Charles Rejects the Reformation

Upon his return to his room, Luther was surrounded by Spalatin and other friends. Together they gave thanks to God for the events of the day. As they were talking together, a messenger from the Elector of Saxony came with orders for Spalatin to come to him immediately. When Spalatin arrived at the duke’s quarters, the duke had just seated himself for supper. Arising, he motioned Spalatin to follow him. As soon as they were alone in the duke’s bed chamber, he informed Spalatin of his resolution to more actively protect the doctor in the future.

Aleander recognized the impression that Luther had made upon the assembly. He saw that he must act quickly if he were to counteract the influence that was rapidly gaining ground. War was imminent between Charles and Francis. Leo X, desiring to enlarge his estates, was secretly negotiating with both parties. Aleander, however, sought to use the influence of an alliance with the pope against Francis as the means of influencing Charles, thereby deciding the fate of the Reformer. He knew that the life of a single monk was a mere trifle if it could purchase the pontiff’s friendship.

On the day following Luther’s appearance, the emperor ordered a prepared message to be read to the diet. In the message, he affirmed his intentions to support the Catholic Church. While confirming the safe-conduct that he had extended to Luther, he expressed his resolve to move against the Reformer as soon as it should expire and to martial all of the resources at his command to crush the heresy.

Not all of the members of the diet were pleased with the address. Charles, in his youthful haste, had failed to comply with the usual form of consulting with the diet before forming his decision. On the other extreme, the elector of Brandenburg and several of the ecclesiastical princes demanded the safe-conduct given to Luther should not be respected. The Rhine, they said, should receive his ashes as it had the ashes of John Huss a century before. Against such a base proposal a number of the princes of Germany objected. The Bavarian nobles, though mostly papal, protested against the violation of public faith. Even George of Saxony, Luther’s avowed enemy, said, “The princes of Germany will not permit a safe-conduct to be violated. This diet, the first held by our new emperor, will not be guilty of so base an action. Such perfidy does not accord with the ancient German integrity.” D’Aubigne’s, History of the Reformation, book 7, chap. 9. The proposal was turned down with scorn and indignation.

Charles, who was yet very young, shrank from the idea of committing perjury. He is reported to have said, “Though honour and faith should be banished from all the world, they ought to find a refuge in the hearts of princes.” A somewhat less charitable assessment was given by Vettori, the friend of Leo X, who alleged that Charles spared Luther only that he might be a check on the pope. Charles, it would seem, only half trusted Leo, and in the game of international intrigue in which he was then engaged, he believed that a living Luther would be a more valuable counter than a dead one. There was also reason to believe that he was not blind to the danger that public sentiment was running so high that should the safe-conduct be violated, his first diet could easily be his last one. Charles is, however, credited with having repented of his decision in after years. He is reported to have stated, near the close of his life, that he was not obliged to have kept his promise to a heretic who had offended a Master greater than he—God Himself. He might, he then believed, have stifled the heresy in its infancy.

The Safe-conduct Honored

The discussion as to what to do with the Reformer lasted two days. During this time, the emotions of the citizens ran high. According to some sources, there were four hundred nobles ready to enforce Luther’s safe-conduct, if necessary, with the sword. Sickingen, it was reported, had assembled many knights and soldiers behind the impregnable ramparts of his stronghold but a dozen miles from Worms. The enthusiasm of the people, not only in Worms but throughout Germany, as well as the intrepidity of the knights and the attachment that many of the princes felt for the cause of the Reformer, convinced Charles that it would be disastrous to follow the course proposed by the Romanists. Though it was only a question of burning a simple monk, the partisans of Rome had not the strength or courage to do so. To have violated the safe-conduct would have immediately convulsed Germany in a civil war. Luther was ordered to return home under the emperor’s safe-conduct, the violent propositions of Aleander having been rejected.

The Elector Frederick was delighted with the appearance that Luther had made before the diet, but he was not alone in his appreciation of the Reformer. From that time on, many others who heard him became friends of the Reformation. Some of them expressed their change of sentiment at the time, while with others it bore fruit years later. Though Frederick had determined more than ever to protect Luther, he knew that the less his hand was seen in the matter, the more effectively he could further the cause and protect its champion. He therefore avoided all personal contact with Luther.

