WE reach the sixteenth century. For a millennium the Great Ruler laid, in the midst of wars and ethnical revolutions, foundations for a new and more glorious edifice than anything before. Ancient society, enfeebled by slavery and polytheism could never bear the structure about to be erected.
To understand, we must glance at the crisis threatening the constitution of Europe as the sixteenth century opened, which in turn allows us to understand the Reformation, a great movement just not possible before the century we speak of.
Until now there was no stable basis for the Protestant Reformation. The condition of the Teutonic (Germanic) nations which had overrun the decayed corrupt remains of the Roman Empire could not support it. Without Protestantism, the intellectual awakening of the twelfth and the literary revival of the fifteenth century would have been in vain. Mental torpor and encroaching Islam alone would have reigned in Europe. At this hour Christendom had only two things in its choice. Either accept the Gospel, and fight through scaffolds and stakes to the liberty which the Gospel brings, or crouch beneath the shadow of a universal Spanish monarchy, to be soon succeeded by a yet gloomier night of Moslem despotism.
The similarity with our own day is too obvious, faced a we are with the power of the European Union and the Church of Rome and the threat of Islamic rule.
At the eve of Reformation, Christendom was governed by the constitution and power of the Holy Roman Empire and the supremacy of the Papacy. Within limits each separate European State was independent. Each could pursue its own way, making war or concluding peace at will. But beyond these limits each State was simply the member of a corporate European body held under the sway of this double directorate.
The Empire emerged under Charlemagne and climaxed under Charles V. It assumed presidency of well-nigh all Europe. But above the Empire was the Papacy. Wielding a subtler influence and armed with higher sanctions, the Papacy was more the master of Empire than the Empire master of the Papacy. When Protestantism stood ready to appear, Medievalism was at its zenith. The former was at its weakest, the latter at full strength. The forces that Medievalism had at its service meant the future of Christendom and the world was bleak had not Protestantism overcome them in the mighty Reformation struggle which emerged at this time of crisis .
A New Empire
The ancient Roman Empire divided early into Eastern and Western halves. The Turk eventually made himself heir to the Eastern Empire using great guns and fierce warriors. The Western Empire dragged out a shadowy existence until the Pope raised up its fallen fabric. Using the genius of the Caesars without their arms, he grouped the kingdoms of Western Europe into a body or federation, and selecting one of their kings he set him over the confederated States, with the title of Emperor. This Empire was a fictitious or nominal one; it was the image or likeness of ancient Rome, the past reflecting itself on the face of modern Europe. Yet it dazzled the age which witnessed its sudden erection. Charlemagne gave it a show of power but failed to effect permanency due to the diversity of its members. Gradually cohesion of the Empire was sought through a series of Golden Bulls.
(Bulls were not only issued by Popes, the bulla being the seal, often lead but in this case gold - the bulla aurea. The Golden Bull of 1536 issued by Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV from Nuremburg saw a subtle power shift in that the pope, who at that time needed the political support of the Emperor in a local matter, seems to have had little input and on this occasion did not crown the Emperor. However Wylie wishes to stress the inherent "dual directorate" structure at the core of European government in repeated Golden Bulls in those days. He goes on to describe the minutiae of this system because its dangers present such a salutary warning, clearly timely for us in the EU today, but which, through space restraints, have been necessarily edited to the essentials).
The Golden Bull of 1536 explicitly named the seven prince-electors who were to choose the "King of the Romans" who would then (usually) be crowned "Holy Roman Emperor" by the Pope later. Three were churchmen and three lay princes, and one of kingly rank was added, to make up the mystic number of seven, as some have thought, but more probably to prevent equality of votes.
The three Churchmen were the Archbishop of Treves, Chancellor for France; the Archbishop of Mainz, Chancellor for Germany; the Archbishop of Cologne, Chancellor for Italy. The four laymen were the King of Bohemia, the Duke of Saxony, the Count Palatine of the Rhine, and the Marquis of Brandenburg. The person chosen to the imperial dignity took an oath to maintain the profession of the Catholic faith, to protect the Church in all her rights, to be obedient to the Pope, to administer justice, and to conserve all the customs and privileges of the electors and States of the Empire.
