The Ninety-Five Theses, formally Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum, are I would guess little read today. Nevertheless they are one of the most important documents in European history, defining and dividing an era and profoundly influencing the subsequent course of events, even to the present day.
The soil was ripe for their effects. Although the Catholic Church had held religious sway in much of Europe for over a thousand years, snuffing out any challenges to its authority with vicious ruthlessness and brutality, it had long been monstrously corrupt, power and wealth rather than the salvation of souls and the care of its flock its chief preoccupations. The ideas of the Renaissance now permeating Europe opened minds to the Church’s failings and exposed its doctrines to intellectual question, while the growth of literacy and the invention of the printing press increased Scriptural knowledge and quickened people’s desire to interpret the teachings of Christ for themselves, rather than be spoon-fed the Church’s version.
Unless the Church reformed itself, which it was never going to voluntarily do, another figure such as Wycliffe, in many ways the spiritual father of the Reformation, or Hus was bound to arise and challenge the Church once more, and it had never been in a weaker position to withstand a determined intellectual assault. That figure was Martin Luther, a man who can be criticised but whose integrity, courage, intellect and charisma cannot be doubted.
Winning many of the German princes to his side, he ended up breaking half Europe away from the Catholic Church’s millennium-long dominion. The Church did at last reform itself, to an extent, then marshalled those rulers who remained loyal to it and launched the Counter-Reformation. At the cost of uncounted lives, some lost ground was regained. More ground, though, proved lost for ever, and by far the greater part of Northern Europe remains Protestant to this day.
And it all began with the nailing of some pieces of paper to a church door. The sovereigns of the day all played a part in these events, whether they were at the heart of them or on the periphery. The first four in the list not so much; the Emperor Maximilian I died in 1519, leaving his grandson and successor Karl V to struggle lifelong and ultimately unsuccessfully against the spread of the new ideas. Manuel the Fortunate was fortunate among other things in reigning in far-away Portugal, where the Reformation never took much hold. His chief religious difficulties were with his parents-in-law, the Catholic Kings of Spain, and their pressure on him to persecute Jews, which he was most unwilling to do.
Finally he had all the Jews in his kingdom forcibly baptised, then declared that since there were now no Jews left in Portugal the issue of what to do about them was moot. A nod and a wink to the new ‘converts’ let them know that they could continue to practice their religion peacefully, so long as it was privately.
His sister-in-law Juana I of Spain was not concerned with events at all, though this was far from due to good fortune. She had been locked up as insane, a highly questionable diagnosis, and her powers were exercised on her behalf by others. Vasily III in Orthodox Moscow did have religious problems, but they were to do with the Catholic roots of his unpopular second wife rather than any reform movement.
In Poland, Zygmunt the Old tolerated the reformers, though unswayed by them, and the movement flourished there for much of the century. Eventually Poland became the greatest triumph of the Counter-Reformation, achieved what is more without persecution and violence. Something people do not always realise is that Henry VIII of England remained a lifelong implacable foe of the reformed faith, even after his own breach with Rome. He did not become a Protestant, he burned Protestants, right to the last year of his reign.
His sixth wife, Catherine Parr, was (correctly) suspected by Henry to be a secret Protestant, and matters got to the stage of his ordering her arrest and trial. Trials in Henrician England only had one outcome, and the mnemonic ‘divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived’ would doubtless have instead ended ‘divorced, beheaded, fried’ had Catherine not been able to convince her husband that he was mistaken, and her beliefs in every way accorded with his, as those of a dutiful and subservient wife should.
He nevertheless did break with Rome, and though it was not on grounds of reform it is hard to imagine that he could have done it except against the background of the reform movement. The reign of his son Edward VI moved the country decisively towards Protestantism, and after his daughter Mary I’s blood-soaked strivings to turn back the clock his second daughter Elizabeth I established the Church of England order that remains to this day.
Christian II was a strange man, and ruler. His affection and concern for the common people was admirable, his brutality and injustice towards the aristocracy, whom he decimated in Sweden during his short reign there and treated with despotic cruelty in Denmark, was not only less than admirable but also most unwise. He forgot that while the common people were more numerous the aristocracy were far more powerful, and lost the thrones of first Sweden and then Denmark and Norway.
While reigning he had attempted to crush the nascent reform movement in Denmark, but in exile became a Lutheran himself. He then went back to Catholicism in order to gain the support of Danish Catholics for a bid for restoration. The outcome was defeat and imprisonment, in quite comfortable circumstances, for the remainder of his life.
