Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Luther's & Melanchthon's Duplicity & Sanctioning of Bigamy for King Henry VIII & Philip of Hesse





VOLUME IV [of six]



[available online (txt); see also the PDF version] The excerpts below are from pages 3-30, 36-63, 71-79. Luther's own words will be in blue, Melanchthon's in green, other "reformer's" words (including Martin Bucer) in orange, footnotes in purple, and page numbers in red. Breaks in the text will be indicated by ellipses ( . . .); all bolded emphases are added:

* * * * *



1. Luther and Henry VIII of England. Bigamy instead
of Divorce

. . . In the summer, 1531, Luther was drawn into the con-
troversy raging round the King's marriage, by an agent of
King Henry: Robert Barnes, an English Doctor of
Divinity who had apostatised from the Church and was
residing at Wittenberg, requested of Luther, probably at the
King's instigation, an opinion regarding the lawfulness of
his sovereign's divorce.

To Luther it was clear enough that there was no possibility
of questioning the validity of Catherine's marriage. It
rightly appeared to him impossible that the Papal dis-
pensation, by virtue of which Catherine of Aragon had married
the King after having been the spouse of his deceased
brother, should be represented as sufficient ground for a

[ . . . ]


divorce. This view he expressed with praiseworthy frank-
ness in the written answer he gave Barnes. 1

At the same time, however, Luther pointed out to the
King a loophole by which he might be able to succeed in
obtaining the object of his desire ; . . . At the conclusion of
his memorandum to Barnes he has the following : " Should 
the Queen be unable to prevent the divorce, she must accept 
the great evil and most insulting injustice as a cross, but 
not in any way acquiesce in it or consent to it. Better were 
it for her to allow the King to wed another Queen, after the 
example of the Patriarchs, who, in the ages previous to the 
law, had many wives ; but she must not consent to being 
excluded from her conjugal rights or to forfeiting the title 
of Queen of England." 2

It has been already pointed out that Luther, in conse-
quence of his one-sided study of the Old Testament, had
accustomed himself more and more to regard bigamy as
something lawful. 3 That, however, he had so far ever given
his formal consent to it in any particular instance there is
no proof. In the case of Henry VIII, Luther felt less restraint
than usual. His plain hint at bigamy as a way out of the
difficulty was intended as a counsel (" suasimus "). Hence
we can understand why he was anxious that his opinion
should not be made too public. 4 When, in the same year
(1531), he forwarded to the Landgrave of Hesse what pur-
ported to be a copy of the memorandum, the incriminating
passage was carefully omitted. 5

Melanchthon, too, had intervened in the affair, and had
gone considerably further than Luther in recommending

1 To Robert Barnes, Sep. 3, 1531. " Brief wechsel," 9, pp. 87-8. At 
the commencement we read : " Prohibitio uxoris demortui fratris est 
positivi iuris, non divini." A later revision of the opinion also under 
Sep. 3, ibid., pp. 92-8. 

2 " Brief wechsel," ibid., p. 88. In the revision the passage still reads 
much the same : " Rather than sanction such a divorce I would permit 
the King to marry a second Queen . . . and, after the example of the 
olden Fathers and Kings, to have at the same time two consorts or 
Queens " (p. 93). 

3 See vol. iii., p. 259. 

4 " Briefwechsel," 9, p. 87 seq. 

5 Luther's " Briefwechsel," 9, p. 91, n. 15. Cp. W. W. Rockwell, 
" Die Doppelehe des Landgrafen Philipp von Hessen," Marburg, 1904, 
p. 214, n. 1, and below, p. 17, n. 2. 


recourse to bigamy and in answering possible objections to

In a memorandum of Aug. 23, Melanchthon declared that
the King was entirely justified in seeking to obtain the male
heirs with whom Catherine had failed to present him ; this
was demanded by the interests of the State. He endeavours
to show that polygamy is not forbidden by Divine law ; in
order to avoid scandal it was, however, desirable that the
King " should request the Pope to sanction his bigamy, 
permission being granted readily enough at Rome." Should
the Pope refuse to give the dispensation, then the King was
simply and of his own authority to have recourse to bigamy,
because in that case the Pope was not doing his duty, for
he was " bound in charity to grant this dispensation." 1
" Although I should be loath to allow polygamy generally, 
yet, in the present case, on account of the great advantage 
to the kingdom and perhaps to the King s conscience, I 
would say : The King may, with a good conscience ( tutis- 
simum est regi ), take a second wife while retaining the 
first, because it is certain that polygamy is not forbidden 
by the Divine law, nor is it so very unusual." Melanchthon's
ruthless manner of proceeding undoubtedly had a great
influence on the other Wittenbergers, even though it cannot
be maintained, as has been done, that he, and not Luther,
was the originator of the whole theory ; there are too many
clear and definite earlier statements of Luther's in favour
of polygamy to disprove this. Still, it is true that the lax
opinion broached by Melanchthon in favour of the King of
England played a great part later in the matter of the
bigamy of the Landgrave of Hesse. 2

In the same year, however, there appeared a work on
matrimony by the Lutheran theologian Johann Brenz in
which, speaking generally and without reference to this

1 Memorandum of Aug. 23, 1531, " Corp. ref.," 2, p. 520 seq.; see 
particularly p. 526 : Bigamy was allowable in the King's case, " propter 
magnam utilitatem regni, fortassis etiam propter conscientiam regis. . . . 
Papa hanc dispensationem propter caritatem debet concedere." Cp. G. 
Ellinger, " Phil. Melanchthon," 1902, p. 325 f., and Rockwell, ibid., p. 
208 ff. 

