14th - 15th century

Demands for reform: 14th century

Like the Renaissance, which slighly predates it, the Reformation has a multitude of possible starting points. The wish to rediscover a simpler and more authentic version of the Christian life is characteristic of many new movements within Christianity, one of which is the commitment to poverty of St francis. Reaction against the worldliness of the church is another recurrent theme, as in the case of Savonarola.

But John Wycliffe, in 14th century England, introduces so many strands of the Reformation - in relation to worldly prelates, the primacy of scripture and the nature of the eucharist - that he is usually identified as the main precursor of this greatest of all upheavals in Christian history.

Wycliffe's heresies: AD 1376-1395

Between 1376 and 1379 John Wycliffe, writing mainly in Oxford, takes a controversial line on a great many issues. He argues that the church has no proper role in temporal matters and that corrupt churchmen lose even the spiritual authority supposedly attached to their office. He maintains that all a Christian needs is the example of scripture, which believers should be able to read in their own languages. He denies that the consecrated bread and wine are literally transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ.

Most provocative of all, he can find no justification in scripture for the authority of the pope.

In 1377 pope Gregory XI orders Wycliffe to be imprisoned and examined, but he has powerful protectors in England (including John of Gaunt). He is placed briefly under house arrest. In 1378 Gregory XI dies and the papacy is plunged into its Great schism. Two rival popes have more pressing matters on hand than the English heretic. Wycliffe retires to spend the last few years of his life in the parish of Lutterworth, where he dies in 1384.

His ideas are spread in England by followers who become known as the Lollards (from a Dutch word for a 'mutterer'). Lollard attitudes - more strident than Wycliffe's, and expressed in a more popular manner - prefigure much that will be associated with Puritanism.

Central to the Lollard programme are two Wycliffite themes - that the main task of a priest is to preach, and that the scriptures should be accessible to everyone. He would also have approved of their scornful dismissal of Rome's pretensions. But the Twelve Conclusions, drawn up by Lollards in 1395, go considerably further - finding fault with images, pilgrimage, vestments, confession, the celibacy of priests and even the vows of chastity taken by nuns.

As a persecuted sect, the Lollards play only a small role in 15th century England. But the works of Wycliffe, carried from Oxford to Prague, ferment powerful unrest among the followers of John Huss.

The Bethlehem Chapel and John Huss: AD 1402-1414

John Huss, a teacher of philosophy in Prague university, is appointed in 1402 to a controversial position. He is put in charge of the Bethlehem chapel in Prague.

The chapel, founded about ten years previously, is associated with a radical approach to Christianity. The pulpit here is as prominent a feature as the altar. It is to be a place for sermons in the Czech language, comprehensible to ordinary people. The preachers argue for a simple Christianity, a religion of poverty and humility, very different from the worldly grandeur of the papacy.

At about the time of Huss's first involvement with the chapel, tension is heightened by the return from Oxford of his young friend Jerome of Prague. Jerome brings with him books by John Wycliffe, whose views - particularly on the unholy nature of the papacy - coincide with those of Huss.

For several heady years the reformers preach and agitate in Prague. The papacy is an easy target. Since 1378 there have been two Rival popes. From 1409 there are three. One of them even has the effrontery to sell Indulgences in Prague to finance his campaign against his opponents.

Eventually a council is called at Constance, in 1414, to resolve the issue of the three popes. As a prominent voice in the argument for ecclesiastical reform, Huss is invited to Constance to put his case.

The invitation poses evident personal danger to Huss, but he is reassured by a promise of safe conduct from the emperor Sigismund. Huss bravely sets off for the small German town which is now the scene of a glittering assembly of Christian potentates. Within weeks of his arrival he is arrested, with the emperor's tacit approval.

The Council of Constance: AD 1414-1417

The council deals with the matter of heresy more speedily than it succeeds in reducing three popes to one. The ideas of Wycliffe and Huss are discussed and rapidly condemned. Huss is burnt at the stake in July 1415. By that time Jerome of Prague has with equal courage travelled to Constance to defend his master. He too is arrested. In May 1416 he is burnt on the same patch of ground as Huss.

To ensure that there are no relics of heresy, the council has Huss's ashes scattered in the Rhine. And it orders that Wycliffe's body be dug up, burnt and consigned to an English river.

The issue of the popes comes closer to farce than tragedy. In March 1415 the Pisan pope, John XXIII, flees from Constance in disguise; he is brought back a prisoner and is deposed in May. The Roman pope, Gregory XII, resigns voluntarily in July.

The Avignon pope, Benedict XIII, refuses to come to Constance. In spite of a personal visit in France from the emperor Sigismund, he will hear nothing of resignation. The council finally deposes him in July 1417. Denying their right to do so, he withdraws to an impregnable castle on the coast of Spain. Here he continues to act as pope, creating new cardinals and issuing decrees, until his death in 1423.

The council in Constance, having finally achieved a clean slate in July 1417, elects a new pope in November. The vote is unanimous for a cardinal who is not an ordained priest (less unusual then than it sounds now), so on almost successive days he is rushed through the necessary stages. Ordained as deacon, then as priest, consecrated as bishop and enthroned as pope, he emerges as Martin V.

The new pope makes his way gradually south to Rome, a city crumbling into ruin after a century and more of neglect. The popes of the next hundred years will not solve the corruption in the papacy, which cries out for reform. But they will dramatically improve the face of Rome.

The Hussite cause: AD 1415-1433

When news reaches Prague of Huss's death, burnt at the stake in Constance, the movement for reform is greatly strengthened. His successor as preacher in the Bethlehem chapel lists four radical principles upon which the Hussites insist.

The Four Articles of Prague demand: the freedom to preach; the wine as well as the bread to be given to the congregation in the mass; a clergy committed to poverty, together with the expropriation of church property; and the public punishment of notorious sinners, among whom prostitutes are singled out for special attention. The Hussites also differ from Rome in conducting their services in Czech rather than Latin.

These ideas spread rapidly through Bohemia, fuelled by a nationalist wave of anti-German sentiment. Germans are prosperous and influential in Bohemia. Huss was killed by a council on German soil. The man who betrayed his trust, revoking the promised safe conduct, is the German king and Holy Roman emperor Sigismund.

