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Why did Charles V fail to crush Luther? Essay

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Charles V’s inability to crush Luther is one of the main reasons why the Protestant Reformation came about. Although some of the difficulties he had were of his own making, such as his lack of attention that he gave to the situation within Germany and the promise of safe conduct that he gave to Luther, a number were solely due to the widespread appeal of Luther’s message. A number of outside influences, such as the failure of the papacy to deal with Luther and the support of Charles’s arch enemy Francis I of France, were also partly responsible in making it difficult for Charles V to crush Luther.

A major factor in Charles V’s inability to crush Luther was the continued survival of Luther himself. Luther owed much to the support that he received from Frederick of Saxony who sheltered him and ensured that there was sufficient time and space in which his cause could gain support. ‘Had Luther been living in the territory of a minor prince his fate might have been different’. (Randall pg.82). Charles V had a high sense of duty both with regard to his Imperial role as defender of the Church and to the faith of his ancestors.

Therefore the promise of Imperial safe-conduct that Charles gave to Luther before the Diet of Worms, when he did not see Luther as being a potential threat, meant that Luther did not get crushed. Charles unwisely stood by his word, ‘under the protection of his conduct he shall be escorted home, but forbidden to preach and to seduce men with his evil doctrines and incite them to rebellion.’ and although he formally condemned Luther, he took no practical means of stopping him writing and preaching. It is also believed that had Charles of killed Luther for being a heretic, which would have been quite justified, it would have turned Luther into a martyr and exacerbate the spread of Lutheranism by heightening religious unrest.

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Therefore Luther survived and was able to continue with his writing. Although not a willing revolutionary, after hearing the authorities’ reactions to his views Luther took the initiative, publishing pamphlet after pamphlet on what was wrong with the teachings and practices of the Church. He used the printing press to his advantage and he made it easier for the normal German people to read about his ideas, by translating the 95 thesis and the Bible into German so that people could interpret it themselves. Later on Luther wrote books indicating his views. As his message reached more people, his popularity grew which it made it harder for Charles to crush him because Charles needed the support of people within Germany.

Luther’s teaching appealed to a wide range of people which gave him popular support of people throughout Germany. The growing resentment of the peasants towards the clerical Landlord, mainly abbots was a long term trend. What made it intolerable by 1524 ‘was that population was rising by as much as 0.7 percent per year’, (Lotherington pg 145) so that there was an increasing demand for fertile land that could not be met. Luther’s message greatly appealed to them, ‘His call for spiritual equality given the ‘priesthood of all believers’ was readily extended by the peasants of a demand for social equality.'(Lotherington pg 146) and through Luther’s teaching of ‘Faith alone’ gaining salvation they saw the benefits of less money being spent. People in the cities and groups such as the middle classes were also greatly willing and able to respond to Luther’s message, due to heightening political, social and religious awareness and the high levels of literacy.

They were, as Ozment put it, ‘the ideologically mobile’, that is more receptive to new ideas by political change. Many were attracted to Luther’s message because it gave them the choice of how they interpret the bible rather than being dictated to by the clergy. The nationalistic Imperial Knights were drawn to Luther, in an attempt to get rid of foreign influence. The appeal of Luther’s teachings therefore gained him much popularity throughout Germany and made it even harder for Charles V to crush him.

The Holy Roman Empire was already a difficult area to govern effectively. Luther’s message offered greater independence from the emperor, so that the Princes and Cities were willing to ensure its survival. The 300 states within Germany were each run under individual Princes, Bishops and Imperial Knights. Many of the state rulers had something to gain from Luther’s message. Some used the Lutheran issue as a way of expanding their political power at the expense of the emperor, whereas others converted their states for religious reasons. One such prince was Phillip of Hesse who ‘became the leading member of the Protestant cause'(Randall pg. 55) The more nationalistic rulers developed a traditional style of German Nationalism and had a desire to see a consolidated Empire and the elimination of foreign influence. The Foreign influence that the princes and the cities despised the most was that of the Pope.

They therefore saw Luther, an enemy of papacy, as a potential ally and were more likely to listen and spread his message. The money that stayed in their states was a valuable source to tax but it also ensured social stability which could only benefit the state itself and therefore the position of the state leaders. Once more they had much to gain by taking from the Church its property and land which could be spent on schools and relieving poverty. Finally they were drawn to the fact that Luther endorsed their authority so that they knew they would have the support of the people. Therefore due to the appeal of Luther’s message, many of these leaders converted to Lutheranism, causing individual pockets of Lutheranism to emerge throughout Germany, making it hard for Charles to crush Luther.

Charles V’s efforts to crush Luther were also hampered by the State of the Catholic Church. However, the Church failed to act against Luther because it was badly organised and hated by the German people. The state of the Church was very corrupt and had many fundamental problems. Weaknesses such as nepotism, where land was given to clergy’s illegitimate children, simony when priests sold offices for profits and nepotism, angered many people who simply felt they were being conned. The whole German clergy came under fire for living a luxurious life at the expense of the ordinary people who bitterly resented papal taxation that was imposed on them.