2 Cp. Th. Kolde, " Zeitschr. f. KG.," 13, 1892, p. 577, where he 
refers to the after-effect of Melanchthon s memorandum, instanced in 
Lenz, " Briefwechsel Philipps von Hessen," 1, p. 352, and to the 
material on which Bucer relied to win over the Wittenbergers to the 
Landgrave s side (" Corp. ref.," 3, p. 851 seq.). 


particular case, he expressed himself very strongly against
the lawfulness of polygamy. " The secular authorities," so
Brenz insists, " must not allow any of their subjects to
have two or more wives," they must, on the contrary, put
into motion the " penalties of the Imperial Laws " against
polygamy ; no pastor may " bless or ratify " such marriages,
but is bound to excommunicate the offenders. 1 Strange to
say, the work appeared with a Preface by Luther in which,
however, he neither praises nor blames this opinion. 2

The Strasburg theologians, Bucer and Capito, as well as
the Constance preacher, Ambrosius Blaurer, also stood up
for the lawfulness of bigamy. When, however, this reached
the ears of the Swiss theologians, (Ecolampadius, in a letter
of Aug. 20, exclaimed : " They were inclined to consent to 
the King's bigamy ! But far be it from us to hearken more 
to Mohammed in this matter than to Christ ! " 3

. . . After the King had repudiated Catherine, Luther
told his friends : " The Universities [i.e. those which sided
with the English King] have declared that there must be a 
divorce. We, however, and the University of Louvain, 
decided differently. . . . We [viz. Luther and Melanchthon]
advised the Englishman that it would be better for him to 
take a concubine than to distract his country and nation ; 
yet in the end he put her away." 4

[ . . . ]

1 "Wie in Ehesachen und den Fallen, so sich derhalben zutragen, 
nach gottlichem billigem Rechten christenlich zu handeln sei," 1531. 
Fol. D. 2b and D. 3a. Cp. Rockwell, p. 281, n. 1. 

2 The Preface reprinted in " Werke," Erl. ed., 63, p. 305. 

3 Enders, " Luther s Briefwechsel," 9, p. 92. 

4 Cordatus, " Tagebuch," p. 199 : " Suasimus Anglo, tolerabiliorem 
ei esse concubinatum quam " to distract his whole country and nation, 
" sed tandem earn repudiavit." 


[ . . . ]

It is equally impossible to trace the suggestion of bigamy
back to the opinions prevailing in mediaeval Catholicism. 2
No mediaeval pope or confessor can be instanced who
sanctioned bigamy, while there are numbers of theologians
who deny the Pope's power to grant such dispensations ;
many even describe this negative opinion as the " sententia
communist 3

Of Cardinal Cajetan, the only theologian of note on the
opposite side (see above, vol. iii., p. 261), W. Kohler remarks,
alluding particularly to the recent researches of N. Paulus :
" It never entered Cardinal Cajetan's head to deny that the
ecclesiastical law categorically forbids polygamy." 4 Further :
" Like Paulus, we may unhesitatingly admit that, in this
case, it would have been better for Luther had he had
behind him the guiding authority of the Church." 5

Henry VIII, as was only natural, sought to make the
best use of the friendship of the Wittenberg professors and
Princes of the Schmalkalden League, against Rome and
the Emperor. He despatched an embassy, though his
overtures were not as successful as he might have wished.

We may describe briefly the facts of the case.

[ . . . ]

2 [Though, of course, the hesitation evinced previously by St. 
Augustine (" De bono conjugate," " P.L.," xl., col. 385) must not be 
lost sight of. Note to English Edition. ] 

3 Cp. Paulus, ibid., 147, 1911, p. 505, where he adds : "And yet 
mediaeval casuistry is alleged to have been the determining influence 
in Luther's sanction of bigamy ! Had Luther allowed himself to be 
guided by the mediaeval theory and practice, he would never have given 
his consent to the Hessian bigamy." 

4 " Hist. Zeitschr.," 94, 1905, p. 409. Of Clement VII, Kohler writes 
(ibid.) : " Pope Clement VII, who had to make a stand against Henry 
VIII of England in the question of bigamy, never suggested a dispensa 
tion for a second wife, though, to all appearance, he was not convinced 
that such a dispensation was impossible." 

5 " Theol. JB. fur 1905," Bd. 25, p. 657, with reference to " Hist.- 
pol. Bl.," 135, p. 85. 


The Schmalkalden Leaguers, from the very inception of the
League, had been seeking the support both of England and of
France. In 1535 they made a determined effort to bring about
closer relations with Henry VIII, and, at the Schmalkalden
meeting, the latter made it known that he was not unwilling to
" join the Christian League of the Electors and Princes." Here-
upon he was offered the " title and standing of patron and pro-
tector of the League." The political negotiations nevertheless
miscarried, owing to the King's excessive demands for the event
of an attack on his Kingdom. 1 The project of an alliance with
the King of Denmark, the Duke of Prussia, and with Saxony and
Hesse, for the purpose of a war against the Emperor, also came
to nothing.

In these negotiations the Leaguers wanted first of all to reach
an agreement with Henry in the matter of religion, whereas the
latter insisted that political considerations should have the
first place.

In the summer, 1535, Robert Barnes, the English plenipo-
tentiary, was raising great and exaggerated hopes in Luther's
breast of Henry's making common cause with the Wittenberg

Into his plans Luther entered with great zest, and consented
to Melanchthon's being sent to England as his representative,
for the purpose of further negotiations. As we now know from
a letter of recommendation of Sep. 12, 1535, first printed in 1894,
he recommended Barnes to the Chancellor Briick for an interview
with the Elector, and requested permission for Melanchthon
to undertake the journey to England. Joyfully he points out
that " now the King offers to accept the Evangel, to join the 
League of our Princes and to allow our Apologia entry into his 
Kingdom." Such an opportunity must not be allowed to slip,
for " the Papists will be in high dudgeon." Quite possibly God
may have something in view. 2

In England hopes were entertained that these favourable offers
would induce a more friendly attitude towards the question of
Henry's divorce. Concerning this Luther merely says in the
letter cited : "In the matter of the royal marriage, the sus- 
pensio has already been decided," without going into any
further particulars ; he, however, reserves the case to be dealt
with by the theologians exclusively.