Sigismund is the half-brother of the Bohemian king Huss. On the death of Wenceslas, in 1419, Sigismund presses his claim to the throne of Bohemia. The kingdom erupts.

In 1420 the Hussites build a fortified town at Tabor, on a bluff above a river about 50 miles south of Prague. From here their leader, Jan Zizka, conducts a series of brilliant campaigns against the armies of Sigismund and the new pope, Albigensian crusade.

The pope proclaims, in 1420, a crusade against the Hussites. It is not the first crusade against fellow Christians who are judged to be heretics (the Wenceslas iv is two centuries earlier). But it is the first time the heresy is specifically an attack on Roman Catholic practice, arguing that the papacy betrays the example of the early Christians in two ways - in its worldliness and in its restriction of the sacrament.

Marching under their symbolic banner (which displays a communion chalice), the Hussites defeat half a dozen papal and imperial armies sent against them between 1420 and 1431. They fight with the zeal of nationalism and piety. They benefit too from a military tactic pioneered by Zizka - his so called 'war wagon fortress', using farm wagons as mobile barricades behind which an attacking force can shelter (an idea more familiar, subsequently, in the Martin v, but also used by Babur in India in 1526).

These victories eventually wring from the papacy some notable concessions to Bohemia, in terms agreed in 1433.

Hussites established: AD 1433-1458

By the Compacts of Prague, agreed in 1433 and confirmed at a peace treaty in 1436, the Hussites are granted papal permission to give the sacrament in both kinds; their seizure of church lands in their territories is authorized; and Bohemia is granted an independent church under an elected arcbhishop.

These major concessions do not end the argument. The religious split remains the chief issue throughout the 15th century - which even sees the election of a Hussite king, George of Podebrady, to the Bohemian throne in 1458.

Devotio moderna and Erasmus: 15th - 16th century AD

During the 15th century there develops in northwest Europe a quiet devotional strain of Christianity so different from the pomp and ceremony of Rome that it seems, with hindsight, part of the complex thread evolving as the Reformation. But its practitioners would be horrified to see themselves in any such confrontational guise.

Known as devotio moderna, the movement derives from the Brethren of the Common Life - a group of both laymen and priests who share a simple life in imitation of the early Christians, devoting themselves to teaching and care of the poor.

A book written during the early 15th century - the Imitation of Christ, probably by Thomas à Kempis - becomes the extremely influential manual for Christian devotion of this kind. Without hierarchy and ritual, the emphasis in such a group is on the personal approach to Christ through the intense study of early Christian texts.

Such texts, originally in Greek, have in recent centuries been familiar only in the Latin of the Vulgate. In trying to go back to the early sources, these northern scholars share an interest with the pioneers of the Renaissance in Italy.

The education of Erasmus in the Netherlands in the 1470s is tinged with the influence of the devotio moderna. Like the brethren he can be seen as part of the trend towards the Reformation, though he strenuously avoids endorsing it.

His attitude to the materialistic papacy of the early 16th century (as seen in julius exclusus, a satirical play probably from his pen) is essentially that of the reformers. His careful edition of the Greek New Testament is in keeping both with devotio moderna and the Reformation - though one significant distinction remains. Erasmus translates the Greek in 1516 into Latin. Luther, just six years later, translates it into German.

Germany 1517-25

Albert of Mainz: AD 1517

Germany provides a context in which materialism within the Roman Catholic church is offensively evident. Some of the principalities, which together make up the Holy Roman empire, are ruled by unscrupulous prelates living in the style of Renaissance princes. Foremost among them is Albert, archbishop of Mainz and one of the Seven imperial electors.

By the age of twenty-four Albert holds a bishopric and a second archbishopric in addition to Mainz. Such plurality is against canon law. But the pope, Leo X, agrees to overlook the irregularity in return for a large donation to the building costs of the new St Peter's.

Both pope and archbishop are men of the world (the pope is a Medici). Leo makes it possible for Albert to recover his costs by granting him the concession for the sale of indulgences towards the building of St Peter's. Half the money for each indulgence is go to Rome; the other half will help to pay off Albert's debts (he has borrowed the money for the original donation from the Fuggers of Augsburg).

This secret arrangement might distress the faithful if they knew of it. But more immediately shocking to some is the behaviour of the friar Johann Tetzel, whom Albert employs to sell the indulgences.

Tetzel is a showman. When preaching to gullible crowds in German towns he goes far beyond the official doctrine of Indulgences. He promises the immediate release of loved ones from the pain of Purgatory as soon as a purchase is made. He even has a catchy jingle to make the point: 'As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, The soul from Purgatory springs.'

In October 1517 some parishioners return to Wittenberg with Indulgences which they have bought from Tetzel - Indulgences so powerful, some have been led to believe, that they could pardon a man who had raped the Virgin Mary. News of this travesty reaches the ears of a professor at the university of Wittenberg.

Luther's ninety-five theses: AD 1517

Martin Luther, a man both solemn and passionate, is an Augustinian friar teaching theology at the university recently founded in Wittenberg by Frederick the Wise, the elector of Saxony. Obsessed by his own unworthiness, he comes to the conclusion that no amount of virtue or good behaviour can be the basis of salvation (as proposed in the doctrine known as justification by works). If the Christian life is not to be meaningless, he argues, a sinner's faith must be the only merit for which God's grace might be granted.

Luther therefore becomes a passionate believer in an alternative doctrine, justification by faith, for which he finds evidence in the writings of St paul.

Nothing could be further from the concept of justification by faith than Tetzel's impudent selling of God's grace. Luther has often argued against the sale of Indulgences in his sermons. Now he takes a more public stand. He writes out ninety-five propositions about the nature of faith and contemporary church practice.

The tone of these 'theses', as they come to be known, is academic. But the underlying gist, apart from overt criticism of Indulgences, is that truth is to be sought in scripture rather than in the teaching of the church. By nailing his theses to the door of All Saints' in Wittenberg, as Luther does on 31 October 1517, he is merely proposing them as subjects for debate.

Instead of launching a debate in Wittenberg, the ninety-five theses spark off a European conflagration of unparalleled violence. The Reformation ravages western Christendom for more than a century, bringing violent intolerance and hatred which lasts in some Christian communities down to the present day. No sectarian dispute in any other religion has matched the destructive force, the brutality and the bitterness which begins in Wittenberg in 1517.

