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

Friedrich was born in Torgau the son of Ernst, Elector of Saxony and his wife Elisabeth, daughter of Albrecht III, Duke of Bavaria (1401–1460) from his marriage to Anna of Brunswick-Grubenhagen-Einbeck (1420–1474), herself the daughter of the Duke Eric I of Brunswick-Grubenhagen and Elisabeth of Brunswick-Göttingen.

Friedrich III-VI, Elector of Saxony and Landgrave of Thuringia.

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

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

In 1501, Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I fell from his horse and badly injured his leg, causing him pain for the rest of his life. Eighteen years later Maximilian died in Wels, Upper Austria on January 12, 1519. The throne of the Holy Roman Empire was elective officially but in practice it was semi-heredity. The process of an election of an Emperor often meant that the prime candidate had to make concessions, by which the voters were kept on the side, which was known as Wahlkapitulationen (electoral capitulation).

After the death of Emperor Maximilian, Friedrich III was Pope Leo X’s candidate for Holy Roman Emperor. The Pope had awarded him the Golden Rose of virtue on September 3, 1518 in an effort to persuade him to accept the throne.

However, and despite the Pope Leo X’s support of Friedrich III’s as candidate for the imperial throne, Friedrich himself, in his role as an Elector, helped secure the election of Maximilian’s grandson, Charles (whom at this time was King of Spain as Carlos I). By agreeing to support Charles and to convince his fellow electors to do the same, Friedrich III provided that Charles repay an outstanding debt to the Saxons dating to 1497.

Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain

Friedrich III was not the only candidate for the imperial throne. The two other candidates were, besides King Carlos I of Spain, were King François I of France and King Henry VIII of England. After having paid huge bribes to the electors, they awarded Carlos I of Spain the imperial the crown on June 28, 1519. On October 26, 1520 the new Emperor Charles V was crowned in Germany and some ten years later, on February 22, 1530, he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Clement VII in Bologna, the last emperor to receive a papal coronation.

Support of Luther

In 1516, Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar and papal commissioner for indulgences, was sent to the Holy Roman Empire by the Roman Catholic Church to sell indulgences to raise money in order to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Martin Luther, Saxon priest, monk and theologian, seminal figure in Protestant Reformation

In 1516, Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar and papal commissioner for indulgences, was sent to Germany by the Roman Catholic Church to sell indulgences to raise money in order to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Tetzel’s experiences as a preacher of indulgences, especially between 1503 and 1510, led to his appointment as general commissioner by Albrecht von Brandenburg, Archbishop of Mainz, who, deeply in debt to pay for a large accumulation of benefices, had to contribute a considerable sum toward the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Albrecht obtained permission from Pope Leo X to conduct the sale of a special plenary indulgence (i.e., remission of the temporal punishment of sin), half of the proceeds of which Albrecht was to claim to pay the fees of his benefices.

Pope Leo X, Bishop of Rome

On October 31, 1517, Luther wrote to his bishop, Albrecht von Brandenburg, protesting against the sale of indulgences. He enclosed in his letter a copy of his “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”, which came to be known as the Ninety-five Theses. Hans Hillerbrand writes that Luther had no intention of confronting the church, but saw his disputation as a scholarly objection to church practices, and the tone of the writing is accordingly “searching, rather than doctrinaire.”

Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz and Magdeburg did not reply to Luther’s letter containing the Ninety-five Theses. He had the theses checked for heresy and in December 1517 forwarded them to Rome. Albrecht was Elector of Brandenburg of the Hohenzollern Dynasty and Archbishop of Mainz from 1514 to 1545, and Archbishop of Magdeburg from 1513 to 1545. Albrecht was the younger son of Johann-Cicero, Elector of Brandenburg and of Margaret of Thuringia.

Pope Leo X was used to reformers and heretics, and he responded slowly, “with great care as is proper.” Over the next three years he deployed a series of papal theologians and envoys against Luther, which served only to harden the reformer’s anti-papal theology.

On June 15, 1520, the Pope warned Luther with the papal bull (edict) Exsurge Domine that he risked excommunication unless he recanted 41 sentences drawn from his writings, including the Ninety-five Theses, within 60 days.

There was a ban on Luther’s Ninety-five Theses and the enforcement of the ban on the Ninety-five Theses fell to the secular authorities. Along with the Papal ban on the Ninety-five Theses, that same June Pope Leo X issued the Papal bull Exsurge Domine (“Arise, O Lord”), outlining forty-one purported errors found in Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses and other writings related to or written by him. Luther was summoned by the emperor.

Diet of Worms

Therefore on April 18, 1521, Luther appeared as ordered before the Diet of Worms. This was a general assembly of the estates of the Holy Roman Empire that took place in Worms, a town on the Rhine. It was conducted from January 28 to 25 May 1521, with Emperor Charles V presiding.

Friedrich obtained a safe conduct for Luther to and from the meeting and ensured Luther would be heard before the Diet of Worms and subsequently secured an exemption from the Edict of Worms for Saxony. The Edict of Worms was a decree issued on May 25, 1521 by Emperor Charles V, declaring:

For this reason we forbid anyone from this time forward to dare, either by words or by deeds, to receive, defend, sustain, or favour the said Martin Luther. On the contrary, we want him to be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic, as he deserves, to be brought personally before us, or to be securely guarded until those who have captured him inform us, whereupon we will order the appropriate manner of proceeding against the said Luther. Those who will help in his capture will be rewarded generously for their good work.

Friedrich 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 Luther at Wartburg Castle following the Diet of Worms.

Pope Leo X died fairly suddenly of pneumonia at the age of 46 on December 1, 1521 and was buried in Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. His death came just 10 months after he had excommunicated Martin Luther, the seminal figure in the Protestant Reformation, who was accused of 41 errors in his teachings.

Pope Adrian VI, Bishop of Rome

In the conclave after the death of the Medici Pope Leo X, Leo’s cousin, Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici, was the leading candidate. With Spanish and French cardinals in a deadlock, Adrian Florensz Boeyens was proposed as a compromise and on January 9, 1522 he was elected by an almost unanimous vote. Emperor Charles V was delighted upon hearing that his tutor had been elected to the papacy but soon realised that Adrian VI was determined to reign impartially. Adrian VI and his eventual successor Marcellus II are the only popes of the modern era to retain their baptismal names after their election.

In his reaction to the early stages of the Lutheran revolt, Adrian VI did not completely understand the gravity of the situation. At the Diet of Nuremberg, which opened in December 1522, he was represented by Francesco Chieregati, whose private instructions contain the frank admission that the disorder of the Church was perhaps the fault of the Roman Curia itself, and that it should be reformed. However, the former professor and Inquisitor General was strongly opposed to any change in doctrine and demanded that Martin Luther be punished for teaching heresy.

Friedrich III 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 Johann the Steadfast as Elector of Saxony.

The issue of conversion in 1525

Friedrich III was a lifelong Roman Catholic, but he may 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 later years.

Friedrich 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. By the time of his death it was proclaimed that he “converted to the evangelical faith” and that Saxony was now “evangelical”. As Friedrich continually protected Martin Luther this allowed Lutheranism to flourish in his realm, protecting him from the Holy Roman Emperor.

Johann the Steadfast, Elector of Saxony

But it was his successor, Johann the Steadfast, Elector of Saxony, who had been Lutheran even before he became elector, the Lutheran church the official state church in Saxony in 1527.