March 30, 1282 War of Sicilian Vespers

It was Easter Monday, March 30, 1282. The Church of the Holy Spirit outside Palermo was just letting out after evening vespers (prayers), when a French soldier thought he’d “inspect” a Sicilian woman for weapons.

Since the early 12th century, the southern Italian peninsula and the island of Sicily had been united as the Kingdom of Sicily. Until the invasion of the French King Charles I of Anjou, who ousted Sicilian King Manfred in 1266.

The Anjou King’s rule in Sicily was vicious and repressive, with the French King himself absent for long periods. Charles’ Sicilian subjects could not have hated him more.

The Wonderful Story of France: Massacre of the Sicilian VespersIt was Easter Monday, March 30, 1282. The Church of the Holy Spirit outside Palermo was just letting out after evening vespers (prayers), when a French soldier thought he’d “inspect” a Sicilian woman for weapons.

Accounts vary as to what happened, but there’s a good chance he was just looking for a feel, and that’s what he got. The lady’s modesty thusly offended, someone in the crowd avenged her honor, knifing the French guard.

At first merely agitated, this first taste of blood drove the mob to a frenzy. Spreading across the Capital and into the countryside, Sicilians killed every Frenchman they could get their hands on.

Revolutionaries devised a linguistic test, to see who was authentically Sicilian. Native French speakers can’t pronounce the word “ciciri”, even to save themselves. And that’s the way it worked out.  God help you if you couldn’t say that word. Over four thousand Frenchmen would die over the next six weeks.

Meanwhile in Spain, Peter III King of Aragon, Peter I King of Valencia, and Peter II Count of Barcelona (these three are all the same guy), had a claim to the Sicilian throne through his wife, Constance.

The Italian physician John of Procida had been a loyal subject of Manfred’s, fleeing to Aragon after the Anjou invasion. John proceeded directly to Sicily where he spent several weeks stirring up Sicilian resentment against the French King. Sicily then appealed to the Spanish King to intervene, while John sailed for Constantinople to procure the help of Michael VIII Palaeologus.war_of_the_vespers

History records what followed as the War of Sicilian Vespers. The Angevins were supported by the Papacy and his Italian supporters (Guelphs), while the Aragonese received help from Sicily itself, the Byzantine Emperor, and the Ghibellines, Italian supporters of the Holy Roman Emperor.

Several players changed sides over the course of the next twenty years. In the end, the son of the Spanish King took the Sicilian crown in 1302, becoming King Frederick II, beginning near 400 years of Spanish rule over the island.

And so it was that a French soldier molested an Italian woman, and lost the kingdom of Sicily, to Spain.

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March 20 1870 Der Löwe von Afrika

When then-Chancellor Hitler offered him an ambassadorship to the Court of St. James in 1935, von Lettow-Vorbeck told Hitler to go “f**k himself.” Describing the interview afterward, his nephew explained “That’s right, except that I don’t think he put it that politely.”

Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck was born into minor Prussian Nobility on this day in 1870. Joining the Corps of Cadets as a teenager, Lettow-Vorbeck worked his way up the German Imperial Army chain of command, becoming a general by the time of WWI.

lettowvorbeckportraitStationed in German East Africa and knowing that his sector would be little more than a side show in the greater war effort, Lettow-Vorbeck determined to tie up as many of his adversaries as possible.

With a force which never exceeded 14,000 (3,000 Germans and 11,000 Askari warriors), the “Lion of Africa” tied up as many as 300,000 British, Belgian, and Portuguese troops, who wore themselves out in the pursuit.

Like the much better known Lawrence of Arabia, Lettow-Vorbeck became a master of guerilla warfare. He never lost a single battle, though it was not unheard of for combatants to break and flee a charging elephant or rhinoceros.

To his adversaries, disease and parasites were often more dangerous than enemy soldiers. In one month (July, 1916) Allied non-battle casualties ran 31 to 1 compared with battle casualties.

