Jul 16, 2021
8 mins read
A story of one woman's struggles through life! Her marriage conceived accusations of witchcraft, her son would abandon her, and her religious beliefs would cause much soul searching. Elisabeth became broken-hearted, and she agonised over what had gone so wrong? We now look at the life of Elisabeth of Brandenburg.
Early years (1510–1525)
Cölln between the 13th and 18th centuries was located opposite Altberlin, but both cities were merged by Frederick I of Prussia to form the modern-day Berlin. It was in Cölln that Elisabeth was born. Her father was Joachim I of Brandenburg and his wife Elisabeth of Denmark, who was the daughter of King John I of Denmark.
Her upbringing would be of a rigorous religious and humanist approach, which would remain with her throughout life. By the age of 15, Elisabeth would marry, on 7 July 1525, to Eric I, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg. He would become her husband at the grand old age of 55. However, the marriage was described as happy despite the age difference, and the couple had four children Elisabeth, Erich, Anna Maria and Katharina.
Eric was a man who had been a brave fighter throughout his life. He had taken part in the 1497 campaign against the Turks and would become close to Emperor Maximillian I, with whom he served.
However, the age gap at times seemed just too large to bridge, and the couple had some torrid times throughout the early part of the marriage. In 1528, one such outrage broke out when Elisabeth accused a lady called Anna von Rumschottel; she was a gentry figure yet one who had also had a long affair with her husband as his mistress. Elisabeth accused Anna of being responsible for the complications she had during her second pregnancy. Elisabeth threatened with outing Anna as a witch and implored her husband to have her burnt at the stake. Elisabeth sent Spies and foot soldiers to the town of Münden, a place thought to be the hideout of Anna, but when they arrived, she was gone. It didn't deter the men from seeking out her friends and accomplices, and some were arrested, tortured and eventually burnt at the stake.
All this happened while Elisabeth was expecting her second child Erich, her son, who would become Eric's heir to the throne. The couple soon put the whole sorry incident involving Anna behind them.
In 1534 Elisabeth paid a visit to her mother, who was residing at Lichtenburg Castle. It would be while here she would first meet Martin Luther. He was a German professor of theology and a significant figure in the Reformation. He was a man who rejected some teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. One, in particular, was his views on indulgences. Elisabeth found a particular attraction to Luther; his beliefs and ideologies would leave a mark on her for life. The couple began writing regularly, and gifts were also sent, including a German Bible translation.
By 1538 Elisabeth was now accepting of these new ideas, to the point where she was contemplating a move to the new Lutheran ways. On 6 October, she had spoken with Philip I of Hesse with regards to the conversion. It was now she also invited Anton Corvinus to move nearer to Münden. At first, Eric, although disputing the faith, accepted Elisabeth's request. It would go against all he had been brought up on, yet he admired his wife for taking the plunge and showing great strength and courage.
But for Eric, these were troubling times; he didn't want to be associated with Lutheranism or be pestered by the likes of Philip of Hesse, who was the political leader of the protestants. If he did go down the same road as his wife, it could also mean trouble from the Emperor. Eric was due to meet the Emperor at a Diet meeting in Hagenau in 1540. Eric decided to write his Will before leaving as if he did happen to die. His son at this time was not old enough to take the throne, which meant a regent would come into play. One name was eager to take control; he was Heinz of Wolfenbüttel, but Eric appointed Elisabeth, but she would need a guardian. Decisions were difficult, never mind plotting the future. The problem was Philip and Heinz were constantly at each other's throats, that was until Philip had him arrested and locked up for two years. So Joachim II of Brandenburg came to the fore and was appointed.
Eric must have felt death was near; after he arrived in Hagenau, he died on 30 July 1540. Yet, so depleted was his treasury, he had to remain in state for a year before the money could be given to transport him back home.
His son Eric was only 12 at the time, and it would be Elisabeth and Philip who would control things for the next five years. Her time as regent was marked by many difficulties. She struggled with the country's debt burden caused by her husband and the prejudices of those who did not want to recognise her guardianship claim to rule. Nevertheless, Elisabeth made full use of her possibilities as regent; it advanced the Principality through social and political reforms. The Lutheran Reformation is considered the most important. She approached Philip and asked for a minister to be sent to put in motion her plan of action. Antonius Corvinus, a man who was ardent, able and fearless, headed up this new operation.
