The Vatican’s Most Wanted: Martin Luther

It took just one monk to bring down the most powerful institution in Medieval Europe. Alicea Francis tells the story of the man who dared defy the Catholic Church 500 years ago today.

The Vatican's Most Wanted: Martin Luther © Getty Images

As darkness descended on the Thuringian Forest, only the cracking of fallen branches under hoof disturbed the silence. Had you been there that night, you might have crossed paths with a man on horseback, following the winding path through the trees. From his dark robes and shaved scalp, you may well have guessed that this was a holy man; what you may not have guessed was that he was an outlaw: the most wanted man in all the Holy Roman Empire.


What came next happened so quickly that, had you briefly looked away, you would have missed it completely; a rustling of leaves was the only warning. Three hooded horsemen emerged from the shadows of the forest, swords raised and glinting in the moonlight, blocking the solitary rider’s path. The monk lowered his head to the ground, clutched the cross that hung from his neck, and prayed for salvation.

Root of evil

Medieval Germany was a place of desolation and disease. Since the mid-14th century, the Black Death had ravaged much of Europe, and in just 100 years the German population almost halved. For many, there was only one comfort: the promise of heaven. The Catholic Church had grown more powerful than any monarch – and also richer. Not only did it own around a third of the land in Europe, it had also begun to sell ‘indulgences’, which promised to reduce the amount of time the recipient would spend in purgatory (that half-way house between heaven and hell). These indulgences could redeem for anything, and could cost half the annual wage of the average citizen. Those who had dared to question the morality of this practice had been smeared heretics, the punishment for which was a slow and painful death.

The sale of indulgences
The sale of indulgences

When a baby boy was born in Eisleben, Saxony on 10 November 1483, no one could ever have predicted that he would one day defy the odds and revolutionise Christianity forever.

There were, however, high expectations for the child who would be baptised Martin Luther. His father, Hans, was the son of a farmer, and had broken free from the chains of serfdom to become a successful copper smelter. For his own son, he had even higher ambitions, and he sent Martin to the best Catholic schools in Saxony. But what Hans abounded in ambition, he lacked in affection. Both he and his wife Margarethe were strict disciplinarians, and as an adult Martin recalled how his mother, “for the sake of stealing a nut… beat me until the blood flowed”. It was a pious, but unhappy, upbringing.

In 1501, Hans enrolled Martin at the University of Erfurt; his son, he had decided, was to become a lawyer. Martin, however, did not share his father’s ambitions. He described his school days as “hell and purgatory”; Erfurt, meanwhile, was a “whorehouse and a beer house”. In July 1505, inevitably, some might argue, he dropped out of university. His father was furious, but Martin insisted that he had a good explanation. While travelling back to Erfurt after a trip home, he had found himself in the midst of a thunderstorm. A lightning bolt struck the ground near to him and, fearing for his life, Martin cried out “Help me, Saint Anne, I shall become a monk”. He survived the journey and two weeks later, he joined the local monastery.

Martin Luther as an Augustinian monk
Martin Luther as an Augustinian monk

But the inner peace he sought was not to be found there, either. The silence and solitude gave him too much time to think, and he descended into religious turmoil, believing that he would never be able to redeem for his sins and achieve salvation. It was as though Martin had exchanged one unforgiving father for another, even more impossible to please. Martin spent hour after hour in confession to his superior, Johann von Staupitz, who became concerned for the young monk. He decided that rather than allow him to indulge in constant internal reflection, he would send him away to Wittenberg. There, Martin would teach theology at the newly founded university, focusing on the spiritual needs of others rather than this own. By 1512, he had been promoted to Dean and in 1515, he was made provincial vicar of Saxony and Thuringia.

Devil’s advocate

A pilgrimage to Rome in 1510 led the new professor Luther to become increasingly concerned about corruption within the Church. He had seen the riches that were showered upon the Pope, and witnessed starving peasants handing over every penny of their earnings in exchange for indulgences. Surely this was not God’s will? It was while preparing for a lecture that Professor Luther stumbled upon a passage from Romans: “The righteous shall live by faith”. It was as though the gates of paradise had swung open. Finally he understood that it was only through faith that salvation is achieved, not through confession or fasting or indulgences. So when, in 1517, a Dominican friar arrived in the vicinity of Wittenberg selling indulgences to fund Pope Leo X’s latest building project, Luther decided that he had had enough.

Sitting down at his desk, he began to pen his ‘Ninety-Five Theses’, containing stinging critiques on the Church’s system of repentance. The first stated: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’, he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” It went on to deny the power of the Pope over people in purgatory, and argued that in fact indulgences make true repentance more difficult. The story goes that he nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, although the accepted truth is a lot less dramatic: he posted them in a letter to the Archbishop of Mainz on, or soon after, 31 October 1517. His private thoughts had been unleashed into the world, and within two weeks, copies were being circulated around Germany. Within two months, they had spread through Europe.