In 1956, Brazilian scientists attempted to cross African honey bees with indigenous varieties, in order to produce an insect better suited to the South American tropics.  Today, we call the results of these failed experiments “Africanized” or “killer” bees.

At one point in the battle of Tanga (November 7-8, 1914), a British landing force and their Sepoy allies were routed and driven back to the sea by millions of African bees, disturbed by rifle and machine gun fire. There’s a story about one British radioman who held to his station, directing the evacuation from the beach while being stung to death by thousands of angry bees. He would be posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for “gallantry under aerial attack”.
Deutsch-Ostafrika, Askari im Kampf

Of all German commanders in WWI, “der Löwe von Afrika” – the Lion of Africa alone remained undefeated in the field.  The only German commander to successfully invade imperial British soil during the Great War.

Lettow-Vorbeck developed a deep distrust of the upstart Adolf Hitler. When then-Chancellor Hitler offered him an ambassadorship to the Court of St. James in 1935, Lettow-Vorbeck told Hitler to go “f**k himself.” Describing the interview afterward, his nephew explained “That’s right, except that I don’t think he put it that politely.”

After such a blunt refusal, Lettow-Vorbeck was kept under continual surveillance by the Nazi regime. His home and office were searched, his person subject to constant harassment. The Lion of Africa was destitute by the end of WWII. His sons both killed serving in the Wehrmacht, his home in Bremen destroyed by Allied bombs.

For a time, Vorbeck lived on food packages from British Intelligence Officer Richard Meinertzhagen and South African Field Marshal Jan Christiaan Smuts, two of his former adversaries in the East Africa campaign.  It was a token of the respect these two had, for a man who had once been their enemy.

ReminiscencesIn 1964, the year Lettow-Vorbeck died, the Bundestag voted to give back pay to former African warriors who had fought with German forces in WWI. Some 350 elderly Ascaris showed up. A few could produce certificates given them back in 1918, some had scraps of old uniforms.  Precious few could prove their former service to the German Empire.

The German banker who had brought the money had an idea. As each man stepped forward, he was handed a broom and ordered to perform the German manual of arms. Not one man failed the test.

Lettow-Vorbeck formed a lifelong friendship during his time in Africa, with the Danish author Karen Blixen, best known by her pen name Isak Dinesen, author of “Out of Africa”. Years later, Blixen recalled, “He belonged to the olden days, and I have never met another German who has given me so strong an impression of what Imperial Germany was and stood for”.

March 17, 432 Saint Patrick’s Day

Interestingly, Patrick is listed among the 10,000 or so Roman Catholic Saints, although it seems he was never actually canonized by a pope.

Born Patricius (Latin) or Pádraig (Modern Irish Gaelic), “Patrick” was a late fifth century Roman subject living in Great Britain. Kidnapped at the age of 16 and brought to Ireland, he was enslaved for 6 years before escaping.  He later returned to Ireland as an ordained priest, to minister to Irish Christians, and to convert others to Christianity.  Patrick would go on to become Bishop of all Ireland, and one of their primary Patron Saints.

Interestingly, Patrick is listed among the 10,000 or so Roman Catholic Saints, although it seems he was never actually canonized by a pope.

Saint PatrickSaint Patrick’s Day is observed on March 17, the date generally agreed to correspond with the date of his enslavement in 432, and with his death in 460. The date is celebrated in Ireland as both a liturgical and non-liturgical holiday, where in some diocese it is both a solemnity and a holy day of obligation. Outside of Ireland, the day has become a general celebration of all things Irish.

The legend that St. Patrick banished the snakes from Ireland likely springs from his work in converting the pagans of his day, many of whom wore snake tattoos on their arms. This idea is supported by a Gallic coin of the time, which carries on its face the Druidic snake.

Be that as it may, today Ireland has no snakes, a trait that it has in common with Antarctica, New Zealand, Iceland, and Greenland.

