Schmalkaldic League

#OTD, December 22nd, 1530 negotiations to forma protestant league began in the town of Schmalkalden in Thuringia.

Led by Landgrave Phillip of Hesse and Elector John of Saxony several territories within the Holy Roman Empire agreed to support each other following the Diet of Augsburg in June 1530. At the Diet the emperor Charles V had rejected the Confessio Augustana, a summary of the key articles of the protestant faith written by Melanchthon and approved by Martin Luther. That opened up the possibility for the emperor to persecute the protestant states for breach of the peace, resulting in military action against them.

The Schmalkaldic League comprised several princes, the Landgrave of Hesse and the Elector of Saxony most prominent, but many signatories were cities like Bremen, Lubeck, Konstanz, Magdeburg, Strassburg, Ulm, Braunschweig, Gottingen, Goslar and others. They agreed to defend each other against any interference in matters of the faith by the emperor.

Charles V was initially unable to break the resistance of the Schmalkaldic League as he was preoccupied with concern about an invasion by the Turks. He also had to take into account that his archenemy, Francis I, King of France would ally with the league against him.

Therefore Charles had to sign the Nurnberg Peace in 1532 that was some sort of time-limited mutual recognition, effectively ending the persecution of protestants as heretics. That allowed the protestant faith to spread more easily across the German lands.

Charles V saw the need of substantial reform of the church and at the same time wanted to maintain religious unity across his lands. He tried to bring the parties together to thrash out their theological differences during the 1540s. These talks made some progress on issues of doctrine but could not resolve several core issues. Effectively the debate had moved on from theological differences to hard politics.

By 1546 Charles V had signed a peace agreement with France and an armistice with the Sultan, allowing him to go after the League. The league had grown in the meantime having added Württemberg, Pommern and a few more cities and princes. Nevertheless, they were not capable to withstand the might of the Habsburg empire that comprised not just Austria but also Spain and its American colonies.

Military actions were fought mostly by mercenaries and in many aspects foreshadowed the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) with its constant sieges and unpaid soldiers plundering the countryside. At the Battle of Mühlberg in May 1547 the Elector John of Saxony and his allies were comprehensively beaten, bringing the war to its de facto end.

Charles V held another Diet at Augsburg in 1548, the so-called “Geharnischte Reichstag” (=martial Diet). Charles wanted to force all German states to agree on a temporary religious compromise, the Augsburg Interim, that would last until a full settlement had been agreed by both sides. That proposal satisfied nobody, and even Charles’ Catholic allies rejected it, making it dead on arrival.

The protestants rebelled again in 1551, ending in the religious peace of Augsburg of 1555 whereby each local prince was free to determine the faith in his state “Cuius Regio, eius religio”. Charles resigned shortly after his dream of religious unity for the empire had collapsed.

Charles inability to enforce one common religion in his state contrasts with his contemporary Henry VIII, who enforced the Protestant faith in England and Francis I who was equally able to maintain religious unity in France during his reign. As a consequence, Germany remained for centuries one of the few countries split almost 50/50 between Protestants and Catholics, which aided political fragmentation.

Charles’ relative weakness within Germany dates back to the time of the Salian emperors, subject of Season 2 of the History of the Germans Podcast available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Castbox, Podbean and wherever you get your podcasts from (check short link here:

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