In August, 1535, Melanchthon had dedicated one of his
writings to the King of England, and had, on this occasion,
lavished high praise on him. It was probably about this time
that the King sent the presents to Wittenberg, to which
Catherine Bora casually alludes in the Table-Talk. " Philip
received several gifts from the Englishman, in all five hundred
pieces of gold ; for our own part we got at least fifty." 3

1 Cp. Janssen, " Hist, of the German People," Eng. Trans., 6, pp. 1 ff. 

2 Letter published by Th. Kolde in the " Zeitschr. fur KG.," 14, 
1894, p. 605. 

3 Mathesius, "Tischreden," p. 106, in 1540. Cp. "Corp. ref.," 2, p. 995. 


Melanchthon took no offence at the cruel execution of Sir
Thomas More or at the other acts of violence already perpetrated
by Henry VIII ; on the contrary, he gave his approval to the deeds
of the royal tyrant, and described it as a commandment of God
"to use strong measures against fanatical and godless men." 1
The sanguinary action of the English tyrant led Luther to
express the wish, that a similar fate might befall the heads of the
Catholic Church at Rome. In the very year of Bishop Fisher's
execution he wrote to Melanchthon : " It is easy to lose our 
tempers when we see what traitors, thieves, robbers, nay devils 
incarnate the Cardinals, the Popes and their Legates are. Alas 
that there are not more Kings of England to put them to death ! " 2
He also refers to the alleged horrors practised by the Pope's tools
in plundering the Church, and asks : " How can the Princes and 
Lords put up with it ? "

[ . . . ]

1 " Corp. ref.," 2, p. 928. Melanchthon s language, and Luther s 
too, changed when, later, Henry VIII caused those holding Lutheran 
opinions to be executed. See below, p. 12 f. 

2 Beginning of Dec., 1535. " Briefwechsel," 10, p. 275 : " Utinam 
haberent plures reges Anglice, qui illos occiderent ! " 

[ . . . ]


[ . . . ]

The articles agreed upon at the lengthy conferences held
during the early months of 1536 and made public only in 1905
(see above, p. 9, n. 4) failed to satisfy the King, although
they displayed a very conciliatory spirit. . . .

1 For full particulars concerning the change, see Rockwell, loc. cit., 
216 rT. The latter says, p. 217 : " Luther's opinion obviously changed 
[before March 12, 1536]. . . . Yet lie expressed himself even in 1536 
against the divorce [Henry the Eighth s] ; the prohibition [of marriage 
with a sister in-law] from which the Mosaic Law admitted exceptions, 
might be dispensed, whereas the prohibition of divorce could not be 
dispensed," and, p. 220 : "In the change of 1536 the influence of 
Osiander is unmistakable. . . . Cranmer, when at Ratisbon in 1532, 
had visited Osiander several times at Nuremberg, and finally won him 
over to the side of the King of England." At the end Rockwell sums 
up as follows (p. 222) : " The expedient of bigamy . . . was approved 
by Luther, Melanchthon, Grynseus, Bucer and Capito, but repudiated 
by (Ecolampadius and Zwingli. Hence we cannot be surprised that 
Luther, Melanchthon and Bucer should regard favourably the Hessian 
proposal of bigamy, whereas Zwingli s successors at Zurich, viz. 
Bullinger and Gualther, opposed it more or less openly." 

[ . . . ]


[ . . . ]

After all hopes of an agreement had vanished Henry VIII
made no secret of his antipathy for the Lutheran teaching.

[ . . . ]


[ . . . ]

Luther, on his side, declared : " The devil himself rides 
astride this King " ; "I am glad that we have no part in 
his blasphemy." He boasted, so Luther says, of being head
of the Church of England, a title which no bishop, much
less a King, had any right to, more particularly one who
with his crew had " vexed and tortured Christ and His 
Church." 4 In 1540 Luther spoke sarcastically of the
King's official title : " Under Christ the supreme head on 
earth of the English Church," 5 remarking, that, in that
case, "even the angels are excluded." 6 Of Melanchthon's
dedication of some of his books to the King, Luther says,
that this had been of little service. " In future I am not 
going to dedicate any of my books to anyone. It brought 
Philip no good in the case of the bishop [Albert of Mayence],
of the Englishman, or of the Hessian [the Landgrave
Philip]." 7

[ . . . ]

4 " Colloq.," ed. Bindseil, 1, p. 537, where the words have been 
transferred to July 10, 1539. 

5 Cp. " Corp. ref.," 2, p. 1029. 

6 Mathesius, " Tischreden," p. 178. 

7 Ibid., p. 145. 


When he heard the news of Barnes having been cast into
prison, he said : " This King wants to make himself God. 
He lays down articles of faith and forbids marriage under 
pain of death, a thing which even the Pope scrupled to do. 
I am something of a prophet and, as what I prophesy comes 
true, I shall refrain from saying more." 1

Luther never expressed any regret regarding his readiness
to humour the King's lusts or regarding his suggestion of

The Landgrave Philip of Hesse, however, referred directly
to the proposal of bigamy made to the King of England,
when he requested Luther s consent to his own project of
taking a second wife. The Landgrave had got to hear of
the proposal in spite of the unlucky passage having been
struck out of the deed.

The history of the Hessian bigamy is an incident which
throws a curious light on Luther's exceptional indulgence
towards princely patrons of the Evangel in Germany.

2. The Bigamy of Philip of Hesse

As early as 1526 Philip of Hesse, whose conduct was far
from being conspicuous for morality, had submitted to
Luther the question whether Christians were allowed to
have more than one wife. The Wittenberg Professor gave
a reply tallying with his principles as already described ; 2
instead of pointing out clearly that such a thing was divinely
forbidden to all Christians, was not to be dispensed from
by any earthly authority, and that such extra marriages
would be entirely invalid, Luther refused to admit un-
conditionally the invalidity of such unions. Such marriages,
he stated, gave scandal to Christians, "for without due 
cause and necessity even the old Patriarchs did not take 
more than one wife " ; it was incumbent that we should be
able " to appeal to the Word of God," but no such Word
existed in favour of polygamy, " by which the same could 

1 Mathesius, " Tischreden," p. 145. On account of his cruelty he 
says of Henry VIII, in Aug., 1540 : "I look upon him not as a man but 
as a devil incarnate. He has added to his other crimes the execution 
of the Chancellor Cromwell, whom, a few days previously, he had 
made Lord Chief Justice of the Kingdom " (ibid., p. 174). 

2 For Luther s previous statements in favour of polygamy, see vol. 
iii., p. 259 ff. ; and above, p. 4. 


be proved to be well pleasing to God in the case of Christians " ; 
" hence I am unable to recommend it, but would 
rather dissuade from it, especially for Christians, unless some 
great necessity existed, for instance were the wife to contract 
leprosy or become otherwise unfit." 1 It is not clear whether
Philip was interested in the matter for personal reasons, or
simply because some of his subjects were believers in

Luther's communication, far from diverting the Prince
from his project, could but serve to make him regard it as
feasible ; provided that the " great necessity " obtained
and that he had " the Word of God on his side," then the
step could " not be prevented." By dint of a judicious
interpretation of Scripture and with expert theological aid,
the obstacles might easily be removed.

The Hessian Prince also became acquainted with Luther's
statements on bigamy in his Commentary on Genesis
published in the following year. To them the Landgrave
Philip appealed expressly in 1540 ; the preacher Anton
Corvinus having suggested that he should deny having com-
mitted bigamy, he replied indignantly : " Since you are so
afraid of it, why do you not suppress what Luther wrote
more than ten years ago on Genesis ; did he and others not
write publicly concerning bigamy : Advise it I do not,
forbid it I cannot ? If you are allowed to write thus of it
publicly, you must expect that people will act up to your
teaching." 2

The question became a pressing one for Luther, and began
to cast a shadow over his wayward and utterly untraditional
interpretation of the Bible, when, in 1539, the Landgrave
resolved to take as an additional wife, besides Christina
the daughter of George of Saxony, who had now grown
distasteful to him, the more youthful Margeret von der
Sale. From Luther Margeret's mother desired a favourable
pronouncement, in order to be able with a good conscience
to give her consent to her daughter s wedding.

1 To Philip of Hesse, Nov. 28, 1526, " Brief wechsel," 5, p. 411 f. 

2 " Eriefwechsel des A. Corvinus," ed. Tschackert, 1900, p. 81. 


Philip Seeks the Permission of Wittenberg.

Early in Nov., 1539, Gereon Sailer, an Augsburg physician
famous for his skill in handling venereal cases, who had
treated the Landgrave at Cassel, was sent by Philip to
Bucer at Strasburg to instruct the latter to bring the matter
before the theologians of Wittenberg. Sailer was a friend
of the innovations, and Bucer was highly esteemed by the
Landgrave as a theologian and clever diplomatist.

Bucer was at first sorely troubled in conscience and
hesitated to undertake the commission ; Sailer reported
to the Landgrave that, on hearing of the plan, he had been
" quite horrified" and had objected "the scandal such an
innovation in a matter of so great importance and difficulty
might cause among the weak followers of the Evangel." 1
After thinking the matter over for three days Bucer, how-
ever, agreed to visit the Landgrave on Nov. 16 and receive
his directions. A copy of the secret and elaborate instructions
given him by Philip concerning the appeal he was to
make to Luther still exists in the handwriting of Simon
Bing, the Hessian Secretary, in the Marburg Archives
together with several old copies, 2 as also the original rough
draft in Philip's own hand. 3 The envoy first betook himself
to the meeting of the Schmalkalden Leaguers, held at
Arnstadt on Nov. 20, to confer upon a new mission to be
sent to England ; on Dec. 4 he was at Weimar with the
Elector of Saxony and on the 9th he had reached Witten-

The assenting answer given by Luther and Melanchthon
bears the date of the following day. 4 It is therefore quite
true that the matter was settled " in haste," as indeed the
text of the reply states. Bucer doubtless did his utmost to

1 " Brief wechsel Landgraf Philipps des Grossmiitigen von Hessen 
mit Bucer, hg. und erlautert von Max Lenz " (" Publikationen aus den 
Kgl. preuss. Staatsarchiven," Bd. 5, 28 und 47 = 1, 2, 3), 1, 1880, p. 345. 
Cp. N. Paulus, " Die hessische Doppelehe im Urteile der protest. 
Zeitgenossen," " Hist.-pol. Bl.," 147, 1911 (p. 503 ff., 561 ff.) p. 504. 

2 We quote the instructions throughout from the most reliable 
edition, viz. that in " Luthers Brief wechsel," 12 (1910, p. 301 ff.), which 
G. Kawerau continued and published after the death of Enders. 

3 " Philipps Brief wechsel," ed. Lenz, 1, p. 352. 