Another legend involves a walking stick of ash, which Patrick carried with him wherever he went. He would thrust this stick into the ground wherever he was evangelizing. At the place now known as Aspatria, (ash of Patrick), the message took so long to get through to the people there that the stick took root.

The shamrock which came to symbolize the day was seen as sacred by many in pre-MedievalMonkChristian Ireland, with its green color evoking rebirth and eternal life. The three leaves symbolize the “triple goddess” of ancient Ireland. Patrick is said to have taught the Irish about the Holy Trinity, using the three leaves of the shamrock to illustrate the Christian teaching of three persons in one God:  the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Most of the rest of Europe would suffer barbarian invasion from the fifth century onward, plunging into what are known today as “The Dark Ages”.  Almost alone, cloistered monks in the monasteries of Ireland, spiritual descendants of St. Patrick, acted as repository for Christian civilization, at a time when such advancement was almost extinguished elsewhere. It’s been said of this period that the Irish saved civilization. Who knows, they may have done just that. Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

March 16, 1914 The Caillaux Affair

Most of France was riveted by the Caillaux affair in July 1914, ignorant of the European crisis barreling down on them like the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

We heard a lot this past election year, about “Left” and “Right”, “Liberal” and “Conservative”.

The terms have been with us a long time, originating in the early days of the French Revolution. In those days, National Assembly members supportive of the Monarchy sat on the President’s right.  Those favoring the Revolution, on the left. The right side of the seating arrangement began to thin out and disappeared altogether during the “Reign of Terror”, but re-formed with the restoration of the Monarchy, in 1814-1815. By this time, it wasn’t just the “Party of Order” on the right and the “Party of Movement” on the left. Now the terms began to describe nuances in political philosophy, as well.

200 years later, differences between the French left and right of the period, would be recognizable to American political observers of today.

Joseph Caillaux
Joseph Cailloux

Joseph Cailloux (rhymes with “bayou”) was a left wing politician, appointed prime minister of France in 1911. The man was indiscreet in his love life, even for a French politician. Back in 1907, Cailloux had paraded about with a succession of mistresses, finally carrying on with one Henriette Raynouard, while both were married to someone else. They were both divorced by 1911 and that October, Henriette Raynouard became the second Mrs Cailloux.

The right considered Cailloux to be far too accommodating with Germany, with whom many felt war to be all but inevitable. While serving under the administration of President Raymond Poincare in 1913, Cailloux became a vocal opponent of a bill to increase the length of mandatory military service from two years to three, intended to offset the French population disadvantage between France’ 40 million and Germany’s 70 million.

Gaston Calmette
Gaston Calmette

Gaston Calmette, editor of the leading Conservative newspaper Le Figaro, threatened to publicize love letters between the former Prime Minister and his second wife, written while both were still married for the first time. Henriette Cailloux was not amused.

On March 16, 1914, Madame Cailloux took a taxi to the offices of Le Figaro. After being shown into Calmette’s office, the pair spoke only briefly, before Henriette withdrew the Browning .32 automatic, and fired six rounds at the editor. Two missed, but four were more than enough to do the job. Gaston Calmette was dead within six hours.

Henriette_Caillaux
Henriette Cailloux

German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck once said the next great European war would start with “some damn fool thing in the Balkans”.  Though no one realized it at the time, Bismarck got his damn fool thing on June 28, when a Serbian Nationalist assassinated the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne.

The July Crisis of 1914 was a series of diplomatic maneuverings, culminating in the ultimatum from Austria-Hungary to the Kingdom of Serbia. Vienna, with tacit support from Berlin, made plans to punish Serbia for her role in the assassination, while Russia mobilized armies in support of her Slavic ally.

Meanwhile, England and France looked the other way.  In Great Britain, officialdom was focused on yet another home rule crisis concerning Ireland, while all of France was distracted by the “Trial of the Century”.

