Essential facts about Frederick the Wise, as well as a select reading list! 

Born January 17, 1463, in Torgau, Saxony (in Germany). 4 brothers, 2 sisters. Father: Ernst, ruler [Elector] of Saxony and of the powerful House of Wettin. Mother: Elisabeth, princess of the influential House of Wittelsbach. Grandmother: Margarethe, sister of Friedrich III, the Habsburg emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.  Raised Roman Catholic. Childhood distinctions: First Wettin ruler fluent in Latin. Trains also in the martial arts of the knight. 1486 Becomes ruler [Elector] of Saxony at 23. Begins Grand Plan to make Wittenberg showcase of Saxony. 1493 Travels to the Holy Land. 1494 Imperial councilor in Emperor Maximilian’s court. 1498 Imperial Statthalter, next in authority to Maximilian. 1504 After Berthold von Mainz dies Frederick becomes staunchest foe of imperial power. 1507 Pope Julius II appeals to all to bequeath religious relics to Frederick’s famed relic collection.1511 Luther becomes Professor of the Bible at Frederick’s university in Wittenberg. 1513 Shares power with his brother Johann. 1517 Realizes Luther’s 95 theses will inflame the pope. 1518 Refuses to surrender Luther. 1519 Although the most powerful prince in the empire he turns down chance to become the new emperor. 1521 Has Luther ‘kidnapped’ and hidden at Wartburg castle. 1522 Gives up collecting relics. 1525 Dies May 5 at age 62 and is buried in the Wittenberg castle church. Brother Johann becomes Elector of Saxony.   

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Leopold von Ranke, father of source-based historiography:


Frederick the Wise was “the most able and prudent of all the princes of the empire... His calm judgment, his well-known experience, and the universal respect paid to his acknowledged integrity and talents for business, invested him with singular authority...[He] absolutely refused to allow Luther to be tried at Rome.”


Heiko Oberman, authority on Martin Luther and the Reformation:


“Historians of every stripe have found only one statesman thoroughly praiseworthy: Frederick the Wise. A German and a man of integrity, he is considered to have been a staunch representative of the interests of the empire in a sea of corruptibility and national betrayal.”


Martin Brecht, Martin Luther’s definitive biographer:


“Frederick knew how to pursue his goals persistently and tenaciously, and success was also not denied him. Last but not least, Frederick’s political decisions were influenced by a sense of moderation and a pronounced feeling for justice . . .”



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          Go to anecdotes on Frederick the Wise's...                               
                                                                Wart (or flaw)
                                                                Defining Moment

         Go to this page to learn five values that made him a hero of history.

         Go here to find links to other websites about this hero.



Frederick the Wise has long been in the shadow of Martin Luther. Comprehensive books about the life of Frederick the Wise, with one exception, have all been in the German language.


The one exception in English is this one:


Sam Wellman, Frederick the Wise: Seen and Unseen Lives of Martin Luther’s Protector (Wild Centuries Press, 2011)       


Chief among books in German, all superior in their own way, are:

Robert Bruck, Friedrich der Weise als Förderer der Kunst (Strassburg: Heitz & Mündel, 1903). Excellent for Frederick’s artistic side. Thanks to Harvard University, Google and American Libraries Internet Archive it is available in PDF HERE

Livia Cardenas, Friedrich der Weise und das Wittenberger Heiltumsbuch (Berlin, 2002). Superb account of Frederick’s famed relic showcase in Wittenberg.           PB 

Paul Kirn, Friedrich der Weise und die Kirche (Leipzig/Berlin, 1926). Excellent for Frederick’s spiritual side.

Ingetraut Ludolphy, Friedrich der Weise: Kurfürst von Sachsen, 1463-1525 (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1984). This is the MUST READ biography.         PB

Georg Spalatin, Friedrichs des Weisen Leben und Zeitgeschichte von Georg Spalatin (Georg Spalatins historischer Nachlaß und Briefe 1), ed. Christian Gotthold Neudecker and Ludwig Preller (Jena: 1851). Priceless account by Frederick’s confidante. Download as PDF HERE. Also available in non-Fraktur font on Google books.


A brief account of the life of Frederick the Wise can be cobbled together from these books in English:

Bainton, Roland H.. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York: Abingdon Press, 1950). Bainton is the standard for a readable history of Luther.      PB          HC

Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation, 1483-1521 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1985). The definitive biography of Luther.               PB

Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: Shaping and defining the Reformation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990). The definitive biography of Luther.        PB

Will Durant, The Reformation: A History of European Civilization from Wyclif to Calvin: 1300 to 1564 (Vol. VI. The Story of Civilization). New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957. HC

Richard Friedenthal, Luther: His Life and Times (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970) translation by John Nowell (original in German: R. Piper & Co., 1967).     HC

Maria Grossmann, Humanism in Wittenberg, 1485-1517 (Nieuwkoop: B. de Graaf, 1975). Buy if used if you can find it.

Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil Germany, 1981. English edition: (Yale University Press, 1989). One of the best.       PB          HC

Leopold von Ranke, History of the Reformation in Germany, trans. Sarah Austin. (London: Routledge and Sons, 1905).      PB


Regretfully a lengthy account of Frederick the Wise in Steven Ozment, A Mighty Fortress (HarperCollins, 2004) is not recommended. An account that does not draw on Ingetraut Ludolphy’s 1984 magnum opus but relies on old uncited biographies is unreliable. 


Two excellent theses are not recommended because they are difficult for most to access. The more curious however may want to see Paul Bacon, “Mirror of a Christian Prince: Frederick the Wise and Art Patronage in Electoral Saxony,” (PhD diss., Un. Wisconsin-Madison, 2004) and Bernd Stephan, “Beiträge zu einer Biographie Kurfürst Friedrichs III. von Sachsen, des Weisen (1463-1525),” (PhD diss., Un. Leipzig, 1980). 


In addition, refer to the reading list for Martin Luther.





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Once, Frederick’s advisers told him he could conquer a certain city with the loss of only four or five men.  “One is too many,” he replied, rejecting the scheme. He had often said, “It is easy to take a life but impossible to restore it.” In the 38 years he ruled Saxony he had never warred against any city or territory.     

Yet few events reveal the humanity of Frederick the Wise better than his own day of death: May 5, 1525. Fortunately his private chaplain George Spalatin was with him that day and recorded it. Also present were his oldest son Sebastian and Frederick’s father confessor Andreas Wagner from Herzberg. On a grim note Dr. Heinrich Stromer von Auerbach, noted physician of Leipzig, was also there, certain proof that all intimates knew Frederick was dying. That week Frederick had written his brother Johann, “I become ever weaker. I have in eight days had little rest, neither day nor night. I am not able to pass water, I write only tentatively, I may not eat, then I sleep painfully.”

Nevertheless, the day before he died Frederick had teased Spalatin, “You do well that you come to me; one should visit sick people.”

Frederick was a hard master, especially in his own quarters.

On the morning of the day he died he summoned his servants, among them many very young pages. He said, “Dear little children, I ask you for God's sake where I would have made you angry, with words or with actions, you will forgive me for God's sake . . . we princes burden the poor people in all ways and that is not good.” As he spoke, he began weeping. Soon everyone was crying. “Don’t cry for me, children,” he said, “I see that I will not be here much longer. Think of me and pray to God for me.

Later that day Frederick dictated a new will to his secretary Johann Veihel and Spalatin. Frederick opened his heart in this last will. “I leave 200 gulden to my God-given wife,” he said. He had never married her. To his 13-year-old daughter by his ‘God-given wife’ he left 500 gulden. To his sons by her, Sebastian and Fritz, he was even more generous.

Finally he said, I know no more. After a while Spalatin asked him, My master, does the gracious Elector have burdens? Nothing but the pain, he answered.

Those were his last words. He died between four and five o’clock in the afternoon.


[Source: Sam Wellman, Frederick the Wise: Seen and Unseen Lives of Martin Luther’s Protector (Wild Centuries Press, 2011), pp 262-264]

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In February 1493 Frederick the Wise was expelling Jews from his realm in Saxony. Frederick wrote a Christian bishop that the Jews caused “pernicious trouble to your subjects and ours, from which daily complaints are carried to us”. It could be no coincidence that his brother Ernst, Archbishop of Magdeburg, was also carrying out an expulsion of Jews from his own rule in Magdeburg. Archbishop Ernst’s action definitely seemed revenge over a great bone of contention between Jews and certain Christian elements at this time. The Jews had been unwise to pointedly insist the Hebrew of a passage in the book of Isaiah in the Old Testament that Christians translated “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son...” was more correctly translated “Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son...”.

Veneration of Mary was not the only cause. The status of Jews among Christians had changed in the 13th century. Before the change, the church followed St. Augustine who argued the Jews belonged in the Christian world, clearly proved by the Holy Scriptures. In the 13th century however the two dominant religious orders, Dominicans and Franciscans, began to attack the Talmud of the Jews. The Talmud was post-biblical writing by rabbis, or so-called rabbinical literature. The Talmud in the eyes of Dominicans and Franciscans had become the greatest influence among the Jews. So the Jews, the two orders claimed, had drifted from Mosaic Law. As a result, the Jews were no more welcome in the Christian world than Muslims and heretics.