4 Best given in " Luthers Briefwechsel," 12, p. 319 ff. Cp. " Luthers 
Werke," Erl. ed., 55, p. 258 ff. ; " Briefe," ed. De Wette, 5, p. 237, which 
gives only the Latin version; "Corp. ref.," 3, p. 851 sea, ; " Hist.-pol. 
BL," 18, 1846, p. 236 ff. 


prevent the theologians from having recourse to subterfuge
or delay.

The above-mentioned instructions contain a sad account
of the " dire necessity " which seemed to justify the second
marriage : The Landgrave would otherwise be unable to
lead a moral life ; he was urged on by deep distress of
conscience ; not merely did he endure temptations of the
flesh beyond all measure, but, so runs his actual confession,
he was quite unable to refrain from " fornication, unchastity
and adultery." 1 The confession dealt with matters
which were notorious. It also contains the admission, that
he had not remained true to his wife for long, in fact not for
more than " three weeks " ; on account of his sense of sin
he had " not been to the Sacrament." As a matter of fact
he had abstained from Communion from 1526 to 1539, viz.
for thirteen years, and until his last attack of the venereal

But were the scruples of conscience thus detailed to the
Wittenbergers at all real ? Recently they have been
characterised as the " outcome of a bodily wreck."

" I am unable to practise self-restraint," Philip of Hesse
had declared on another occasion, " I am forced to commit
fornication or worse, with women." His sister Elisabeth
had already advised him to take a concubine in place of so
many prostitutes. In all probability Philip would have
abducted Margaret von der Sale had he not hoped to obtain
her in marriage through the intervention of her relations
and with Luther's consent. A Protestant historian has
recently pointed this out when dealing with Philip's alleged
" distress of conscience." 2

Bucer was well able to paint in dismal hues the weakness
of his princely client ; he pointed out, " how the Landgrave, 
owing to his wife's deficiencies, was unable to remain 
chaste ; how he had previously lived so and so, which was 
neither good nor Evangelical, especially in one of the 
mainstays of the party." 3 In that very year Philip of
Hesse had, as a matter of fact, been ailing from a certain

1 " Luthers Brief wechsel," 12, p. 301. 

2 W. Kohler, " Die Doppelehe des Landgrafen Philipp von Hessen " 
(" Histor. Zeitschr.," 94, 1905, p. 385 ff.), p. 399, 400. 

3 Luther s letter, June, 1540, to the Elector of Saxony (below, p. 37) 
ed. Seidemann from a Kiel MS. in his edition of " Lauterbachs Tage- 
buch," p. 196 ff. 


malady brought upon him by his excesses ; he himself spoke
of it as a " severe attack of the French sickness [syphilis], 
which is the penalty of an immoral life." 1

True to his instructions, Bucer went on to say that the Land-
grave had firmly " resolved " to make use against his un-
chastity which he neither could nor would refrain from with
his present wife of " such means as God permitted and did not
forbid," viz. to wed a second wife. The two Wittenbergers had
perforce to listen while Bucer, as the mouthpiece of the Land-
grave, put forth as the grounds of his client's firm resolve the
very proofs from Scripture which they themselves had adduced
in favour of polygamy ; they were informed that, according to
the tenor of a memorandum, " both Luther and Philip had 
counselled the King of England not to divorce his first wife, but 
rather to take another." 2 It was accordingly the Landgrave's
desire that they should " give testimony " that his deed was not
unjust, and that they should " make known in the press and 
from the pulpit what was the right course to pursue in such 
circumstances " ; should they have scruples about doing this
for fear of scandal or evil consequences, they were at least to
give a declaration in writing : " That were I to do it secretly, 
yet I should not offend God, but that they regard it as a real 
marriage, and would meanwhile devise ways and means whereby 
the matter might be brought openly before the world"; otherwise,
the instructions proceeded, the " wench " whom the Prince
was about to take to himself might complain of being looked upon
as an improper person ; as " nothing can ever be kept secret," 
" great scandal " would indeed arise were not the true state of
the case known. Besides, he fully intended to retain his present
wife and to consider her as a rightful spouse, and her children
alone were to be the " lawful princes of the land " ; nor would
he ask for any more wives beyond this second one. The Land-
grave even piously reminds Luther and Melanchthon " not to 
heed overmuch the opinion of the world, and human respect, but 
to look to God and what He has commanded or forbidden, bound 
or loosened " ; he, for his part, was determined not to " remain 
any longer in the bonds of the devil." 

Philip was careful also to remind them that, if, after putting
into execution his project, he was able to " live and die with a 
good conscience," he would be " all the more free to fight for the 

1 Thus Philip to his friend, Duke Ulrich of Wurtemberg, Oct., 
1540, when seeking to obtain his agreement to the bigamy. Ulrich, 
however, advised him to give up the project, which would be a great 
blow to the Evangel. F. L. Heyd, " Ulrich, Herzog von Wurttem- 
berg," 3, p. 226 ff. 

2 Cp. above, p. 3 ff.; also Enders " Luthers Brief wechsel," 12, p. 
308, where it is pointed out that in the copy of the letter to Henry VIII 
sent to Hesse (ibid., 9, p. 81 ff.) the passage in question concerning 
bigamy was omitted ; the Landgrave Philip, however, learnt the con- 
tents of the passage, doubtless from Bucer, 


Evangelical cause as befitted a Christian " ; " whatever they 
[Luther and Melanchthon] shall tell me is right and Christian 
whether it refers to monastic property or to other matters 
that they will find me ready to carry out at their behest." On
the other hand, as an urgent motive for giving their consent to
his plan, he broadly hinted, that, " should he not get any help 
from them " he would, " by means of an intermediary, seek 
permission of the Emperor, even though it should cost me a lot 
of money " ; the Emperor would in all likelihood do nothing
without a " dispensation from the Pope " ; but in such a matter
of conscience neither the Pope nor the Emperor were of any great
account, since he was convinced that his " design was approved 
by God " ; still, their consent (the Pope and Emperor's) would
help to overcome " human respect " ; hence, should he be unable
to obtain " consolation from this party [the Evangelical]," then
the sanction of the other party was " not to be despised." Con-
cerning the request he felt impelled to address to the Emperor, he
says, in words which seem to convey a threat, that although he
would not for any reason on earth prove untrue to the Evangel,
or aid in the onslaught on the Evangelical cause, yet, the
Imperial party might " use and bind " him to do things " which 
would not be to the advantage of the cause." Hence, it was in
their interest to assist him in order that he might "not be forced 
to seek help in quarters where he had no wish to look for it." 

