By Country : Holy Roman Empire

Reformation in the Holy Roman Empire

A.) The Structure of the Holy Roman Empire

The Holy Roman Empire, historically the East Frankish Kingdom which had integrated the Kingdoms of Italy and Burgundy, whose rulers traditionally were the only legitimate candidates to be crowned (Roman) Emperors, was essentially an elective kingdom. The GOLDEN BULL of 1356 had fixed the number of electors to seven - the Dukes of Brandenburg, Saxony, the King of Bohemia, the Count Palatinate, and the Archbishops of Cologne, Mainz, Trier. With the fall of the STAUFER DYNASTY in 1254 the Empire's potentates tended to elect candidates with a small power base and extended their authority at the expense of the crown; over time the Holy Roman Empire came to resemble a complex puzzle of statelets bound together by a few Imperial institutions.
Since 1438, the HABSBURG DYNASTY, with her power base in the Austrian lands, held on to the Imperial crown. Emperor MAXIMILIAN I. attempted a reform of the Holy Roman Empire, the most important element the introduction of 12 IMPERIAL CIRCLES in 1512. The Holy Roman Empire lacked a capital; the Imperial diet, called REICHSTAG, assembled in a range of cities capable of hosting such an event, most of them located in southern Germany. Among other Imperial institutions were the REICHSKAMMERGERICHT, or Imperial supreme court, located in Wetzlar.

B.) The Situation prior to the Reformation

Within a few years, Emperor CHARLES V. had inherited a number of crowns (the Austrian and Burgundian lands, the crowns of Spain, Bohemia, (rest-) Hungary, with the Bohemian lands and Spanish possessions in Italy, not to mention the Spanish colonial Empire) and thus concentrated unprecedented power in his hands. Germany's princes were suspicious of the Emperor's intentions, as he could use the power to turn the hitherto rather ceremonial position of Emperor into one which exerted real authority.
While the Kings, in many other countries, exerted strong influence when it came to the election of archbishops, the situation in the Holy Roman Empire was more complex. Italy and Burgundy disregarded, there were a number of archbishoprics - Cologne, Mainz, Trier, Bremen, Magdeburg, Salzburg. As the Staufer Emperors had lost the INVESTITURE CONFLICT, the election of archbishops (Theoretically) was a matter to be decided by the respective cathedral chapters. In reality, German princes and smaller noble families competed in getting family members, usually second-born sons, elected bishop or archbishop. These archbishops, bishops ans a number of abbots in effect were both church officials and temporal rulers of statelets, the size and importance of which could vary; thus such bishops are usually referred to as PRINCEBISHOPS. Albrecht II. of Brandenburg, Archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg, brother of the Duke-Elector of Brandenburg, is such a case.
Germany's many princes pursued their own dynastic policies; the free imperial cities pursued their own interests (which should not be underestimated; the HANSEATIC LEAGUE repeatedly fought wars and often won against Denmark). The instability of the political situation, in combination with economic developments, had an impact on the social situation. Among those who felt threatened were the immediate knights, concentrated in southwestern Germany, the peasants in large regions of Germany. To these have to be added the guildsmen in many cities who resented being not represented in the councils of their respective city, despite the fact that they contributed a significant part of the city revenue.

