George (The Bearded) of Saxony
GEORGE (THE BEARDED) OF SAXONY
Referred to also as "the Rich," duke of Saxony, opponent of lutheranism; b. Dresden, Aug. 27, 1471; d. there, April 17, 1539. The son of Albert the Brave, founder of that line of the Wettin house that bore his name, and Sidonia, daughter of Bohemian King George of Podie-brad. George was the cousin of Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, who became Martin Luther's protector and strongest supporter. His excellent education was heavily weighted toward theology because he was a younger son and destined for service in the Church rather than for political life. But the death of his older brother made George the heir apparent. When he was 17, his father, while fighting in Friesland, left him behind as regent of the duchy (1488). On Nov. 21, 1496, he was married to Barbara, the daughter of the Polish king, Casimir IV. The marriage was prolific; but only one daughter survived George. Upon the death of his father (Sept. 12, 1500) George inherited the Duchy of Saxony, the Margravate of Meissen, and the cities of Leipzig and Dresden. His brother Henry was given the hereditary governorship of Friesland, which their father had received from the Emperor Maximilian. But Henry was unable to control rebellious Fries-land and in 1505 traded this claim to his brother George for a pension and the districts of Freiberg and Wolken-stein. George soon found that he could control the high-spirited population no better than his brother could and sold Friesland to the Count of Burgundy for a meager 100,000 florins.
When Luther posted his attack on indulgences in 1517, George did not immediately oppose him. He was very much aware of the need for reform and spoke out against abuses in the monasteries and those surrounding the granting of indulgences. In his pursuit of truth he sponsored the Leipzig debates (1519) between John Eck, a leading German theologian, and Luther. As Luther became a defined heretic and split with Rome, George turned against the reformers. As one of the Church's strongest supporters in Germany, he did all that he could to prevent the spread of Lutheranism into his territories. Even so he did not lose sight of the fact that there was a need for reform within the Church. When the German princes of the Empire presented the Emperor with a list of grievances at the Imperial Diet of Worms in 1521, George included 12 additional complaints of his own against indulgences and annates. His opposition to Luther steadily increased as the Protestant movement grew. To counter Luther's translation of the Bible, he ordered his secretary, Hieronymus emser, to prepare a new translation. To this work George added a staunchly orthodox preface. He also added a ban not merely on the works of Luther but on those of known Lutheran sympathizers. He banished those holding anti-Catholic views from the Duchy of Saxony and even delivered unfaithful ecclesiastics to the bishop of Merseburg. Apostates were denied the right of Church burial.
George was a strong advocate of a universal council that would define beyond doubt Christian doctrine and introduce long overdue reforms. Until such a council could be convoked, he sought to introduce reforms in his own lands. To this end he made formal appeals to Rome for the right to make formal visits and investigations of the monasteries in the duchy. But since the Curia was not yet ready for the reforms, the Duke did not receive the authority he sought. Thus the reforms he was able to introduce, such as the consolidation of half-empty monasteries and the supervision of monastic lands turned over to the secular authority, had little effect in staving off the tide of Protestantism sweeping across northern Germany. Though he united with Protestant princes—the most notable being his cousin Frederick the Wise and his less exalted brother-in-law, the Landgrave Philip of Hesse—to put down the Peasants' Revolt (1525), he was one of the main organizers and supporters of the League of Dessau (1525), a group of German princes who defended the interest of the Church against the encroachments of the reformers and their secular allies. In 1533 it was superseded by the League of Halle with George again playing a prominent part in the organization. The League of Halle in its turn gave birth to the Holy League of Nuremberg (1538). This league was dedicated to the preservation of the religious peace of Nuremberg, which temporarily prevented open war between growing hostile parties.
One of George's greatest disappointments was that he died without sufficient assurance that the Duchy of Saxony and his other holdings would remain Catholic. His last son, Frederick, died without an heir, though he had been married to Elizabeth of Mansfeld shortly before his death, and the ducal holdings passed to George's Lutheran brother Henry. A belated attempt was made by the Duke in 1539 to secure from his brother a promise to give up his Lutheran beliefs as a condition to the inheritance, but this was unsuccessful.
Bibliography: j. janssen, History of the German People at the Close of the Middle Ages, tr. m. a. mitchell and a. m. christie, 17 v. (London 1896–1925). w. goerlitz, Staart und Stände unter den Herzögen Albrecht und Georg, 1485–1539 (Leipzig 1928). o. vossler, "Herzog Georg der Bärtige und seine Ablehnung Luthers," Historische Zeitschrift 184 (1957) 272–291. j. lortz, Die Reformation in Deutschland, 2 v. (Freiburg 1949). h. holborn, A History of Modern Germany: The Reformation (New York 1959). f. schwarzbach, Lexicon für Theologie and Kirche 2 4:695, bibliog. f. lau, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart 3 2:1395–96.
[j. g. gallaher]