Think of the OJ trial, only in this case the killer was a former First Lady. This one had everything: Left vs.affairecaillaux_thumb Right, the fall of the powerful, and all the salacious details anyone could ask for. Most of France was riveted by the Caillaux affair in July 1914, ignorant of the European crisis barreling down on them like the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Madame Caillaux’s trial for the murder of Gaston Calmette began on July 20.

She was acquitted on July 28, the jury ruling the murder to be a “crime passionnel”.  A crime of passion. That same day, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.

In the days that followed, the Czar would begin the mobilization of men and machines that would place Imperial Russia on a war footing. Imperial Germany invaded Belgium, in pursuit of the one-two punch strategy by which they sought first to defeat France, before turning to face the “Russian Steamroller”. England declared war in support of a 75 year old commitment to protect Belgian neutrality, a treaty obligation that German diplomats had dismissed as a “scrap of paper”.

Eleven million military service members and seven million civilians who were alive in July of 1914, would not live to see November 11, 1918.

March 7, 1912 The Heroic Age of Polar Exploration

The final camp became their tomb, a high cairn of snow erected over it. Ship’s carpenters built a wooden cross, inscribed with a line from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem Ulysses: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.

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RV Belgica frozen in the ice, 1898

The fourth son of a family of Norwegian shipowners and captains, Roald Amundsen always wanted to go to sea. His mother wanted no such thing and made him promise he’d go to school to become a doctor. Amundsen was 21 when his mother died. He kept his promise until that day.  There would be no more school after that.

Amundsen wanted to become an explorer, taking inspiration from the doomed Franklin Arctic Expedition of 1848, and Fridtjof Nansen’s crossing of Greenland in 1888.

Roald Amundsen
Roald Amundsen

It’s been called the “Heroic Age” of polar exploration. Amundsen was drawn to it as much as he helped create it. He was part of the Antarctic expedition of 1897-99 aboard the RV Belgica, the first to winter in Antarctica. He led the first expedition to successfully navigate Canada’s Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, in 1903–06.

Amundsen’s attempt to reach the South Pole set out on September 8, 1911. Using skis and dog sleds, Amundsen and his men created supply depots at 80°, 81° and 82° south, along a direct line to the Pole. The effort proved to be premature and had to be abandoned due to extreme cold. A second attempt departed on October 19 with four sledges and 52 dogs, along the previously unknown Axel Heiberg Glacier.  The team of five men and 16 dogs arrived at 90° 0′ S on December 14, 1911,  the first team in history to reach the South Pole.

Aan_de_Zuidpool
Amundsen expedition plants the Norwegian flag on the South Pole, December 14, 1911.

English explorer Robert Falcon Scott had attempted the South Pole in 1901–04, and was doing so once again in 1911. Though he’d had to turn back, the earlier expedition had established the southernmost record for that time, at 88° 23′ S. 97 miles short of the pole.

Unlike Amundsen who adopted the lighter fur-skins of the Inuit, the Scott expedition wore heavy wool clothing, depending on motorized and horse-drawn transport, and man-hauling sledges for the final drive across the polar plateau. Dog teams were expected to meet them only on the way out, on March 1.

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Routes taken by Scott (green) and Amundsen (red) expeditions to the South Pole.

Weak, unacclimatized ponies slowed the depot-laying part of the Scott expedition, four horses dying of cold or having to be shot because they slowed the team. When Scott decided to locate “One-Ton Depot” 35 miles short of its planned location at 80°, expedition member Lawrence Oates warned “Sir, I’m afraid you’ll come to regret not taking my advice.”

Unlike the previous attempt, Scott made it this time, only to find that Amundsen’s Norwegian expedition had beat him by five weeks. The anguish in Scott’s diary entry for January 17, 1912, is clear: “The worst has happened”; “All the day dreams must go”; “Great God! This is an awful place”.

