Elisabeth of Brandenburg – Staunch Reformer, Heartbroken Mother

Just before Easter 1527, Elisabeth of Brandenburg, who had become Duchess of Braunschweig-Calenberg by marriage, received some shocking news. Her mother Elisabeth of Denmark, Electress of Brandenburg, had stunned her court by taking communion after the Protestant rite: both bread and wine, without a mysterious transformation of the elements and without claims of re-sacrificing Christ. Whether the Electress meant her action to go public or not, the news spread fast. In fact, they soon reached her husband Joachim I, a belligerent opponent of Luther, who was traveling at that time.

            Our Elisabeth, then 17, was in Braunschweig, having been married for two years to the 55-year old Duke Erich I, also a fierce Roman Catholic. Over the next few months, she must have learned of her father’s threats to her mother and of her mother’s escape to Lutheran lands. She was, however, busy giving birth and raising kids for her husband who had unsuccessfully tried to have a progeny from his first wife. At the time of her mother’s escape, she already had a two-year old daughter (another Elisabeth) and was pregnant with her first son, Erich.

Betrayal and Independence

            In spite of the age difference, Elisabeth’s marriage was apparently marked by fondness and devotion, until 1531, when her recovery from a particularly stressful pregnancy was perturbed by distressing news: her husband had betrayed her with a previous long-term lover, Anna Rumschottel. Her husband’s lies about his lover’s sudden death (corroborated by a fake funeral) fell apart when Elisabeth discovered the woman had been sent to a nearby castle in order to give birth to Erich’s son.

            Enraged and deeply hurt, Elisabeth blamed Anna for her own troubled pregnancy, and accused her of witchcraft, forcing Erich to send her away. As a token of repentance, he awarded Elisabeth the territories of Gottingen and Munden, where she spent much of her time.

            This geographical independence allowed her to reflect on her religious convictions. After a visit from her mother in 1534, she began corresponding with Luther and received a Lutheran preacher, Antonius Corvinus, at her court. It was not long until she publicly declared her faith by taking the Lord’s Supper in the Lutheran fashion.

            Her husband’s reaction was far different from that of her father toward her mother. Erich had met Luther and was not opposed to his teachings, but considered himself too old to change.

            When he died in 1540, Elisabeth, aided by Philipp von Hessen (one of the main leaders of the Schmalkaldic League), introduced the Reformation in her lands.

Elisabeth the Reformer

            Actively involved in this work of Reformation, she wrote a preface to Corvinus’s Church Order for the churches in her lands, where she explained the reasons for a change that was not easy on the people. Habits are hard to break, as Elisabeth must have discovered when familiar sounds, sights, and smells were removed to make place for the simple preaching of the Word.

            Sensitive to the people’s needs, Elisabeth allowed the continuance of monasteries, which were routinely closed in other protestant countries. If some people wanted to remain unmarried and live in communities, they could do so, as long as they wore regular clothes and provided for their own needs.

            A prolific writer, she also wrote several hymns for the church and a long letter to the nobility, explaining that their rank matters little if not accompanied by piety. She then proceeded to give an example of piety by emphasizing pure worship and the preaching of the Word, by ministering to the needy, and by accompanying Corvinus in some of his pastoral visitations.

Elisabeth the Mother

            As her son Erich approached legal age, she began to make arrangements for his marriage with a good Lutheran wife. After a short engagement to Agnes, daughter of Phillip of Hesse, she settled on the beautiful Sidonie of Saxony, sister of the famous Schmalkaldic leader Maurice. It was Erich’s preference. Besides, Phillip of Hesse had generated heated controversies with his bigamous relationship.

            Elisabeth might have found some comfort in knowing that Sidonie was ten years older than Erich, as age is often accompanied by wisdom. She planned a simple wedding in Hann, Munden, and wrote a handwritten manual for her son, giving him advice on what constitutes a godly ruler. By that time, she had ruled pretty much single-handedly for five years, and could draw from her own experience. She exhorted Erich to give priority to God’s Scriptures and to remember the widows, orphans, and needy foreigners.

            In spite of her efforts, Erich turned Roman Catholic just two years after his marriage. When his wife refused to follow his religion, he moved with a mistress to a nearby castle. There were rumors that he tried to poison Sidonie. In his version of the story, she had tried to poison him. In fact, when he became seriously ill in 1564, he accused her of witchcraft. After many legal proceedings, Sidonie was acquitted of all charges and granted the ownership of a monastery where she lived until her death.