On the morning of April 26, Luther, surrounded by twenty gentlemen on horseback, left Worms. A few days after his departure, the emperor made public an edict against him, placing him outside the pale of the law and commanding all men everywhere, once his safe-conduct had expired, to withhold from him food, water, and shelter, and to do all within their power to apprehend him. This edict was drafted by Aleander and ratified by a meeting in the emperor’s private chamber after Elector Frederick and those favorable to Luther had already departed. The edict was dated May 8, but in reality the imperial signature was not placed on it until May 26. The purpose of the antedating was to give it the appearance of carrying the authority of the full diet.

Luther had entered Worms under the anathema of the pope. When he left, to this was added the ban of the empire.

On April 26, Luther, attended by twenty gentlemen on horseback, passed in peace through the gates of the city from which no one had ever expected to see him come alive. As he left, he said, “The devil himself guarded the pope’s citadel; but Christ has made a wide breach in it, and Satan was constrained to confess that the Lord is mightier than he.” Ibid., chapter 11.

On the evening of April 27, Luther reached Frankfort where he took the first leisure that he had experienced in a long time. From there he wrote to Lucas Cranach, the celebrated painter. He said, “I thought his majesty would have assembled some fifty doctors at Worms to convict the monk outright. But not at all.—Are these your books?—Yes!—Will you retract them?—No!—Well, then, be gone!—There’s the whole history. O blind Germans! . . . how childishly we act to allow ourselves to be the dupes and sport of Rome!” Ibid.

In a private conversation at Worms, Spalatin made known to Luther that for a time his liberty must be sacrificed to the anger of Charles and the pope. Though he knew nothing of the details, he was made aware that he would not be returning to Wittenberg.

Luther Abducted

On the ninth day after leaving Worms, Luther and several of his remaining traveling companions separated. Luther and Amsdorff struck northward to the town of Mora to visit Luther’s grandmother, while the rest of the party continued on to Wittenberg. Luther spent a quiet evening in the small town and the next morning resumed his journey. They had reached a lonely spot near the Castle of Altenstein in the forest of Thuringia when suddenly they found themselves surrounded by five, masked horsemen, who were armed from head to foot. Without saying a word, James, Luther’s younger brother immediately sprang from the wagon and ran as fast as his legs would carry him. The driver was ordered to stop and would have resisted, but one of the strangers, cried, “Stop!” and fell on him, throwing him to the ground. A second masked rider laid hold of Amsdorff, separating him from Luther, while the other three men roughly pulled Luther from the wagon, threw a military cloak around his shoulders, and placed him on a horse. Then, as quickly as they had appeared, all six riders disappeared in the thick forest. All day they rode this direction and that, assuring themselves that anyone attempting to follow them would be completely baffled. After darkness settled in, they began to ascend a mountain and a little before midnight, approached a castle at its summit. The drawbridge was let down, the portcullis raised, and the mysterious troop entered. Luther was led to an apartment where he was told that he must stay for an indefinite length of time and that during his stay he must lay aside his ecclesiastical dress and dress in the custom of a knight. He was, he was told, to be known only as Knight George. His abduction was carried out so mysteriously that, for a time, even Frederick of Saxony was not aware of his whereabouts.

Wartburg Castle

When morning broke, Luther looked from the castle window upon a familiar scene. Though the town could not be seen from his position, beneath him stretched the countryside that surrounded the village of Eisenach. He could not but have known that he was in Wartburg castle in friendly keeping.

How quickly the scene had changed. But a short time before, Luther had walked the dizzy heights as all eyes were fixed upon him. Now, suddenly, the man on whom the eyes of the whole world had been turned had disappeared. While there were those who received the news of Luther’s disappearance with joy, the grief of the friends of the Reformation was great. As spring turned to summer and summer gave way to autumn, it was as if he had suddenly disappeared from the face of the earth.

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