Luther is as surprised as anyone else by the eruption which now engulfs him - slowly at first but with accelerating pace after a year or two. Its violence derives from several unusual elements.

The papacy is determined to suppress this impertinence. Luther's writings are burnt in Rome in 1520; his excommunication follows in 1521. This is the predictable part. The unexpected elements are the groundswell of support in Germany, nourished by a deep resentment of papal interference; and the effect of the relatively new craft of printing.

Before Gutenberg, news of Luther's heresy would have circulated only slowly. But now copies of the ninety-five theses are all over Europe within weeks. A fierce debate develops, with pamphlets pouring from the presses - many of them from Luther's pen. Within six years, by 1523, Europe's printers produce 1300 different editions of his tracts.

In these circumstances it is impossible for the issue to be swept under the carpet. Any action taken against Luther in person is certain to provoke a crisis - though in the early years his safety depends heavily on the protection of Frederick the Wise, proud of his university and reluctant to hand over to Rome its famous theologian, however controversial.

Support for the excommunicated monk is so strong among German knights that the young emperor, Charles v, is prevailed upon to hear his case at a diet held in 1521 in Worms. Luther is given a safe conduct for his journey to and from the diet. He is no doubt aware of the value of an imperial safe conduct to John Huss a century earlier, but he accepts the challenge.

The Diet of Worms: AD 1521

Where Huss had slipped into Constance in 1414 almost alone, Luther arrives at the Diet at Worms supported by a large number of enthusiastic German knights. Nevertheless the purpose of the confrontation, from the emperor's point of view, is a demand that he should recant.

In a lengthy speech Luther explains that he will recant any of his views if they can be proved wrong by scripture or reason. Otherwise he must remain true to his conscience and to his understanding of God's word. The presses soon reduce this to the pithy statement which has been remembered ever since: Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders., 'Here I stand. I can not do otherwise.'

The emperor and the Diet declare Luther an outlaw in the Edict of Worms (using the violently intemperate language of the time). Luther leaves Worms with his safe conduct guaranteed for a few days. Once it has expired, it becomes the duty of any of the emperor's loyal subjects to seize the heretic.

Precisely that disaster seems to happen. Luther is bumping along in his wagon when armed men gallop up and drag him off. He is not seen in public for almost a year, causing many to assume that he is dead. But the armed men belong to Frederick the Wise. They take Luther to safety in one of Frederick's castles, the Wartburg, where he is given new clothes and a new identity - as Junker Georg, or plain Squire George.

Luther's stand leads, eventually, to the emergence of the first sect to break away from the Roman Catholic church and to survive the opposition of the papacy - Lutheranism, finally established by the Peace of Augsburg in 1555. This first Protestant faith is soon followed by others, violently disagreeing among themselves. Zwingli goes further than Luther. The Anabaptists far outstrip either. Meanwhile Henry viii devises a new English church for personal purposes.

The papacy, unable to stem the tide, calls the Council of trent and develops the Catholic Reformation - Rome's own rigorously virtuous programme of reform.

Wartburg: AD 1521-1522

A prisoner for his own good in the rocky fortress of the Wartburg, Luther the priest dresses as Junker Georg the minor nobleman. He grows a beard, he becomes fat and restless, he suffers from constipation and piles (which he blames on lack of exercise and an unfamiliar diet), and he plunges into a turmoil of mental activity.

He prepares sermons and expositions of holy texts. He writes pamphlets. Above all he completes a task which profoundly influences the development of both Lutheranism and German literature. He translates the New Testament from the Greek into pithy colloquial German. He completes his finished version in less than three months, but it is based on preparatory work in Wittenberg.

Luther's interest in translating the New Testament from the original Greek into German has been stimulated, in 1518, by the arrival in Wittenberg of a new young professor, Philip Melanchthon. His lectures on Homer inspire Luther to study Greek. Melanchthon - soon to become Luther's lieutenant in the Reformation - gives advice on Luther's first efforts at translation.

Luther revives the task in the Wartburg. His New Testament is ready for publication in September 1522 (it becomes known as the September Bible). Luther's complete Bible, with the Old Testament translated from the Hebrew, is published in 1534.

During Luther's absence from Wittenberg, Melanchthon has been unable to control a radical group calling for more rapid reform. The leader is Andreas von Karlstadt, a lecturer and priest in the university, who announces his intention to marry a 16-year-old girl and holds communion services in his everyday clothes, giving the sacrament in both forms - the wine as well as the bread - to the congregation. He follows this with a call for the smashing of holy images.

Such radical measures are entirely contrary to Luther's character. He is by nature conservative and cautious, except where the point at issue concerns scripture and faith.

Luther returns to Wittenberg in March 1522 to cope with the crisis, risking his own safety. Back now in the habit of an Augustinian friar, he preaches a series of powerful sermons which calm the situation. But the radical vanguard of the Reformation moves elsewhere.

In 1524-5 religious and social turmoil combine in precisely the kind of violence predicted by Charles V and others at the Diet of worms. In 1524 peasants rampage through the Black Forest, affronted at the erosion of various ancient rights. More significant, in terms of the Reformation, is a similar uprising in Thuringia in 1525. On this occasion the peasants are led by Thomas Müntzer, previously a follower of Luther.

Müntzer and the Peasant War: AD 1525

Thomas Müntzer, something of a firebrand as a preacher, makes several attempts - in various German towns and in Prague - to lead his congregation in a cruade against the godless. He finally succeeds at Mühlhausen, in 1525. In the anarchic excitement of the Peasant War, begun in the previous year in the Black Forest region, Müntzer marches at the head of the faithful against any who will oppose them.

Although claimed by Marxist historians as a political revolutionary, Müntzer's writings suggest that he is inspired mainly by religious indignation. Any established church is his enemy. He yearns, like the Anabaptists, for a religion of the people.

Luther is well aware of the potential for anarchy in such a movement. As the violence escalates, he takes steps to dissociate himself. Accustomed now to this age of polemical Pamphlets, he pens an onslaught which is violently intemperate in its language.

