Elisabeth of Braunschweig
Elisabeth of Braunschweig
Regent and evangelist
Early Marriage. The life of Elisabeth of Braunschweig, author of four books and many hymns, as well as the ruler of a small German state, demonstrates the ways in which religious, political, and family concerns could all intersect. She was born in 1510 as the third child of Archduke Joachim I of Brandenburg and his wife Elisabeth. When she was fifteen her father arranged for her to be married to the widowed Duke Erich I of Braunschweig-Calenberg, who was forty years her senior. Despite the age difference, the spouses appear to have gotten along, and Elisabeth bore four children—three daughters and a son—over the next fifteen years. In 1540 Erich died, naming Elisabeth as the regent for his young son, also named Erich.
A Volatile Situation. Relations among the rulers of the many states of the Holy Roman Empire were often competitive and unfriendly, with all seeking to advance their own interests and expand their own territories, making and breaking alliances with great frequency as the fortunes of allies and enemies rose and fell; one of Elisabeth’s key aims was keeping Braunschweig-Calenberg strong for her son. Beginning in the 1520s, religious differences made the situation even more volatile, as rulers within the Holy Roman Empire opted to side with Martin Luther or remain loyal to the pope. In some cases their choices were the results of real religious convictions, in others of practical assessments of the political situation, and in still others—and probably most commonly—a mixture of the two.
A Mother’s Trials. Elisabeth of Braunschweig was right in the middle of this upheaval, both because of her family connections and her own religious convictions. In 1527 her mother became Lutheran when her husband was away; he was furious when he returned, and contemplated executing or divorcing her or imprisoning her for life. Her mother decided to flee, and spent the next eighteen years wandering, sometimes in great poverty, from one sympathetic Lutheran court or household to another, refusing to come back to Brandenburg until her husband assured her she could worship in the manner she chose. Even his death in 1535 did not convince her to return, as her sons had remained Catholic; only their subsequent turn to Lutheranism and personal promises of financial support convinced her to come back.
Conversion. Elisabeth of Braunschweig’s own religious conversion occurred about a decade after her mother’s, apparently in 1538 after a visit by her mother. As was common for rulers interested in the new Lutheran teachings, she invited a well-known Lutheran pastor, Antonius Corvinus, to the court to instruct her further. Her husband’s reaction was far different from that of her father toward her mother, and he let her follow her own beliefs. Elisabeth got the opportunity to make her religious convictions a public rather than a private matter two years later when Erich died and she became the regent for her twelve-year-old son. With the assistance of Corvinus, she introduced Lutheran services and beliefs, instructing her subjects to behave morally and obey her as they would their own mothers.
A Literary Bent. Elisabeth was not only a mother toward her subjects, but also to her own children, and she wrote personal books of instruction for her son and daughters. They were not designed to be published, but Elisabeth expected them to be passed around to other family members and handed down to subsequent generations. She included advice about marriage, and was actively engaged in arranging the marriages of her children. She linked her oldest daughter Elisabeth and her son Erich to Protestant noble families through marriage, and in 1546 she remarried, to Duke Poppo of Henneberg, the younger brother of her daughter’s husband. The most brilliant marriage—in terms of the hierarchy of nobility—was the marriage between her second daughter Anna Maria and Albrecht of Prussia, which took place in 1550. Like her mother, Anna Maria married a widower four decades her senior, and Elisabeth apparently hoped this marriage would prove to be as satisfactory as hers had.
Shifting Alliances. Despite her mother’s hopes and advice, Anna Maria’s marriage was not happy, but Elisabeth had more serious problems. The year after he took over rule, Erich II reconverted to Catholicism, banished most of the Lutheran ministers, imprisoned Corvinus in solitary confinement, and went off to fight for the emperor in Spain. Erich’s officials were ordered to maintain strict Catholicism, and he paid no attention to his mother’s impassioned letters begging him to release Corvinus and warning of God’s wrath if he persisted in disobeying her and treating the Protestant clergy harshly. Though he paid her no heed, Erich II was influenced by political circumstances and shifting levels of power, and on returning from Spain he decided to become a Protestant again and ally himself with various Protestant princes. Elisabeth appears to have been pleased by this decision, but she also wanted to assure Erich’s hold on his territory and so pledged all of her money, jewels, and property to finance a war against his main opponent, the Catholic Heinrich of Braunschweig-Wolfenbiittel. Heinrich and his allies won, and he confiscated all of Elisabeth’s property. She moved with her youngest daughter Katharina to Hanover, and was forced to borrow money from its citizens in order to have food and shelter. Her bitter letters to her son, sons-in-law, and brothers during this period complain of little food, wood, or clothing, and a series of illnesses; following the advice of his relatives, her husband stayed on his own lands and did not help her.
Frustrated Plans. In 1555 the emperor was finally persuaded by various nobles to allow Elisabeth to leave Hanover, and she alternated living with her husband and on one of her own estates. Her lack of control over her own circumstances was made dramatically clear several years later, when Erich dealt his mother a final blow by arranging a marriage between her beloved daughter Katharina and a Catholic nobleman from Bohemia. Elisabeth did not approve of the marriage— nor did Katharina—but she decided to attend anyway. Erich misled her about when the wedding was to take place, and, as she was on her way, Elisabeth learned it had already occurred and that Katharina had left for Bohemia with her husband. Elisabeth returned to her property and died several months later.
Assessment. It would be easy to assess Elisabeth of Braunschweig’s life as a failure and a good example of the inability of women, including those of the highest social class, to shape their own situations. She was married by her father to a man more than three times her own age, and the fact that she and her husband grew to care for one another was a fortunate accident. Her son rejected what she clearly regarded as her major accomplishment—the introduction of the Protestant Reformation into Braunschweig—and spent his life following the emperor on military campaigns, thus rejecting her advice about how to be a good ruler. Anna Maria, for whom she had provided such careful advice became alienated from her husband and died young. Elisabeth’s second husband followed the wishes of his family rather than defending her, and the child she felt closest to was whisked away without her being able to say goodbye. If one takes a somewhat longer view, however, Elisabeth’s legacy becomes more positive. All of Braunschweig eventually became Lutheran and has remained so. Elisabeth was one of the many female rulers in Renaissance and Reformation Europe, such as Isabella in Castile, Mary and Elizabeth Tudor in England, Mary Stuart in Scotland, Catherine de’ Medici in Italy, and Anne of Austria in France, who were influential in creating a new and more active role for matriarchs.
Roland H. Bainton, Women of the Reformation in Germany and Italy (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1971).
Margaret L. King, Women of the Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).