Formation of the Schmalkaldic League Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Schmalkaldic League created a defensive military alliance among Protestant German states, whose rulers had adopted Lutheranism. The alliance was formed to defend against Holy Roman Emperor Charles V’s demands that the states conform to the Catholic faith. The League, through the 1555 Peace of Augsburg with Charles, helped expand Lutheranism throughout Northern Europe.

Summary of Event

Although the Diet of Worms had officially condemned Lutheranism Lutheranism , the movement developed strong support among princes and in the towns. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, busy with other problems throughout Europe, could not take effective action against the Lutherans, although he had every intention of doing so when he could. Schmalkaldic League Philip the Magnanimous Charles V (1500-1558) Hohenzollern, Elizabeth von Brandenburg John (1468-1532) Ferdinand I (1503- 1564) Francis I (1494-1547) John Frederick Luther, Martin Maurice Charles V (Holy Roman Emperor) Luther, Martin Ferdinand I (Holy Roman Emperor) Philip the Magnanimous Zwingli, Huldrych Melanchthon, Philipp John, elector of Saxony Bucer, Martin Ulrich, duke of Württemberg Elizabeth (duchess of Brunswick) Maurice, duke of Saxony John Frederick (elector of Saxony)

The unsuccessful Peasants’ War in 1525 German Peasants’ War (1524-1526)[German Peasants War (1524-1526)] strengthened the Catholics by arousing anti-Lutheran feelings among the conservatives who blamed the new religion for the upheaval, and also among the radicals who believed that Martin Luther had betrayed the peasants. Taking advantage of the situation, the Catholic princes of northern Germany formed an alliance in 1525.

At the Diet of Speyer Speyer, Diet of (1526) in June of 1526, however, the Lutheran princes also formed a solid front, and they were supported by some Catholics. The Archduke Ferdinand I, acting for his brother, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, was forced to grant temporary concessions. Each prince was to be responsible for the religious settlement of his own territory “until a general council of the whole Church could be summoned.” Various attempts were later made to modify this “Recess” of 1526, and for a long time it was regarded as merely a temporary agreement, but ultimately it was the settlement that prevailed in Germany. Catholicism;Germany

On February 1, 1529, Charles V summoned another Diet at Speyer Speyer, Diet of (1529) . Again, he did not attend himself, but he demanded that the concessions of 1526 be revoked and the Edict of Worms put into effect. Most members of the Diet were Catholics and voted to accept the emperor’s demands. The substantial Protestant minority, however, protested the decision and insisted that the Recess of 1526 was a solemn agreement that could not be unilaterally revoked.

The Protestant princes were by that time under the unofficial leadership of Prince Philip the Magnanimous, who in the fall of 1529 sponsored the Marburg Colloquy Marburg Colloquy (1529) , a gathering of Protestant theologians who met to create a common creed that would permit a united front against the Catholics. At the Marburg Colloquy, there was some animosity between Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli, the Swiss reformer who held different interpretations of the Eucharist. Luther believed in some form of Christ’s bodily presence, while Zwingli considered the Eucharist to be merely a sign. When the northern German princes officially adopted the Lutheran position, most of the south German and Swiss Protestants withdrew. Protestantism;Germany

At the Diet of Augsburg Augsburg, Diet of (1530) on June 20, 1530, the papal legates put strong pressure on Charles to enforce the Edict of Worms. At the same time, Philipp Melanchthon, Luther’s close associate, worked hard to effect a theological compromise with the Catholics, a compromise to which Luther was strongly opposed. When Charles solemnly demanded that all Protestants conform to the Catholic Church by April 15, 1531, the Diet broke up and Protestant leaders began preparing for armed resistance.

At Schmalkald, on February 27, 1531, Protestant leaders formed a Protestant League, with Philip the Magnanimous as its unofficial head. Other members included Luther’s patron John, the elector of Saxony, the brother of and successor to Frederick the Wise, and several other princes together with the cities of Bremen, Strasbourg, and Constance. The Zwinglians were excluded, but the Strasbourg reformer Martin Bucer was able to persuade Luther to accept other south German Protestants whose theology was less radical than Zwingli’.

At the Diet of Nuremberg Nuremberg, Diet of (1532) in the summer of 1532, the league was so strong that Charles was forced to agree to a truce that continued the toleration of Lutheranism indefinitely. Philip then took the offensive and defeated the imperial troops in 1534, restoring the Lutheran duke Ulrich to the territory of Württemberg. In north Germany, more princes and towns became Lutheran, including Ducal Saxony (distinct from Electoral Saxony), which had been a bulwark of Catholicism.

Philip hopelessly compromised himself in 1540, however, when he married a second time without divorcing his first wife. Other Protestant princes condemned him for embarrassing the cause. Philip was now at the mercy of the emperor for having violated a fundamental civil and moral law. Charles forced him to restrain the Schmalkaldic League, which became sharply divided between militant and moderate factions.

Lutheranism, in general, aided the creation of stronger states by ending the Catholic Church’s dominance of laws, courts, and tax collections while providing popular support for government. Thus, Lutheranism was favored by many wealthy Protestant princes, some of whom provided protection and security from Catholic persecutions. Sometimes these protectors included women, such as Elizabeth, duchess of Brunswick, whose support was vital to the continued existence of Lutheranism.