The one thing Elisabeth wanted now was to raise her son in this new era of reformed religion. For Philip, he had made a significant mistake in his potential rise, as he had become a bigamist in 1540. This was one thing that couldn't be accepted. He informed Lutheran theologians that if he had a wife he really cared for, he would restrict himself to her. One can only imagine the laughter that followed that statement!
Elisabeth, undaunted by all the furore going on around her, continued to promote her son. He was assessed for leadership by Martin Luther, who gave him a clean bill of health but secretly spoke to Corvinus that he hoped Eric would not succumb to pressures in which princes often found themselves. With her work seemingly complete for now, Elisabeth started a new relationship, this time with Duke Poppo of Hennenburg, a solid Lutheran prince.
Eric was at the age where a marriage could be significant in moving forward. However, Elisabeth had pre-arranged this with Philips daughter Anna of Hesse in 1554. You'd think, Good news for Eric, but no, on the contrary, as Eric had his eyes on another and had fallen in love with a girl called Sidoniethe, she was the sister of the Duke of Saxony. Eric eventually got his way. Elisabeth cancelled the wedding she thought was best, and Eric plumped for a ten-year-old. They married on 17 May 1545.
Later life (1545–1558)
By 1546 Elisabeth now married Count Poppo. But her happiness soon started to wane after she heard that her son Eric was falling back into the beliefs of Catholicism. His reason for this was to have greater opportunities at the imperial court. By 1548 Eric had accepted what he now must do! Reformers were arrested, including Corvinus. In total, around 140 others fell to the same fate. Corvinus would now be held at Calenburg Castle.
Elisabeth was devoid of any fundamental ideas about what to do and turned her attention to other matters. In 1550 she had arranged a marriage for her daughter Anna Marie to the 40-year-older Duke Albert of Prussia. This was on the back of some correspondence between the pair, which stretched back many years.
After her son took over the government, both the Duchess's financial and political struggle continued. In the peace negotiations after the bloody Battle of Sievershausen in 1553, Erich the Younger fought together with Albrecht of Brandenburg-Kulmbach (1522-1557) against the Catholic princes Heinrich of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel (1489-1568), Elisabeth was deprived of her widow's estate.
The Duchess then lived in Hanover for two years under challenging circumstances and was heavily in debt until 1555, when the Duke of Wolfenbüttel finally settled. She was able to leave the Principality.
Until her death, she resisted her son's attempts to reverse the Reformation, integrate the state of Calenberg-Göttingen into a Catholic league, and connect the family with old-believing princely houses through his marriage policy.
More problems lay ahead for Elisabeth when her son married her youngest daughter to a catholic, William of Rosenburg. This was to provide much-needed funds. But Elisabeth found herself now on what seemed like an eternal slippery slope. Elisabeth would have none of this, although she agreed to attend the wedding. Yet, once she arrived, she then found out that Eric had already married the couple and given his mother the incorrect date of the wedding so that she couldn't interfere. It seemed after all Elisabeth had done for her son, it had now completely backfired, he was ruler, and he certainly made the rules. Unfortunately for his mother, she would be cast aside.
After decades of political disputes and financial problems, Elisabeth of Brunswick-Lüneburg finally gave up all hope. The recent events were all too much for Elisabeth; she was broken-hearted and in deep despair about what she could have done so very wrong that caused her son to be this way. In 1558 Elisabeth succumbed and passed away. Her body was first buried in the monastery church of Vessra, but in 1566 she was transferred to the St. Aegidien Chapel at St. John's Church in Schleusingen.
The literary activity of Elisabeth is in many ways typical of the writing of women in the early modern period. We wouldn't describe her work as literature in the traditional sense but consists of utility texts that serve practical rather than aesthetic purposes. Her lyrical writings all stand in a broader tradition of Protestant literature and document Elisabeth's political and religious struggle in her time.
Maybe the failings of Elisabeth were actually successes. Certainly not with Eric, her son. He went off to serve the Emperor around Europe before death caught up with him, and he was buried at Pavia. In Elisabeth's book about consolation for widows, she wrote, " No one without experience knows the anguish which children can cause and yet be loved" Elisabeth's victory was not with her son but in the triumph of her own cause.