Roald Amundsen returned safely and publicly announced his attainment of the South Pole on March 7, 1912.

scotts_party_at_the_south_pole
The doomed Scott party used a string to take this “selfie”, the day after becoming 2nd to reach the South Pole

Defeated, the five-man Scott party began the 800-mile, frozen slog back from the Pole on January 19. Team member Edgar Evans’ condition was visibly deteriorating as early as the 23rd. A bad fall on Beardmore Glacier on February 4 left him “dull and incapable”. Another fall on the 17th left him dead at the foot of the glacier.

Dog teams failed to materialize at the appointed time.  By March 16, Lawrence Oates was severely frostbitten. He left his tent for the last time, saying “I am just going outside and may be some time”.  He never returned.

The last three made their final camp on March 19, with 400 miles to go.   A howling blizzard descended on camp the following day and lasted for days, as Scott and his companions wrote good-bye letters to mothers, wives, and others. The last words in his diary, were: “Last entry.  For God’s sake look after our people”.

robert-falcon-scott
Robert Falcon Scott

The frozen corpses of Scott and his comrades were found 8 months later, the last diary entry dated March 29, 1912.  A high cairn of snow was erected over it all, that final camp becoming their tomb. Ship’s carpenters built a wooden cross, inscribing on it the names of those lost: Scott, Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers, Lawrence Oates and Edgar Evans. A line from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses, appears on the cross: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.

They were eleven miles from their next supply depot.

Satellites measured the coldest temperature in recorded history on August 10, 2010 at −93.2 °C (−135.8 °F), in East Antarctica.   The Amundsen-Scott weather station at the South Pole reports the average daily temperature for March, at -50.3°C (-58.54°F).    A century of ice and snow have covered bodies, camp and the cross alike. Now encased 75′ down in the Ross Ice Shelf and inching their way outward, the bodies are expected to reach the Ross Sea sometime around 2276, perhaps to float away in an iceberg.

In 1926, Amundsen and a team of 15 reached the North Pole in the airship Norge. Three previous claims to have attained the North Pole: Frederick Cook (1908), Robert Peary (1909), and Richard E. Byrd (1926), have all been disputed as being of dubious accuracy or downright frauds, leaving Amundsen the undisputed first to have reached both poles.

cross_on_observation_hill_mcmurdo_station
The Observation Hill cross memorial to the Scott expedition, erected 1913.

On hearing the details of Scott’s end, Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen is quoted as saying “I would gladly forgo any honour or money if thereby I could have saved Scott his terrible death”.

He and a crew of five disappeared into the Arctic on June 18, 1928, lost in the search for survivors following the crash of the Airship Italia. Despite efforts to find them as late as August 2009, neither aircraft nor bodies were ever found.

Peter Markham Scott, the only child produced by the marriage of Robert Falcon and Kathleen Bruce Scott, went on to found the World Wide Fund for Nature, which operates to this day as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Shackleton advert

“I may say that this is the greatest factor—the way in which the expedition is equipped—the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who has everything in order—luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck”. —  The South Pole, by Roald Amundsen

March 6, 1940 White Death

Dressed in white camouflage, the most deadly sniper in history would surround himself with hard-packed snow, his mouth filled with snow so no one would see his breath.

The Republic of Finland is a sovereign state in the north of Europe.  The 8th largest country on the European continent, with a population roughly equal to that of Minnesota. In 2015, the World Bank ranked the country 44th in GDP, behind Ireland, Chile and Pakistan.

finlandWith Sweden to the west and Russia to the east, the region has been a zone of conflict since the early 12th century, finally gaining independence as the result of the first World War and collapse of the Russian Empire.

In 1938, the Soviet Union demanded Finnish territory in exchange for land elsewhere, ostensibly as a security zone. Leningrad was at that time only 20 miles from the border. Finland refused, on November 30, 1939, 3 months after the outbreak of WWII, the Red Army invaded.