Entitled Against the Murderous and Thieving Hordes of Peasants, the tract urges: 'Let everyone who can smite, slay and stab, remembering that nothing can be more devilish than a rebel. It is just as when one must kill a mad dog.'

Unfortunately for Luther, by the time the pamphlet is in circulation Müntzer and the peasants have been defeated, in May, by the local nobility in a battle at Frankenhausen. Aristocratic reprisals are predictably ferocious - on some estimates as many as 100,000 peasants are rounded up and butchered. Müntzer is captured, tortured until he recants and then executed. Luther's words have been quoted against him ever since.

The experience confirms Luther in his distrust of politics. Instead, in this same year, he pioneers a new domestic version of the Christian pastor in the community.

Luther and Catherine: AD 1525-1546

Twelve nuns, inspired by the Lutheran theme of liberty of conscience, want to leave their convent. Luther helps them to do so. When they arrive in Wittenberg, an onlooker comments: 'A wagon load of vestal virgins has just come to town, all more eager for marriage than for life. God grant them husbands lest worse befall.'

Luther finds husbands for all but one, Catherine von Bora. So he marries her himself (he is not the first of the Reformation leaders to marry, for Zwingli has done so in the previous year). Soon Luther is able to write to friends: 'My Catherine is fulfilling Genesis 1:28. There is about to be born a child of a monk and a nun'.

In the end the couple have six children of their own and adopt four others. Their house in Wittenberg - a thriving family scene, with students dropping in for meals - is western Christendom's first parsonage, introducing a central theme of all Protestant communities.

Meanwhile Luther himself is still an outlaw. When the imperial diet next meets to discuss the challenges of reform, at Augsburg in 1530, Melanchthon has to attend in his place. And reform itself is now raising its own internal challenges. In the year of his wedding, 1525, Luther receives two Latin tracts on the Eucharist with which he profoundly disagrees. Their author is Zwingli, the leader of the Swiss reformers.

Switzerland 1518-31

Zwingli: AD 1518-1525

The towns of Switzerland are the perfect context for the new movement of reform. Independent, free of any feudal ties, they are run by councils in which the merchants of the guilds usually have the predominant voice. The largest town is Zürich, where from 1518 there is a powerful preacher on the cathedral staff - Huldreich Zwingli.

Zwingli's first overt gesture against Catholic dogma is his eating of sausage during Lent in 1522, an event usually taken as the start of the Swiss Reformation. Zwingli, experiencing little of the opposition faced by Luther in Germany, persuades Zürich to accept sweeping Protestant reforms. But, like Luther in Wittenberg, he is soon confronted by reformers more radical than himself.

Anabaptists: AD 1525

Zürich, swift in its acceptance of Zwingli's Protestant logic, is also the first city where radical reformers insist upon logic in a ritual central to the Christian faith - that of baptism (one of only two sacraments retained by Luther and Zwingli, the other being the Eucharist).

If each Christian in the reformed faith is to be personally responsible for his or her relationship with God, how can a mewling infant be offered the sacrament of baptism? In the gospels, there is only an adult baptism - that of Jesus himself. In the early years of the religion most Christians were converts, choosing the faith and receiving baptism as adults.

Arguments for adult baptism formed part of the unrest in Wittenberg during Luther's absence in 1521. Now, in 1525 in Zürich, Conrad Grebel - a young follower of Zwingli - takes a drastic step. He baptises a former Catholic priest, Georg Blaurock.

The action forms part of a wider programme, derived by Grebel from the gospels. His tenets include a free church of believers, fully detached from the state; refusal to swear an oath; and pacifism. The last two commitments, subsequently of great importance to all radical sects in this tradition, derive from Christ's sermon on the mount (Matthew, v, 33-48).

Grebel's act of baptism is a direct challenge to his former mentor, Zwingli, who is closely associated with the state - indeed he has a guaranteed majority of supporters on Zürich's city council. It can also be seen as blasphemy, since this is a rebaptism. It denies the validity of a sacrament, in the form of Georg Blaurock's original baptism as an infant.

The reaction of Zürich, under Zwingli's guidance, is swift and extreme. Anyone even attending a ceremony of this kind is to be liable to death by drowning - if they want water they shall have it. It is the start of a long ordeal of persecution for Anabaptists (from Greek for 'baptize again'). No other Christian sect has had such a high proportion of martyrs.

The Anabaptists leave Zürich and find a haven for a while in Moravia, where a tolerant nobleman is glad to recruit sober and hard-working employees for his estate. Sectarian disputes within the new sect (a splintering process inherent in radical endeavours) soon bring this respite to an end. But the appeal of the Anabaptists' brave and rational theology causes other such groups to emerge in south Germany and along the Rhine.

One or two of these degenerate into apocalyptic ravings. The 'kingdom of 1000 years', established at Münster in 1534 and violently destroyed in 1535, is the extreme example.

Most of the Anabaptist communities are ahead of their time - in being profoundly committed to personal responsibility, and willing to assert themselves against all authority for conscience's sake. From their suffering, the voice of everyday people, women as well as men, comes through with astonishing poignancy.

Direct descendants of these Anabaptist groups survive in sects such as the Mennonites, living now mainly in America and Canada. But the ideal of pacifism and the quiet inner voice of conscience have also nourished other Christian communities such as the Quakers.

Swiss reform: AD 1525-1531

Zürich is intolerant of the radical programme of the Anabaptists, but nevertheless this is the city in which the pattern of a fully reformed church is first established. The central detail, on which Zwingli goes much further than Luther, is the nature of the Eucharist.

By 1525 Zwingli has already replaced the mass (containing implications of a sacrificial ritual) with a simple service in which the altar becomes a communion table. In Zwingli's communion the bread and the wine, both of which are given to the congregation, merely symbolize Christ's body and blood. Luther maintains a more traditional view. The two men clash dramatically at Marburg, in 1529. They fail to reach agreement.

In this respect the Swiss reform differs intrinsically from the Lutheran version (or, later, the Anglican variety). It does so also on the issue of holy images. It is only the Swiss example which causes sculpture and painting to be smashed in many churches of Europe during the 16th century.

