The third of four linked blogs - see Torgau, Muhlberg and Wittenberg.
The Wettin dynasty can be traced back to the 10th century. They came to prominence in 1089 when they were made rulers of Meissen. In 1263 they became landgraves of Thuringia, and in 1423 Frederick I was invested as Duke of Saxony, becoming one of the seven prince-electors of the Holy Roman Empire. On the death of his successor Frederick II, in 1464, Saxony was ruled jointly by his two sons, Ernest and Albert. In 1485 they agreed to split the lands, with the elder, Ernest, becoming the Prince-Elector of Saxony and the younger, Albert, Duke of Saxony.
It was the Ernestine line that had a significant impact on the course of the Reformation and who were ancestors of the House of Windsor, through Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria. On Ernest’s death in 1486 his son Frederick III became prince-elector. Often known as Frederick ‘the Wise’ he became well respected among the German princes. In 1502 he founded the University of Wittenberg, where in 1508 Martin Luther started teaching theology. He remained a Catholic (though there has been talk of a death-bed conversion to the Lutheran faith) and built up a massive collection of relics in the castle church – by 1520 the inventory listed over 19,000 items.
When the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I, died in January 1519, the two main contenders were Charles, Maximilian’s grandson, and Francis I, King of France, with the English monarch Henry VIII as an outsider. The election of Charles (already Duke of Burgundy and ruler of the Spanish kingdoms) or Francis was feared by Pope Leo X (Giovanni de' Medici) because he believed that the victor would be able to exert too much power in Italy. He favoured Frederick the Wise, whose election would leave him greater freedom of action. In the end Frederick declined to put himself forward and Charles won the election by use of extensive propaganda, substantial bribes and a show of force.
Nevertheless Fredrick played a major role in the Reformation by providing protection for Martin Luther. As described in the blog on Torgau, Frederick ensured that Luther received a hearing at the Diet of Worms, securing a promise of safe passage which Emperor Charles V honoured, and then hid him away in Wartburg Castle in Thuringia before his return to Wittenberg. For the following 24 years Luther was a guiding influence on the course of the Reformation, playing a leading role in the writing the of Torgau Articles and the Augsburg Confession in which Lutheran beliefs were expounded, as well as being a decisive voice in rejecting proposals for church unity based on Catholic principles.
On the death of the unmarried and childless Frederick in 1525, his brother, John, became prince-elector. John, known as the ‘Steadfast’ or ‘Constant’, had already converted to the Lutheran faith and in 1527 the Evangelical-Lutheran Church became the state church in Ernestine Saxony. Luther praised John for his determination to uphold his faith at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530 in the face of pressure from Emperor Charles V.
On John's death in 1532 he was succeeded by his son, John Frederick I, who continued his religious policies. John Frederick rejected some of the compromises drawn up at the Diet of Regensburg in 1541 and furthered the Protestant cause by the appointment of Nicholas von Amsdorf as the bishop of Naumburg, the first Protestant bishop in the Holy Roman Empire. He also commissioned the new Protestant chapel at Hartenfels Castle. Emperor Charles’ acquiescence and concessions at the Diet of Speyer in 1544 misled John Frederick. It was here that John Frederick presented the painting ‘The Hunt at Torgau in honour of Charles V’ (see the blog on Torgau) to the emperor. Charles, in fact, made the concessions because he needed the support of Protestant princes in his war with France and was in no way reconciled to accepting the spread of Lutheranism.
This was made clear when two years later war broke out between John Frederick and Charles (see the blog on Muhlberg). John Frederick’s defeat at Muhlberg in April 1547 resulted in his imprisonment, the loss of territory and the Electorate. This was given to his cousin, Duke Maurice, from the Albertine line of the Wettin dynasty, who despite his Protestant faith had taken the emperor’s side with precisely this outcome in mind. Although Maurice died at the battle of Sievershausen only six years later, at the age of 32, his descendants remained Electors of Saxony (until 1806) and the Kings of Saxony until 1918, although after 1871 as part of the German Empire under Prussian control.
The Ernestine line was left with much reduced territories, mainly in Thuringia – Weimar, Gotha, Coburg, Eienach, Altenburg, Meiningen. Their lands soon became divided into rival duchies. However in the 19th century members of the Ernestine house of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha became kings of Belgium (Leopold I in 1831) and Portugal, as well as Bulgaria in the early 20th century (1908).
In Britain the best known member of the family is Prince Albert, who became the husband of Queen Victoria, and was thus the ancestor of all monarchs of Britain since Victoria’s death. He was the 7x grandson of John Frederick I defeated by Emperor Charles V at Muhlberg. From the accession of Edward VII, in 1901, the official name of the British royal family was ‘Saxe-Coburg-Gotha’. Anti-German sentiment during the First World War meant that a change was needed. They rejected ‘Wettin’ as an alternative and instead adopted the current name of ‘House of Windsor’ in 1917.