After again stating that he " took his stand on the Word 
of God " he concludes with a request for the desired
" Christian, written " testimony, " in order that thereby 
I may amend my life, go to the Sacrament with a good 
conscience and further all the affairs of our religion with 
greater freedom and contentment. Given at Milsungen on 
the Sunday post Catharine anno etc. 39." 

The Wittenberg theologians now found themselves in a
quandary. Luther says : " We were greatly taken aback 
at such a declaration on account of the frightful scandal 
which would follow." 1 Apart from other considerations,
the Landgrave had already been married sixteen years and
had a number of sons and daughters by his wife ; the
execution of the project would also necessarily lead to
difficulties at the Courts of the Duke of Saxony and of the
Elector, and also, possibly, at that of the Duke of Wurtem-
berg. They were unaware that Margaret von Sale had
already been chosen as a second wife, that Philip had
secured the consent of his wife Christina, and that the way

1 Letter of Luther to the Elector of Saxony. See above, p. 16, n. 
3, and below, p. 37 f. 


for a settlement with the bride s mother had already been
paved. 1

The view taken by Rockwell, viz. that the form of the
memorandum to be signed by Luther and Melanchthon
had already been drawn up in Hesse by order of Philip, is,
however, erroneous ; nor was the document they signed a
copy of such a draft. 2

It is much more likely that the lengthy favourable reply
of the Wittenbergers was composed by Melanchthon. It
was signed with the formula : Wittenberg, Wednesday after
St. Nicholas, 1539. Your Serene Highness's willing and
obedient servants [and the signatures] Martinus Luther,
Philippus Melanchthon, Martinus Bucerus." 3 The document
is now among the Marburg archives.

Characteristically enough the idea that the Landgrave is, and
must remain, the protector of the new religious system appears
at the commencement as well as at the close of the document.
The signatories begin by congratulating the Prince, that God
" has again helped him out of sickness," and pray that heaven
may preserve him, for the " poor Church of Christ is small 
and forsaken, and indeed stands in need of pious lords and 
governors " ; at the end God is again implored to guide and
direct him ; above all, the Landgrave must have nothing to do
with the Imperialists.

The rest of the document, apart from pious admonitions,
consists of the declaration, that they give their " testimony that, 
in a case of necessity," they were " unable to condemn " bigamy,
and that, accordingly, his " conscience may be at rest " should
the Landgrave " utilise " the Divine dispensation. In so many
words they sanction the request submitted to them, because
" what was permitted concerning matrimony in the Mosaic Law 
was not prohibited in the Gospel." Concerning the circumstances
of the request they, however, declined " to give any thing in print," 
because otherwise the matter would be " understood and accepted 
as a general law and from it [i.e. a general sanction of polygamy]
much grave scandal and complaint would arise." The Landgrave's
wish that they should speak of the case from the pulpit, is also
passed over in silence. Nor did they reply to his invitation to them
to consider by what ways and means the matter might be brought
publicly before the world.

1 Cp. W. W. Rockwell, " Die Doppelehe des Landgrafen Philipp von 
Hessen," Marburg, 1904, p. 30 ff. 

2 This error has been confuted by Th. Brieger on good grounds in 
the " Untersuchungen iiber Luther und die Nebenehe des Landgrafen 
Philipp," in " Zeitschr. f. KG.," 29, p. 174 ff. ; ibid:, p. 403 ff. " Hist. 
Jahrb.," 26, 19C5, p. 405 (N. Paulus). 

3 Dec. 10, 1539, " Luthers Brief wechsel," 12, p. 326. 

On the contrary, they appear to be intent on burying in discreet
silence a marriage so distasteful to them. It even looks as
though they were simple enough to think that such concealment
would be possible, even in the long run. What they fear is,
above all, the consequences of its becoming common property.
In no way, so they declare, was any universal law, any " public 
precedent" possible, whereby a plurality of wives might be
made lawful ; according to its original institution marriage had
signified " the union of two persons only, not of more " ; but, in
view of the examples of the Old Covenant, they " were unable 
to condemn it," if, in a quite exceptional case, " recourse were 
had to a dispensation . . . and a man, with the advice of his 
pastor, took another wife, not with the object of introducing a 
law, but to satisfy his need." 

As for instances of such permission having been given in the
Church, they were able to quote only two : First, the purely
legendary case of Count Ernest of Gleichen then still regarded
as historical who, during his captivity among the Turks in
1228, had married his master s daughter, and, then, after his
escape, and after having learnt that his wife was still living,
applied for and obtained a Papal dispensation for bigamy ;
secondly, the alleged practice in cases of prolonged and incurable
illness, such as leprosy, to permit, occasionally, the man to take
another wife. The latter, however, can only refer to Luther's
own practice, or to that followed by the teachers of the new
faith. 1 In 1526 Luther had informed the Landgrave that this
was allowable in case of " dire necessity," " for instance, where 
the wife was leprous, or had been otherwise rendered unfit." 2
Acting upon this theory he was soon to give a decision in a
particular case ; 3 in May or June, 1540, he even stated that he
had several times, when one of the parties had contracted
leprosy, privately sanctioned the bigamy of the healthy party,
whether man or woman. 4

They are at great pains to impress on the Landgrave that he
must " take every possible care that this matter be not made 
public in the world," otherwise the dispensation would be taken
as a precedent by others, and also would be made to serve as a
weapon against them and the Evangel. " Hence, seeing how 
great scandal would be caused, we humbly beg your Serene 
Highness to take this matter into serious consideration." 

