Political-religious struggle in Germany

As Holy Roman emperor, Charles V felt a deep moral responsibility to protect the universal Church. Despite his political differences with the papacy, particularly Clement VII, he was bound by his conscience as a Christian prince to maintain the religious solidarity of Europe against both infidels and heretics. he recognized that abuses existed and was willing to support reforms that did not alter the basic Catholic dogma. However, when conciliation failed he attempted to crush heresy with all the power at his disposal.

Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor

The peasant uprising frightened the political authorities in the German states, and most princes were prepared to reach an accommodation with both the emperor and the pope if three general conditions were fulfilled: (1) an end to flagrant corruption and violations of canon law, (2) a redefinition of Christian beliefs and ritual that would fulfill the spiritual needs of the German people, and (3) the formulation of an imperial policy designed to promote German interests.

Speyer Resolution

The imperial diet convened in the city of Speyer in August 1526. Charles V realized that a resolution of theological issues could be reached only in a general council of the Church. He was also reluctant to antagonize Lutheran princes; at that time he needed the support of all Germans in order to meet the threat of Francis I, who was recovering from his defeat at Pavia (1525), and to blunt the Turkish expansion into Hungary.

Battle of Pavia

The diet therefore adopted a resolution suspending enforcement of the Edict of Worms, which had condemned Luther, until the convocation of a general council. This resolution, designed as a temporary expedient, strengthened the Lutherans. Pope Clement refused to call a general council because he feared that a concilatory settlement would weaken his authority. In addition, Charles was deeply involved in Italian affairs, in which a military confrontation with the pope culminated in the sack of Rome.

Protestation of Speyer

By 1529 Charles had his enemies in check and had resolved his differences with the papacy. Therefore he returned to Germany with the intention of suppressing Lutheranism. The imperial diet reconvened at Speyer and revoked the Resolution of 1526. The Lutheran princes responded with a protestation, which denied the right of the diet to enforce religious conformity. Although they claimed the right of individuals to answer to their own conscience, they were referring to the rights of sovereign princes, not the rights of individual peasants.

Confession of Augsburg

The imperial diet convoked at Augsburg resulted in a clear division of the opposing forces. Philip Melanchthon, Luther’s highly esteemed colleague, presented a reasoned defense of the Lutheran position in the hope of reconciliation. Though rejected by the Catholics, the Augsburg Confession (1530) became the most authoritative statement of Lutheran belief. The Catholic majority responded with a total denunciation of all the Protestant sects and demanded strict enforcement of the edict of Worms. Thus the battle lines were clearly drawn.

Confession of Augsburg

Armed Standoff to 1546

Faced with the determination of Charles to suppress them, the Protestant princes formed an alliance known as the League of Schmalkalden (1531). Once again, however, Charles was distracted by the Turks, known as the Nuremberg Standstill (1532), which once more postponed the resolution of the German conflict. Between 1532 and 1545, his constant distraction by other problems kept Charles occupied outside of Germany. In this long interval, the growth of Protestantism in Germany continued until only the Hapsburg domains, Bavaria, and a few ecclesiastical principalities remained in the Catholic fold.

Schmalkaldic War and its aftermath

The armed conflict that had threatened Germany for decades broke out in 1546. The Protestant leaders, including John Frederick of Saxony and Philip of Hesse, let their initial advantage slip away through irresolution and inaction.  Charles V seized the initiative and decisively defeat the Protestants at the battle of Mühlberg (1547). After years of diplomatic maneuvering, Charles seemed to have had his enemies at his mercy, but his victory proved short-lived.

Battle of Mühlberg

Lutheranism might easily have been suppresses with a decisive stroke in 1517, but Charles’s attempt to reinstate Catholicism in 1548 was clearly unenforceable and led to deep resentment. German patriots also denounced his use of Spanish troops during the war and his favoritism toward his Spanish son Philip at the expense of his brother Ferdinand, who had served Germany faithfully since 1522.

Charles V at battle of Mühlberg

Finally, the German princes feared that the emperor would now move to enhance his own power at the expense of their liberties. Included in this group were Maurice of Saxony, who deserted Charles and allied himself with Henry II of France. War ensued (1552 – 1556), and at the outset Charles was forced to flee to Italy. Although Charles attempted to restore the situation, he was approaching the end of his physical and spiritual endurance.

Peace of Augsburg

In 1554 Charles decided to abdicate, and he called upon Frederick to negotiate a settlement within the empire. The diet met at Augsburg and drafted the treaty that ended forty years of religious and political strife. The major stipulations of the Peace of Augsburg (1555) follow. Lutheranism was officially recognized within the empire, and each prince was allowed to determine the religion of his own territory. This precept of cuius regio, eius religio did not extend freedom of conscience to individuals, nor did it recognize any Protestant religion other than Lutheranism. Any ecclesiastical prince who henceforth abandoned Catholicism for Lutheranism would be obliged to surrender his holdings. All church property seized before 1552 was the lawful property of those in current possession.

Charles V abdication

Abdication of Charles V

Charles had defended his dynastic inheritance for four decades against the French, the Turks, and the princes of the Germanic empire. Exhausted by the efforts, an old man at fifty-eight, he abdicated his political offices (1555 – 1556). To his son Philip II, he bequeathed Spain and the colonial empire, Naples, Milan, the Netherlands, and the Franche-Comté. To his brother Ferdinand went the Hapsburg domains and the imperial title. Charles withdrew to a Spanish monastery, where he died in 1558. With him died the medieval dream of a universal empire.