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Of Protestants and Princes

As with many of the rights we consider human rights, the concept of religious freedom did not drop down from the sky as a revelation. These concepts were adopted as the result of hard experience. Take the example of Europe after the Protestant Reformation. For the first time, a schism within Christianity, initiated by Martin Luther and his Ninety-five theses in 1517, tore through the heart of Europe and lead to over one hundred years of nearly continuous religious warfare.

Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms. Painting by Anton von Werner, 1877

Luther’s ideas quickly became a sensation after his excommunication from the Catholic Church by Pope Leo X. They were fundamentally democratic, denying the authority of the pope and priests as the representatives of God on earth and claiming salvation by faith alone through a direct relationship between the individual and God. Labeled a heretic and outlaw by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1521 through the Edict of Worms, he was abducted by Prince Frederick III of Saxony for his own protection and hidden in Wartburg Castle in Central Germany. The Edict would not be enforced within Germany, but several Hapsburg kingdoms, including those in the Low Countries (modern Belgium and Netherlands), would enforce it against Luther’s supporters. Germany at this time was not a unified nation, but a loose association of over 1000 kingdoms nominally under the rule of the Holy Roman Empire, but mostly operating independently. These kingdoms began to align in coalitions along religious lines, and beginning in 1525, many would begin to officially declare the “Evangelical” faith as their state religion, including the Duchy of Prussia.

Map of the kingdoms of the Holy Roman Empire, 1560

A violent religious struggle soon developed between the Catholic kingdoms under Charles V and the Protestant kingdoms, loosely organized into the Schmalkaldic League in 1536. The League was founded as an alliance of princes who adopted the Lutheran Augsburg Confession. Eventually, it would begin to act as a Protestant Holy Roman Empire, that challenged the authority of its Catholic counterpart. It slowly grew to include major European kingdoms such as Brandenberg, Denmark, and Pomerania, and would make peace with Austria in 1532. Distracted by conflicts with France and the Ottomon Empire, Charles V would allow the league to operate unchallenged until 1546.

Schmalkaldic League military treaty, extended in 1536

After Charles V made peace with France, he focused on suppressing Protestant resistance within his empire. From 1546 to 1547, in what is known as the Schmalkaldic War, Charles V and his allies, including the Pope, fought the League over territories in Saxony. Despite the superiority of the Lague forces, they would be routed in 1547 at the Battle of Mühlberg, capturing many leaders. Philip of Hesse tried to negotiate, but the emperor refused, and Philip surrendered in May. In theory, that meant that the residents of thirty different cities were returned to Catholicism, but that was not the case. The battle effectively won the war for Charles, and all lands within the Saxon territories in dispute fell under Catholic control.

This would not be the end of the conflict. Intermittent battles would persist and Charles V would be forced to flee into the Alps to avoid capture by a Protestant force in 1552 led by Maurice of Saxony in alliance with Henry II of France, who was promised lands in western Germany along the Rhine river. This second conflict would solidify the presence of Protestantism within Germany and end Charles’ hope for a religiously unified kingdom. In 1555. he would sign the Peace of Augsburg, officially ending the religious struggle between the two groups and made the legal division of Christianity permanent within the Holy Roman Empire, allowing rulers to choose either Lutheranism or Roman Catholicism as the official confession of their state.

The Peace of Augsburg was not a stable one. One of its planks, that bishops in Catholic kingdoms who converted to Protestantism would be required to resign their bishoprics, would be repeatedly tested, and this testing would culminate in the Cologne War in 1583. The initiation of the Counter-Reformation by the Catholic kingdoms in Europe would lead to more religious conflict that would devastate Europe until the signing of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Despite the tenuousness of this “peace” the document signed at Augsburg would be one of the first examples of European states recognizing the right of self-determination of other states and the right of people to choose their own religious practice.

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