HISTORY OF THE DIET OF WORMS: MARTIN LUTHER ON TRIAL 500 YEARS AGO
It was five hundred years ago today, April 17, 1521, that Martin Luther appeared on trial before the most powerful ruler in Europe, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. While the name may sound unappetizing, the Diet of Worms was a formal imperial deliberative assembly in the German city of Worms called to have Martin Luther either reaffirm or renounce his teachings. In German, it’s called the “Reichstag zu Worms.”
Following Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses on the Wittenberg Door on October 31, 1517, several debates, diets, and disputations occurred where Luther was unsuccessful in convincing the Roman Catholic Church of the correctness of his views. His excommunication in early 1521 removed him from communion with the church he had dedicated his life to 16 years earlier as a monk.
Now branded a heretic, Luther was summoned to appear before the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Luther’s protector, Prince Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, arranged that if Luther would go to Worms, rather than the proposed Rome, he’d be guaranteed safe passage. 100 years previously, Jan Hus was similarly called before the Emperor at the Council of Constance. It had not been forgotten: Hus did not get out alive but was burned for heresy.
Martin Luther, Celebrity
The expectation was that Luther would travel the 300 miles to Worms, penitent and repenting. Instead, as he began his trip on April 3, 1521, he was invited to preach at Erfurt, Gotta, and Eisenach along the way from Wittenberg. It was more of a triumphal procession.
Woodcut portraits had been made by his friend, the artist Lucas Cranach so that people knew what Luther looked like. Woodcuts were being peddled on the streets of Worms, some depicting him with a saintly nimbus. Throngs of people came out to line the streets and cheered him as he passed.
In Oppenheim, trumpets welcomed him, and two thousand people added their greeting. When he arrived in Worms, he hosted officials, princes, counts, and lords. He was a German hero, a rock star.
Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms
As a heretic, Luther’s hearing in Worms could not be held in the church but next to it in a building at the Heylshof Garden. The Allies had since bombed that building during WWII, but when I visited the location, I took a photo of the plaque commemorating that here Luther stood:
Charles V was the most powerful political ruler in Europe and had recently been elected Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire by various Electors, including Frederick III. Born in Ghent, then part of the Habsburg Netherlands, Charles was just 21 years old when he presided at Worms. Though he spoke five languages, French and Dutch being the strongest, and Spanish, he had only begun to acquire fluency in German since he was crowned two years earlier.
His German was poor in 1521. He is reported to have said:
”I speak Spanish to God,
Italian to women,
French to men and
German to my horse.”
- House of Valois-Burgundy (Netherlands and part of France)
- Habsburg (Austria and parts of central Europe)
- Trastamara (Castile and Aragon Spain and parts of southern Italy.)
And, to put him in his historical context, Charles was the grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. His aunt was Queen Catherine (of Aragon), presently the first wife of Henry VIII of England.
The Prosecution against Martin Luther
Johann Eck (Johannes von der Ecken), a professor from Ingolstadt whom Luther had debated at Leipzig, would act as his prosecutor and spokesman for the Emperor. Eck had burned Luther’s books in Worms. Luther’s defense lawyer would be Dr. Hieronymus Schurff, Professor of Canon Law at the University of Wittenberg.
Martin Luther before the Imperial Diet
Luther was ordered to appear at 4 pm on April 17. Eck asked if the 25-40 books prepared on a table in front of him that bore his name were his. He answered affirmatively first in German and then Latin,
“These books are all mine. And I have written more.”
Secondly, he was asked if he was ready to revoke them. Luther replied
“I beg you, give me time to think it over”
…saying he needed more time to answer satisfactorily.
Second Day of the Diet of Worms
The next day, after a night of consultation with friends and hours-long prayer Luther, replied to the second question, if he would reject them, saying:
“Most serene emperor, most illustrious princes, most clement lords. I beseech you, to kindly pardon me, as a man accustomed not to courts but to the cells of monks.”
He then divided the books into different categories. For those written against individuals, he apologized for the harshness of his tone but not their substance. His prosecutor Eck finally asked again:
“Martin, answer candidly and without horns, do you or do you not repudiate your books and the errors which they contain?”
Luther finally uttered the famous words:
“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God.
“I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.”
While not recorded in the transcripts, in the first printed version of the speech, he also added:
“Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me. Amen.”
The story is told that Luther remained ten days in Worms, as he had 21 days of guaranteed safe passage. During this time, he was offered a Cardinal’s cap if he would recant. The Roman church believed that greed was motivating Luther and could be bought off with a high church office.
He left Worms before the decision of his guilt was reached.
The Edict of Worms
The next month, on May 25, the Edict of Worms decree was issued by Emperor Charles V, with these words:
“For this reason we forbid anyone from this time forward to dare, either by words or by deeds, to receive, defend, sustain, or favor the said Martin Luther. On the contrary, we want him to be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic, as he deserves, to be brought personally before us, or to be securely guarded until those who have captured him inform us, whereupon we will order the appropriate manner of proceeding against the said Luther. Those who will help in his capture will be rewarded generously for their good work.”
Luther was seen now as both a heretic and an outlaw, with a price on his head.
But as he was returning to Wittenberg, Luther was kidnapped.
To learn about his time at Wartburg Castle, continue reading here.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian