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  Countries: Saxony Historical Overview

By Reckless Rodent

Saxon Town Center

Saxony, in Northern Germany, was divided into two states at the beginning of the period covered by Cossacks, namely Electoral Saxony and Ducal Saxony. Both states were central players in German politics, and Electoral Saxony was, in many ways, the heart of the Reformation. It was within Electoral Saxony, in Wittenberg, that Martin Luther first challenged the precepts of Roman Catholicism, and it was the Elector of Saxony, Frederick the Wise (1486 - 1525) who protected Luther from the wrath of Emperor Charles V and the Catholic Church after he had been condemned as a heretic at the Diet of Worms in 1521. Although Frederick himself remained throughout a Catholic, he saw in Luther's protestations the chance to increase his own power at the expense of that of the Emperor.

Frederick's successors were, however, devout Lutherans and highly committed to the Protestant cause. His grandson, Elector John Frederick I (1532 - 1547), enthusiastically joined the Schmalkaldic League against Charles V, and was captured in the Emperor's emphatic victory at the battle of Mühlberg in 1547. Forced to renounce the title of Elector and most of his lands to his cousin, Duke Maurice of Saxony, he was given the Ducal title in compensation, and was allowed to retain only a small remnant of his former territories. He remained in prison until 1552, and ruled as Duke until his death in 1554.

The new Elector, Maurice (1547 - 1553), who had allied with Charles in his fight against the Schmalkaldic League, immediately switched allegiances, thereby showing the way for the future foreign policy of Saxon Electors, and allied himself with Henry II of France. He forced the Emperor to free Philip of Hesse, the former leader of the Schmalkaldic League, at the Treaty of Passau in 1552, and was killed in battle the following year against Albert Alcibiades of Brandenburg.

Saxony next burst onto the international stage when Elector Frederick Augustus I (1694 - 1733) was elected King of Poland n 1697. In this capacity, he involved himself in the Northern War (1700 - 1721) against King Charles XII of Sweden, losing Warsaw and Krakow to the Swedes, and being forced to give up his Kingdom at the Treaty of Altranstädt in 1706. 3 years later, however, after Charles's defeat at the hands of the Russians at Poltava, Fredrick was able to recover Poland, which he ruled until his death in 1733.

Frederick's son, Elector Frederick Augustus II (1733 - 1763) was elected King of Poland by a minority, and had to fight for 2 years before he was secure in his Kingdom. He also got involved in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740 - 1748), initially supporting Maria Theresa of Austria, but soon changed sides when he failed to receive concessions he had hoped for. He came to terms with the Austrians in 1743, however, and switched sides again. He remained on the side of the Austrians until the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle ended the conflict.

Saxon 18th Century Barracks

Conflict would return to Saxon soil with the Seven Years War (1756 -1763), which began with Frederick II of Prussia's occupation of the territory, Frederick Augustus II being forced to flee to Poland, where he spent the duration of the war before his lands were restored to him in 1763, just before his death. On his death, the union of Saxony and Poland was broken, only to be restored temporarily between 1807 and 1814, when his grandson Elector Frederick Augustus III (1763 - 1806, later King Frederick Augustus I of Saxony 1806 - 1827) was created Grand Duke of Warsaw by Napoleon Bonaparte.

Not all was war in Saxony, however. Its capital Dresden was seen by many as the "Florence of the Elbe", with its wonderful baroque and Romanesque architecture. Indeed, it was regarded as one of the most beautiful cities in the world right until it was more or less destroyed in World War II. Elector Frederick Augustus I initiated the production of porcelain at Meissen, and another Saxon city, Leipzig, was a centre of music, literature and scholarship. The mathematician Leibnitz lived there, as did the authors Gottsched, Gellert and Schiller (even the young Goethe studied at the university there in 1765). The great composer Johann Sebastian Bach was cantor at the Church of St. Thomas in Leipzig from 1723 until his death.

The nature of the Electoral office held by its rulers throughout this period meant that Saxony played an important role in German and European politics. In many ways, its story is one of shifting allegiances and gradual political and territorial decline, especially after the attention of its rulers was distracted by Poland in the eighteenth century. Culturally, however, it was a true trendsetter, being the residence of some of Europe's finest literary and musical figures.

Related Links:
» Saxon Building Gallery


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