10 things you (probably) didn’t know about the Reformation

One of the most important events in world history, the 16th-century Reformation tore apart the Christian world, splintering Catholic Europe and creating a new faith: Protestantism. Yet, as Dr Kathleen Chater explains in her new book, this seismic movement had relatively low-key beginnings: in 1517 a German monk, Martin Luther, merely thought there was room for improvement in the Roman Catholic church to which he belonged. Instead, he discovered he had founded a new religion

In The Reformation in 100 Facts, Chater explores the major events of the Reformation itself and the consequences that have flowed from the new ways of thinking it created. Here, writing for History Extra, she shares 10 lesser-known facts…


1) Reform was needed

Not even Roman Catholics would now deny that the church in the 15th century needed reform.

The pope’s position was blatantly political: although he was elected by the College of Cardinals, they were appointed and, to a large extent, controlled by their monarchs back home. These monarchs preferred a pope who was acquiescent and old, so he wouldn’t have the energy or the time to do too much that would interfere with their plans.

Doctrine was promulgated to raise money: it was the invention of indulgences – remittance of time in Purgatory for a cash payment – that provoked Martin Luther’s challenge to the church’s authority. There were, however, other teachings that had no biblical basis that brought in money: burning candles (purchased from the church) to waft prayers up to heaven; paying for masses to be sung for the souls of the dead, against which the Protestants protested (hence their name).

The third area of disquiet was the conduct of priests, monks and nuns. Although there were certainly good and holy people in religious orders, many were poorly educated or, at the other end of the scale, were the offspring of powerful families who got them appointed to positions that would bolster their authority.

The Council of Trent (a Roman Catholic church council held in northern Italy from 1545–63) did tackle some of these issues, particularly the training and conduct of people in holy orders, but left church doctrine unchanged. It was too little, too late to prevent a split.


2) Martin Luther did not intend to start a new denomination

When Martin Luther (1483–1546) put forward 95 theses (or proposals for discussion) criticising the doctrine of indulgences in 1519, he did not intend to start a new strand of Christianity. His simple aim was to reform the Catholic church. His action, however, was the spark that ignited a smouldering mass of discontent and rebellion across Europe. 

Some reformers adopted a Lutheran model, retaining many features of Catholic worship and a hierarchy of church officials. Others, however, believed the Catholic church was so corrupt and out-of-touch with biblical teaching that the only solution was a complete split from its practices. Jean Calvin (1509–64) was the main mover here, but there were numerous others, notably Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531) in Zürich. They believed in individual autonomy for separate congregations, but couldn’t actually agree on a single set of beliefs beyond that. 

Over the years there have been myriad movements within Protestantism. Some have developed from the fringes into mainstream denominations, like the Baptists; the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers); Moravians; even the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons). Some did not outlast a charismatic individual and remain just a footnote in the history of Protestantism. All, however, are the result of Luther’s initial protest.


3) Without the printing press, the Reformation would have failed

Long before the official Reformation, many individuals, like John Wycliffe (1330–84) and Jan Hus (c1372–1415), had criticised the church of their day, calling for reforms, and there had been calls for translations of the Bible from Latin into local languages. But preachers could only address relatively few people at a time and documents of course had to be handwritten – this was laborious and time-consuming and produced in too small numbers to reach the critical mass of people needed to precipitate change. The church also found it easy to confiscate and destroy documents and pick off the individuals who originated dangerous ideas.

That all changed with the invention of the printing press. In around 1448 Johannes Gutenberg, a good Catholic all his life, invented the printing press that allowed publications to be produced in hundreds, even thousands, of copies. These enabled people in different countries thousands of miles apart to access and discuss criticisms of the church and put forward proposals, which spread like wildfire.

And while handwritten documents were vulnerable to copying errors or insertions of the writer’s own thoughts and interpretations, with print everyone knew they were dealing with the same content – literally ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’. Catholic rulers could destroy some of these publications, but not enough to suppress the ideas they carried. 

A bas-relief of the German printing pioneer Johannes Gutenberg checking his work while his assistant turns the press, c1450. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


4) Motives for supporting or opposing reform were as much political as religious 

Whether a ruler opted for Catholicism or Protestantism was as much a response to the political situation of the time as personal, religious conviction. Support in the German states (which were not unified into a single country until 1871) for Lutheranism was not always the result of the local rulers’ conversion, and declaring your support for Protestantism was a way of fighting against the power of the Holy Roman Empire.

During the Reformation, the unholy alliance between politics and religion also led to a number of unexpected deals. Among them: Catholic France sided with Protestants in the Netherlands and even with the Islamic Ottoman empire in the Mediterranean against Spain, which was also Catholic, during the Italian War of 1542–46.  And the Protestant Dutch, worried about trade competition from Protestant England, blocked English attempts to support the Protestants besieged in La Rochelle, France (1627–28) by staunchly Catholic Louis XIII. And because he feared the growing power of France, in 1690 the pope supported Protestant William III against the attempts of Catholic James II and VII to recover the English throne from which he had been deposed in 1688. 


5) Britain got off lightly in the religious wars

Although martyrs on both sides, Protestant and Catholic, get a lot of coverage, the number of people who were executed across the British Isles for religious reasons was relatively low. Between 1534 and 1680 an estimated 373 Protestants and more than 200 Catholics died in England. In Scotland, only 22 (or maybe 24) died. But even the figure of more than a thousand Catholics estimated to have died for their faith in Ireland pales into insignificance against the deaths in mainland Europe. Figures are necessarily very approximate, but the French Wars of Religion (1562–98) claimed between 2 and 4 million lives, and the Thirty Years’ War across the German states (1618–48) led to between 3 and 11.5 million deaths.