The imperial insignia were then given him, consisting of a golden crown, a sceptre, a globe called the imperial apple, the sword of Charlemagne, a copy of the Gospels said to have been found in his grave, and a rich mantle which was presented to one of the emperors by an Arabian prince.
"The emperor shall be chosen at Frankfort, crowned at Augsburg, and shall hold his first court at Nuremberg, except there be some lawful impediment. The electors are presumed to be Germans, and their sons at the age of seven years shall be taught the [Latin] grammar, and the Italian and Slavonian tongues, so as at fourteen years of age they may be skilful therein and be worthy assessors to the emperor".
Following Charlemagne the Holy Roman Empire concept languished for lack of suitable leadership. Inevitably the papacy saw its chance. Gregory VII. Pope 1073 -1085 arose with the grand project of making the tiara supreme not only over all crowns, but above the imperial diadem itself. Gregory succeeded in the end of the day, for the issue of the long and bloody war which he commenced was that the Empire had to bow to the mitre, and the emperor to take an oath of vassalage to the Pontiff. The Empire had only two elements of cohesion - Roman Catholicism within, and the terror of the Turk without.
There was danger as well as safety in the vast power of the man whom the Germans had elected to wear a crown which had in it so much grandeur and so little solid authority. The Turkish sultan was perpetually hovering upon their frontier. They needed a strong arm to repel the invader, and thought they had found it in that of the master of so many kingdoms; but the hand that shielded them from Moslem tyranny might, who could tell, crush their own liberties. It behooved them to take precautions against this possible catastrophe. They framed a Capitulation or claim of rights, enumerating and guaranteeing the privileges and immunities of the Germanic Body; and the ambassadors of Charles signed it in the name of their master, and he himself confirmed it by oath at his coronation. Under God the German Princes had erected an asylum to which Protestantism might retreat, when the day should come that the emperor would raise his mailed hand to crush it.
The Zenith of the Empire
Charles V. was more powerful than any holy roman emperor had been for many an age preceding. To the imperial dignity, a shadow in the case of many of his predecessors, was added the substantial power of Spain. A singular concurrence of events had made Spain a mightier kingdom by far than any that had existed in Europe since the days of the Caesars. Of this magnificent monarchy the whole resources were in the hands of the man who was at once the wearer of the imperial dignity and the enemy of the Reformation. This makes it imperative that we look at the greatness of the Spanish kingdom, when estimating the overwhelming force now arrayed against Protestantism.
As the Reformation drew nigh, Spain suddenly changed from being an alliance of diminutive kingdoms to be a single powerful empire. The various principalities, which up till this time dotted the surface of the Spanish Peninsula, were now merged into the two kingdoms of Arragon and Castile. There remained but one other step to make Spain one monarchy, and that step was taken in AD 1469, by the marriage of Ferdinand of Arragon and Isabella of Castile. In a few years thereafter these two royal personages ascended the thrones of Arragon and Castile, and thus all the crowns of Spain were united on their head. One monarch now swayed his sceptre over the Iberian Peninsula, from San Sebastian to the Rock of Gibraltar, from the Pyrenees to the straits that wash the feet of the mountains of Mauritania. The whole resources of the country now found their way into one exchequer; all its tribes were gathered round one standard; and its whole power was wielded by one hand.
Then arose Columbus allowing Spain to stretch her sceptre across the Atlantic. Ample provinces rich in gold, silver and natural resources in the New World called her mistress. The sun never set on the dominions of Spain as they poured wealth into her coffers protected by numerous armies and powerful fleets. Nothing could stay the advance of the despotic colossus, a despotism claiming a Divine right, upheld by the spiritual forces of priestcraft, and the material aid of fleets and legions. Liberty retreated before it without champion to do battle for her. Unless Protestantism had arrived at this time of crisis, a universal despotism would have covered Europe without hope of redress.
Taken from Wylie's History of Protestantism, and edited by Dr Clive Gillis