Luther’s message tapped into these concerns Luther and therefore he already had a market of receptive people who believed that the church was not catering for their religious needs. The organisation of the church was also in a very bad state. Charles V naively relied on the General council of the Church to settle disputes. They got together to make decisions about what should happen to Luther and how he should be disciplined. However they all had differing ideas about the action that should be taken concerning Luther and were therefore slow in doing so. This was shown by the length of time that it took them to finally excommunicate Luther. Without a strong church to support him Charles found it hard to crush Luther.

Charles V’s needs to govern his extensive lands meant that he could not give the situation in Germany the attention it required. However, he was also distracted by his desire to wage war against the French and the Turks. Charles had to govern lands across Europe. These included the Burgundian lands, Spain, The Netherlands and Austria to name but a few. During the Lutheran period Charles was extremely busy in fending off threats to such areas, including the spreading Ottoman Empire and the French in Italy.

He believed that such tasks were more important than resolving the seemingly ‘insignificant’ spread of Lutheranism. Between 1521 and 1530, Charles V was therefore absent from the German Empire and his deputy, Ferdinand also had other territorial responsibilities and ‘lacked the Imperial dignity of the Emperor himself’ (Macdonald pg.43) Such lack of authority from Ferdinand was shown at the Diet of Speyer when he was unable to apply the Edict of Worms to the whole of Germany. The lack of leadership that Charles V conveyed over Germany was heightened when he signed the solemn undertaking of capitulation. The lack attention Charles gave to Germany meant that he underestimated the full threat of the spread of Lutheranism and acted rather leniently on Luther compared to what he should have.

Charles V lacked the political and financial resources to wage war against the protestants, instead he agreed to a series of compromises in order to secure money and troops for his other campaigns. In order to implement his power as Holy Roman Emperor, Charles needed the support of the princes for money and troops. The growing support of Luther from the princes, however, meant that the financial resources flowing to Charles were beginning to dry up. Charles attempted to regain the princes’ support through a series of compromises. At the Diet of Augsburg in1530, occurred after Charles felt threatened by attacks of Turkish armies in Eastern Austria and the Diet of Speyer, Charles once again appealed for conciliation. Charles also tried to regain support from the princes by being lenient on them, which ensured Luther’s safety and mad it harder for Charles V to crush him. For example Charles did not act against Frederick of Saxony who offered Luther shelter. Charles was also lenient on allowing the princes to adopt Lutheranism within their individual states.

The failure of successive Popes to act and their resistance to reform made it impossible for Charles V to reach a reasonable compromise with the Lutherans. During the Lutheran period there were three successive Popes; Leo X, Clement VII, and Paul III. Leo. After being appealed to for support against Luther’s 95 theses, Leo X acted fast. He decided that Luther should be dealt with through the order of the monks and made to attend the triennial convention of his order to justify his beliefs. He was generally supported causing great embarrassment to Leo X. This was the first of many failures of the popes to act.

They were very self interested and preoccupied with politics and the shortage of money that was needed to satisfy their luxurious lifestyles. Even though there were a number of attempts to act against the spread of Lutheranism, such as the reform commission, set up by Paul III, the effect of such acts was limited and it only touched the surface on what was threatening to destroy the church. It seems as though the popes underestimated Luther’s message and by the time they had had realised the full extent of Lutheranism, it was too strong to combat. The failure of the Pope to act against Luther therefore meant that Charles V was put under unreasonable pressure to deal with him, through compromises.

Also, Charles V’s task was made much harder by the unwillingness of the German Catholic Princes and Bishops to give him their support and by the support offered to the German Protestants by the French. Throughout the 1520s Luther had gained much support from the princes and bishops within Germany who had seen the benefits of converting to Lutheranism and were therefore became increasingly unwilling to support Charles V. Their scepticism of Charles increased after the Battle of Muhlburg in 15 47 when he imported Foreign mercenaries, which went against the conditions of capitulation. In 1531, at Philip Hesse’s instigation, an alliance of most of the important states was formed called the ‘Schmalkadic League’.

The league was remarkably successful in its early years when it seemed as if a new power had emerged in international relations. The King of France, an enemy of Charles also gave the league his support and helped in restoring the Duke of Ulrich in 1534 by supplying money to field an army that was larger and better equipped than any other in the region at the time. Therefore because the Bishops and Princes Charles needed to crush Luther was unwilling to support him and because Lutheranism gained an armed force, he was unable to crush Luther.

There were therefore, a number of significant personal and political problems that Charles V had to face in crushing Lutheranism. Problems such as his inability to realise the threat Lutheranism posed and his inability to crush Luther at the Diet of Worms in 1521, certainly made it hard for Charles to crush Luther. The appeal of Luther’s message also goes along way in showing how Charles was unable to crush Luther. He gained support from a wide range of people who saw something in his message that benefited them.

Most noticeably, Luther appealed to the princes which made it increasingly difficult for Charles to crush Luther because he needed their support. The failure of the Catholic Church to deal with Luther also made it difficult. This included organisational weaknesses such as the failure of the General Council of the Church and weaknesses of the pope who did nothing to stop the word of Luther spreading. In my opinion the most important reason why Charles did not crush Luther was because he underestimated the true threat that he posed. By the time that he had had realised the full extent of Luther’s message, it was too strong to combat.

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