In 1526 at the Diet (assembly) of Speyer the reformers became protestants. Today we look at how that happened and what that means. What was the political context and background - what where they 'protesting' about in particular? If not Catholicism what was it?
The Reform movement in Germany had gathered momentum in the nine years since the Augustinian monk, Martin Luther marched up to the castle church in Wittenberg and nailed his 95 Theses to the door. Four years later, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, and defacto ruler of Germany (as well as Spain, Austria, the Netherlands and much of Italy) had issued the Edict of Worms, outlawing Luther and all his writings. It was a harsh edict with death sentences for anyone, such as a printer, who was found with the 95 theses in their possession. This now seems to be a fatal case of imperial overreach and agitated some of the German princes who saw the discontent that Luther had stirred up as an opportunity to consolidate their own power. At the Diet of Speyer today, princes and 14 cities drafted a formal protest of Charles V's attempt to crush Lutheranism, and from now on, the Reformers were known as Protestants.
The buildup to the Diet or Meeting, saw the gradual emergence of various groupings of princes along the lines of religion. Most notably, John, Elector of Saxony and Philip of Hesse formed a League at Gotha. As always for a Diet of this significance, the host town had to provide accommodations and provisions for several thousand guests (John the elector of Saxony travelled with 700 guests and 400 horses). After the grand opening, with processions of princes and envoys to the cathedral and the ceremonious high mass, the Diet continued for two months. Although the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, had originally intended to attend this meeting, commitments in the rest of his territories forced him to cancel his visit. Instead, the Diet was held under his younger brother with clear instructions to bring both sides together. Charles's proposals for the diet asked for the Edict of Worms to be carried out, heresy and rebellion to be put down and any final decisions on religion to be postponed until the meeting of a general council.
The Diet concluded with an ambiguous edict that a general or national council should be convened for the settlement of the church question and that in the meantime there should be a temporary suspension of the edict of Worms, until the meeting of a general council. Adding to the sense of inertia, Charles V neither signed nor opposed the new edict. He had just fallen out with the Pope and this division had created a power vacuum. Earlier the combination of the Emperor and the Pope had brought about the Edict of Worms and a clear suppression of Lutheranism, however this recent breach between them, had virtually annulled this at the Diet of Speyer. However the Emperor was reluctant to embrace the Protestant doctrines, on the plus side he might have become the head of a German imperial state church, like Henry VIII was in the process of becoming in England, but Charles’ instincts were against Lutheranism, and he knew that the kingdoms of Spain and the Sicilies would have revolted against him if he had embraced it.
The Protestant princes were greatly strengthened by meeting the delegates of Imperial cities in which the Reformation had made great progress. Luther himself understood the Diet of Speyer as having given him a temporary reprieve from the charge of heresy. We begin to see the establishment of separate state churches and the fragmentation of Western Christianity. In the German states of the Holy Roman Empire, every Protestant prince claimed and exercised the so-called jus reformandi religionem, deciding the church question according to his own faith. The princes of the territories and the magistrates of the cities consulted the theologians and preachers. The powerful House of Austria, with the Emperor, and the Dukes of Bavaria, adhered to the old faith and hotly contested the principle of independent state action on the church question. The Protestant princes and theologians prohibited the Mass and certain other Roman practices. The Catholic position had also been significantly weakened by the threatening invasion of the Ottoman Empire and the quarrel of the Emperor with the Pope. The Protestant cause had momentum and inclined the Catholic majority to forbearance. Ferdinand of Austria, the Electors of Mainz, Brandenburg and Saxony, the Duke of Bavaria and other Catholic rulers soon concluded a league at Breslau