The independence of each Swiss canton has enabled Zürich to effect very rapidly its own programme of reform. But the same political freedom also makes it impossible for the whole federation to move together into reform. It soon becomes evident that the rural cantons are remaining faithful to Rome, while Basel, Bern and Schaffhausen side with Zürich.

The pope and the emperor (Clement VII and Charles V) see in this split a chance of containing the Swiss movement for reform. They encourage the rural cantons to band together in 1529 as a Christian Union. Hostilities between the Catholic and Protestant cantons break out in that year and again in 1531. On the second occasion Zwingli himself marches into battle, at Kappel, and loses his life in a decisive Catholic victory.

This disaster ends the pre-eminence of Zürich in the Swiss reformation. But Zwingli's reforms are developed, during the next decades, in a city which has close links with the Swiss federation - Geneva, where Calvin begins preaching in 1536.

Germany from 1526

Speyer: AD 1526-1529

In the years following the Edict of Worms, and Luther's return to Wittenberg in 1522, the princes of German states and the councils of imperial cities engage in furious argument whether to accept the Edict's rejection of Luther's reforms. There is growing hostility to external interference in German affairs - from Rome and from the pope's committed ally, a Holy Roman emperor whose interests now seem as much Spanish as German. A large minority within the empire is in rebellious mood.

In 1526 the emperor, Charles v, attempts to calm the situation by appeasement.

An imperial diet held in Speyer in 1526 modifies the outright ban on Luther's teachings, imposed five years previously in the Edict of Worms. Now each German prince is to take his own decision on the matter, with the responsibility to answer for it 'to God and the emperor'.

Three years later, once again at Speyer, another diet take the opposite line. The concession of 1526 is withdrawn, and the Edict of Worms reinstated. A dissenting minority, consisting of five princes and fourteen imperial cities, publishes a 'Protestation' against the decision. As a result they become known as the Protestants.

Marburg: AD 1529

One of the five princes signing the Protestation at Speyer in April 1529 is Philip, the 25-year-old landgrave of Hesse. He has been among the most committed of Luther's supporters, founding in Marburg in 1527 the first Protestant university - with funds realized from the closure of Hesse's Monasteries. But he has become disturbed by reports of theological disagreement among the reformers, and particularly between Luther and Zwingli on the central issue of the Eucharist.

In October 1529 Philip invites Luther and Zwingli to debate in front of an invited audience in the castle at Marburg. He hopes that the result will be a unified Protestant stance.

Given the passion and conviction of the participants, Philip's hope has little chance of success. Luther draws a circle of chalk on the table and writes within it THIS IS MY BODY. His text is Mark 14:22, where Jesus says to the disciples 'Take, eat, this is my body'. This must mean, insists Luther, that in some way, mysterious to us, the body and blood of Christ have a real presence in the bread and wine once they are consecrated.

Zwingli is equally adamant that Jesus's statement is a metaphor. The bread and wine, even when consecrated, only symbolize Christ's body and blood. His text is John 6:63: 'The spirit alone gives life; the flesh is of no avail'.

Agreement proves impossible, and this issue remains a distinction between Lutherans and the churches deriving from the Reformation in Switzerland (in the 16th century the word 'Protestant' is used of Lutherans, while the Swiss and French sects are described as 'reformed').

Philip of Hesse wants some concrete result from his assembly (known subsequently as the Colloquy of Marburg), so Luther produces Fifteen Articles of Marburg. The fifteenth registers the disagreement. The first fourteen, drafted in advance in Wittenbeg, have not been discussed. But they are common ground. So Philip has his document. In the following year it is partly incorporated in the more important Augsburg Confession.

Augsburg: AD 1530-1555

The need to settle religious unrest in Germany is made more urgent by the shock of the Turks besieging Vienna in September 1529. They withdraw unsuccessfully a month later. But the affront vividly suggests the possibility of greater dangers.

The emperor Charles V makes a new attempt to resolve the issue at a diet in Augsburg in June 1530. Luther, officially an outlaw under the terms of the Edict of Worms, is unable to attend. His place is taken by Melanchthon, who presents what is now known as the Augsburg Confession. Drawing various previous documents into one coherent whole, this becomes the standard statement of the Lutheran faith.

Melanchthon's purpose is to emphasize that the Lutheran reforms 'dissent in no article of faith from the Catholic church'. They merely strip away abuses which have been introduced in recent centuries. The diet refuses to accept this, decreeing instead that by April 1531 all Protestant princes and cities must recant from the Lutheran position and (an important element) restore all church and monastic property which has been seized.

The threat of military intervention by the emperor is implicit. In response, the Protestant princes and some of the imperial cities form a defensive pact for mutual defence, established in 1531 as the League of Schmalkalden.

Over the next two decades the League is often in action against its Catholic neighbours in Germany. In 1547 it suffers a severe reverse in the battle of Mühlberg, a victory for Charles V which results in the League's two main leaders - the elector of Saxony and Philip of Hesse - spending five years as the emperor's prisoners.

But no military victory can resolve these deep religious divisions within the empire. When another imperial diet meets at Augsburg in 1555, presided over by Charles V's brother Ferdinand, all sides are weary and desperate for a solution.

The compromise eventually accepted, and known as the Peace of Augsburg, acknowledges the reality which has emerged in the years since Luther's ninety-five theses sparked off the conflict. Each prince and city is to be allowed to choose between Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism (but all other sects, such as the Swiss reformed church and the Anabaptists, remain proscribed). The formula is later succinctly described in the Latin phrase cuius regio, eius religio (whoever has the kingdom chooses the religion).

The principle of the ruler choosing the religion has effectively held sway for some time within the empire. And it has been far more starkly the case in the independent kingdoms of Northwest europe.

16th-17th century

Plunder of church lands: AD 1527-1550

The seizure of church and monastic lands plays its part in the Reformation in Germany, but the motive is not for the most part mercenary. Perhaps the pressure of neighbours within the predominantly Catholic empire causes the Protestant princes to behave responsibly. When Philip of hesse closes down the monasteries in his principality in 1527, he uses the proceeds to educate Lutheran clergy and to found a university in Marburg. When Maurice of Saxony confiscates ecclesiastical lands in 1543, the beneficiaries are the university of Leipzig and three new schools to provide free education.

