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Frederick III

Frederick III Elector of Saxony

Elector of Saxony
The basics
Quick Facts
Intro Elector of Saxony
A.K.A. Frederick the Wise, Friedrich III.
Countries Germany
Occupations Noble Aristocrat
Gender male
Birth 17 January 1463 (Castle Hartenfels)
Death 5 May 1525 (Annaburg)
Mother: Elisabeth of Bavaria, Electress of Saxony
Father: Ernest, Elector of Saxony
Siblings: Christina of SaxonyErnst II of SaxonyAdalbert of SaxonyJohn, Elector of Saxony Margaret of SaxonyDuchess of Brunswick-Lüneburg
The details

Frederick III (17 January 1463 – 5 May 1525), also known as Frederick the Wise (German Friedrich der Weise), was Elector of Saxony from 1486 to 1525, who is mostly remembered for the worldly protection of his subject Martin Luther.

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. He successfully protected Luther from the Holy Roman Emperor, the Pope and other hostile figures. He was not led by his religious convictions, but rather by his belief in a fair trial for any of his subjects (a privilege guaranteed by the imperial statutory law) and the rule of law. The elector had little personal contact with Luther himself. Frederick's treasurer Degenhart Pfaffinger (Pfaffinger being a German dynasty) spoke on behalf of him to Luther. Pfaffinger had supported Frederick since their pilgrimage to the holy land together. Frederick is considered to have remained a Roman Catholic all his life, yet gradually inclining toward doctrines of the Reformation and supposedly eventually converting on his deathbed.

Frederick III is commemorated as a Christian ruler in the Calendar of Saints of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod on 5 May.


Born in Torgau, he succeeded his father as elector in 1486; in 1502, he founded the University of Wittenberg, where Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon taught.

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

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

His court painter from 1504 was Lucas Cranach the Elder.

Frederick was Pope Leo X's candidate for Holy Roman Emperor in 1519—the pope had awarded him the Golden Rose of virtue on 3 September 1518—but he helped secure the election of Charles V. Frederick ensured Luther would be heard before the Diet of Worms in 1521 and subsequently secured an exemption from the Edict of Worms for Saxony.

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. A diligent and pious person who rendered appropriate devotion to each of these relics could merit 1,902,202 years worth of penance (an earthly equivalent of time otherwise spent in Purgatory, removed by indulgences). Two years later, the collection exceeded 19,000 pieces.

He protected Martin 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 at Wartburg Castle following the Diet of Worms.

Frederick died unmarried at Lochau, a hunting castle near Annaburg (30 km southeast of Wittenberg), in 1525 and was buried in the Schlosskirche at Wittenberg with a grave by Peter Vischer the Younger. He was succeeded by his brother Duke John the Steadfast as Elector of Saxony.

The issue of conversion in 1525

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. He leaned heavily towards Lutheranism throughout his life, guaranteeing safety for his subject and Protestant reformer Martin Luther when he was tried for heresy and excommunicated by the Pope.

Frederick III took communion as outlined in Lutheranism on his death bed. This can be seen as a conversion to Lutheranism, although he never officially or clearly indicated that he converted. Nonetheless, partaking in Protestant communion is considered a schismatic act by the Catholic Church and constitutes a departure from the Catholic faith. By the time of his death it was proclaimed that he "converted to the evangelical faith" and that Saxony was now "evangelical". He protected Martin Luther and allowed Lutheranism to flourish in his realm, protecting him from the Holy Roman Emperor. Frederick remained a Roman Catholic (almost) all his life, but available evidence and his actions suggest that, personally, he had strong Lutheran leanings. His successor, John, Elector of Saxony, had been Lutheran even before he became elector. John made the Lutheran church the official state church in Saxony in 1527.


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