Albert of Brandenburg was born June 28, 1490, in what is now part of the city of Berlin. His father, John, was Elector of Brandenburg. This position gave John political authority over a region in the Holy Roman Empire which, around that time, consisted of roughly 10,000 square miles and contained about 400,000 people. More importantly, the Elector of Brandenburg was one of seven Electors in the Empire. When an Emperor died, the seven Electors (three archbishops, one king, one duke, one count, and one margrave) would meet, discuss, and vote to choose a new Emperor. Albert had an older brother, Joachim, who was destined to inherit the political office from his father. Therefore, Albert went into church work, ambitious to become as important a man as his father.
Albert studied at the University of Frankfort. In 1513, the Archbishop of Magdeburg died (reportedly of syphilis), and Albert was named new Archbishop, even though Albert was only twenty-three years old. (According to Church Law, an Archbishop needed to be at least thirty years old. However, the pope could make exceptions to that rule.) The next year, the Archbishop of Mainz died, also under unusual circumstances. (It is said that he had a fight with his cellarmaster over missing wine; some historians claim that the Archbishop murdered the cellarmaster and then fled the country, with the cellarmaster buried in the Archbishop’s tomb.) Albert wanted this job, since the Archbishop of Mainz was, like the Margrave of Brandenburg, one of the seven Electors. But Albert was still not yet thirty, and Church Law also prohibited any person from being Archbishop in two places at the same time.
The Pope at this time was Leo X. Leo was the son of Lorenzo de Medici, a wealthy and powerful leader in the Italian city of Florence. All the Medicis were wise in the ways of the world concerning political power, money, and Renaissance art and culture. Leo, seeking funds for the beautification on Rome, was willing to appoint Albert as Archbishop of Mainz, for a price. Albert borrowed money from the Fuggers, a wealthy German banking family, and he was granted the job he sought.
Now Albert was deeply in debt to the Fuggers. He appealed to Pope Leo for help, and Leo knew how to help. He proposed that indulgences be sold in Mainz and the surrounding area. Half the money would go to Archbishop Albert to repay the Fuggers. The other half would go to Pope Leo to pay the expenses of building St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. (Michelangelo was one of several architects employed to build this basilica, and one of his most famous sculptures is contained therein.) Among the church workers brought to Mainz to sell indulgences for Albert and Leo was a Dominican friar, John Tetzel. Tetzel’s extravagant claims about the power of his indulgences prompted an Augustinian friar, Martin Luther, to post ninety-five ideas, or theses, regarding penance and forgiveness. Luther, a Doctor of Theology at the University of Wittenberg in Saxony, was deeply concerned about penance and forgiveness. Luther also believed that Albert and Leo would renounce the salesmanship of Tetzel and would approve of Luther’s attempts to explain God’s forgiveness to the Christians living in Europe at that time. Luther even sent copies of his ninety-five theses and explanations of their meaning to the Pope and the Archbishop, expecting a favorable response from these Church leaders.
Albert and Leo were not pleased. But they could not respond to Luther as quickly and emphatically as they would have liked. The Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian Hapsburg, was in ill health and would soon die. An election would be held to replace him. Archbishop Albert and his brother Joachim were two of the Electors, but a third Elector was the Duke of Saxony, Frederick the Wise. Frederick had established the University of Wittenberg. Technically, Doctor Luther worked for Frederick. This was not a time to have Frederick become angry with Albert and with Leo.
Maximilian died in 1519. One of the candidates to replace him was his grandson, Charles, who inherited power over the kingdom of Austria at Maximilian’s death. Charles had already inherited the kingdom of Spain from his other grandparents, Ferdinand and Isabella. This made him ruler, not only over Spain, but also over Belgium and the Netherlands, and over most of the western hemisphere recently claimed by Spain. That was a lot of power for one man to hold. Pope Leo was not comfortable with the prospect.
Another candidate for Emperor was Francis I, King of France. Combining France with the Holy Roman Empire would also create an overwhelming European power that might threaten the rest of the continent. Leo preferred a compromise candidate. While Charles and Francis campaigned, making generous gifts to the seven Electors, Pope Leo sought a compromise candidate. His first choice was Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony and founder of the University of Wittenberg, where Luther taught.
Frederick declined the honor. When the seven votes were cast and counted, Charles was declared the winner. Now Pope Leo felt free to publicly condemn Luther and his ideas, which he did. But by this time, Luther had gained a large audience. Many of the rulers in the Empire agreed with Luther, some for purely religious reasons, and others for political reasons. Frederick wanted Luther to have a fair hearing, which he knew would not happen if Luther met the Pope in Rome. As a result, Luther was instead invited to a Diet (a meeting of leaders in the Holy Roman Empire) scheduled to be held in the city of Worms in 1521. Luther was not the only item on the agenda; members of the Diet would consider many topics, including the military threat of the Ottoman Turks. (Ironically, Charles would spend more energy at war with Francis than with the Turks.) But the famous Diet of Worms—not a weight-loss program, but an important political gathering—would make Martin Luther famous and would solidify the progress of the Reformation of the Christian Church. J.