He died just a year before a disaster that seemed fatal to Protestantism in Germany.
In 1545 Charles V, helped by Lutheran troops, compelled Francis I to sign the Peace of Crépy. Suleiman, at war with Persia, gave the West a fiveyear truce. Pope Paul III promised the Emperor 1,100,000 ducats, 12,000 infantry, 500 horse, if he would turn his full force against the heretics. Charles felt that at last he might effect what all along had been his hope and policy: to crush Protestantism, and give to his realm a unified Catholic faith that would, he thought, strengthen and facilitate his government. How could he be a real emperor in Germany if Protestant princes continued to flout his authority, and to dictate the terms on which they would accept him? He had not taken Protestantism seriously as a religion; the disputes between Luther and the Catholic theologians meant little or nothing to him; but Protestantism as the theology of princes leagued in arms against him, as a political power capable of determining the next Imperial election, as the faith of pamphleteers who lampooned him, of artists who caricatured him, of preachers who called him Son of Satan57—this he could bear in somber silence when he had to; but now for a fleeting season he was free to fight back, and to mold his chaotic realm into one faith and force. He decided for war.
In May 1546, he mobilized his Spanish, Italian, German, and Lowland troops, and summoned to his side the Duke of Alva, his ablest general. When the Protestant princes dispatched delegates to him at Ratisbon to ask the meaning of his moves, he answered that he intended to restore Germany to Imperial obedience. During that conference he won to his support the most competent military leader in Germany, the young and ambitious Duke Maurice of Albertine Saxony. The Fuggers promised financial aid, and the Pope issued a bull excommunicating all who should resist Charles, and offering liberal indulgences to all who should aid him, in this holy war. Charles proclaimed the Imperial ban against Duke John of Ernestine Saxony and Landgrave Philip of Hesse; he absolved their subjects from allegiance to them, and vowed to confiscate their lands and goods. To divide the opposition he announced that he would not interfere with Protestantism where it was definitely established; his brother Ferdinand made a like pledge to Bohemia; and Maurice was tied to the cause by a promise that he would replace John as Elector of Saxony. Hopeful or fearful, the electors of Cologne and Brandenburg, the count Palatine, and Protestant Nuremberg remained neutral. Realizing that not only their theology but their goods and persons were at stake, John of Saxony, Philip of Hesse, the princes of Anhalt, the cities of Augsburg, Strasbourg, and Ulm mobilized all their forces, and put into the field 57,000 men.
But when John and Philip marched south to challenge Charles, Ferdinand moved north and west to seize John’s duchy; and Maurice, to have a finger in the pie, joined him in invading Ernestine Saxony. Appraised of this, John hurried north to defend his duchy. He did it brilliantly; but meanwhile Philip’s troops began to desert for lack of pay, and the Protestant cities, lured by promises of fair play, sued for peace with Charles, who let them off with heavy fines that broke the financial backbone of their freedom. Charles was now as superior in arms as in diplomacy. The only force favoring the Protestants was the Pope. Paul III had begun to fear too great a success for the Emperor; if no Protestant princes should survive to check the Imperial power, it would establish itself as supreme in northern as well as southern Italy, would surround or absorb the Papal States, and would irresistibly dominate the papacy. Suddenly (January 1547) Paul ordered the papal troops who were with Charles to leave him and return to Italy. They gladly obeyed. The Pope found himself heretically rejoicing over the victories of Elector John in Saxony.
But Charles was determined to bring the campaign to a decision. Marching north, he met the depleted forces of the Elector at Mühlberg on the Meissen, routed them completely (April 24, 1547), and took John captive. Ferdinand demanded the execution of the doughty prince; canny Charles agreed to commute the sentence to life imprisonment if Wittenberg would open its gates to him; it did, and the capital of German Protestantism fell into Catholic hands while Luther slept peacefully under a slab in the Castle Church. Maurice of Saxony and Joachim of Brandenburg persuaded Philip of Hesse to surrender on their promise that he would soon be freed. Charles had made no such pledge; the extent of his geniality was to promise Philip release after fifteen years. No one seemed left to challenge the victorious Emperor. Henry VIII had died on January 28, Francis I on March 31. Never since Charlemagne had the Imperial power been so great.