The Kirk was to be the bane of the next two Scottish monarchs, but this was not for want of effort on James V’s part to strangle it at birth. Personally a cultured man, attractive and charming and a dutiful monarch, he used the utmost cruelty against proponents of reform, with a number of heresy burnings taking place in his reign. If the reign had continued then perhaps he would have prevented Protestantism from taking root in Scotland, but the Scottish pattern was one of long minorities and short adult reigns, and James V followed it, more or less (technically his minority was for eleven years and his adult reign sixteen, but that is only because he was declared an adult aged twelve – it may be doubted whether he actually rather than nominally ruled for several years after that).
The regents for his infant daughter Mary I, first the heir presumptive the Earl of Arran and then James’s widow, and Mary’s mother, Marie of Guise, proved less determined. Under French influence Marie did in the later part of her regency attempt to move against the reformers, but her death removed the last obstacle to Scotland becoming the firmly Protestant realm it remained until large-scale immigration from Ireland in the 19th century swelled the Catholic minority, and created the religious tensions and divisions which bedevil the country to this day.
Likewise cultured and scholarly, François I had the grander stage of France to disport himself on, and was perhaps the most notable monarchical patron of arts, literature and architecture of the age. But while entirely sympathetic to the ideals of the Renaissance, he found those of the Reformation more than a step too far. It was not so at first; always pragmatic (he was the first major sovereign to formally ally with Ottoman Turkey, to the horror of his contemporaries who called it ‘the impious alliance’), he saw the religious fault lines appearing in Germany as weakening his deadly foe the Emperor Karl V, and was influenced too by his sister Marguerite, Queen Consort of Navarre and a woman who combined profound intellect and great scholarship with charm and grace and genuine goodness. All who met her seemed to love her, a royal cult figure like Queen Louise of Prussia many generations later, and her brother was as much under her spell as anyone else.
But not so much so that her leanings towards the reformers were able to prevent him from eventually launching the most violent and brutal assault yet upon the followers of the new faith, ending with many thousands dead and many more than that fled. However, this savagery, and that of François’ son and successor Henri II, failed to wipe out French Protestantism, or come near to it, and the reigns of Henri II’s sons were wracked by wars of religion, ending in an uneasy compromise giving Protestants official status and toleration. Until, that is, Louis XIV finally succeeded where François and Henri had failed and eradicated Protestantism, and Protestants, from France.
The reformed religion was not among the main problems facing Lajos II in his brief adult reign. Under the influence of his guardian Georg, Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach (Georg, a wholly admirable man, was as significant a figure as Frederick the Wise, John the Steadfast and Philip the Magnanimous among the German princes guarding and guiding the Reformation, though not nearly so well-known today as they are), Lajos was indeed personally sympathetic to it. His troubles were firstly his own financial incontinence, and secondly the ever-growing Ottoman threat. He and most of the Hungarian army died confronting the latter on the field of Mohács, and the Sultan then proceeded to take all but a rump of Hungary into his dominions. By the time the Habsburgs had completed the patient process of reconquest, the Reformation was an established fact of history and turmoil largely at an end.
In Bohemia, Lajos’s other kingdom, his immediate successor Ferdinand I did his best to promote the Counter-Reformation by peaceful means, and this policy continued without overmuch success until Ferdinand’s Jesuit-influenced grandson Ferdinand II tried violence instead, succeeding in launching the Thirty Years War but also in virtually eradicating the reformed faith in Bohemia.
Henri II of Navarre was a monarch somewhat overshadowed by the brilliance of his consort Marguerite, discussed above as the sister of François I. They were however a devoted and well-suited couple, and he like her was more than sympathetic to Reformation ideals, which his daughter and heiress Jeanne III did much to promote in France, of which Navarre was in many ways a semi-detached part.
I was happy when it originally proved possible to post just a single chart covering the relationships of these monarchs; as with the obvious exception of Vasily III they were naturally all Catholic, there was no obvious split. I was correspondingly dismayed when on adding all the additional red links made possible by the new version of the Genealogics relationships calculator the chart proved to be 5,000 characters over the limit. I nevertheless managed to keep the chart in one piece, by resorting to a somewhat desperate expedient which is explained below it. Not ideal, but better than the alternative, which would have entailed reposting virtually the entire thread and produced an even less satisfactory result.
There is again a table rather than summary of statistics to follow the chart and its key, in which it is interesting to note that despite all the talk of Catholic and Protestant in this introduction the leading ancestor was not even Christian. I will have more to say on this when we get to the last of the charts, those for 1453. While the note on posterities with which I will conclude the thread will again not be so long as this introduction it will be long enough, as I have some remarks to make about the ancestries of some of these sovereigns, as well as the effect on the spread of posterities of those pieces of paper Martin Luther fixed to the doors of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg one All Hallows' Eve.
There is a guide to how to read the chart here.