On 1st December 1521, Pope Leo X died after a brief illness. He had only been Pontiff since 1513, and yet his reign had seen the first cracks starting to appear in the Roman Catholic Church’s position of primacy in Western European spiritual and political life.
One of Leo’s acts involved the selling of indulgences in order to fund major renovation work on St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Essentially, those willing to pay for an indulgence would be absolved of their sins in the eyes of the Church and, by extension, God – while the Church ensured a steady source of additional income for itself. Indulgences had been around for many hundreds of years, but the scale of their sale greatly increased under Leo. Some theologians disputed the legitimacy of the practice of selling indulgences. Their arguments ran that the buying and selling of salvation had no basis in scripture, and that the motives of the Church and its middlemen was more about profit than anything else.
The loudest voice to be raised against his practice came from Martin Luther, a Catholic priest and Friar from Germany. He published his arguments in the 95 Theses, copies of which were promptly printed and spread across Germany. When Leo demanded that Luther retract his statements, he refused, and was excommunicated. Yet beyond this, Leo seemed to have devoted little time and energy into trying to stop the spread of Lutheranism – being more pre-occupied with the domestic political situation in Italy.
Luther’s following and influence only continued to grow, and he soon gained wealthy and powerful backers from amongst the German princes and nobility. Luther’s teachings began to have influence in Scandinavia too. The ball of the Protestant Reformation was now truly rolling. Ultimately, it would come to England in the 1530s, as Henry VIII sought a complete split from the Church in Rome – even if his motivation was more to do with his matrimonial situation than theological concerns!