The door of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg, upon which Luther supposedly nailed his 95 Theses
The door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, upon which Luther supposedly nailed his 95 Theses

The Archbishop did not send a reply to Luther’s letter. Instead, he forwarded it on to Pope Leo. A heresy case was made against Luther, and he was summoned to meet with the papal legate Cardinal Cajetan at the next ‘parliament’, the Diet of Augsburg, in October 1518. The cardinal, rather than directly accusing him of heresy, expressed some sympathy with Luther’s criticisms, but insisted that he recant them. However, throughout 1519 and 1520, Luther continued to attack the Church, becoming more and more popular among the people. In June 1520, the Pope issued a papal bull (public decree) that threatened the monk with excommunication if he did not recant. Again, Luther refused, and threw the bull onto a bonfire in a public display of defiance. Shortly after, he published his ‘Assertion of All the Articles Condemned by the Last Bull of the Antichrist’. This time, Luther had gone too far – he was to be excommunicated with immediate effect.

But Luther had an ally. At the time, Germany was part of the Holy Roman Empire, and was divided into states, seven of which were ruled by a prince-elector. The elector of Saxony was Frederick III – known as ‘the wise’ – who had founded the university where Luther taught and had previously attempted to reform the constitutional order of the empire. No one is quite sure why he took such a liking to Luther – perhaps it was in appreciation for putting Saxony on the map, perhaps he too felt that the Church had grown too powerful. Whatever the reason, Frederick managed to persuade the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V that Luther should not be condemned without a hearing.

The date was set for 17 April 1521, at the Imperial Diet of Worms. Before the Emperor, Luther declared: “I neither can nor will revoke anything, for it is neither safe nor honest to act against one’s conscience.” After a month of deliberation, Charles presented the final edict, which stated: “We forbid anyone from this time forward to dare, either by words or by deeds, to receive, sustain or favour the said Martin Luther. On the contrary, we want him to be captured and punished as a notorious heretic.”

Luther at the Diet of Worms
Luther at the Diet of Worms 

But Luther was nowhere to be found. He had disappeared the previous month on his return to Wittenberg, assumed dead. Little did they know that in fact, this devious monk was safe and sound. Knowing the fate that awaited him, Prince Frederick had arranged for Luther to be ‘kidnapped’ by horsemen, and hid the monk at Wartburg Castle – a fortress perched on a rocky precipice deep in the heart of the Thuringian Forest. For the next ten months, this castle would be his home. He was given a room on the top floor, accessible only by a narrow staircase. He rid himself of his monk’s vestments, grew his hair long and assumed the name ‘Junker George’.

Here, Luther embarked on his greatest project yet: translating the New Testament into German. No longer would the common people have to rely on Latin-speaking priests to relay God’s message, now they could read the Bible themselves. He did this in just three months. But the isolation once again took its toll. He became convinced that the bats and owls who lived in the eaves were messengers of the devil, and that the strange noises he heard at night were demons throwing walnuts at the ceiling. “I can tell you in this idle solitude there are a thousand battles with Satan… It is much easier to fight against the incarnate Devil – that is, against men – than against spiritual wickedness in the heavenly places.”

Wartburg Castle, where Luther sought sanctuary
Wartburg Castle, where Luther sought sanctuary 

Return to Wittenberg

Meanwhile, Saxony had descended into chaos. Parishioners had taken it upon themselves to continue Luther’s work, but rather than do it through sermons and letter-writing, violence had become their medium. Peasants refused to pay dues to the church, clerical houses were sacked, statues of the Virgin Mary were torn down and priests were pelted with mud balls. Luther, hearing of the trouble, wrote an open letter to the rebels: “You have gone about the business in a way of which I cannot approve, using your fists, and if this happens again I shall not take your part.” Wittenberg parish council soon realised that Luther was the only one who could restore order, and, ignoring the Edict of Worms, in spring 1522 they requested that he return.

For a while, there was peace. Luther settled back into his old quarters and began preaching again, his popularity only continuing to rise. War in France had the Pope and the Emperor distracted, and the authorities dared not arrest him for fear of further revolt. But in 1524, an even greater rebellion broke out. German peasants, believing that Luther’s pamphlets against the Church and hierarchy were an attack against the upper classes in general, gathered their pitchforks and waged an all-out war against their feudal overlords. Luther’s revolution had never intended to promote equality, and instead, he called for the rebels to be put down: “Let everyone who can smite, slay and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful or devilish than a rebel. It is just as when one might kill a mad dog; if you do not strike him, he will strike you.”


The German Peasants’ War ended in tragedy. Between 100,000 and 300,000 peasants were slaughtered, but the fuse of what would become known as the Reformation had been well and truly lit. Revolution spread through Europe like wildfire, the old order brought crashing down by Luther’s refusal to recant those Ninety-Five Theses. Before his death in 1546, he gave one final warning to the Church: “When I die, I want to be a ghost… So I can continue to pester the bishops, priests and godless monks until that they have more trouble with a dead Luther than they could have had before with a thousand living ones.”

Read the full feature in issue 47 of History Revealed, available in print or digital