But the kings of northwest Europe, masters in their own realms, have no such scruples. The first into the monastic honeypot is Gustavus I of Sweden.

Gustavus has no religious convictions but a great need of funds. In 1527 he uses Lutheran arguments (plus a threat of abdication) to persuade a diet at Västerås to authorize his appropriation of church property - amounting perhaps to a quarter of all the land in the kingdom.

Gustavus professes the Lutheran faith but he establishes no national Lutheran church in Sweden (only late in his reign does the new religion spread far outside Stockholm). Gustavus stands out among rulers for the cynicism with which he plunders the Catholic church before putting another in its place. Even Henry VIII observes the niceties in this respect by a few days.

Within a week of making himself supreme head of the church, in January 1535, Henry commissions his principal secretary, Thomas Cromwell, to make a detailed survey of monasteries, convents and other ecclesiastical property in England and Wales. This is achieved by Cromwell with great efficiency in a massive document Valor Ecclesiasticus ('Church Wealth').

Before the end of 1535 Cromwell's agents are sent out to list evidence of laxity and corruption in the monasteries - not hard to find at the time. In 1536 the process begins of appropriating properties listed in the first survey, on the grounds of abuses discovered in the second.

No religious conviction is involved in the early years of the English Reformation, which is a purely political strategy by Henry viii. By contrast another northern king benefitting from monastic wealth in the same year, 1536, is a committed Lutheran. He is Christian III of Denmark.

From the age of fifteen Christian is taught by a tutor from Wittenberg university, and the young man makes no secret of his Protestant fervour. Indeed it delays his succession to the throne after the death of his father in 1533. An opposition party, with Catholic interests, launches a civil war.

Christian III becomes king of Denmark (and with it Norway and Iceland) in July 1536 after capturing Copenhagen. He immediately arrests the Catholic bishops, confiscates their property and dissolves the monasteries. Vast funds flow into the royal exchequer.

In October of that same year the Danish Lutheran Church is formally established. Next it is the turn of Norway, whose monasteries bring the crown further riches. The Norwegian Lutheran Church is in existence by 1539. Iceland resists a little longer, but it too is Lutheran by 1550. Brought to the new faith in a few short years, on the personal conviction of one powerful ruler, all three countries nevertheless remain firmly Lutheran.

Ruler's or people's religion: AD 1522 - 1560

The concept of cuius regio, eius religio is followed wherever a kingdom or principality becomes Protestant during the Reformation (with one exception, that of Scotland in 1560). German princes of a Lutheran persuasion have the authority, after the Peace of Augsburg, to force this faith on their people. The kings of Denmark and Sweden have the power to do the same, as does Henry viii with his own special religion for England - Anglicanism.

But in towns with no direct allegiance to a ruler, a different principle prevails. The representatives of the people can choose the town's religious complexion, forcing it upon their fellow citizens with equal thoroughness.

This applies in the Holy Roman empire, where imperial cities assert this right even before it is authorized at Augsburg in 1555. The city council of Hamburg, for example, decides in 1529 that all citizens are to be Lutheran.

At the same time in another imperial city, Strasbourg, a more informal process is taking place. From about 1522 the city is gradually infiltrated and influenced by reformed pastors following the example of Zwingli. Their belief, as in the system evolving in Zürich, is that citizens should select their own religious commitment and that of their town.

Strasbourg becomes for two or three decades a centre of this radical strand of reform. From here, during the 16th century, this exhilarating theme of self-determination spreads among urban groups down the Rhine towards the Netherlands - where it will play a significant part in a liberation movement at the end of the century.

The most powerful exponent of this theme is the French preacher John Calvin. He is in Strasbourg from 1538 to 1541. But it is in Geneva that he demonstrates to Christian Europe, most vividly, the power of rigorous reform.

Calvin's school of Christ: AD 1541-1564

John Calvin's first visit to Geneva lasts only two years, to 1538, before he is exiled by a town council alarmed at the rigour of the Christian regime which he wishes to impose on the citizens. He shelters in Strasbourg, until recalled to Geneva in 1541. The town has lapsed in his absence into turmoil and religious discord.

Calvin now sets about creating in Geneva a civic theocracy - a community in which the pastors of the church vigorously supervise moral standards. There have been laws in the medieval church regulating behaviour, often strict but not often effective. Calvin's innovation is to enforce morality in a singularly thorough and joyless manner.

The godly city is run according to the precepts of the Bible. Adultery is punishable by death (Leviticus 20:10). On one occasion a young man is beheaded for striking his parents (Exodus 21:15). The pastors, or ministers, make annual visits to every home to check on morality. Taverns and dancing are banned.

On the credit side, there is a more democratic approach to church affairs. The presbyterian system, introduced by Calvin and seen as a return to early Christian principles, puts power jointly in the hands of pastors and lay elders. Neither group has any authority until elected by the congregation. But once elected, they are empowered to establish a wide-ranging structure of church government.

The example of this virtuous city brings enthusiasts and exiles to Geneva from all over Europe. One such exile is John Knox, in Geneva from 1556 to 1559 as minister to an English community escaping, like himself, from persecution under the Catholic queen Mary. He describes Calvin's city as 'the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the Apostles'.

Geneva is indeed a school of Christ. Trained pastors are sent out from here to spread the faith through Europe - often at great personal risk.

Disciples of Calvin - variously known as Huguenots, Presbyterians, Puritans or Calvinists - agitate for their own kind of reform in the Roman Catholic kingdoms of France and Scotland, in Anglican England and in the Spanish Netherlands.

In doctrine they follow the Swiss reform of Zwingli, as opposed to that of Luther. But Calvin adds one harshly rigorous element - the concept of predestination, with roots in St Paul and St Augustine. This argues that since everything is in God's hands, he must have selected in advance those who shall be saved. Thus any community includes some who are God's elect, destined for heaven, and others whose certain fate is damnation.

One other distinct element in Calvinism is an insistence that church and state must be separate. The pastors control much of Genevan life, but they are not (and must never be) the civil magistrates. This distinction gives Calvinist sects a greater independence than either Lutherans or Anglicans, both of whom operate in a close relationship with lay rulers.