            Erich continued to break his mother’s heart by arresting Corvinus and keeping him in prison for three years in such poor conditions that Corvinus died one year after his release. He also joined the Schmalkaldic war on the Roman Catholic side and remedied his financial woes by giving his lands to the Catholic Heinrich di Braunschweig.

            Elisabeth’s letters to him reveal her distraught. “How have you fallen into such insane raving and raging against God, against his Word, his servants, his churches, and against me, your dear mother, against the whole country and the poor oppressed subjects?” she wrote. “You have made me so sick and weak from weeping that I have not strength to write and have had to dictate. I must say this or my heart will break. If I do not speak the very stones will cry out.”[1]

            Erich’s answer was loving but firm. He reaffirmed his deep-seated affection for his mother (“there is none I hold in greater love than yourself”), but his convictions were as strong as hers. He was, after all, returning to the faith of his father and his forefathers, which his mother, in his view, had “brought to naught.”[2] As for his political stand, he was the rightful ruler of his father’s lands and had to act according to his conscience.

            Their epistolary exchange is instructive in understanding the oddity of their age. This situation would have been rare a century earlier. But the Reformation had split countries and families with an urgency we find hard to appreciate. “I see his damnation before my eyes and my grief is crushing,” Elisabeth wrote to a Lutheran minister. “I am resigned to God’s will.”

            Elisabeth’s daughters, on the other hand, remained faithful to their mother and their faith. The oldest, also named Elisabeth, married the Lutheran Count George Ernest of Henneberg, 15 years her senior. Three years later, our Elisabeth also remarried, choosing as her husband George’s younger brother Poppo.

            When Elisabeth’s second daughter Anna Maria married Albrecht of Prussia in 1550, Elisabeth wrote a handwritten treatise on marriage and domestic life. The treatise, full of Scriptural passages, is also a reflection of her own experiences. Women should obey their husbands, she explained, unless he requires something that is directly opposed to God’s commandments. When she wrote that a wife should guide her husband “by love and reason without bitterness,”[3] she might have been thinking of the bitterness she had felt when her husband Erich had betrayed her.

            Erich junior looked with disdain on his sister’s marriage to a man who was 40 years older than her. “Why are you going to marry that old duffer?” he asked. “He is not as handsome as the paintings make him out to be.” Anna’s answer helps us to understand a choice our culture would consider odd. “I’d rather marry a wise old man than an old fool.”[4]

Elisabeth the Refugee

            The Roman Catholics’ victory at the Battle of Sievershausen (1553) marked the beginning of the end of Elisabeth’s independence. Deprived of all her properties and rights, she had to leave the lands she had cherished and nurtured for years. She expressed her feelings in a poem:


Braunschweig, I now must leave you

It is the Lord God’s will.

But though I must bereave you,

May you be constant still.


It is my will to leave you.

Better be hurt than to hurt.

And though I grieve to grieve you,

You are by love begirt.[5]


            She found earthly comfort in her 19-year old daughter Catherine who followed her to Hannover, where they stayed two years in indigent conditions. “The jewels she wears are godliness,” she wrote in a poem. “She helps me bear my cross. She will have reward of thee. She counts the world but dross.”[6]

            As for her husband Poppo, his family persuaded him to return to Turingia to keep his properties intact – a portion of the empire where Elisabeth was not allowed until 1555, when she was able to rejoin him. In spite of this, her poems expressed her continued joy in the Lord, whom she described as her “help and stay, and comfort in [her] shame.”[7]

            One of the most painful consequences of her loss of rights was her inability to choose a husband for Catherine, who was married to the Catholic High Burgrave William of Rosenberg by Erich II’s decision. To add salt to the injury, Erich misinformed his mother of the date of the wedding, so that when she arrived in Münden, her daughter was already married. Thankfully, Catherine was able to keep her Lutheran faith and employ her own Lutheran pastor.

            Elisabeth knew her sorrows were not uncommon. In a book she wrote to comfort widows, she acknowledged a view many of her readers would have shared. “No one without the experience knows the anguish will children can cause and yet be loved.”[8] She died in 1558, at age 48, weakened by trials but carefully tended by her husband.

            Years later, her beloved Braunschweig returned Lutheran, not by force but by conviction – a testimony to her wise leadership.

[1] Roland H. Bainton, Women of the Reformation in Germany and Italy, Augsburg Publishing House, 1971, p. 136

[2] p. 137

[3] p. 134

[4] ibid.

[5] p. 141

[6] p. 142

[7] p. 142

[8] ibid.


Simonetta Carr