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Frederick III, Elector of Saxony

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Frederick III
Elector of Saxony
Reign26 August 1486 – 5 May 1525
Born17 January 1463
Torgau, Electorate of Saxony, Holy Roman Empire
Died5 May 1525(1525-05-05) (aged 62)
Castle Lochau near Annaburg, Electorate of Saxony, Holy Roman Empire
HouseHouse of Wettin
FatherErnest, Elector of Saxony
MotherElisabeth of Bavaria
SignatureFrederick III's signature

Frederick III (17 January 1463 – 5 May 1525), also known as Frederick the Wise (German: Friedrich der Weise), was Prince-elector of Saxony from 1486 to 1525, who is mostly remembered for the protection given to his subject Martin Luther, the seminal figure of the Protestant Reformation. Frederick was the son of Ernest, Elector of Saxony and his wife Elisabeth, daughter of Albert III, Duke of Bavaria.

He is notable as being one of the most powerful early defenders of Martin Luther, as the elector successfully protected him from the Holy Roman Emperor, the Pope and other hostile figures.[1] He was ostensibly led, not by religious conviction about the possible truthness of Luther's propositions, but rather by personal belief in a fair trial for any of his subjects (a privilege guaranteed by the imperial statutory law) and the rule of law.

The prince-elector is considered to have remained a Roman Catholic all his life, yet gradually inclining toward doctrines of the Reformation and supposedly converting on his deathbed.[2]

He is held in high regard by Protestants in church history, and is officially commemorated as an exemplary Christian ruler in the Calendar of Saints of the American Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod every 5 May.


Born in Torgau, he succeeded his father as elector in 1486; in 1502, he founded the University of Wittenberg, where theologians Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon would teach some time later.

Frederick was among the German princes who pressed the need of reform upon Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor, and in 1500, he became president of the newly formed council of regency (Reichsregiment).

Portrait of Frederick III of Saxony at his thirties, made by Albrecht Dürer in 1496.

His court painter from 1504 on was the Renaissance master Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1453).

Frederick was Pope Leo X's candidate for Holy Roman Emperor at the 1519 imperial election; thus the Pope had awarded him the Golden Rose of virtue on 3 September 1518 in an effort to persuade him to accept the throne. However, Frederick helped secure the election of Charles V by agreeing to support Charles and to convince his fellow electors to do the same if Charles repaid an outstanding debt to the Saxons dating back to 1497.[3]

Frederick collected many relics in his Castle Church; his inventory of 1518 listed 17,443 items, including a thumb from St. Anne, a twig from Moses' burning bush, hay of the holy manger, and milk from the Virgin Mary. Money was paid in order to venerate these relics and thus escape years in purgatory, according to the current belief in indulgence at that context.[4] Thus, according to some calculations, a diligent and pious person who rendered appropriate devotion to each of these relics at that time would be able to merit 1,902,202 years worth of penance (an earthly equivalent of time otherwise spent in purgatory, removed by indulgences).[5] Two years later, the collection exceeded 19,000 pieces.[6]

The elector's dream[edit]

About October 30, 1517, Frederic had a dream which made a deep impression upon his mind, and which foreshadowed the work of the Reformation:

Portrait of Frederick III of Saxony (17th century)

The feast of All-Saints was at hand, and the elector, having retired to rest, lay musing how he should keep the festival, and was praying for the poor souls in purgatory, and beseeching Divine guidance for himself, his counselors, and his people. Thus engaged, he fell asleep, and dreamed that a monk, a true son of the apostle Paul, was sent to him; and that all the saints accompanied him, for the purpose of testifying that he was divinely commissioned. They asked of the elector, that the monk might be allowed to write something on the church door at Wittenberg. The monk began to write, and the characters were so large and brilliant that they could be read at a great distance; and the pen he used was so long that its extremity reached even to Rome, and wounded the ears of a lion which was crouching there, and shook the triple crown on the pope's head. All the cardinals and princes ran to support it; and, as the dreamer himself joined in the effort to support the pope's crown, he awoke in great alarm, and angry with the monk who had used his pen so awkwardly. Presently he fell asleep again, and his strange dream continued; the disturbed lion began to roar, and Rome and all the surrounding States ran to make inquiry; and the pope demanded that the monk be restrained, and demanded this especially of the elector, as the monk dwelt in his dominions.[7] Once more the elector awoke from his dream, besought God to preserve the holy father, the pope, and slept again. And still his strange dream continued, and he saw all the princes of the empire crowding to Rome, and all striving to break the mysterious pen. Yet the more they endeavored to break it, the stiffer it became; and when they asked the monk where he found it, and why it was so strong, he replied that he secured it from one of his old schoolmasters; that it belonged to a Bohemian goose (John Huss, who proclaimed the truth a century before Luther and whose surname in the Bohemian language signifies 'goose') a hundred years old; and that it was strong because no man could take the pith out of it. Suddenly the dreamer heard an outcry, and lo, a great number of pens had issued from the long pen of the monk![7]

