Although born in the territory of the Counts of Mansfield, Luther’s connection to Saxony began early. He attended school in Eisenach (1498–1501), located in electoral Saxony, and enrolled in university (1501–1505) and later entered the Augustinian monastery (1505–1508) in Erfurt, an independent city with close economic and political ties to Saxony. Luther’s association with Saxony and its electors, however, was sealed with his 1508 arrival at the University of Wittenberg, followed by his return to Wittenberg in 1511, where he was to reside for the most remainder of his adult life. His relationship with the rulers in Ernestine and Albertine Saxony and their reaction to his reform movement proved fundamental to Luther’s life and career, just as Luther has become inextricably linked to the history of Saxony and Wittenberg. Scholars have concentrated on Luther’s interactions with the elector of Saxony Frederick III, “the Wise” (1463–1525, r. 1486–1525), during the early Reformation. Less scholarly attention has been paid to the relationship between Luther and the electors of Saxony during the reign of Frederick’s brother John the Steadfast (1468–1532, r. 1525–1532) and nephew John Frederick (1503–1554, r. 1532–1547), despite the vital role that these rulers played during the development of the new confessional identity. Discussions of Luther’s interaction with these Saxon electors were featured in 16th-century publications and art as well as early histories of the Reformation and of Saxony. Over the course of subsequent centuries, the relationship between Luther and the Ernestine electors has become central to the story of the Reformation and to Saxon history.
Marjorie Elizabeth Plummer
Martin Luther was a subject of the Elector of Saxony in the Holy Roman Empire. His emergence as a reformer was made possible by the sponsorship he received in Wittenberg. He owed his survival to the protection afforded him by the Elector when Emperor Charles V outlawed him and ordered that the papal ban of excommunication be enforced in the empire. The audience to which Luther appealed was the general population of German Christians, both lay and ecclesiastical, who wanted a reform of the church and the reduction of the pope’s influence over it. That his appeal resonated so widely and so profoundly had much to do with a combination of crises that had developed in the empire from the 15th century. That his reform proposals resulted in the formation of a new church owed everything to the political structures of the empire. These facilitated the suppression of radical challenges to Luther’s position. They also thwarted every effort Charles V made over several decades to ensure that the empire remained Catholic. Lutheranism became entwined with the idea of German liberty; as a result, its survival was secured in the constitution of the empire, first in 1555 and then in 1648.
The structures of the late medieval Church into which Martin Luther was born and within which he received his education and theological training were complicated, particularly in the German lands. German bishops were territorial princes as well as spiritual leaders. Only a minority of German dioceses fell within temporal territories, but in most cases dioceses spanned several territories and some territories included areas in two or more dioceses. Abbots and abbesses were also rulers of independent territories, many of which answered only to the pope. Germany’s prince-bishops had considerable political power, exemplified in the college of electors who selected the Holy Roman Emperor. Of these seven, four were temporal political rulers: the King of Bohemia, Margrave of Brandenburg, the Count of the Palatine, and the Duke of (Electoral) Saxony; but the remaining three were Germany’s three Archbishops: of Cologne, of Mainz, and of Trier. Although such high-ranking church posts were not hereditary, the candidates for most German bishoprics were required to come from the high nobility, and many bishoprics effectively passed down families, or alternated between two families. The Archbishopric of Magdeburg, for instance, was generally held by a scion of the families of the Electors of Saxony and of Brandenburg. In addition, temporal rulers could hold and exercise spiritual power. Thus in Wittenberg, the Elector of Saxony claimed spiritual jurisdiction over the castle church and later over the town, and this was ceded by the Archbishop. In consequence, long before the Reformation, bishops and rulers were vying for authority and sometimes for territory. Not all ecclesiastical power was mediated through bishops: the Abbesses of Essen and Quedlinburg, like some abbots held their jurisdiction directly from the Pope. The German churches which emerged in the course of the Reformation were deeply influenced by their local contexts and by the patterns of relationship between the bishops and temporal political authorities, which in turn shaped emerging Reformation church orders.