress. For good measure, Wycliffe was also condemned as a heretic, his corpse exhumed, burned, and the ashes tossed into a river.
(Jan Hus Monument, Prague)
While undercurrents of dissatisfaction remained, it took Luther to ignite them. In 1512, Luther obtained a Doctorate of Theology and joined the faculty at the University of Wittenberg. Questioning by nature, Luther probed and challenged himself regarding core Catholic beliefs and began to focus on the importance of the inner struggle with sin rather than sacramental confession. The turning point was in 1516, when the Pope sent Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar, to Germany to sell indulges to help rebuild St Peter's Basilica in Rome. Purchase of an indulgence provided temporal satisfaction for sins, allowing the purchaser to avoid purgatory.
(Luther, from wikipedia)
In response to Tetzel's mission, on October 31, 1517, Luther sent a document to the Bishop of Mainz, protesting the sale of indulgences. Titled "Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences", it is better known as the Ninety-Five Theses. In the opening theses, Luther wrote of the importance of the internal struggle with sin and stated that the pope could not release a person from the guilt of sin. Although Luther, as a professor, apparently intended the document to be a series of propositions to be argued by scholars, he was quite provocative in some of the theses. Thesis 86 asks:
Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus [reputed to be the wealthiest citizen of Rome in the first century BC], build the basilica of St Peter with the money of the poor believers rather than with his own money?But even Thesis 86 is presented, among a series of similar theses, as objections Luther's congregants are raising rather than his own, to which he asks how should he answer?
(1517 Nuremburg printing of Ninety Five Theses as placard, from Wikipedia)
It is also popularly believed that Luther nailed the Ninety-Five Theses to the door of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg, sometime in November 1517, though this is much disputed by historians. In 1518, friends of Luther, had the theses translated from Latin into German and they reached England, France and Italy by the following year (thanks to the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg in the prior century), circulating among those dissatisfied with the Church.
The Church initially proceeded cautiously against Luther. Rather than prosecuting him as a heretic, as some urged, in October 1518, Luther was examined by a papal legate at Augsburg, Germany in a debate that became a shouting match. A meeting with a papal nuncio in January 1519 seemed to smooth things over somewhat and raised hopes of a compromise. The prospects of a peaceful resolution came undone in the summer of 1519 at Leipzig, where Luther engaged in a disputation with Johann Eck, a noted theologian and staunch supporter of Catholic doctrine. In the course of that debate, Luther questioned the doctrine of the infallibility of the pope and Church councils, prompting Eck to brand him a new Jan Hus, and leading to the papal bull of June 1520.
(Luther and Eck, from alamy)
After his excommunication, Luther was given an opportunity to recant at the Diet of Worms, the general assembly of the states of the Holy Roman Empire, presided over by Emperor Charles V. On April 18, Luther, appearing under a guarantee of safe conduct, refused to renounce his beliefs and five weeks later the Emperor issued the Edict of Worms condemning Luther as a heretic and outlaw, banning his books, requiring his arrest and permitting anyone to kill him.
Luther was given protection by Frederick III, Elector of Saxony (the Elector's motives are still a source of historian arguments), and permitted to continue with his work, including translation of the New Testament from Greek into German. Luther's works and the reaction of the Church also inspired other reformers like Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland and resulted in more unrest as his tracts received a wider audience. Lutheranism, as it came to be called, also played into the centuries old struggle for supremacy between the temporal rulers of Europe and the Pope, as well as tensions between local and Roman clergy (of which more below). Its impact was felt almost immediately in Scandinavia, where Christian II, King of Norway, Denmark and Sweden, summoned Lutheran theologians to Copenhagen in 1520 and decreed the establishment of a state church in Denmark. At times the unrest broke into violence as with the German Peasant's War of 1524-5, in which reformers murdered Catholics (Luther opposed the actions done in his name). It was the start of more than a century of religious violence and warfare in Europe.