In Frederick’s youth and early rule, literate people read fierce polemics against Jews. The messages were incendiary: The Jews murdered God. The Jews hated the Christian church. The Jews wanted the wealth of Christians, even their blood. This angry undercurrent of anti-Semitism prevailed in Dominicans and Franciscans. Before the arrival of Martin Luther, Frederick the Wise relied most of all on Franciscans for spiritual guidance. Perhaps it was this poisonous influence or perhaps his brother Ernst prodded Frederick into it, but such a harsh action of expelling the Jews did not surprise contemporaries. And the expulsion had a finality as each sovereign rushed into confiscate the Jewish properties, often vengefully renaming the vacated Jewish Quarter (Judendorf) to something like the Quarter of St. Mary (Mariendorf) as Frederick’s brother Ernst did.


[Source: Sam Wellman, Frederick the Wise: Seen and Unseen Lives of Martin Luther’s Protector (Wild Centuries Press, 2011), pp 54-56]


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Beginning in 1493 Frederick the Wise served Maximilian, the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. This required his almost constant absence from his realm of Saxony. One of his first duties was to secretly arrange a marriage for Maximilian with Bianca Maria Sforza of Milan. Frederick was successful. By 1498 Frederick was Imperial Statthalter, next in authority only to Maximilian. Frederick also had the secret ambition of marrying Maximilian’s daughter Margaretha who reached a marriageable age in 1495. She was engaged to Charles, heir to the French throne, but such arrangements with great powers were always wobbly. In fact the engagement was broken by the French. Frederick however was not in Maximilian’s plan. In 1496 Maximilian married her to Juan, only son of Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon (the sponsors of Columbus).

Frederick however stayed loyal to Maximilian, laboring intensively on peace negotiations between the empire and France. By 1498 Frederick learned others in the inner circle of Maximilian plotted against him, using every opportunity to lessen his influence. He also learned others in the circle had also negotiated with France without his knowledge. Emperor Maximilian, distracted by his weakness for women and by dozens of other indulgences, had thoughtlessly allowed it to happen. Frederick, now a 35-year-old bachelor, quit the imperial circle. Abruptly he and his brother Johann, also toiling for Maximilian (in a military role), returned to their realm in Saxony. Who can know how much the development of Saxony suffered from Frederick’s five-year imperial venture that failed?



[Source: Sam Wellman, Frederick the Wise: Seen and Unseen Lives of Martin Luther’s Protector (Wild Centuries Press, 2011), pp 69-95]

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“You will see that the pope will not like this,” muttered Frederick the Wise when he learned what was actually in the 95 theses advanced by Martin Luther in October 1517.


Frederick was in poor health, overweight and troubled by ‘stones’ in his kidneys and bladder. He was already unable to ride a horse. He often had to be carried in a litter. Occasionally he could not move at all. Yet he fought ceaselessly for the next seven years to fend off all attacks against Luther. Martin Luther was under constant threat of attack from no less than three popes and two emperors.


Only once did Frederick the Wise articulate in writing his position:

There are learned men in the universities who hold that his [Luther’s] teaching has not been shown to be unjust, unchristian, or heretical. The few who think so are jealous of his attainments. If we understood his doctrine to be impious or untenable, we would not defend it. Our whole purpose is to fulfill the office of a Christian prince . . . As for sending him to Rome or banishing him, that we will do only after he has been convicted of heresy. His offer to debate and submit to the judgment of the universities ought to be considered. He should be shown in what respect he is a heretic and not condemned in advance.

That was Frederick’s constant position in the ‘Luther Affair’. And as had been said about Frederick the Wise in another trying circumstance, as a Christian prince he “stood like a wall” against the unjust.


[Source: Sam Wellman, Frederick the Wise: Seen and Unseen Lives of Martin Luther’s Protector (Wild Centuries Press, 2011), pp 181-254.]

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There is virtually nothing in English online except this website and the webservant’s blog:


There are of course encyclopedic entries online in English. Wikipedia is unusually weak for Frederick the Wise, not only skimpy but citing archaic, unreliable references in German.




Even if you understand German the pickings online are scarce.
Nevertheless you may check these out if you can read German:, created by Frau Maike Vogt-Lüerssen, is
definitely superior to either of the following.


Wikipedia in German is very skimpy for Frederick the Wise but at least respectable. has a tiny blurb:



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