The Protestant forces were still strong, however, and at another Diet of Speyer Speyer, Diet of (1544) , in 1544, the emperor promised that all religious questions would be solved in the future by a German church council in which the Lutherans would be given a full voice. In 1545, another theological meeting was held at Regensburg, but when Catholics and Protestants failed to agree, relations between the two groups worsened.

The Diet of Regensburg Regensburg, Diet of (1546) of 1546 was boycotted by members of the Schmalkaldic League, and Charles finally withdrew his earlier concessions. He won over Philip the Magnanimous’s son-in-law, the Protestant Maurice, duke of Saxony, and declared war on the league. At first, the Protestants were successful, but in April of 1547, Charles captured the Saxon elector John Frederick, son of the deceased John. A short time later, Charles also took Philip, under promise of good treatment. He forced several recently converted Protestants, including the archbishop of Cologne, to return to the Catholic Church, and he compelled other Protestant states to accept his authority.

At the Diet of Augsburg Augsburg, Diet of (1548) in 1548, Charles issued the Augsburg Interim, which granted concessions to the Protestants, including clerical marriage, subject to papal approval. Most of the Protestant leaders were forced to accept the document, but they considered it unsatisfactory.

The Augsburg Interim was largely ignored in the next few years, as resentment against Charles slowly built. In 1551, Maurice, angry at the continued imprisonment of his father-in-law, organized a new Protestant League with French support. The league was successful, and Charles was forced to release Philip and John Frederick and issue another recess. Disgusted with the German situation, Charles left for the Netherlands and gave Archduke Ferdinand the authority to conclude a settlement.


The Schmalkaldic League’s lasting significance was the settlement concluded by Ferdinand known as the Peace of Augsburg, Augsburg, Peace of (1555) signed in September of 1555. The German princes were permitted to choose between Lutheranism and Catholicism for their state churches. In addition, Catholic properties captured before 1552 were retained by their Lutheran conquerors. No concessions were made to other Protestant groups, such as the Calvinists and Zwinglians.

The League’s formation, and its success with the Peace of Augsburg, helped to solidify the Protestant faith, generally, and to spread Lutheranism, specifically, in Northern Europe.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Armstrong, Edward. The Emperor, Charles V. Reprint. London: Macmillan, 1929. An older study that remains the standard biography of Charles. Armstrong provides a detailed, richly drawn portrait of the defender of Catholicism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brady, Thomas A., Jr. Communities, Politics, and Reformation in Early Modern Europe. Boston: Brill, 1998. This study of Reformation Europe includes both an account of the Schmalkaldic League’s seizure of Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel in the 1540’s and an overall assessment of the importance and effects of the league from a present-day point of view.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cahill, Richard Andrew. Philip of Hesse and the Reformation. Mainz, Germany: P. von Zabern, 2001. Study of Philip the Magnanimous’s rule and his effects upon both the Reformation in particular and Protestantism in general.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grimm, Harold J. The Reformation Era, 1500-1650. 2d ed. New York: Macmillan, 1973. Grimm’s work remains the standard text and contains an excellent general history of the period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holborn, Hajo. The Reformation. Vol. 1 in A History of Modern Germany. 1959. Reprint. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982. An older interpretation of the Reformation period that emphasizes politics rather than religion as the motivating force in the formation of the Schmalkaldic League.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hsia, R. Po-chin. The German People and the Reformation. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1988. Describes social conditions in central Europe at the time of the Reformation, including a brief description of the formation of the Schmalkaldic League.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jedin, Hubert. A History of the Council of Trent. Translated by Ernest Graf. 2 vols. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1961. Contains an excellent account of Charles’s policies concerning the Lutherans and their effect on his attitude toward Church reform.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McEntegart, Rory. Henry VIII, the League of Schmalkalden, and the English Reformation. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell Press, 2002. Study of Henry’s alliance and consultation with the Schmalkaldic League, analyzing his partial incorporation of German religious ideology into his own theology and the nascent Church of England. Looks at both the evolution of Henry’s religious thought and the wider political implications of that evolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marty, Martin. Martin Luther. New York: Viking Penguin, 2004. Subtle and balanced portrayal of Luther’s theology and its cultural context, explaining the importance of the debates in which he intervened as well as tracing the ultimate results of that intervention. Luther’s character receives an equally nuanced treatment.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marty, Martin. The Two Reformations: The Journey from the Last Days to the New World. Edited by Donald Weinstein. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003. Posthumous collection of essays by one of the foremost Reformation scholars of the twentieth century. Revisits debates on Luther’s anti-Semitism. Argues that medieval religious thought was essential to both Calvin’s and Luther’s understandings of Christianity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ozment, Stephen B. Protestants: The Birth of a Revolution. New York: Doubleday, 1992. The best up-to-date interpretation of the Reformation and the religious wars of the period.

Oct. 31, 1517: Luther Posts His Ninety-five Theses

1523: Gustav I Vasa Becomes King of Sweden

1555-1556: Charles V Abdicates

Sept. 25, 1555: Peace of Augsburg

Categories: History