Saxony, 1547-1618

Ernestine Saxony, 1485-1547

The HOUSE OF WETTIN, in the course of the middle ages, had unified the territories that make up Saxony (in her borders of 1789, except Lusatia), including Thuringia. However, succession law foresaw that brothers inherited equal shares, which lead to periods of common rule as well as to partitions; one such partition, the TREATY OF LEIPZIG, in 1485, created two Saxon states - Ernestine Saxony, with the center at WITTENBERG, and with the Electoral Vote, and Albertine Saxony, with the center at Meissen / Dresden.
Duke-Elector ERNST, founder of Ernestine Saxony, died already in 1486; he was succeeded by FREDERICK THE WISE (1486-1525). As Leipzig, the economic center, as well as the seat of a university, was located in Albertine Saxony, Frederick founded the UNIVERSITY OF WITTENBERG in 1502.
As the Habsburg dynasty, in the person of Emperor Charles V., through a quick succession of inheritances, gained enormously in terms of territories and political power (Spain, Bohemia/Hungary), Duke-Elector Frederick was concerned as the greatly increased power of the Emperor posed a threat to the high degree of independence hitherto enjoyed by Germany's princes. Himself a deeply religious man (he was a collector of relics), he was aware of scandals within the church; when Martin Luther wanted to open a discussion about a thorough church reform by posting his 95 THESES at the church door in Wittenberg, Duke Frederick did not interfere; when he was confronted with the demand to extradite Luther for a trial in Rome, he refused, insisting that Luther was to be judged by a jury consisting of his own countrymen. The DIET OF WORMS was to function as this jury; Duke Frederick continued to protect Luther. So, despite him being condemned by the diet, the Emperor honoured his promise of safe passage to Luther, who, now excommunicated and under a ban, now had to live in hiding, under an assumed name.
Meanwhile at Wittenberg, Dr. Karlstadt began to implement Lutheran reform demands.
In 1524/25 the GERMAN PEASANTS WAR also affected Saxony. Realizing, that Germany's princes were both recognizing the necessity of a church reform and concerned about the threat the peasants posed to their rule, Martin Luther, who had returned to Wittenberg, condemned the actions of the peasants (who were quickly defeated). The princes, foremost Frederick the Wise responded to the call Luther had made in his 1520 pamphlet 'AN DEN CHRISTLICHEN ADEL DEUTSCHER NATION' (Address to the Christian Nobility of German Nation) and permitted the Lutheran reformation to be introduced in an organized manner. Duke Frederick was the main beneficient of the dissolution of the monasteries within his territory, as the larger part of the monasteries' land property was added to the Ducal domain.
Frederick the Wise died in 1525; he was succeeded by JOHN THE STEADFAST (1525-1532) who again was succeeded by JOHN FREDERICK I. (1532-1554).
The Lutheran reformation had functioned as a strong tie uniting the princes opposing the Emperor; while the Emperor was a devoted Catholic and while he ordered the persecution of protestant agitators in the Habsburg territories, he was sceptical of the pope and worked for a diplomatic solution of the problem. In 1530, the princes presented the AUGSBURG CONFESSION, written by the leading Lutheran diplomat, PHILIPP MELANCHTHON, to the Emperor, the confession being an attempt to focus on common Lutheran and Catholic belief rather than on discrepancies. Both sides remained suspicious of each other. In 1531, the protestant princes formed the SCHMALKALDIC LEAGUE.
Martin Luther had not aimed at splitting the church and establishing a new organization, but rather to reform the Catholic church in her entirety. In the 1530es the first attempts to assemble a universal church council were held; the Lutherans described their position in the SCHMALKALDEN ARTICLES of 1537. In 1545 the COUNCIL OF TRENT was opened; in 1546 Lutheran delegates presented their key demands (acceptance of priest marriage and lay eucharist); the demands were rejected, the opportunity to overcome the schism passed.
Saxony was the center of the protestant reformation; in church affairs, Martin Luther, until his death in 1546, was the unelected, yet unquestioned authority, Philip Melanchthon his trusted friend and Lutheranism's leading diplomat (as Luther himself, still excommunicated and under ban, could not leave Saxony).
In 1546 the Schmalkaldic League raised an army, which, under the command of Duke-Elector John Frederick of Saxony, was stationed in Wuerttemberg, when unexpectedly Ernestine Saxony was invaded by troops from Albertine Saxony (Duke Maurice, a Lutheran, from the perspective of the Schmalkaldic League a traitor). The ensuing war is referred to as the SCHMALKALDIC WAR (1546-1547). John Frederick lead his army back to Saxony, liberated his territories, conquered Albertine Saxony and proceeded to invade Bohemia (Territory of Emperor Charles V.). Imperial forces drove the Schmalkaldic troops back and decisively defeated them in the BATTLE OF MÜHLBERG (1547). Duke John Frederick was taken prisoner. He had to cede the larger part of his territory to Moritz, the Bohemian fiefs to the Emperor. In addition, he had to give up the Electorate, which was transferred to Maurice as well.
Duke John Frederick kept most of Thuringia; these territories, due to the Wettin succession law, over time were split up in a number of tiny duchies of limited historical significance.

Geschichte der Universitaet Halle-Wittenberg, from Univ. Halle-Wittenberg
Article Schmalkaldic League, from infoplease, in English, 6 lines
Article John the Steadfast, from EB 1911, 26 lines
DOCUMENTS Martin Luther (1483-1546) : Address To The Nobility of the German Nation, 1520, from Modern History Sourcebook, in English
Philipp Melanchthon, The Augsburg Confession, 1530, posted by Gospel Plow
Schmalkalden Articles, 1537, posted by Gospel Plow
REFERENCE Reiner Gross, Geschichte Sachsens (History of Saxony), Berlin : Edition Leipzig 2001

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted on December 22nd 2002, last revised on November 12th 2004

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