But the winds of fortune veered again. German princes, assembled in another diet at Augsburg (September 1547), resisted the efforts of Charles to consolidate his military victory into a legal autocracy. Paul III accused him of conniving at the murder of Pierluigi Farnese, the Pope’s natural son; and Bavaria, ever loyal to the Church, turned against the Emperor. A Protestant majority re-formed among the princes, and wrung from Charles his temporary consent to clerical marriage, the double administration of the sacrament, and the Protestant retention of Church property (1548). The Pope fumed at the Emperor’s assumption of power to rule on such ecclesiastical matters, and Catholics murmured that Charles was more interested in extending his Empire and entrenching the Hapsburgs than in restoring the one true faith. Maurice, now Elector of Saxony at Wittenberg, found himself, Protestant and victorious, dangerously unpopular amid a population Protestant and conquered; his treachery had poisoned the power it had won. His appeals to Charles to free the Landgrave were ignored. He began to wonder had he chosen the better part. Secretly he joined the Protestant princes in the Treaty of Chambord (January 1552), by which Henry II of France promised aid in expelling Charles from Germany. While Henry invaded Lorraine and seized Metz, Toul, and Verdun, Maurice and his Protestant allies marched south with 30,000 men. Charles, resting on his laurels at Innsbruck, had carelessly disbanded his troops; he had now no defense except diplomacy, and even at that shifty game Maurice proved his match. Ferdinand proposed an armistice; Maurice prolonged the negotiations courteously, meanwhile advancing on Innsbruck. On May 9, accompanied only by a few attendants, Charles moved painfully, by litter, through rain and snow and the night, over the Brenner Pass to Villach in Carinthia. One throw of fortune’s dice had transformed the master of Europe into a gouty fugitive shivering in the Alps.
On May 26 Maurice and the triumphant Protestants met with Ferdinand and some Catholic leaders at Passau. Charles, after a long interlude of selfdeflation, consented to have Ferdinand sign a treaty (August 2, 1552) by which Philip was to be released, the Protestant armies were to disband, both Protestants and Catholics were to enjoy freedom of worship till a new diet could meet, and if that diet failed to reach an acceptable settlement, this freedom of worship should continue forever—a favorite word in treaties. Maurice had begun with treachery, and had risen to victorious statesmanship; soon (1553) he would die for his country at the age of thirty in battle against Albrecht Alcibiades, who had turned half of Germany into an anarchy perilous to all.
Charles, despairing of a solution for his problems in Germany, turned west to renew his struggle with France. Ferdinand presided with patience over the historic Diet of Augsburg (February 5-September 25, 1555), which at last, for half a century, gave Germany peace. He saw that the territorial principle of ducal freedom was too strong to allow such a central and absolute sovereignty as the kings had won in France. The Catholic representatives were a majority in the Diet, but the Protestants, superior in military power, bound themselves to stand by every article of the Augsburg Confession of 1530; the Elector Augustus, who had succeeded Maurice in Saxony, adhered to the Protestant view; and the Catholics perceived that they must yield or renew the war. Charles, in the senility of his diplomacy, urged the electors to name his son Philip as his successor to the Imperial title; even the Catholics dreaded the prospect of that dour Spaniard ruling them; and Ferdinand, aspiring to the same throne, could not hope to win without Protestant support in the electoral college.
