The Schmalkald War

The League of Schmalkald, formed at Christmas in 1530, was renewed a year later at Christmas 1531, with the addition of a great many princes and cities. In addition, the kings of France, England, and Denmark were approached with invitations to join and in each case responded favorably, though for reasons of policy, they postponed joining the league for the present. The Swiss Protestant cantons requested membership but this was denied them on the basis of their sentiments on the Lord’s Supper. To refuse them membership was nearly as great an error as seeking to form an alliance with the Kings of France and England.

As all of these movements had the appearance of war, Luther was initially opposed to the League but when it was explained to him that the League was purely of a defensive nature, and that it was merely a way of enabling its members to act as a united group in self-defense, his concerns lessened. His greatest concern was still that as the League grew stronger, it would inevitably begin to rely on the strength of armies to the neglect of religious principle upon which alone their success depended.

In the years of peace that followed, the German church extended in every direction. Between the years of 1531 and 1542, the whole of Central and Northern Germany joined the ranks of Protestantism. Wherever the emperor looked, he saw the progress of Lutheranism which had surpassed even his fears. He could hardly hope that his hereditary dominions would long be able to resist the inroads of heresy. He felt certain that he must adopt some decisive measure and from January 1544, his mind was set to meet the Protestants on the battlefield. However, until he had settled his differences with Francis and Solyman, there was little that he could do.

Luther on his death bed

It was at this moment that a blow fell which for a time nearly crushed the cause of Protestantism in Germany. In February of 1546, Luther quietly passed to his death. Though he was only 63 years of age, continual anxiety and ceaseless labor had taken their toll. No sooner was Luther laid in his grave than the shadows began to gather round Germany, and soon they deepened into a night of calamity and war.

That a man whose life had been sought by popes and kings should have died peacefully in his bed is remarkable indeed. During the last twenty-five years of his life, the emperor’s ban and the pope’s anathema had hung over him. The sword of the emperor which had successfully conquered Francis and chastised the Turk, could not reach the man who lived in the little unarmed Saxon town all his days. “To be rid of him, Rome would have joyfully given the half of her kingdom; but not a day, not an hour of life was she able to take from him. The ancient command had gone forth, ‘Touch not mine anointed and do my prophets no harm.’ And so we find Luther finishing his course, as the natural sun, after a day of tempest, is sometimes seen to finish his, amid the golden splendors of a calm eventide.” Wylie, The History of Protestantism, book 12, chapter 4

Once Luther was gone, the war which had so long lowered over Germany rapidly approached. The Emperor had ended his war with France and signed a truce with the Turk.

Another step, which while it appeared on the surface to be conciliation, was a move towards war, was the meeting of the long-deferred Church Council. The very first question concerning faith that was considered by the council was the issue of tradition and how it relates to Scriptures. After a long and intense discussion, the Archbishop of Reggio came into the council with substantially the following argument: The Protestants claim to stand upon the written word only. They profess to hold the Scripture alone as the standard of faith. They justify their revolt by the plea that the Church has apostatized from the written word and follows tradition. Now the Protestants’ claim that they stand upon the written word only, is not true. As proof, he pointed to the fact that the written Word explicitly enjoins the observance of the seventh day as the Sabbath which Protestants reject. Consequently, their claim of Scripture alone as the standard in matters of faith and doctrine fails, the Protestants themselves being the judges.

On this basis, said the Council, you must submit yourselves and your cause to tradition and the Scriptures, as interpreted by the Church. This was but another way of saying, “You must submit to the Church.” Every one knew how the Church interpreted the questions at issue.

“Meanwhile Charles pursued his policy of dissimulation. The more he labored to be ready for war, the louder did he protest that he meant only peace. He cherished the most ardent wishes for the happiness of Germany, so did he affirm; he had raised only some few insignificant levies; he had formed no treaty that pointed to war; and he contrived to have an interview with Philip, Landgrave of Hesse, who, he knew, saw deepest into his heart and most suspected his designs, and by his consummate duplicity, and his earnest disavowals of all hostile intentions, he succeeded in removing from the mind of the landgrave all apprehensions that war was impending. On his return from this interview Philip communicated his favorable impressions of the situation to his confederates, and thus were the suspicions of the Protestants again lulled to sleep. Ibid., ch. 5

However, rumors that the emperor was preparing for war refused to go away. And, as Charles was not at war with either Francis or Solyman, there did not appear to be any purpose other than for the extinction of Protestantism. Soon warnings reached them from friends in both England and Italy that their ruin was intended. Then Pope Paul, nothing doubting the outcome of the coming conflict, told the world that the overthrow of Lutheranism was at hand, leaving Charles in a somewhat embarrassing position and forcing him to throw off his mask a bit sooner than he would have liked.

Within a few months, the Protestants raised a formidable army, but the League was divided from the start of the campaign by the decision of some members to remain neutral. However, the act that completed the disorganization of the Protestant camp was the treachery of Prince Maurice of Saxony, the son in law of Philip, Landgrave of Hesse. Though a Protestant in name, he was without deep religious conviction and his creed was more influenced by the advantage it might gain him than by the truth it might contain. Weighing both sides, he chose not the greater cause, but what appeared to be to him, the greater man, and as he hoped to share in the spoils of war, which would be considerable, he cast his lot with Charles.

When on the 20th of July the war came, it found the League neither united nor prepared. But notwithstanding some cowardly defections it was able to bring into the field 47,000 troop. The first question to be decided, however, was who should lead the army? Philip of Hesse was the better soldier, but John Frederick of Saxony was the greater prince. Could a landgrave command an elector? In the settlement of this issue much time was lost.

The campaign, from its beginning in the summer of 1546, to its close the following spring, was marked indecision and blundering on the part of the League. Failing to show any foresight or plan, the passes of the Tyrol were left undefended allowing the Spanish and Italian soldiers to cross unopposed. The troops which Charles had raised in the Low Countries were, in like manner, allowed to cross the Rhine without opposition. Before the arrival of these reinforcements, the emperor’s army was not more than 10,000 strong and his camp at Ingolstadt might easily have been taken by the superior forces of the League, ending the campaign in a single blow.

In the spring of 1547, John Frederick was routed, taken captive, stripped of his electorate, and consigned to prison and his dominions divided between Maurice and the emperor’s brother Ferdinand. Landgrave Philip, reflecting that his forces were dispirited and shattered, concluded that further resistance was hopeless. His son-in-law, Prince Maurice, used all his influence with the emperor to procure for him easy terms, but no sooner had Philip quitted the emperor’s presence, after surrendering to him, than he was arrested and thrown into confinement. So ended the Schmalkald War, leaving Charles more completely master of Germany than he had ever been before.