It’s a moot point whether Britain actually had a war of religion as such. The Civil War (1642–51) was fundamentally political: it was about the extent of the monarch’s power. Although Catholics tended to support Charles I, there were Protestants on both sides. The death toll, which included civilians, was about 190,000 in England.  Associated conflict claimed some 60,000 lives in Scotland and possibly 616,000, in Ireland where plague and famine swelled the numbers.  


6) The Reformation paved the way for the Enlightenment

The pre-Reformation Roman Catholic church of the 15th century thought it had all the answers – there was, it concluded, nothing more to add on life’s major questions, and people had to accept what they were told: having faith was more important than having proof. Scientific challenges, like the discovery by Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) that the Earth was not the centre of the universe (as the church taught), were met with cries of “heretic!” – and threats, or even imposition, of torture and death.

Protestantism, with its return to critical study of the Bible, caused other previously unquestioned assertions to be queried. This paved the way for the Enlightenment, an 18th-century movement across Europe that emphasised reason to solve problems, and urged people not to passively accept received opinion. It brought about increasing religious and political toleration and plurality. The realisation that no one had all the answers served to create more open-minded societies, receptive to new ideas, even if it did not, as some of its proponents hoped, completely replace faith. 

Italian astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei using a telescope, c1620. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


7) Failure to embrace reform led to economic decline

Although it was not the only factor in their decline, failure to accept new ideas brought about by reform led to economic stagnation and the consequent loss of power in Spain and France, once the most powerful countries in Europe.

Spain is the most outstanding example. By the 16th century its territories in the Americas had made it the wealthiest country in Europe, but the riches that flooded in were expended largely to maintain and extend Catholicism. Wars with England and in the Spanish Netherlands resulted in expensive defeats, and supporting French Catholics against Protestants in France took another tranche of funding. Finally, at home, the support of the Inquisition and numerous religious establishments, which produced no material benefits, led to the need to borrow money at a rate that meant the sum could never realistically be repaid.

The effect on France was less dramatic, and was initially triggered by the exodus of the Huguenots, French Protestants. Around 200,000 left between 1680 and 1750 – the majority of them skilled craftsmen and merchants. Although France retained cultural supremacy, its unwillingness to listen to new, possibly ‘heretical’ ideas resulted in a failure to capitalise on the industrial development that benefited its old enemy, Britain. The result was a gradual economic decline.


8) The Reformation contributed to European colonialism

Spain and Portugal had started to acquire overseas territories in South America before the Reformation, and alongside their desire for wealth they claimed they were saving souls by conversion. In the wake of the Reformation, other European powers, most notably England, France and the Netherlands, joined in, to enrich themselves – but also to prevent their political and religious enemies from benefiting. Local chiefs kept Europeans out of Africa but the slave trade provided labour for the newly acquired colonies in the Americas. European expansion into Asia led to colonies in India and the islands of East Asia, although both China and Japan were able to resist and limit their contact to trade.

North America, initially seen as a potential source of wealth for England, became a refuge for persecuted Protestants from across Europe and later for Catholics. And even though Britain lost its imperial possessions in America, the victorious colonies continued to oppose the expansion of French and Spanish interests across the North American continent.

In the 19th century, the claim that it was morally necessary to ‘civilise’ heathens and convert them to a politically approved brand of Christianity was used in the scramble for Africa and other territories by both Catholic and Protestant states.

An allegorical representation of the Pope and the Reformation by an unknown artist, c1520. The 'house' of the church is in a run down state and beset by reformers while the Pope and his bishops seek to escape by climbing the roof. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


9) Protestantism helped local languages to survive

It was the study of the Latin version of the Bible, the Vulgate, used by the Roman Catholic church, that alerted scholars to errors that had led to possible false teachings, such as the belief that Christ was physically present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, or the concept of penance, rather than repentance. Although theologically subtle and complex, they mattered. The reformers also thought that people should read the Bible in their own language so they could understand the primary source of their faith. 

This led to translations that preserved and spread languages that were in danger of disappearing such as Welsh. Until the mid-16th century there were no printed books in Welsh: it was an oral culture and the language was regarded as one only peasants spoke. The necessity to produce a Bible and other religious texts the native speakers could understand actually led to its preservation in a literary form, rather than a number of local dialects. Cornish did not get its own Bible until 2011, more than 200 years after it had been lost as a mother tongue.

The Bible is today the most translated book in the world. As Protestant missionaries moved into Asia, Africa and Australia, many translated the Bible, or parts of it, into local languages, which promoted interest in them and, in some cases, preserved them because they were the only record of a previously oral culture, as Welsh had been.


10) The Counter-Reformation created new fashions in art and music

The Counter-Reformation is a term used for the Catholic church’s movement to counter the influence of Protestantism and to engage hearts and minds. It was decided that a more exuberant and ornamental style of architecture and music would help to attract more followers than the austere and – it must be admitted – often dull practices of the Protestants. The result was known as baroque, and it shaped the arts and architecture across Europe from 1600 to about 1725.

Characterised by rich, detailed ornamentation and grandeur, it had universal influence on buildings. Even Protestants adopted it in an effort to out-do their neighbours in demonstrating their wealth and taste – they constructed sprawling, intricately adorned stately homes on whose walls hung huge, detailed, highly dramatic paintings by both Catholic and Protestant artists.

In music, elaborate settings of masses, interweaving numerous soaring voices, were not confined to Catholic composers like Vivaldi and Monteverdi. Purcell in England and the Lutherans JS Bach, Handel, Telemann and Schütz also wrote in this fashionable style.  

Although later supplanted by the austere style of classicism, baroque continues to be admired and widely discussed, although its original religious intent has been largely forgotten.

Dr Kathleen Chater is the author of The Reformation in 100 Facts (Amberley Publishing, 2016).

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