The Bigamy of Philip of Hesse

posted Apr 22, 2010, 10:32 AM by Professor Katz
We all remember Philip, landgrave of Hesse (1504-1567), the leader of the pro-Luther German princes:
He had an impressive c.v.:
  • led the suppression of the Peasants' Revolt in 1525, when he was only 21 years old
  • founded the University of Marburg in 1527, where the disputation between Luther and Zwingli took place in 1529, and which became an important school for Protestant theologians
  • established the Schmalkaldic League of German Protestants (including Lutherans and Zwinglians) comprising 6 princes and 10 cities with himself and the elector of Saxony as leaders....and eventually including nearly all of the Protestant states
What a shame, then, that he put Protestantism at risk by a Clinton-like error of judgement at the age of 35.  In 1539 he became involved with a 17-year old girl (Margarethe von der Saale), whose mother did not object to the liason itself, but insisted that the couple be married, even if the marriage was not made public.

Problem was, Philip had recently celebrated his sixteenth wedding anniversary to someone else, his wife, by whom he already had seven children, and would have three more.  But being the leader of political Protestantism meant that it was hard to say 'nein' to him, especially when he threatened to retire from killing Roman Catholics.

Luther managed to avoid doing the wedding, but two of his key men didn't escape.   The knot was tied by Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) and Martin Bucer (1491-1551), two very big Protestant cheeses. 
Margarethe, for her part, produced nine children for Philip, giving him a grand total of nineteen offspring.

Needless to say, what became known as 'the bigamy of Philip of Hesse' leaked, and compromised Protestantism as a whole. 
Melanchthon and Bucer never lived it down.  Philip of Hesse himself, however, remained as leader of the Protestant princes, being satisfied that his careful analysis of both biblical precedent and the law put him in the clear.  Denial also helped:

Philip of Hesse Denies Accusations