The festival of All-Saints was an important day for Wittenberg. The costly relics of the castle church were then displayed before the people, and a full remission of sin was granted to all who visited the church and made confession. Accordingly on this day the people in great numbers flocked to Wittenberg in pilgrimage. On the 31st of October, the day preceding the festival, the monk Martin Luther went boldly to the church, to which a crowd of worshipers was already repairing, and affixed to the door ninety-five propositions against the doctrine of indulgences. He went alone; his closest friends did not know his plan. As he fastened his theses upon the door of the church, he proclaimed himself ready to defend them the next day at the university itself against all opposers.[7]

These propositions attracted universal attention. They were read and re-read and repeated in every direction. Great excitement was created in the university and in the whole city.[7]

By these theses the doctrine of indulgences was fearlessly opposed. Luther argued that the power to grant the pardon of sin, and to remit its penalty, had never been committed to the Pope, or to any other man. The whole scheme was a farce, an artifice to extort money by playing upon the superstitions of the people, a device of Satan to destroy the souls of all who should trust to its lying pretensions. It was also clearly shown that the gospel of Christ was the most valuable treasure of the Church, and that the grace of God, therein revealed, was freely bestowed upon all who should seek it by repentance and faith.[7]

Protection of Martin Luther[edit]

Martin Luther, an Augustinian friar, was ordained to the priesthood in 1507, and on the following year, in 1508, he began teaching theology at the University of Wittenberg, which was located in the Electorate of Saxony, i.e., inside the territory ruled by Prince-elector Frederick III.[8] Therefore, Luther was a subject of the elector, by living at his domains.

A posthumous portrait of Luther as an Augustinian friar

Luther received two bachelor's degrees, one in biblical studies on 9 March 1508, and another in the Sentences by Peter Lombard in 1509.[9] On 19 October 1512, he was awarded his Doctor of Theology. On 21 October 1512, Luther was received into the senate of the theological faculty of the University of Wittenberg,[10] succeeding von Staupitz as chair of theology.[11] He spent the rest of his career in this position at the University of Wittenberg. In 1515, he was made provincial vicar of Saxony and Thuringia, which required him to visit and oversee eleven monasteries in his province.[12]

From 1510 to 1520, Luther lectured on the Psalms, and on the books of Hebrews, Romans, and Galatians. As he studied these portions of the Bible, he came to view the use of terms such as penance and righteousness by the Catholic Church in new ways. He became convinced that the church was corrupt in its ways and had lost sight of what he saw as several of the central truths of Christianity. The most important for Luther was the doctrine of justification—God's act of declaring a sinner righteous—by faith alone through God's grace. He began to teach that salvation or redemption is a gift of God's grace, attainable only through faith in Jesus as the Messiah.[13] "This one and firm rock, which we call the doctrine of justification", he writes, "is the chief article of the whole Christian doctrine, which comprehends the understanding of all godliness."[14]

After a while, Luther came to reject several teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church; in particular, he disputed the view on indulgences. Luther attempted to resolve these differences amicably, first proposing an academic discussion of its practice and efficacy.

Luther Before the Diet of Worms, where Frederick III attempted in vain to create for Luther the chance of a fair trial and the possible support of other German nobles. Painting by Anton von Werner, 1877.

In 1516, Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar, was sent to Germany by the Roman Catholic Church to sell indulgences to raise money in order to rebuild St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.[15]

Then, on 31 October 1517, Luther wrote to his bishop, Albrecht von Brandenburg, protesting against the sale of indulgences. He enclosed in his letter a copy of his "Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences",[a] which came to be known as the Ninety-five Theses.

In 1520, Pope Leo X demanded that Luther renounce all of his writings, and when Luther refused to do so, excommunicated him in January 1521.

Then, to give him the right to a fair trial, Elector Frederick ensured that Martin Luther would be heard before the Diet of Worms in 1521; after Holy Roman Emperor Charles V condemned Luther as an outlaw at the Diet, the elector also secured an exemption from the Edict of Worms for Saxony.

The Elector then protected Luther from the Pope's enforcement of the edict by faking a highway attack on Luther's way back to Wittenberg, abducting and then hiding him for several years at Wartburg Castle after the Diet of Worms.[1]

Wartburg Castle, where Frederick III ordered Martin Luther to be taken and hidden for his own protection after the Diet of Worms, and where the reformer wrote several of his works.

Luther's disappearance during his return to Wittenberg was planned by Frederick III, who had him intercepted on his way home in the forest near Wittenberg by masked horsemen impersonating highway robbers. They escorted Luther to the security of the Wartburg Castle at Eisenach,[17] where he remained desguised as "Junker Jörg".

