The Diet of Worms 1521: Luther Squares Off with the Emperor

Martin Luther by Cranach
Martin Luther by Cranach. Wikimedia Commons

When Martin Luther fell into disagreement with the Catholic hierarchy in 1517, he wasn’t simply arrested and carted to a stake (as some views of the medieval period might make you believe). There was plenty of theological discussion which soon turned into temporal, political and cultural considerations. One key part of this disagreement, which would become the Reformation and see the western church permanently split, came at the Diet of Worms in 1521. Here, an argument over theology (which still could have resulted in someone’s death), was fully turned into a secular conflict over laws, rights and political power, a vast pan-European milestone in how government and society worked, as well as how the church prayed and worshipped.

What’s a Diet?

Diet is a Latin term, and you might be more familiar with a different language: Reichstag. The Diet of the Holy Roman Empire was a legislature, a proto-parliament, which had limited powers but which met frequently and did affect law in the empire. When we refer to the Diet of Worms, we don’t mean a Diet that met uniquely in the city of Worms in 1521, but a system of government which was established and which, in 1521, turned its eye to the conflict Luther had begun.

Luther Lights the Fire

In 1517 many people were unhappy with the way the Latin Christian Church was run in Europe, and one of those was a lecturer and theologian called Martin Luther. Whereas other opponents of the church had made grand claims and rebellions, in 1517 Luther drew up a list of points for discussion, his 95 Theses, and sent them to friends and key figures. Luther wasn’t trying to break the church or start a war, which was what would happen. He was reacting to Dominican friar called Johann Tetzel selling indulgences, meaning someone could pay to have their sins forgiven. The key figures Luther sent his theses too included the Archbishop of Mainz, who Luther asked to stop Tetzel. He might also have nailed them up in public.
Luther wanted an academic discussion and he wanted Tetzel stopped. What he got was a revolution. The theses proved popular enough for them to be spread around Germany and beyond by interested and / or angered thinkers, some of whom supported Luther and convinced him to write more in support of them. Some were unhappy, like Archbishop Albert of Mainz, who asked if the papacy would decide if Luther was in the wrong…The war of words began, and Luther battled by developing his ideas into a brave new theology at odds with the past, what would be Protestantism.

Luther is Defended by Secular Power

By mid 1518 the Papacy had summoned Luther to Rome to question him, and probably punish him, and this is where things began to get complex. Elector Frederick III of Saxony, a man who helped choose the Holy Roman Emperor and a figure of great power, felt he had to defend Luther, not because of any agreement with the theology, but because he was a prince, Luther was his subject, and the Pope was claiming clashing powers. Frederick arranged for Luther to avoid Rome, and instead go to the Diet meeting in Augsburg. The papacy, not normally one to concede to secular figures, needed Frederick’s support in picking the next emperor and in helping a military expedition against the Ottomans, and agreed. At Augsburg, Luther was interrogated by Cardinal Cajetan, a Dominican and a clever and well-read supporter of the church.
Luther and Cajetan argued, and after three days Cajetan issued an ultimatum; Luther returned quickly to his home of Wittenberg, because Cajetan had been sent by the Pope with orders to arrest the trouble maker if necessary. The Papacy weren’t giving an inch, and in November 1518 issued a bull clarifying the rules on indulgences and saying Luther was wrong. Luther agreed to stop it.

Luther is Pulled Back

The debate was about far more than Luther now, and theologians carried on his arguments, until Luther just had to return and he ended up taking part in a public debate in June 1519 with Andreas Carlstadt against Johann Eck. Driven by Eck’s conclusions, and after several committees analysing Luther’s writings, the Papacy decided to declare Luther heretical and excommunicate him over 41 sentences. Luther has sixty days to recant; instead he wrote more and burned the bull.
Normally the secular authorities would arrest and execute Luther. But the timing was perfect for something else to happen, as the new Emperor, Charles V, had pledged all his subjects should have proper legal hearings, while the papal documents were far from ordered and water tight, including blaming Luther for someone else’s writing. As such, it was proposed Luther should appear before the Diet of Works. The Papal representatives were aghast at this challenge to their power, Charles V tended to agree, but the situation in Germany meant Charles dare not upset the men of the Diet, who were adamant they should play their role, or the peasants. Luther was saved from immediate death by a struggle over secular power, and Luther was asked to appear in 1521.

The Diet of Worms 1521

Luther made his first appearance on April 17th 1521. Having been asked to accept that the books he’d been accused of writing were his (which he did so), he was asked to reject their conclusions. He asked for time to think, and the next day conceded only that his writing might have used wrong words, saying that the subject and the conclusions were genuine and he stuck by them. Luther now discussed the situation with Frederick, and with a man working for the Emperor, but no one could make him recant over even one of the 41 statements the Papacy condemned him for.
Luther left on April 26th, with the Diet still afraid condemning Luther would cause a rebellion. However, Charles signed an edict against Luther when he had gathered some support from those who remained, declared Luther and his supporters illegal, and ordered the writings burned. But Charles had calculated wrongly. The leaders of the empire who hadn’t been at the Diet, or who had already left, argued the edict didn’t have their support.

Luther is Kidnapped. Sort of.

As Luther fled back home, he was fake-kidnapped. He was actually taken to safety by troops working for Frederick, and he hid in Wartburg Castle for many months converting the New Testament into German. When he came out of hiding it was into a Germany where the Edict of Worms had failed, where many secular rulers acknowledged the support of Luther and his descendants were too strong to crush.

Consequences of the Diet of Worms

The Diet and the Edict had transformed the crisis from a theological, religious dispute into a political, legal and cultural one. Now it was princes and lords arguing over their rights as much as the finer points of church law. Luther would need to argue for many more years, his followers would divide the continent, and Charles V would retire exhausted by the world, but Worms ensured that the conflict was multi-dimensional, vastly harder to solve. Luther was a hero to everyone who opposed the emperor, religious or not. Soon after Worms, the peasants would rebel in the German Peasant’s War, the conflict the princes had been keen to avoid, and these rebels would see Luther as a champion, on their side. Germany itself would divide into Lutheran and Catholic provinces, and later in the history of the Reformation Germany would be torn apart by the multi-faceted Thirty Years War, where secular issues would be no less important in complicating what was happening. In one sense Worms was a failure, as the Edict failed to stop the church dividing, in others it was a great success that has been said to have led to the modern world.

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Wilde, Robert. "The Diet of Worms 1521: Luther Squares Off with the Emperor." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Wilde, Robert. (2020, August 26). The Diet of Worms 1521: Luther Squares Off with the Emperor. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "The Diet of Worms 1521: Luther Squares Off with the Emperor." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).