Frederick the Wise portrait by Albrecht Dürer
Martin Luther’s ‘Table Talk’ definitely reveals some of his opinions of Frederick the Wise, the Electoral Prince of Saxony. Bear in mind Luther was often very critical of his sovereign, especially the elector’s fondness for relics as well as his resistance to making changes in the All Saints Foundation in Wittenberg. Some selections from ‘Table Talk’ may seem fawning but Luther was not a fawning man. Let us begin with a negative reflection by Luther about Frederick and his brother Johann.
Elector Frederick was timid about punishing and said, ‘It's easy to take a life, but one can't restore it.’ And Elector Johann always winked at the wicked and said, ‘Aye, he'll be a good fellow in time!’ By sparing the evildoers in this way the land is filled with scoundrels. But the prince or magistrate shouldn't be mild, for look what a sharp law the supremely gracious God gave when he declared, ‘Whoever curses his father or his mother shall be put to death’... [No. 2910b (1533)]
Frederick the Wise statue in Worms
Luther however admired Frederick the Wise as a ruler.
It's a great gift to have a good and wise prince, such as Elector Frederick, who was truly the father of his country. He governed excellently. He could fill barns and haylofts, and he had large trenches dug in the fields to store provisions. Every year he spent twelve thousand florins on building...Still the elector had enough money, for he was his own tax collector (on the advice of the jester Claus) and required exact accounts of his officials and servants. Even when he entered one of his castles, he ate, drank, and fed his horses like any other guest and paid for everything right away, so that the stewards might not make the excuse that so much had been consumed by the prince. Consequently he left a very large treasure to his country... [No. 3287a (1533)]
Further, Frederick was astute.
This prince [Johann] was distinguished by the greatest clemency, Frederick by the greatest prudence. If the qualities of the two princes had been united in one person, we would have had a prodigy. Duke Frederick seated himself, asked for counsel, closed his eyes, made note of what was said by one after another, and finally he spoke, saying, ‘This or that won't stand up,’ ‘This or that will be the consequence.’ [No. 1738 (1532)]
Erasmus by Albrecht Dürer
Frederick easily assessed Erasmus.
When Elector Frederick asked him [Erasmus] in Cologne why Luther was condemned, what wrong he had done, Erasmus replied, ‘He has done much wrong who attacks the monks in their bellies and the pope in his crown.’ Frederick said to Spalatin. ‘He is a strange fellow. One does not know what to make of him.’ He at once recognized the man's cunning. [No. 131 (1531)]
Frederick could have a hard-edged, withering sense of humor (especially for unsolicited advice).
...Henning [Göde] once remonstrated with Elector Frederick for burning green wood at court inasmuch as this would be detrimental if done in his own home. The elector replied, ‘What is expedient in your house is inexpedient in mine.’ [No. 3769 (1538)]This particular translation is far too bland. This is actually a German proverb [Was in eurem Haus Rat ist, das ist in meinem Unrat.] a play on words, meaning ‘what in your house is good advice is in my house garbage’.
Karl V by an unknown Master
On another occasion Luther remembered another example of Frederick’s humor.
...Elector Frederick sent me a piece of the best cloth with the suggestion that I should have a hood or cowl made of it. He is reported to have said, laughing, ‘What if he should have a Spanish cloak made for himself?’ [No. 4414 (1539)]By ‘Spanish’ Frederick referred to the new emperor Karl V, who was also King of Spain. Frederick was jesting that Luther might not only leave the brotherhood of Augustinian monks but become totally ‘modern’.
Luther appreciated Frederick’s deep commitment to the Holy Scriptures as the final word on all matters. Luther speaks of events in 1518 when Rome is desperately trying to extradite Luther.
...the elector marked well the unaccustomed humility of the pope, his bad conscience, and the fact that he was afraid. The elector also recognized the efficacy of the Scriptures, for my Explanations circulated through all Europe in a very few days. So the elector was strengthened in his decision not to carry out the pope's command, and he submitted to the judgment of the Scriptures. [No. 3857 (1538)]'Explanations' was an exhaustive clarification by Luther of his Ninety-five Theses.
These preceding quotations are excerpted from Theodore G. Tappert, ed./trans., Table Talk V 54 of ‘Luther’s Works’ (Fortress Press: Philadelphia, 1967).
Q. Who would you rather have judge you? Elector Frederick or Martin Luther?