C.) From 1517 to 1556

Luther's 95 theses and, at least as important, his German language bible edition, had an immediate impact. Luther himself was excommunicated by Pope Leo X. in 1520 and placed under the Imperial ban after the DIET OF WORMS 1521. Unintended by Luther, a series of local iconoclastic riots, the TRIER STIFT FEUD in which the immediate knights of Upper Germany fought the Archbishop of Trier (the leader of the knights, Franz von Sickingen, had converted to Lutheranism in 1522) and most of all the GERMAN PEASANTS REVOLT (1524-1525) were essentially social conflicts which were influenced by the reformation and blamed on the reformers by their critics. Radical reformers, some without secondary education, such as THOMAS MÜNTZER, only contributed to bring the reformation into disrepute.
Iconoclastic riots were suppressed; in ERNESTINE SAXONY the Lutheran reformation was introduced in an orderly manner. Luther clearly recognized the authority of the state authority and thus made it possible for Germany's princes and the councils of immediate cities to adopt his reformation; many did, within a few years.
On the Diet of Speyer (1529) the Lutheran princes and cities' deputees protested against the plan to cancel the 1526 Edict of Worms, thus earning the name PROTESTANTS.
Emperor Charles V. meanwhile was intent to stick to Catholicism. However, he had to deal with many issues at once - the Ottoman threat, the conflict with France, a hostile pope. So the ongoing reformation was dealt with by diplomacy. At the Diet of Augsburg, Lutherans and Catholics adopted the compromise AUGSBURG CONFESSION acceptable to both sides. The protestant princes however still felt threatened and in 1531 founded the SCHMALKALDIC LEAGUE as a defensive alliance.
The anabaptist experiment in Münster in 1534/1535 was an irritation of regional importance. The scandal regarding Count PHILIPP OF HESSEN (he entered into a second marriage in 1540) gave Emperor Charles V. an excuse to take legal action against one of the leaders of the Schmalkaldic League; Count Philipp had to make concessions in order to avoid being deposed. The Emperor continued to attempt undoing at least part of the reformation by Reichstag legislation, which meant continued negotiation and pressure; nothing lasting was accomplished. He also insisted on a general church council to be held on Holy Roman Empire territory, as he wanted to make it possible for delegates of the protestants to attend.
In 1546 Duke MAURICE of ALBERTINE SAXONY, a Lutheran, invaded Ernestine Saxony and thus started the SCHMALKALDIC WAR (1546-1547), which resulted in the victory of the Imperial forces in the BATTLE OF MÜHLBERG. The two main leaders of the princely opposition, Count Philipp of Hessen and Duke John Frederick of Ernestine Saxony, were imprisoned; Emperor Charles V., at the DIET OF AUGSBURG, aimed at continuing a legislation which would be binding for the entire Empire and reduce the impact of the reformation. The AUGSBURG INTERIM of 1548 was passed, but not generally acceped.
In 1552, while the diet again was assembled at Augsburg, Duke Maurice of (now all of) Saxony marched an army first to Augsburg and then on toward Innsbruck, where the Emperor was residing. The Emperor, completely taken by surprise, fled; the Treaty of Passau was signed, confirmed in the PEACE OF AUGSBURG (1555), which established the principle cuius regio, ejus religio, leaving the decision of the state confession in the hands of the ruling prince or city council. Charles V. abdicated in 1556.

D.) The Later 16th and early 17th Century

By 1555, the Lutheran reformation had been introduced in many German principalities and cities. However, in many other territories the princes had remained loyal to the Catholic church, considerable segments the population had turned toward the reformation - for instance in Austria proper. The COUNCIL OF TRENT provided the instruments for Catholic rulers to enforce his belief - the Jesuit order and the Inquisition. Jesuits were invited by a number of princes and began the COUNTERREFORMATION, in the later 16th century, however, not yet with the intensity that would precede and accompany the 30 YEARS WAR.
The COLOGNE STIFT FEUD (1583) - Archbishop GEBHARD TRUCHSESS VON WALDBURG in 1582 had converted to Lutheranism - again indicated the volatility of the situation of the Lutheran church in the Empire. However, the Lutheran princes failed to come to the aid of Truchsess von Waldburg, because they were dissatisfied with his tolerance of Calvinism - the later decades of the 16th century are referred to as the SECOND REFORMATION; the Count Palatinate accepted Calvinism, as did the Duke of Brandenburg (the latter conversion had no impact on his territory, as Brandenburg stayed Lutheran).
Emperor Rudolf II. (1575-1612) was a devoted Catholic who valued the Counterreformation higher than his obligation to safeguard the Holy Roman Empire. In the early 17th century, Germany again broke up in two rival camps, along confessional lines - the CATHOLIC LEAGUE and the PROTESTANT UNION; the constellation for the THIRTY YEARS WAR was set.
In the early years of the war, as Wallenstein's armies were successful beyond expectation, the Counterreformation was implemented with vigour in areas under Imperial and allied control (Austria proper, the Palatinate etc.); the TREATY OF WESTPHALIA (1648) then fixed the year 1624 as the 'normal year'; the religious conditions of that year were to be regarded as legally binding. In effect, with minor modifications, it was a confirmation of the Peace of Augsburg.

Biography of Rudolf II., from EB 1911
Die Zweite Reformation in Deutschland (the Second Reformation in Germany), course description by H. Schilling, in German, bibliography
DOCUMENTS Peace of Augsburg (excerpt), posted by S. Shoemak (Engl. trsl.)
REFERENCE Andrea van Dülmen : Deutsche Geschichte in Daten, Bd.1 : Von den Anfängen bis 1770, München : dtv 1979

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First on January 6th 2003, last tevised on November 15th 2004

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