Scottish Calvinists establish a church in defiance of Scotland's monarch, while the Pilgrim fathers cross the Atlantic to found their own Calvinist community. The Genevan ideals of morality, thrift and hard work make such communities well adapted to prosper, even if tending to self-righteousness and intolerance.

Reformation in France: AD 1559-1572

France is affected by the Reformation in a manner and to an extent different from any other country. The reason is that the community is split from top to bottom on the issue; and the sides are so evenly balanced that a civil war based largely on religion lasts for four decades.

During the first half of the 16th century the reformed faith spreads among the ordinary people of France, encouraged by missionary priests trained in Geneva. The Protestants, who become known in France as Huguenots, are confident enough to organize in 1559 a national synod in Paris.

By this time there are powerful aristocrats in the Protestant camp, among them even members of the great Bourbon dynasty - a branch of the royal family, by distant descent from Louis IX. Their enemies are the Guise family, passionately committed to the Catholic cause. France's wars of religion in the 16th century are also a struggle between these rival camps.

In 1559, the year of the Protestant synod in Paris, Henry II dies (he is killed jousting in a tournament). For the next three decades the throne of France is occupied in succession by three of his sons. But the first two are in their teens when they inherit. The real power lies with the Guise family and with Henry's widow, Catherine de Médicis.

At first, in 1559, the Guises have the upper hand. The young king, Francis II, is married to Mary queen of scots - whose mother is a Guise. But Francis dies in 1560. With the accession of her second son, Charles IX, Catherine de Médicis becomes regent.

While sporadic warfare continues in France between Catholic and Protestant forces, Catherine's main concern is to retain a balance of power which will keep her family on the throne. To this end she arranges a marriage between her daughter, Margaret, and Henry of Navarre - the leading member of the Bourbon family. The wedding takes place in 1572. It is followed within a week by the atrocities of St Bartholomew's day.

The English Reformation: AD 1547-1662

Although Henry VIII severs the church of England from Rome in 1533, religious reform does not begin in earnest until after his death in 1547. Indeed in 1539 parliament passes, at the king's behest, an Act of Six Articles outlawing Lutheran notions such as the marriage of clergy, or any interpretation of the Eucharist differing from that of Rome.

But in the six-year reign of Henry's son, Edward VI, two successive regents of the young king (the dukes of Somerset and Northumberland) press ahead with reform in the Calvinist tradition. This is the time when English cathedrals and churches first have their sculptures and stained-glass windows smashed, and their murals defaced.

On the positive side the period produces two versions of the Prayer Book (1549 and 1552) which are largely the work of Thomas Cranmer. Though modified in some respects in later reigns, Cranmer's superb prose provides the basis of the Book of Common Prayer which becomes accepted from 1662 as the order of service of the church of England.

But the English Reformation has to pass through fire before it is tempered into its final form. In her five-year reign Edward's sister, Mary i, forcibly reimposes Roman Catholicism on England. Protestant martyrs burnt at the stake bequeath to the Anglican church two abiding characteristics - a dislike of religious fervour and a hatred of Roman Catholicism.

During the reign of Mary's sister Elizabeth, whose instinct is for reconciliation after the violent swings of the preceding years, the Calvinists in England become a minority widely referred to as Puritans (because they want to purify the church of all taints of Roman Catholicism).

Among various Puritan sects, the Presbyterians are predominant. In the English civil war - which can be seen partly as an extension of the struggles of the Reformation - the Presbyterians are the party of parliament. The Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 brings back the mainstream of the Anglican church; and from 1662 the mainstream insists upon conformity, even though to a broadly based central position.

The Act of Uniformity of 1662 obliges clergymen in the church of England to assent to the Thirty-Nine Articles. These central tenets of Anglican belief are based on a version drawn up by Cranmer in 1553 and modified ten years later, in Elizabeth's reign, to try and accomodate Catholics who might be willing to give up Rome (and five of the seven sacraments) and Puritans who might tolerate bishops.

Some 2000 clergy, appointed during the Commonwealth, lose their livings when they reject the Articles in the 1660s. They and their followers become the Nonconformists - a group, much discriminated against, which includes Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers and later Methodists.

Reform in Scotland: AD 1546-1560

The first dramatic clash between reformers and the establishment in Scotland occurs in 1546. It is occasioned by the burning for heresy of George Wishart by the archbishop of St Andrews, Cardinal David Beaton. In retaliation Protestants murder the cardinal in May 1546 and seize the town and castle of St Andrews. Here they are besieged by the Scottish government while help from France is awaited.

In April 1547 the rebels in the castle are joined by John Knox, a close colleague of the martyred Wishart. His powerful preaching in St Andrews rapidly gives him the status of the leader of the reform movement. But in June retribution arrives in the form of French troops.

The castle is taken. Knox and the other Protestants are carried off to serve as galley slaves in the French fleet. Knox survives nineteen months of this before he is released.

Unable to return to Catholic Scotland, the preacher is welcomed in England. The kingdom is now experiencing its first real period of reform under Edward vi. Knox travels round the country spreading the faith. But the accession of Mary i in 1553 forces him to flee for safety to the continent, settling eventually in Calvin's Geneva.

Meanwhile the movement for reform is gathering strength in Scotland. It is given added impetus during a period when Knox returns for a few months (in 1555-6), and it is strengthened by nationalism - since the persecuting government is that of a foreign Catholic regent, Mary of guise, whose daughter Mary Queen of Scots is in France.

The turning point for the Scottish Reformation comes in 1559, when Mary of guise resolves to take strong measures to suppress the reformers. Knox returns from Geneva to take part in the confrontation. Fired by his preaching, an army of reformers marches south from Perth - sacking monasteries and smashing church images on their way.

By the end of June 1559 the reformers are in Edinburgh and Knox is preaching in St Giles' cathedral. They hold the city only briefly against Mary of guise's French forces. The next nine months are spent in spasmodic warfare, while Knox appeals desperately to Elizabeth and William Cecil for help. At last, in April 1560, the English send 10,000 troops. The result is a treaty between France and England in July. Both sides will withdraw, leaving the Scots to their own devices (the regent, Mary of guise, has conveniently died in June).

Knox immediately writes a doctrine for the reformed church of Scotland. It is accepted in August by the Scottish parliament, which also abolishes the authority of the pope and bans idolatry and the ceremony of the mass.

