The Sacking of Rome

The emperor’s edict breathing death to Lutheranism was as much out of date as if it had been issued the century before. It did not require any great insight for the Protestant princes to realize that the entire political landscape had dramatically changed. Most of Christendom was now in arms against the man who but a few short months before had stood at its head. Now, rather than girding himself to fight Lutheranism on behalf of the pope, he must beg the aid of Lutheranism in the battle he was preparing to fight against the pope and his confederates. It was even whispered that more recent instructions to Ferdinand had arrived from the emperor, instructing him to suggest that the whole religious controversy be referred to a later General Council, though he feared to make known these instructions for fear of alienating the Catholic members of the Diet.

It was not, however, necessary to even divulge the new orders as the astounding news of the League of Cognac, of which Clement VII was patron and promoter had already sowed dismay, weakening the hands of the popish members of the council, as they were not slow to realize that the League had essentially broken the bow of the emperor, leaving him powerless to execute the Edict of Worms against the Protestant members. The Catholic members of the diet dared not to come to an open rupture with the Reformers. A decree was finally drawn up that among other things, petitioned the emperor to return as speedily as possible to Germany, but until a future council could be held, left the various German states free to act upon their own judgment, with regard to religion.

Most historians view this as a great epoch in history. Each party had maintained its own rights, while respecting the rights of the other. D’Aubgine points out that though it was not realized by most, this was a complete victory for the cause of religious liberty, and thus Protestantism. For the first time, the ancient power of the middle ages with its Romish despotism stood face to face with religious liberty and a lay spirit prevailed over the priestly. “Great things are often transacted under an appearance of frivolity, and God accomplishes His designs unknown even to those whom he employs as His instruments. D’Aubgine, History of the Reformation, vol. 4, book 13

The storm which had been gathering and threatening to engulf the Protestant cause, did not, however immediately disperse. As the skies over Germany cleared, those over Rome grew dark. Before, however, resorting to arms against the “Holy Father,” who had contrary to all expectations and probabilities, and against his own interest, conspired against his most loyal and powerful son, the emperor determined to make use of the pen. In writing to the pope, he attempted to appeal to his better judgment. The letter, however, was without effect and the movement toward war continued.

The emperor requested his brother, Ferdinand, to take command of the armies, but Ferdinand did not deem it prudent to absent himself from Germany at such a critical time and commissioned Freundsberg, a German knight who was a lover of the Gospel.

By the time the army got underway, it was November and the first snows had already fallen in the Alps. But, such was the zeal of both the general and the army, that within three days, the army of 15,000 had completed the crossing and joined forces with Spanish army of 20,000, under the command of the Constable of Bourbon. The German general carried with him an iron chain with which he told his soldiers he intended to hang the pope. The good generally, however, was never destined to see Rome, a circumstance to be most regretted, for had the kindly old soldier lived, he would have restrained the wild license of the army that was soon to wreck such havoc on the ill fated city. Freundsberg fell sick and died by the way, but the soldiers pressed ahead, leaving the Constable of  Bourbon in charge.

On the evening of May 5th, the invaders first sighted the city. What a surprise to a city living in careless delight, little dreaming that war was impending! The next morning, under cover of a dense fog, the soldiers approached the walls with scaling-ladders and within a few hours were the masters of Rome. The pope and cardinals fled to the Castle of St. Angelo. Clement, expecting deliverance at any moment from the Holy League, scorned the idea of surrender. The patience of the troops was soon exhausted and the sacking of the city soon began.

ST. Angelo Castle

The Constable of Bourbon had died in the initial assault, leaving the army without a leader powerful enough to restrain its fierce passions. Rome was at this time, overflowing with the riches of all Christendom, which for centuries had been flowing into it. In a twinkling a storm of greed, rage, and bloodthirsty vengeance broke out.

The pillage was unsparing as it was pitiless. In some cases, torture was employed to wring from the reluctant prelates and princes of the church the secret stores of treasure. The plunder was heaped up in piles in the market places.

Blood and pillage were strangely mixed with humor. Things that the sons of the church counted as holy, the soldiery delighted in exposing to ridicule and outrage. “Bishops and cardinals—in some cases stripped nude, in others attired in fantastic dress—were mounted on asses and lean mules, their faces turned to the animal’s croupe, and led through the streets, while ironical cheers greeted the unwelcome dignity to which they had been promoted. The Pope’s robes and tiara were brought forth, and put upon a soldier, while others of the troops, donning the red hats and purple gowns of the cardinals, went through the form of a Pontifical election. The mock-conclave, having traversed the city in the train of the pseudo-Pope, halted before the Castle of St. Angelo, and there they deposed Clement VII., and elected Martin Luther in his room. ‘Never,’ says D’Aubigné, ‘had Pontiff been proclaimed with such perfect unanimity.’ ” Wylie, History of Protestantism, book 9, chapter 11

The Spanish soldiers were the more embittered against ecclesiastics than were the Germans and practiced the most wanton cruelties against them. Not content with spoiling their victims of their wealth, in many cases they took their lives.

The sack of Rome lasted ten days, taking place at the height of her mediaeval glory. A few days sufficed to well-nigh annihilate the accumulated splendor and wealth which the intervening centuries have failed to restore. Though the emperor had convoked the Diet of Worms to crush the edifice of the new church that was rising at Wittenberg, by the execution of the Edict of Worms, the years that followed resulted rather in the blow falling on Rome. Following the storm, three years of calm prevailed. Christendom continued to be torn by intrigues and shaken by battles, but the political turmoil resulted in peace to the Church. The Gospel, it seems, could find rest only while the armies of its enemies were turned against each other.

The Diet, having assembled for the avowed purpose of ringing the death-knell for Protestantism, only too truly resulted in achieving the opposite result. It inflicted, instead, a blow which resulted in breaking the theocratic sovereignty of Rome in the German States, clearing the ground for the up-building of a new spiritual house.

Luther was quick to recognize the opportunity presented. Hitherto, he had preached the gospel, calling into existence a number of believers who were scattered through the various cities and provinces of Germany. Though these believers were distinct from the world, they had as yet no outward unity. It was with the purpose of developing this principle of unity within the hearts of all the believers, into an outward or visible unity that he now set his hand.

Rome had taken the position that wherever there is a line of ordained men, there, and there only, is the Church. The Reformation, on the other hand, said that wherever the Word is faithfully preached, and the Sacraments purely administered, there is the Church. The power with which it clothed those whom it elected to office was not autocratic, but ministerial: those who held that power were the Church’s servants, not her lords.

None of the Reformers saw clearly the whole rode ahead of them, and in many cases compromises were struck that the Romanists interpreted to be Reformation marching back to Rome. However, in the passage of time, the preaching of the pure Word resulted in the tolerated superstitions fading away. As a general rule, the more intelligent and free the city, the more thoroughly and rapidly the Reformation was carried out.

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