Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Schmalkaldic League

John Frederick of Saxony
In a period of chaos and division, small nation came to together to form a strong defense alliance that would aim in protecting their interest, this was the condition of the 1500’s Holy Roman Empire. The Holy Roman Emperor aimed in securing his imperial rule and the imposition of his Catholic ideals. A group of small Protestant states feared there demise. And as a result, they formed an alliance that would be known as the Schmalkaldic League.  

The whole of Europe saw a tumultuous century. The 16th century, saw great powers rose, few power played and divisions made. During this period of Renaissance, Europe was once again vibrant and chaotic. Vibrant in forms of learning and exploration. Chaotic as European countries battled each other for supremacy. And at the forefront of the continent was the Catholic Church in form of the Pope in Rome. The church had enjoyed high level of wealth and influence. Or so it thought. On 1517, Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation after he nailed his 95 theses. It started a division throughout Europe.

Protestant Reformation rocked whole of Europe into two sides. One defending the Catholic Church, and another supporting and moving towards Protestantism. Among the nations that were hugely affected by the situation was the Holy Roman Empire. Composed of several princely and city states, it was virtually a confederation of German states with the Holy Roman Emperor as the sovereign. As the birthplace of Luther and the Protestant Reformation, it was no surprise that it was hardly affected. Some German rulers supported Protestantism. Leaders like John Frederick, Elector of Brandenburg, supported the movement. 
Charles V

The growing influence of Protestantism caused concern to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. He was a staunch believer. The Holy Roman Empire also since its conception was supposed to be loyal to the Catholic Church and to the Pope. And so, any signs of deviation from this must be quelled immediately to contain it and revert it back. He either had to do it diplomatically or militarily.

In 1531, he issued an ultimatum to the Protestant states. They were given the condition of returning back to their traditional Catholic rituals or face the wrath of the Emperor. They were given until April 1531 to comply.

Many Protestant German States feared the military of the Holy Roman Emperor. Some of the state were just cities and lack manpower to stop or push back the Emperor in case of military conflict. They also don’t have the resources to keep stable if ever economic sanctions were to be placed.

And so on February 27, 1531, just months before the deadline, the Schmalkaldic League was formed. Named after the town of Schmalkalden in Thuringia, it was a defense alliance of German princely and city states. It had initially had 10 city states and 6 princely states in its roster. Eventually, its political and military purpose drove its membership up to 35, just 7 years after its inception. Its constitution was inaugurated in 1532 and was revised to allow more members to join in 1536.

Pope Paul III
In 1534, a new Pope came to power. Alessandro Farnese took the name of Pope Paul III. The new Pope wanted also to quell the huge religious divided between the Catholics and the Protestants. In 1537, the Pope called for a General Council in Mantua. None of the members of the Skhmalkaldic League members attended.

Instead of attending to the General Meetings of the Catholic Church, they decided to strengthen their Protestant beliefs. In 1537, a summit of members of the League underwent in Schamalkalden. During the meeting the Schamalkald Articles were adopted. It was composed by Martin Luther himself under the direction of the major proponent of the League, John Frederick. The Article aimed in codifying the tenants of the Protestant fate and remove all divisions between beliefs.

Another reason for the survival of the league was the geopolitics of the time. Charles V had a lot of problems or competition outside the Holy Roman Empire. He was known as Charles I of Spain. He must continually compete for power and influence against King Francis I of France. In the east, the Ottoman menace under the Sultan Suleiman continued to prevail. The Schmalkaldic League was least of his worries.

Although in the sidelines of his major problems, the Schamalkaldic League could threaten him in other ways. The Ottomans could use it to divide to push its interest in Europe. Or it could also be used by Francis I to stab the heart of Charles V’s Empire. In order to free his hands, in 1544 a compromise was agreed upon in 1544. In order to avoid antagonizing the league, leading to a predicted alliance with Francis I, he allowed it continue to operate.

Nevertheless, peace would not last long. In 1545, Pope Paul III called up a major council of Catholic clerics in order to reform the Church in the city of Trent. Delegates were called up from all the realms of the Christendom, even those who were members of the Schmalkaldic League. The League refused to send any.

Philip of Hesse
Charles V was angered by their decision. And so in 1546, he declared war against the Schmalkaldic League. The Schmalkaldic War began. Forces of the Emperor under the Duke of Alba began to invade the League. Papal and some Spanish forces also assisted the Emperor. Meanwhile, the league faced problems within leadership. John Frederick, Elector of Saxony, and Philip, the Landgrave of Hesse had tensions whether who was in overall command. In addition, some of the fearful members defected to the side of the Emperor in order to escape his wrath. The internal conflict resulted into a major and decisive defeat in April 24, 1547. The Duke of Alba defeated the League’s Saxon and Hessian Forces in Muhlburg. Worst, John Frederick and Philip were captured by the Imperial Forces.

After the two major leaders captured, the League began to disintegrate. Some cities, including Magdeburg remain resolved against the Emperor. On the other hand, John Frederick of Saxon, lost his title of elector when he decided to let go his land in Wittenberg rather than recanting his beliefs.

In 1547, the war ended. The Diet of Augsburg was convened to discuss the religious divide. At the start of the Diet meeting, John Frederick of Saxony and Philip of Hesse paraded by the Emperor as a warning and a sign of his might. The meeting resulted to the Augsburg Interim where religious divide was made subtle.

The Schmalkaldic League served as the vanguard of the Protestant Reformation within the Holy Roman Empire. Against a powerful Emperor, with the sense of unity, they provided security. But with internal strife, it became weakened and eventually caused its collapse.

Cross, F. & E. Livingstone (eds.). The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Church. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Holborn, H. A History of Modern Germany: Reformation. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1982.

Kohn, G. Dictionary of Wars. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Nolan, C. The Age of Wars of Religion, 1000 - 1650: An Encyclopedia of Global Warfare and Civilization. Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Inc., 2006.

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