February 1526: Henry VIII decides to pursue Anne Boleyn
Henry VIII, King of England since 1509, had a problem. Actually, a couple of problems. The first was that his wife, Catherine of Aragon, a daughter of King Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille (now Spain), had been unable to provide him with a male heir. The second was Anne Boleyn, a daughter of nobility and maid of honor to Catherine. Henry, who'd had many mistresses became infatuated with Anne but she, in turn, was very canny and refused his overtures, making it clear that nuptials were required before consummation, which only made him more desirous of her.
(Anne from thefamouspeople)
Henry decided the best course of action was to solve both problems at the same time. Divorce Catherine, and marry Anne, which would get him some nooky as well as undoubtedly produce the long awaited male heir.
This strategy created yet another problem; the Catholic Church, in the form of the pope, would have to grant the divorce or, more properly, an annulment. The clerical advisors of Henry dutifully came up with suitable, though dubious, grounds for an annulment and petitioned Pope Clement VII.
Clement VII, who became pope in 1523, had his own problems or more specifically, problem; Charles V, a member of the Hapsburg family . Charles was ruler of both the Holy Roman and Spanish Empires as well as The Netherlands, the most powerful man in Europe (and the man who declared Martin Luther an outlaw in 1521). And Catherine of Aragon was his aunt.
(Charles V, from wikipedia)
Clement, wary of the growing papal dependency on the powerful Hapsburg, supported the King of France in an effort to change the balance of power in Europe. Clement's hopes were dashed when the Holy Roman army defeated the French and captured their king. Things went further awry, when Charles V proved unable to control his own army which marched on Rome, capturing on May 6, 1527. The events thereafter, known as The Sack of Rome, shocked Europe. For the next month the out of control Imperial troops looted and pillaged homes, churches and monasteries, while murdering and raping in the process. On June 6, Clement surrendered from his place of refuge, paying a huge ransom and ceding Papal territories to the Charles. From this time on, Clement did all he could to stay in the good graces of Charles V, who was unalterably opposed to his aunt losing her position as Queen of England.
(Clement VII, from wikipedia)
For several years there was a back and forth on annulment between the increasingly irritated and impatient Henry and the Pope, who did not want to displease Charles V, but also wanted to avoid a rupture with England. As it became clear we would not obtain the annulment, Henry began to contemplate a course of action he had never intended back when he began his pursuit of Anne - ending the power of the Catholic Church in England and establishing his own state church, something that would never have occurred to him without the rise of Martin Luther and the actions of King Christian II. He was also encouraged by several at his Court who were sympathetic to Luther.
In 1533, Henry's hand-picked Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer (the subject of Hilary Mantel's excellent novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies), declared the marriage of Henry and Catherine to be invalid and the King and Anne were wed. The following year, the Acts of Supremacy declared the King to be head of the Church of England, with no appeal allowed to Rome, triggering Henry's excommunication. Though Henry followed an ambiguous path between the Catholic Church and the new Protestant churches, and there would even be one last Catholic Queen of England, his daughter Mary (1553-8), his actions ultimately added a powerful weight on the side of the anti-Catholic forces in the upcoming religious conflicts. As for Anne Boleyn, she failed to produce a male heir and lost her head three years later.
A king's carnal desires added a valuable ally to the Protestant side and, in the short term, the fire set by Luther spread rapidly across Europe, with only a feeble response by the Church. A decade after England's Acts of Supremacy, the Catholic response began with the Council of Trent (1545-63) which gave birth to the Counter Reformation. Wars, massacres and judicial murders occupied Europe, killing millions along the way, until the Treaty of Westphalia brought an end to the Wars of Religion in 1648. Much of the funds needed to finance the Catholic armies and religious orders during this period came from the Hapsburg Emperors, their treasuries filled by the flood of silver from the New World, a flood created by the audacity of Cortes and the devastating effect of Old World illnesses on the Americas, as described in Part 1 of this series.
The new Protestant sects survived the Counter Reformation, but much was recovered or saved by the Church. France remained Catholic, despite an strong initial Protestant presence and Bohemia, Croatia and Hungary were recovered for the Church. In the process, however, the financial and political mismanagement of Spain resulted in little benefit to that country from the wealth of the Americas and by the end of the 17th century it had become a political backwater.
Next in Part Three: The Ottomans Come A' Knocking