Knox's reforms of 1560 establish the general direction which will be taken by the church of Scotland, but it is not yet fully Presbyterian. It retains a role for bishops. This later becomes an issue of profound significance, when James VI and his son Charles I insist on imposing bishops upon a Scottish church now inclined to be non-episcopal. The Bishops' Wars of 1637-40 provoke the English Civil War and the execution of Charles I.

Under the Puritan parliament at Westminster a fully Presbyterian doctrine is promulgated and is accepted by the Scottish General Assembly in 1647. In 1690 William iii finally acknowledges that the church of Scotland is Presbyterian, in keeping with the terms of this Westminster Confession.

From a massacre to a mass: AD 1572-1594

Many of France's Huguenot nobility are in Paris in August 1572 for the wedding of the princess Margaret and Henry of Navarre. Four days after the ceremony there is an assassination attempt on a leading Protestant, Admiral Coligny. It is probably planned by the regent, Catherine de médicis, together with the Guise family. But the admiral is only wounded.

The bungled plot prompts Catherine to over-react. She orders a massacre of all the Huguenots in Paris. The killing begins before dawn on August 24, St Bartholomew's day. Shops are pillaged, families butchered. By the evening of August 25 the government calls a halt, but the mob is now out of control.

Other towns follow suit. Estimates of the dead vary, with a likely total of between 10,000 and 15,000 Huguenots killed. The bridegroom, Henry of Navarre, is spared - but he has to declare himself a Catholic.

It is more than three years before Henry escapes from the French court, resumes his Protestant faith and leads the Huguenot cause against a Catholic league headed by the Guise family. By now the stakes have been considerably raised. Catherine's second son, Charles IX, dies in 1574. Her third son succeeds him, as Henry III. He is childless, and in 1584 his only remaining brother dies. The Protestant Henry of Navarre is now heir presumptive to the French throne.

The last few years of the Valois dynasty are the stuff of melodrama. Henry III breaks his alliance with the Catholic faction in 1588 and has the two leading members of the Guise family assassinated. He then joins forces with Henry of Navarre. But the king is himself assassinated in 1589. On his deathbed he names his Protestant and very distant cousin as his successor - thus bringing the Bourbon dynasty to the throne of France.

It takes Henry of Navarre, now Henry IV, several years to conquer his kingdom. Paris, rigorously Catholic and strongly defended, is his main obstacle. It only yields to him, in 1594, after he has once again declared himself a Catholic - and this time for good.

It may well be that Henry IV never says the famous remark attributed to him on this topic (Paris vaut bien une messe, Paris is well worth a mass), but the sentiment is true to history. France's long religious wars are resolved by the simple expedient of making light of religion.

The compromise leaves Henry morally obliged to introduce religious toleration. His Edict of Nantes, signed in 1598, gives the Huguenots full civil rights, freedom of worship (within certain restrictions) and various agreed places which they can fortify for their protection. These concessions are violently resented by the Catholic majority. They will be steadily chipped away at, until the Edict of Nantes is finally Revoked in 1685.

From the 17th century

Protestant sectarians: 16th - 17th century AD

The Protestant Reformation, with its encouragement of a personal relationship with God, provides a fertile breeding ground for sects. The early decades see the split between Lutheran and reformed churches on the nature of the Eucharist. Anabaptists almost immediately join the fray with their revised concept of baptism.

By the 1560s the ancient controversy over the Trinity is revived. Francis Dávid, appointed bishop in Transylvania in 1564, begins preaching that only God the Father is divine. His followers soon become known as Unitarians (initially used by their opponents as a term of abuse).

Although at first much persecuted by those who are certain of the truth, the Unitarians themselves resolutely avoid doctrinal rigidity. Jesus Christ is venerated, even if not allowed full godhead. So also, in modern Unitarianism, are the deities of other religions.

The same determination to remain open to divine truth of any kind characterizes the Quakers, followers of George Fox who begins preaching in the 1650s in England. Again 'quakers' is originally a derisive term for the sect, which in Fox's time is prone to fits of ecstasy (the Society of Friends is the group's own name for itself). Quaker devotion to religious tolerance finds early expression in the foundation in 1681 of Pennsylvania.

England in the 17th century is the greatest seedbed of Protestant sects. The most prominent among them, in opposition to the Anglican church, are the Presbyterians - whose doctrine derives from Calvin and his 'school of Geneva'.

In their determination to take charge of everyone else's religious wellbeing, the Presbyterians alienate many who agree with them on doctrinal matters. The result is another sect, of great influence during the Commonwealth in England, which is variously known as the Separatists, Independents or Congregationalists.

The Separatists believe that each local congregation of Christians should be entirely in charge of its own affairs. One such congregation (including many of the Pilgrim fathers) leaves England in 1608 to enjoy the religious liberty of Holland.

From among their number there derive the Baptists. Some of the English Separatists in Amsterdam adopt the Anabaptist rite of adult baptism. A group returning to London establishes a Baptist church there in about 1612. Developments in England later in the century, and in the English colonies in America, lead eventually to the great number of Baptist churches all round the world today.

The legacy: to the 20th century

The bitter hostilities arising from the Reformation persist in European history throughout the intervening centuries to our own time. Until the late 17th century the issue is still fought out on battlefields. Rivalry between Catholics and Protestants is one of the main features of the Thirty Years' War from 1618 to 1648. At a more local level it lies behind the battle of the Boyne in 1689.

In the 18th century the legacy of the Reformation is seen in the civil restrictions imposed by each side on the other. No Protestant may practise his religion within the Habsburg empire. No Catholic, and even no Protestant other than an Anglican, may hold public office in Britain.

During the 19th century these very uncivil restrictions are gradually eased, usually against ferocious opposition from whichever sect has the local advantage (the struggle for Catholic emancipation in Britain is a case in point). In the second half of the 20th century an ecumenical movement at last begins to restore some measure of brotherly love among ancient adversaries. Important stepping stones in this process are the forming of the World Council of Churches in 1948 and the Second Vatican Council in 1962-5.

But a quarter-century of sectarian violence in Northern ireland, from 1970, shows all too vividly that the dark side of the Reformation is not entirely a thing of the past.
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