The Historic Saxon Duchies of Germany and the House of Wettin
1485: Saxony Divided Between Two House of Wettin Brothers
The Saxon duchies, the Sächsische Herzogtümer, were also known as the Ernestine and Albertine duchies after the ruling House of Wettin's Elector Frederick II of Saxony divided his lands between his two sons in the 1485 Treaty of Leipzig.
The newly established Ernestine duchies in the electorate were ruled by Ernst (Ernest) Frederick's elder son, and his younger son Albrecht (Albert) took control of the area designated as Ducal Saxony. The Ernestine line was senior to the Albertine one until fortunes shifted in 1547, see below. The former duchies are in modern-day Thuringia and part of Bavaria in Germany.
Ernest, Prince-Elector of Saxony, based himself in Leipzig, and his lands were in the north of the March of Meissen and Saxony. Albert, Duke of Saxony, was based in Dresden with lands in the south of the March of Meissen and Thuringia.
The Saxon Duchies: Thuringia and Part of Bavaria Today
Notable Members of the House of Wettin
Notable members of the House of Wettin include Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, his mother Princess Louise of Saxe-Altenburg, Queen Victoria's mother Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld and Victoire's brother Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. His first marriage was to Princess Charlotte of Wales, the daughter of Britain's King George IV. Leopold was invited to be the King of the Belgians in 1831.
King William IV of Britain's wife was Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen; Prince Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha-Kohary reigned as King of Bulgaria between 1908-1918, and his descendant Simeon II was the last reigning monarch of Bulgaria between 1943-1946. He was the 48th Prime Minister of Bulgaria (2001-2005), using the name Simeon Sakskoburggotski.
The Division of Erfurt and Saxe-Altenburg's Creation
In the wake of the Schmalkaldic War (1541-1547), the Ernestine line lost their electoral dignity or supremacy on the orders of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. The Albertine line's Maurice, Duke of Saxony, became Elector of Saxony.
In the mid-1550s, John Frederick I, Elector of Saxony, split the Ernestine lands into three duchies for his three sons. This gave John-Frederick Saxe-Eisenach and Saxe-Coburg, John William ruled Saxe-Weimar and John Frederick III controlled Saxe-Gotha. John William added the districts of Coburg, Altenburg and Meiningen to his Weimar lands.
The 1572 Division of Erfurt resulted in the duchies of Saxe-Coburg-Eisenach and Saxe-Weimar. In 1596 Saxe-Eisenach and Saxe-Coburg were separated. They merged again in 1633 as Saxe-Coburg-Eisenach.
In Saxe-Weimar, the death of John William's son Frederick William created a regency under John William's brothers led by the eldest, John. In 1603 Uncle John refused to give way to his nephew John who was by then at an age to rule in his own right.
Negotiations resulted in a new division of the duchy. Uncle John claimed Saxe-Weimar and Jena. Nephew John reigned over the newly created Saxe-Altenburg.
1826: One Grand Duchy and Three Duchies Remain
In 1807 all of the Ernestine duchies joined Napoleon Bonaparte's Confederation of the Rhine and in 1815 they became sovereign members of the German Confederation.
By 1826 there were four Ernestine duchies:
- The Grand Duchy of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. (The senior line).
- The Duchy of Saxe-Meiningen-Hildburghausen.
- The Duchy of Saxe-Altenburg.
- The Duchy of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.
During the Seven Weeks War of 1866 between Prussia and Austria Saxe-Meiningen-Hildburghausen was the only Ernestine duchy to fight for the losing side, Austria. It joined the other duchies in the North German Federation the following year, and the duchies were part of the newly proclaimed German Empire in 1871.
In 1918 as the First World War drew to a close, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated and fled to the Netherlands. The German Revolution led the rulers of the duchies to step down. Two years later, the former duchies, with the exception of Coburg, were merged into the new Thuringia. Coburg became part of Bavaria.
The Nominal Rulers of the Ernestine Duchies Today
The House of Wettin continued.
The Saxe-Altenburg line became extinct in 1991 when Georg Moritz, Hereditary Prince of Altenburg, died. His title passed to Prince Michael of Saxe-Coburg-Eisenach, but this line is also predicted to become extinct because his daughter cannot inherit under primogeniture. Other males in the Eisenach branch of the family do not have legitimate or non-morganatic children.
Unmarried Konrad of Saxe-Meiningen was born in 1952, and he has no issues.
With Saxe-Coburg-Eisenach and Saxe-Meiningen's end, it's likely that the most senior remaining member of the House of Wettin, Prince Andreas of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha would become nominal prince of Saxe-Meiningen, Saxe-Coburg-Eisenach and Saxe-Altenburg.
British Royalty and the Ernestine Duchy Titles
Through Queen Victoria's marriage to Prince Albert, the British monarchy changed from the House of Hanover or Guelph to the Wettin family and the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.
In 1917 King George V rebranded the royals from the Germanic Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to the thoroughly British name of Windsor at the suggestion of his private secretary Arthur Bigge, Lord Stamfordham.
The Mountbatten-Windsor royals are not considered Ernestine descendants because, unlike their German cousins, they enjoy cognatic—male- and female-line—descent.
In 1917 George V renounced any claims that British royalty had to German titles and lands so King Charles III couldn't claim the Saxon duchies. He has enough titles and estates already, so he won't miss them.
- Saxon duchies | historical region, Germany | Britannica
- The Wettin Dynasty of Saxony | Emperor Charles V
- The Ernestine Line's Saxon Duchies
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2023 Joanne Hayle