They also admonish him " to avoid fornication and adultery " ;
they had learnt with " great sorrow " that the Landgrave " was 
burdened with such evil lusts, of which the consequences to be 

1 Unless the reference be to certain reputed consulta of Gregory II 
or of Alexander III. Cp. " P.L.," Ixxxix., 525, and Deer. IV, 15, iii. 
Note to English Ed.~\ 

2 See above, p. 14. 

3 Cp. Luther's " Consideration," dated Aug. 23, 1527, concerning 
the husband of a leprous wife, " Werke," Erl. ed., 53, p. 406 (" Brief 
wechsel," 6, p. 80), where he says : " I can in no wise prevent him or 
forbid his taking another wedded wife." He here takes for granted the 
consent of the leprous party. 4 Mathesius, " Tischreden," p. 141. 


feared were the Divine punishment, illness and other perils ";
such conduct, outside of matrimony, was " no small sin " as
they proceed to prove from Scripture ; they rejoiced, however,
that the Prince felt " pain and remorse " for what he had done.
Although monogamy was in accordance with the original institu-
tion of marriage, yet it was their duty to tell him that," seeing 
that your Serene Highness has informed us that you are not able 
to refrain from an immoral life, we would rather that your High- 
ness should be in a better state before God, and live with a good 
conscience for your Highness's own salvation and the good of your 
land and people. And, as your Serene Highness has determined 
to take another wife, we consider that this should be kept secret, 
no less than the dispensation, viz. that your Serene Highness and 
the lady in question, and a few other trustworthy persons, should 
be apprised of your Highness's conscience and state of mind in 
the way of confession." 

" From this," they continue, " no great gossip or scandal will 
result, for it is not unusual for Princes to keep concubines, and, 
though not everyone is aware of the circumstances, yet reason 
able people will bear this in mind and be better pleased with 
such a manner of life than with adultery or dissolute and immoral 

Yet, once again, they point out that, were the bigamy to
become a matter of public knowledge, the opinion would gain
ground that polygamy was perfectly lawful to all, and that
everyone might follow the precedent ; the result would also be
that the enemies of the Evangel would cry out that the Evangeli-
cals were not one whit better than the Anabaptists, who were
likewise polygamists and, in fact, just the same as the Turks.
Further, the great Lords would be the first to give the example
to private persons to do likewise. As it was, the Hessian aristocracy
was bad enough, and many of its members were strongly
opposed to the Evangel on earthly grounds ; these would
become still more hostile were the bigamy to become publicly
known. Lastly, the Prince must bear in mind the injury to his
" good name " which the tidings of his act would cause amongst
foreign potentates.

A paragraph appended to the memorandum is, according
to recent investigation, from Luther's own pen and, at
any rate, is quite in his style. 1 It refers to Philip's threat
to seek the Emperor's intervention, a step which would not
have been at all to the taste of the Wittenbergers, for it was
obvious that this would cripple Philip's action as Protector
of the Evangelicals. This menace had plainly excited and
troubled Luther. He declares in the concluding sentences,
that the Emperor before whom the Prince threatened to
lay the case, was a man who looked upon adultery as a

1 Cp. the remarks in " Luthers Brief wechsel," 12, p. 327 f., and 
Brieger, loc. cit., p. 192. 


small sin ; there was great reason to fear that he shared
the faith of the Pope, Cardinals, Italians, Spaniards and
Saracens ; he would pay no heed to the Prince's request
but only use him as a cat's-paw. They had found him out
to be a false and faithless man, who had forgotten the true
German spirit. The Emperor, as the Landgrave might see
for himself, did not trouble himself about any Christian
concerns, left the Turks unopposed and was only interested
in fomenting plots in Germany for the increase of the
Burgundian power. Hence it was to be hoped that pious
German Princes would have nothing to do with his faithless

Such are the contents of Luther and Melanchthon's
written reply. Bucer, glad of the success achieved, at once
proceeded with the memorandum to the Electoral Court.

This theological document, the like of which had never
been seen, is unparalleled in the whole of Church history.
Seldom indeed has exegetical waywardness been made to
serve a more momentous purpose. The Elector, Johann
Frederick of Saxony, was, at a later date, quite horrified,
as he said, at " a business the like of which had not been
heard of for many ages." 1 Sidonie, the youthful Duchess
of Saxony, complained subsequently, that, " since the
Birth of Christ, no one had done such a thing." 2 Bucer's
fears had not been groundless " of the scandal of such an
innovation in a matter of so great importance and difficulty
among the weak followers of the Evangel." 3

Besides this, the sanction of bigamy given in the document
in question is treated almost as though it denoted the
commencement of a more respectable mode of life incapable
of giving any " particular scandal " ; for amongst the
common people the newly wedded wife would be looked
upon as a concubine, and such it was quite usual for Princes
to keep. Great stress is laid on the fact that the secret
bigamy would prevent adultery and other immorality.
Apart, however, from these circumstances, the sanctioning,
largely on the strength of political considerations, of an

1 Seckendorf, " Commentarius de Lutheranismo," 3, 1694, p. 278. 

2 E. Brandenburg, " Politische Korrespondenz des Herzogs Moritz 
von Sachsen," 2, 1903, p. 101. 

3 Sailer to Philip of Hesse, Nov. 6, 1539, " Briefwechsel Philipps," 
1, p. 345 ; above, p. 15. Other similar statements by contemporaries 
are to be found in the article of N. Paulus (above, p. 15, n. 1). 


exception to the universal New-Testament prohibition, is
painful. Anyone, however desirous of finding extenuating
circumstances for Luther's decision, can scarcely fail to
be shocked at this fact. The only excuse that might be
advanced would be, that Philip, by his determination to
take this step and his threat of becoming reconciled to the
Emperor, exercised pressure tantamount to violence, and
that the weight of years, his scorn for the Church's matri-
monial legislation and his excessive regard for his own
interpretation of the Old Testament helped Luther to
signify his assent to a plan so portentous.

