Eleventh in a Series on the Protestant Reformation
Fr. Charles Coppens, S.J.
[Note: As the countries of Denmark, Norway and Iceland were closely linked together through the person of Christian II, the advance of Protestantism in all three countries is here treated together. - RC]
The Reformation in Denmark
|Christian II of Denmark (1481-1559)|
Christian, or Christiern, II ruled over Denmark from 1513 to 1523. Being exceedingly fond of autocratic power, he undertook to break down the influence of the nobility and the clergy in all portions of his dominions. We have seen how he attempted to do so in Sweden by the massacre of the Bloody Bath; and how utterly he was foiled by the insurrection of Gustav Vasa, who achieved the independence of his native country.
In Denmark, Christiern chiefly attacked the clergy, who were very powerful there. The means he chose for this purpose was the introduction into the country of Lutheranism, and its ordinary accompaniment, the confiscation of all Church property. It is the same story, only diversified in its details.
Christiern was not as wily as Vasa; he went straight to the point, not doubting that he could crush all opposition. He invited to Copenhagen a disciple of Luther, Martin by name, and he installed him a bishop in his capital city. The indignant nation protested with a common voice; but he heeded not. On the contrary, the deposed archbishop was put to death, and laws oppressive of the clergy were proclaimed. Then all parties combined to dethrone Christiern; he fled, and, after various vicissitudes, he was cast into a frightful prison, from which he did not come forth alive.
The throne of Denmark was next offered to Christiern's uncle, Frederick I of Holstein. He too, unfortunately, believed in reformation and confiscation, which was the great temptation of the times. Yet when accepting the kingly crown, he took a solemn oath to maintain the Catholic religion. He soon began a secret, and next an open persecution of the clergy; and he defended his conduct, in 1527, before the diet of Odessa, on the plea that he had pledged himself to maintain the Catholic religion, but not to tolerate its abuses. Among these alleged abuses he counted the primacy of the Apostolic See. He arrogated to himself the confirmation of all elections to bishoprics. He granted to the Lutherans all the rights which had been enjoyed so far by Catholics alone; a measure which, as the result proved, practically meant the protecting of heresy and the oppression of the ancient Church.
At the death of Frederick I in 1533, his son Christian III, though a Protestant, was made King, on the explicit condition that he would not be an enemy to Catholicity. How far he violated this promise, and forced the country into apostasy, can be clearly understood from the following account taken word for word from a Protestant writer in the Edinburgh Encyclopedia:
As soon as Christian III was firmly seated on the throne, he turned his attention to the state of religion, and resolved to carry into execution a plan which had been communicated to him by Gustavus (Vasa) for reducing the power of the clergy. He accordingly assembled the senate with great secrecy, and they immediately came to the resolution to annex all the Church lands, towns, fortresses and villages to the crown, and to abolish forever the temporal power of the clergy. All the bishops in the different parts of the kingdom were arrested about the same time; and, that the nation might not be alarmed by this extraordinary measure, the King convoked the states at Copenhagen; the nobility were ordered to be there in person, the commons by their deputies, but the clergy were not summoned to attend. After a strong speech from the King against the rapacity of the clergy, the senate confirmed the decree of the diet; and the power and privileges of the clergy were declared to be annihilated forever. The senate next settled the succession in the Duke Frederick, the King's eldest son. In return for these concessions, the King confirmed the nobility in all their rights, particularly in what they called the right of life and death over their vassals, and of punishing them in what manner they thought proper. Thus was the power of the clergy destroyed in Denmark; but the conclusion which the nobles drew from this, i.e. that their own authority and power would be so much the more augmented, was soon proved to be erroneous. For, as a great part of the crown lands had fallen into the hands of the clergy, these lands being again annexed to the crown, the royal authority was considerably increased. The oppression of the farmers still continued, and the nobles displayed a restless and increasing desire to prevent them from ever rising in the state; for the senate passed a law forbidding any person, either ecclesiastic or secular, who was not noble, to buy any freehold lands in the kingdom, or to endeavor to acquire such lands by any other title.
The existence of the Catholic Church in Denmark and the liberty of the people thus fell together at one blow. It should here be remarked that in all other lands, too, in which the Reformation was established by main force, tyranny at the same time began to rule supreme and popular rights were greatly impaired. And yet, such has been the falsification of modern history, especially in English speaking countries, that the impression generally prevails that the Reformation meant the end of tyranny and the dawn of popular liberty. With the exception of the Netherlands, whose story is peculiar, the direct contrary is everywhere in evidence.
The diet of Copenhagen had taken place in 1536. The bishops cast into prison at the time could not regain their liberty except on condition of resigning their sees. All did so, except the heroic bishop Roennow, who remained in prison till death, eight years later, came to make his a glorious martyr for the faith. To complete the work of the Reformation in Denmark, a Lutheran preacher, Bugenhagen, was imported from Wittenberg. By his advice, the King appointed seven "superintendents" to replace the deposed bishops. In 1546, a new diet, held at Copenhagen, abolished all the civil and political rights of the Catholics, who could thenceforth hold no civil office, or even inherit any possessions; while death was decreed against all priests and again those who should harbor them.
The Reformation in Norway
Norway remained subject to Denmark after Sweden had thrown off the yoke. The bishop of Drontheim was unfortunately a great friend of Christiern II, and promoted the introduction of the novel doctrines. But the Norwegians were attached to the ancient faith; nothing but violence could conquer them.
When Christiern II was expelled from Denmark, the bishop of Drontheim was forced to fly from Norway. Later on, in 1536, the Norwegians refused to accept Christiern III as their King; they rebelled and slew or expelled his supporters. He sent an army into Norway and completely conquered it. Then he totally deprived it of its autonomy, and placed his own creatures in all the leading offices. As for religion, stringent laws were passed by which all the inferior clergy were compelled either to embrace Lutheranism or to fly the country. Many, chiefly monks, preferred exile to apostasy. here again, as in so many other lands, civil liberty and Catholicity perished together.
The Reformation in Iceland
Iceland had been converted to Christianity about 1,000 A.D. From the ninth to the thirteenth century, it was the center of Northern enterprise. Its government was a species of republic; its laws were wise; it was in the golden age of its civilization. But in 1380, it was annexed to the Danish crown; in 1482, it lost by a plague one-half of its population. Yet the land was beginning to regain something of its former prosperity when the Reformation came to inflict on its people a sadder and more permanent injury than the plague had done.
The history of this catastrophe is simple enough, and can be told in a few lines. Christiern III of Denmark attempted to Protestanize Iceland. Clergy and people rose in rebellion against his tyranny. The King sent over a numerous and well-equipped body of foreign troops, which ultimately overpowered the brave but ill-organized citizens. Their leading bishop, John Areson, was seized and put to death. The same violent and arbitrary laws were imposed upon the conquered land which had destroyed the Church in Denmark and Norway. Once more, the Reformation was forced upon an unwilling nation by means of foreign bayonets.