The spread of Lutheranism from 1521-1555 occurred due to many reasons in addition to the lack of strong central government. Other reasons include the fact that Charles V held many roles and therefore had other priorities that were more important than dealing with Lutheranism, the role of Fredrick the Wise and other Lutheran leaders and princes, and finally the appeal and popularity of Lutheranism which ultimately lead to the strength and the growth of the Luther movement.
Perhaps the other reasons would not have happened if there was not a lack of central government, which suggests that this was the most important reason; however it is clear that these reasons all interlink, for example the princes may have never supported Luther’s ideas if he did not appeal to them, thus leading to the growth of Lutheranism. Due to the complexity of the causes it is difficult to judge the most important factor, but it is fair to say that there was no stand-alone cause which led to the spread of Lutheranism, but a range of contributing factors.
Firstly, the lack of strong central government in the Holy Roman Empire allowed the spread of Lutheranism to occur without prevention. This is largely due to the over 300 self-governing states, meaning that Charles’ influence was limited. This prince’s autonomy meant that the princes had acquired sovereign authority in their own territories, and Charles had little authority. So when Charles attempted to act against rulers who supported Luther he found that Catholic princes did not support him as they were fearful of an increase in the Emperor’s power.
This political division ensured the establishment of a Lutheran church, and his supporters and allies were able to capitalise on Fredrick the Wises’ actions and the absence of Charles V when he was dealing with other issues. Another example of the weakness was the Wahlkapitulation. This was also very limiting for Charles, as he had to consult the Electors and the Reichstag on all imperial matters, for example in Augsburg in 1530 when the princes said no to him. It also meant that he could not bring in foreign troops, for example his Spanish troops, to possibly invade Saxony and arrest Luther.
This gave Luther further protection on top of the protection he received from Fredrick the Wise. In the 1530s peoples preferred to see the spread of Lutheranism than an increase in the Emperors power, which is due to increased princely particularism. So, all of these reasons ultimately lead to a spread of Lutheranism because the fact that the princes were gaining more power meant that they could make decisions for their own territories, and it became increasingly difficult for Charles to prevent them from becoming Lutheran.
Charles V was very preoccupied during the period when Lutheranism was spreading, and ultimately it was not at the top of his priority list. The conflicting priorities of Charles’ extensive yet fragmented Empire were a cause of weakness, thus linking to a weakness in the structure of the Empire. Even in cases of emergency he was not often able to devote his full attention to any cause because he had such a vast area to manage. Examples of Charles’ other priorities include Spain, France and the Ottoman Empire.
Charles felt it was necessary to remain in Germany to make sure the Edict of Worms was carried out; however he was forced to travel to Spain to deal with riots that had broken out there, meaning he could not return to Germany for another 8 years. He was also preoccupied with the on-going Habsburg-Valois conflict with France, which was fought in Northern Italy and demanded a lot of Charles attention. Finally the Turks were a cause of problem for Charles, as they were threatening Charles Empire hugely.
Charles’ conflicting priorities meant that he could not devote attention to preventing the spread of Lutheranism. In comparison to the structure of the empire, this was not as significant due to the spread of Lutheranism because despite it being out of control, Charles could have delegated other people to carry out his roles in other countries so he could focus on Luther, however the lack strong central government was a key structural issue in the empire and the determination of the princes was out of Luther’s control.
The role of Fredrick the Wise and other Lutheran princes was key in the spread of Lutheranism because Fredrick not only protected Luther in the years leading up to the Edict of Worms, but he continued to work for Luther and promoted the religion that Luther stood for. He always suggested an alternative way instead of flatly disagreeing with the Emperor to still keep relationships stable. He argued that Luther’s ideas needed to be considered more carefully, suggesting that the issue should be decided in a council of the German Church.
This idea was popular because of its appeal, and Fredrick was presented as a reasonable man. All of this work done by Fredrick led to the strength and growth of the Lutheran movement, as it also increased his popularity. The support of the Luther princes was less of an influence on the spread of Lutheranism than the structure of the Empire, because the Structure of the Empire allowed these princes to follow Luther’s ideas due to increasing princely particularism, and despite Fredrick’s role playing a significant part, it is still on a smaller scale than the structure of the entire empire.
Finally, the appeal of Lutheranism meant that he gained popularity rapidly. This is partially to do with the failure of the church in the early 16the century, and increasing hostility due to clerical abuses, such as Simony, and poor quality of pastoral care from people’s parish priests. Luther highlighted these problems with the Church and therefore people supported Luther’s ideas of sola scriptura and sola fida. This increased popularity led to the strength and growth of the Luther movement.
By the 1540’s people’s attitudes had changed, and as a whole generation of people had grown up with Luther’s ideas around them it made it incredibly difficult for Charles to eliminate Luther’s ideas, or prevent further spreading. The Diet of Regensburg in 1541 also saw a change in Charles attitude. Charles had decided military action was necessary to bring Luther supporters back into the Catholic Church, which highlights the size of the growth of Lutheranism, as he thought he needed to sort them out immediately.
However things changed again in 1555 as Charles was forced to accept Lutheranism in the religious Peace of Augsburg where the impossibility of reuniting Christendom was finally recognised. It declared that, in each state there was to be one religion, either Catholicism or Lutheranism, and the princes were to decide, thus linking back to princely particularism again, and it marked a huge change for the religion of the empire.
For the first times Charles accepts Lutheranism and does not try to prevent it. The appeal of Lutheranism was fundamental, because it resulted in support and without support Lutheranism would have never grown to the extent it did. However it does not seem as fundamental as the structure of the empire because it was such a large issue. In conclusion the structure of the government is a fundamental cause in the spread of Lutheranism because it has the largest impact because it affects the entire empire.
The fact that Charles V had other priorities meant that he could not deal with or prevent the spread, but it did not encourage the spread in any way, the spread was encouraged due to the princely particularism that occurred because of the structure of the empire. Therefore the lack of Charles V’s attention was probably the least important contributing factor. Both the role of Fredrick and the other Lutheran princes and the appeal of Lutheranism result in the strength and growth of Lutheranism, therefore this is also an important reason, because if Lutheranism was not popular then it would have never have grown and spread.
Consequently, even though there are important factors which clearly contribute largely to the spread, it is clear that the structure of the empire was the most important reason promoting the spread of Lutheranism because it encouraged princes to be independent and make their own decision, thus taking power away from the Emperor, and ultimately changing to Lutheran states.
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