The Habsburg Dynasty in the Reformation

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  • 0:05 Definition of Reformation
  • 1:18 Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor
  • 3:43 Maximilian II and Rudolf II
  • 4:40 Habsburg Spain
  • 6:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson focuses on the Habsburg Dynasty during the Reformation. It will highlight the dealings of the Holy Roman Emperors with Protestantism, while also explaining the Reformation's effect on Spain.

Definition of Reformation

The Habsburg Dynasty is one of history's most powerful empires. For centuries, it dominated European civilization. In today's lesson, we'll discuss this powerful empire during the time of the Reformation.

Before getting into the Habsburgs, let's do a quick review of the Protestant Reformation.

The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century began as an attempt to reform the practices of the Catholic Church. It was sparked in the year 1517 by Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses. In these written works, Luther objected to the abuses he perceived within the church. Soon, others joined the call for church reform.

Of course, these ideas didn't sit so well with the pope. Before long, the effects of the Reformation led to a schism in Western Christianity. On one side were those who held to the doctrines of the Catholic Church. On the other side were those who protested these doctrines. Aptly so, these protesters became known as Protestants, or followers of Western Christianity, separate from the Roman Catholic Church. Aided by its followers and the invention of the printing press, the Protestant message spread like fire throughout Europe.

Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor

Now, on to the Habsburgs.

The Habsburg family came onto the scene in the 10th century, when one of its members was crowned king of Germany and ruler of the Holy Roman Empire. Soon, the mighty Habsburgs added Austria into their fold. To this they added Spain, the Netherlands, Hungary, and even parts of Italy.

On the eve of the Reformation, Charles V of the Habsburg Dynasty became king of Spain. As king of Spain, he also ruled over the Spanish-owned Netherlands. Later in his rule, he gained the Austrian crown and became the Holy Roman Emperor. By this time, the Habsburgs were a force to be reckoned with. Although Charles held great power, he had the misfortune of being at the helm during the turbulent Reformation. It was his job to figure out how to keep his lands intact during a time when so many were calling for change.

As Holy Roman Emperor, Charles called Martin Luther to the Diet of Worms in 1521. Although Charles initially dismissed Luther's theses as an argument between monks, the Diet of Worms declared Luther a heretic and made his teachings illegal. Unfortunately for Charles, his edict didn't stop the Protestant wave.

The year 1524 brought more trouble as the German lower classes rebelled for economic and political freedom. This came to be known as the German Peasants' War. Although the revolt failed, it gave evidence to the changing tides within the Habsburg Dynasty.

In 1545, the Council of Trent was convened within the Holy Roman Empire. This council signaled the beginning of the Counter-Reformation, or the church's response to the Protestant Reformation. During the series of meetings, the teachings of the Reformation were condemned, and traditional Catholic doctrines were reaffirmed.

Although the Council of Trent was meant to denounce the Reformation, it didn't squelch its power. In 1555, Charles, the Holy Roman Emperor, made concessions to the reformers in the Peace of Augsburg. This treaty allowed the princes of Germany to choose between Lutheranism and Catholicism. With his power weakening, Charles V abdicated his role as Holy Roman Emperor and king of Spain. His brother, Ferdinand I, succeeded him as Holy Roman Emperor, while his son, Philip II, took the crown of Spain.

Maximilian II and Rudolf II

Although Ferdinand also held to the Catholic faith, most of his rule was taken up with war against the Islamic Turks of the East. Upon his death in 1564, his son, Maximilian II took the reigns as Holy Roman Emperor. This Habsburg took a much more tolerant approach to Protestantism. He allowed the publication of Lutheran liturgy and even had Lutherans at his court. Under his reign, Protestantism co-existed among Catholicism.

Unfortunately, Maximilian's son, Rudolf II, did not share his father's religious ideals. As Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf overturned the tolerant policies of his predecessor. As the 16th century came to an end, Rudolf worked to rid the Habsburg lands of Protestantism. This error in judgment would lead to the devastating 30 Years' War. This conflict would eventually divide the empire and dethrone the Habsburgs as Europe's leading power.

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