Were the 95 Theses Just Rich Nobles Fighting Over Money?

Drew Thomas

 

Albrecht of Brandenburg
Albrecht of Brandenburg, Elector and Archbishop of Mainz

While it is not known for certain if Luther really nailed his Ninety-Five Theses on the church door in Wittenberg, he did send a copy to his Archbishop, Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg, in Magdeburg. However, although Albrecht was Archbishop of Magdeburg, he was also Archbishop of Mainz, a much more important position. When Albrecht learned of Luther’s Theses, he felt they were an attack against himself and his family.

Albrecht was a member of the House of Hohenzollern, which in later centuries would become the Emperors of Prussia, and later, the German Empire. It was only after World War I when the monarchy was deposed. Albrecht’s brother was the Elector of Brandenburg, one of seven imperial Electors who had the right to elect the Holy Roman Emperor. Unlike many European monarchies, the Holy Roman Empire was not a hereditary monarchy. Each Emperor had to be elected by the Electors. Any family that had an Elector was a powerful family. In 1514, Albrecht became Archbishop of Mainz. The Archbishop of Mainz was also the Elector of Mainz. Together with his brother, Albrecht’s family controlled two of the seven Electorships, making them one of the Empire’s most powerful families.

But it came at a cost. Because it was such a powerful and important position, noble families constantly competed to have a relative become Archbishop. This usually resulted in bribes. Albrecht’s family paid the papacy over 20,000 gulden to attain the Electorship and Archbishopric. Not only did they have to pay to attain the position, but there were extra fees as well. Albrecht was already the Archbishop of Magdeburg and it was against canon law to hold both positions at once. Albrecht was also technically too young for the position. Both restrictions were waived as part of the extra payment.

This was very expensive and Albrecht could not afford it. He turned to the help of one of Europe’s most powerful banking families: the Fuggers, who still hold significant wealth today. Albrecht borrowed the money to purchase the Archbishopric. Traditionally, the money would be repayed from the tithes collected (as Archbishop) and from taxes and levies (as Elector). But there had been two previous archbishops in the past decade that had already burdened the parishioners. Thus, Albrecht looked elsewhere.

He found his solution in Pope Leo X’s indulgence campaign to help pay for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Albrecht agreed to help raise the necessary funds. Half of the indulgence funds would be sent to Rome and Albrecht would keep the other half to pay off his creditors. Thus, when Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses, which protested against the abuse of indulgences, such as Albrecht’s, Albrecht saw it as more than a theological affair. This threatened his ability to pay back his loan. If people stopped buying indulgences, he would be in financial trouble. He did not even blame Luther at first, as he interpreted this an attack by Luther’s ruler, Elector Frederick the Wise. He thought this for a number of reasons:

1. Frederick was mad he lost the Archbishopic

Frederick the Wise’s brother, Adalbert, was appointed as the administrator of Mainz. He was too young to be an archbishop, so he was made an administrator until he came of age. Unfortunately, he died when he was only 16 years old, having never become Archbishop. Later, when the archbishopric became vacant again, Frederick’s family was outbid by Albrecht. Frederick’s family had spent a lot of money to procure the position, but failed. Now they had to pay back that money to their lenders without having the new means of raising the money.

Frederick the Wise
Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony and Luther’s protector.

To make matters worse, Frederick’s other brother, Ernst, had been the previous Archbishop of Magdeburg. When he died in 1513, Albrecht became the new archbishop. Frederick’s family had lost two archbishoprics and the power, wealth, and prestige associated with them, to Albrecht.

2. The University of Wittenberg

In 1502 Frederick the Wise founded the Univeristy of Wittenberg. Due to inheritance issues, Frederick had lost the city of Leipzig, which had housed the only university in Saxony. To make up for losing the university, he founded a new one in his capital at Wittenberg. It attracted numerous scholars and prepared many clerics for administrative positions in the church. Albrecht was against this, as he felt it was a way for Frederick to infiltrate in his family’s domain, as they currently controlled many of the bishoprics in the area.

3. Frederick forbid Albrecht’s Indulgence

When Albrecht started his indulgence campaign to raise money to repay his loan, Frederick the Wise, forbid the indulgence preachers from preaching in Saxony. The indulgence could not be sold there. There were two reasons for this. The first was because Frederick did not want his parishioners’ money going to his rival in Mainz, especially if he also saw it as money his family could have been collecting, had they secured the Archbishopric. Secondly, Frederick had one of the largest relic collections in Europe. Pilgrims flocked to his castle church (where Luther supposedly nailed the Theses) to view the collection. Frederick had a special indulgence for pilgrims who visited the collection and he did not want a competing indulgence in his territory.

 

Albrecht and Frederick were members of rival noble families. There were many reasons why Frederick did not support Albrecht’s indulgence campaign. So when Luther, a leading church figure in Frederick’s territory, protested against indulgences, Albrecht perceived this as yet another move by Frederick against him. Frederick was simply using another means to deprive Albrecht of the ability to repay his loan. Of course this wasn’t true, but you can see why Albrecht may have interpreted it that way. In the end, Luther’s complaint turned into something much more.

And as for the letter with the Ninety-Five Theses that Luther sent Albrecht on Halloween? He never received a reply.