The “Winter War” is a David vs. Goliath story. The Soviets had three times as many troops, thirty times the number of aircraft, and a hundred times as many tanks. The Red Army officer corps, however, was dangerously inexperienced, with over 30,000 of its most experienced mid-level and senior officers imprisoned or executed following Josef Stalin’s “Great Purge” of 1937.

Expecting a short conflict, Soviet forces were poorly equipped for an extended winter war. Few if any possessed the white camouflage of the other side. For the Finnish side, morale was high, and Finnish forces inflicted far heavier casualties, than anyone had anticipated.

Simo “Simuna” Häyhä was a farmer and hunter, born in what was then the Grand Duchy of Finland, near the border with Russia. Häyhä enjoyed shooting competitions in Viipuri Province, and was quite good at it. It was said that his house was full of trophies. He joined the Finnish voluntary militia in 1925 at the age of 20. During the Winter War of 1939-40, Häyhä served as a sniper for the Finnish Army.

He was the “White Death”.  Over the 100 days of his wartime service, Simo Häyhä racked up 505 confirmed kills, more than any sniper in history. Many of his kills went unconfirmed. The true count is probably closer to 800. An average of eight per day, in a place where December daylight hours number no more than six.

simo_hayha_honorary_rifleThe Battle of Kollaa took place in temperatures ranging from −4° to −40°, Fahrenheit. In February, the temperature averages only 18.5°. Dressed in white camouflage, Häyhä would surround himself with hard-packed snow, his mouth filled with snow so no one would see his breath.

At 5’3″, he liked the shorter, White Guard version of the five shot, bolt action Mosin–Nagant, because it fit his small frame. He preferred the open “Pystykorva” or “Spitz” sight, so-called because of its resemblance to a Spitz dog. It made for a smaller target, as a shooter must raise his head ever so slightly higher, when using a telescopic sight.

The Red Army was desperate to kill this man. Russian counter-snipers and entire artillery barrages were sent to take him out. On March 6, 1940, Häyhä was hit on the left side of his jaw, by a high-explosive incendiary/armor-piercing (HEIAP) round, fired by a Russian soldier. The damage was catastrophic. Soldiers who went to pick him up, said “half his face was missing”. He regained consciousness eight days later, the day that peace was declared.

The bullet had crushed his jaw and taken away his left cheek, but he did not die. It wouldsimo_hayha_second_lieutenant_1940 take several years to recover from his wound, but Häyhä went on to become a successful dog breeder and moose hunter, once hunting with Finnish President Urho Kekkonen.

Häyhä passed away in a war veterans’ nursing home in Hamina in 2002, at the age of 96.  In 1998, someone asked how he became such a good shot. He answered “Practice.”  He must have been a man of few words.

To this day, Simo Häyhä remains the most successful sniper in history, with a confirmed kill rate three times that of Chris Kyle, and five times that of Carlos Hathcock. Asked if he regretted killing so many people, he replied “I only did my duty, and what I was told to do, as well as I could.”