Arms and circumstances so favored the Protestants that they demanded everything: they were to be free in the practice of their faith in all German territory; Catholic worship was to be forbidden in Lutheran territory; present and future confiscations of Church property were to be held valid and irrevocable.58 Ferdinand and Augustus worked out a compromise that in four famous words—cuius regio eius religio—embodied the spiritual infirmity of the nation and the age. In order to permit peace among and within the states each prince was to choose between Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism; all his subjects were to accept “his religion whose realm” it was; and those who did not like it were to emigrate. There was no pretense on either side to toleration; the principle which the Reformation had upheld in the youth of its rebellion—the right of private judgment—was as completely rejected by the Protestant leaders as by the Catholics. That principle had led to such a variety and clash of sects that the princes felt justified in restoring doctrinal authority, even if it had to be fractured into as many parts as there were states. The Protestants now agreed with Charles and the popes that unity of religious belief was indispensable to social order and peace; and we cannot judge them fairly unless we visualize the hatred and strife that were consuming Germany. The results were bad and good: toleration was now definitely less after the Reformation than before it;59 but the princes banished dissenters instead of burning them—a rite reserved for witches; and the resultant multiplication of infallibilities weakened them all.
The real victor was not freedom of worship but the freedom of the princes. Each became, like Henry VIII of England, the supreme head of the Church in his territory, with the exclusive right to appoint the clergy and the men who should define the obligatory faith. The “Erastian” principle—that the state should rule the Church—was definitely established.* As it was the princes, not the theologians, who had led Protestantism to its triumph, they naturally assumed the fruits of victory—their territorial supremacy over the emperor, their ecclesiastical supremacy over the Church. Protestantism was nationalism extended to religion. But the nationalism was not that of Germany; it was the patriotism of each principality; German unity was not furthered, it was hindered, by the religious revolution; but it is not certain that unity would have been a blessing. When Ferdinand was chosen emperor (1558) his Imperial powers were less than those that even the harassed and hampered Charles had possessed. In effect the Holy Roman Empire died not in 1806 but in 1555.
The German cities, like the Empire, lost in the triumph of the princes. The Imperial communes had been wards of the emperor, protected by him against domination by the territorial rulers; now that the emperor was crippled the princes were free to interfere in municipal affairs, and communal independence waned. Meanwhile the growing vigor of Holland absorbed most of the trade that poured German products into the North Sea through the mouths of the Rhine; and the southern cities languished with the relative commercial decline of Venice and the Mediterranean. Commercial and political enfeeblement brought cultural decay; not for two centuries to come would the German towns show again the vitality of trade and thought that had preceded and supported the Reformation.
Melanchthon, surviving the Peace of Augsburg by five years, was not sure that he wanted the reprieve. He had outlived his leadership, not only in negotiations with the Catholics but in the determination of Protestant theology. He had so far liberated himself from Luther as to reject complete predestination and the bodily presence of Christ in the Eucharist,60 and he struggled to maintain the importance of good works while insisting with Luther that they could not earn salvation. A bitter controversy arose between “Philippists”—Melanchthon and his followers—and the orthodox Lutherans, who fulminated chiefly from Jena; these called Melanchthon “an apostate Mameluke” and “servant of Satan”; he described them as idolatrous sophistical blockheads.61 Professors were engaged or dismissed, imprisoned or released, as the tides of theological lava ebbed or flowed. The two parties agreed in proclaiming the right of the state to suppress heresy by force. Melanchthon followed Luther in sanctioning serfdom and upholding the divine right of kings;62 but he wished that the Lutheran movement, instead of allying itself with the princes, had sought rather the protection of municipal burgher aristocracies, as in Zurich, Strasbourg, Nuremberg, and Geneva. In his most characteristic moments he spoke like the Erasmian that he had hoped to be: “Let us speak only of the Gospel, of human weakness and divine mercy, of the organization of the Church, and the true worship. To reassure souls and give them a rule of right action—is this not the essence of Christianity? The rest is scholastic debate, sectarian disputes.”63 When death came to him he welcomed it as a benign liberation from the “fury of theologians” and the “barbarity” of “this sophistical age.” 64 History had miscast as a general in a revolutionary war a spirit that nature had made for scholarship, friendliness, and peace.