During his stay at Wartburg, which he referred to as "my Patmos",[18] Luther translated the New Testament from Greek into German and poured out doctrinal and polemical writings.

The Wartburg room where Luther translated the New Testament into German; an original first edition is kept in the case on the desk.

In the summer of 1521, Luther widened his target from individual pieties like indulgences and pilgrimages to doctrines at the heart of Church practice.

In On the Abrogation of the Private Mass, he condemned as idolatry the idea that the mass is a sacrifice, asserting instead that it is a gift, to be received with thanksgiving by the whole congregation.[19] His essay On Confession, Whether the Pope has the Power to Require It rejected compulsory confession and encouraged private confession and absolution, since "every Christian is a confessor."[20] In November, Luther wrote The Judgement of Martin Luther on Monastic Vows. He assured monks and nuns that they could break their vows without sin, because vows were an illegitimate and vain attempt to win salvation.[21]

Last years and Wittenberg happenings[edit]

Luther disguised as "Junker Jörg" at Wartburg Castle in 1521

Despite actively protecting Luther from the hostile menaces against him, the elector had little personal contact with the reformer himself, but Frederick's treasurer Degenhart Pfaffinger spoke on his behalf to Luther,[22] as Pfaffinger had supported the elector since their pilgrimage to the Holy Land together.[23]

The pronouncements by Luther from Wartburg Castle were made the context of rapid developments at Wittenberg, of which he was kept fully informed while residing at the fortress. Andreas Karlstadt, supported by the ex-Augustinian Gabriel Zwilling, embarked on a radical programme of reform there in June 1521, exceeding anything envisaged by Luther. The reforms provoked disturbances, including a revolt by the Augustinian friars against their prior, the smashing of statues and images in churches, and denunciations of the magistracy.[24]

After secretly visiting Wittenberg in early December 1521, Luther wrote A Sincere Admonition by Martin Luther to All Christians to Guard Against Insurrection and Rebellion.[24]

Wittenberg became even more volatile after Christmas when a band of visionary zealots, the so-called Zwickau prophets, arrived, preaching revolutionary doctrines such as the absolute equality of man, adult baptism, and Christ's imminent return.[25] When the town council asked Luther to return, he decided it was his duty to act.[26]

Posthumous portrait of Frederick the Wise by Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1530–1535

Luther secretly returned to Wittenberg on 6 March 1522. He wrote to the elector: "During my absence, Satan has entered my sheepfold, and committed ravages which I cannot repair by writing, but only by my personal presence and living word."[27] For eight days in Lent, beginning on Invocavit Sunday, 9 March, Luther preached eight sermons, which became known as the "Invocavit Sermons". In these sermons, he hammered home the primacy of core Christian values such as love, patience, charity, and freedom, and reminded the citizens to trust God's word rather than violence to bring about necessary change.[28] The effect of Luther's intervention was immediate at the city. After the sixth sermon, the Wittenberg jurist Jerome Schurf wrote to the elector: "Oh, what joy has Dr. Martin's return spread among us! His words, through divine mercy, are bringing back every day misguided people into the way of the truth."[29]

Illustration of the tomb of Frederick the Wise, sculpted by Peter Vischer the Younger (1486 – 1517)

Luther next set about reversing or modifying the new church practices. By working alongside the authorities to restore public order, he signaled his reinvention as a conservative force within the Reformation.[30]

Despite his victory in Wittenberg, after banishing the Zwickau prophets, Luther would still have to fight elsewhere against both the established Catholic Church and also the radical reformers who threatened the new order by fomenting social unrest and violence.[31]

Personal faith and issue of conversion[edit]

Frederick III was a lifelong Roman Catholic, but he might have converted to Lutheranism on his deathbed in 1525 depending on how his receiving of a Protestant communion is viewed.

The elector leaned heavily towards Lutheranism throughout his later years, guaranteeing safety for his subject and Protestant reformer Martin Luther, so that he would not receive the same fate as of Jan Huss and other pre-reformers, after he was tried for heresy and excommunicated by the Pope.

However, to define what it meant to "convert" to Lutheranism or Protestantism at the time, it must be taken into account that, when he passed away, the Reformation had begun not long before, as the time he died was just eight years after the publication of the Ninety-five Theses, considered the start of the movement, and many important works, were yet to be written at the time of Frederick's death, such as Luther's cathecisms (1529),[32] about Protestant doctrine, and the German Mass (1526),[33] about Lutheran liturgy. Therefore the Protestant doctrine was not yet fully established, and was just beginning to be seen as the autonomous expression of faith it would become, instead of just a correction or a heresy inside the scope of Roman Catholicism.

Death and succession[edit]

Silver Saxony coin of Frederick III, known as a Groschen, minted ca. 1507–25. Both the obverse and the reverse bear a version of the Saxony Electorate's coat of arms.

