The Death of Frederick the Wise

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While Elector Frederick and Martin Luther never had a face-to-face meeting, the prince can be credited with the early success of the Reformation.

1525 was an eventful year for Martin Luther. For months he’d been mulling over how he ought to counter the argument Erasmus of Rotterdam had made against him in his Diatribe on Free Will. At the same time, he’d become a virtual placement agency for a passel of nuns who’d left the abbey at Nimbschen and needed either husbands or employment. About the only one left was Katharina von Bora, who was regarded by locals as far too demanding to make a decent wife and who insisted the only man she’d accept was either Luther’s colleague, Nicholas von Amsdorf, or the reformer himself. In the south of Germany, the peasant protestors were acting on their grievances by taking up arms (and pitchforks and scythes, no doubt) against their lords. Elector Frederick the Wise’s brother John had reported upwards of 35,000 of them massed just a few days to the south. In the midst of it all, on May 5, 1525, Frederick died at Lochau, his hunting lodge, indeed his favorite castle.

In his thorough biography Frederick the Wise: Seen and Unseen Lives of Martin Luther’s Protector, Sam Wellman recounts the events surrounding Frederick’s death. German had first been used as the language of worship in Wittenberg at the behest of Luther’s colleague Andreas Karlstadt while Luther was in hiding at the Wartburg Castle, on Palm Sunday (April 9, 1525), the elector attended worship and first heard his own tongue spoken there. As the month progressed, his health took a tailspin. On the last day of April, he wrote his brother:

“I do not know how to spare your grace, however, that I become ever weaker. I have in eight days had little rest, neither day nor night. I am not able to pass water, I write only tentatively, I may not eat, then I sleep painfully...Dr. Auerbach who comforts me, is with me.” (Wellman, Frederick the Wise)

Auerbach was a famous doctor and wouldn’t have made the house call if the situation hadn’t been grave.

Frederick’s faithful court counselor, Georg Spalatin, one of the great movers and shakers of the early Reformation, came to visit his prince. Frederick was in a rudimentary wheelchair and joked to Spalatin, “You do well that you come to me, one should visit sick people.” The conversation between the two Saxons floated into the evening. Later the prince’s confessor came so Frederick could name his sins and hear absolution. Just after midnight, he received the Lord’s Supper for the last time. Wellman reports that “Together Frederick and Spalatin wept.”

In the morning, Frederick spoke to his servants and begged their forgiveness for being surly. Later in the day, he dictated a new will and answered Spalatin’s question about whether he had any other burdens by saying, “Nothing but the pain.” The wise prince who had refused election as Holy Roman Emperor, and which opened the door for the elevation of Charles V, and who had stood by his pesky university professor at the Diet of Worms, died late that afternoon. Luther wrote his brother-in-law that he’d seen the omens: “The sign of it was a rainbow that Philip (Melanchthon) and I saw over Lochau one night last winter, and a child born here at Wittenberg without a head; also another with club feet.”

After a service for the elector in Lochau, Frederick’s body was placed in a coffin that was sealed with tar and taken to Wittenberg where, as was requested in Frederick’s second to last will, he was to be buried. The will stated that “all temporal ostentation, as much as is fitting, [be] avoided. The prince’s final resting place was directly in front of the altar in the Castle Church, which he himself had built, and a bronze epitaph with his likeness was placed on a nearby wall. Luther preached two funeral sermons, and the choir sang his hymn based on Psalm 130, “Out of the Depths.”

While Elector Frederick and Martin Luther never had a face-to-face meeting (their communication usually was done through Georg Spalatin), the prince can be credited with the early success of the Reformation. It was Frederick who had established the University in Wittenberg and saw to the restoration of the city’s castle and erection of the building of the All Saints Church (which we know more commonly as the Castle Church). When Luther began to draw attention before the indulgence controversy, he didn’t try to clamp down on the friar who lived at the monastery up Kollegienstrasse. The same was true after the Ninety-Five Theses and Luther’s sudden elevation to the status of an infamous rabble-rouser.

After Luther’s failed self-defense at the Diet of Worms, Frederick concocted a fake kidnapping and secreted Luther at the electoral castle above Eisenach, the Wartburg. The Holy Roman Emperor responded to Luther’s trial by issuing the Edict of Worms, which banned Luther throughout the empire, ordered that his books be burned, and proclaimed him wanted dead or alive. Frederick must still have had some political capital to spend from his refusal to accept the emperor’s throne. Charles V owed the elector for his position, and it must have been Frederick working behind the scenes who made possible the exemption of Electoral Saxony, Frederick’s territory, from the edict. While Luther was never allowed to leave Saxony from that point, his prince’s work did allow him to move freely in the territory and saved him, life and limb.

At the start of the Reformation, Frederick was steadfast and faithful in his loyalty to the church and its practices. He had made a pious pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1493. He had accumulated a highly regarded collection of 19,013 relics; church teaching said that if you had venerated them all you would have your time in purgatory reduced by tens of thousands of years. His gradual elimination of the relics from his castles indicates his ever-closer identification with the preaching and teaching of the Wittenberg circle of reformers and their wider social network. One curious bit of ephemera from Frederick’s holdings is not a relic: he had acquired a whale vertebra, and it now sits on the floor like a footstool at Luther’s desk in his cell at the Wartburg.

When the various princes, electors, representatives of free imperial cities, and papal envoys met at the Diet of Nuremberg in 1522, the members of Frederick’s court outfitted themselves with the words Verbum Domini manet in Aeternum from 1 Peter 1:25, “The word of the Lord endures forever” on their sleeves. In some circles, the initialism VDMA remains shorthand for the theology and work of the reformers and is a fitting way to remember Frederick who remained faithful in the face of the storms that buffeted his realm. You could do worse than choose those letters in an old Fraktur font as part of your next sleeve tattoo.