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  • Passing of the Edict of Worms, May 26, 1521.

    Beatriz Camino

    Passing of the Edict of Worms, May 26, 1521.

    On this day in 1521, the Edict of Worms was issued, banning the writings of Martin Luther, whose efforts to reform the Church sparked the Reformation. The Edict declared him an outlaw and a heretic, calling for his capture.

    Luther’s 95 Theses

    Martin Luther began questioning the Church’s doctrines around 1513, arguing that many Church mandates were unbiblical. Initially, his objections centred on the sale of indulgences, which were writs purchased to remit sins for the living or the dead. While indulgences traditionally required the recipient to perform penitential acts, by this time a simple payment could secure a writ.

    Despite many states in the Holy Roman Empire prohibiting the sale of indulgences, in 1516, Archbishop of Mainz Albrecht von Brandenburg received Pope Leo X’s permission to sell them in his region. Albrecht, who had paid large amounts of money to secure his ecclesiastical position, needed to repay his debts, while Pope Leo X needed funds to rebuild Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, so they agreed to split the proceeds from the sales.

    Luther articulated his objections to indulgence sales in his renowned 95 Theses, which he posted on the door of the Wittenberg church. The theses were sent to Albrecht by Luther in the fall of 1517, while Luther’s friends translated them from Latin into German and published them, quickly spreading to Britain, France, Italy, and beyond.

    After examining the theses, Albrecht sent them to the pope, who then ordered Luther to appear and explain himself. However, Frederick III arranged for Luther to appear in Augsburg, where a papal legate would examine him before the Imperial Diet. Cardinal Cajetan was dispatched with instructions to arrest Luther if he refused to recant. Still, Luther stood firm.

    In June 1519, theologian Johann Eck arranged a debate at Leipzig with Luther’s co-reformer Andreas Karlstadt. Luther attended and maintained that the pope was not above Scripture and had no authority over souls in purgatory. Eck charged him with heresy, comparing him to Jan Hus, who had been burned at the stake in 1415.

    In June 1520, Pope Leo X threatened Luther with excommunication unless he recanted. Luther publicly burned the papal bull in December 1520 and was excommunicated in January 1521. Now considered outside the grace of God and the Church, Luther’s case was handed over to secular authorities, leading to his summoning at the Diet of Worms.

    The Diet of Worms

    Although Luther had been excommunicated, the possibility remained for him to be welcomed back into the Church if he would recant. However, by this time, even if he had wanted to, recanting would have destroyed his credibility. His 95 Theses had captured the public’s imagination, and his refusal to submit to Church authority made him a popular hero.

    On April 17, he was examined by Johann Eck (not the same theologian from Leipzig), who asked him whether he would recant his works. Luther stated that many of his works on theology were respected even by his enemies and could not be revoked. His other works were honest refutations of papal authority based on scripture, which he also could not revoke in good conscience.

    The Edict of Worms

    Charles V personally responded to Luther’s attacks in a letter concluding that he and his followers must be excommunicated and "eradicated." Despite the situation, Luther’s safe-conduct pass, granted by Frederick III, remained in effect and was respected. Luther spent a few more days in Worms awaiting a response before departing for Wittenberg.

    On May 25, 1521, after over a month of private conferences and debates about Luther’s fate, the Edict of Worms was issued. It declared him a heretic and an outlaw, ordered his arrest, offered a reward for his capture, and warned that anyone aiding him would be charged with crimes against the state.

    By this time, however, Luther had already left Worms and did not return to Wittenberg as expected. On his way back, he was abducted by soldiers disguised as highwaymen, acting on Frederick III's orders. No one knew his whereabouts after he left Worms and Frederick ensured it remained that way. During his time at Wartburg Castle, Luther wrote numerous notable tracts, which were smuggled out and published.


    Luther’s defiance at the Diet of Worms extinguished any hope of reconciliation with the Church and elevated him to saint-like status among the peasantry. By the time he left Wartburg and returned to Wittenberg, the German Peasants' War (1524-1525) had begun and the Edict could not be enforced. Moreover, Luther had become too popular to risk arrest and no attempt was made to enforce the Edict in Germany.

    Luther’s appearance at the Diet of Worms starkly contrasts with Jan Hus's at the Council of Constance over a hundred years earlier. Although Hus also had devoted supporters Luther had a powerful tool that Hus lacked: the printing press. Luther, a skilful writer and orator, well-versed in scripture and confident in his conclusions, used it to his advantage. He and his followers avoided Hus' fate by casting Luther as a Christ-like figure and a man of the people through pamphlets in German. This transformed him into the hero of Christianity and the victor of the Diet of Worms.


    Germany, Saxony. Martin Luther. 1830. AR Medal. 300th ann. of the Augsburg Confession. Gem Unc.Netherlands Graafschap Holland Karel V (Charles Quint) 1/2 real d'or no dateN.d. (1521). Charles V dedication medal on his crowning and the planned Imperial Diet in Nuremberg

    HOLY ROMAN EMPIRE, CHARLES V, SILVER MEDAL, 1537Southern Netherlands Brabant Karel V (Charles Quint) 1/2 silver real no dateFRANCE Besançon Charles V, as Holy Roman Emperor 1530-1556 Blanc (1/2 Karolus) 1542 EF


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