top of page

3 Ways The Protestant Reformation Changed The World | Politics and The Reformation


martin luther nails the 95 theses to the church door painting

Why did the Reformation spread as quickly as it did? Previous reformers had been silenced easily, but what made Martin Luther’s different? European politics had a major impact on the Protestant Reformation. Ultimately, the spread of the Reformation was helped because of...

  • A corrupt Church

  • A fractured Empire

  • An English controversy



the sistine chapel paintings

1. The Reformation Unveiled The Corrupted Roman Catholic Church

The recent corruption and scandalous actions of the Church paved the way for Luther’s criticism. The papacy had been corrupt, even more so during the Dark Ages, but two popes and the growing secularism of the papacy made this period different.

“He was renowned for his mistresses but also for his patronage of the arts. He had those he saw as enemies poisoned. The political power of the papacy had declined, and most of Alexander's efforts aimed to restore this, but also to protect the remaining papal territories from external threat” (New World Encyclopedia).

pope alexander vi painting

The first Pope, Pope Alexander VI, was known for his scandalous actions, even fathering 10 children in his life (Popes are supposed to be celibate). He also wanted to increase the power of the Pope and his own family. He used his children to make alliance marriages and used his son Cesare to do his dirty work. Cesare’s brutal actions even inspired Machiavelli in his book "The Prince."



pope leo x painting

The second Pope, Pope Leo X, played an even bigger role in the spark of the Reformation. Although not as scandalous as Pope Alexander VI, he pushed the sale of indulgences further than any other pope before him.

“Leo X sold indulgences in order to raise funds for the rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica and this did much to harm the reputation of the Pontiff in German-speaking lands. The Renaissance Papacy inadvertently did much to spur the reform movement… which ultimately led to a permanent schism in Christianity” (Daily History).

The Church Itself Had Started to Alienate People

And during the Renaissance, the Catholic Church had become more of a secular and political institution. The Papacy during the Renaissance was more focused on secular issues than religious and spiritual issues.



Christians were alienated by their own Church, especially outside of Italy. The secular nature of the Pope was driven by the culture of the elite in Italy, and the elites were also influenced by the Papacy in return. People began to be concerned that if the Church and the Pope were corrupt, how would that affect their salvation?

"The Popes did not attempt to reform the clergy and were too preoccupied in the pursuit of their interests in Italy and especially in the Papal States. The lives of the Popes scandalized many and led to many becoming disenchanted with the Catholic Church" (Daily History).

This disenchantment was the perfect tinder for the Reformation, and when Luther sparked the Reformation with his 95 Theses, the people were willing to listen and agreed with many of Luther’s points. This openness to new ideas was combined with relative freedom in a fractured empire to spread the Reformation even further.


map of the holy roman empire

2. Divided The Fractured Holy Roman Empire

The French Enlightenment writer Voltaire once said that "The Holy Roman Empire is neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire." The Holy Roman Empire was made up of tiny kingdoms that had relative autonomy over themselves. This autonomy led to the massive support base that Luther received early in the Reformation.

“In 1555 the war ended in a stalemate, and the combatants signed the Peace of Augsburg. The most crucial part of the treaty was the phrase “cuius regio eius religio,” meaning that whatever political entity controlled an area had the right to decide what religion that area would follow” (Saylor).

This shows how divided the Holy Roman Empire really was. It played into the Reformation’s favor though, with the Peace of Augsburg giving them the freedom to break from the Church, with many areas becoming Lutheran.

peace of augsburg
The Peace of Augsburg let the leader of each state chose if they were to be Protestant or Catholic

One person stands out as an important figure in Luther’s Reformation who wouldn’t have had as much power if not for the fractured empire: Friedrich the Wise.


friedrich the wise of saxony

How Friedrich the Wise Helped The Reformation

Friedrich the Wise was the elector of Saxony and held considerable power as an elector. He had played an important role in the election of Charles V as Emperor (the Emperor at the time), and even the Pope had tried to convince Friedrich to take the crown for himself. Despite all the power he held, he helped spread the Reformation in a more direct way.

“Friedrich appointed Luther and his colleague Philipp Melanchthon to the University of Wittenberg and refused to carry out a papal bull against Luther in 1520. After the ban was imposed on Luther the next year, Friedrich welcomed him to Wartburg, where Luther translated the Bible into German” (Britannica).

Saving Luther allowed him to continue his work and spread his ideas all over Europe. The fractured Holy Roman Empire had helped spread Luther’s ideas by having rogue electors and kingdoms. Something similar happened in another kingdom that would have worldwide effects on the Reformation.



king henry viii and queen anne boleyn begging painting

3. Led King Henry VIII To Create The Anglican Church

The widely known story is that King Henry VIII had been married to Catherine of Aragon, who was not able to bear a son. So he wanted to annul the marriage and be married to Anne Boleyn. But the Church wouldn’t allow it, so Henry started the Anglican Church and an entire controversy among his own people. But this wasn’t the only reason Henry had split the Church.


King Henry Takes Over The English Church

In 1534, Henry was made the head of the English Church through the Act of Supremacy. Around 400 people, including really influential people, were executed for not swearing to the Act of Supremacy. This cleverly gave Henry VIII more power and forced people to be more loyal to him. Loyalty wasn't necessarily decided if you were Protestant or Catholic, as shown by the fact even Protestants were executed as well.


England had become Protestant to assert its dominance over the Pope, a common response to the Pope’s growing power over Europe. King Henry had not only split the Church for his lineage but also for his own power over the people.

“The Papacy was in many ways just another territorial ruler and they saw no contradiction between this and their spiritual role. The Popes owned extensive lands in Central and Southern Italy and also in Southern France” (Daily History).


The Church had significant political power in Europe, and refusing Henry’s divorce was the last straw. So Henry now controlled both people’s taxes and their eternal salvation.

“By Henry VIII’s death in 1547, the people of England had mostly become Protestant. His son, Edward VI, continued Henry’s religious policy, but he died in 1553” (Saylor).

His family continued to solidify the Anglican Church, securing their own power as well as the power of the English people. England would go on to conquer the world, spreading Protestantism and Luther’s ideas to every continent.



Summary

The Reformation now existed in every part of the world because of the scandalous actions of the Church, the divided Holy Roman Empire, and the split of the English Church. The politics of Renaissance Europe had played an important part in the spread of the Reformation, making sure that Luther’s Reformation wouldn’t fail like others before.



 

Sources

Photo Credits




Comments


READ NEXT...