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European Kingdoms

Central Europe


Dukes of Hesse
AD 1500 - 1567

FeatureThe Germanic tribe of the Chatti in Europe gradually became the German Hessi of the Middle Ages, first noted in historical records in AD 782. The Hessian town mentioned was Eberstadt, while the first mention of Kassel is from AD 913, where it was referred to as Cassala. Under the Frankish empire the Hessian nobility in the tenth and eleventh centuries produced the ruling Gisos, counts of Gudensberg (see feature link).

FeatureAfter the death of the last of the Ludowinger dynasty of landgraves, Henry Raspe, the Hessians selected Henry of Brabant as their landgrave in 1247. Following that act, Hesse was separated from the Thuringia of which it had been part and, after struggling against rival claimants, his territory was recognised as the independent 'Landgraviate of Hesse' (see feature link).

Ruled by the Ydulfings, the capital of this new landgraviate was usually Marburg, with a co-ruler or sub-ruler based in the lesser town of Kassel. Following a division of territory within the Holy Roman empire in 1458, Hesse expanded, gaining a new focus with Kassel replacing Marburg as the capital.

However, Landgrave Ludwig III set a local precedence by dividing part of his territory so that his younger brother, Henry, would have something to govern. In this case, Hessen-Marburg would be a short-lived splinter state which was returned to central control in 1500, but this splintering would be repeated time and time again, successively weakening Hesse (and many other German states which followed the same practice).

For now, though Hesse was a single, unified and enlargened state which had just been elevated to a duchy and which was becoming a powerful player in German politics. The main body of its territory was comprised of various regions to the east of Nassau, and between the River Lippe to the north and just below the Maine in the south.

The duchy's greatest leader was Philip I, one of the political leaders of the Reformation. This is the only time in which Hesse played a role of great importance in the 'Reich' (the 'empire' - in this case the Austrian-dominated Holy Roman empire which took in much of Central Europe. Hesse's city of Frankfurt-am-Main had for a long time been a free imperial city and the place in which German emperors had been crowned).

Burg Frankenstein

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Coercion, Capital, and European States, Charles Tilly, 1992, from Historisches Lexikon der deutschen Länder (Historical Dictionary of German States), Gerhard Köbler, 1995, from Medieval Lands: Thuringia, Charles Cawley, from Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie, Historischen Kommission bei der Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Vol 11 (1880, in German), and from External Links: Euratlas, and Historical Atlas of Germany, and Genealogy.eu.)

1500 - 1509

William II 'the Intermediate'

Formerly Landgrave William II. Died 1515.

1500 - 1503

Called 'Intermediate' to differentiate him from his father, the 'Elder', and his cousin, William III 'the Younger', William II has yet to produce a surviving heir. In the same year in which he becomes duke of a reunified Hesse he also remarries, to the fifteen year-old Anna of Mecklenburg-Schwerin.

She bears him three children, the last of which is a boy, Philip, thereby securing the succession. William's only other notable act in these years is in fulfilling Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian's commission to execute a ban on Elector Philip of the Palatinate in 1503.

1509 - 1567

Philip I 'the Magnanimous' / 'Generous'

Son. Acceded aged 5. Hesse divided between his four sons.

1514 - 1519

Anna of Mecklenburg-Schwerin

Mother and regent.

1514 - 1519

It has taken Anna six years of struggling to be recognised as her son's regent by the clergy and nobility of Hesse, but even then the disagreements continue. To put an end to it, Philip is declared an adult in 1518, at the age of fourteen, and begins to rule in his own right in 1519.

Philip I the Magnanimous of Hesse
Philip 'the Magnanimous' played a leading role in the progression of the Protestant Reformation in Germany, dissolving monasteries and other religious foundations within his own lands for the betterment of the cause


Philip is largely won over by the arguments of Protestant Reformation leader Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms but, largely due to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, the Edict of Worms on 25 May 1521 condemns Martin Luther as an outlaw and heretic.

