George the Bearded
Also called The Rich, Duke of Saxony, b. at Dresden, August 27, 1471; d. in the same city, April 17. 1539
George the Bearded, also called THE RICH, Duke of Saxony, b. at Dresden, August 27, 1471; d. in the same city, April 17. 1539. His father was Albert the Brave of Saxony, founder of the Albertine line of the Wettin family, still the ruling line of Saxony; his mother was Sidonia, daughter of George of Podiebrad, King of Bohemia. Elector Frederick the Wise, a member of the Ernestine branch of the same family, known for his protection of Luther, was a cousin of Duke George. Albert the Brave had a large family and George, a younger son, was originally intended for the Church; consequently he received an excellent training in theology and other branches of learning, and was thus much better educated than most of the princes of his day. The death of his elder brother opened to George the way to the ducal power. As early as 1488, when his father was in Friesland fighting on behalf of the emperor, George was regent of the ducal possessions, which included the Margravate of Meissen with the cities of Dresden and Leipzig. George was married at Dresden, November 21, 1496, to Barbara of Poland, daughter of King Casimir IV of that country. George and his wife had a large family of children, all of whom, with the exception of a daughter, died before their father. In 1498, the emperor granted Albert the Brave the hereditary governorship of Friesland. At Maastricht, February 14, 1499, Albert settled the succession to his possessions, and endeavored by this arrangement to prevent further partition of his domain. He died September 12, 1500, and was succeeded in his German territories by George as the head of the Albertine line, while George’s brother Heinrich became hereditary governor of Friesland. The Saxon occupation of Friesland, however, was by no means secure and was the source of constant revolts in that province. Consequently Heinrich, who was of a rather inert disposition, relinquished his claims to the governorship, and in 1505 an agreement was made between the brothers by which Friesland was transferred to George, while Heinrich received an annuity and the districts of Freiberg and Wolkenstein. But this arrangement did not restore peace in Friesland, which continued to be an unceasing source of trouble to Saxony, until finally the duke was obliged, in 1515, to sell it to Burgundy for the very moderate price of 100,000 florins. These troubles outside of his Saxon possessions did not prevent George from bestowing much care on the government of the ducal territory proper. When regent, during the lifetime of his father, the difficulties arising from conflicting interests and the large demands on his powers had often brought the young prince to the verge of despair. In a short time, however, he developed decided ability as a ruler; on entering upon his inheritance he divided the duchy into governmental districts, took measures to suppress the robber-knights, and regulated the judicial system by defining and readjusting the jurisdiction of the various law courts. In his desire to achieve good order, security, and the amelioration of the condition of the people, he sometimes ventured to infringe even on the rights of the cities. His court was better regulated than that of any other German prince, and he bestowed a paternal care on the University of Leipzig, where a number of reforms were introduced, and Humanism, as opposed to Scholasticism, was encouraged.
From the beginning of the Reformation in 1517, Duke George directed his energies chiefly to ecclesiastical affairs. Hardly one of the secular German princes held as firmly as he to the Church; he defended its rights and vigorously condemned every innovation except those which were countenanced by the highest ecclesiastical authorities. At first he was not opposed to Luther, but as time went on and Luther’s aim became clear to him, he turned more and more from the Reformer, and was finally, in consequence of this change of attitude, drawn into an acrimonious correspondence in which Luther, without any justification, shamefully reviled the duke. The duke was not blind to the undeniable abuses existing at that time in the Church. In 1519, despite the opposition of the theological faculty of the university, he originated the Disputation of Leipzig, with the idea of helping forward the cause of truth, and was present at all the discussions. In 1521, at the Diet of Worms, when the German princes handed in a paper containing a list of “grievances” concerning the condition of the Church, George added for himself twelve specific complaints referring mainly to the abuse of Indulgences and the annates. In 1525 he combined with his Lutheran son-in-law, the Landgrave Philip of Hesse, and his cousin, the Elector Frederick the Wise, to suppress the revolt of the peasants, who were defeated near Frankenjausen in Thuringia. Some years later he wrote a forcible preface to a translation of the New Testament issued at his command by his private secretary, Hieronymus Emser, as an offset to Luther’s version. Lutheran books were confiscated by his order, wherever found, though he refunded the cost of the books. He proved himself in every way a vigorous opponent of the Lutherans, decreeing that Christian burial was to be refused to apostates, and recreant ecclesiastics were to be delivered to the bishop of Merseburg. For those, however, who merely held anti-Catholic opinions, the punishment was only expulsion from the duchy. The duke deeply regretted the constant postponement of the ardently desired council, from the action of which so much was expected. While awaiting its convocation, he thought to remove the more serious defects by a reform of the monasteries, which had become exceedingly worldly in spirit and from which many of the inmates were departing. He vainly sought to obtain from the Curia the right, which was sometimes granted by Rome, to make official visitations to the conventual institutions of his realm. His reforms were confined mainly to uniting the almost vacant monasteries and to matters of economic management, the control of the property being entrusted in most cases to the secular authorities. In 1525, Duke George formed, with some other German rulers, the League of Dessau, for the protection of Catholic interests. In the same way he was the animating spirit of the League of Halle, formed in 1533, from which sprang in 1538 the Holy League of Nuremberg for the maintenance of the Religious Peace of Nuremberg.
The vigorous activity displayed by the duke in so many directions was not attended with much success. Most of his political measures, indeed, stood the test of experience, but in ecclesiastico-political matters he witnessed with sorrow the gradual decline of Catholicism and the spread of Lutheranism within his dominions, in spite of his earnest efforts and forcible prohibition of the new doctrine. Furthermore, during George’s lifetime his nearest relations, his son-in-law, Philip of Hesse, and his brother Heinrich, joined the Reformers. He spent the last years of his reign in endeavors to secure a Catholic successor, thinking by this step to check the dissemination of Lutheran opinions. The only one of George’s sons then living was the weak-minded and unmarried Frederick. The intention of his father was that Frederick should rule with the aid of a council. Early in 1539, Frederick was married to Elizabeth of Mansfeld, but he died shortly afterwards, leaving no prospect of an heir. According to the act of settlement of 1499, George’s Protestant brother Heinrich was now heir prospective; but George, disregarding his father’s will, sought to disinherit his brother and to bequeath the duchy to Ferdinand, brother of Charles V. His sudden death prevented the carrying out of this intention.
George was an excellent and industrious ruler, self-sacrificing, high-minded, and unwearying in the furtherance of the highest interests of his land and people. As a man he was upright, vigorous and energetic, if somewhat irascible. A far-seeing and faithful adherent of the emperor and empire, he accomplished much for his domain by economy, love of order, and wise direction of activities of his state officials. The grief of his life was Luther’s Reformation and the apostasy from the Old Faith. Of a strictly religious, although not narrow, disposition, he sought at any cost to keep his subjects from falling away from the Church, but his methods of attaining his object were not always free from reproach.
H. A. CREUTZBERG