Frederick died unmarried in 1525, aged 62 years old, at Lochau, a hunting castle near Annaburg (30 km southeast of Wittenberg), and was buried in the Castle Church at Wittenberg, with a grave tomb sculpted by Peter Vischer the Younger.

As he was unmarried and had no offspring, he was succeeded as prince-elector of Saxony by his brother John the Steadfast, as former duke and heir presumptive of his older brother. John had been Lutheran even before succeeding Frederick as elector, and continued with his policies of supporting the Reformation, having made the Lutheran church the official state church in Saxony in 1527.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Latin: "Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum" – The first printings of the Theses use an incipit rather than a title which summarizes the content. Luther usually called them "meine Propositiones" (my propositions).[16]


  1. ^ a b Tomczak, Benjamin. "Review of Sam Wellman's Frederick the Wise", Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary
  2. ^ "Frederick the Wise". Devillier Donegan Enterprise. Retrieved 25 December 2013 – via PBS.
  3. ^ "Frederick the Wise". October 26, 2014.
  4. ^ Martin E. Marty, Martin Luther: A Life. (Penguin Lives) Paperback, 2008, p. 18
  5. ^ Borkowsky, Ernst (1929). Das Leben Friedrichs des Weisen. Jena. pp. 56–57.
  6. ^ Geoffrey Parker; Caleb Carr; et al. (2001). "Martin Luther Burns at the Stake, 1521". In Robert Cowley (ed.). The collected What if?: eminent historians imagining what might have been. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons. p. 511. ISBN 0-399-15238-5.
  7. ^ a b c d e White, E. (June 14, 1883). "The First Blow of the Reformation" (PDF). Signs of the Times. 9 (23). Public Domain This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  8. ^ Bainton, Roland. Here I Stand: a Life of Martin Luther. New York: Penguin, 1995, 44–45.
  9. ^ Brecht, Martin. Martin Luther. tr. James L. Schaaf, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985–93, 1:93.
  10. ^ Brecht, Martin. Martin Luther. tr. James L. Schaaf, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985–93, 1:112–127.
  11. ^ Hendrix, Scott H. (2015). Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. p. 44. ISBN 978-0-300-16669-9.
  12. ^ Hendrix, Scott H. (2015). Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. p. 45. ISBN 978-0-300-16669-9.
  13. ^ Wriedt, Markus. "Luther's Theology," in The Cambridge Companion to Luther. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003, 88–94.
  14. ^ Bouman, Herbert J.A. "The Doctrine of Justification in the Lutheran Confessions", Concordia Theological Monthly, 26 November 1955, No. 11:801.
  15. ^ "Johann Tetzel," Encyclopædia Britannica, 2007
  16. ^ Cummings 2002, p. 32.
  17. ^ Reformation Europe: 1517–1559, London: Fontana, 1963, 53; Diarmaid MacCulloch, Reformation: Europe's House Divided, 1490–1700, London: Allen Lane, 2003, 132.
  18. ^ Luther, Martin. "Letter 82," in Luther's Works. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann (eds), Vol. 48: Letters I, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999, c1963, 48:246; Mullett, 133. John, author of Revelation, had been exiled on the island of Patmos.
  19. ^ Brecht, 2:27–29; Mullett, 133.
  20. ^ Brecht, 2:18–21.
  21. ^ Marius, 163–164.
  22. ^ Friedrich Gottlieb Canzler; August Gottlieb Meissner (1783–1785). Für ältere Literatur und neuere Lektüre. Leipzig: Breitkopf. p. 48.
  23. ^ Spalatin, Georg (1851). Historischer Nachlass und Briefe. Friedrich Nauke. p. 89.
  24. ^ a b Mullett, 135–136.
  25. ^ Wilson, 192–202; Brecht, 2:34–38.
  26. ^ Bainton, Mentor edition, 164–165.
  27. ^ Letter of 7 March 1522. Schaff, Philip, History of the Christian Church, Vol VII, Ch IV Archived 23 August 2017 at the Wayback Machine; Brecht, 2:57.
  28. ^ Brecht, 2:60; Bainton, Mentor edition, 165; Marius, 168–169.
  29. ^ Schaff, Philip, History of the Christian Church, Vol VII, Ch IV Archived 23 August 2017 at the Wayback Machine.
  30. ^ Marius, 169.
  31. ^ Mullett, 141–43.
  32. ^ Schroeder, Steven (2000). Between Freedom and Necessity: An Essay on the Place of Value. Rodopi. p. 104. ISBN 978-90-420-1302-5.
  33. ^ Brecht, 2:251–54; Bainton, Mentor edition, 266.


Frederick III, Elector of Saxony
Born: 17 January 1463  Died: 5 May 1525
Preceded by Elector of Saxony
Succeeded by