In 1510, Elisabeth was born on Cölln, an island in the Spree river, as the daughter of Joachim I, Elector of Brandenburg, and Elisabeth, a daughter of the Danish King. She was seven years old when Martin Luther criticised the abuses of the Church in his Ninety-Five Theses, which were published in Wittenberg. Shortly after turning fifteen, she was married to Eric I, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg; he belonged to the House of Guelph and ruled the Principality of Calenberg-Göttingen. He was also forty years older than her and a widower. In the following years, she lived in Münden and bore three daughters as well as the longed-for heir to the throne.
Elisabeth meets Luther
Duchess Elisabeth’s mother, the princess, publicly declared her adherence to Luther's teachings at this time – to the great dissatisfaction of her husband, Joachim I, a determined opponent of the Reformation. He demanded that she return to the old faith, and threatened her with dire consequences if she should refuse. She escaped by fleeing to Saxony, and lived in Torgau, Wittenberg, and Weimar in the years that followed. Duchess Elisabeth met Luther while visiting her mother. A few years later, she was also receiving the Eucharist in its full form – including wine as well as bread. Duke Eric I reacted with tolerance to his wife's conversion to the new teaching.
After his death in 1540, Elisabeth became regent and ruled in the name of her underage son. Eric I had made plans for a council of regents in his will. He planned for his wife to rule together with the Catholic Nephew of Henry V (the Younger), Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, as well as with two Protestant princes, Philipp I of Hesse and Elisabeth’s brother, Joachim II of Brandenburg-Hohenzollern.
Ambition: to institute the Reformation in her principality
As the reigning duchess, she used her time to realise her greatest ambition: to institute the Reformation in her principality. The theologist Antonius Corvinus accompanied and assisted her. He had earned his master’s degree at the University of Marburg, founded by Landgrave Philipp I of Hesse, and stood in personal contact with Luther and Melanchthon. In 1542, he wrote a church ordinance at Elisabeth's request.
The duchess was also greatly assisted by Burkhard Mithoff, who was not only her physician, but also one of her most respected advisors. Mithoff studied and taught at the University of Marburg and also met Corvinus there. Following Melanchthon's recommendation of Justus of Walthausen, both Corvinus and Mithoff advised that the jurist be invited to join the court at Münden. He had studied in Wittenberg, where he met Luther and Melanchthon. Luther personally sent a recommendation to the duchess, in which he describes the jurist as ‘a fine, well-educated, tactful, and pious man, of a kind that is hard to find’. This was not his first letter to Elisabeth.
Sheep’s cheese as a gift
In the same year that she publicly declared her allegiance to the new teaching, she had sent the Protestant reformer a shipment of Münden’s excellent sheep’s cheese. He thanked her in a letter, which he sent together with fig and mulberry saplings, and commented: ‘I do not have anything else unusual’. Until the beginning of the twentieth century, the mulberry trees were still growing near the city. Today, the street name ‘Maulbeerweg’ (Mulberry Way) serves as a reminder of Luther's gift.
During another visit to Wittenberg, Elisabeth introduced her sixteen-year-old son, Eric, to the Protestant reformer. Afterwards, Luther reported to Corvinus: '...because one must fear – if the young prince is to spend so much time with our opponents – that his respect for them could easily lead him to turn his back on the faith”. Luther’s words were to prove true: soon after Eric began his rule, he introduced the Counter-Reformation – to his mother's great sorrow. In the end, though, he instituted the principle of religious freedom in his principality.
History remembers Duchess Elisabeth of Brunswick-Lüneburg as a progressive regent, a deeply religious Protestant duchess, and as the author of numerous writings (instructional books, letters, songs, and prayers), which have largely been preserved and thus help provide a vibrant image of this contemporary of Luther and interesting individual in her own right.
In 2010, a variety of events were held in her former principality of Calenberg-Göttingen in order to commemorate the 500th anniversary of her birth.