Martin Luther defends himself at the Diet of Worms
Since his 1517 publication of the “95 Theses” the Augustinian monk Martin Luther had been under attack by Roman Catholic authorities, but the protection offered by his politically-powerful ruler, Frederick of Saxony, had kept him safe. Frederick had resisted calls for Luther to be tried in Italy and had demanded that the star lecturer at his Wittenberg university be examined by Germans in Germany. The death of the Emperor Maximilian and the delay on the part of the new emperor, Charles V, in moving to Germany meant that Luther had enjoyed four years to freely expand on his radical ideas, but in the spring of 1521 he was finally summoned to the city of Worms to face his accusers at the German Diet or Parliament.
Luther was promised a safe-conduct, which his friends urged him not to trust in because such a document had not saved Jan Hus from burning at the hands of the Council of Constance in 1415, but he was determined to go, believing that though it meant his death he had to affirm the truth of his writings. However, rather than be given a chance to explain or defend his beliefs, he was faced with a simple set of questions when he arrived in Worms. Taken into a room and shown a table full of books he was asked: “Are these your books? Do you recant all or part of your writings?” He asked for 24 hours to reflect and the next evening on April 18 he appeared before the Emperor and court assembled in the cathedral. His short speech revolutionized the world and defined Protestantism:
Since your serene majesty and lordships seek a simple answer, I will give it in this manner, neither horned nor toothed: Unless I am convinced by Scripture or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, amen.
Amid shouting, the emperor declared he had heard enough and the meeting broke up. After a few more days of fruitless palaver Luther left Worms under an imperial safe-conduct. The emperor stayed on to issue the Edict of Worms by which Luther was declared an outlaw, wolf’s-head, liable to instant death at any man’s hand.
In the 1577 woodcut above you can see the phrase “Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders. Gott helfe mir. Amen.“