History of Martin Luther: Part 4 – Outlawed

Martin Luther

Luther Memorial, 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, 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.


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.

Martin Luther WoodcutWoodcut 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.

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. That building has since been bombed by the Allies during WWII, but a plaque commemorates that here Luther stood:

Luther Plaque

Here stood, before Emperor and Empire, Martin Luther, 1521


The Emperor

Charles VCharles V was the most powerful political ruler in Europe at that time and had recently been elected Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire by Electors including Frederick III. Born in Ghent, then part of the Habsburg Netherlands, he was just 21 years old when he presided at Worms. Though he spoke five languages, French and Dutch being the strongest, as well as 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 attributed to have said:

”I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men and German to my horse.”

Holy Roman EmpireHe was also the ruler of three leading European dynasties: the House of Valois-Burgundy (Netherlands and part of France), Habsburg (Austria and parts of central Europe), and 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

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, who was Professor of Canon Law at the University of Wittenberg.

Imperial Diet

Luther Before Emperor Luther was ordered to appear at 4 pm on April 17. Ecken asked if a collection of 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

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 Ecken 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:

Martin Luther at WormsSince then your serene majesties and your lordships seek a simple answer, I will give it in this manner, plain and unvarnished: 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.

Edict of Worms

The next month, on May 25 the Edict of Worms decree was issued by Emperor Charles V, with these words:
Edict Of Worms

For this reason we forbid anyone from this time forward to dare, either by words or by deeds, to receive, defend, sustain, or favour 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.

But as he was returning to Wittenberg, Luther was kidnapped.

Continued in Part 5

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

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About billpetro

Bill Petro writes articles on history, technology, pop culture, and travel. He has been a technology sales enablement executive with extensive experience in Cloud Computing, Automation, Data Center, Information Storage, Big Data/Analytics, Mobile, and Social technologies.

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