[ . . . ]

[ . . . ]


[ . . . ]


[ . . . ]

Although the Landgrave was careful to preserve secrecy
concerning the new marriage already known to so many
persons, permitting only the initiate to visit the " lady,"
and even forbidding her to attend Divine Worship, still the
news of what had taken place soon leaked out.

[ . . . ]


[ . . . ]


[ . . . ]

Bucer, the first to be summoned to the aid of the Hessian
Court, advised the Landgrave to escape from his unfortunate
predicament by downright lying. He wrote : If
concealment and equivocation should prove of no avail, he
was to state in writing that false rumours concerning his
person had come into circulation, and that no Christian was
allowed to have two wives at the same time ; he was also
to replace the marriage-contract by another contract in

[ . . . ]


which Margaret might be described as a concubine such
as God had allowed to His beloved friends and not as a
wife within the meaning of the calamitous Imperial Law ;
an effort was also to be made to induce the Court of Dresden
to keep silence, or to deny any knowledge of the business,
and, in the meantime, the " lady " might be kept even
more carefully secluded than before. 1

The Landgrave's reply was violent in the extreme. He
indignantly rejected Bucer's suggestion ; the dissimulation
alleged to have been practised by others, notably by the
Patriarchs, Judges, Kings and Prophets, etc., in no wise
proved the lawfulness of lying ; Bucer had " been instigated
to make such proposals by some worldly-wise persons and
jurists whom we know well." 2 Philip wrote to the same
effect to the Lutheran theologians, Schnepf, Osiander and
Brenz, who urged him to deny that Margaret was his lawful
wife : " That, when once the matter has become quite
public, we should assert that it was invalid, this we cannot
bring ourselves to do. We cannot tell a lie, for to lie does
not become any man. And, moreover, God has forbidden
lying. So long as it is possible we shall certainly reply
dubitative or per amphibologiam, but to say that it is in
valid, such advice you may give to another, but not to us." 3

The " amphibologia " had been advised by the Hessian
theologians, who had pointed out that Margaret could best
be described to the Imperial Court of Justice as a " concu-
bina," since, in the language of the Old Testament, as also
in that of the ancient Church, this word had sometimes
been employed to describe a lawful wife. 4 They also wrote
to Luther and Melanchthon, fearing that they might desert
the Landgrave, telling them that they were expected to
stand by their memorandum. Although they were in
favour of secrecy, yet they wished that, in case of necessity,
the Wittenbergers should publicly admit their share. Good
care would be taken to guard against the general introduc-
tion of polygamy. 5

1 On July 8, 1540, ibid., p. 178 ff. Before this, on June 15, he had 
exhorted the Landgrave to hush up the matter as far as possible so 
that the whole Church may not be " denied " by it. Ibid., p. 174, 
Paulus, loc. cit., p. 507. 

2 " Philipps Briefwechsel," 1, p. 185 f. 

3 Ibid., p. 183. 

4 Ibid., p. 341. 

5 " Analecta Lutherana," ed. Kolde, p. 353 seq. Cp. Rockwell, 
loc. cit., p. 71, n. 1. 


Dispensation ; Advice in Confession ; a Confessor's Secret ?

Was the document signed by Luther, Melanchthon and
Bucer a dispensation for bigamy ?

It has been so described. But, even according to the
very wording of the memorandum, the signatories had no
intention of issuing a dispensation. On the contrary,
according to the text, they, as learned theologians, declared
that the Divine Law, as they understood it, gave a general
sanction, according to which, in cases such as that of Philip
of Hesse, polygamy was allowed. It is true that they and
Philip himself repeatedly use the word " dispensation,"
but by this they meant to describe the alleged general
sanction in accordance with which the law admitted of
exceptions in certain cases, hence their preference for the
term " to use " the dispensation, instead of the more usual
" to beg " or " to grant." Philip is firmly resolved " to
use " the dispensation brought to his knowledge by Luther's
writings, and the theologians, taking their cue from him,
likewise speak of his " using " it in his own case. 1

It was the same with the " dispensation " which the
Wittenbergers proposed to Henry VIII of England. (See
above, p. 4 f.) They had no wish to invest him with an
authority which, according to their ideas, he did not possess,
but they simply drew his attention to the freedom common
to all, and declared by them to be bestowed by God, viz.
in his case, of taking a second wife, telling him that he was
free to have recourse to this dispensation. In other words,
they gave him the power to dispense himself, regardless of
ecclesiastical laws and authorities.

Another question : How far was the substance of the
advice given in the Hessian case to be regarded as a secret ?
Can it really be spoken of as a " counsel given in confession,"
or as a " secret of the confessional " ?

This question later became of importance in the negotia-
tions which turned upon the memorandum. In order to
answer it without prejudice it is essential in the first place
to point out, that the subsequent interpretations and
evasions must not here be taken into account. The actual

1 E. Friedberg remarks in the " Deutsche Zeitschr. f. KR.," 36, 
1904, p. 441, that the Wittenbergers " did not even possess any power 
of dispensing." 

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