Your RDA of Irony

The Waiting Game

In honor of the 456th birthday of  Johan Frederick, Elector of Saxony and “Champion of the Reformation”, let’s discuss the man who didn’t kill him. 

Charles V–Holy Roman Emperor, King of Spain, Archduke of Austria, Grand Duke of Burgundy and general landlord of Christendom–must have felt very good in 1547. Aside from his damn gout, everything was going his way.   His chronic enemy–Francis I–was preoccupied with dying of syphilis. His greatest threat–the Ottoman Empire–was pinned down in a war with the Persia. (The Turks had seized three of Persia’s western provinces, but discovered that it is easier to invade Mesopotamia than to hold it.) Yes, the Council of Trent was bugging Charles to crush the Protestant heresy–but so what! He had never been particularly fond of Popes and Cardinals; indeed, he had tolerated Luther for being less offensive than the Medici Popes. No, the Church’s most powerful parishioneer would move against the Protestants only when–and if–he was ready; and Charles, having his father’s Flemish temperament rather than his Mother’s Spanish one, first had to be provoked.

But the Protestant princes of Northern Germany were flouting imperial authority. They were confiscating the Church’s property and appointing Protestants to bishoprics, defying Charles’ edicts to respect the rights and privileges of the Catholic Church. The Princes further aggravated the Emperor by forming a defensive alliance in 1531, the cacophonously named Schmalkaldic League. Charles was insulted but not endangered; so he could wait.

In fact, Charles waited 15 years; and in 1546, the timing was right. Saxony was the bastion of Protestantism. It had provided sanctuary and support to the young Professor Luther. Saxony’s prince Johan Frederick (Happy Birthday) had founded the Schmalkaldic League. Now, however, Johan Frederick was threatened by the usurping designs of an ambitious cousin. And guess who Charles decided to support? Of course, the Schmalkaldic League rallied to the support of Johan Frederick and, in effect, declared war on the Emperor.

The Northern Princes may have had religion in common, but apparently little else. They were still trying to coordinate their forces when the Emperor’s much larger army descended upon them at Muhlberg in 1547. The battle was short, decisive, and not the most encouraging affirmation of the Reformation. The Schmalkaldic League proved to be as ridiculous as it sounded.  Johan Frederick of Saxony was captured, threatened with death and forced to cede his sovereignty and most of his lands to his annoying cousin.

The Protestant Princes once again were mindful of etiquette: the Emperor always takes precedence. Charles’ sovereignty was reestablished, but the Emperor sensed that his victory had limits. Any attempt to eradicate Protestantism would be prolonged, very bloody and probably impossible. (His great-grandsons would fight a Thirty Years War to learn that.) Charles was content with a political victory rather than a theological chimera.

Johan Frederick had to be content with his life. His cousin reigned in Saxony and that branch of the family would continue to do so until 1918. The dispossessed Prince–now a mere duke–and his descendants were reduced to ruling over a few motley towns and estates. Their little realm was known by its most prominent properties: the town of Coburg and the duchy of Gotha.

And in time, the family of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha would acquire a few more properties to alleviate the loss of Saxony. The job in Brussels helped, and the position in London is pretty prestigious.

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