March 1, 1420 Protestant Reformation

Hans Luder sent his son Martin to a series of Latin schools beginning in 1497, where the boy learned the so-called “trivium”:  grammar, rhetoric, and logic.  He entered the University of Erfurt in 1501 at age 19, receiving his master’s degree in 1505.  The elder Luder (“Luther”) intended that his son become a lawyer. Years later, the younger Luther described his Latin school education as time spent in purgatory, and his University as a “beerhouse” and a “whorehouse”.  I guess Martin Luther wasn’t cut out for academics.
He entered Law School in 1505 and dropped out almost immediately.  His father was furious, over what he saw as a wasted education.  Martin entered an Augustinian cloister that July, saying “This day you see me, and then, not ever again.”
16th century Church doctrine taught that the Saints built up a surplus of good works over a lifetime, sort of a moral bank account.  Like “carbon credits” today, positive acts of faith and charity could expiate sin.  Monetary contributions to the church could, it was believed, “buy” the benefits of the saint’s good works, for the sinner.
As Luther studied the bible, he came to believe that the church had lost sight of the central truths of Christianity.  The Grace of God wasn’t traded as a medium of exchange, he believed, but rather through faith in Jesus Christ, as the Messiah.  “This one and firm rock”, he wrote, “which we call the doctrine of justification, is the chief article of the whole Christian doctrine, which comprehends the understanding of all godliness”.
Papal “commissioner for indulgences” Johann Tetzel came to Wittenberg in 1516, selling expiation to raise money to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica, in Rome.  A saying attributed to the Dominican friar, went “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”
martin-lutherMartin Luther wrote to Archbishop Albrecht on October 31, 1517, objecting to this sale of indulgences.  He enclosed a copy of his “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”, a document which came to be known as his “95 Theses”.  A popular story has him nailing the document to the door of the Wittenberg Palace Church, but it likely never happened.  Luther appears to have had no intention of confronting the Church.  This was intended to be an academic work, 95 topics offered for scholarly disputation, but Martin Luther’s ideas would rock the Christian world.
What seems to the modern mind as mere doctrinal differences, were life and death matters in the late middle and early modern ages.  Archbishop Albrecht forwarded Luther’s note to Pope Leo X, who responded slowly and “with great care as is proper”.
Three theologians drafted heresy cases against Luther.  In 1520, the papal bull (edict) “Exsurge Domine” commanded Luther to recant under pain of excommunication.
cages-of-st-lambert
Luther stood on dangerous ground.  In 1415, Jan Hus was burned at the stake for such heresy.  On this day in 1420, Pope Martinus I called for a crusade against the followers of the Czech priest, the “Hussieten”.  Henry VIII’s famous break with the church over his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, was still years in the future in 1521, the year Henry was named “Fidei Defensor” (“Defender of the Faith”), a title awarded him by no less than Pope Leo X. Nine years later, French theologian Jean Calvin would be forced to flee a deadly outbreak of violence against Protestant Christians.  Jan Matthias, Bernhard Rothmann and Bernhard Knipperdolling would be tortured to death with white-hot pliers in the Münster marketplace in 1535, their corpses placed in cages and hanged from the steeple of St. Lambert’s Church.  Their bones were later removed, but those three cages remain there, to this day.
The bull had the effect of hardening Luther’s positions.  He publicly burned it on December 10.  Twenty-four days later, Luther was excommunicated.  A general assembly of the secular authorities of the Holy Roman Empire summoned Luther to appear before them in April, in the upper-Rhine city of Worms.  The “Edict of Worms” of May 25, 1521, declared Luther an outlaw, stating “We want him to be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic”.  Anyone killing Luther was permitted to do so without legal consequence.
95-thesesLuther went into hiding at Wartburg Castle.  In 1516, Erasmus had expressed the wish that the holy text should be available in every language, “so that even Scots and Irishmen might read it”.  It was there that Luther translated the New Testament from Greek into German, laying the foundation for other vernacular translations and, for the first time, making the bible accessible to the common man.
Radical sects took Luther’s teaching far beyond his intent, and Luther found himself in the odd position of defending the faith against more radical reformers.  The Zwickau Prophets rejected holy scripture in favor of direct revelations from the holy spirit.  The Anabaptists took the “equality of man” in radical egalitarian directions, many sounding more like the principles Karl Marx would write about, in 1848.
Martin Luther’s reformations plunged Europe into a series of wars.  The Peasant’s War of 1524-25 alone killed more Europeans than any conflict prior to the 1789 French Revolution.  The established church would respond with counter-reformation, but the idea that Christian faith was more than the exclusive province of a special, segregated order of men, was here to stay.
On October 31, 1999, 482 years to the day from Martin Luther’s letter to Archbishop Albrecht, leaders of the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches signed the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification”, ending the half-century old doctrinal dispute, once and for all.