Emperor Maximilian’s death in January 1519 created a political vacuum in the Holy Roman Empire and enabled the spread of Luther’s theology. The empire itself had undergone vast changes during the reign of Maximilian (1490-1519). A system of imperial diets was resurrected to address infighting between peoples and regulate disputes. This resulted in the formation of an imperial court (Reichstkammergericht) to rule on matters of law, a plenary tax on those over fifteen years of age, and a council (Reichsregiment) that would work with the emperor in selecting officials and setting policies. These changes made the Holy Roman Empire a more efficient, international federation comprising not only the nations of Germany and Austria, but roughly a hundred free imperial cities with varying degrees of influence on imperial political life.
An Austrian Habsburg himself, Maximilian remained at a political distance from the Reformation. However, his family had long been at odds with the papacy and was embroiled in an ongoing feud with French Valois rulers. Though Habsburgs had been emperors since 1438, there was no certainly this would continue, so Maximilian’s replacement was of tremendous significance for both political and ecclesiastical reasons. First, the successor would swing the balance of the empire in favor of either the Habsburgs or the Valois. Second, because Luther was a German, it would have a decisive say in the types of proceedings that could be brought against him, even though Luther as a monk was technically under ecclesiastical rather than secular jurisdiction.
Upon Maximilian’s death, the election of a new emperor fell to the seven electors as stipulated by the Golden Bull of 1356. These included the archbishoprics of Cologne, Trier, and Mainz, and the secular rulers of Saxony (duke), Brandenburg (margrave), Bohemia (king), and Palatinate of the Rhine (count). The election was set for the next imperial diet, June 1519, but in the interim electors of Saxony and the Palatinate—Frederick the Wise and Louis V—were “imperial vicars.” Because the two were sympathetic with and indifferent to Luther’s reforms, respectively, there was no political pressure to resolve the controversy. Even Rome redirected its attention toward the imperial election, fearing that Maximilian’s grandson, Charles V, would continue the consolidation of Habsburg power if he were elected emperor and expand further into Italy, where he already ruled several kingdoms due to his Spanish inheritance. Pope Leo X favored Frederick the Wise of Saxony, which was the motivation for bestowing the Golden Rose on Luther’s protector.