1524 - 1525

Embracing Protestantism in 1524, Philip still plays a part in suppressing the German Peasants' War in which poorly-armed peasants strive for greater freedoms which appear to be in line with Protestant rhetoric. In the end they are no match for Germany's well-armed and battle-experienced nobility, and their cause is largely unrewarded.

Nevertheless, Philip strives to introduce the Protestant Reformation to Hesse. With help from key allies, such as the staunchly anti-Catholic former Franciscan, François Lambert of Avignon, monasteries and other religious foundations are dissolved and given over to other purposes, such as for newly-founded places of learning or for charitable purposes. The University of Marburg is founded in one such establishment (in 1527).


Many of the empire's princes and lords are organised by Elector John of Saxony and Duke Philip to form the Schmalkaldic League when meeting at the town of Schmalkalden in Thuringia.

Both have seen increasingly that there are moves by the Catholic leaders to provide a unified response to what they see as the Protestant 'threat', and they realise that the Protestant leaders need to be similarly unified in their response.

River Main at Wurzburg
This photo shows the River Main passing under Würzburg's oldest bridge - and its only bridge until 1886 - sitting under the watchful gaze of Marienberg Fortress, originally within Thuringia


Philip alienates much of his personal support and weakens his position as a leading reformer when he enters into a bigamist marriage with Margarethe von der Saale. He is forced to pursue a middle-ground route, negotiating with Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to ensure that Hesse is not attacked in the even of a war against the Protestants, but refusing to harm the interests of the leading Protestants or the Schmalkaldic League.

1546 - 1547

Holy Roman Emperor Charles V sees the tide of conversions to Protestant rites as a move by the many princes and lords of the empire to gain more autonomy from imperial governance. Now that Charles has returned from his war in Italy, the two sides concentrate their forces, with Charles intent on destroying the Protestant league.

Elector John Frederick of Saxony is distracted by his cousin, Duke Maurice of Saxe-Meissen, invading his lands in Ernestine Saxony, and ultimately the league is defeated in the Schmalkaldic War.

John is captured and forced to sign the 'Capitulation of Wittenberg', losing both his status as an elector and some of his lands to Maurice. Philip is also imprisoned until 1552.

Religious Colloquium of Marburg 1529
In 1529 Philip paid host to Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli at the Religious Colloquium of Marburg, accompanied by some of their followers including Melanchthon (as shown in this wood carving of 1557)

1552 - 1567

For the rest of his years, Philip concentrates on restoring order to Hesse and finding a middle ground between Protestant and Catholic extremist views, and between Calvinist and Lutheran Protestants who are now also fighting against each other.

The baton of leadership of the Reformation passes to other, younger leaders. Philip secures friendly relations with Catholic France and Protestant England (the latter laying the foundations for centuries of closer military cooperation between the two states). Like most of the moderate North German states, Hesse is now firmly embedded within the Protestant faith, Kassel becoming Calvinist, and Darmstadt Lutheran.

Following Philip's death, Hesse is divided into the regions of Hessen-Kassel, Hessen-Marburg, Hessen-Rheinfels and Hessen-Darmstadt, one each for Philip's four sons.

The first of these is the senior branch, while the second and third are short-lived. The final one, Darmstadt, emerges as a long-lived sister-state to Kassel which also incorporates the former Katzenelnbogen county.

Map of German states AD 1560
This map displays the imperial 'circles' in 1560, with these being the main administrative divisions of the empire (click or tap on map to view full sized)

Further sub-division of Kassel and Darmstadt eventually leads to splinter states such as Hessen-Battenberg, Hessen-Homburg, Hessen-Rumpenheim, Hessen-Philippsthal, Hessen-Philippsthal-Barchfeld, Hessen-Eschwege, Hessen-Rheinfels, Hessen-Rheinfels-Rotenburg, Hessen-Rheinfels-Wanfried, Hessen-Butzbach, Hessen-Braubach, Hessen-Darmstadt-Itter, Hessen-Marburg, and Hessen-Hanau.

The last of these continues to be led by its own line of counts until 1736. Ultimately these divisions doom Hesse to political obscurity by the eighteenth century.

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